Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
However much I may wish to make the figure of the bureaucrat familiar, for many people the way of seeing the bureaucrat will be, as in Stevens’ poem, like a shadow moving inexplicably and ominously behind a frozen screen of barbaric glass.
In ordinary life we see only tightly framed glimpses of the bureaucrat in action. They are not one of the professions known to every schoolchild – a doctor, nurse, lawyer, scientist, teacher – whose role in making our shared life is immediately clear. Nor do they tend to the daily domestic needs like the trades – baker, builder, cobbler, candlestick maker – we learn in rhymes. Bureaucrats serve hidden, more abstract purposes, shadows of an indecipherable cause.
Through this small window we see flittering from side to side that is seemingly busy yet meaningless. There is always paperwork to complete, processes to follow, protocols to complete, budget bids to make, risks to manage, and reform projects to make believe in, even when they never quite find the articulate voice who can define their purpose. They fly from side to side, reinventing titles, and changing the structures of their organisations according to the latest pedantic cries of fashionable madmen, and so create a maze of ever greater impenetrability.
We see only their shadows through that glass, and do not hear their songs. The rules of the republic demand they act as dumb mimes. We do not know the chatter that occurs about the deeper things in many office cubicles, when forced to confront our shared lives’ most difficult corners – containing the mad, bad and dangerous to know, consoling the broken, the addicted, the frail and the traumatised, corralling the corrupt, the ambitious, the conceited and the grandiose – bureaucrats turn to each other to find comfort that someone else knows how it really is.
Those conversations, as between two prisoners condemned for their insight into the illusions of the outer world, can provide comfort, but can never proceed in full freedom. They can provide epiphanies, as when a lowly under-castellan will speak truths about human frailty or or the compassion required to endure a long life in institutions or the limits of that ruthless modern deity, change. But these whispered truths are not known by the frenetic grand blackbirds above, who fly energetically from one banality to another trite lie, checking their phones, exchanging their ill-informed positions, and perfecting their gestures at court. These whispered truths endure for the survivors in the institutions, the practitioners of the ordinary virtues. They provide moments of dignity that can create little acts of freedom and small thoughts of kindness. These moments of dignity establish a survivors’ code that is the hidden poetry of our troubled modern polities.
But these conversations in the dark can also turn sour. Sure in the world’s misunderstanding, the insiders begin to resent always doing the dirty work that the great actors, the good and the great, the rich and the famous do not acknowledge and will not do. This is the way of dark brotherhoods and dark sisterhoods who say: it is we who make your damned stupid laws work; it is we who cop the blame when others do wrong; it is we who need to mop up each and every social disaster, whether they be insolvent businesses or troubled families, violent youths or criminal minds, failing schools or mismanaged trains, escaped lunatics or rogue justices, drunken crowds or corrupted councillors. Behind their frozen trap, the dark brotherhoods and sisterhoods ruminate on their captive, poisoned state, and make of their resentment a virtue. They forget that the end of the voyager through the underworld, who carries his lyre among shadows, is to find his or her way back to infinite praise.
Surely though, as there is a season for all things, a time will come when the icicles on this frozen trap will melt away? Summer will come, and thaw away the barbaric ice, the shackles of our modern, decaying political institutions. These icicles have formed over the last 30 years, as the state has been colonised by party political marketing machines. A change in the way of governing has frosted the glass. Hard, obscure icicles have appeared: talking points, numberless witless advisers, a loss of capability in political leadership, the rise of the merchant elite and its fawning companions, the consultocrats, the cannibalisation of the university, the impoverishment of public debate in turns through panel shows, shock jocks and the abandonment of intellectual culture by political leaders and senior bureaucrats themselves…. The list of woe could go on, but that is a work for another day.
Still if winter has come, can spring be far behind?