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The Bureaucratic Vocation: State/Office/Ethics

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This paper seeks to indicate how and why public bureaucracy has been and remains a cornerstone of the modern state and of representative democratic governmental regimes. It does so by highlighting both the constitutive role bureaucratic practices and ethics play in securing civil peace and security, and individual and collective rights and freedoms, for example, and how attempts to transcend, negate, or otherwise 'disappear' bureaucracy can have profound political consequences. The paper begins with a brief exploration of some of the tropes of 'bureau-critique' and their historical and contemporary association with key elements of anti-statist thought. It then proceeds, in section two, to chart how attempts to detach an understanding of bureaucracy from its imbrication in critical polemic and political partisanship can be best pursued by revisiting the work of Max Weber. Weber's great achievement, it will be argued, was to provide a definitive analysis of both the 'technical' and ethico-cultural attributes of public bureaucracy without falling into pejorative critique. In so doing, Weber's work provides a useful resource for exploring the limits and pitfalls of 'bureau-critique' historically and contemporaneously. The problems identified with politically partisan and critique- oriented understandings of public bureaucracy identified in the first two sections of the paper are then illustrated in section three with direct reference to specific episodes in German, US, and British political history. The paper concludes by re-emphasising the enduring significance and political positivity of the ethos of bureaucratic office-holding, not least in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2020

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  • new formations is an inter-disciplinary journal of culture, politics and theory. It covers a wide range of issues, from the seduction of perversity to questions of nationalism and postcolonialism.

    'essential reading for those who want to understand politics in the light of the most important trends in contemporary theory' Chantal Mouffe.

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