"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, February 8, 2013

Paperwork–Lessons From The French Revolution

I am listening to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities on CD.  The world of London and Paris and the French Revolution comes alive in the spoken words of Martin Jarvis.  I am new to books-on-tape, but they have been a godsend on my long trips from Washington to Mississippi. Especially when read by talented actors like Jarvis, who switches easily from the cockney of Jerry Cruncher to the the elevated tones of Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton to the bourgeois legalese of the officers of the court, the elegant language, the powerful melodramatic story, and the horror and brutality of the Reign of Terror become real, immediate, and emotional.

It is a strange coincidence, then, that I ran across Jacob Soll’s review (The New Republic 1.10.13) of Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. While Gutenberg may have started the flow of paper that flooded Europe in the 16th century with printed indulgences and later the Bible, it was the French Revolution which really began the avalanche.  The citizens of the new Republic, impressed by our own Declaration of Independence and the eloquent power of its words; and the Constitution which codified the rights and obligations of government and citizenry alike, began to issue proclamations, edicts, and regulations for everything.

Influenced by the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the authors of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789) proposed a new era of greater transparency. Not only one of the founding documents on human and civil rights, the Declaration also insisted that “public agents” give “an accounting of their administration,” with open paperwork. The Abbé Sieyès, a leader of the French Revolution, tried to design the revolutionary state on the model of a joint stock company in which all citizens were “stakeholders in the great social enterprise.” Because citizens “supplied the capital,” the state was accountable.

Whereas this legal accountability was not new in either Europe and America, the French took it to heart more than most, and the beginnings of the infamous, ponderous, French bureaucracy was born. Before long, to the dismay of those who provided the intellectual and rebellious fervor of the Revolution, the country was awash in paper and peopled by the paper-pushers who had to draft, consult, vet, share, approve, and move documents up, down, and especially laterally.  While the new collaborative democracy was a step in the right direction from the centralized and murderous aristocracy, it meant that a lot of citizens needed to be involved in the affairs of state.  Since revolutionary societies start off with high-minded ideals of including the masses in governance, they quickly stratify and bureaucratize.  One need only to look at the Soviet Union to see bureaucracy raised to the level of a Baroque nightmare. France quickly took and proceeded down that path.

During the Reign of Terror (Sept. 5 1793–July 27, 1794), the so-called Apostle of the Terror, Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, called administrative paperwork the “demon of writing” and proclaimed “The prolixity of the government’s correspondence and orders is a sign of its inertia; it is impossible to govern without brevity.” He evoked the “terrifying multitudes of edicts and declarations that one sees emanating daily from some courts.”

Saint-Just was right to be worried. Not only had the number of clerks working for the Revolutionary Committee of Public Safety ballooned from forty to four hundred in one year, the great chain of paperwork was impeding the Terror’s killing machine.

Soll selects a droll story from Kafka’s book to show how, like today, bureaucracy and paperwork can become absurd; but if one comes to understand, manipulate, and use them, good ends may result:

On July 1, 1794, the Revolutionary Tribunal was about to sentence all the actors of the Comédie Française to death. Realizing the travesty and disaster of such a decree a “simple employee of the Committee of Public Safety,” Charles-Hippolyte Labussière, took the accusatory documents to a bathhouse, soaked them so that they could be shaped into little pellets of paste, and then sent them “through the window of the bathing room into the river,” thus saving more than two hundred actors and citizens from the blade of the Guillotine.

It is quite amusing to follow the history of paperwork within the context of French history.  After all, the first real records kept by the Revolutionists – at least in the imagination of Dickens - were knitted into the scarves and shawls of Mme. DeFarge.  The name of every aristocrat was embedded into that warm clothing and when the time of reckoning came, she consulted her files, and off came their heads.   It is also amusing also to see how the French really took to paperwork and bureaucracy and kept adding layers and layers of bureaucracy and paperwork until the present day when government  is going through paroxysms of house-cleaning to try to streamline itself.

The great novelist, Honoré de Balzac immortalized Ymbert’s letters in The Employees, or, the Superior Woman (1837) and described in inimitable detail the often hopeless world of paperwork and bureaucracy that now ruled over Paris—what he called the Human Comedy. Banal paperwork became an unlikely muse for modern literature.

The rest of the world is not immune to paperwork by any means. One of the achievements of the British Raj was the Indian Administrative Service, a government bureaucracy which was put in place to enable Indians to run the petty affairs of state while the British ruled.  Perhaps because of that subservient unequal relationship, Indian babus felt it necessary to get everything on paper and to add layer upon layer of administration to assure protection from British eyes.  Any traveller to India only a few years ago wondered at how many clerks, initials, stamps, and procedures it took to get a train ticket. 

When I lived in India in the late Sixties, the bureaucracy was a nightmare.  It was literally impossible to get anything done which, of course was the point.  Bureaucracies exist to protect their own, not to serve to public or, God forbid, be efficient. Luckily my organization had phalanxes of peons who would stand in interminable lines, pay off reluctant clerks, shmooze and stroke until the requisite document was released.

Al Gore is responsible for the US Government ‘Paperwork Reduction Act’  Ironically and absurdly, an acknowledgment of government’s commitment to reduce paperwork (by now electronic paper) is on the bottom of the endless documents emerging from endless departments, division, councils, boards, and secretariats. The following excerpt will give some idea of how hilarious the idea is:

Paperwork Reduction Act


§ 3501. Purpose

The purposes of this subchapter are to--

(1) minimize the paperwork burden for individuals, small businesses, educational and nonprofit institutions, Federal contractors, State, local and tribal governments, and other persons resulting from the collection of information by or for the Federal Government;

(2) ensure the greatest possible public benefit from and maximize the utility of information created, collected, maintained, used, shared and disseminated by or for the Federal Government;

(3) coordinate, integrate, and to the extent practicable and appropriate, make uniform Federal information resources management policies and practices as a means to improve the productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness of Government programs, including the reduction of information collection burdens on the public and the improvement of service delivery to the public…..

The document goes on and on…..and on.

The more government agencies there are – and no President from the outspoken Ronald Reagan to Obama – have not only not decreased the size of government, they have increased it! All of which means more paperwork in more institutions, and more inter-agency paper transfers to assure collaboration, cooperation, and teamwork.

I worked for a time at the World Bank, one of the biggest international bureaucracies in the world.  The Bank was not as big as the scary monsters like the World Health Organization, the first of the UN technical agencies, which has had almost 60 years to build layers of calcified bureaucracy; or the Food and Agriculture Organization which was the first to make paperwork a religion; but pretty scary in its own right.  I was amazed at how my Inbox seemed to take on a life of its own.  It was never empty.  No matter how quickly I attended to the business piling up there, more got dumped it.  I became obsessive, even paranoid about keeping it clean and empty.  I grabbed files as soon as the secretary brought them, sped-read them, annotated them, initialed them, and sent them on their way in the Outbox only to see the Inbox fill up again.

The lesson of office history seems clear – we need paperwork to cover our asses.  It’s as simple as that.  In the current Age of the Internet, it is more often than not our bare asses that are uncovered as one dopey official after another sends incriminating emails around the world; but without ‘The Files’ we all would be exposed, naked to condemnation, fault-finding, and interrogation.

No one has found a way to reduce or eliminate paperwork and it is here to stay.  We demand a record of things not only for protection but for validation of our work and professional existence. There may even be some bureaucrats who actually like paperwork because it lets them breathe as much outside air as they are likely to get in the bowels of the Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue, the hated bureaucratic warren of the Ronald Reagan building. Not real air, mind you, just the thoughts, phrasing, and concerns of those in cubicles on the Third Floor where there are windows and natural light.

I was a bureaucrat for four years, and that was enough. Once I let go of my frustration about emptying my Inbox, relaxed and became part of the huge, organic, amoeba-like bureaucracy which had a life and geography of its own, I began to appreciate it for its power, its incredible inertia, and its microcosmic display of human interaction at its worst. Long live bureaucracies and the paperwork they generate!

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