lyndsey stonebridge on hannah arendt: why bureaucracy won't work

i’m part of the way through the hannah arendt (channeled via lyndsey stonebridge) episode of on being and, as usual, there’s some really good, intense stuff in there.

the first though that stuck with me is about bureaucratization. there’s an extended excerpt from the show at the bottom of this post, but for me the biggest point is this: the reason that bureaucracy is so repulsive and unnatural is because it is the abdication of thought from individuals to “the system.” whether or not the people in the system are aware of this functionality, it’s purpose is to absolve the individual of making choices. this happens in the name of efficiency and sometimes even values. but somehow, the values of the system quickly (if not from the outset) don’t align with those of people in it.

all of this has taken on new life as i re-read a manuscript of my friend, cyndi’s forthcoming book. this one section about work is where i think the connection to bureaucracy came up:

At work, at minimum, one should have control over one’s immediate area of responsibility, meaning one should be able to choose how to best carry out one’s work. At the maximum, one should be able to participate in decisions at the organizational level.

the lack of this is the ultimate weakness of the industrial models of… well… everything. that includes bureaucracies. the highest value is put on the output of the system as a whole. how people are within the system is more or less an after thought. that is, if it’s thought of at all.

and in order for people to be well, we actually require the ability and psychological benefits of making choices.

and since we know the system is fractal, the wellbeing of an element of the system is the wellbeing of the system. and when people aren’t well while working, the system will not be well.

so yea. fuck bureaucracies. they are literally antithetical to human existence.

extended show excerpt

MS. TIPPETT: So one of her famous phrases is the “banality of evil,” which was an observation she made about Eichmann, and that was controversial. But you said something about the bureaucratization, which was part of that banality, a refuge for — instead of thinking, you are part of the system, and you follow the rules, and you enact the rules.

And again, not to — I really would not compare Eichmann to anyone alive right now in full, but the revulsion and the sense of alienation people all over the place have from bureaucracy, which in our age is globalized, right? The way the phrase “the government” will be received in many places in the US, the way the phrase “the EU” is received in England, there are echoes of something that goes wrong — something that goes wrong in human societies that were still with us or we’re feeling again. I don’t know.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Yeah, I think it’s — one of the first things Arendt did when she finally got to New York, one of her first jobs was to help edit Kafka’s diaries. You remember the story of The Castle near the stranger is kind of a — it’s certainly a migrant story. You know, stranger arrives in a new place, he comes for work, and then he can’t work out what’s going on, and he can’t settle, and he’s blocked by this bureaucracy that no one understands.

It sounds like any kind of — anyone who’s worked with refugees or migrants in the last 10 years will know all too well K’s experience as he tries to make good on the offer of work for the castle. I think it’s very interesting that she actually chose that. I mean, she chose it because it resonated with her experience. But it goes back to the earlier conversation. I suppose the more we become fearful for what we call life, what we try bureaucratize to keep other people out, the worse it gets. And also with the kind of — with the logic that is no logic. I mean, that’s the other thing. It’s the capricious nature of bureaucracy. 

words / writing / post-processing
278w / 10min / 12min