On 27 September 2017, Professor Jens Steffek (Technical University Darmstadt) gave a TARN lecture in Berlin entitled ‘International Organizations and Bureaucratic Modernity’. This event was organized by the Hertie School of Governance in the EU & GG Cluster Colloquium Series.
In this presentation I suggest that the legitimacy of international organizations founded in the 19th and 20th century can be understood best with a view to the more encompassing process of political and societal modernization. IOs are thoroughly rationalized bureaucracies and as such embody a distinctively modern type of social organization, which also has a distinctively modern way of justifying its own existence. To pinpoint the foundations of IO legitimacy I refer to Max Weber’s account of occidental modernization, with its entwined elements of formal law, bureaucratic forms of organization, resort to scientific expertise, and communicative rationality. I show through a discussion of Weber’s notion of Willkür how these instruments eliminate arbitrariness from authoritative decisions. Weber, however, was highly sceptical of the forces that modernization had unleashed, in particular the powerful and persistent bureaucracies that pervaded all spheres of social and economic life. Convinced that the advance of bureaucracy and the bureaucratic mind were inescapable, he came to fear the capillary control of social life by formal rules and administrative routines. Weber found refuge in a pre-modern world of politics conceived as a heroic struggle for power and a realization of cultural values. Few liberal sceptics of bureaucratic IOs find such prospects appealing. They remain ‘disenchanted modernists’, hoping and searching for a perfect form of international organization that eschews both the hazards of bureaucratization and the relapse into power politics.