Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Prophet of Bureacracy

Today is Franz Kafka's birthday. There are few people who were better able to write about the nature of life in the bureaucratic state than Kafka. In many ways this makes him a literary prophet, as the modern bureaucratic state was not yet in place when Kafka was writing.

The Castle is a book about trying to penetrate an impenetrable bureaucracy. The protagonist is simply known as K -- having been reduced to little more than a letter by the bureaucracy he has to deal with. K has been called to the Castle for a job, but nobody in the bureaucracy can find the job order. Thus, K cannot do the job he has been called to do, but neither is he allowed to leave, because he may in fact have to do the job. The entirety of the novel is K waiting and trying to get the bureaucracy to let him either work or leave. This does not sound like the premise of a compelling novel, but Kafka is one of those rare writers who can make what would apepar to be the most boring premise strangely compelling. And for anyone who has had to deal with a bureacracy, whether public or private, the situation is certainly highly relatable.

The Trial features a protagonist known as Joseph K. He has more of a name than does the protagonist of The Castle, but even here we see man being reduced in the face of the impenetrable something that consists of modern society. Joseph K finds himself accosted by strange men who tell him he is to attend a trial. He does not know who is trying him, or why, but he is determined to prove his innocence. Yet, over time, Joseph K becomes convinced that, since he has been accused, he must have done something wrong -- and eventually he becomes complicit in his own execution, wishing he could take the knife and kill himself for what(ever) he has done. Joseph K thus becomes complicit in his own oppression. He becomes convinced he must be guilty of something, having been accused. It does not matter what the accusation is. More, it is important that he not know what it is, as the lack of information creates the conditions such that he finds through self-examination himself guilty of something. Thus, in love with his executioners, does he willingly walk to his own execution.

One can certainly see these things in oppressive regimes. But Kafka was not a prophet of obvious oppression as we saw in the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. No, Kafka was a prophet of the oppression created by those who control through red tape and withholding information. As Joseph K observes: “I see, these books are probably law books, and it is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.” He is the prophet of opporession through vague accusation, what we experience as political correctness. He is the prophet of the oppressive weight of bureacracy.

At the same time, this is a bit odd. The word "bureacracy" means "rule of the desk," and the same Kafka who said “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy” also proclaimed there to be nothing more beautiful than an office desk. But it is perhaps precisely because of this ambiguity of feeling that Kafka was able to write about bureaucracy in such a way that it continues to move and matter.
Update: It occurs to me that it may be profitable to read The Castle in light of Mises' Bureaucracy. More on Kafka at Anarchy and Culture.


  1. I enjoyed this perspective. Your final paragraph is especially good. Thanks for posting this--and on such an appropriate date!

  2. Kafka is a main stay in literary criticism, probably because the Frankford school inherited a distrust of bureaucracy from Maw Weber, and of cause the Frankford school shares the Webern legacy with the Austrian school, like to astringed brothers. Do you think they'll ever meet again?