Thursday, December 29, 2016

It's Just the Law: Personality, Statecraft, and the Kafkaesque Nature of Bureaucracy

The other day I was visiting a friend in the hospital. He has breathing problems and requested an emergency inhaler for his bedside. The nurse told him, no. But, and this is the interesting thing, it's how she phrased it. She didn't say "I won't" or "No", she said "I can't". She proceeded to explain how it is, with the law and everything, and her hands were tied. She continued with a kind of impish complaint about government regulations etc.

This is a pretty common phenomenon, and it's a linguistic convention we dabble in. But I thought about this literally: "What do you mean you 'can't'? You could physically get him what he needed, no?" There's a certain politeness involved. It is considered rough bedside manner to frankly say No. Especially in hospitals, when information is more critical than many other social exchanges, I wish nurses, doctors etc. didn't talk circles in an attempt to make you feel better. But what else is going on? Carl Schmitt's analysis has helped me to grasp this further.

What is going on is an act of obfuscation. The nurse is empowered as an agent of the Hospital's legal apparatus to provide care and to prevent medical liabilities (many times for monetary/insurance based reasons). The Nurse is the one who is empowered with a kind of authority to act in a scenario. She is the interpreter of the law. She is the responsible agent for its enforcement, she is the face of the Hospital administration to every patient in every room. When one acts as representative, one's agency is linked to an entity that inherently does not possess agency, namely Hospital code. This is the nature of office based authority. There is melding of voices, where the nurse speaks as Person X and as the Hospital Administration.

However, this is uncomfortable and the weight of responsibility is grave. Whether for personal reasons or more systemic ones, this is above reality is not front and center. Instead, we many times experience appeals to the law or the rules, as if they are self-enforcing, as if they are standing in the background as a looming judge. What the nurse intends to say is that that her office, with its accompanying pay and reputation, is in jeopardy and subject to judgement by others. She says to the request, most likely, for self-serving reasons (this is not inherently bad or wicked). By passing it off into the fog of "just the law", this takes the psychic weight of decision-making away. If something were to go horribly wrong, one could always blame the voiceless law-code, which, inadvertently, does little to nothing.

I'm not saying rules and legal apparatuses can't be bad and systemically destructive in some way or form. But I want to emphasize more that there is a deeper systemic rot in place where the rules of the institution are given a faux-life for the purposes of status-quo. This is the horror of the Bureaucratization, when technicians replace the Human element in structures for the sake of precision. Things that are inherently impersonal, like a law-code, are given person-like attributes that prop up a kind of idol-scapegoat that takes away the pressures of decision making. This ultimately results in the ability to offload otherwise unthinkable acts even as you, the person and the agent, commit them. This is, fundamentally, the creation of an idol, a deaf, dumb, and dead god that is given attributes as if it were a personal entity.

When applied to statecraft, this results in the modern liberal state. This was an attempt to restrain the violence and overly Human sources of conflict, most viciously climaxing in the Thirty Years War. But this not only shrouds the facts of the War, but also paved the way to perhaps an even bloodier form of governing that appears bloodless. It is this form that allows a "not my problem" attitude that, with a stroke of the pen, ends the lives of countless (whether biologically, or one's existence within an existing socio-economic structure) and allows them to go home, kiss their children and be members in good-standing within their church communities. This obfuscates a reality that Christ promises to judge. We cannot avoid the weight of our decisions, cloaking our laziness, greed, and malice behind neutralized technique.

It's worth reflecting on, for it is too easy to fall into this mode of behavior. It ought to shake every Christian to his or her soul.

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