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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Bureaucracy, Autocracy and Neoliberal Canada

We must not only intervene, resist and oppose neoliberal governments and corporate capitalist hegemony; we must finally put an end to these death-dealing institutions.

One cannot reflect upon the notion of human adaptability without experiencing both a sense of awe and a feeling of increasing uneasiness. We are awed when science tells us that one of the most powerful evolutionary intellectual capacities we possess is the ability to adapt to challenging and unforeseen situations and environments. We adjust to extremities of weather, the loss of loved ones, constantly changing technologies and shifting social, economic and political circumstances – not always quickly or faultlessly, but inevitably, given time. In the same moment of reflection, we can experience apprehension when we sense that we have become habituated to things that are contrary to our individual or communal interests: systemic injustices, intolerant, racist or sexist attitudes. This is where adaptation becomes acquiescence and even a kind of accommodation.

Here in Canada, the Harper government’s advocacy of oil sands development and its elaborate strategy to promote the Keystone XL pipeline fills some Canadians with a sense of unease about how we appear to be adapting to and even promoting things which run counter to the environmental health of the planet. The relentless exploitation of bituminous sands and the impact this has had on precious water resources, not to mention the ecology of the Athabasca River itself, should shock, anger and disgust all of us, not just as Canadians, but as sentient and reflective moral beings. It doesn’t. In fact, it seems that for the past seven years, many Canadians have quietly acquiesced to neoliberal government initiatives, radical policies and environmental perspectives that will be detrimental to us as country, not to mention as a species. To be sure, we have not all gone quietly into that dark night, but the accommodating apathy that exists in significant enough numbers should press us to raise the question of why there is not more resistance to what is happening.

We often hear political pundits speaking of how certain kinds of politics create “a culture” of apathy, fear, suspicion, bullying or insensitivity of one sort or another. But we do not often stop to think what is involved in the creation of such a “culture.” The Roman thinker and orator Cicero used the agricultural metaphor of “cultivation” to put across the idea that education in the arts, sciences and philosophy can encourage excellence and create a culture of individuals who want to realize themselves creatively to the fullest extent possible. However, to attempt to normalize a culture of fear and acquiescence does not require philosophical or moral edification of any conventional sort. What it does require is the elimination of possibility and human creativity through the artifice of necessity. Fabricated forms of necessity can manifest as disproportionate interest in national security or contrived economic crises calling for deregulation and destructive austerity measures – or both. Because these are false necessities they must be elaborated through powerfully seductive propaganda and obscured through institutional bureaucracies.

Therefore, to expose how modes of power and propaganda function in Canada (or, indeed, anywhere else), we must make explicit two presuppositions that, by their very nature, are so pervasive they are sometimes difficult to perceive immediately. The first presupposition is that it is not merely overt or coercive hegemonic power that drives the engine of indoctrination and creates acquiescence and conformity. It is a very peculiar kind of institutional and localized “power-knowledge” that develops and especially prospers when it is coupled with neoliberal, autocratic governments. The second presupposition is that apathy and acquiescence are a consequence of very gradual political and corporate indoctrination that consolidates power not only by inducing fear and uncertainty but also by rewarding unbridled greed, opportunism and self-interest.

If these two presuppositions prove on balance to be reasonable ones, then perhaps in recognizing them as such, activists can better grapple with how we might resist the neoliberal agenda in very specific, practical and fundamental ways.

Embodied Bureaucratic Power-Knowledge

French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) reflected upon the connection between power and knowledge – including the idea that power-knowledge circulates throughout our institutional arrangements and bureaucratic systems and is internalized and embodied in the practices of individuals who operate at a piecemeal or micro level.1 To understand this kind of power-knowledge, we need to first go back to a time before Foucault and look at the German sociologist Max Weber’s description of how bureaucracies function in institutions.

The recognized goal of any bureaucracy is to maximize efficiency. This is accomplished by creating closed systems that adopt micro technologies of control, and elaborate procedures of internal discipline that help reinforce certain attitudes and perspectives. The kind of rationality that is able to accommodate these technologies, procedures and efficiency goals can be described as instrumental or “means-ends” rationality – “to get to B, we must first do A.” While this kind of rationality is certainly important and useful when we are dealing with objects or things such as fixing cars or building a birdhouse, it is rather more limited when applied to the human sphere of moral and political action and reflection. In other words, it is not the kind of creative or contemplative rationality that attempts to discover the common good or new ways of understanding the world and communicating with others. Nor is it the sort of critical rationality that endeavours to interpret and uncover hidden truths, or discover why things are done.

Creative and critical rationality are oriented by truth or moral considerations and guided by what happens in the real world – the world of facts on the ground. By contrast, bureaucratic rationality can operate without the latter, being solely concerned with one thing: how to efficiently achieve a result. Because of this, bureaucracies often are experienced as unresponsive to human difficulties or needs. They can appear irrational, out of sync with the real world, overly formal or lacking a moral center. Of course, from their own internal technocratic point of view, many bureaucrats see themselves as resourceful and “rational” public or civil servants who carry out clear and unambiguous objectives in an efficient manner. However, this self-understanding is what Weber would describe as a kind of “rationalization,” which amounts to a refusal to grasp that one really exists in an “iron cage” of bureaucratic necessity – “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart” to quote from Weber’s Protestant Ethic.2

Foucault’s later reflections on the subjugation and control of individuals through the concept of “bio-power” can take us a step farther and help us to grasp that in such bureaucratic institutional arrangements, it is not so much who has power or how much power someone wields (in the larger scheme of decision-making most bureaucratic functionaries have no significant coercive power), but how indoctrinating power itself circulates through relations with others. It is not so much about what is commanded or said by the local manager or director, but what is not said – and not permitted to be said or even contemplated by the myriad nameless persons who keep the institutional machine aligned according to a framework of very specific procedures and priorities. To function properly, the persons involved need not be directly coerced by an external hegemonic or central authority. Neither do they need to be motivated by any explicit adherence to universal moral imperatives or grand ideological doctrines.

Instead, their understanding of what they must do and what is appropriate – what is permitted and what is to be avoided or censored – is gradually “embodied” and absorbed – not by way of explicit command but through the very doing of things with others whom they work alongside. Indoctrination through local forms of institutional power-knowledge is not achieved by any one person. Rather, it is persuasive power that is dispersed in diffuse and discreet ways through technical manuals, policy documents, email, memos and the regimented routines of everyday disciplined practices. It is not so much a hierarchy of power that is being described here but something like an expanding or spreading network of power-knowledge and self-empowering mutually reinforcing indoctrination. In other words, what is being created is a certain kind of docile culture where the learning curve is not oriented toward creativity, diversity, flexibility or justice but rather routinized thinking, compartmentalization, uniformity and rigidity.

Why is this sort of embodied bureaucratic power-knowledge important? It is important because bureaucratic systems are ideal instruments of indoctrination and optimal mediums for autocratic neoliberal governmental regimes where the common or public good, social justice or human happiness can be subsumed under putatively “necessary” economic, corporate or militaristic ambitions. These latter ambitions must be undertaken in an efficient and covert manner without questioning their truth or moral status. Bureaucracies can provide this. Institutional bureaucracies can establish and promote a neoliberal autocratic agenda in piecemeal fashion, remaining largely unnoticed by the general public.

In authentic democratic contexts, bureaucracies may indeed play a functional role in efficiently carrying out agreed-upon services and even aid in the furtherance of general or common good. However, under increasingly autocratic governmental regimes, they can just as efficiently do the reverse – that is, they can turn the virtue of common good into a perceived vice. The extreme example of a bureaucracy operating under an autocratic or totalitarian regime is shockingly illustrated in the very efficient factories of death that were the Nazi concentration camps. But even in our own day we can see examples of how emerging autocratic governments can use bureaucratic systems such as Canada’s Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, the US Department of Homeland Security, NSA, GCHQ or CSEC to great advantage. When such governments seize upon natural or man-made disasters, imminent economic recession, global competitiveness, the threat of terrorism or impending war, to authorize autocratic forms of governance, they require these sorts of bureaucracies to carry out their agendas.3

Bureaucratic power-knowledge is not only the most efficient means through which autocratic government agendas can be disseminated; it is also, by its very nature, a perfect mechanism of concealment. What happens at the bureaucratic institutional level under autocratic governments usually is accessible only to insiders. Efficiency and orthodoxy require that officials operate at a protected remove from public scrutiny. The relationship between bureaucracy and autocracy is, in fact, a mutually reinforcing one. Bureaucracies serve to conceal autocratic government agendas, and autocratic perspectives are widely disseminated in rigid bureaucratic institutions.

In modern neoliberal contexts where the formality (although not the substance) of democracy still exists, the relationship between bureaucracy and government is more indirect than in classical totalitarian regimes. In other words, bureaucracies can appear to operate in a quasi-autonomous way. However, because neoliberal governments typically exist in lockstep with corporate capitalist priorities, public prerogatives often tend to be superseded by private corporate interests.4

This abrogation of public interest may not be immediately evident because the hegemony of corporate capitalism is not total and there is still operative a nominal democratic tradition – however, weak. As a result, institutions, agencies, commissions and regulators, even under a modern corporate capitalist economy will be permitted to embody their own particular “truth-orientation” and internal practical self-justification, which will not need to be continuously authorized, legitimated or overtly disciplined by an external authority. At the same time, although they can operate at a remove from central power, local and embodied modes of institutional and bureaucratic power always exist in the shadow of an ever-watchful eye (or Panopticon, to use a Benthamite metaphor).

In the autocratic context, these inner-party officials ensure that what is said or done in distant institutional domains remains within orthodox boundaries. In this way, even if bureaucratic power-knowledge flourishes and circulates in local institutional arrangements through work routines and practices, legal memos and procedural policies, it never operates in an entirely stand-alone fashion. Moreover, the values and culture of an institution will tend, over time, to reflect the ideological priorities of neoliberal governments. That they are subject to such ideological indoctrination undoubtedly would be denied by bureaucratic functionaries, because to accept that they are defined or “controlled” by a central power would be to admit that they are mere unthinking robots rather than autonomous practitioners and preservers of orthodoxy and practical truth in their own local realm. However, in the same moment of denial, these individuals also may intuitively know and understand that they are at the mercy of a central indoctrinating power whose goals and priorities must be internalized at a practical everyday level.

One is reminded here of the Orwellian notion of doublethink, or holding together (without any measure of cognitive dissonance), two contradictory thoughts. The capacity for doublethink would be considered a virtue in the most rigid and extreme bureaucracies. But there are other pathological traits that also can be found in the bureaucrat who rises to the top under the direction of an autocratic government. Ideally, such a person will be one who either already is oriented toward or can eventually adapt to any given set of institutional priorities, whether these latter serve the public interest or not. Obedience, docility, amorality and careerism will be duly rewarded. Those who can regularly suspend any desire they have to think from the perspective of another, or on behalf of a more universal or common good will be promoted and encouraged to view such thinking as detrimental to both the interests of the institution and their own self-interest.

Of course, it goes without saying that this sort of careerist work culture will be rather more challenging for those individuals who still have intact a sense of social justice or public good. In autocratic governmental contexts, the few who refuse to conform to the local “truth regime” or express unorthodox views at odds with a prevailing practice usually are singled out for censure, avoided or kept out of a privileged knowledge loop. If somehow they manage to keep their position, they likely end up as barely tolerated outsiders. They might explicitly know that they are part of an inhumane or intolerant system, but very few would be willing to entirely opt out as Edward Snowden or Daniel Ellsberg did. Instead, they tend to continue to resist despite the pressure put on them to conform, hoping that the arc of the institutional universe eventually will “bend toward tolerance” if not toward justice. In some cases, those who try to work around rigid bureaucratic rules might even be considered necessary, if only to keep alive the conceit of organizational flexibility.

This is a very potent form of power. It is the sort of power that creates a durable, servile and amoral culture. Under autocratic forms of governance, it is a seductive power that can invert the moral order and reward psychopathological personalities. In other words, it can turn virtues like empathy and justice into vices and vices such as greed, inflexibility and rank opportunism into virtues. Additionally, it is a form of local indoctrinating power that is hidden from open view, internalized and practically embodied, not in a singular evident structure, but throughout the fabric of persons and the day to day practices they are involved in. It is a notion of bureaucratic indoctrinating power-knowledge that continuously reproduces itself and is legitimated through the formation of a certain kind of disciplined, docile subject that flourishes because it knows how and when to operate in such a way that its own self-interests are met, and institutional norms and attitudes are perpetuated.

Stephen Harper and Harperite Autocracy

Once this institutional bureaucratic reality is exposed, it becomes much more evident how autocrats such as Stephen Harper have been able to maintain a facade of moderate “conservatism” while pursuing the most radically destructive environmental, social, economic and carceral policy agenda since the founding of Confederation.

What the Harper government, unlike any previous Canadian government, has recognized (much like the fictional character O’Brien in George Orwell’s novel 1984) is that a government that really does not believe in “government,” the public good or the democratic rights of citizens, can seize the indoctrinating potential that such local institutional power has and endlessly sustain and reproduce their ideology in very specific procedures, practices and occupational relations. Even if they themselves do not stay in office forever, the impact of their far-right policies would be entrenched procedurally and embodied socially for generations. This can be accomplished at a legislative and policy level, through the threat of police force and by way of propaganda.

At a macro procedural level, the Harper government has realized a form of hegemonic power by aggressively pushing ahead with orders in council and omnibus bills that undermine traditional forms of democratic participation and debate in the House of Commons. These bills (often 400-plus pages) conceal all manner of unrelated social and economic initiatives and propose regressive adjustments to labour, criminal justice and environmental legislation. They are often “fast-tracked” with imposed limits on debate. The intention of this kind of accelerated approval process is to put unrelenting pressure on parliamentarians to simply acquiesce and hit the “I Accept” button.

Examples of radical and controversial policy and legal changes concealed in Orders in Council, government initiatives, internal practices and procedures, and various omnibus bills are legion: the abolishment of the long-form census; trade deals negotiated in secret; the gradual diminishment of the relevance of the civil service; the criminalization of dissent and victimless drug use; gradually more restrictive immigration policies; the devaluation of legal judgment in the push toward mandatory minimum sentences; growing intrusive surveillance of private lives; unnecessary military spending and expansive unparalleled support for arms manufacture and the sale of weapons; the micro-control of the PMO and the media, the uncritical, sycophantic (and often embarrassing) embrace of Israel, the decimation of scientific research and evidence-based decision-making in environmental, social and economic policy. All of these radical and far-reaching measures have been dispersed and codified over seven years in seemingly innocuous orders in council, omnibus bills, hidden in piecemeal administrative adjustments, buried in policy manuals and normalized in institutional micro-practices.

What this legislative approach illustrates is a profound contempt for the democratic process. It signals to citizens that the Harper conservatives are above any conventional form of political accountability to Parliament itself. This is even more apparent in the decision to subvert constitutional mechanisms such as prorogation, and use them to cynically shut down opposition parties and immunize themselves from criticism and non-confidence motions. When it becomes commonplace to arbitrarily seize the power of prorogation, we are living in a state ruled by decree. Ruling by decree is, in effect, allowing the rule of the person (or party) to trump the rule of law. It is to suspend the law in such a way that the distinction between democracy and autocracy is erased while arbitrariness and exceptionalism become the governing “principles.”

Secondly, during the G20 summit, the Harper government authorized and encouraged police to violate fundamental constitutional rights, and indeed the rule of law itself, to instil in the public a lasting impression that any kind of individual or group resistance against the corporate elite economic agenda would not be tolerated. The consequence of such a repressive and relentless exercise of police power has been, in effect, to normalize a brutalizing, “zero-tolerance” approach toward anything approaching dissent or resistance and, with it, a suspicious and distrustful attitude toward citizens at large. As the governmental regime becomes increasingly more autocratic, it becomes more and more imperative to convert citizens, civil society and other groups into “suspects.” Once again, it is important to see the direct and powerful messaging effect here. When governments normalize an arbitrary police power that transcends the rule of law, wherever democratic protest threatens to disrupt the agenda of the powerful, they are explicitly telling us that we no longer live in a democracy.

Thirdly, from a more subtle propagandistic and doctrinaire perspective, the government secures its hold on power because Harper himself is quite intelligent enough to know that the strategy of gradual imposition of policies and laws designed to redefine Canada along radical anti-democratic, neoliberal lines cannot be spoken of openly, as such, by government officials or the mainstream press. Propaganda is the instrument that neoliberal governments use as a way of framing issues and adjusting reality so that it accords with their narrow perspectives on the market, criminal law, the reduction of social and health services, the deregulation of environmental safety, privatizing goods and services etc.

For example, when issues surrounding the economy, the environment, or the criminal justice system are discussed by government officials, they are always articulated in a form of rhetoric that is not intended to inform citizens, but to manage their perceptions. They do this by leaving out much of the detail and employing a populist, euphemistic language: “open government and transparency”; being “tough on crime”; “encouraging a strong resource-based economy” that “creates jobs”; negotiating new and improved free trade deals that benefit everyone; defending the integrity of Canadian borders and so on. The goal of such propaganda is to exploit the implicitly moral and universally approved language of “common or public good” while doing everything possible to ensure that the latter is never realized – simply because pursuing the common or public good can adversely affect the power, profit and privilege of a select few. What is the truth beneath or behind the propaganda?

The disturbing reality, amply evidenced by the facts on the ground, is that the current conservative government is the least open and transparent, is “tough on crime” (now “The Safe Streets and Communities Act”), is filling the jails with people who should not be there; is accelerating the pace of devastating climate change, is destroying the country’s most beautiful landscapes for profit and is promising to sign trade deals that will compromise sovereignty, labour rights and environmental protections while giving corporations the unprecedented power to protect investors, curtail communicative freedom and rewrite domestic law.

All of these measures require bureaucratic enablers. The nameless, countless administrators, academics, careerists and bureaucrats who willingly keep the Harper machine running are enablers in the sense that they are the perfect medium of power-knowledge through which the “banality of evil,” to borrow the words of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, is dispersed and integrated into everyday practices, career ambitions and bureaucratic procedures. The “evil” Arendt describes is not conspicuous evil but manifests as a deepening desire to think from the perspective of immediate self-interest, and to resist thinking from the perspective of another. The possibility of spontaneity, of democracy or of a moral public sphere where diverse perspectives are encouraged presupposes that we are still capable of thinking from the perspective of others outside of ourselves.

What happens when we lose this capacity – when we become incapable of thinking outside of our own insulated self-interest? In an important sense, we lose touch with our moral being and our political agency. For powerful and autocratic neoliberals, it is of primary importance to eradicate communal solidarity and diminish any sense of a common morality or expectation that the role of government is to advance the public good. If they are successful, the result is an impoverished population that is much more docile, solitary, withdrawn and vulnerable to the sort of propaganda that appeals to primitive fears or the threat of the “other” who wants to “take what we have.” The promotion of destructive neoliberal policies at the macro and micro level implicitly and explicitly rewards those who are able to forego thinking from the perspective of others, or in the interests of the public at large. Instead, it cultivates in them a primitive desire to think and act only according to their own institutional and individual interest. When this occurs, citizens no longer think or act as citizens but inevitably revert to a more primal and brutish Hobbesian “state of nature” where human life is described as a “war of all against all.”

Countering the Neoliberal End-Game

The goal of macro-procedural, hegemonic parliamentary power, coercive police power, institutional power-knowledge and media propaganda is, finally, to eradicate the “political” itself. By the political I do not refer to the hollowed-out “politics” of strategic maneuvring and vacuous political debate, which can continue forever without substantially changing anything. In its most authentic form the political is the space where individuals can make meaningful choices and act in concert, where ‘the possibility of possibility’ can be realized, where community is inaugurated, where something new can be brought forward and where dialogue, diversity and difference – the ideals that formed the groundwork of our Constitution and Charter of Rights – are still acknowledged and actively pursued.

Here, then, is the stark truth of what must be done: we must not only intervene, resist and oppose neoliberal governments and corporate capitalist hegemony;we must finally put an end to both of them. The planet and all of its inhabitants simply cannot survive if the latter remain intact in any form – we must put this nihilistic death-philosophy itself to death. We must “by opposing, end it” for its intention is only to destroy life. Can we do it?

This essay described the culture of fear and acquiescence that follows from the elimination of human creativity and possibility and the imposition by autocratic governments of artificial forms of economic or militaristic necessity which are entrenched, extended and protected by propaganda and bureaucracy. Despite this often discouraging state of affairs, it is still very possible to create a different sort of culture based on the courage to speak and act as individuals and in concert with others. How?

For every kind of indoctrinating power-knowledge that arises, there is also specific and knowledgeable resistance to that power by individuals and whistleblowers at local levels. This kind of conscious, critical and informed resistance must be encouraged and specific instances of injustice, discrimination, negligence and one-sidedness must be brought to light. We need to hear insider information about what is going wrong from bureaucrats, academics and union workers who witness it firsthand in government departments, agencies and commissions. We need to hear from individuals in the public and civil service who recognize that what is happening is neither good for Canada nor the world.

We also need coordinated and direct action in the streets, at corporate headquarters, at the site of every gas-fracking, oil-sands project, before the gates of Parliament, the White House and the UN, at the doors of every official political-corporate climate-change gathering or trade conference. We must internalize the truism that the essence of possibility, of political freedom, of environmental, ecological renewal and moral transformation begins and ends with courageous and sustained action and activism.

The alternative is to acquiesce and accommodate, going quietly into the darkest of nights. In the face of the real and permanent destruction that follows the neoliberal corporate logic of growth at any cost, it is our future world that is now at stake – and this is something we simply cannot buy back once it has been squandered.

(This article originally appeared in Truthout

1 See Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge, Selected Interviews and other Writings. Edited by Colin Gordon, Pantheon Books, New York 1972. Also see Michel Foucault, Power Volume 3. Edited by James D. Faubion, New York Press. Online summaries of Foucault’s work can be found at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, Roxbury Publishing Company, 1996. Page 182. See also, Max Weber, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

3 There are many more such institutions, departments and agencies in Canada and the United States. The exploitation of various kinds of natural and man-made disasters by governments and corporations is convincingly made by Naomi Klein in her influential and ground-breaking work The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Picador 2008

4 There are myriad examples of government regulatory agencies that, over time, have become captive to the destructive priorities of industry and corporate capitalism. In the United States, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration are subject to powerful moneyed lobbyists and are overrun by former industry workers and technocrats. In Canada The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the Department of the Environment, etc. have all been pressured to make decisions that run against public interests in favor of corporate ones. Regulatory capture is normally considered to be a failure of government, but where neoliberal governments abandon political governance in favour of economic subservience to corporate capitalist imperatives, such capture is considered a success story.

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