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The word “bureaucracy” is an 18th-century French bon-bon—possibly pejorative—a meld of bureau and the Greek kratia, yielding Rule by Desk. Balzac took his whacks at the construct in an 1841 novel titled, by most translators, The Bureaucrats (Les Employès). The book follows M. Rabourdin, a virtuous government cog, as he mounts a doomed attempt to gain promotion by reforming the ministry led by the lazy and cunning M. Des Lupeaulx. “[Lupeaulx] was feeling the beat of what little heart he had when, on the staircase, he ran into his lawyer,” is a relatively gentle sample of Balzac’s lashing characterizations of bureaucrats. Of another desk jockey, he says—”a man of rote molded to routine, who concealed the fact that he was a fat incompetent under a skin so thick that no scalpel could cut deep enough to expose him.”
As to bureaucracy itself, Balzac is sulfurous: “A gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs”; “made up entirely of petty minds”; “stand[s] as an obstacle to the prosperity of the nation”; “is afraid of everything, prolongs procrastination, and perpetuates the abuses which in turn perpetuate and consolidate itself”; “stifles men of talent who are bold enough . . . to enlighten it on its own follies”; “[a place] where the sun seldom penetrates, where thoughts are tied down to occupations like that of horses who turn a crank and who, poor beasts, yawn distressingly and die quickly.”
Balzac worked in fiction and in French, a medium and language singularly supple when it comes to acidic dishing. Sometime between 1910 and 1920, Max Weber, with a lifetime habit of writing essays and in German, penned the moderate and scholarly “Bureaucracy,” which happens to be the founding document of modern bureaucracy studies. In it he breaks down a world familiar to any Cub Scout today who’s encountered the panel of learned judges at a soapbox derby competition. “Every bureaucracy,” he says, “seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of ‘secret sessions’; in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.” He continues, “Under normal conditions, the power position of a fully developed bureaucracy is always over-towering.”
At the same time, it must be said, Weber conceded that in spite of these irritating and sometimes anti-democratic proclivities, both public and private governments would be useless without armies of men and women who, without mercy or favor or humor or deep thought, enforce the rules of engagement. And so we stand nervously before zoning boards with rolled-up sketches of the kitchen extension footprint, or before the return desk without a receipt for the sports coat that makes us look like a pickle barrel, or—via phone—before the Visa card representative who interrupts a pops orchestra rendition of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” to convey his finding that the reason the desk clerk was told to reject the card we tried to use to pay for a night in a Cleveland hotel is that we, in fact, live in Boston. Of course.
In our time and place, neither Weber nor Balzac—nor Marx, who feared bureaucracies because the sly fox rather suspected that they tended toward collaboration with corporations—stands as the maligned institution’s preeminent diviner. That grim honor goes to Franz Kafka, who before he died at 40 of tuberculosis-induced starvation, managed to invent the world’s first and to date foremost literary genre founded on human encounters with life-controlling bureaucracies. In Kafka’s fiction, as in a nightmare, the world shuttles terrifyingly between inertia and wild speed, and never in pace with what we thought we understood to be the rhythms of the human mind or heart. When some 20 years after Kafka’s death a German guard at Auschwitz responded to the inmate Primo Levi’s “Warum?”—or why?—with “Hier ist kein warum“—here there is no why—he could just as well have been speaking lines from the The Castle or The Trial.
Kafka’s legacy also includes Kafkaesque, the word many of us use to describe our dealings with such as the IRS, “the airlines,” and latterly the Affordable Care Act, which on the day I am writing featured the following at the top of its homepage: “[B]etween Saturday evening, November 9 and early morning on Tuesday, November 12, there will be times when you can fill out your application, but you will need to return and log in Tuesday afternoon to review and submit it.” In this context it’s worth mentioning that Kafka’s day job between 1908 and 1922, his most fruitful years as a fiction writer, was as a lawyer and later senior executive with the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute, in Prague.
Our story of a fish, some farmers, a professor, and an over-towering bureaucracy begins here.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: The print version of the article stated that Max Weber wrote “Bureaucracy” in 1922. The essay, from the book Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, was published posthumously. Weber died in 1920.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum