Kafkaesque: How Franz Kafka’s books reveal a real-life dystopia

Unstable politics and virtue signaling are responsible for creating bureaucratic nightmares.

Kafkaesque: How Franz Kafka’s books reveal a real-life dystopia
Credit: Sandro Gonzalez via Unsplash
  • In Franz Kafka's works, we meet a world clogged with an absurd and soul-destroying bureaucracy that no one understands nor bothers to challenge.
  • When a country experiences political instability through a high turnover of its elected representatives, there is a marked increase in ineffective legislation.
  • Democratic reform and a change in culture is needed to give our politicians space to pass thoughtful laws.

You have been queueing for three hours and are already pretty annoyed when the clerk calls you forward. He first asks for your P445b form — all 12 pages of it. After an insultingly brief look, he dots the form with random whacks of his stamp. Next you present the R45c form, another 12 pages, half of which are the same as the P445b. Another glance, more stamps.

Now you have to hand over five passport-sized photos with no neck showing and both eyes at least 84 percent open. On and on it goes for half an hour. Form, glance, stamp. Then, just as you are about to be done, the clerk asks for your Form Documentation Wallet.

"The what?!" you ask, trying to keep your voice steady. The man rolls his eyes.

"The FDW? It's a law passed yesterday. If you've no FDW, I can't help you."

You leave and book another appointment in two months' time.

Welcome to the all-too-familiar world of 21st century bureaucracy — a monstrous, lumbering maze of forms, stamps, and writing letters in tiny boxes. A world that is, frankly, Kafkaesque. And now, a forthcoming paper authored by a team led by Gabriele Gratton to be published in the American Economic Review, argues that political instability propagates this kind of inefficient bureaucracy, thereby clogging and choking economic output.

Max Weber's ideal bureaucracy

Laws and reforms ought to make life easier or better. The philosophical ideal of this was presented by political theorist Max Weber. The Weberian model is one in which bureaucracy "guarantees order and maximizes efficiency" and with "few useless reforms."

A new and exciting law might make a politician famous, but long after they are gone, society will pay the price.

In short, it's a society that has competent politicians who have done their research and who pass laws that serve a practical purpose. For this to happen, a government needs elected representatives who are in office long enough to do the hard work of drafting legislation and must not worry (too often) about losing their job. In other words, a country must have political stability.

The opposite of this is when a political system is so unstable that it "shortens the horizon of less competent politicians," who therefore insist on passing ill-considered and knee-jerk legislation for which they will not have to be accountable anyway. An unstable political body with a high turnover is associated with an increase in ineffective reforms that lead to a Kafkaesque bureaucracy. A legislature filled with one-term legislators simply is not invested in what its laws will do.

Kafka's swamp

Credit: Susan Q Yin via Unsplash

In Kafka's works, especially The Trial, the reader experiences a claustrophobic and absurd dystopia, weighed down by a pointless and relentless bureaucracy. This is not just the kind of petty nuisance of a passport renewal; instead, it is an illogical and arbitrary system that is soul-crushing. It is waiting months for an application to be approved, only to be rejected by some faceless bureaucrat without any guidance as to why. It is being judged suitable or not without any idea of the criteria you ought to satisfy. It is filling out forms or getting licenses that not only don't make sense to you but don't make sense to anyone. It is the drip, drip, drip of nonsense legislation that makes up a swamp, and wading through it saps and destroys you.

According to the aforementioned study, political instability provides fertile ground for this kind of Kafkaesque system. For instance, the fall of the USSR caused huge political instability across much of Europe. In Italy, there was "an increase in the production of new laws, a deterioration in their quality, and a progressive fall in the efficiency of its bureaucracy." In comparison, Germany, which kept true to the Weberian ideal, remained stable and therefore efficient.

Laws are now a form of virtue signaling

Even politically stable countries can't escape the Kafka curse. Gratton and her colleagues make the point that many of the world's democracies are witnessing a trend toward laws being used as a form of virtue signaling. Instead of addressing practical matters, politicians use legislation as a form of political activism and as an appeal to their supporters. Often through media coverage, there is a "reputational pay-off" for passing laws, no matter how ineffective or ill-considered they are. Basically, it's all a performance.

One way that this kind of performative legislation can be minimized is through certain reforms, exemplified by the U.S. House of Representatives' rules on "co-sponsorship." In the 1960s and early 1970s, the House capped the number of legislators allowed to co-sponsor a bill (which is essentially a public sign of support) at 25. If a legislator could not become a sponsor, they would write another similar or even identical bill.

Unsurprisingly, the number of bills in the House skyrocketed to roughly four times the number in the Senate (where legislators are in office for six years and potentially less concerned about performative bills than the House legislators who serve only two years). When the cap was lifted, the number of pointless, Kafkaesque, bills dropped to being equal with that of the Senate.

Politicians need room to do their job

The paper by Gratton et al. reveals to us a new but important issue: the value in giving politicians room to do their job. Inevitably, politicians always will have one eye on the next election, but when this is taken too far, it leads to short-termism, performative action, and woefully ineffective legislation.

This is far from harmless. Kafkaesque bureaucracies clog the economic system. When businesses and individuals have to waste time and money on pointless box-ticking, everyone is affected. A new and exciting law might make a politician famous, but long after they are gone, society will pay the price.

Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis). His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas.

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Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla

Credit: Gerald Schömbs / Unsplash
Surprising Science
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
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