Patrimony and Bureaucracy: Explaining the Age of Trump

And now for something completely different…The Daily Beast recently reported that Donald Trump’s son-in-law

Jared [Kushner] had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it… That advice worked far more powerfully on [Trump] than what the scientists were saying. He thinks they always exaggerate.

Nevermind the veracity of this claim. Rather, reflect on the emotion it elicited. Reflect on the emotions previously elicited when reports of his sprawling influence on the executive office bubble up. I know this subject has been exhaustively discussed by pundit and social scientist alike, and at risk of being redundant or even obvious, I look to some sociological theory to maybe offer a different take on why many of us feel the way we do.

Systems of Domination
Alongside Max Weber’s more famous ‘types of authority” (traditional; legal-rational; charismatic) are his less explored types of domination. Of course, most sociology students know his work on bureaucracies, which is one of the most important pieces in his oeuvre. In line with his general historical argument that all social organization evolves towards greater routinization and rationalization, Weber lays out three types of domination: patriarchy, patrimony, and bureaucracy; all of which present different logics of domination and subordination.

The first two are very close cousins differentiated only by the whether or not there is an administrative staff. Over time, as the administration grows larger and the tasks more complex, a proto- and then more ideal typical bureaucracy evolves. Though patriarchy concerns us a little, it is really patrimony and bureaucracy that stand at the center of our focus. First, however, a table highlighting some of the principal differences between the latter two political forms of domination:

Patrimonial System Bureaucratic System
No Distinction Between Public and Private Spheres Offices/Administration are Clearly Separated from Incumbent
Subjects Exist to Support the Patrimonial Household Administration Designed to Manage Needs of Population
Commitment predicated on Individual’s Authority over Others Commitment to Impersonal Purposes of Department/State
Domination Rooted in Personal Subjection Domination Rooted in Legal Norms
Power Used Arbitrarily w/ Competing Interests only Potential Barrier Power Constrained by Custom, Norms, and Law
Appointment/Promotion Based on Personal Loyalty Appointment/Promotion Based on Formal Rules
Competence Based on Fidelity and Loyalty Competence based on Technical Training
Compensation Based on Benefice and Reward Compensation Divorced from Ruler, Based on Salary/Wage

Weber, of course, famously argued that the modern world was becoming increasing rationalized across many different social orders. The Catholic Church, for instance, was a monument to bureaucratized religion (or, a hierocracy in Weberian terminology), which soon was followed in the mid-17th century by the construction of the nation-state and the slow rise of a civil bureaucracy. Although patrimonialism, in the form of absolute sovereignty, stubbornly held on for several centuries after, but with the spread of democratic republics throughout the west, bureaucracy became the central organizing principle of state and church (Collins 1986). The bureaucratization of every sphere was accelerated by the growth of rational western law that was both a consequence and cause of church bureaucratization (Berman 1983). Eventually, the democratic state and the separation of its branches accelerated the growth of formal economic organizations (corporations), the bureaucratization of universities and education more generally, and so forth. In short, the world we have inherited is one in which mass societies composed of millions and millions of people; and, the most efficient and effective means of dealing with those masses, thus far, is bureaucracy.

Bureaucracy and its Discontents?
A less obvious point Weber makes because most people abhor the “red tape,” snail-like pace, and dehumanizing qualities of, say, the DMV or a university’s administration, is that bureaucracies also improve the lives of more people. For instance, the first feature of bureaucracies in the table underscores the separation of incumbent from personal possession of office. We take for granted just how big of a deal this is, but it prevents families from owning a title or office and passing it on from one generation to the next. Combined with formal and explicit promotion/hiring standards and the elevation of achieved status markers (e.g., a bachelor’s degree), bureaucracy offers greater mobility and equity than previous systems of domination. And though regulations can be personally stressful or encourage inertia, there are positives to a system designed to reduce the chances of arbitrary abuses of power – even if they do, obviously, occur. (I realize it is in fashion, especially in the social sciences, to decry all authority and power because it is assumed nefarious and rife with malfeasance, but like the anti-vaccine crowd that struggles to understand how wretched pre-vaccine society was compared to today, I think it genuinely difficult for people to conceptualize how truly unfair and disastrous patrimonial systems of domination were/are for the vast majority of humans).

In any case, we are all very used to the bureaucratic system of governance in the U.S. Though political opponents often try to point to the subversion of bureaucracy as a polemic and, indeed, sometimes these accusations are correct, the vast majority of politicians are constrained by the system. To my knowledge, know congressperson or Senator has tried to sell their seat or pass it directly to their progeny. At least since the early 1900s, the physical abuse or assault of subordinates by a politician is also rare. And, while people are promoted for reasons other than their qualifications, the civil bureaucracy in the U.S. has been pretty effective at being non-partisan. Indeed, dystopian novels ranging from Brave New World1984, and even the popular Hunger Games books/movies demonstrate just how inured we are to bureaucratic domination: all roads of tyranny lead not only to the callous violence found in satire like Brazil, but to the brutalization and dehumanization exemplified by the Nazi or Stalinist regimes.

Trump Administration as Patrimonial Domination
Now, consider some of the points Weber makes about patrimonial domination and think about who this sounds like:

  1. The patrimonial ruler [and his acolytes] sees his authority and office as his “personal right, which he appropriates in the same way as he would any ordinary object of possession” (1978:232)
  2. “The exercise of power is oriented towards the consideration of how far master and staff can go in view of the subjects’ traditional compliance without arousing their resistance.” (227)
  3. In terms of decision-making: “There is a wide scope for actual arbitrariness and the expression of purely personal whims on the part of the ruler and the members of his administrative staff.…Patriarchalism and patrimonialism have an inherent tendency to regulate economic activity in terms of utilitarian, welfare or absolute values [thereby breaking] down the type of formal rationality which is oriented to a technical legal order.” (bid. 239-40)
  4. “In the patrimonial state the most fundamental obligation of the subjects is the material maintenance of the ruler” (ibid. 1014)
  5. “The ruler recruits his officials in the beginning and foremost from those who are his subjects by virtue of personal dependence, for of their obedience he can be absolutely sure. [When he must recruit extrapatrimonial officials, he insists] the same personal dependency” (ibid. 1026)
  6. “The patrimonial office lacks above all the bureaucratic separation of the “private” and the “official” sphere….Of course, each office has some substantive purpose and task, but its boundaries are frequently indeterminate” (ibid. 1029-1030, emphasis mine)

What is striking about these points is the fact that the tensions between Trump and democracy are not the kind fiction or social science have feared, but a throwback to ancien régimes. In many ways, this isn’t surprising or even novel a conclusion. Trump appears to have run his organization as a mafiosa-type system (also patriomonial domination, but without the full weight of the monopoly over the legitimate right to violence). It also may account for why every venture has failed, as patrimonial logic does not work well with formal rational capitalism (see quote #4 above). And thus, there are tensions and real consequences when logics of domination cross streams; especially when they are ill-fitted to each other.

Make no mistake, there are many reasons to be frustrated with the last few years besides this disjunction. Besides the GOP ramming through judicial nominees that are retrogressive and the failure of the popular/electoral vote to produce a satisfying outcome, there are many, many things to concern us: Trump’s xenophobia, racism, antisemitism, misogyny, and so on. More problematic, if you were to ask me, is his complete and utter lack of empathy to the degree that he appears sociopathic. Yet, I think this disjunction in logics is the crux of the problem: I would argue that the disjunctions between his patrimonial style and the crystallized expectations we have about governance and domination are as much a source of consternation as the personality quirks and blemishes of a narcissist. Running a casino into the ground for his own vanity pales in comparison to incommensurate logic patrimony produces amidst a serious public crisis, like a pandemic.

For instance – and germane to the intro to this essay –  non-elected staff – his daughter, son-in-law, valet, and other close confidants – have no clear boundaries between their private and public selves, nor between a specific project in which some expertise might be handy. However, when grafted uneasily onto a different system of domination, it invites far more confusion and inefficiency then either system would produce under incompetent leadership. In part, it is because the former system attempts to subvert all organs of the state to ruler’s material and symbolic gain while bureaucracies – even those rife with corruption – are oriented towards resolving the problem, if only to prevent being voted out of office or fired.

Patrimonialism and its Discontents
It is an interesting and open question whether Weber could have imagined a retrogression of domination. Though I believe Weber was not an historical determinist, having learned much from Marx’s failures, I do think it fair to say that organizations of all kind lurched towards greater rationalization. By rationalization, I mean formalization (e.g., written rules), standardization, quantification of metrics, and forward-thinking (e.g., predictability as a key value); add to this motivation to replace human error with non-human technology. Rationalization, for Weber, was not so much an immovable object but rather an irresistible force.

Had he lived long enough to see Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, he would have seen charismatic individuals embrace bureaucratic domination to pursue their ends and probably wouldn’t have been surprised.Though they were brutal and sometimes arbitrary in their decision-making, they sought to use the bureaucracy and were, thus, beholden to rationalized forms of mass brutality.

For Trump, this rationalized brutality is only really present in his immigration policies, which like the aforementioned dictators, used state force and mass incarceration to achieve their goals. It is expected that any party and president will choose political appointees committed, to some degree, to enacting his or her vision and policy goals. Trump, however, has only one goal: using the state to enrich himself materially and affectually (through adoration and fealty). His cabinet, in many ways, have become miniature patrimonies because, on the one hand, they owe their fealty to Trump with two key rules governing their decisions: do not outshine Trump’s news coverage and do not contradict him. However, on the other hand, they have one job: evade the bureaucracy and dismantle it if necessary. Politics as usual expects that Obama’s EPA or labor secretary will be pro-environment and unions and that Bush’s will be far more pro-business than not. However, it is entirely a different thing to essentially choose purely self-interested actors whose motives are, in fact, the opposite of the department they are running.And, in nearly every other regard, his patrimonialism throws into sharp relief just how different he is from every other president. Even Nixon, ultimately, resigned before the customs, norms, and laws constraining his use of power caught up with him. 

Thus, while much of the outrage can be correctly pinned on the explicit cruelty of the Trump administration, I would argue that it runs deeper. Amidst the incongruence between two different systems of domination, a sense of structural chaos and, worse, unpredictability emerges. Perhaps this is why sociology exalts Weber’s types of authority, which “make sense” in a modern democratic republic, and not his types of domination, where patriominalism seems distant structurally, culturally, and phenomenologically from the system most of us are born and operate in. And while Weber worried about the dehumanizing effects of bureaucracy – effects which unfolded in their full horrifying display during the Holocaust – like most of the classical theorists he was deeply suspicious of “irrational” systems of domination; systems that usually were extensions of an individual and his household’s personal pleasure. Hence why every action of Trump or his staff become subject to being viewed through a patrimonial lens and, thereby, corrupt. Meanwhile the bureaucracy atrophies, and sincere as well as partisan fear and anger rages around the norms and laws that seemed to protect the U.S. from the very thing Trump’s most ardent followers decried Obama and Clinton being guilty of (and which the rallying cry of the COVID “liberate” protestors: tyranny. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

About Seth Abrutyn

Theorist. Institutional evolutionary teleological existentialist. Interested in emotions, social psychology, macro-historical social change, suicide, and why/how patterned thinking, feeling, and doing clusters in some collectives and not others.
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