Social Fragmentation and the Space of Appearance: Hannah Arendt and Bureaucracy

Anna Quinn

In talking and thinking about the legacy of colonialism and imperialism in the Global South it is impossible to ignore the legacy of bureaucracy. The process of government by bureaucracy inherently creates tears in the social fabric of a society by uncoupling government from the language of rights and representation, government from governed, individual intentions from individual actions, and actions from outcomes. The ensuing social isolation and unresponsive government must be combated in order to introduce a healthy and representative political reality. Social movements among marginalized and disenfranchised people must struggle against the divisive and impersonal influence of bureaucracy and struggle to re-introduce accountability and plurality into the political sphere. Bureaucracy also necessitates a different type of healing and reconciliation, as it is often the vehicle for senseless violence and cruelty, and certainly creates conditions amenable to racism and other forms of inequality. Post-colonial political arenas must be re-humanized in order to repair the fragmentation resulting from bureaucracy.

Before addressing bureaucracy’s effects on social fragmentation and individual agency, it is useful to establish a working definition of the concept. In her writing on imperialism, Hannah Arendt treats bureaucracy as “a principle of foreign domination…a substitute for government,” (1951:65). In his work Economy and Society, Max Weber conceptualizes bureaucracy as a means of domination with dimensions consisting of: hierarchy of authority, social and economic specialization, impersonality, a highly developed system of rules, and procedures (Bonjean 365). Bureaucracy is a tool of domination that employs impersonal procedures and regulations as a means of keeping order.

Bureaucracy serves as a means of domination by dissolving the space of appearance and precluding the actualization of power. In The Human Condition (1959) Arendt conceives of the space of appearance as the product of plurality of speech and action, a necessary antecedent of political power. Political power cannot exist without interpersonal “togetherness.” Bureaucracy works against the space of appearance through a process of social and political fragmentation. This is accomplished by uncoupling “word and deed,” and also by dissolving several other relationships: those between motive and deed, government and governed, and action and outcome. This has the effect of allowing bureaucracy to escape individual control and intentionality, negating the value of individual agency and creating a political and social reality in which individuals may avoid accountability for their conduct. Fragmentation in consciousness also takes the form of alienation: feelings of powerlessness, social isolation, anomie, and self-estrangement, challenging the individual’s potential for political action (Bonjean 365). Thus bureaucracy “[contradicts] the essential human condition of plurality, the acting and speaking together, which is the condition of all forms of political organization,” (Arendt 1959:181).


Arendt refers to bureaucracy in the context of imperialism as the “organization of the great game of expansion in which every area was considered a stepping-stone to further involvements and every people an instrument for further conquest,” (1951:66). Her depiction of bureaucracy as a tool for endless expansion exposes imperialism’s lack of an end goal. Rather, the means are the ends, and imperialism is expansion for expansion’s sake. This purposelessness characterizes imperial bureaucracy at all levels, from the ‘accidental’ acquisition of the British Empire, to Cecil Rhodes’s position that “expansion did not need to be justified by…sensible motives,” (Arendt 1951:92). Imperial bureaucracy has a questionable foundational intentionality, as expansion is both the means and the ends of the project. This is one of the ways in which it eludes the control of the individual; without an end vision, the progression of bureaucracy and imperialism seems to be almost self-sufficient, independent of individual volition. Thus, a separation is achieved between happenings and intent and agency.

Rights and Representation

Bureaucracy also creates distance between the government and the governed by encouraging aloofness among government officials. In lands under foreign domination, aloofness was coupled with feelings of cultural and racial superiority, which introduced the possibility that officials’ positions of power were their birthright. Furthermore, these conditions made space for a novel type of cruelty as bureaucrats were discouraged from identifying with their subjects; “exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed, corruptor and corrupted [no longer lived] in the same world, [shared] the same goals, [fought] each other for the possession of the same things,” (1951:92). Governed peoples were thought to be hopelessly inferior and therefore needed to be governed by an “experienced minority” (94). Thus, imperial governments did not build on the laws and moralized political traditions—such as the rights of man—of Europe. Colonial governments based upon ideologies of inequality and bigotry were fundamentally incompatible with participatory, representative, and consensual modes of government. Rather, administrators who “no longer believed in the universal validity of law,” were those responsible for imperial governments (101); laws were replaced by a system of decrees that could be “changed at a moment’s notice and did not necessarily involve the home government in case of difficulties,” (93). Thus, bureaucracy under imperialism acquires a special character that allows government to be divorced from language of rights and representation and separates bureaucratic administrators from the governed.


Despite their seemingly unchecked power over the people and lands they ruled, Cecil Rhodes, Lord Cromer, and T.E. Lawrence viewed themselves as instruments or functionaries of history, rather than as individuals with volition. This worldview evokes a frightening vacuum of intentionality. Furthermore, bureaucratic government’s emphasis on secrecy and invisibility obscures the connections between agent, action, and outcome. Individual accountability and intentionality are eradicated. Take the example of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi bureaucrat who arranged for the transportation of European Jews to their deaths; for Eichmann, bureaucratic structures transformed mass murder from something “fiendish and…monstrous” to something that “was instead impersonal and abstract -a matter of following rules, obeying order, arranging schedules with the utmost meticulousness and dedication,” (Whitfield 470). Bureaucracy transformed Eichmann’s “dutiful conscience [and] official conscientiousness” (476) into a channel for genocide. According to Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann during his trial for crimes against humanity in Jerusalem in 1961, he facilitated mass murder almost without motive; anti-Semitic ideology complemented but could not fully explain his estrangement from his actions. Thus, as in Eichmann’s case, the individual is alienated from the human effects of his or her actions.


Bureaucratic systems also re-frame individual agency, as officials must choose invisibility over individual glory and attainment. While individual achievements may not be inherently desirable, when the bureaucrat acts not on his own behalf nor on the behalf of his fellow human, a mysticism of purpose is introduced—the official is acting in cooperation with a perceived “stream of historical necessity,” (Arendt 1951:100). This imagined higher purpose departs from intent in that it is more of a resignation of agency than an assertion of agency. For example, Lawrence conceived of the individual as effective only “if he pushes the right way” (101). Thus, the trajectory of events is already determined, and the individual seeking to make an impact must align him- or herself with this trajectory, defeating the power of individual and collective will. Of course, this obedience of historical ‘necessity’ is open to unquestioned influence by racism, sexism, classism, ethnocentrism, cruelty, and various other ideologies of inequality.


Through this series of fractures and fragmentations, bureaucracy prohibits collective action. By erasing accountability and motivation beyond obedience, bureaucracy strips the individual of his or her power to speak and act in concert with others. This collaboration is the basis of participatory democracy and collective action. If “[power] is actualized only where word and deed have not parted company, where words are not empty and deeds not brutal, where words are not used to veil intentions but to disclose realities,” power may not exist in a system that thrives off of individual alienation and isolation. Arendt writes that “whoever…isolates himself and does not partake in such being together, forfeits power and becomes impotent, no matter how great his strength and how valid his reasons,” (1959:180). Bureaucracy necessarily isolates government officials from their constituencies, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions. This creates a form of government that is responsive to no one, especially not the governed.

Supplanting bureaucracy with more participatory and representative forms of government is certainly not a struggle confined to the Global South. Around the world governments fail to achieve transparency and create conditions that alienate people from their communities, work, cultures and themselves. However, closing gaps in intentionality and accountability has a special character in the Global South because it is part of the work against imperialism, racism, and global inequality. Understanding bureaucracy’s effects on collective action and political power is a crucial part of creating spaces in which participatory and egalitarian governments can thrive.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959. Print.

Arendt, Hannah. Imperialism. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1951. Print.

Bonjean, Charles M, and Michael D Grimes. “Bureaucracy and Alienation: A Dimensional Approach.” Social Forces 48.3 (1970): 365-73. JSTOR. Web. 19 Oct. 2010. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/2574655&gt;.

Whitfield, Stephen J. “Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil.” The History Teacher 14.4 (1981): 469-477. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2010.<http://www.jstor.org/stable/493684&gt;.

2 Responses to Bureaucracy

  1. Makere Stewart-Harawira says:

    wonderful.. reblogging…

  2. Pingback: Bureaucracy | reblogged from Global South « The Turning Spiral

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