13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat: vigilance amidst stillness

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
(Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, stanza 1)
We citizens flatter ourselves sometimes by believing that government, big brother, and ultimately some bureaucrat somewhere in a police or intelligence agency, is really watching us. The ever vigilant state is more a paranoid dream of libertarians, artists and entrepreneurs – all rebels against bureaucratic rule – than a genuine historical phenomenon. Yes, there have been states where individuals and their errant minds have been tracked down, followed, and described in exacting, excruciating detail. Anna Funder’s Stasiland recounts the underworld of eternal vigilance created by one such state. More powerfully, I recall that Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem was painstakingly written on cigarette papers, committed to the memory of her friend, and then silently burned so that no all-seeing eye of the KGB would detect her lament of dissent.
It is also true that we live in times of both unprecedented scrutiny and uninhibited exposure of our digital communications. The collaborations between national intelligence agencies and large information technology firms, exposed by the leaks of Edward Snowden and to a lesser extent Julian Assange, have created not an ever-twitching, omniscient eye, but a vast and messy drain in which all the banal facts and words and digits of our lives swoosh down into a dense black big data mess. We are told that clever algorithms and super-smart graduates of the best universities can see patterns in this oozy, sticky mess. I wonder if this is just hubris.
In any case, the super-spies huddled over their super-computers are a rare and atypical form of bureaucrat. And their form of vigilance is not the only kind practised by other bureaucrats. For the most part bureaucrats observe their field with the same tools we all have – publicly available information, intuition pumps that read social behaviour, the ready-made ideas that circulate in the popular press and magazines, the cultural memes of our times. This great majority of bureaucrats content themselves with recycling and rehearsing the mantras of the day – whether those mantras are taken from some inept consultant’s report, the editorial of the Financial Review, or the opinions and  prejudices fostered by their social circle. They draw their interpretations of the world from a common stock of ideas that requires little searching for truth and little investigation of deeper questions. These ideas find their confirmation quickly, and reflect the governing consensus of their patrons and the powerful kingpins who guide the networks to which they belong. These bureaucrats are the conformists and lackeys of those zombie ideas that so dominate our governments, especially after the degradation of public intellectual culture over the last 30 years. They are the managers who cannot find a better argument in favour of the changes they propose than that change is always happening and you can’t fight change. Ironically, they cannot see that the same change undermines their calls to reform the world in the static image of their own utopias and interests.
But there are some other bureaucrats, perhaps a small but significant minority, who are less like squawkish parrots with their imitative cries, and more like the eye of Stevens’ blackbird, restlessly searching a vast immoveable world of snowy mountains for a clue to the unfolding of this world. This kind of bureaucrat seeks out contrary opinions and conflicting information. This kind of bureaucrat regularly scans the best academic journals of their field to find an idea that is better than their own. This kind of bureaucrat speaks after a meeting to the quiet voices in the room, and looks carefully and meticulously at the surprising data, that does not fit neatly the line graphs of progress or decline. When this kind of bureaucrat is challenged by their Minister to find some kind of model of cultural change – “someone must have one, surely?” – they will look outside management journals, and read deeply in anthropology, biological sciences, behavioural psychology and history before realising that we are posing again the enigmas of Heraclitus, but with no patience for oracles. Such a bureaucrat will pose to themselves everyday fundamental questions that try to make deeper sense of the social patterns they observe in their reading and in the social and cultural worlds around them.
I know such bureaucrats exist; because I have been one. It is true we are a small, and likely dwindling minority. Yet are not all of our most precious cultural heritages the same scarce, endangered species? To preserve this tradition is essential if our societies are to be governed well, and our great intellectual traditions are to be conserved against degradation by the chic and stupid mantras of people on the make. It is given to a few perhaps to be the seers: to observe the things that others cannot see, and then to find the words to communicate them so that the great ship can keep sailing on. Those seers are rarely the grand mandarins who control large organisations. They do not receive the medals and the gongs. Their photoshopped faces do not appear on the Mandarin news site. Nor are they the self-confident consultocrats who trade up their reputations with the latest fashionable nonsense. They suffer the exile of all prophets, and are often found wandering wounded, lame, even blinded in the organisations who neither like nor support them. They do not even promise utopia and transformation. The long vigil has taught them of the limitations of the human animal. But if we see them, if we find a way of truly looking at this kind of bureaucrat, if we hear what they have learned through their long years of vigilance, then perhaps we can save our bureaucracies from the depredations of management that mistakes ambition for thought.

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