Friday, 27 March 2009

On bureaucracy and evil

First of all, thank you all for writing in; the messages still keep coming and I value them. A good friend in church made the point that this is a biased sample of people who have read and enjoyed my books. He is, of course, right but frankly I don’t know how to poll those who haven’t read and enjoyed the books. Secondly, nothing much has happened at work to do with jobs and reorganisation. But I’m sure there will be news in the week before we break up for Easter.

So let me tell you about something that happened to me this week which I’m afraid is symptomatic of the New Britain. A week ago I had a letter from the local doctor’s surgery which included what was claimed to be the form for my annual test for fasting glycaemia. Very nice of them, you say; yes, but the problem is I have never had such a test. I politely wrote back pointing out that 20 years ago I had been diagnosed with blood sugar problems for a matter of a week before a thyroid issue was diagnosed but that had been 20 years ago and that I have had no such problem since despite a fairly regular battery of blood tests.

On Monday I had a phone call from the surgery. The insistent and unapologetic woman said that the reason for the letter was that they had noticed I had had a marginal result in 1991 and felt a retest was in order. I’m afraid to say I was very cynical about this; anyone who knows the British Health Service will realise that the idea of people sitting around saying ‘We’ve got nothing to do this afternoon so let’s look at 18-year-old test results’ is ludicrous. I mentioned this to a surgeon in our Bible study the following day and was told with that thin, weary smile that our healthcare professionals now bear, that doctors are now being paid for every screening they carry out. So they trawl through the records looking for likely candidates and once found, send them to be tested for no other purpose than financial. So, in the pursuit of spurious statistics and dubious gain, genuine issues of patient health are completely overlooked. I was not terribly surprised; we generate all sorts of figures in order for fundraising and quite a lot have nothing to do with our prime purpose which is (I still believe against all the odds) educating people.

This has led me onto a further meditation about the nature of evil. I always thought when I looked at those 20th-century mass killings of Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany that their awesome administration (all those names, those interminable lists, the sheer organisation) was merely an incidental feature. My logic had been something like the following: you decide to eliminate people so you are forced to create a bureaucracy which enables such a killing to take place. The murderous hatred comes first, the paperwork is second. I am now beginning to revise my opinion. I wonder if there isn’t something about the very nature of administrative systems that actually facilitates evil. All these forms, targets and goals actually create a fertile soil in which other evils, including mass murder, can grow. I am a long way from fully understanding how this works but I suspect that first of all it is to do with the dehumanisation of individuals. The very nature of bureaucracy is to render us faceless ciphers and turn us into impersonal and distant objects that can easily be moved around. In such a virtual world we have no more permanence than this sentence I am writing on the computer screen. A few keystrokes and we are changed; a few more and we are gone.

A secondary feature of this bureaucratisation is the substitution of human good (which ought to be the goal of all our efforts) by statistical achievement. In the beginning, no doubt statistical achievements represent no more than the necessary quantification of human good but all too soon they become not the means to the end but the end itself. It is all analogous to how the idol starts off as an aid to worship but soon becomes the worshipped object itself. So, slowly and insidiously, administration replaces humanity. On this view the tyrant does not so much create a bureaucracy of evil as divert an existing bureaucracy into flowing along an evil path. But I fear that such a diversion is easier than we may imagine. While bureaucracy may not be evil, it clearly lends itself to evil.

I have no idea what the solution is. The anarchist remedy of smashing all machines and systems is beyond credibility. Perhaps, at the very least, we need constantly to be reminded that human beings are in the image of God and that – however disguised by numbers and ciphers – we remain beings of extraordinary value.

Have a good week.