The Ontotheology of Bureaucracy

One of my long term projects is to work out a onto-politico-theology of bureaucratic forms of governance. I know that sentence sounds jargonistic, but basically I mean that I’m interested in evaluating proceduralist political theories, the administrative state, and the sociology of bureaucratic organizations against the metaphysical assumptions about the Good and the Right, the divine and the mundane, individuality, plurality, and autonomy that make them function as they do. I suspect that there is something unique about our experience of the world in which any decision is legitimate and right so long as it is made (1) using predetermined procedures, that arrives at (2) a general rule for action, after (3) the consultation of experts, with (4) the passive consent of those affected. (This puts me at odds with most epistemic democrats who see these as general features of human existence, with only the membership of the groups consulted for consent or granted expert status changing.)

Discussions of the particular sociology of bureaucratic forms of decision-making go back to Max Weber, who claimed that the efficiency gains (yes, gains: bureaucracies are actually efficient, no matter what you may think) to be had from bureaucratic forms of life threatens to replace goal-rationality with instrumental thinking. This basic Weberian critique runs through the majority of German social thought throughout the twentieth century, whether the thinker is an phenomenologist like Heidegger, pining away for the unpurposive poetry of the Black Forest, or a Frankfurt School Marxist like Adorno, Arendt, or Habermas. The twentieth century was -the- bureaucratic century, and all the lesser developments: cars, planes, atomic bombs, genocide, space travel, civil rights, culture wars, computers, and the internet can be seen through the lens of the bureau, the desk, as the accomplishments of bureaucratized research, bureaucratized politics, or bureaucratic tools become inescapable forms of life.

So: what do desks and offices have to do with angels? Well, for me it starts with Augustine’s amillenialism, his project in The City of God to efface the traditional relationship between church and state by supplying a spiritual community that trumps the political world. In practice, Augustien accomplishes the opposite: he creates a theology that serves Roman expansion in North Africa, as seen in the debates with the Donatists. Yet this tension, between a Christian theology that is utterly anarchic and one that simply serves the state’s territorial interests, breaks down when the Church becomes a semi-secular bureaucracy itself. The strange twist is that the Church’s proceduralism develops within an angelology, a discussion of the divine administration upon which the Church itself is based. Thus, the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin is literally a political question.

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