Kafka: A World without Bureaucracy?

As we all know, Kafka and Bureaucracy are more or less synonymous. No one in the history of literature has managed to capture the particular c20th frustration of having to deal day in day out with an anonymous, incomprehensible and monolithic bureaucratic structure like Kafka. (My train, for instance, today was cancelled and I was thrown into the horrendous paper-free nightmare of having to “go online” to claim a refund, with no human face to comfort me on my tenebrous journey but merely some simple instructions to follow). If you look at the Wikipedia article on bureaucracy, Kafka is mentioned in the second paragraph (apparently he stresses its dehumanising effects).

And yet – I was reading The Trial the other day, and it struck me that actually Josef K’s main problem is the total lack of bureaucracy that appears to exist in the world he inhabits. He is thrown into a nightmare which is entirely based on bureaucracy’s absence.

So what, you may ask, is bureaucracy. Well (like Franz Kafka) I may be a poor literary critic, but I’m good at my job; and I know my management theory. Bureaucracy was first defined by a man well known to literary criticism, having coined the phrase “disenchantment of the world”, called Max Weber: here’s a short and typical article on Weber and Bureaucracy, and this is a typical quote from it of Weber’s views on what makes a bureaucracy:

Bureaucratic coordination of activities … is the distinctive mark of the modern era. Bureaucracies are organized according to rational principles. Offices are ranked in a hierarchical order and their operations are characterized by impersonal rules. Incumbents are governed by methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction and delimited spheres of duty. Appointments are made according to specialized qualifications rather than ascriptive criteria … The “modern judge,” Weber stated in writing on the legal system of Continental Europe, ” is a vending machine into which the pleadings are inserted together with the fee and which then disgorges the judgment together with the reasons mechanically derived from the Code.”

Is that what we find in The Trial? – Quite emphatically not. The judicial system put forward here by Kafka has no clear rules or hierarchy, no “methodical allocation of areas of jurisdiction” or indeed any clear notion of what areas the justice system covers at all; it appears to be based on irrationality rather than rationality; the process of the system seems to be a matter of rumour by uninformed people outside the system itself, and the judgements (indeed, the charges as well), rather than being “derived from the Code”, appear entirely arbitrary. Rather than depersonalising by systemisation, Kafka’s justice system appears in fact remarkably individualistic in its trial of cases, taking each on its own merits to a troubling degree. In opposition to the basis of how a bureaucracy is meant to work, the ways recommended to Josef K for taking forward his case involve going outside any apparent hierarchical structure and using the influence of people who are not part of the justice system itself. (The whole point of bureaucracies, with their painstaking rules, is to prevent this kind of informal influence / corruption and to restrict people from wielding undue power).

Perhaps then, Kafka is really presenting us with a caricature of bureaucracy which we carry about with us: the idea of a system seen from the outside world, whose rules and regulations we do not understand, which appears to be irrational and to have no governance.

And some other stuff too … I’ve lost interest now.

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6 thoughts on “Kafka: A World without Bureaucracy?

  1. When you’re reading him certainly (I’ve been reading The Trial since the beginning of the year); but I’ll have to admit, he’s easy to write about – hence, no doubt, the admiration of critics.

  2. Obooki – Nicely done. That link between “Kafka” and “bureaucracy” seems so axiomatic, and while I’ve never read The Trial nor thought much about this link, it does seem something of a received notion. I agree (at least in what I have read of Kafka) – those “bureaucratic” elements really seem more like the inscrutability of systems, not quite the same thing as bureaucracy. Curious that this – instead of, for example, confinement, futility, impotence – is the free associative word with which Kafka gets most easily tagged.

  3. Actually, I have a better idea of what I was going to go on and say now, so will be writing a further post hopefully, pointing out that, far from being anti-bureaucratic, there’s nothing Kafka’s characters like more than rules and regulations, and everything to be in its accepted place. But I want to re-read a few short stories first.

    One further unbureaucratic aspect is the role of the advocates themselves, who also have no place in the judicial hierarchy, are not officially appointed; their role has developed over time and is a matter purely of influence. They are also treated in a manner not befitting their purpose. Again, all very opposed to the usual structure of bureaucracies.

  4. That’s a really interesting perspective I’d never thought about! I suppose it comes down to what you said: it’s easy to link bureaucracy with Kafka because very often we don’t understand the rules (hidden to the outsider) by which bureaucracy works. So we feel like we are being treated arbitrarily by bureaucrats because we don’t know the rules according to which they work. Or the rules go wrong: what was intended to make sense and conceptualised in a supposedly rational fashion becomes a victim of circumstances that do not conform to the rules, or of bounded rationality on behalf of the rule-makers: they can’t anticipate the effect their rules are going to have, as opposed to the ones they were meant to have. The outcome then seems surrealistic and “kafkaesque”. I work with the European Union a lot, can you tell? 😉

  5. I don’t know. I think Kafka loved bureaucracy, and his characters are only happy when living in nice rational bureaucracies; and what upsets them is anything irrational which comes between them and their bureaucracy. Then, if you drop the term bureaucracy entirely, and just stick with the idea of people being happy with rational things and troubled by irrational ones, perhaps this is what Kafka is getting at – and he’s not interested in bureaucracy at all.

    I’m sure Joseph K would have been at home at the EU, although the EU Parliament might have troubled him. Even I’m not sure what its purpose is: it debates issues, but it has neither the power to decide what issues to debate, nor the power to make any decisions about the issues which it is debating.

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