Bureaucrat Meets Philosopher

A philosophical dialogue about the bureaucrat mindset

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PHILOSOPHER: I understand you’re a bureaucrat.

BUREAUCRAT: Well, I don’t actually work as a petty official in government.

PHILOSOPHER: But you are a proponent of the bureaucratic mentality, are you not?

BUREAUCRAT: I suppose as a philosopher you’d be inclined to mystify the efficient way of thinking, by calling it a “mentality.”

PHILOSOPHER: Just as I suppose that dealing squarely with the facts — whatever they might be — and without a hint of subterfuge would seem mystifying to a bureaucrat.

BUREAUCRAT: You think philosophy deals honestly with the facts?

PHILOSOPHER: My kind does, yes. But let’s focus on this “efficient way of thinking,” as you call it. The kind of mindset I’m speaking of is steeped in Bureaucratese, in the language of officialdom which is exactly the kind of language you’d expect someone to master who’s adept at covering up monstrous, systemic evils such as those that are familiar from capitalism, communism, or imperialism.

For example, as a bureaucrat you’re used to speaking in long, convoluted sentences to lose the naive listener to boredom; and you prefer buzzwords, clichéd phrases, and intimidating, incomprehensible jargon to plain speech. Instead of being direct or answering exactly what’s asked of you, you speak in platitudes and vague obfuscations and you substitute cynical talking-points for candid dialogue.

To hide yourself within the system you serve, you write in the passive voice, pretending you’re a nonentity and thus not responsible for anything you do in the system’s name. Paradoxically, to stand out in the system for the sake of being promoted, you write in overly formal, stiff, puffed-up phrases to retain a semblance of dignity.

This is the language and the mindset of business, government, police, and military bureaucracies and of the academic, medical, and legal professions.

BUREAUCRAT: I suppose you mean something like this type of speech: “The use of philosophy is strictly forbidden on these premises, and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law herewith enclosed and having been ratified on the occasion of the installation of His Highness, Lord Bureaucrat. The perpetration of philosophical pretensions will be ridiculed as per the appropriate instructions the lower-level bureaucrats have been issued, and philosophical volumes will be set aflame in the designated receptacle while the perpetrator shall compensate the bureaucracy for all appropriate measures taken in opposition to the perpetration.”

PHILOSOPHER: Yeah, that’s the stuff, although that’s more like the subgenre of Legalese. Imagine deploying that kind of pompous verbiage to deceive, distract, and distort, to make mountains of molehills and molehills of mountains. That would be the primary function of Bureaucratese.

BUREAUCRAT: So you say. Well, while at work I do tend to talk and write with that kind of impersonal efficiency.

PHILOSOPHER: But you not only often speak that way. Don’t you also defend the ideology that’s behind such an abuse of language and the deadening of your moral sensibilities?

BUREAUCRAT: That’s a loaded question. I defend the creation of powerful social systems that get stuff done. That’s all we’re talking about here, nothing as sinister as whatever’s being conjured by your philosophical imagination. Philosophers are failed artists in this respect, working freely with the cheap material of ideas.

PHILOSOPHER: Philosophical reflections aren’t so cheap, because unlike the slaves of the more powerful organizations, philosophers are constrained by critical thinking and by their conscience and their greater commitment to uncovering the truth than to the propagation of self-serving opinions.

But I see that you can turn off and on your Bureaucratese at will.

BUREAUCRAT: I’m in my inefficient cognitive mode, because I’m speaking to a philosopher who’s bound to take us on far-off flights of fancy. Speculate away, philosopher! I can already see the outline of your social subversion. Just be thankful our society is more free and enlightened than ancient Athens which executed the gadfly Socrates.

PHILOSOPHER: Or than Roman-occupied Palestine which did the same to Jesus. But our society was liberated and enlightened by early-modern philosophers!

BUREAUCRAT: No, the philosophers only pontificated about the progress and luxuries produced by the collective industries of Europe and North America. If everyone merely philosophized all day long, there would be no freedom or enlightenment, because no one would really be working to improve their circumstances.

PHILOSOPHER: And you contend that individuality has to be sacrificed so we can work together as professionals, create wealth and raise our living standards? We’ve got to suppress our spiritual longing, our philosophical insights, our moral suspicions, and confine our thoughts to the oppressive logic of Bureaucratese.

BUREAUCRAT: I wouldn’t say everyone is able to contribute so directly to progress, no. Pretentious intellectuals and artists have trouble doing so, for example.

PHILOSOPHER: And who is it who told you what progress is? The philosophers, mystics, and artists or the bean-counters, politicians, and corporate managers? Do the systems that make you a functionary speak with one voice that’s independent of their human members?

BUREAUCRAT: It’s obvious what progress is: maximize wealth and happiness, or as the economists call it, “utility.” Social progress is the empowerment of people to do what they want to do.

PHILOSOPHER: Even if that were true, do you think such knowledge fell from the sky? It took centuries of philosophical debate to prepare for the rise of liberalism — and philosophical dialogue is antithetical to Bureaucratese.

BUREAUCRAT: Philosophy, religion, art — those are cultural byproducts of concrete political, economic, and technological revolutions that did the real work of transforming society. To make those changes happen, we have to put aside childish things and work hard. Working hard requires optimizing the workflow, such as by streamlining communication.

PHILOSOPHER: So that’s as far as you can see, is it? That’s the extent of your self-awareness? I suppose you’re not practiced at interrogating your presumptions, so your understanding of such fundamental matters is only superficial. You’re a cog in the machine, so your perspective is as narrow-minded as a cog’s would be.

BUREAUCRAT: Enlighten me, then, philosopher! Tell me what I’m missing and redeem your childish art of speculation.

PHILOSOPHER: It’s not that you’re missing individuality, since you’re not a permanent bureaucrat, although I expect that the more you play the role of a functionary, the more that role will sap your ability to practice more vital ways of thinking.

But there’s no need to personalize the problem, so let’s try to focus on the bureaucratic mindset itself. First of all, do you concede that that mindset is as I described it earlier? I said it’s about keeping your head down, as it were, suppressing individuality which includes the capacity for rhetorical artistry and out-of-the-box thinking, so that the bureaucrat follows the rules as a servant of the organization. Bureaucratese itself is a stilted mode of speech for workers who are hiding themselves, and what they’re hiding most is their awareness that doing their jobs well often means betraying their personal principles.

BUREAUCRAT: Is there any principle you can specify that isn’t so much childish nonsense?

PHILOSOPHER: How about the Golden Rule? Or how about empathy, compassion, selflessness, and other moral or spiritual principles that if widely practiced would grind capitalist society to a halt? How about respect for human rights, for the freewill and divine potential of everyone to overcome obstacles and transcend their status as animals? How about the complementary contempt for treating each other like objects, like cogs in the machine or pawns on a chessboard?

When you speak Bureaucratese, the social system is speaking through you, so you become a soulless extension of the machine. There’s no humanity in Bureaucratese, no art or awareness of any noble purpose or of the existential stakes in life.

BUREAUCRAT: Yeah, a lot of that is obsolete gobbledygook. Progress has been largely automated, by this point. The systems preserve us as long as we serve them. Constitutional democracy, republicanism, private enterprise, scientific methods, consumerism — these represent what Francis Fukuyama called the end of history. We don’t have to pretend our First World Problems are grand philosophical conundrums, anymore. We just have to be productive functionaries of a worthwhile institution. Progress then will take care of itself, as will individual happiness.

PHILOSOPHER: I see. And the current global backlash against the neoliberal consensus? The rise of authoritarian regimes and sentiment in those democratic republics that were supposed to have been on autopilot — I suppose none of that concerns you. You’ve put your faith in institutions that are manifestly dysfunctional and are crumbling all around you, but you’re blind to that because you’ve spent so long turning yourself into a mouthpiece for those institutions, that you can’t even conceive of the possibility that a system can be flawed.

You’ve lost touch with deeper normative principles, so you think functionality is relative to the system’s commandments. You think all meaningful questions are internal to the government, corporation, or profession, so that you can’t entertain philosophical doubts about those organizations themselves. You assume the individual can be socially dysfunctional only if she’s not a productive drone, so you wouldn’t have expected a global backlash against neoliberal systems; you wouldn’t have imagined that those systems could be parasitic scams that are wrecking the planet.

Selling your soul to gain the world might be a fair tradeoff. But selling your soul for a plastic trophy that says you picked the wrong team? That would seem like an embarrassment you’d want to hide with the inhuman droning of Bureaucratese. Or have I missed something, because I’ve been too busy thinking rather than pushing papers around a desk?

BUREAUCRAT: Very amusing, wily gadfly! So witty and penetrating! Have you seen into the heart of reality? Have you stared into the abyss? Then how have your insights profited you? Are you socially successful and happy? No, I presume you’re unemployed and miserable. Yours are the ravings of a resentful loser.

You think social democracy and capitalism can’t overcome social unrest, by reframing the narrative or redistributing some wealth? And even if those systems were to collapse, new ones would likely take their place. An institution doesn’t have to be eternal to be worthy of your commitment. Why would I need philosophical or spiritual principles? I serve an institution that serves society, in turn, and helps automate progress. All I have to do is work, not stew in my basement, over-analyzing why things aren’t going my way.

PHILOSOPHER: And if you discovered your reigning institution enriched mostly a handful of plutocrats and were doing more harm than good to the planet, would you still serve as a loyal functionary? The problem is you could never discover as much, because your cost-benefit analysis would be as narrow-minded as your Bureaucratese. You’d include only the advantageous factors, holding the rest as irrelevant “externalities.” That’s the damage that can be done by that “efficient” mindset.

BUREAUCRAT: Which damage is greater, I wonder: that of the dehumanizing mentality you say is needed to serve an imperfect system, or the angst, horror, and resentfulness of the philosophical or artistic personality? When we act as bureaucrats, we’re attempting to build a better world. But when we ponder great mysteries, we paralyze ourselves with doubt. No, I’ll stick with pushing my papers and leave the more “meaningful” pursuits to you. Let’s see which turns out to be more valuable by its dollar value.

PHILOSOPHER: Do you know who makes the best philistines? Animals do, since they can’t know any better. Serve your masters well, then, drone. With Bureaucratese, your kind makes for fine livestock.

BUREAUCRAT: That would make you the big-brained gadfly on the livestock’s hindquarters.

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Knowledge condemns. Art redeems. I learned that as an artistic writer who did a doctorate in philosophy. We should try to see the dark comedy in all things.

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