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Why not just call it the state… June 17, 2021

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.

I’ve noticed on the The Irish Times politics podcast recently that there’s something of an overuse of the term ‘Administrative State’. Or perhaps more accurately the use of the term ‘administrative state’. The provenance of the term appears to lie in the late 1940s when in the book The Administrative State by Dwight Waldo, dealing with the US state:

The book posits that an “administrative state” contains a tension between democracy and bureaucracy that obliges career public servants to protect democratic principles. Waldo’s position is that the political versus administrative dichotomy is false, that public servants hold politicalpositions that require more than the mere implementation of policy set by elected officials. Rather, they must negotiate between efficient, scientific management and the demands for due process and public access to government. Government cannot be run like a business where efficiency and profits are highest prority. Honoring the Constitution and other democratic imperatives makes managing a unit of the government far more challenging than a comparable private-sector organization.[4]

In some ways this may seem quite obvious if a little esoteric, and it’s difficult to tell if the phrase was used that commonly until quite recently. Quite quite recently. Indeed I cannot recall despite some interest in these areas hearing it used outside of specialised contexts until that recent usage. 

The following from 2017 is informative:

In Washington, the vogue term is the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”


That was coined by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who used it during a rare public chat at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland last month.

And he continued:

The process, he explained, began with Trump’s first presidential hires.
“If you look at these Cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction, the way the progressive left runs, is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation in — in an agency,” Bannon said. “That’s all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”
But for all the modishness of the term – or the modish usage of a term that was over half a century and more old – the actual meaning of what was being described has morphed into a negative description of the state in its entirety. And a negative description that is one that those of us on the left have heard for decades. Take it away CNN:
There is no apparent role for Congress in the administration’s other new venture, the creation of an executive office dedicated to applying private sector (read: profit-driven) standards to government. The “White House Office of American Innovation” will be run by Trump’s son-in-law and trusted adviser, Jared Kushner.
“Our hope,” Kushner told the Washington Post, “is that we can achieve successes and efficiencies for our customers, who are the citizens.”

New administrations routinely plot courses for streamlining government and saving tax dollars, but they are almost always unsuccessful. And the Trump White House, disdainful and antagonizing of federal bureaucracies, is unlikely to find many allies to grease their operation.
Still, Kushner’s idealized conception of government as a business and citizens as consumers of its product is perhaps the cleanest and most accessible explanation of what a depleted “administrative state” would yield.
That is, a fundamental remaking of the relationship between the people and the state, with an expanding gap between what Americans have come to expect from government and what it would be equipped to provide.
Well, it’s somewhat new, but isn’t this essentially Thatcher/Reaganomics given a new gloss, albeit one that is pushed in a context where the relative protections extant before that period are now fundamentally weakened? In other words all this is about pushing back at the state – business as usual, as we know, and replacing services and functions with private actors (as well as using the state for the benefit of those private actors as distinct from actual citizens). 
That Bannon would be involved in this is hardly a surprise. His rather tawdry referencing of the ‘working class’ in his rhetoric – while amusingly, apparently convincing to some on the left in the aftermath of the Trump victory – was entirely devoid of substance. This is an individual viscerally hostile to state medical care, and other services and supports offered by the state. It is in essence a sentimental and hollow expression though not without political purpose in terms of reaching out to some groups of workers. Small wonder for him the state, administrative or otherwise, is the enemy.
But keep in mind that this use of the term administrative state is one that is overwhelmingly something appropriated by the right as an element of political discourse and the US right at that. If one looks up Adminstrative Stateone will find earnest articles hostile to it on a range of right and further right US sites such as Heritage, The Federalist, the AEIR free market think tank, the WSJ, and so on. In this usage the term is in essence a spin on bureaucracy but one that comes with a certain hint of soft authoritarianism.
Which makes the usage of it curious in any context outside of a right, further right, milieu. And doubly so because it doesn’t seem to describe anything that the term state, or bureaucracy, are unable to encompass. What ideological spine is contained, say, in the Irish ‘administrative’ state. Nothing more than a reflection of the prevailing nostrums of our times – albeit, and crucially, arguably centre right, right nostrums. As has been the case pretty much at all times in the history of this state. And what particular distinctiveness is there in that from the Irish political centre of gravity? Why little or none. As might be expected. So what insight does the term offer us beyond the reality that the state apparatus is a creature of political and economic bases that have a certain hegemony in the state and society? Not a great deal. Certainly the state apparatus is not clearly an actor in its own respects, whatever the hopes or fears of the right, and in truth is itself captured by that right.


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