Vygotskian Writings Теоретическая психология Выготскианские тексты

Why is bureaucratic control over economy not that rational?

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Why is bureaucratic control over economy not that rational?

László Garai
Institute for Psychology, Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Likewise but also otherwise. In fact, to understand and handle this otherness is what calls for economic psychology.

In the course of producing the material conditions we get accustomed to the applied means’ power depending on nothing but their technical properties. In the production of personal conditions, however, the means’ power is mediated by their social relations.

This mediation intervenes even into the simplest material factors’ power over personal factors. For example, whether pork is suitable as an instrument to contribute to the subsistence of a human organism is determined by the chemical properties of the foodstuff in question and by the biological properties of that other material factor represented by the individual human organism. But whether this material is food at all for some persons depends on how these personal factors are defined by the system of their social relations: if, for instance, a person is identified by his everyday social practice as a member of a Judaic or Moslem religious community pork cannot be identified as food for him/her. And for lack of such a social identification, the appropriate technical power cannot be exerted. What is more, should this material stuff at issue get into the organism of such an individual, it might as well generate the most serious symptoms of poisoning without any appropriate technical power for this effect. Such a context explains the power of various ancient and modern fetishes that a material factor even without appropriate technical properties may exert an effect solely by virtue of the position it occupies in the system of social relations: we know, e. g., that Marx attributed to such a correlation the effect exerted in the capitalist society by things working as commodity, money, capital, etc. on persons working as agents in the economic processes.

If the power of a thing over a person may be ricocheted by the position the person and the material factor occupy in the social structure in relation to each other, this is far more likely to happen when the power over a personal factor is exercised not by a material but by another personal factor. It is common experience that a technique functions with varying efficiency depending on the social identity of the person who applies it and the one it is applied to: whether father lectures to his son or teacher to his pupils; whether a parent drives his offspring toward the right path with a slap in the face or an elder brother does the same to a younger; whether a mother pleads with her daughter or the latter with a girlfriend; whether an unknown outsider invites a person of the opposite sex to strip to the skin or an unknown white coat doctor.

Now, from a psychosocial point of view we might interpret the bu­reau­cracy’s system of relations as the institutionalization of such relations: it as­sig­ns definite powers to a position in a social structure, but to a person (whe­ther s/he bears or not technical properties needed for exercising those po­wers) only to the extent to which s/he legitimately occupies the position in ques­tion. Thus, those psychosocial interrelations are institutionalized by the bu­reaucracy that mediate the power of producing personal conditions. The­re­fore, while we can see that Max Weber’s reasoning about the bureaucracy cre­ating the conditions of a rational management and the predictability of the mass scale production and allocation of material conditions does not seem to hold true of socialism, we have to consider whether it is not precisely the needs of managing the mass scale production and allocation of personal con­di­tions that could be blamed for the extensive bureaucratization of society.

The following relation should also be considered in this context:

If it is important in the economic process in which personal factor pro­du­ces personal factor that the producing person can only exert his/her po­wer through the mediation of his/her social relations, then it is just as im­por­tant that the produced person’s power be directly set to him/her as his/her technical property. But how could we fit the two aspects to each other?

In the post-capitalist era we can notice the repeated emergence of ten­dencies that – in an explicit or implicit, aware or unaware way – oppose them­selves to bureaucracy. Despite all their differences that are sometimes mu­tually exclusive they have in common the attempt to set power to per­sons directly, independently of the positions occupied by each of them respectively.

This tendency manifests itself, e. g., in the radical mass movements of various orientation after World War I: it was not accidental that these movements produced everywhere the charismatic leader who proved to the combatants of the movement that one does not need to occupy any social position in order to have an increasing social power. Indeed, when, e. g., Gandhi resigned in 1934 of his post as party chief, it did not reduce at all his social power; neither was the position of head of government they occupied the source of their enormous social power for Lenin, or, on the other hand, for Hitler and Mussolini.

Similarly to the leader, the whole headquarters staff of a radical mass mo­vement may acquire charisma, and also this collective charisma sets di­rect­ly to its bearer a social power. Thus, a set of powers comes to be assig­ned to a group of persons in such a way that both the bearers of charisma and those under the effect of the charisma find it legitimate no matter who is the person and which is the power set concretely to each other.

In the same way, a whole political party may gain collective charisma in a revolution this party is the vanguard of. At the beginning, the members of the charismatic collective exercise the overthrown and sized power not as func­tionaries but commissaries. What happens is not that some party mem­bers begin to replace former functionaries in the positions of the bureaucra­tic structure in order to obtain the powers set to that position, but that one or another party member gets direct commission to exercise a certain power.

Later, of course, when the new power gets stabilized as state power, the principle of bureaucracy gains ascendancy: those commissioned to exerci­se certain powers become gradually appointed to positions with those po­wers as their functions. What’s more, with the development of the party ap­paratus the principle of bureaucracy also penetrates into the party: e. g. five years after the Russian revolution 15,325 functionaries were active in the apparatus of the party, and another 15 years later only at the intermediate level there were about three times as many party functionaries.

In respect of the above formulated question of economic psychology, i.e. how to fit the two aspects of producing the personal factor, it is far more sig­nificant that while the collective charisma directly sets power to a per­son, the collective charisma itself starts to be set to its bearer by appointment.

To gain access to charisma by appointment when charisma by defini­tion sets power to a person without appointment would provide a social struc­ture with the property of a paradox. Nevertheless it is worthwhile to ad­mit that this paradoxical structure has emerged. Let us adduce some facts:

In May 1923 the C(b)PSU had 386,000 members who had made themselves Bolsheviks during their underground activity, the revolution and civil war and the social power they had at that time was provided them by this past record. Now, within a year the above number grew by more than 90%, and only in the four months following Lenin’s death 240,000 people were, upon Stalin’s initiative, appointed communists without any corresponding past record.

And then they inaugurated Stalin in his personal charisma. By appointment! Thus, the social power of having a social power independently of appointment became dependent of appointment. That Stalin’s case was an exemplary case of the operating of this paradox (see Garai, 1984) got crystal clear from Bukharin’s reply to a western sympathiser who wanted to find out how it was possible that with all those bright and excellent personages in the revolutionary central committee of the Bolshevik Party, the mediocre Stalin was chosen for the top. Not much before his arrest Bukharin answered: “It was not he personally that we placed our trust in but the man whom the party honoured with its trust.”

Thus in this structure the charisma of the leader is not borne in his own person but (in the last resort) the party appoints him to this individual charisma; the very party whose members partake of the collective charisma not on account of their past record of participation in a collective history but (in the last resort) get their appointment to party membership from that very leader. Now, the leader can be replaced by a collective leadership at one end (Politburo, Secretariat, etc.), while at the other end party membership may get reduced to the party apparatus; what does not change at all in this process is the perfectly efficient paradoxical feedback mechanism between the two ends.

Any attempt that tries to comprehend either the working of this mechanism or the principle of this working, democratic centralism, in terms of the categories of bureaucracy will lead to a blind alley.

The legitimacy of a bureaucracy – be it organized centralistically or democratically – is guaranteed by the fact that powers are exercised by those whose position imply this function. If they were placed in their position by the will of the people, then the definition of who belongs to the people is given incontestably and independently of them; if, on the other hand, they were placed in their position by a central will, it is given again incontestably and inde­pendently of them who belongs to the centre. It may happen in both cases that bureaucracy detaches itself from the ultimate source of its legitimacy, but this step will not be within its legitimate powers assigned as a function to its position.

The paradox that one would have legitimate powers to designate and replace the legitimation base of those powers is made possible and necessary, too, by the fact that powers keep not being set to a position but to the subject of a now institutional collective charisma. The mode of linking is determined by the nomenklatura.

The nomenklatura is a list, on one hand, of a set of powers and, on the other hand, of a group of people. Any of those powers may be set to anyone of these people and it makes no difference to them how exactly the actual distribution happens. What does matter is not the question of what is, in bureaucratic terms, the position one is appointed to, but the question to which nomenklatura the powers belong the exercise of which is legitimized by that appointment: to the central one which links a larger set of powers to a smaller group of people; or to a local one by which a smaller set of powers is allocated to a larger group of people.

Voslensky in his work on Nomenklatura (1980) states that the bureaucratic structure of the state, party, large scale enterprises, etc. is only a surface manifestation of the deep-lying structure of Soviet-type societies that turns out to be defined by nomenklatura (the same way as the deep structure of capitalist societies is determined by capital, i. e., Marx points out, not by the thing but by the relation). Now, for those who can only think in terms of producing and allocating the material conditions, these two systems of relations are not distinguishable since both are equally exterior as referred to such an economy.

On the other hand, if one apply the viewpoint of economic psychology that takes into con­si­deration also producing and allocating, by a post-capita­list economic system, the personal conditions of its functioning, there ap­pears the possibility to distinguish these two kinds of relations and to comp­rehend their connexions in Soviet-type societies based on those conne­xions (and that might be called for that reason nomenklaturist societies, much rather than, as we have got accustomed to calling them, socialist societies).


Garai, L., 1984: Vers une théorie psycho-économique de l’identité sociale. Recherches Sociologique. 25:2-3. 313-335.

Garai, L., 1987a: Determining economic activity in a post-capitalist system. Journal of Economic Psychology. 8. 77-90.

Garai, L., 1987b: To the psychology of economic rationality. In: Understanding economic behaviour. 12th Annual Colloquium of IAREP, the International Association for Research in Economic Psychology. ‎Handelshøjskolen i Århus, 1987. Vol. I. 29-41.

Schumpeter, J., 1971: The instability of capitalism. In: Rosenbert, N. (ed.): The economics of technological change. N. Y.

Voslensky, 1980: La Nomenklatura. “Le livre de poche”, 5672. Pierre Belfond.

Weber, M., 1964: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. I. Kiepenhauer und Witsch, Köln-Berlin.


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