The Violence of Bureaucracy

Right. So another rabbit hole. Several things I have come across recently have mentioned the concept of bureaucracy as violence. There was a reference by David Graeber and some journal articles I happened upon. I have so much going on that I don’t have time to give the topic justice, but I wanted to employ this post as a reminder—along with the host of other reminders to which I need to attend.

Let’s start with some definitions.

Violence

The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

Parsing the salient parts, I distil the meaning for my intents and purposes to be the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation.

For further clarity, we arrive at a

Violence is the intentional use of power, against another person that results in psychological harm or deprivation

Bureaucracy

Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures.

Ostensibly, my train of thought is that bureaucracy is a deontological structure meant to standardise and normalise a process. Problems arise by the facts that (1) one size doesn’t fit all and (2) it’s a system thinking challenge likely missing dimensions—if the domain is even appropriately defined and accounted for at the start. This is where bureaucracy intersects violence.

bureaucracy becomes a Procrustean bed

In my mind, bureaucracy becomes a Procrustean bed. Speaking of bed… Fais dodo.

EDIT: In a manner of speaking, I might suggest that normalisation, as a rule, is violence, but I haven’t exactly thought it through. I am not particularly comfortable with the notion of self, so against whom would this violence be perpetrated? Nonetheless, this Procrustean notion still springs to mind—as a moulding. Some might consider it to be character-building. But his lot would either deny the violence or consider it to be a worthwhile crucible. But it’s only a crucible when this character outcome comports with their accepted ideal. The only leeway given is in consideration of those with poor childhoods leading to delinquency. This does not diminish the bloodlust for justice, but it allows for blame to be cast, if not on the perpetrator then on the parents or guardians. I digress.

Hannah Arendt spoke of the Banality of Evil. In a manner, the violence that is bureaucracy is just this sort of metaphoric evil. This 7-minute summary (that could have been 4 if not for the stammering and pauses) is about just this point. In my experience, most bureaucracy is of the sort Arendt write about. I feel that this presenter is a bit more conservative about where he might draw this line.

I’ll exit this post with an observation/rant. I was shopping the other day, and I had one item. There was a short queue situated between a cashier and a self-checkout kiosk. We customers seemed to be dequeuing fine when a frontend supervisor appeared to instruct us to choose a register. I was second in the queue so his interaction with the person ahead of me went something like this:

Employee: Are you going to use the self-checkout?

Customer: Yes

Employee: [Looks at the kiosk]

Customer: Unless this register becomes available first.

Customer: [Cocks head incredulously]

Employee: You need to choose one.

At that moment, the cashier freed, and she took the vacancy. Thankfully—as my mind pondered how illogical this policy was (if indeed there was a policy) and how poorly the maths skills of whoever created it—, the self-service registered became available. Crisis averted.

The takeaway in the story is that blood pressure was unnecessarily elevated because of this bureaucratic rule. This is trivial. I won’t bore you with more anecdotes. Besides, I’m pretty sure, you’ve experienced this violence to one degree or another—whether at work, in commerce, interacting with government workers, or who knows what.

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