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?

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat V: the beauty of the bureaucrat

V
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

The idea that there is beauty in the acts of a bureaucrat may seem a shocking idea. Querulous. Contrary. Quixotic.

Are not bureaucrats grey, banal, the enemies of the great things, dull in their aesthetic sense, collectors of the petty and mean? Is this not the verdict of Hannah Arendt – the priestess of the public intellectual – on that archetype of the bureaucrat, the accounts clerk of the death camps, Adolf Eichmann, when she finds radical evil clothed in the banality of an unthinking, compliant bureaucrat?

Bureaucrats are commonly presented in comedies of muddling through. Fair to middling, mediocre, not beautiful, not striking a pose of lasting value. They are the shackles on the visions of the great artists, the exquisite leaders, the entrepreneurs. They are the measurers, the schemers and the quibblers, not the creators, the inventors, the performers of beautiful theatre.

To claim beauty in the bureaucracy, somewhere on that vast incomplete canvas of grey oils, is a thought at odds with my own reflections that the modern bureaucracy is a confederacy of dunces, an affront to its intellectual traditions, a terrible disappointment to those of us who believed we were joining an institution of mandarins, schooled in essays on practical moral judgement.

Certainly, the prospects for acts of true beauty and lasting cultural value from our decayed institutions seem poor. They have been overrun by patronage of the consultocrats. They are plagued by leaders who mistake their ambition to impress their patrons with boldness of purpose, clarity of vision, and persuasive thought. A head of a department will decide that they can prove their mettle to their political leader by using a tragic, deadly and rare event to force the institution they lead to do things it will not do. They will bend it to a different purpose, twist its laws against its principles, and turn hard cases into bad law. A problem that does not exist will be decorated with powerpoint charts of flimsy concepts – cohort segmentations, process maps of unique events, service models for half-baked ideas – and whenever someone stops and questions the quality of the thought, what is the response?  “Well the head of the department is very ambitious… They stand back and take a wider view…. They are pursuing ‘opportunistic reform'”.

Such thoughts, such projects, such pandering to the court are the antitheses of work of lasting value. It is actions like these that are destroying our public instiutions, turning them into a vanity theatre for a meritless and parasitic court. They are acts of vandalism, turning institutions with a cultural life of their own into the playthings of rootless reformers.

But I would not feel so strongly if I did not have an attachment to something at once both profound and connected to enduring value, and surely that attachment is to some kind of beauty that survives in these ravaged institutions. The subordinated people who must try to make some good from these fanciful reform projects fudge and dissemble and prevaricate in the hope that their more enduring ideas might survive these dark times. They raise their doubts. They question the speed with which all such follies rush to their bad conclusions. They sympathise with their fellow subordinates, perennially excluded from the club of the powerful, who sit around in rooms and speak ignorant contempt of their staff, and find a way to endure and survive. They repeat to themselves, when they cannot sleep at night, wracked as they are by these pantomimes of ambition, looking for some kind of comfort in profound thought, the words of Robert Conquest’s third law of politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.”

They cannot confront the court or its ambitious grandees. Heroic gestures of defiance will only bring ruin on their heads, and in any case are contaminated by the empty heroic gestures of their leaders. Pity the country in need of heroes? To conserve what matters most of the discovered genius of their institutions, they must practise not heroic, but ordinary virtues. They must practice not an art of declamations on a well-lit public stage, but an art of innuendos and inflections and samizdat.

They learn to suspect the forms of beauty of beloved by the politicians, senior executives and consultants who leech their work. These self professed masters of the universe admire design thinking, like Keating’s clean pure lines and beautiful sets of numbers. This is a beauty of power and dominance, of the kind that clears the slums in cities and finds in boxed cartoons in powerpoint the driving causes of human behaviour.

The beauty of the bureaucrat is humbler, messier, more intricate, quieter. It is a beauty of dappled things:

All things counter, original, spare, strange; 

   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) 

      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; 

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 

                                Praise him

(Gerald Manley Hopkins, Pied Beauty)

The god of the consultocrats is change. They worship it like a cargo cult. They use it to warn, intimidate, cower, and to excuse their thoughtlessness. Yet with all their change, they accomplish nil.

The authentic bureaucrat pursues a beauty that is past change. It is a beauty found in stooping to drink from the river of life, and other acts of humility. It is a beauty found in situations that are messes and that force all who act in them to stumble and drop all preconceptions. It is a beauty of perplexity, of thoughts that are intricate and hard to express. This kind of beauty is imperilled by the reign of terror led by the reformers and grand designers, the well connected pontificators, and the consultocrats. It is an endangered beauty amidst political disorder and institutional decay.

Yet it is also a kind of beauty for which we must feel in the depths of our soul a lifelong, painful loss. For only in the fires of that grief can we reforge our will to conserve, cherish and fight for the pied beauty of the bureaucrat.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

13 ways of looking at bureaucrat IV: in unity is death.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird, stanza IV

The supreme fiction of government is the unity of politics and administration. This fiction is told through many conceits and many variations. Sam Finer’s glorious achievement, his multi-volume History of Government from the earliest times, written after his retirement from the university, distinguished decision-makers and decision-implementers. Woodrow Wilson, long before entering politics, as a young doctoral student, looked to the Prussian bureaucratic tradition to imagine a science of administration not dirtied by “the poisonous atmosphere of city government, the crooked secrets of state administration, the confusion, the sinecurism and corruption ever and again discovered in the bureaux at Washington” (“The Study of Administration” 1887, quoted Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: from the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (2014). There, in an unworldly puritanism sickened the patronage of politics, public administration was born as a field of study.

Weber composed his conceit differently, with a more tragic foreboding, as rational-legal authority. Duller economists compose mathematical formulae on the principal-agent problem to seek to explain away messy human problems. Both hide away in rules or in contracts the divisions between politics and administration.The Westminster system itself, that common resort of scoundrels among the top echelons of the bureaucracy, vests this fiction in myths of Ministerial responsibility and meritocratic appointments. And then there are the true believers in political will, reform, integrity or leadership, who dream that their vision of the world can be imposed through government as one. The leader, their Cabinet, the top officials, the minor officials, the public sector unions, the stakeholders will all get on board as one, and the great Reform, the last Utopia, will reveal itself to the world..

Two cannot be one. Nor can three, and even less any higher number. We live in unresolvable plurality. Our lives are long acts of distinguishing ourselves from others. It is in finding the differences in our being and living together with them, not confusing our leaders with “unifying intelligence,” that we find authentic identities and life-giving freedom. And it is only by abandoning the supreme fiction of unity that we can see truly the presence of the bureaucrat in governing.

After all, it is not as if bureaucrats have been much loved by the politicians who are the true rulers of governments. A government is, as both the Oxford English Dictionary and Stein Ringen (in his masterpiece, A Nation of Devils: Democratic Leadership and the Problem of Obediencedefine it, is a body of persons who govern a nation. That body of persons are the Ministers who form the ruling party. To distinguish the government from governing or the vast strange web of governance is to see clearly the blackbird flying into view like the holy spirit. As Ringen writes:

we need to unwrap the system that generates governance and explore what goes on inside it. For me, the relationship between the political bosses and their civil servants, for example, is very much a part of the mystery of governance, and I don’t want to hide that mystery away in a definition that says that both bosses and servants are parts of the same thing” (A Nation of Devils).

To see the differences, we need to look past the nice compliments and befuddling stories of cohesion traded by serving and retired witnesses of high politics. Behind closed doors, or when pressed by recurrent failures, the venom and the hatred of difference comes out. What better example than that great advocate of reform and vision, Tony Blair, who Ringen magisterially assays as a master of “activism in all things, and accomplishment in none”(A Nation of Devils). A master of appearing across his brief, Blair’s unifying intelligence could never grasp why the institutions at his command did not unify before his fluffy will. His whipping boy was the civil service. He would describe them as the “sinecure cynics who despise anything modern and are made uneasy by success” (Tom Bower, Broken vows: Tony Blair – the tragedy of power (2016)).

His recurrent sallies at reforming the National Health Service all failed, so that he resembled some latter-day Don Quixote, who had lost touch with reality through reading too many business magazines and crisply titled consultants’ charts. He surrounded himself with advisers who comforted him in his delusions, but he could not ever really see the real people in the institution and how it might be made to work better.  The civil service was always wrong, always a problem, always in need of reform and modernisation. Tom Bower’s remarkable account of Blair’s tragic years in power is informed by many interviews with the most senior and many more officials who served around Blair’s sofa court. Through their testimony they make clear that Blair ran a government at odds with itself, and with any decent culture of governing. Politics itself was fragmented, and his intellectual divorce from the “traditional culture of government during his decade in Downing Street” undermined all achievement. His undeclared civil war within government itself led to the tragic failures of Iran and Afghanistan; but more Bowers concludes:

“We now realise that the path to the two wars was not an aberration but all of a piece with the way his government behaved across its entire domestic agenda, especially in the areas of health, education, energy and immigration. In a tragic sense, Blair had been consistent.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p 594

Unusually, Bowers in his biography of Blair leaves the last word to a bureaucrat. There were three top civil servants, Cabinet Secretaries who served Blair – all competently and loyally in Bowers’ judgement. They all Bowers said, after witnessing the strife of politics and administration and Blair’s many questionable acts, later judged that “Blair had not been a laudable guardian of the public’s interest.” The book closes with the reflection of longest-serving under Blair of these Cabinet Secretaries, Richard Wilson:

“There are events during my period as Cabinet secretary that make me shudder at what I remember because we had high hopes and we were so disappointed. He promised so much, but in the end so little was achieved.” Bowers, Broken Vows, p. 594

More disappointment had been harvested from the supreme fiction of government. What might have been if this illusion had been dispelled, and stronger leaders of public institutions had acted with a belief that in unity is death?

 

Image source: Daily Telegraph