On humility

For many years I have believed that Carl Jung once said or wrote that “you must stoop to drink from the river of life.”

But google has taught me humility, or perhaps I simply do not have the energy after a long week at work, which taught me humility, to hunt my quarry quote with true literary scholarship. I get nothing when I type these words into a google search.

Humility is one of the Christian virtues, which might make a reader sceptical if he/she were steeped in Nietzsche or Machiavelli. Is it just the philosophy of slaves or the rationalisation of those on whom fortuna does not smile?

But Machiavelli practised a kind of intellectual humility. When after he had been humiliated, tortured and dismissed from his public office, as perhaps the most (posthumously) famous bureaucrat of all time, and sent into a kind of internal exile, from which he would never return,  he turned to the humble craft of writing, and produced the insightful, yet puzzling tract on politics and power, The Prince.  He introduces this enduring enigma – is it an imaginative response to the trauma of his torture and downfall? – from the viewpoint that the humble may not inherit the earth, but they can observe the battlefield of power as well as its princes:

Nor do I hold with those who regard it as a presumption if a man of low and humble condition dare to discuss and settle the concerns of princes; because, just as those who draw landscapes place themselves below in the plain to contemplate the nature of the mountains and of lofty places, and in order to contemplate the plains place themselves upon high mountains, even so to understand the nature of the people it needs to be a prince, and to understand that if princes it needs to be of the people. Machiavelli, “Dedication”, The Prince

I wonder too what the poet-philosopher-philologist, Friedrich Nietzsche would make of today’s new aspirants to be Übermensch, the vast cult of Leadership in organisations. Everyone in today’s organisations, even in the bureaucratic ones that I wander through like a reviled exile, wants to be a Leader. Leadership appears in almost every job description, and is most often interpreted as managing up, a kind of impression management to appear always in control, and always in conformity with the wishes of your masters.  In the vast literature on Leadership, humility struggles to be authentically expressed, and appears to be little more than a sort of understated modesty that is happy to share the limelight with other members of the club. So here in a randomly selected article on the eleven characteristics of great leadership, humility appears with false modesty:

Humility: There’s nothing wrong with accepting praise for accomplishments so long as there’s as much willingness to accept criticism, to declare weaknesses, to seek opportunities for personal development, and to value others as much as oneself. That, in essence, is balanced humility.

If we set aside the modern pseudo-secular celebration of Leadership, as a symptom of a culture in ruins, and return instead to older, longer and deeper traditions, we can practise humility as one of the ordinary virtues.

Ordinary virtues were described by Tzetvan Todorov in his accounts of responses to the degradation and inhumanity of the German concentration camps. He contrasted ordinary virtues that, in these circumstances, allowed some to endure the unconscionable. In those destitute times, the celebrated heroic virtues of defiance, bravery, combat and self-sacrifice – or we might say Leadership – would have led to compromise or death, the ordinary virtues reasserted in the worst conditions simple, small actions of daily life. Todorov identified three cardinal ordinary virtues: dignity, caring and the life of the mind.

Todorov’s work assumed humility, since the virtues are practised by those who suffer the regime, not those who administer it. But leading the life I do, I must speak up for and live out the practice of humility in the outer halls of power.

I remember in my early years as a public servant seeing this ordinary virtue practised by the then head of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Victoria, Peter Kirby. It was a more formal era prior to email and ubiquitous texting. Mr Kirby would give instructions to his direct reports through a neatly written sentence fitted into the margins of letters and briefs, and would always begin them Mr or Ms Surname: Mr Moran, please advise.  But the humility he practise, which is spoken of if not demonstrated in the obituary I have linked above,  was shown in another memory I have.

It seemed that he would lunch several days a week with a relatively low status person within the Department, Fred Warmbrand, in a modest cafe restaurant where all could see him. Just what was the purpose of these lunches – whether they were acts of friendship or ways to feel the pulse – I never really knew.  But I always remember this way of dwelling with the ordinary and the humble, even when he occupied one of the most powerful positions in the state. I rarely if ever saw his successors do the same.

Humility, and endurance of difficult experiences, are qualities I admire in my heroes. For me Vaclav Havel‘s story – stripped of status and imprisoned, yet sustaining faith in simple virtues that would become the foundation of a new state – is the embodiment of the ordinary virtues.  If we could bring down our modern courtiers, and restore public institutions, like those led not so long ago by Peter Kirby, where compassion, dignity, the life of the mind and humility prevailed as the ethos, we would not reach nirvana, but we would have restored some rare and precious things.

It is heartening that there is at least one project out there, the Humility and Conviction in Public Life project at the University of Connecticut that appears to be attempting the same thing.

On tyranny or terror?

On tyranny or terror?

The American historian of the holocaust in Eastern Europe, Timothy Snyder has delivered in On Tyranny: 20 lessons of the twentieth century a best-seller by combining seemingly wise apothogems – be ascourageous  as you can, be calm when the unthinkable arrives – with a wailing cry for help from the soul of liberal America in despair at the triumph of Trump.

His warnings that under Trump the USA may slide into totalitarianism have delivered him an audience on talk shows and business magazines. I bought his little book out of love for the great East European dissidents under communism like Havel and Kolakowski who Snyder quotes liberally in this little lament for a broken liberal consensus. I found the form and some of the early ideas intriguing, but ultimately I put this work, which can be read in barely an hour, disappointing.

The essay is an extended implied comparison between tyranny, ancient and modern, and most of all its Nazi manifestation, and the unfolding phenomenon of Donald Trump. If we believe Prof Snyder, we – or at least the citizens of the USA – are at the beginning of the end of democracy. All the signs show an accelerating slide into tyranny: the condemnation of the media, the contempt for the educated elite, the search for new partners, such as Russia (god forbid), in the fight against terror. Snyder even compares the burning of the Reichstag with our contemporary responses to repeated attacks of terror.

Now I am no ingénue about the quality of our democracy or political leadership in a disintegrating culture obsessed with shallow spectacles. Nor am I bedazzled by that impresario of shallow spectacle, Donald Trump. I have predicted here, months prior to the November ’16 election, that Trump would both win the election and fail as President. But to equate Trump’s administration with Hitler or the worst tyrannies of the 20th century reflects a loss of bearings. So too does the diminution of terrorism to little more than a scare campaign engineered by conniving political leaders to usher in dark tyranny.

It does seem that Prof Snyder has allowed Trump to get under his skin, and to distort his better judgement. This tweet in response to the Manchester bombing claimed Trump’s health care reforms would claim the same number of lives as the bombing in just four hours. Enough said really. Twitter makes idiots of even the most intelligent people. Prof Snyder would do well to do as I did several years ago, and abandon his twitter account.

He would do still better to reassess his level of concern with terror over tyranny. Islamic State, after all, operates both. Democratic states need to defend their citizens against both. It is true that democratic states need urgently to repair their quality and stop their decay. But that task must be done together with action against the dark terrors that reach into our lives every week. We must defeat the tyranny of terror.

That is at least one lesson so far of the 21st century. That is a lesson better learned from Michael Burleigh than from On Tyranny.

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

Hannah Arendt and remembering thought

After listening to an episode of the On Being podcast, titled Thinking and Friendship in Dark Times, I took up the invitation to remember the impact on my own thought of Hannah Arendt.

The podcast featured a literary critic who used the mantle of Arendt’s thought to criticise approaches to refugees, global capitalism and the evils of bureaucracy. Yet still the grounding of Arendt’s thought in the dappled things of ordinary experiences, friendship, neighbourliness, the freedom to make a new beginning shone through. The piously radical lecturer, speaking from her holiday home in Southern France, may be surprised to learn that Arendt remains an inspiration for a benighted lowly under-castellan at the far end of the world.

I took up an old faded copy of The Human Condition, which was published first in 1958, and read its profound ironic beginning that described the attempt to land a man on the moon, and so flee the bounds of the one gift that we all share, the one and only known world of ours that we may choose to love. Arendt subtly notes that this trope of escaping to other worlds shows that men are not slow to take up the dreams of science, but have outsped them by decades, notably in the genres of science fiction.

This dream of the flight to the moon, like the dreams to overcome our limits through technology or to outreach mortality itself, becomes for Arendt a symbol for modern world alienation – “its twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self” (Human Condition, p. 6).

Amor Mundi. That was the dreamt title for Arendt’s book that became The Human Condition. To love the world as it is, and not to seek revenge against reality in utopias of technology, totalitarianism or utopias. This was the lesson that I absorbed most from Arendt when I read her works assiduously in my 20s and early 30s.

She also spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.

It is this stance that shines through in an interview between Arendt and Günter Grass, filmed in the 1950s, complete with on-screen smoking. This interview is a remarkable survivor in itself. It begins with Grass challenging Arendt’s role as a philosopher in a male profession; to which she replies, I am no philosopher, and certainly belong to no circle of philosophers.

Then it proceeds to Günter Grass questioning Arendt on her absence of political commitment, such as joining a party, to oppose the Nazi party on its rise to power. Such dramatic irony: we know now both the intimate betrayal of Arendt by the crude political beliefs of her one-time lover, the awkward heir to Nietzsche’s tradition of poetic philosophy, Martin Heidegger;  and the secret, which Günter Grass himself held close during this interview, that Grass served in the Waffen-SS during the war.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a melancholy meditation on being thrown into time and being, anxiously anticipating death. For him remembrance discloses the miracle of Being, and all that we will lose in death. So thinking should not seek to analyse, but to memorate. So I find in one of the old index cards on which I recorded my thinking, this gloss by George Steiner on Heidegger‘s Letter on Humanism on the distinction between logos and legein:

The latter, claims Heidegger, does not signify a discursive, sequential saying, but an ingathering, a harvesting, a collecting and re-collecting (re-membering) of the dispersed, vestiges of Being. To think fundamentally is not to analyse but to memorate (Danken ist Andanken), to remember Being so as to bring it into radiant disclosure (George Steiner, Heidegger, p. 124)

Arendt, by contrast, thinks deeply about memory, but together with what she calls natality, the “capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected, with which all human beings are endowed by virtue of being born” (Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy). And natality brings her thought closer to action and the love of the world. After all, we love our children, and do not seek to remake them as more perfect humans.

It was Arendt’s political thought – and in the video interview, she denies being a philosopher in favour of being a political theorist -that moulded me deeply. From Arendt and others I absorbed a refusal to fall into oppositional categories, dualisms of left and right, conservative and progressive. The works I read most closely were Past and Present and On Revolution, which especially seemed to carry the paradox I myself experienced of wanting to love the world as an outcast. On a card I have written down from On Revolution:

To the extent that the greatest event in every revolution is the act of foundation, the spirit of revolution contains two elements which to us seem irreconcilable and even contradictory. The act of founding the new body politic, of devising the new form of government involves the grave concern with the stability and durability of the new structure; the experience, on the other hand, which those who are engaged in this grave business are bound to have is the exhilarating awareness of the human capacity of beginning, the high spirits which have always attended the birth of something new on earth. (Arendt, On Revolution)

From the irreconcilable emotions we find in beginning and enduring spring our opposites of political thought – conservatism and progressive liberalism. But, Arendt says, this centuries-old tradition of political thought “must be recognised to be among the symptoms of our loss.”

The deeper lesson of enduring through dark times that I find in Arendt’s writings is the responsibility to bring together as friends or at least as neighbours our human plurality – thought and action, enduring and beginning, conservative and progressive dispositions, aggression and passivity, vita activa and vita contemplativa. Not remaking of the world through technological or bureaucratic utopias, but poetic thought is an essential pathway to this imagined coexistence.

She closes The Human Condition with the remarks that thought remains possible “wherever men live under conditions of political freedom.” But Arendt notes that “no other human capacity is so vulnerable, and it is in fact far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than it is to think” ( p 324). This duty for poetic thought in destitute times rests on all of us, not a few ivory tower academics. We can create such thoughts each in our own public samizdat. So the last words of the book that should have been titled Amor Mundi retreat rightly from the noisy marketplace, and repeat the great words of Cato the Elder, the conservative Roman senator and historian:

“Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.”

 

 

 

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat X: flight in green light

X
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
Wallace Stevens, 13 Ways of looking at a blackbird
It is not often that the average educated reasonable person catches a glimpse of bureaucrats in flight, out in the open, for all to see, their black wings starkly beautiful in a soft green light. They are told it is not their job to take the limelight. They should keep away from public stages, television lights, and open-ended discussions with media identities. Most are harshly disciplined for talking out of school, even for making critical comments on the upper hierarchy of their organisations on facebook. Free speech – even perhaps all elements of freedom of thought, conscience and religion as defined by the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights  – is something bureaucrats routinely, in my experience (yes, limited to a tolerant democracy of moderate quality), defend for others, while not enjoying themselves.
A great cone of silence – that evergreen metaphor of broken, mundane conspiracies created by Mel Brooks in Get Smart – and a more effective invisibility cloak screen out bureaucrats from the great conversations on matters of public importance that shape the moral lives of our distressed republics. Those republics suffer for it. They suffer through a lowering of standards of public speech and political thought. They suffer through the gradual humiliation and disordering of the great public institutions of bureaucracy, which are at their strongest when they enjoy a strong, open and accountable relationship with the people they serve. That relationship should not be funnelled through the cell phone of a whiz-kid political adviser and the mindless demands of the 24 hour political media machine. They suffer from the diminishing of the pool of knowledge shared to solve our many common problems of coordination. They suffer through the loss to the public stage of some of the best informed, articulate and compassionate minds. In their place we get panel shows of partisan left/right think-tankers, meretricious lobbyists and journalists endlessly talking to journalists about what journalists think of the issues of the day. Truly, the bawds of cacophony.
Could it be another way? I recall several years ago a serious current affairs television announced that it would interview the head of the department responsible for child protection and family services, then called, with no conscious irony, the Department of Human Services. The department had been heavily criticised on many matters. The still quite new Government, then within the first weeks or months of its office, had even made something of a major election issue of the failings of this department and promised a major and fundamental inquiry, quite an unusual reordering political priorities. The head of the department was also not some mere courtier, but had worked on the front lines of child protection for most of her career. She held a deep knowledge of the dilemmas, and had some real polish in speaking clearly to many audiences about how things ought to improve. Moreover, it was she who had been responsible directly and personally for many of the failures and many of the successes in child protection over maybe 20 years. It was right that she should face the tough questions, not some Minister newly briefed and with only a helicopter view of the problems. Surely, she is the best person to ask,  on principle because of both her knowledge and accountability.
But when it came time for the interview to air, the capable, polished and assertive Minister appeared in the studio and live to air. The first question of her was why would you not let your most senior bureaucrat speak directly to the program? The Minister’s response was that I am the elected official and the Minister responsible, and it is appropriate that I represent the Government’s views to the public. This is the Westminster system, but more it is a narrow code of operations enforced with rigid, thoughtless discipline entrenched by political and media advisory staff over the last thirty years.
It is not that the Minister was not capable and within her rights to speak on behalf of the Government. But was she really within her rights to silence her most senior official, and to prevent any form of direct relationship between the leaders of bureaucratic institutions and the public they serve? The Minister, after all, would have many more opportunities to speak to the media. The provincial government I serve releases five or more media releases every day. But they are the cheap and bowlderised verse of the bawds of euphony. It is surely time to silence their cries, sit back and observe the blackbird in flight in these strange and rare lights.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat IX: servants of Utopias.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat IX: servants of Utopias.

IX

When the blackbird flew out of sight,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

There is a strange book out there, which, if I ever develop these blogged posts into a more scholarly collection of essays, I suppose I will have to read, and it is called On the Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Written by an American activist academic, David Graeber, who describes himself as an “anarchist anthropologist”, it declaims the “total bureaucratization” of the world. This is the utopia of rules, in which there is a strange marriage between the worst of Capitalism and the worst of Bureaucracy, both accented with pantomime capitals.

It is very much a view from outside bureaucracy; the libertarian anarchism that seems so prevalent in American culture, and the resentment of constraints by rules and resources that is so common among the modern salaried professoriat. As a way of looking at bureaucrats, it is strangely unconvincing.

For a start, it misses the mark in describing the people who it caricatures. There are plenty of Graebers who I have encountered within the bureaucracy, who make it their mission to deregulate and strip away all constraints on the creative destruction of the merchants who they adore from afar. Far from utopians of rules, some bureaucrats are utopians of markets. I am not claiming there are not silly rules in all forms of modern bureaucracy, but these accounts of petty, rule-bound bureaucrats obsessed with process and paperwork are little more than thoughtless sneers. They bring us no closer to understanding the importance of law, as a repository of Edmund Burke’s compact between the past, present and future; nor do they really help us understand the strange and more pervasive role of utopian fallacies in modern bureaucracies.

These ways of looking at the bureaucrat suffer a conceptual hostility to the state that is itself utopian, or at least suffers from the born free fallacy described in Roger Scruton’s ever-useful, The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope. So John Gray’s review of Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules  isolates the book’s account of bureaucracy as a utopian vision of the world ruled by rational principles. Graeber extends his anarchist vision to believing in the deformation of of the true “insurrectionary moment” by the deviation of revolutionaries from their true lawless path through the maze of bureaucracy. So Graeber quotes Lenin scornfully saying he wanted to run the Revolution “like a postal service”. And John Gray scornfully corrects Graeber in believing that such martinet exclamations were the real cause of the disappointments of the Revolution.

The state, law and strong bureaucratic institutions are gifts of the political world. They are the artefacts that make freedom possible, not the curses that suppress it. They are the associations in which negotiated solutions to our many conflicts may be discovered, beyond the limited vision, however utopian, of any one mind. As John Gray observes:

“But does it follow that state power is always and only repressive? Can’t it sometimes also be liberating? Turning away from these awkward questions to a fantasy of unfettered freedom, Graeber joins hands with the neoliberals he scorns.”

John Gray has in mind some specific examples of bureaucratic institutions, such as the United Kingdom’s post-war National Health Service, that are threatened by both the libertarianism of the merchants, the follies of the spin-doctors and a more pervasive utopia of Reform. And it is here that I begin to see more connections with my own experience.

“In Graeber’s neo-anarchist view, the state is a demonic force thwarting human freedom. This seems to me a simple-minded philosophy, but perhaps it explains why he says so little about the public services that were created as part of the postwar settlement in Britain. Not entangled in government directives as almost every public body is at the present time, these were genuinely autonomous institutions. Regulated by those who worked in them, they weren’t burdened by the bloated bureaucracy that strangles them today. But they were able to enjoy this freedom only because a public space had been created for it by the use of state power.” John Gray

I work in one deformed successor to such an institution, although its origins are further back in the nineteenth century. The Health Department of Victoria has had many incarnations, and like public health departments around the world, it has long been at the heart of the modern state. It has used public resources, rules, professional expertise, imaginative action and the authority of the state to improve the lives of the community it serves. There is no clearer measure of this than the exceptional growth in life expectancy since the mid-nineteenth century.

Yet today this public institution and its best traditions are entangled in overheated grand plans, a bloated senior executive court, and a poisonous growth of bureaucratic utopianism. This poison is not Graeber’s Utopia of Rules, but a Utopia of Reform. It is a poison not of pettiness, but of grandiosity.

This Utopia of Reform is not an exclusively bureaucratic phenomenon. The Utopian plans, visions, “systems reforms” and targets to eliminate all blights on the human condition come from many sources – politicians, activists, lawyers, academics, the not-for-profit sector, even some business leaders. There is not a single Utopia pursued, but many Reforms – projected into a “future state” which these once prudent, proud institutions now kowtow before. All of these reform ideas commit the utopian fallacy, as Roger Scruton describes it:

“Hence the utopian fallacy, which tells us that the ideal is immune to refutation. We need never turn back on our utopian aims, since utopia itself can never be realized and thus never disproved. It serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

It may seem surprising to describe the upper courts of bureaucracy as infected by Utopianism, but that is what I see around me. It is not necessarily a Utopianism without pragmatism, without cynicism, without opportunist careerism. To present yourself as a reformer, as an advocate of “change”, is the badge that marks belonging to the executive class of the bureaucracy today. And like group markers everywhere, this apparent idealistic, enthusiastic embrace of change is a declaration that those outside the club are the enemy of all their striving.

“The ideal remains forever on the horizon of our experience, unsullied and untried, casting judgement on all that is actual, like a sun that cannot be looked at but which creates a dark side to everything on which it shines.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

The blackbird files out of sight of the institutions which they have coerced into their dreams, and marks the edge of the future circles from which the actual people of those institutions are excluded.

Is it any wonder that there are political revolts around the world against these Utopias of Reform that have come to dominate our bureaucratic and political elites over the last thirty years? People realise, as Scruton says, that “Behind the utopia there advances another aim altogether, which is the desire for revenge against reality.” (Uses of Pessimism)

This virus of reform cannot be effectively opposed by dreams of liberation from the state, but by a restitution of the institutions of law, good government and bureaucracy. It requires a defence of the tradition of bureaucracy, governing and authority that I am groping my way towards understanding in these posts. This is necessary since, as Scruton argues, the reform solutions of the bureaucratic utopians destroy the institutions that enable us to resolve our conflicts one by one.

Rather than pursue the disappearing circles of our utopian blackbirds, we need to restore a bureaucratic tradition of sober judgement, cautious authority, prudent thought, and respectful talking to strangers.

“The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a utopia. It is the residue of a myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit lad down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it unfolds through norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the utopians set out to destroy.”Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism

The antidote to the Utopias of Rules and the Utopia of Reform is thus not liberation, freedom or markets, but law, institutions and a modest belief that we are all blackbirds.

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat VII: at the feet of thin men

VII

O thin men of Haddam,

why do you imagine golden birds?

Do you not see how the blackbird

Walks around the feet

Of the women around you?

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

Bureaucrats do not figure much in political utopias. Lawmakers do. Political leaders with marvellous abilities – vision and will – do. But bureaucrats? They appear in utopias if at all only as exiles from the dreamt republic.

Utopias though are dangerous things. Golden illusions that lead us astray. The beautiful clean lines that insist on being etched in blood on human skin. Utopias, dreams of progress, pining for the restoration of a former time, ideals, grand visions of a better world and a purer democracy. or merely the reforms pursued by the thin men of Haddam – they are all temptations to straighten the crooked timber of humanity. They are all manias to make order out of chaos at least in our minds. They are all failures of looking at a bureaucrat.

To see the bureaucrat in the political world, we must be comfortable with a messier, more mundane interpretation  of the real. We must see the blackbirds feeding at the feet of the women of Haddam.

13 Ways of looking at a bureaucrat VI: through barbaric glass darkly

13 Ways of looking at a bureaucrat VI: through barbaric glass darkly

VI

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
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?