One of the social movements Hannah Arendt considers a forerunner of European totalitarianism (at least in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) was the Pan-Germanic and Pan-Slavic movements that began in the 19th century. Neither of these movements saw their most intense activity in Germany or Russia themselves, although Dostoyevsky’s Demons describes well the cartoonish character of Pan-Slavism in the Russian intelligentsia. No, the main force of these movements, where they became truly violent, was in Austria-Hungary, the central European bureaucratic empire.
One of her central critiques of these movements (aside from her analysis of their anti-Semitism and general racism) was the crudity of their nationalism. She puts this down to context. The societies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had never experienced a genuinely powerful democratic legislature. Their governance had always been through the decrees of bureaucratic state organizations. An order came and you followed it. The order didn’t have to be defended or defined in rational terms. The state and the police gave an order, and the order was carried out. It was that simple.
Arendt explains how this works with reference to Franz Kafka, particularly The Castle. This is always pitched as the story of a man who travels to a small town to be employed as a land-surveyor, but whose employment is never actually acknowledged by the authorities, and he spends the entire novel trying to book a meeting with somebody to figure out what’s going on.
But Arendt doesn’t focus on K the land-surveyor. Her brief account of what’s important in The Castle for her project focusses on the character of Olga and her family. Olga is a beautiful young woman who at one point in the recent past turned down a sexual advance from one of the rarely-seen Castle bureaucrats. As a result, her entire family became persona non grata, a condition that she and her family accepts as part of the natural order of the community. Instead of protesting the system that condemned her for corrupt purposes, Olga spends the story trying to ingratiate herself with the bureaucrats again. Their decrees are the law, simply by the fact of their announcement.
As Arendt says, in bureaucratic governance (the domestic practice of Czarist Russia and Hapsburg Austro-Hungary, as well as the colonial practice of Britain), legislation and enforcement are the same act. The question of legitimacy doesn’t even occur in the bureaucratic framework of life. Even in our hideously compromised and corrupt governments, we at least have the process of public consideration of laws through open legislative chambers and institutions of accountability for public officials.
But this openness doesn’t exist in the corporate world, where the orders of a company’s leaders aren’t subject to the public scrutiny or consideration of employees. In the corporate framework, the authorship of a rule and the rule’s enforcement practically amount to the same act. This isn’t a problem with most corporations until they become so large as to control so much money and so many lives as to have the same practical power as some states, existing in hazy relationships with the governments of their home offices, sometimes even able to shape state legislation either through lobbying or direct intervention. And now that intelligence and military services are increasingly privatized, the public oversight that we demand of our governments isn’t really demanded of these increasingly powerful companies. At least, the demand isn’t strong enough to change the way they operate anymore.
It’s too bad Blackwater and Endgame Systems don’t have the same frivolity as my personal favourite arbitrarily operating company, A. T. & Love.