I think that office, the KGB, like everything else in the world, is a victim of statistics. That is, the peasant gets to the field, and there’s one strip left to harvest. The worker arrives at his factory, and there’s an order waiting for him. But the KGB people get to their office and there’s nothing there but a portrait of their leader, but they have to do something after all to justify their existence somehow don’t they? This is very often where all these fabrications originate. All this came about largely not because Soviet power was so bad or, I don’t know, Lenin and Stalin were so evil, or some other devil was whirling around somewhere, right? No, it’s just bureaucracy, a purely bureaucratic phenomenon, which, given the total absence of any checks and balances, grows like a weed and gets up to God knows what.
The poet Joseph Brodsky as recorded in conversation with Solomon Volkov
This thought is of course similar to that of Arendt’s analysis – that evil is banal, shallow and spreads like a fungus. Also, like Arendt, Brodsky is particularly sensitive to the especially dangerous kind of power that is inherent in bureaucracy – the power of the bureau, the office, that is, the power of no one.
The evils of the Holocaust and of Soviet Russia are far greater than the evils created by our own bureaucracies. The modern welfare state is subject to many more checks and balances – a little democratic accountability and much more integrity from front-line practitioners: social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses. Most people have not become anonymous cogs in the system. They can still distinguish right from wrong.
However, as we go upwards, up into Whitehall, I am less convinced. When I was much younger I went for a job interview to join the ‘fast-track’ civil service scheme and I got into a heated argument (me, can you believe it?) with the psychologist. He wanted to know whether I would do something I thought was wrong. I said I wouldn’t. He felt that too much guilt was a problem – I thought guilt was incredibly important. Clearly I wasn’t made for the civil service.
Today I can only imagine the conversations going on in Whitehall. I imagine (and hope) that almost all of the civil servants who are enacting the 30% cut in social care services for disabled people and the £18 billion cut in benefits to the poor think that what they are doing is wrong. But I also imagine that they think they’ve got no choice. Their political masters have asked them to make cuts where cuts can be made, without any undue political backlash. As clever civil servants they have done what they were asked to and targeted the very groups a decent society should want to protect. Is this evil? Yes. But it is the particularly shallow and empty kind of evil – where no one can be held responsible – that typifies the modern bureaucracy.