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Contemporary bureaucracy is a set of norms, rules, procedures, and formalities which includes administration, business, and NGOs. Where Max Weber meets Michel Foucault, Béatrice Hibou analyzes the political dynamics underlying this process. Neoliberal bureaucracy is a vector of discipline and control, producing social and political indifference.




Alice is a nurse in the outpatients’ department of a major Paris hospital. Obviously, her work consists in looking after patients who turn up every morning at her surgery and are discharged in the evening, sometimes after an operation; but not all her work is like this, and not as often as she would like. For Alice has also transformed herself, under the impact of hospital reforms into a real bureaucrat.

Béatrice Hibou

Chapter One. What Is Neoliberal Bureaucracy?

This bureaucratic dimension of neoliberalism, even though it may appear paradoxical or indeed shocking from the point of view of current ideology, is familiar to specialists in the historical sociology of politics and to readers of the great classics of this discipline. Thus, the analysis of the craze for rules and norms mentioned above now goes back over a century, to when Max Weber showed that, historically speaking, liberalism had created an expansion in the number of economic institutions, and that the development of bureaucracy was closely linked with the development of capitalism. Karl Polanyi was continuing this tradition when he pointed out that “there was nothing natural about laissezfaire,” and highlighted the way liberalism triggered an unprecedented growth in legislative and administrative measures, precisely so as to facilitate the dismantling of obstacles to the commodification of land, money, and labor.1 Historians have shown that the markets were created by human interventions, especially on the part of the state.2 In this sense—and this is my way of putting it—this was a bureaucratic process because, in order for it to be accomplished, rules had to be invented and procedures put in place. Writing within this tradition, Michel Foucault pointed out that “the market … was, of course, invested with extremely prolifıc and strict regulations”:3 an art of governing based on the market cannot be embodied in laissez-faire, but rather in a “framework policy”4 paving the way for an “active” governmentality necessary to ensuring that society as a whole conforms to the principles of enterprise, competition, and the market.

Béatrice Hibou

Chapter Two. A Bureaucratized Society

Norms, rules, procedures, and formalities spread across the whole of “society, as such, in its fabric and its depth.”1 To some extent, they constitute the “new spirit” of neoliberalism.2 Before I unpick the logics and the political and social mainsprings of this bureaucratization, and investigate the philosophical principles that underlie this specific process, I would like briefly to indicate some everyday examples that bring out the way it is becoming both more general and more concrete. These examples—more or less trivial and in any case commonplace—do not provide us with an in-depth analysis of each of the fields I focus on, but they do show what, in everyday experience, this neoliberal bureaucratization is actually like.

Béatrice Hibou

Chapter Three. Market and Enterprise Bureaucracy at the Heart of the Neoliberal Art of Governing

As everyone knows, neoliberalism is not the same as laissez-faire. Those who have interpreted neoliberalism as an “intervening liberalism”1 have now produced a great deal ofwork that brings out this dimension; they talk in terms of “government at a distance,”2 of “entrepreneurial government” as the “new way,”3 of the “normative state,”4 or even, as I myself did several years ago, of the way the state is redeployed via its “privatization.”5 It is not only the proponents of a Foucauldian analysis who interpret neoliberalism in this way—witness, for example, work in the sociology of quantification. This work has shown that it was impossible to separate statistics, the conception of the state and the way in which society is thought of—for, at every period of history, statistics is the reflection of a knowledge produced by the state; even more, it is a reflection of the link between power and knowledge. This work has also highlighted, for the current period, how statistical reason has been extended to nonmeasurable areas, how belief in the objectivity of these rational and quantified techniques of government has risen, and how the role of statistical knowledge and techniques of commensurability has spread into public debates.6 Likewise, we may point to the studies that have sprung from the theory of conventions, regulation, and critical sociology—those, for example, of Laurent Thévenot, who speaks of “government by norms,” or of specialists of political economy and socioeconomic geography, who emphasize that neoliberalism is not the antithesis of regulation, but a “contradictory form of state regulation in denial.”7

Béatrice Hibou

Chapter Four. Neoliberal Bureaucratic Domination: Diffuse Control and the Production of Indifference

Once we have placed the blurred distinction between public and private at the heart of the way it works, and see formalities as lying at the center of its practices, it appears neither as an administrative arrangement nor as an institution, let alone an organizational structure, but as a social form of power. We can now focus on understanding the political dynamics that this process induces and of which it is simultaneously the bearer.

Béatrice Hibou

Chapter Five. Struggles and Breaches: Bureaucratization as the Site of Enunciation of the Political

As the examples of asylum seekers, the politics of compassion, research, and standards have suggested, bureaucratization is not something external to society. It unfolds through the actors who are targeted by it and who, consciously or not, play an active part in this process. The neoliberal art of government operates through the intermediary of individuals who, as we have seen, are a fundamental and paradoxical cog in the production of indifference. It is this sense in which we can say that what we are witnessing is not a bureaucratization “from on high,” but a much wider and more complex process of “bureaucratic participation.”1 This participation stems from different processes, but these all converge to shape bureaucratization.

Béatrice Hibou


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