Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan is not about bureaucracy but it has as good an illustration of it as you will find.

“Mr. Constant,” he said, “right now you’re as easy for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to watch as a man on a street corner selling apples and pears. But just imagine you would be to watch if you had a whole office building jammed to the rafters with industrial bureaucrats – men who lose things and use the wrong forms and create nw forms and demand everything in quintuplicate, and who understand perhaps a third of what is said to them; who habitually give misleading answers in order to gain time in which to think, who make decisions only when forced to, and who then cover their tracks; who make honest mistakes in addition and subtraction, who call meetings whenever they feel lonely, who write memos whenever they feel unloved; men who never throw anything away unless they think it could get them fired. A single industrial bureaucrat, if he is sufficiently vital and nervous, should be able to create a ton of meaningless papers a year for the Bureau of Internal Revenue to examine. In the Magnum Opus Building we will have thousands of them! […]”

In my six weeks as a civil servant, all of 50 years ago, in the Nigeria Federal Ministry of Establishment (whatever that is), I learnt that you didn’t rush through your work, it wasn’t expected and in fact was not encouraged. You dawdled, you took your time, slowly and ponderously, reading every document thoroughly, keeping the grammar and spelling in mind and annotating every page to indicate that you had given it the once over. My role was to calculate what holiday expenses was due any employee. This was determined by the distance of his hometown from Lagos multiplied by the mileage allowed for his class of employee.

This anachronistic system was based on the fact that the colonial European civil servant was paid to go to the UK from Lagos, specifically, to his hometown whatever this might mean, and this system was applied to the Nigerian employee even if he lived in Lagos and never ever visited his ancestral home. My job was to calculate his entitlement, the cost of visiting his village and duly to approve this with my initial and then to pass the papers to the Senior Executive Officer for his approval. I was a mere Executive Officer. The approved papers were next forwarded to accounts where they lay for a season gathering dust before any disbursement was considered or effected!

I had half a dozen of these to do daily and it took less than an hour at most. A deputation of Executive Officers from other departments met with me over lunch to tell me that it had come to their notice that I was working far too quickly, to admonish and entreat me, both at the same time. I spent the six weeks reading Victor Hugo and Honoré Balzac. I was a mere cog in the civil service wheel.

But it is Kafka’s The Trial that is the masterly account of bureaucracy. Of course, it can be read in any number of ways, but it is the ruthlessness and imperviousness of bureaucratic processes that make the story viable. If you’ve lived in any country where the opacity of the rules at play is a deliberate strategy to both terrorise and oppress and to facilitate extortion, you will recognise much of what goes on in The Trial as factual rather than fictional or merely grotesque.
The bafflement
What authority could they represent? K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force […]

And the arrogance of the servants of the state
Do you think you’ll bring this fine case of yours to a speedier end by wrangling with us, your warders, over papers and warrants? We are humble subordinates who can scarcely find our way through a legal document and have nothing to do with your case except to stand guard over you for ten hours a day and draw our pay for it. That’s all we are, but we are quite capable of grasping the fact that the high authorities we serve, they would order such an arrest as this must be quite well informed about the reasons for the arrest and the person of the prisoner. There can be no mistake about that,

These are the principal pillars that hold up bureaucracy. The ordinary person is baffled at which is the appropriate queue, and the official maintains an impassivity that is passive aggressive and ultra-threatening, witness the transactions at international borders, the humiliating stance taken against the alien.

Patience and fortitude are required but do not necessarily do any good. That is the lesson of The Trial: K. realised the futility of resistance. For, in the end he is executed.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

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