Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

On the People’s Bureaucracy

Inter-institutional Rivalry and Conflicts under Socialism

Elitza Stanoeva, PhD


The project aims to conceptualize the bureaucratic system of state socialism by building upon the institutional dynamics in two sectors of the command economy – housing construction and domestic trade – that carried the regime’s commitment to egalitarianism and social welfare, and were thus central to its legitimation. While the historical details are derived from the Bulgarian case, the general conclusions are geared towards elaborating a conceptual model of the endemic bureaucratic deficiencies in the Soviet-type societies.

The study of the two sectors is intended to highlight the institutional clashes in a socialist economy produced by the incommensurable logics of the party apparatus and the technocratic management. It focuses on period from 1956, the offset of de-Stalinization, until 1986 when perestroika was initiated in the USSR – a period when priorities shifted from the prevalence of heavy industry in the Stalinist era to enhanced attention to the population’s material needs in an attempt at positive mass mobilization.

Whereas the integrated capabilities of the nationalized, centrally planned economy had to facilitate the sectors’ endeavors to increase productivity, the interactions between state agencies within them were all but cooperative. The project does not reduce rivalry to the competition for resource input that has been underlined by economic studies as integral to the systemic investment hunger in the command economy but explores also inter-institutional animosity resulting from forced cooperation in which the low performance of one “partner” threatened the performance evaluation of another. Although it was not profit generation but fulfillment of state plans and securing administrative privileges that fueled the fragmentation of corporative interests within the otherwise centralized bureaucracy, clashes were in fact an insurmountable systemic effect of the very logic of the socialist economy.   

The empirical study highlights two channels of bureaucratic operation inside the sectors: the production of services within a cooperation-bound network of state agencies and their allocation among end users. The resulting two-tracked analysis will be tuned within the paradigm of “structural violence” understood here, after Johan Galtung, as inscribed into the power structures and manifested in the unequal authority to decide over access to resources. With regard to production of administrative services, this paradigm is concretized as concerning the positional vulnerability of institutional actors with expert knowledge vis-à-vis the apparatchik-dominated branches of the bureaucracy whose weight in the decision-making was rather ideological than knowledge-based. With regard to the aspect of discriminative access of users to state provision, the analysis targets the principles according to which individuals qualified or were disqualified for privileged allocation as well as the essential group characteristics that secured access to such privilege.
In the bureaucratic sphere of housing construction, the internal structural conflicts ran in the first place vertically along the ponderous system of politico-economic accountability: from the top echelons of power that decreed construction programs down to the sectoral administration of the respective ministry that supervised the fulfillment of the centrally determined plans; the other branches of the state economy that were forced by the central power into the role of “investors” in the construction process; and the planning and construction agencies that were impeded in the technical implementation of tasks by the demand for doctrinaire observance. In addition, rivalry and conflicts ran also horizontally – that is, between the various state agencies of planners and architects dominating the construction terrain. Finally, since access to housing was based not on purchasing power but on applicants’ social capital and political resources, the channels of administrative allocation gave an unfair advantage to certain occupational groups and types of households creating social inequalities within the presumably egalitarian society of socialism.

In the sphere of retail, similarly, structural violence was activated vertically by the ideological pressure on domestic trade to mold a proletarian consumer culture catering to the “authentic” material needs of the socialist citizens as opposed to the bourgeois “fetishization of commodities.” At the same time, due to the endemic shortages and poor quality of the national light industry’s production, the state-run trade sector was pervaded horizontally by fierce competition among stores over supply lines and scarce goods, and by a pronounced hostility between stores and producers. These structural clashes also affected consumer provision which, far from improving living conditions for society at large as promised by the party rhetoric, fostered inequalities of access both in territorial and social terms.