culture, the real world today

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

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.

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