Thursday, March 5, 2009

Personal Authority (Part II)

Yesterday, I tried to show that even in our bureaucratic age, we still desire personal authority, whether we realize it or not. Today I want to add just one more observation in connection to a book I recently read.

In Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, the story revolves around the protagonist (K) and his attempt to navigate a village’s labyrinthine bureaucracy so that he can go to work there as a surveyor. The village officials rarely go into the village, usually staying in the castle above the village. Each higher official has hordes of secretaries, many of whom seem to work at cross-purposes to each other. Many of their decisions seem completely arbitrary; letters are written, then stored away for years, and only sent years later after the whole affair has already been cleared up, causing more confusion than there originally was. Interestingly too, these bureaucrats are at times referred to as “the count’s officials,” but nowhere is the count given a name. And most disturbingly, many officials seem to have faces that don’t remain the same. This is literally authority without a face. And yet, the people of the village really seem to love these bureaucrats.

Kafka’s novel is obviously a nightmare about a bureaucracy taking over society, and it might come across to a reader skeptical of my thesis as just a clumsy exaggeration of the bad experience we’ve all had waiting on hold for an hour just to speak with an insurance representative or to an IRS agent. There is some truth in this objection, but there is a fact that most people don’t know: Kafka was a lawyer for an insurance company. Kafka knew the system from the inside. He dealt mostly with workplace accidents and improving safety guidelines for workers. He must have known the hardships—physical and spiritual—faced by a worker who finds himself unable to work and thrown upon the mercy of a bureaucracy. This sympathy with the ordinary individual must be what led K, in The Castle, to exclaim when he was most frustrated by the bureaucracy: “I feel that my very existence is threatened!”

All this is to say: Try telling an injured worker that the delay in his medical treatment is the system’s fault, and he won’t believe you. He needs a person, an authority, to blame (or to praise for resolving the problem). As much as we try to deny it and work our way around it, we can’t change the fact that authority needs to be personal.
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