Paperwork makes bureaucracy go, for better or for worse

Max Weber would be interested: here is a review of a new book that explains how paperwork both enables and hinders bureaucracy.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (the abbé Sieyès), one of the principal theorists of the revolution, had thought that the resolution of this riddle would be achieved by combining a division of governmental labor into numerous areas of narrowly demarcated responsibility, together with scrupulous attention to recordkeeping—which is to say, paperwork. As Kafka notes, however, its praxis in the revolutionary period involved an intrinsic contradiction: The greater the revolutionary regime’s attempts to wield its power, the more impeded it was in the exercise of that power by the need to precisely document its every deed with the requisite paperwork…

Paperwork presented a means of resistance to the power of the state, while remaining the means of the state’s assertion of that very power.

The refractory power of paperwork drew the serious attention of Tocqueville, Marx, and Freud, each of whom receives Kafka’s extended attention. Tocqueville struggled with the contradictions of bureaucracy to the point of eschewing the very use of the word, though not its substantive import. He asks: “How to reconcile the extreme centralization that [the bureaucratic regime] consecrates with the reality and morality of representative government?” Tocqueville’s comments on the relative absence of paperwork in America—and on the greater appeal to ambitious Americans of trade and industry over service in “official appointments”—are timely, and Kafka’s discussion of the evolution of Tocqueville’s thoughts on bureaucracy makes for fascinating reading.

From a lesser-known early work of Marx concerning a dispute between the Prussian tax authorities and winemakers of the Mosel region—a dispute that was to generate innumerable notes, dossiers, and reports, but no just resolution of the winemakers’ claims—Kafka educes a theory of the praxis of paperwork. Here, we have Karl Marx as media theorist, propounding a conception of paperwork as “a refractive medium [in which] power and knowledge inevitably change their speed and shape when they enter it.” In its unpredictability, paperwork “accelerates and decelerates power [and] syncopates its rhythms, disrupts its cycles, which is why paperwork always seems to be either overdue or underdone.”

This is enough to give one pause when waiting in line to fill out forms of any kind. It is very difficult to imagine just how much paperwork is generated within bureaucracies today, even in the age of computers: think of the local hospital, the city clerk’s office, the local university. From my own limited experience in a few universities, paperwork makes the whole college system work. Actually, if you think about it, much of the modern world is made possible because of paperwork we all (from individuals to groups to corporations to governments) fill out and file….

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