Bureaucracy, pseudomysticism and brutality

“Government by bureaucracy has to be distinguished from the mere outgrowth and deformation of civil services which frequently accompanied the decline of the nation-state—as, notably, in France. There the administration has survived all changes in regime since the Revolution, entrenched itself like a parasite in the body politic, developed its own class interests, and become a useless organism whose only purpose appears to be chicanery and prevention of normal economic and political development. There are of course many superficial similarities between the two types of bureaucracy, especially if one pays too much attention to the striking psychological similarity of petty officials. But if the French people have made the very serious mistake of accepting their administration as a necessary evil, they have never committed the fatal error of allowing it to rule the country — even though the consequence has been that nobody rules it. The French atmosphere of government has become one of inefficiency and vexations; but it has not created an aura of pseudomysticism.

“And it is this pseudomysticism that is the stamp of bureaucracy when it becomes a form of government. Since the people it dominates never really know why something is happening, and a rational interpretation of laws does not exist, there remains only one thing that counts, the brutal naked event itself. What happens to one then becomes subject to an interpretation whose possibilities are endless, unlimited by reason and unhampered by knowledge. Within the framework of such endless interpretative speculation, so characteristic of all branches of Russian pre-revolutionary literature, the whole texture of life and world assume a mysterious secrecy and depth. There is a dangerous charm in this aura because of its seemingly inexhaustible richness; interpretation of suffering has a much larger range than that of action for the former goes on in the inwardness of the soul and releases all the possibilities of human imagination, whereas the latter is constantly checked, and possibly led into absurdity, by outward consequence and controllable experience.

“One of the most glaring differences between the old-fashioned rule by bureaucracy and the up-to-date totalitarian brand is that Russia’s and Austria’s pre-war rulers were content with an idle radiance of power and, satisfied to control its outward destinies, left the whole inner life of the soul intact. Totalitarian bureaucracy, with a more complete understanding of the meaning of absolute power, intruded upon the private individual and his inner life with equal brutality. The result of this radical efficiency has been that the inner spontaneity of people under its rule was killed along with their social and political activities, so that the merely political sterility under the older bureaucracies was followed by total sterility under totalitarian rule.”

“The age which saw the rise of the pan-movements, however, was still happily ignorant of total sterilization. On the contrary, to an innocent observer (as most Westerners were) the so-called Eastern soul appeared to be incomparably richer, its psychology more profound, its literature more meaningful than that of the "shallow" Western democracies. This psychological and literary adventure into the "depths" of suffering did not come to pass in Austria-Hungary because its literature was mainly German-language literature, which after all was and remained part and parcel of German literature in general. Instead of inspiring profound humbug, Austrian bureaucracy rather caused its greatest modern writer to become the humorist and critic of the whole matter. Franz Kafka knew well enough the superstition of fate which possesses people who live under the perpetual rule of accidents, the inevitable tendency to read a special superhuman meaning into happenings whose rational significance is beyond the knowledge and understanding of the concerned. He was well aware of the weird attractiveness of such peoples, their melancholy and beautifully sad folk tales which seemed so superior to the lighter and brighter literature of more fortunate peoples. He exposed the pride in necessity as such, even the necessity of evil, and the nauseating conceit which identifies evil and misfortune with destiny. The miracle is only that he could do this in a world in which the main elements of this atmosphere were not fully articulated; he trusted his great powers of imagination to draw all the necessary conclusions and, as it were, to complete what reality had somehow neglected to bring into full focus."

-Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1958 edition, p.245

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