Bureaucracy as Secular Spirituality

The Origins of Bureaucratic Spirituality: Administration, Religion and Writing

Bureaucracy evokes and depends on secular spirituality, as it gives us a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves. It takes its roots in the first literate societies and is associated with the invention of writing. The written administration of goods and services made sophisticated transactions and social structures possible. Writing might have appeared as a result of the need to abstract from individual objects and account for their quantity and other calculable properties, such as grades of certain comestibles. This kind of abstraction fostered bureaucracy as a spiritual practice, which connected people and organized their lives. Bureaucracy was sometimes related to religion, since both were merged in the administration of the earliest centralized polities, but today this is no longer true, as government has largely become a secular domain—except in the case of theocratic states. This initial bond between bureaucracy and religion helps us understand why spirituality belongs to the practice of public administration. If we accept that spirituality is not the exclusive remit of religious communities, then it can be linked with the subjective experience of living in modern societies that depend on bureaucracy for their harmonious functioning. Since concerted efforts are essential for solving complex social and economic problems, spirituality, which underlies these endeavors, is not a secondary phenomenon, but the primary feature of contemporary administrative systems that enables them to unite people.

The Subjective Experience of Secular Spirituality

Spirituality is not ethereal or supernatural, but the subjective experience of being part of a larger body politic. In this sense, spirituality is not a Marxian illusion, caused by alienation and false consciousness, but a feeling of solidarity and belonging. The numinous aspect of secular spirituality stems from the complexity of modern society, which requires abstraction from individual phenomena and conditional trust in impersonal institutions. Since these observations might sound rather abstruse, let us consider a specific example of how bureaucracy can engender spiritual experiences.

When we move to a new country, we usually have to register with various local authorities. Far from encroaching on our rights and freedoms, bureaucracy empowers us to connect to local networks of support and exchange.

When I arrived in Germany last year, I had to register with the state and municipal authorities in the city of Freiburg im Breisgau, and used that opportunity to talk to civil servants and practice my German. I saw this process as a way of becoming a member of the local community. The registration procedures opened the door to socializing and civic integration. These might be seen as meaningless formalities, but once their significance is recognized, bureaucratic practices can help establish connection to complex social structures.

In modern democratic polities, people may suffer from isolation and fall through the cracks of social networks when there are no bureaucratic levers to engage the wider community in helping them. Being registered as a member of a larger group and taking part in administrative procedures is a spiritual practice because it gives us a sense of belonging and solidarity.

Bureaucracy and Its Spiritual Discontents

There has been much talk of the possibility of a world without bureaucracy, but this new state of affairs would result in the erosion of social cohesion. Free markets and algorithms are not viable alternatives to the political processes that shape civil service and power relations. I would rather negotiate my issues with a civil servant, than a computer or a salesperson.

It is ironic that many people living in highly functional bureaucracies deny their usefulness and complain about the structures that make their lives better. The most positive aspects of bureaucracy are frequently invisible to those who rely on it in their day-to-day lives. As a consequence, people take for granted the benefits that bureaucratic systems bestow on them.

Despite the appeal of doing away with the state and authorities, and eliminating the bureaucratic Leviathan, the popularity of the ranking of the most powerful passports in the world implies that spirituality is one of the core values of bureaucracy. I often see friends post copies of their citizenship and other administrative documents on social networks—they want to share and show off their new status. A piece of paper can grant you enviable privileges. Having the right document can prove that you are a fully-fledged member of a society that has delegated its decisions to bureaucratic bodies at different levels.

When people complain about having to sign multiple documents, it is important to remember that these are first-world problems in highly developed societies (although developing countries may have unwieldy bureaucracies too). Laws and taxes are complex because there are multiple safeguards to protect and help people.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are cases in which bureaucracy is misused for the sake of excluding and disenfranchising people, yet its true purpose is inclusion and entitlement.

In extreme situations that involve large-scale loss of life and suffering, bureaucratic rules and procedures can stave off disaster and save people. When the state bureaucracy breaks down, the spread of violence and dehumanization can have dire consequences. It is a misconception that a strong state government and bureaucratic apparatus are the main culprits in mass atrocities. While they can be instrumental in and responsible for crimes against humanity, bloodshed and brutality are more often the result of the dissolution of the state and the ensuing horror of lawlessness. In his 1942 essay “State and Individual Under National Socialism,” Herbert Marcuse speaks of the “efficient legalized terror of bureaucratization,” but Timothy Snyder has revised this perspective in his book, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning, in which he points out that the Holocaust was facilitated by the abolition of the state in Eastern Europe. Bureaucratic regulations and protections no longer applied to the inmates of the concentration camps because there was no local government to administer them. These spaces of lawlessness allowed the Nazi to commit mass murders.

Bureaucracy is commonly regarded as cumbersome and suffocating. Like any other kind of spirituality, it can be exploited and abused by those in power. Political processes and public engagement should shape bureaucracy for the better. There should be room for negotiation through feedback from those who comply with bureaucratic provisions. Bureaucrats should be held accountable for their actions. If the state fails to establish an effective bureaucracy for good governance, it fails to serve its key purpose. Bureaucracy is an essential part of the checks and balances in the process of government and sociopolitical life. Its failures can have far-reaching ramifications for society.

Bureaucracy and Absurdity

Modern bureaucracies appear to be Kafkaesque, as no single person can grasp how they work. Their functions and structures are convoluted because human societies are incredibly intricate. As a result, there is great potential for absurdity and contradiction when it comes to bureaucracy. Its nebulousness enhances our sense of spirituality when we come in contact with it. We are part of something bigger than ourselves when we interact with civil servants, administrators and other officials, who might not fully understand the grand order of things they are employed to uphold.

Having said much in defense of bureaucracy, I would like to share my personal spiritual experience of red tape. It will serve as an antidote to any unchecked enthusiasm about the professional and specialized administration of public life. Some names and details have been changed.

In 2009, I went to the US to do research at the University of California, Berkeley. As I was awarded a federal scholarship, I had to get a social security number (SSN) or an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN). The organization that administered my research stay—let’s call it the FSN—issued a letter that said I was eligible for an SSN.

When I went to the Berkeley office of the Social Security Administration (SSA), it turned out that I had to be authorized in order to obtain an SSN. The regional officer of the FSN, Mr John Grey, could not give me such an authorization—I was eligible but not authorized for an SSN.

I decided to go to the local branch of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in order to apply for an ITIN, but the officials there told me that I could not apply for one since I was eligible for an SSN.

After these frustrating encounters with American bureaucracy, I forwarded the rejection letters from the SSA and IRS to Mr Grey and gave him a call. He assured me that the FSN would look into the matter.

Several months later, I received an email message from Mr Grey, asking me to take urgent measures to resolve the issue. He seemed oblivious of our prior communication. I reminded him of my situation. I also wrote a letter of complaint to the headquarters of the FSN in New York.

A few days later, I received another message from Mr Grey, who promised to send me a letter saying that I was authorized to have an SSN. In a separate note, he warned me that this was not an authentic authorization. Once this fictitious document arrived, I was able to apply for an SSN. When I finally obtained it, the card with the number on it said that it was “not valid for work.” It was unclear why I had had to be authorized to apply for it in the first place.

Many of us have faced the surreal reality of advanced bureaucracy. It is, however, much more than mere absurdity. After all, thanks to the American government and its bureaucratic structures, scholars from around the world regularly travel to the US to conduct research at some of its finest institutions of higher learning.

The numinous experience of bureaucracy, which allows people to work together due to the ability to abstract from subjective impressions, should not be overshadowed by Catch-22 moments that are part and parcel of living in a complex society. Such Kafkaesque situations may even sharpen our realization of how much we depend on the successful and seamless functioning of bureaucratic networks that bind us together and instill in us secular spirituality.

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6 comments

  1. With all due respect, the author makes as good a case as one could for this idea, but I think that almost nothing could be further from spirituality than filling out forms for some faceless bureaucrat. I would say that bureaucracy and spirituality are about as comparable as chalk and cheese.

  2. It is ironic that many people living in highly functional bureaucracies deny their usefulness and complain about the structures that make their lives better.

    Perhaps you haven’t read much history before the 1970s or perhaps you come from a society with no functioning civil society—I offer the latter explanation because you only seem to recognize bureaucrats, salespeople, and computers. Anyway, people complain about bureaucracy because it’s expensive, often redundant, and because it has and continues to erode civil institutions. We Western humans, especially North Americans, used to run most things without the interference of the spiritually imbued mega-state. Then the cult of progress was born in the nineteenth century and its followers used every trial and tribulation to expand the purvey and power of the mega-state, gobbling up civil society in the process. So if bureaucracies give you a numinous experience, they’re doing exactly what they want to. Everyone get to be one of Big Mother’s children—they even get their own serial number.

    1. Thank you for your criticism. I come from Luhansk, Ukraine. The city currently has neither a state government, nor a viable civil society: it is under the administration of a self-proclaimed republic propped up by a foreign state. In Ukraine, civil society used to be in poor shape, then in 2014 it had to step in and intrude in many areas that were reserved for the state, including violence and army supplies. As for my views on government, an effective bureaucracy is essential for a functional state and a civil society. There are caveats. The state can be authoritarian or dysfunctional (or both), and society can consist of zealots or armed people who take the law in their hands. There should be some kind of balance. My essay is not about the right balance or the right kind of government. I am on the progressive side of the political spectrum, so we can agree to disagree about the role of the government. I don’t want to persuade people that bureaucracy is good or bad. I am conflicted about its role. My essay instead tries to show that there is a spiritual aspect to bureaucracy, whether we like it or not.

  3. Very interresting article! I especially enjoy the clarification of ‘spirituality’, identifying it not with a religous experience per se, but rather a psychologic experience possible in other facets of life as well.

    I’d love to read more on the topic, or anything else from the author!

    1. Thank you. This is my only article about spirituality as a psychological experience. I have not written much, and it can be less relevant. In Areo, I have another essay, entitled “Happiness Versus Meaning.” There are two short essays from 2017: “Language matters more than ever in the age of AI” in Quartz and an essay about metaphors for voice in Aeon magazine. Recently, my essay about Inspirobot meme generator has been published on the website of the Institute of Art and Ideas.

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