Franz Kafka’s stories are described as surreal or dreamlike. In fact the chief distinguishing characteristic is perpetual instability: The narrator in a Kafka story accepts whatever new situation he faces with unquestioning compliance. As soon as he begins to accustom himself to the new rules—as soon as he begins to feel comfortable and learns to make the best of them—everything changes, for no apparent reason, and the narrator again finds himself totally at sea.
The chief bureaucrats and administrators of Kafka’s shifting and unstable worlds are usually exactly that—bureaucrats and administrators. Kafka was himself an administrator at a large insurance firm, and he hated it. He lived in Prague, under a government that would become one of the earliest and most thorough adopters of bureaucratic statism. (Though constructed a few years after his death, the Central Social Institution building with its famous mechanically moving desks seems emblematic of the world that subsumed him.) The people who manipulate and torment Kafka’s narrators—especially in The Trial and The Castle—are the ultimate embodiment of the pointless tedium that Kafka encountered in everyday life.
Bureaucracy is a permanent decoupling of activity from morality. A bureaucrat isn’t paid to understand the rules he enforces or the forms he is required to have you fill out. There is no “why” involved in his life, and so he allows no common sense or flexibility to inform his actions. Bureaucracy is there for its own sake; it is its own justification. Bureaucrats are often called civil servants, but in reality they provide no service at all: It is you, the individual citizen, who must come to serve them, to follow their instructions, to bend the knee and do exactly what they say, as a token of submission to the powers that be. Otherwise no license, no permit, no job.
A Kafka narrator, unlike the people he interacts with, is utterly flexible and submissive. He understands that there is no point in questioning authority. He is told to go to this office or that office, to speak to this or that official, and he dutifully does so. He never wants to harm anyone, though he is often accused of causing deliberate harm. He just wants to get on with his life, to be left alone. He wants to be permitted to earn a living in whatever menial job he can get (janitor, elevator operator, it makes no difference—he is not picky and cannot afford to be).
The instant he has everything sorted out and is about to get to work, the standards suddenly change. The bureaucrats are back and seem angry with him for not being in compliance with the new set of rules they just invented. Goalposts are forever shifting. The finish line—or, really, the start line—is always just a few feet in front of him, moving further away every time he tries to get closer.
Does any of this sound familiar? And are you fully vaccinated yet? Got your fourth booster? We were well aware of Orwell’s warnings about fascism; Nineteen Eighty-Four was explicit. (Even so, Orwell’s estate has just approved a rewriting of the novel as a “feminist retelling;” I wonder how that will go.) Kafka, meanwhile, has been under our radar. His warnings about bureaucracy were subtle, deep, artful. But he was describing precisely the shadow-world in which we are now trapped, the world Jen Psaki thinks is so funny—such a laugh at the expense of us ordinary people.
Anthony Fauci is a terrible man. And he has been identified in the public mind with a great deal of the evil in our current situation. But the real danger in Fauci is that not that he is unique, but that he is typical. Fauci is just a bureaucrat. He is no worse and—this is the key point—no better than the vast army of faceless fascists who have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our daily lives. His medical experiments on dogs and children are just routine to a genre of people whose idea of right is aligned entirely and absolutely with anything that will increase their own power and authority.
Fauci lacks the imagination and the intelligence to become a tyrant-king, but he offers the king his own insatiable greed, an eager helping hand, an impenetrable stupidity, a mind totally divorced from absolute moral distinctions. He will never be the top man, but he is just as dangerous in his enabling role—he represents the rest of government: the No. 2 man, all the way down to number 3 million. And apparently we do have about 3 million federal government employees at this point—let that sink in for a moment. One percent of the country spends their lives taking money from the rest. We could call them one-percenters . . .
This is not to suggest that federal bureaucrats are evil—only that their jobs deliberately slice away their humanity, and suppress, through rules and regulation, the care they might otherwise have for a poorer neighbor. Bureaucracy allows people like Fauci to get the money and power they crave in the only way they understand—not by adding value or inventing new things, but simply by stealing it from other people.
We’ve worried for 100 years about what will happen when we finally succeed in making machines human. We ought to be at least as worried about what happens when we make humans into machines—into soulless robots that will pursue a simple goal single-mindedly, executing instructions without understanding them. Such people can, and have, laughed at the death of millions.