The Bureaucratic State, Fear, and the Kafkaesque


By Jason Michael


Ken Loach’s 2016 film I, Daniel Blake is perhaps the most accessible cinematic introduction to the ideas of the bureaucratic state, power and fear, and the Kafkaesque in recent memory. Daniel Blake, the story’s title character, finds himself locked into a labyrinthine officious system which, without exerting itself much, is calibrated to mystify and frustrate its victims and in doing so to harness their own energies in order to break them down. This is the exercise of pure state-bureaucratic power, obfuscated by endless layers of processes and regulations, that is intended to preoccupy and overwhelm to the end that the victim becomes at first disorientated, then anxious, then angry, and then ultimately defeated and dependent.

We call this the Kafkaesque after the work of Franz Kafka. In The Trial (1925) Josef K., the main protagonist, finds himself arrested and on trial. K. is never told what crime he has committed, he is denied access to the charges, and – owing to the irregular nature of the court – is forever alienated from the process by which he is to be tried. Behind all of this there is an apparently omnipotent judiciary with tier upon tier of nameless, faceless officials with varying degrees of power. Yet without this vast mechanism seeming to move one way or the other K. feels compelled to involve himself in the game of shadow cat and mouse the system produces in his mind, eventually becoming obsessed with and tormented by his quest to understand the process by joining dots that may or may not exist.

K. becomes, in effect, the agent of his own subjugation; the turnkey in his own psychological prison. He has an Advocate, but even this friend is a cog in the greater machine – using his access to what K. can never hope to access as a means to power – making slaves of his clients by drugging them on their own fetishisation of his power through access to power. In many respects Kafka’s exposition of authority by power induced self-subjugation anticipated Michel Foucault’s idea of bio-power; the nation state’s technology of power that controls large populations by co-opting the individual to become complicit in his or her own domination. This is precisely the mode of power we encounter in the work of Kafka and in the reality faced by social welfare recipients as depicted in Loach’s film.

This is the power of the modern bureaucratic nation state. By the awareness of possible and likely constant surveillance the increasingly atomised individual – whose humanity has been clinically tempered by numbers, records, information gathering, data storage, infantilisation, and clientalisation – becomes the policeman of the self. In this reality the author self-censors and conforms freely for fear of being seen and scrutinised by the now realised Big Brother state and state-dominated society. This is a democracy that behaves itself by conforming to the will of the state – to the will of power – en masse as a result of accepting as true the “promises of later success” and with vague hopes of the benefits and vague fears of the powers of the masters.


Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)

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