It is understandable that the mainstream left has traditionally been suspicious of anti-bureaucratic politics. The Fabian tradition has always believed – has been defined by its belief – in the development and extension of an enlightened bureaucracy as the main vehicle of social progress. Attacking ‘bureaucracy’ has been – since at least the 1940s – a means by which the Right has attacked the very idea of public service and collective action. Since the early days of Thatcherism, there has been very good reason to become nervous whenever someone attacks bureaucracy, because such attacks are almost invariably followed by plans not for democratisation, but for privatisation.
Nonetheless, it is precisely this situation that has produced a certain paralysis of the Left in the face of one of its greatest political opportunities, an opportunity which it can only take if it can learn to speak an anti-bureaucratic language with confidence and conviction. On the one hand, this is a simple populist opportunity to unite constituencies within both the public and private sectors: simple, but potentially strategically crucial. As workers in both sectors and as users of public services, the public dislike bureaucracy and apparent over-regulation. The Left misses an enormous opportunity if it fails to capitalise on this dislike and transform it into a set of democratic demands.
On the other hand, anti-bureaucratism marks one of the critical points of failure and contradiction in the entire neoliberal project. For the truth is that neoliberalism has not kept its promise in this regard. It has not reduced the interference of managerial mechanisms and apparently pointless rules and regulations in the working life of public-sector professionals, or of public-service users, or of the vast majority of workers in the private sector. In fact it has led in many cases to an enormous proliferation and intensification of just these processes. Targets, performance indicators, quantitative surveys and managerial algorithms dominate more of life today than ever before, not less. The only people who really suffer less regulation than they did in the past are the agents of finance capital: banks, traders, speculators and fund managers.
Where de-regulation is a reality for most workers is not in their working lives as such, but in the removal of those regulations which once protected their rights to secure work, and to a decent life outside of work (pensions, holidays, leave entitlements, etc.). The precarious labour market is not a zone of freedom for such workers, but a space in which the fact of precarity itself becomes a mechanism of discipline and regulation. It only becomes a zone of freedom for those who already have enough capital to be able to choose when and where to work, or to benefit from the hyper-mobility and enforced flexibility of contemporary capitalism.