Review

Only an Absolute Bureaucracy Can Save Us

The West will only restore its stability when civil servants are again devoted to the public rather than themselves.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy. JS Pughe Illustration/Library of Congress/Getty Images
By , a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia.

Epidemic, economic crisis, and war have recently reminded us of the state’s basic purpose of maintaining security. When the world seems reasonably predictable and comfortable, it is easy to disparage this mission as humble, even banal, in comparison to the loftier goals of making citizens virtuous or achieving social justice. It is also easy to hear something sinister in the evocation of “security”—the sacrifice of rights for the sake of the interests of a particular class. Moved by such suspicions, critics from a range of intellectual traditions have long looked with hostility on the state and its characteristic instrument of bureaucracy.

In their recently published book For State Service, however, sociologist Paul du Gay and his co-author, Thomas Lopdrup-Hjorth, seek to recover our appreciation for the state and its bureaucratic servants. Over the last few decades, they argue, it has become particularly difficult for observers in the West to understand security as the essential function of the state and bureaucracy as the indispensable means to this end. The state, the authors insist, must be seen as critically different from both the government—the group of elected leaders who at any given time set policy—and the public whose will elections are intended to express. The state, rather, is a set of administrative institutions imagined to constitute a sui generis collective personhood, which endures across changes in leadership. The state’s primary, constant obligation is to ensure its own survival and the security of the citizenry—and only secondarily to translate into policy the desires of the government and people.

Bringing forth insights from political theorists of early modernity like Thomas Hobbes and Samuel von Pufendorf, and from contemporary scholars like Quentin Skinner and Ian Hunter, du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth argue that the state must be neutral—but also absolute. These adjectives together express the distinctiveness of the modern state as it emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries out of the chaos of Europe’s wars of religion. To escape confessional conflicts, in which large, opposing sections of the population saw themselves as morally bound to impose their own way of life on their fellow citizens, political theorists elaborated on the concept of “reason of state,” the overriding obligation of the public administration to ensure peace and order by restraining these conflicts. To do so, the state—crucially distinct from the individual monarch or party that might be ruling at any given moment—had to overawe the armed religious leagues and factions and show itself as indifferent to their claims to transcendent moral authority.

An illustration for Puck Magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.
An illustration for Puck Magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy.

An illustration for Puck magazine from 1905 shows the battle against bureaucracy. JS Pughe Illustration/Library of Congress/Getty Images

Epidemic, economic crisis, and war have recently reminded us of the state’s basic purpose of maintaining security. When the world seems reasonably predictable and comfortable, it is easy to disparage this mission as humble, even banal, in comparison to the loftier goals of making citizens virtuous or achieving social justice. It is also easy to hear something sinister in the evocation of “security”—the sacrifice of rights for the sake of the interests of a particular class. Moved by such suspicions, critics from a range of intellectual traditions have long looked with hostility on the state and its characteristic instrument of bureaucracy.

In their recently published book For State Service, however, sociologist Paul du Gay and his co-author, Thomas Lopdrup-Hjorth, seek to recover our appreciation for the state and its bureaucratic servants. Over the last few decades, they argue, it has become particularly difficult for observers in the West to understand security as the essential function of the state and bureaucracy as the indispensable means to this end. The state, the authors insist, must be seen as critically different from both the government—the group of elected leaders who at any given time set policy—and the public whose will elections are intended to express. The state, rather, is a set of administrative institutions imagined to constitute a sui generis collective personhood, which endures across changes in leadership. The state’s primary, constant obligation is to ensure its own survival and the security of the citizenry—and only secondarily to translate into policy the desires of the government and people.

Bringing forth insights from political theorists of early modernity like Thomas Hobbes and Samuel von Pufendorf, and from contemporary scholars like Quentin Skinner and Ian Hunter, du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth argue that the state must be neutral—but also absolute. These adjectives together express the distinctiveness of the modern state as it emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries out of the chaos of Europe’s wars of religion. To escape confessional conflicts, in which large, opposing sections of the population saw themselves as morally bound to impose their own way of life on their fellow citizens, political theorists elaborated on the concept of “reason of state,” the overriding obligation of the public administration to ensure peace and order by restraining these conflicts. To do so, the state—crucially distinct from the individual monarch or party that might be ruling at any given moment—had to overawe the armed religious leagues and factions and show itself as indifferent to their claims to transcendent moral authority.

This was the only way the state in that earlier era could bring peace to a society still divided by religious difference centuries ago. But this forgotten history bears important lessons for our own turbulent moment. Social peace might never be restored in the West until the absolute power of bureaucracy, in the sense conveyed by this history, is restored as well.


A drawing of the House of Commons in 1649.
A drawing of the House of Commons in 1649.

A drawing of the House of Commons in 1649. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For readers today, the idea that the state should be “absolute” may sound disturbingly illiberal. But, du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth insist, it is only under the administration of an absolute state, one capable of restraining the otherwise overweening assertiveness of individuals and communities, that liberalism and its horizon of individual rights are even conceivable. Wherever the modern state was able to achieve peace by dominating—and demonstrating a refusal to take seriously—the claims of the rival parties in the wars of religion, it could then create “an arena of liberal rights, domains of conduct incapable of threatening the state’s task,” tolerating religion once it had neutralized it.

Some critics look at this idea of the state—as an institution wielding absolute power to render rival worldviews as harmless expressions of human diversity rather than permanent incitement to communal strife—and see something essentially totalitarian. Thinkers like Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben (frequently appealed to by the left during the War on Terror and by the right during the COVID-19 pandemic) warned that the modern state, ready to suspend individual rights in the name of security, revealed its true character in the Third Reich and Stalinism.

This conflation of the state with tyranny, du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth argue, is based on a mistaken understanding of the meaning of Western political modernity as it emerged out of Europe’s wars of religion four centuries ago. The modern, neutral, absolutist state exists to rescue people from the threat of conflict over values. It can only secure rights insofar as it successfully constrains that threat. In order to do so, it sometimes may—indeed must—redraw the boundaries of the “domains of conduct incapable of threatening” public order. Totalitarian states differ from this model in the degree, duration, and aim of their suspension of rights (sweeping, permanent, and principled, rather than partial, temporary, and tactical). They represent not, as many critics charge, the “essence” of the modern state stripped of liberal pretense, but a return to the premodern “confessional state” that openly embraced a particular worldview and aimed to enroll all citizens under its banner (eliminating those seen as unredeemable). The totalitarian ambition of enforcing an “ideological truth across public and private spheres” is the antithesis of the purpose of the modern state, which is to enforce a distinction between those spheres, with the private as a domain of tolerated diversity and the public as the domain of conformity.

This distinction often strikes critics as a hypocritical fiction, one disguising the hegemony of a particular worldview or constituency. It can perhaps be made plausible only under quite a narrow, contingent set of circumstances. Put negatively, it may be, as suggested by Hobbes—and even by German legal theorist Carl Schmitt, after the defeat of the Third Reich he had championed—that we come to appreciate a powerful state’s fiction of neutrality only when we are exposed to ideological persecution from zealots who openly declare their intentions to remake society in the image of their values. But perhaps it’s possible to imagine that the state, however imperfectly, could live up to the promise of neutrality through the comportment of its officials. It is, du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth argue, the bureaucrat who makes the modern, neutral state critically different from its confessional antecedents and totalitarian antagonists.


A political cartoon depicting President Ulysses S. Grant being squeezed by a hand representing the Civil Service.
A political cartoon depicting President Ulysses S. Grant being squeezed by a hand representing the Civil Service.

A political cartoon depicting President Ulysses S. Grant being squeezed by a hand representing the Civil Service. Bettmann archive/Getty Images

We are not used to thinking well of bureaucrats. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), echoed Hannah Arendt in claiming that the traits necessary for an effective bureaucrat—the cultivated self-constraint by which he puts aside, during his working hours, personal attachments and prejudices to execute the law, even when he finds it objectionable—are essentially evil. At the very least, they seem to enact within the individual psyche of the civil servant the same hypocritical division into public and private that philosophers have bemoaned in modern society.

In an earlier book, In Praise of Bureaucracy (2000), du Gay addressed the historical dimension of this argument. He showed that the historical case of Nazi Germany, which many have seen to exemplify the perils of the administrative machinery of the modern state, demonstrates the opposite point. The Nazis, before coming to power, vociferously criticized state officials’ commitments to ideological neutrality and the rule of law. After coming to power, they purged officialdom of civil servants seen as lacking a properly zealous racism, and made bureaucrats’ personal loyalty to Hitler paramount, shifting the locus of their commitment from the state to the Aryan race, the Nazi Party, and its leader. At his trial, the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann presented himself as a dutiful bureaucrat who had only been following orders. But this should not—although it often has—delude us about the essentially anti-bureaucratic, anti-state character of the Nazi worldview.

The modern state is vulnerable to the possible emergence of totalitarianism not because it contains the latter as its concealed essence, but because the state has lost sight of its true essence in the face of such criticism. The continued existence of the neutral, absolute state depends on the bureaucracy being both an effective instrument of state power and perceived by the citizenry as a nonpartisan umpire abstracted from the prejudices and passions of civil society. This perception can only endure to the extent that, however imperfectly, bureaucrats possess what du Gay and Lopdrup-Hjorth describe as the bureaucratic ethos by which civil servants learn to set aside their personal moral commitments and partisan loyalties to focus on the good of the state. From the beginning of his scholarly career in the 1990s, du Gay has warned that a template of neoliberal reforms was endangering this “bureaucratic ethos,” the specific set of values and practices by which civil servants are able to fulfill their mission.

These reforms, carried out by parties from both the left and the right, aimed to make institutions of public administration resemble profit-driven firms in their structure and systems of incentives for employees. Meanwhile, firms themselves were changing in important ways, as he showed in his first book, Consumption and Identity at Work (1995). Corporate governance—in a shift seen by neoliberal reformers as a model for the reorganization of the state—was dispensing with direct control and formal hierarchies to create a “new type of manager” whose promotion would be based on the success of his own branch, and thus in competition with others.

In a 2019 article, du Gay, along with Lopdrup-Hjorth and other co-authors, showed the consequences of the shift from an older vision in which employees gained seniority by proving their expertise in specific roles to the new model in which “highly generic and moreover personal attributes” like dynamism and leadership are valued. Employees are no longer incentivized to see their professional self as a distinct persona, one separated from the moral commitments and self-aggrandizing ambitions of their private life. Instead, they are summoned, as the popular phrase goes, to “bring their whole selves” to work. The results of this shift, du Gay and his collaborators warned, have been disastrous in the business world and in public administrations that have imitated it.


A painting of the Chamber of Representatives in Italy, established after Garibaldi's victories.
A painting of the Chamber of Representatives in Italy, established after Garibaldi's victories.

A painting of the Chamber of Representatives in Italy, established after Garibaldi’s victories. Bettmann archive/Getty Images

The bureaucratic ethos is essential to the functioning of the state and the preservation of private life as a separate, unpolitical domain of tolerated freedom. But it is in danger both from neoliberal reformers misguidedly inspired by changes in corporate governance and by populists who (history repeating itself as farce) echo earlier totalitarian hatred for the state and its bureaucratic agents. One has only to think of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s former advisor, Steve Bannon, who frequently called for the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” even as he called for policies that could only ever be enacted by competent bureaucrats. Unfortunately for the future, it seems that market-oriented technocrats and populists now represent the two main political tendencies on offer, surpassing historical binaries of left and right. Both are, however authoritarian they seem, essentially anti-state, insofar as they seek to reduce the specificity of the modern state to either the model of the contemporary corporation or to the contingent will of the people as expressed by a ruling majority. Between the parties of the market and the parties of the people, state and bureaucracy may be ground down to nothing.

What can be done to save them? The prognosis offered by du Gay’s team is, even in the best of scenarios, bleak. Two of his collaborators, Lopdrup-Hjorth and Anne Roelsgaard Obling, noted in a 2019 research paper that in Denmark, seen by many international observers as setting a standard of excellence in civil service, the bureaucratic tradition has been undermined in ways that make repair challenging. A generation of neoliberal reforms has incentivized officials to think of themselves as rivals who must outdo each other in order to obtain promotion. With “performance-related pay,” “management by objectives/results,” and “internal contracts,” the Danish civil service increasingly encourages not self-denying dutifulness but competition among self-seeking strivers. Instead of empowering these employees to experiment with more efficient practices, as reformers hoped, reforms have weakened their ability to resist faddish and often wasteful initiatives from their superiors. The latter, increasingly, are “career-jumpers” and “nomad leaders” who—like the global class of corporate consultants—have acquired their own positions through their apparent ease in demonstrating general, abstract competencies of “leadership.” Subordinates complain that, with their own career prospects linked to “performance,” they must curry favor by supporting bosses’ “trendy projects,” creating a culture of disempowered yes men.

After a series of scandals and a decline of public confidence in the civil service over the early 2010s, the Danish Finance and Justice ministries issued in 2015 a document, Seven Key Duties, aimed at revitalizing the traditional bureaucratic ethos. But, as Lopdrup-Hjorth and Roelsgaard Obling observe, its injunctions cannot be effective. Telling bureaucrats that they ought to see themselves and act according to the traditional model of civil service will only mean empty moralizing as long as professional incentives are organized on the principle of making them act like entrepreneurs. Laments about the declining neutrality and efficacy of public institutions, the proper functioning of which depends on the recognition of the specific nature of bureaucracy, achieve little.

By renewing our attention to the importance of a neutral state, a competent bureaucracy, and the ethos of the bureaucrat, du Gay and his collaborators warn us of what we are in danger of losing. What remains to be done is the development of concrete policies that can surpass mere injunctions and restore state bureaucracies to their proper domain, protected from both populist and market-based imperatives. This is a task, of course, for politicians rather than scholars. But what the latter can do, besides revealing what is specific, valuable, and vulnerable in the state and bureaucracy, is to clean their own house.

Contemporary academia, too, has been subject to neoliberal reforms imitating corporate models, and there, too, the results have been perverse. If universities, like large companies, are, for example, increasingly driven to declare their moral and political commitments to various causes, it is precisely because their employees have lost the ability to recognize the specific mission of their institution. Scholars might, in their own way, best serve the state by demonstrating how it is possible for individuals to suspend overt partisanship through their shared dedication to a specific end (knowledge rather security). Only by doing so, in their own practice, can they hope to convince those who doubt its possibility or desirability that there is a form of neutrality that is neither hypocrisy nor illusion but sober dedication to the common good.

Books are independently selected by FP editors. We earn an affiliate commission on anything purchased through links to Amazon.com on this page.

Blake Smith is a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia.

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