In my doctoral thesis, The Bureaucratic Mentality in Democratic Theory and Contemporary Democracy, I draw attention to a contemporary exaltation of competence and executive power in European political practice and within democratic theory. As Europe is beset by fears of populism and conflict over ongoing economic crisis, a practical and technical approach to human affairs, which promises to avoid polarized and potentially destabilizing disputes, may seem like an attractive option. A sense of fatalism in reaction to changing circumstances seems pervasive within democratic theory, and proposals to modify democratic institutions and standards, in order to accommodate shifting realities, have made efforts to blend the logics of democracy and bureaucracy.
Drawing on Max Weber’s concept of rationalization and his opposition between the mentalities of the official and the politician, I aim to de-institutionalize our notion of bureaucracy and develop a distinct conception of bureaucracy as a mode of thought. Bureaucratic thinking involves the application of technical knowledge and skills, with a claim to universality and objectivity, in order to produce results and promote consensus and social harmony. Understanding and operationalizing the concept in this way allows us to better recognize the contemporary diffusion of a flexible, decentralized type of bureaucracy that has not been identified as such. We can then situate it within the history of affinity and tension between bureaucratic and democratic principles and evaluate the applicability of new and old critiques.
I focus on a tradition within continental democratic theory, which tends to downplay politics by replacing it with administration and regulation. French social theorist and historian Pierre Rosanvallon is one contemporary representative of this tendency, building on G.W.F. Hegel and Émile Durkheim as well as Henri de Saint-Simon and Léon Duguit. Initially, Rosanvallon offered a theory of participation and democratic legitimacy that would work within the administrative state, taking into account his own strong critiques of bureaucracy. I argue that significant shifts evident in his later works, which respond to new political and social conditions in Europe, mobilize bureaucratic thinking and practice to buttress democratic legitimacy within the nation-state and the European Union. I then play Rosanvallon’s earlier anti- bureaucratic arguments against his modified position in order to argue against attempts to reconcile bureaucracy and democracy, understood in its procedural form with equal freedom at its core. My claim is that bureaucratic thinking aims at consensus, encourages passivity, undermines the democratic value of political equality, and obscures values and interests behind policy decisions that are presented as neutral, technical, and fact-based. Methodologically, I use the history of ideas to develop the concept of the bureaucratic mentality, tracing it through the work of exemplary thinkers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Hegel, Durkheim, and Weber.