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the bureaucratic sublime

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From Alexander Provan’s review of a group of works on and by Kafka in The Nation:

At the fin de siècle, the state bureaucracy already held considerable sway over people’s lives and selves, and Kafka wrote from the center of the age’s contradictions and anxieties. When he assumed his position at the Insurance Institute in 1908, after having spent a dismal year in the employ of Assicurazioni Generali, an Italian insurer, the Dual Monarchy was groaning under a superabundance of paperwork. Legislation enacted in the 1880s had ushered in the European welfare state, and its administration required a massive expansion and modernization of the notoriously sclerotic royal bureaucracy. By the turn of the century, district authorities were processing four times more paperwork than they had been twenty years earlier; the empire was “being suffocated by files and drowning in ink,” wrote the governor of Lower Austria. Meanwhile, the arcane official idiom had become so divorced from vernacular German that the bureaucrats and their charges could hardly communicate. One imagines a cadre of clerks madly dashing off reports and edicts, which would be inevitably eclipsed by newer documents before they arrived at the appropriate filing facility. In Kafka’s last, unfinished novel, The Castle, this flood of imperial documents has so overwhelmed the citadel that the living rooms of village homes have been turned into storage annexes.

I wish I had time to do the reading that I’d like to do in order to make the point that I’d like to make. But for now: it is important – when dealing with Kafka, modernism in general, and modernity in general – to remember that the alternative to bureaucracy isn’t necessarily free and easy human contact and everything working very smoothly indeed. Rather, the alternative, both historically and often enough at present day, is the efficiency of hierarchical fiat.

For in its most neutral sense, and under forseeable conditions (anarchist utopias where you simply take as many apples as you like from the big barrel notwithstanding), there is no distribution of public benefit without bureaucracy. If there will be free health care and subsidized education, there will be forms to fill out, boxes to check. There are ways to run a society without forms – the gentlemanly handshake, the emperor’s thumbup or thumbdown. I’m sure there are people who get into Harvard from time to time without filling out an application, just as there are doctors you can see who will bill you later. The welfare state is a state run on ticked boxes and eligibility criteria. This is not to say that the pejorative usage of the word bureacratic is unjust. Bureaucracy is in fact often enough used to inhibit the distribution of benefits by setting up obstacles for those who would obtain them to negotiate, as I’m sure just about anyone who has filed for unemployment benefits in the USA or UK could easily testify. But this fact – the way bureaucracy is put to work in neoliberal societies by those who would deprive citizens of their rights – should not distract us from the bigger picture.

In this light, take a look at IT’s excellent post on the RAE and the goalpost-shifting that’s perhaps about to happen. The RAE is perhaps the most maligned element of bureaucratic governance in the UK system of higher education. But if I might play the helpful American for a second or two, it’s worth remembering that for all the grumbling that we do (“we” being now UK academics – I wear a lot of hats) that, in the eyes of someone who comes from the states, the RAE seems like a potentially highly progressive manifestation of bureaucratic rationality. We can see in IT’s post just why the word potentially is in the previous sentence and why I’ve italicized it.

But the Americans out there can second this if they like. If we had a system of academic finance distrubution that held even the slightest possibility that if, say, SUNY Stony Brook outperformed Columbia during a given period, that SUNY Stony Brook would swipe some funds away from Columbia’s pot…. Well, that might change some equations around a bit. And if the system were weighted to reward good work against the odds and to draw some cash away from well-endowed but underperforming institutions…. well, we’d still be simulating “market” logic, but one could deal with that if the simulation was jiggered to be fair, given the unlikeliness of any true equality in university funding of the “nationalize Harvard and spread its endowment from sea to shining sea) model….

But, yeah, a potentially fair RAE might look like the one that just took place, but whose findings were then duely acted upon rather than burying them in shoulder slaps for the old boys and vague ramblings about “our current crisis….”

Anyway, back to bureaucracy in general:

I’ve attended private universities in the US, and I’ve worked at public or publically-funded universities in the US and the UK. And I can assure you, with a few notorious exceptions (looking at you, again, Columbia!), there’s lots and lots more paperwork and general bureaucratic overhead involved with every single thing that happens, from the changing of the title of a course to the admission of Ph.D. students at publically funded institutions. There are days when my life feels like it is dissolving into a mass of papers on my desk. And I resent it – you have no idea how much I resent it.

But the reason why I resent it is because I am a little bit of a snot with a few not totally healthy memories of life at extremely-well endowed private institutions, where if the right person wanted something done, it was simply done without all that much paperwork, all that much meeting and voting and squabbling and oversight. I will admit that there are times when I envy the working life at institutions like the ones I attended.

But of course, of course, there’s a distinct and clear dark side to this sort of efficiency. It’s country cousins with the darkside that goes by the parabolic abbreviation make the trains run on time. With the smoothness and humaneness of response comes often enough a lapse into nepotism of the worst sort, the hiring of friends and lovers and the lovers of friends, picking from the visible top of the heap (and we know who gets to be visible) and that sort of thing.

At the place where I used to work, when the department decided to hire someone, there was this hoop that we had to jump through called something like Affirmative Action Review. Now, the purpose of this review wasn’t expressly to force us to hire black candidates rather than white ones, or women rather than men. It often felt like a mostly useless paperchase involving interaction with some office or other in the adminstrative building, all of which generally came to ratifying the choice we’d already as a department made.

But there was a logic to it. I didn’t get it at first, but I had one colleague (who happened to be the single Marxist instigator, you know the sort) who incessant raised the point of the affirmative action procedures when we were tempted to play fast and loose with them by, say, not running a proper job advertisement, not interviewing several candidates for a position, or not putting a potential spousal hire through the full ordeal of the interviewing process.

As I said, I didn’t really get the point of the procedures that I’ve just listed at first, but he explained it all to me once so clearly that I never wondered about them again. The point is this. The AA protocol doesn’t ensure that we would hire, say, a black candidate for a job. What it does work toward ensuring is that we don’t fall victim to the temptation to hire intelligent friends,  to hire spouses and partners and lovers, even if they are talented and seem on the surface to be an obvious choice for the job. We might in the end end up hiring them anyway, once the full search has been completed…. or we might just hire someone else who’s astoundingly excellent when given the chance (I’ve seen this happen. Shit, I’ve made this happen. Just ask around my old school… Was amazing, I was….) Our friends and lovers tend to be similar to us in background, just by mandate of biographic probability. (If I had had to marry one of my grad school classmates, the odds were something like 5-1 that I’d have married a woman that went to a posh undergraduate school just like me, was white just like me, came out of similar socio-economic bracket as me, and so on and so on…) We had Stanford grads around, and without due diligence we’d likely have been experiencing a fall harvest of Stanford-types every year etc etc.

Perhaps I’m overplaying the point. Perhaps I’m just trying to tell myself something like rather than grumble about the paperwork that’s waiting for you on your office desk, that you’ll have to go in early and spend an hour filling in tomorrow morning, shut up and realize that sometimes the bureaucratic stuff has its purpose. And that, in fact, if society were the way you’d have it in the haziest vision of what it actually might best be, you’d likely be doing more and more paperwork, endless paperwork that would take the place of the easier “Oh, that’s a good school! Let’s let her in!” which is the worst thing in the world, really….

In short, and again absent the arrival of the anarchist utopia that is in equal parts a lovely idea and unlikely to work properly, I will content myself with fantasizing about a world in which I visit an office to apply for my housing, I fill out a form to apply for my shitty constructivist computer (as they would be hard to get, given the equal access that those currently without access would have to them – schoolkids in Ghana before the overly-pensive in London), I wait my turn for my subsidized vacation somewhere, and I hand in my dated vouchers to get me some food at post-Tesco. So long as all this pain-in-the-assery meant that I didn’t get to step to the front of the line because I carry American Express, so long as the bureaucratic hoops meant that we were all getting our fair share, so long as paperwork replaces class-privilege, it is a worthy dream to replace the ones that I currently am having about lost cats and the like…

Let’s hope the funders-that-be sit down and their desks and go through the numbers properly and give Roehampton its due. They’ve got some good fucking researchers over there, let me tell you. And from what I hear, worthy students too.

Written by adswithoutproducts

March 4, 2009 at 12:15 am

13 Responses

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  1. There are consequences for regrettable actions. Stop
    it. Stop it and start being more productive. Stop it
    and start paying more attention.


    March 4, 2009 at 2:23 am

  2. Huh?


    March 4, 2009 at 7:53 am

  3. Glad I read this first thing in the morning, as my job is basically handling the bureaucratic end of getting a philosophy PhD at a private university, and both the students and I grumble about it from time to time. One of those AA summary forms you’re talking about just passed my desk, coincidentally. I’d never seen one before so it was a little fascinating.

    What I see a lot of is couples being hired to teach in the same department (“We want the wife, but the husband’s a bargaining chip” kind of thing), and that always made me feel weird, but I guess it’s normal procedure.


    March 4, 2009 at 2:53 pm

  4. Well, as you might guess, since we’ve had this argument before, I disagree with this stance through and through, even if I grasp the polemical role it plays in the current conjuncture. You make it sound as if bureaucracy is inherently more democratic (opposed to hierarchy) but that’s simply false, no? Most bureaucracies are hierarchies, are the maintenance of class privilege (this was certainly the case in Kafka’s time). This just strikes me as a false antimony, and one that’s strangely symmetrical with the neoclassical arguments for free markets–: society is so complex, that only the price signal (or bureaucracy) can manage the distribution of goods. And thus follows an argument about necessary, lesser evils.

    Paperwork and forms and waiting, sure. But bureaucracy, no. That’s to say, in my book the term means rule by administrators, and it means, essentially, a system in which, whether or not goods are better distributed, people actually have no say in the decisions that bear upon their lives. The strawman of “anarchist utopia” actually serves to preclude examination of the kinds of pragmatic and philosophical attempts to think through these problems. See the readings here, for instance:–life-after-capital


    March 5, 2009 at 4:56 pm

  5. Hi yes, I think we’ve had this debate before, but it’s an important debate. (Actually, I’ve already taken some flak in person about this one, at least I think I did, from the person I linked to above…) I think I am just trying to reclaim “bureaucracy” as a neutral term, to claim it away from its reflexively pejorative standard usage.

    More important: neoclassicism or neoliberalism most definitely argue both for and against bureaucracy, no? But more against than for. (Look into neoclassical economics and arguments in re employment, labor markets, and the like in the mid-nineteenth century. Social welfare bureaucracy emerges along with marginalism along with the very concept of unemployment itself during the late 1880s and 1890s (what the Kafka review was talking about above…) It seems to be that the most standard tactic of those that’ve been administering things for the last few decades is bureaucratic reductionism – the market can handle things far better than crusty govt staffed offices etc.

    There’s a huge gap between “price signal / bureaucracy” in your response above. I’ve heard very little of the “administrators should set the price of milk” line over the past decades.

    And certainly “people actually have no say in the decisions that bear upon their lives” is exactly the “citizens choice” line so common in privatisation drives of late. Isn’t that just what Bush used to say about Social Security?

    God, sorry if the tone is wrong sounding or this is scattershot. Writing while my daughter begs me to play with her – you know how that goes… But it’s a start. I guess I just see bureaucracy and the bureaucratic as one of the primary ways that neoliberalism advertised the changes it desperately desired / desires to make….

    I’ll definitely read the doc later tonight!


    March 5, 2009 at 5:37 pm

  6. Yeah, I agree with you about the way that neoliberalism positioned bureaucracy and the bureaucratic. I mean, you’re right that the arguments for keeping health care privatized always involved portraying those long lines and miles of red tape that socialized health care would involve. But I actually disagree with your sense that this is something other than pure ideology–I mean, the labyrinths of customer service that one must navigate when trying to deal with Blue Cross, or Dell or Bank of America are no less “Kafkaesque” than the Department of Motor Vehicles or the NHS (not that I know anything about the latter personally, but this is my suspicion). . .I also have the background with public and private universities in the US that you do, and I can’t say my experience confirms your characterization. [I think I actually went to college right up the street from you and Emily D., maybe at roughly the same time–:’93-’97?].

    In any case, in my view, the alienation of Wal-Mart and the alienation of the large bureaucracy, are just two faces of the same coin–class rule–even if they are ostensibly opposed in the pages of The Nation and The National Review. That’s how they’re “symmetrical”–the argument for and against bureaucracy depends upon the same rhetorical strategy, one that, in my mind, misses much.

    Here’s the thing: in the 50s and 60s, leftists who argued that the alliance between monopoly capitalism, Keynesianism and social democracy of that period was alienating and stultifying were not wrong or ideological–they were right, it did suck–even if those arguments were then used against them after ’73 in the creation of a neoliberal order based upon “flexibility,” “creativity” and other such bullshit which was in fact much worse. This is just the way history works (and here I’m hopelessly Hegelian). But by the same measure, those who argue for a benevolent bureaucracy today, at the end of the neoliberal period, must be careful, lest what happened to the left in the 60s and 70s happen again, in reverse. . .There are all kinds of hell.

    Oh, lastly: your tone is fine, CR. It’s always a pleasure to debate such things here. [I, too, worried about the tone in my first comment–jeez, the internet is so weird, such an affect-scrambler].


    March 5, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    • Ah, but I think it’s infinitely different whether its BoA or the NHS doing the bureaucratizing. Sure they both do it, but it’s to entirely different ultimate ends. (The middle distance end is cost-efficiency, I agree. But there will always be a worry about that. I can’t imagine a situation in which there wasn’t….) I simply can’t see the NHS and Walmart in the same light, not for a second. I mean I understand the argument, and it’s a longstanding one, about half-measures and the like. But half-measures I’d take. I’m an Overton Window kind of guy, ultimately a consensualist… Probably sort of a left social democrat (which I think places me sort of close to Chavez on the ideological spectrum, which actually is comfortable for me….) So it follows that I tend to see the 50s and 60s grumbling about the welfare state to be retrospectively omninous, an unheeded forewarning of the years in the desert that were about to follow for the left. It may be that I’m just recovering from the end of history.

      I’m going to start writing all this down soon, this summer. The everyday, simplicity – I’m finally starting to figure out what it is that I was talking about way back when. But I simply can’t see the NHS and Wal-mart in anything like the same light, even though I understand the argument.

      But the bit about the tide reversing and the relationship between the sort of weirdly semi-contrarian argument that I’m advancing and those from the beginnings of the new left is very very interesting and I’m going to keep thinking about it for sure.


      March 5, 2009 at 10:59 pm

  7. Well, far be it for me to imply that they are the same, the NHS and BoA. In that instance, I was trying to point out that you hamper your own argument by accepting the (specious, I think) fact that private industry is more efficient than state-run organizations. I just don’t think that’s true. I mean, that’s the thing about US health care–it’s not just unjust, it’s also massively inefficient and wasteful.

    Let’s put it this way: there are bureaucracies that are redistributive and (sort of) responsive to the will of the people–the NHS, for instance–but then there are bureaucracies that do not serve any redistributive purpose whatsoever. One thinks of the courts, the prison system, ICE. I do think ultimately that a case can be made that all of these forms of the organization of work and life come under the heading of the imperatives of the value-form and the market (which is more than and different than cost- efficiency), but I’ll save that for another day.


    March 6, 2009 at 2:31 pm

  8. The time has probably come to give “bureaucracy” more considered attention. Are there nuanced studies that look at multiple historical periods, multiple social contexts? I’d be willing to read that, or at least I’d be willing to give it a try (I’m envisioning something dense, and very long, a Joseph Needham kind of thing).

    With that in mind, I think you’re right to claim “bureaucracy” as a neutral term. But that very claim supports Jasper’s point, doesn’t it, that bureaucracy and hierarchy are far from incompatible? Anyway, he’s certainly right there; the link between the two is what gave Arendt’s analysis of Eichmann so much force.

    This was brought home to me on a recent visit to Bergen-Belsen. The museum has an extensive display of documents, including some twenty or thirty examples of the paperwork kept by the camp on its Russian and Italian POWs. Here’s the front and back of one such item:: (front) (back)

    Note the notations on the back, which have to do with forced-labor assignments, and note the rubber stamp that was used for entering information on death. I can’t remember the exact figures, but something like 70% of the Russians and 40% of the Italians were killed. That’s one example of the bureaucratic sublime (if it isn’t too flip to say so), checked boxes and all.

    Really enjoy your writing, btw.

    Ben Friedlander

    March 6, 2009 at 5:01 pm

  9. Jasper,

    I definitely don’t think that private companies are more efficient than public institutions, at least not when the metrics that we both favor are in play. What I meant was simply that the drive for cost-efficiency informs the bureaucratic techniques that these companies employ. Both companies and public institutions aim for efficiency – one would hope that that later would employ a more holistic metric to test for efficiency, though of course that hasn’t always or often been the case.

    What if I replaced the word “market” with “scarcity” in this sequence: “the heading of the imperatives of the value-form and the market”? Because I do think, until we get the cold fusion that’s coming to us, we will still be confronted with the issue of scarcity, and all that that entails, perhaps even more so in a more egalitarian society.


    Ah thanks for the compliment. Believe it or not, I think we met briefly a few years ago as you were potentially on your way into a place that I was on my way out of. (They didn’t let me go on dinners anymore once I was on my way out, so we never actually sat down and dined together, as you likely did with everyone else there… But I was at your talk, and I think I said hi…)

    You’re right about the bureaucracy book to come. I am sort of thinking about these things for what I’m going to do next, but your idea is a good one, I think. Maybe it already exists. I’ll have to take a peek around.

    Taking this topic to the camps is fair and a good reminder, and there is no doubt that the camps embodied the sublimely satanic perfection of many modern developments, bureaucracy included. But national socialism incorporated lots of modern developments that we’d perhaps not want to throw away just because they’d been taken up by that complicated regime. It’s more a caveat, to my mind, than anything else… which is I’m sure how you meant it.

    But thanks for the comment, and for the compliment…


    March 6, 2009 at 11:17 pm

  10. What a small world. Or maybe I should say profession. Henceforth, not knowing your name will feel more like aphasia than ignorance!

    And yes, I meant that as a caveat. It’s almost always a skipped step or three from National Socialism to general principles.

    Anyway, one last thought about “bureaucracy”: the more I think about it, the more I see it as a missing term that could reorient discussions of other topics. For instance, I’ve sometimes argued with friends devil’s advocate fashion that the death penalty is less objectionable than arming police or dropping bombs in war, since at least the death penalty involves mediation by a court. But maybe this is the wrong way to put it–maybe it’d make more sense to talk about varying relationships between bureaucracy and state-sanctioned murder. Hm.

    Ben Friedlander

    March 7, 2009 at 12:47 pm

  11. Yes, CR, I think that’s right–no alternative political and economic mode can avoid the question of the efficient use of the potentials of human labor (and therefore, hopefully, a reduction in the amount of socially necessary labor). But the value-form and the market–and the scarcity that they manufacture–are something different, as you well know, where only what is profitable, not what is useful or necessary, gets produced. Most existing bureaucracies assist this kind of production for profit or exchange-value , they don’t oppose it: this is true even of the best ones, like the remaining New Deal and Great Society programs in the US. The only thing that keeps them from becoming decrepit and useless is popular pressure. This is why I reject a neutral stance to such state instruments, while acknowledging that they represent substantial and meaningful gains. In other words, there’s some kind of dialectic here that allows us to be–if not in agreement–then allies of some sort.

    The Meszaros article on the website handles all of this with real finesse.


    March 7, 2009 at 2:56 pm

  12. Ben,

    I pretty much write off everything as aphasia nowadays – in myself and in others. And I’m very glad that the bureaucratic idea seems to be working for you…


    I am definitely going to read the Meszaros. Hopefully tonight if I can finish the fraction of the novel I need to read for tuesday teaching in a decent amount of time… Hopefully then I’ll have more to say. I’m also going to do a little bit of work on “scarcity”…


    March 7, 2009 at 11:13 pm

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