Kafka, Mass Politics & Chang Wattana

Institutions such as courts, constitutions, laws and democracy have replaced the divine rule of gods and kings. The belief in the rule of law is found across the political spectrum, in both the democratic and dictatorship side. So much so, that concepts like Democracy, when absent of mass politics, have become an ethereal, almost divine belief. This past year, we saw millions of people take part in the ritual of voting. While once they went to the temple to ask for favour, now they go to the ballot box, praying to the gods or asking the politicians for help. Democracy, however, is of course not divine, it is a system built on human-made institutions of courts, laws and procedures– rules, powered by bureaucracy. Bureaucracy has been described as the highest power of the atheist, one which bloats and stagnates human potential, the insidiousness of this divine atheism was diagnosed around the time of its inception by the writer Franz Kafka in the early 20th century. His diagnosis applied today in Thailand, shows the prescience of his work, and the pitfalls of our faith in these institutions.

The Castle & The Trial

Franz Kafka’s, The Castle, tells the story of a land surveyor, visiting a rural town on a work assignment. The surveyor, the main character, is a committed bureaucrat, who struggles against the local bureaucracy to begin his work in earnest. Such is the fastidiousness of the surveyor, he insists on following the correct bureaucratic channels in order to carry out his labour. Throughout the story, it becomes increasingly clear that he is repeatedly running into a brick wall of bureaucratic incompetence, procedural stagnation and the bloat of paperwork, he is also increasingly alienated by the experience, becoming more and more frustrated, paranoid and lonely. In one scene, he witnesses a town bureaucrat taking documents out of the back of an office and burning them, still, he continues his pursuit in vain through the bureaucratic maze, determined to achieve permission to sell his labour without resolution.

In another Kafka story, The Trial, the main character is served a summons to court for an unnamed crime he is unaware he committed, the novel follows his struggles and encounters with the invisible Law and the untouchable Court. As he tries in vain to discover what crime he is accused of and how to appeal it he again hits the wall of bureaucratic institutions. Meanwhile, he struggles to continue to work his day job in a bank. During his interactions with the court, the bureaucrats he encounters are simultaneously all-powerful and incapacitated– hamstrung by the very system they are charged with overseeing, each bureaucrat is responsible for one string in the Gordian knot. Much like the monks of old, they serve the role of mediating our relationship with god or with the state. The layman can approach them, begging for aid, but the powers of these mediators are of course, limited.

At the end of The Trial, there is no trial, the finale sees the main character taken out back and executed, no reason is given as to why, akin to the scene in The Castle where the papers are burnt. Kafka died before he could complete The Castle, as such it is left for us to imagine the fate of the land surveyor. 

In both books, the main character, despite being persecuted by these bureaucratic systems, upholds a belief in and respects them– the belief that these systems, while imperfect, ultimately serve a necessary purpose of governance.

These two books, The Castle and The Trial, aren’t really about bureaucracy, rather they’re about alienation and the futility of the individual in the face of these neo-divine human institutions. In the books, characters behave strangely, odd out-of-place scenes invade the storyline, these sub-plots are always connected to the bureaucratic institutions. We are strongly given the impression that either society is collapsing around the main character, or the main character himself is going insane. Either way, this was Kafka’s method of portraying the alienation, isolation, loneliness and insanity of living by these institutions. 

Ever since we killed our gods, the individual has no choice but to put their faith in these human institutions. Today the same courts and laws are found in both democracy and dictatorship. Under dictatorship, we put our faith in the institutions of the nation to govern us, while under democracy we do the same, with the ritualistic act of casting a ballot once every few years.

Kafka, Marx and Mass Politics

While Kafka writes about bureaucracy, he recognises it as more of a symptom than a disease. Much like how lung infections cause coughing and coughing causes a sore throat. Our system of governance causes bureaucracy and bureaucracy causes alienation. 

Of course, Marx wrote of alienation within the context of labour. At the time, workers on the assembly line would polish metal, or cut holes in wood, over and over again, the same action, as the products would move down the assembly line. The workers would never truly create something, rather they were individualised, separated from whatever it was they were producing. The worker wouldn’t design the item, select the price or sell it, and whatever profit from the item’s production would go to the factory owner. They were separated from whatever they created with their labour, they were “alienated from their labour”.

Meanwhile, Kafka, a socialist himself, indirectly used his novels to articulate a form of alienation from governing institutions. By reading Kafka, and drawing from our own lives, we can see how the citizen is individualised, separated from the state and the institutions that govern them. Today, we can see how the citizen has little recourse to change these institutions other than the narrow window of voting on a tiny pool of candidates within a parliamentary democracy.

Kafka’s writing was doubtless influenced by elements of Marxism, both of the main characters, from the aforementioned novels, are individuals crashing against the rocks of bureaucratic power, showing the futility of individualism in the face of large institutions. The socialist solution to this is, of course, mass movement politics. The large organising of individuals into a collective force to challenge the power of these existing institutions; be it the state, capitalism itself, or even just your local workplace. This does not mean symbolic protesting in the streets. It means building real power that can be wielded to genuinely counter those oppressive bureaucratic systems, to force them into subservience to the people. Mass movement co-dependent political organising, that takes place outside of the parliamentary system, provides the only real mechanism for citizens to challenge that parliamentary system and breach the walls of its bureaucratic castle. 

This kind of organising is not necessarily exclusive to the leftwing, however, as a practice, it is the only means we have against the rapacious forces of both capital and the capitalist state. Increasingly, we, as the proletariat, are alienated from both our labour and our systems of governance. Anyone who has been to their local Department for Transport office (กรมการขนส่งทางบก) to make a driver’s licence will have touched the walls of the bureaucratic castle, the regulation and scrutiny of every sheet of paper handed over, and the secret document burning ceremony that must take place every night, all across the country, in every government department. Surely, nobody in any government department anywhere in the country, can think this is a good or efficient system, yet it pervades, riddled with corruption, we seemingly cannot fight the bloat. 

The Castle – Chang Wattana

Kafka’s castle from The Castle, is itself not a castle. Rather is a large old building at the top of the hill which serves as a government center that administers the town below. The castle itself does not need to have real stone walls or armed guards. The walls are the bureaucratic procedures themselves, and the blind faith of the townspeople in following those procedures. 

The modern Muang system pervades 21st-century Thailand. The bureaucratic imperial castle of Chang Wattana oversees its regional Muangs in the provinces. The gates to the palace of paperwork are guarded by disinterested receptionists sipping from their Amazon ice coffee cups. They form the same system that prevents farmers from owning their land and prevents the ascension of democratically elected governments. The secretaries themselves, like Kafka’s bureaucrats, hold no actual power, you can not get angry at them, just frustrated at the system that lurks behind them. Thailand is run by the same bureaucratic procedures as Kafka’s castle, the faith of the population in those procedures, however cynical they may be, is what allows them to bloat and pervade. 

This is what we mean when we critique electoralism in the absence of mass politics. Time and time again, those demanding change are fooled by the promise of voting as a means of change without the necessary addition of a mass movement. Voting is just another castle procedure, it may superficially change the facade of the walls, but it can not bring them down, any belief otherwise further cements their stones. 

The Old Gods

Towards the end of Kafka’s life, he became increasingly interested in rural Jewish folklore and mysticism. As an educated city dweller, he envied the spiritual life of rural folk. The richness of their beliefs and customs provided some kind of flavour and purpose that was absent from the bland neo-atheistic day-to-day life of the urban bureaucrats. Of course, he couldn’t bring himself to believe in what he considered ancient superstition, however, the fundamental parallels between these systems, religion and bureaucracy, these systems of divination and manifestation were clear to see. 

Today, if monks have been replaced by bureaucrats as our mediators, politicians have filled the absent space of old gods. Instead of going to the temple to ask their favour, we go to the ballot box every few years and cheer them on Twitter. Regardless, we lack a kind of agency that we can hold ourselves. When we outsource our problems to the gods or the politicians, we give ourselves up to individuality, relinquishing any hope of collective action, I did my bit by voting and tweeting, or by making merit and praying– whatever’s next is in the hands of the almighty gods of bureaucracy.