The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

One of the happy accidents of my life is that I’ve worked in a variety of jobs in a variety of organisational types. I’ve worked in retail, government, agriculture, hospitality, call centres, small manufacturing, large manufacturing, volunteer organisations, university, legal offices, startups and large corporates. I’ve done all kinds of work from backbreaking manual labour to production line box stacking to cushy office jobs. So, it’s from some depth of experience that I can say that the worst job I ever had was in a government bureaucracy.

I accidentally found myself inside the belly of the beast when the consultancy I was working at started chasing the sweet smell of government money. The project we were working on was completely pointless. I know this for a fact because, not only did it appear to be completely pointless to anybody with two functioning brain cells, but I got to meet the people who were going to use it and they told me straight up that it was completely pointless. That was the first problem. But not only was it pointless, we were building according to a specification that some other company had written. Like all specifications, this specification was wrong but we didn’t have the power to change it. Nobody did. So, although everybody more or less agreed it was wrong, we had to build the software according to the documents. The result was going to be pointless and wrong but government employees were going to be forced into using it. That’s the way things work in government bureaucracies. 

To be made to follow rules that you know to be absurd causes a peculiar kind of existential angst. It took me all of two weeks to start looking for a new job and, fortunately, I was able to find one pretty quickly so my stay was short-lived. Years later I ran into a couple of government employees at a random social event. They told me they were both on extended mental health leave and apparently that’s common in their line of work. Doesn’t surprise me much after having seen what goes on there. If there is a hell, it probably looks like a government bureaucracy.

Since that time, I’ve had experience in different kinds of bureaucratic organisations. Based on this experience, I define three types of bureaucracy according to the type of market they are in and the corresponding culture which arises from the interaction of the bureaucratic structure and the market type. Government bureaucracies are the most pure type whilst others differ in interesting ways. Here are the three types:-

TypeMarketCulturePrimary Type of Employee
1Government monopolyStrict adherence to rulesLobotomised Rule Nazis
2Private monopolyFollow the rules because you can’t change them. Heroes save the dayHeroes
3OligopolyFreedom at technical level but not the mission levelAutonomous technicians

My thesis here is that a pure bureaucracy can really only happen in a government monopoly and the further you get from that context the less a nominal bureaucracy functions as one. The reason government is the purest form of bureaucracy is precisely because it has no competition and therefore has no real need to respond to the real world beyond the vague signals that come from political manoeuverings. The primary type of employee in a pure bureaucracy is the Lobotomised Rule Nazi. The characterisation of the Lobotomised Rule Nazi is Kafka’s great addition to our literature. I had read Kafka prior to working in government but I had no idea that such a person could exist in real life. They do and they are among the strangest people you can hope to meet. The Lobotomised Rule Nazi follows the rules no matter what. When you try to point out that a rule is nonsense, illogical or actively harmful, the Lobotomised Rule Nazi looks at you with big, blank eyes and simply doesn’t understand the question. A rule is a rule. It must be followed. No correspondence shall be entered into. Have a nice day.

In a private corporation that has a monopoly, things work differently. Such companies still need to be relatively responsive to their customers because, unlike with government, their customers usually have the option not to use the service. This minimal need to satisfy the customer changes the internal structure and culture of the bureaucracy. There are still rules and regulations in place and people are not free to question them. However, the need to get the product to the customer at a reasonable standard creates the need to get around the rules. This is done through heroics and so the Hero is the primary type of employee in Type 2 bureaucracy. These are people who work long hours and pull all-nighters to get projects over the line. They do this because the rules of the bureaucracy hinder effective work. The sociologist Max Weber once said bureaucracy was the most efficient form of organisation. I’m not sure what he was smoking because bureaucracies are hopelessly inefficient. For all but the most simplified activities, following the rules doesn’t work. Trying to explicate and then follow rules is like a centipede counting its feet. The Hero overcomes the crushing inefficiency of following the rules by simply working harder. The Hero doesn’t attempt to question or change the rules, they just persevere in the face of them. In Type 2 organisations, a hero culture arises which rewards that perseverance.

This brings us to the third market type: the oligopoly. In these markets a bureaucracy has at least one competitor to deal with and even this modicum of competition substantially increases the need to be responsive to market signals. The hero culture of a Type 2 bureaucracy can work in these environments as long as your competitor is also Type 2. But if your competitor discovers that productivity gains can be had by hiring skilled people and giving them the autonomy and responsibility of managing the technical demands of their work rather than imposing rules on them, they will beat you. This dynamic creates a third type of bureaucracy which has the basic bureaucratic structure but which does not impose unnecessary rules on its workers. Such companies attract skilled technicians who are able to think strategically. They are system builders, not heroes. Within the technical sphere of the business, they are given significant freedom but this freedom is bounded and does not extend to questioning the mission, the project goals or the business strategy. This leads to problems which are captured beautifully by the SNAFU Principle. Without honest feedback from the lower levels of the organisation or customers, the upper levels cannot respond to problems with the direction of a project.  Thus, even Type 3 bureaucracies, although technically competent, never produce anything innovative and rarely much of any value beyond their core offering. They are structurally incapable of questioning the product direction and responding to feedback in a meaningful way. Like every bureaucracy, they cannot learn.

Although Lobotomised Rule Nazis, Heroes and Autonomous Technicians are the driving forces within each bureaucratic type, they are not the majority. Rather, they are the most important type within each organisation because they define the culture that is needed for that organisation to survive. Accordingly, the types are not transferable between the three bureaucracies. Lobotomised Rule Nazis can only survive in a government bureaucracy. In a Type 2 organisation they would stop things getting done and in a Type 3 they would remove the autonomy of the technicians. Heroes do not work in Type 3 bureaucracies because the emphasis there is on fixing the system not working harder to perpetuate it. For the opposite reason, Autonomous Technicians cannot work in Type 2 organisations where they will be endlessly frustrated that the system cannot be fixed. And neither the autonomy of the Technician nor the drive of the Hero can find a home in the bloodless, robotic environment of a pure bureaucracy.

What about all the other people who work in a bureaucracy? The ones who are not, by psychological predisposition, Lobotomised Rule Nazis, Heroes or Autonomous Technicians? Well, they are people who just follow along with the prevailing culture. They might be happier elsewhere, but for whatever personal or circumstantial reasons, they simply learn to fit in. Dostoevsky once said that the human is the animal which can get used to anything. This is, of course, true in an evolutionary sense. We humans have been able to survive in almost every natural environment on the planet. It’s also true in a social sense. As the Stanford Prison Experiment showed, people can learn to fit in to any role. We also don’t like to rock the boat. In another famous psychological experiment, the researchers set up a room full of actors and a screen. On the screen in the room were shown three lines: A, B and C. Line A was clearly longer than line B which was clearly longer than line C. The test subjects were brought into the room one at a time and the experimenter asked each person to say out loud which was the shortest line. Each of the nineteen actors answered B. Then came the test subject, the last person to answer. The test subject must have known that line C was the shortest but to say so would be to publicly contradict the nineteen people who came before them. In the overwhelming majority of cases (I think from memory it was about 80%), the test subject also answered B. That’s the psychology of man as herd animal. We prefer not to stand out from the crowd and, all else being equal, we will sacrifice the truth to do so. It’s this psychological fact which allows the cultures of the different bureaucratic types to work. Margaret Mead once said that the only thing that has ever changed the world is a passionate minority. That’s true but it’s also the passionate minority that continues to drive the culture while the majority just follow along.

Taking all this together, you have bureaucracies in economic or political niches which attract certain personality types who have what it takes for the organisation to survive in those niches. Because the survival of the organisation requires these types of people, they are celebrated within the organisation and determine the prevailing culture. The historical rise of the bureaucratic organisational type brought the Lobotomised Rule Nazis out of the dungeons and into the light where they found a niche for themselves running government agencies. The Hero psychological type and the Autonomous Technician also gravitate to where they fit in best and where their natural disposition is rewarded most.

Despite their differences, what all bureaucracies have in common is the removal of personal autonomy and the replacement with rules. It is this which most explicitly separates bureaucratic work from, say, small business or self-employment. Let me give a quick concrete example from my experience.

When I was backpacking in Europe, I got a job working for a bank in Glasgow, Scotland. The bank was a Type 2 corporate: a private enterprise with no meaningful competition run according to a strict bureaucratic model. My job was to call small business customers and try and sell them new credit card machines. This is what is known in the call centre world as ‘warm calling’. You’re not just calling somebody trying to sell them a random thing that you have no idea that they want. Rather, you’re calling existing customers and selling them a related product. All in all, it wasn’t a bad job. For most of the people I was speaking to, the product was going to save them money and therefore they were grateful to get the call.

From the customer’s point of view, getting a call from somebody at their bank is the perfect opportunity to raise whatever other problems they might have been having with the bank’s services. People I spoke to would often ask for help with such problems and, as I got to know the people who worked in the bank better, I was usually able to solve the problems for customers quite quickly. One day, my manager heard me solving somebody’s problem on the phone. You might think he would have been happy at the initiative I had shown. Not at all. When the call was finished, he told me that I was no longer to ‘waste time’ with such things. I was to sell the credit card machine to the customer and that was all. If they asked about other problems, I was to refer them to the bank’s customer service department. The small window of autonomy I thought I had was slammed shut. In a small business, you are incentivised to solve customer’s problems because good will is good for business. In a bureaucracy, you are incentivised by whatever rule or metric somebody has come up with. It’s the same mindset that leads bureaucracies to block people from browsing certain websites, or installing software on their computer or even taking “excessive” bathroom breaks.

Given that lightning overview of types of bureaucracy, the environmental conditions they exist in and the culture that results from the tension between the organisational structure and that environment, we can now tie this analysis in with our present circumstances.

With the corona event, we have all been sucked into a Type 1 bureaucracy. This makes perfect sense given that it is government bureaucrats who have been running the show. All of the Type 1 elements are there. Removal of personal initiative and autonomy? Check. Follow the rules or else? Check. Contradictory rules and rules that violate common sense? Check. No way to question the rules or get an explanation for the reasoning behind them? Check. Be treated like a cog in a machine instead of a fully fledged human being? Check. Complete change in mission without any explanation why (“2 weeks to flatten the curve”)? Check. The list could go on. As the events of 2020 unfolded, it was like I had been taken back to my time working for the government but, unlike with a crappy job, there was no way to quit.

We are all now living in a Type 1 bureaucracy because that’s what government is. Thus, we are all now indelibly sucked into the Kafkaesque world of a pure bureaucracy where we are nothing more than potential carriers of a virus to be lumped into groups based on a test result or a vaccination status. The Lobotomised Rule Nazis are in charge now. The Queensland Chief Health Officer gave what I consider to be one of the perfect examples of that mentality late last year. Tom Hanks and his entourage had been allowed into Queensland to shoot a movie. This happened at exactly the same time that news came out about grieving relatives who weren’t allowed to cross the border to attend a funeral and another family unable to visit a dying family member in hospital. The CHO was asked how it was fair that a Hollywood movie star was allowed in while Australian citizens were not. With a straight face, she stated that Tom Hanks brought in millions of dollars for the economy. That’s the kind of bloodless response that only a career bureaucrat can give.

For those of us horrified to now be caught up in this Kafkaseque nightmare, the good news is that Type 1 bureaucracies are hopelessly incompetent so none of these schemes is going to work. More specifically, the one thing a bureaucracy can do arguably better than other organisational types is move objects around; shipping things from Point A to Point B. For that reason, a bureaucracy is exactly the type of organisation that can handle a vaccine rollout. During the wars, when bureaucracies came into their own organising supply lines, the soldiers were subject to numerous vaccines. We know bureaucracies can handle that and can expect that part to get done reasonably well. But I would expect the vaccine passports and assorted other pipe dreams are going to flop spectacularly, not just in their implementation but in the second order effects they cause. That’s also the bad news because politicians need things to appear to have ‘worked’ so they can get out of this mess intact. They will continue to allow the Lobotomised Rule Nazis to run things until it’s politically safe to stop. When will it be safe to stop? That’s a question that nobody knows but one thing to bear in mind is that all the problems that will be caused by these ridiculous bureaucratic schemes will at some point become a political fact and will give politicians the incentive to stop.

There is one other glimmer of hope. Government bureaucracies are used to having no competition. They get away with incompetence because their customers cannot go anywhere else. But, at least in the USA, the different states have already started to go their own way. Florida governor DeSantis came out explicitly against vaccine passports this week just like he has eschewed the rest of the accepted ‘wisdom’ in the last six months. A number of other states in the US have followed suit. Just like with Sweden in Europe and, to a lesser extent, NSW in Australia, there is now a point of difference and the ability to compare outcomes. There is also potentially freedom of choice. Don’t want to live somewhere where you need a piece of paper to go about your life? You might be able to move somewhere where you can. Will that state of affairs hold? Will it deliver us into a Type 3 situation where the competition forces government to allow us to retain some of our autonomy? Only time will tell.  

All posts in this series:-

The Coronapocalypse Part 0: Why you shouldn’t listen to a word I say (maybe)

The Coronapocalypse Part 1: The Madness of Crowds in the Age of the Internet

The Coronapocalypse Part 2: An Epidemic of Testing

The Coronapocalypse Part 3: The Panic Principle

The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

The Coronapocalypse Part 5: Cargo Cult Science

The Coronapocalypse Part 6: The Economics of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 7: There’s Nothing Novel under the Sun

The Coronapocalypse Part 8: Germ Theory and Its Discontents

The Coronapocalypse Part 9: Heroism in the Time of Corona

The Coronapocalypse Part 10: The Story of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 11: Beyond Heroic Materialism

The Coronapocalypse Part 12: The End of the Story (or is it?)

The Coronapocalypse Part 13: The Book

The Coronapocalypse Part 14: Automation Ideology

The Coronapocalypse Part 15: The True Believers

The Coronapocalypse Part 16: Dude, where’s my economy?

The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

The Coronapocalypse Part 18: Effects and Side Effects

The Coronapocalypse Part 19: Government and Mass Hysteria

The Coronapocalypse Part 20: The Neverending Story

The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

The Coronapocalypse Part 24: The Dangers of Prediction

The Coronapocalypse Part 25: It’s just semantics, mate

The Coronapocalypse Part 26: The Devouring Mother

The Coronapocalypse Part 27: Munchausen by Proxy

The Coronapocalypse Part 28: The Archetypal Mask

The Coronapocalypse Part 29: A Philosophical Interlude

The Coronapocalypse Part 30: The Rebellious Children

The Coronapocalypse Part 31: How Dare You!

The Coronapocalypse Part 32: Book Announcement

The Coronapocalypse Part 33: Everything free except freedom

The Coronapocalypse Part 34: Into the Twilight Zone

The Coronapocalypse Part 35: The Land of the Unfree and the Home of the Safe

The Coronapocalypse Part 36: The Devouring Mother Book Now Available

The Coronapocalypse Part 37: Finale

13 thoughts on “The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?”

  1. Hi Simon,

    Franz Kafka was a complicated bloke, and it hardly surprises me that he produced such complicated works which highlighted the many absurdities of such behemoths.

    Thanks for the analysis, and candidly being in such a world kind of alarms me due to the inherent lack of common sense.

    The interesting thing about small business is that it covers a real diversity of characters and I really enjoy the lack of hierarchy and ability to make decisions swiftly and then act upon them. It just isn’t as well remunerated by a significant margin. Oh well, as they say: mustn’t grumble!

    Tried the hero role once and it did not fit well, and um, the thing is I’m not sure how well appreciated my heroic efforts were. It was so weird because people were torn between hating on me, yet wanting more from me. It did my head in and nobody was happy – even when stuff was getting sorted out. That experience coloured my view of the future for sure.

    Took your advice yesterday and obtained two replacement passionfruit vines from diggers.

    Hope you enjoyed the warmer weather and public holiday!

    Cheers

    Chris

  2. Hey Chris,

    Yeah, most small businesses don’t make sense financially but there’s a certain type of person who simply can’t abide corporate nonsense. Finding somewhere you belong and can be fulfilled is ultimately more important. I think a lot of people take the money of the corporate world in exchange for their own happiness which is a really bad bargain. Better poorer but happier in my opinion.

    The hero role in corporate strikes me as the worst of both worlds. If you wanna work long hours, run a small business. At least you’re getting the benefit of your labour.

    My passionfruit vines are now fruiting heavily. So good mixed in with yoghurt for an easy and delicious dessert.

  3. Re: Weber and efficiency of bureaucracies

    If you want to get a large scale project done (say, build a transcontinental railroad), you are going to need some sort of bureaucracy. I have no idea how you’d get it done otherwise. On the other hand, wasn’t it also Weber who said that bureaucracies tend to become their own purpose? That is, they evolve to serve their own needs rather than whatever it was they were created to serve? How you reconcile those two things – I have not the faintest idea. Maybe it’s cyclical(?). You build a bureaucracy to get something done, you get it done, but the bureaucracy evolves to serve its own needs above everything else, and then the system collapses under its own weight. And then the cycle repeats. In any case, what you describe sounds hair raising.

    As for the coronavirus: I’ve accepted that what the “experts” tell us has more to do with what they want to get us to do than with the truth. If they want us to stay at home, they’ll show us the ICU. Once they decide it’s over, they’ll show us grandparents “safely” (whatever that means) meeting their grandkids for the first time in however long it’s been. Of course, what they say may just so happen to be the truth (though it’s highly unlikely to be the whole truth, or even their own current best approximation of the truth), but that’s not why they’re saying it. It may be that the mighty vaccine will get us out of these lockdowns. It almost doesn’t matter what actually happens on the ground. What matters is that they can plausibly claim victory. And maybe that’s what they’ll do. They can always crack down on social media if it gives them too much grief.

  4. Hi Irena,

    To give bureaucracies their due, they can do things other orgs cannot. That’s why they were welcomed enthusiastically as they arrived on the scene just in time to build railways and organise huge wars. Bureaucracies can work if you give them a simple task to be repeated a million times. As soon as the task attains any level of complexity or the mission requires the ability to adapt as you go, bureaucracies become hopelessly inefficient.

    The experts we hear from in the MSM are always carefully hand picked for the job and will faithfully say what their political masters want. It will be easy to wheel out other experts when the time is right to say everything’s now fine. So, there’s no reason why they can’t make the vaccine end the story but I’m not sure whether they want that to happen anymore. If they try to keep things going or to change the story so it doesn’t end with the vaccine, that’s when we’ll start to see real pushback. Whether that will be enough to stop whatever other plans governments are cooking up is unknown. I suspect the US will be ok. Not so confident about western Europe or Australia, I’m afraid.

  5. “Bureaucracies can work if you give them a simple task to be repeated a million times.”

    Haha! That’s a good point. I wonder if there are any cross-cultural differences, though. Someone (Peter Turchin?) made the argument that Russia and China have a long history of rule by bureaucracy, and that deviations from that rule are quickly corrected. An example would be the way that Putin reined in the oligarchs (who had effectively ruled the country in the 1990s) in the early 2000s. So, maybe they have more competent bureaucracies(?). Or maybe they don’t, and that’s what led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. I wonder.

    As for the experts: good point. The experts themselves may be perfectly honest in the way they present their opinions. Who gets to do the presenting is a different matter. Right now, lockdown enthusiasts are running the show. Once TPTB decide enough is enough, they may just remember people (such as the Great Barrington Declaration trio) who’ve been saying all along that there is more to public health than this one unpleasant, but ultimately no-big-deal virus. How long it takes them to decide that remains to be seen.

  6. Irena – there’s definitely a place for bureaucracies eg. there’s a great deal of paperwork and other boring tasks that only a Lobotomised Rule Nazi can handle. Anybody else would be bored out of their brain. One of my favourite books is “Seeing Like a State” by James C. Scott which contains detailed case studies of how the famines in Soviet Russia and Maoist China were caused by blind faith in bureaucracy. The error that gets made is to put bureaucrats in charge of things like growing food. Bureaucracies can manage the shipment of food or the provision of materials for growing it, but what was done was to let bureaucrats dictate to farmers and that’s where the line gets crossed just like bureaucrats now dictate to medical professionals what the treatments are for corona.

    No less a thinker than Bertrand Russell fell for the dream of ‘scientific production’. So did many like him at the time. Apparently, our culture still believes in that dream.

  7. Thanks for the book recommendation! It sounds very interesting.

    BTW, I don’t know if you’ve seen this: roundtable discussion with the governor of Florida, the great Great Barrington Declaration trio, plus Scott Atlas.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HnEMHwHyNMc

    I haven’t watched it all yet (it’s quite long), but what I’ve seen looks good. It hasn’t been watched by that many people, sadly, and it doesn’t seem to have been widely publicized either (gee, I wonder why…). Still. It’s a good sign that such things are happening. As states/countries that had no lockdowns (or quickly abandoned them) do better or at least no worse than those that put their entire population under house arrest for months and months, well, word will get out. One would hope.

  8. Hello Simon,

    Every bureaucracy is filled with contradictions and paradoxes, which makes them prime targets for satire and cynicism. Catch-22 is of course a combination of both. Scott Adam’s Dilbert sometimes address these quirks.
    Accoring to Northcote Parkinson, all bureaucracies want to grow with 5-7% per year (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law) with a reference to the development of the British Colonial Office, which of course has historical connections to your country.

    In my experience, there are bureaucratic domains within all large organizations, where inbreeding and rule-fetischism thrive. Worst is usually HR. Typically those departments have a veto-power, so that they can block other people from doing their work…

    I am relieved to hear that you escaped Government without the complimentary lobotomy.

    Goran

  9. Irena – thanks. I’ve seen bits of that video. Until March 2020, that was considered the proper way to respond to a pandemic. One of the most extraordinary aspects about what’s happened is that we did something completely radical and unprecedented with no firm evidence or understanding about what would happen and the majority of people have apparently no problem with that. In fact, they even say it’s based on “science”.

  10. Hey Goran – One of my favourite essays is Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness” where he makes the point that in modern industrial society, with our massive surplus of everything, we had the option to organise things so everybody would work as little as possible. Instead, we created bullshit jobs (https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/david-graeber-bullshit-jobs.pdf). Bureaucracies are the perfect form of organisation to facilitate that because of Parkinson’s Law. A small business would never hire superfluous people because the money to do so would come straight out of the owner’s pocket. But in a bureaucracy, you’re spending other people’s money. And, those ‘superfluous people’ are not superfluous to you. They will be your political allies.

  11. Hi mate,

    I certainly agree with you about the negative side of buerocracies. However I disagree with the statement that they are only good for simple tasks. As irena pointed out, any large scale project requires a certain amount of buerocracy. This is actually one thing it does really well.
    A massive buerocracy put a man on the moon 50 years ago. Elon the hero managed to (if one can believe his hype) reach low earth orbit so far.
    A few years ago i watched a kilometer wide bridge getting built across the Clarence River. An impressive piece of engineering and buerocracy. If that bridge was built silicon Valley style by a hero, i certainly would not drive over it.
    The Rule Of Law is another application of buerocracy. In my mind preferable to being subject to the arbitrary edicts of a totalitarian ruler.
    Maybe a lot of the insanity we are going through at the moment is because we failed to apply sensible rules and procedures.
    Most western nations had a reasonable plan to deal with a pandemic. Just when push came to shove, they panicked and did not apply this plan. So it wasn’t the organisation that failed. One might even say, it was the heroic approach that got us up shit creek.
    Here’s an interesting and relevant interview with Lord Sumption.
    https://www.spiked-online.com/podcast-episode/lockdown-is-an-assault-on-our-humanity/

    Cheers

    Roland

  12. Roland – yes, fair points. I’ve addressed some of these in a new post today. The problem is not bureaucracy per se but the use of bureaucracies outside their domain of competence and the corruption of bureaucracies from within.

    Irena – it’s amazing how blatant the censorship is these days, isn’t it? One of the reasons why I now avoid all the major tech platforms if at all possible.

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