Kafkaesque in the Modern World
To understand Franz Kafka’s world and his art, we need to thoroughly explore his literary universe – an alienated, morally desolate place. This would not only make us appreciate his work, but also make us respect how he grappled with such ultimate issues as the disjunction or disharmony of consciousness and being, individual aspiration, social bondage, man’s innate religious need and his endemic inability to reach that solid assurance of metaphysical truth for which he longs. The term “Kafkaesque” refers to that unique combination of qualities Kafka’s work can have. It has come to mean anything from the dreamlike to the sinister and the absurd. In this article I will compare the political absurdity indicative in Kafka’s major works to the current financial crises in America.
Kafka’s Political Literature
As one of the most acclaimed and influential writers of the twentieth-century, Kafka is renowned for prophetic and profoundly enigmatic stories that often portray human degradation and cruelty. In his works, Kafka presents a grotesque vision of a world in which alienated, angst-ridden individuals vainly seek to transcend their condition or pursue some unattainable goal. His characters are always victimized and never overcome adversity; they accept it. The situations he presents can be nightmarish and go far beyond being simply neurotic. There is a fixation on all of life’s negativities. His characters are mostly paralyzed in their exercise of will by anxiety. His fiction derives its power from his use of precise, dispassionate prose and realistic detail to relate bizarre, often absurd events, and from his probing treatment of moral and spiritual problems.
In his short story The Penal Colony, for example, the accused is asked to blindly conform to the law. The prisoner fails to stand at attention and salute the captain’s door and is awarded the death penalty for this petty mistake. There is no rational connection between the alleged crime and the punishment, but the system is not concerned with establishing guilt or rendering justice.
Kafka’s writings sketch an anti-authoritarian image. In The Trial and The Castle, the Government is a hierarchical, abstract, and an impersonal apparatus. Despite the brutal, petty, and sordid characters the bureaucrats are only cogs in this machine. As Walter Benjamin, the German-Jewish critic, acutely observed, “Kafka wrote from the perspective of a modern citizen who realizes that his fate is being determined by an impenetrable bureaucratic apparatus whose operation is controlled by procedures that remain shadowy even to those carrying out its orders and a fortiori to those being manipulated by it”.
Even though Josef K’s false arrest in The Trial seems completely illogical, it should, nevertheless, be kept in mind that Kafka is not describing exceptional states in this story. Kafka is indicating the alienated and oppressive nature of a corrupt state. He writes in The Trial:
“K. lived in a country with a legal constitution, there was universal peace, all the laws were in force; who, then, dared seize him in his own dwelling?”
As Josef K pleads with the guards to acquit him, the guards indicate their blind belief in the law:
“Do you think you can bring your whole damn trial to a quick conclusion by discussing your identity and arrest warrant with your guards? We’re lowly employees who can barely make our own through such documents, and whose role in your affair is to stand guard over ten hours a day and get paid for it. That’s all we are, but we’re smart enough to realize that before ordering such an arrest the higher authorities who employ us inform themselves in great detail about the person they’re arresting and the grounds for the arrest.”
Kafka’s characters seem so resigned to their circumstances that they start embracing their surroundings. The guard’s faith in the government points to an egregious abuse of power by the law enforcement agencies. Kafka’s two major novels, The Trial and The Castle, are a critique on modern states. He considers them alienated, hypostatized, and autonomous bureaucratic systems, which become ends unto themselves.
The Castle contains all of the primal emotions readers interested in existentialism look for: confusion, isolation, immobility, estrangement, and a sense to understand the human condition. The story’s protagonist, K., who by all descriptions is a simple surveyor sent to measure the land, cannot reach the Count of the Castle no matter how much he tries.
In one passage that is a masterpiece of black humor, in The Castle, the town mayor describes the official apparatus as a machine that seems to work by itself:
“One might say that the administrative organism could no longer put up with the strain and irritation it had to endure for years because of dealing with the same trivial business and that it has begun to pass sentence on itself, bypassing the functionaries.”
The story of K. is the story of a person discovering the tragedy of being trapped in an endless, dream-like maze. At the start of the novel, K. is primarily occupied with the desire to survey the land and leave, but the more K. works, the more he discovers. For instance, he sees a village where people are scared, overly cautious, and paranoid, as if they are hiding some important truth. They do not know that their Count Westwest is dead (in German, west means “decomposing”) and so continue in a state of mediocrity.
One can feel that Kafka’s work is missing a sense of time and place, which is why it can be very easily related to any period in human history. Although his work did neither prophesize about the future nor bash a particular system of government, his stories were somewhat autobiographical and attempted to portray the society he lived in and knew very well.
Kafka and Modern American Politics
In the 1980s Ronald Reagan made a fateful judgment: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement has been in the news since September 2011. Due to the influence of big business on politicians, President Obama and leaders of the U.S. Congress did not address the movement very often. The Republicans continuously slammed the occupy movement in their rhetoric. Eric Cantor, the House Republican leader, remarked at the Conservative Value Voters Summit:
“If you read the newspapers today, I, for one, am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country. And believe it or not, some in this town, have actually condoned the pitting of Americans against Americans….”
News analysis of campaign finance data is showing that the 2012 American presidential election is almost certain to be the most expensive in history, and while the state of the U.S. economy has been a major debate issue in the Republican primaries (and is expected to be crucial in the presidential debates later this year), the politicians seem hesitant about addressing the financial concerns of the Occupiers.
Parallels can be drawn between Kafka’s works and the events that led to the Occupy movement. Occupy’s story has all the attributes of Kafka’s The Castle, as the attempts of the protesters to rise against the bureaucracy seem to have ended in vain, for now.
The Occupy movement started when people took to the streets alleging that the big banks and large corporations of United States were ripping off Americans. At the beginning of the housing crisis, which put the U.S. economy in its worst recession since 1982, Goldman Sachs, a global investment banking and securities firm, denied that it bet against its clients. But evidence soon surfaced that this was exactly what Goldman Sachs did; and a lot worse.
A vicious circle followed, where foreclosures helped accelerate the fall of property values, helping to spur more foreclosures. The losses created by the foreclosures brought the financial system to the brink of collapse in the fall of 2008.
The steep recession led to even greater homeowner delinquencies as homeowners who lost their jobs often also lost their homes. The corruption at Goldman Sachs was rumored to be very deep and very entrenched initially, but it was never fully investigated, allegedly because of the firm’s close ties to the U.S. government. To make matters worse the Federal Reserve bought up the vast majority of U.S. government debt in 2009.
Finally, in April 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a civil lawsuit against Goldman Sachs for helping a leading client, Fabrice Tourre, place a $1 billion bet against the housing market. Though the SEC only charged Goldman $550 million and informed the company to reform its business practices, this punishment was a mere slap on the wrist. Billions of dollars in taxpayer money allowed institutions that were on the brink of collapse not only to survive but even to flourish. These banks now enjoy record profits and the seemingly permanent competitive advantage.
The police have been following the same irrationality as depicted in Kafka’s Trial. From pepper spraying peacefully seated college protestors at the University of California-Davis campus, to officers not only removing the protesters from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where they had camped for months, but also destroying their belongings, and dumping their library of almost 6,000 books. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg defended the decision to clear the park, saying, “Health and safety conditions became intolerable.” The protesters have been evicted to cause a decline in their visibility. With less visibility, the movement has received less attention from the news media.
The demands of the Occupiers have been: tax the rich, end the wars, and restore honest and effective government for all. The Occupiers voice the need for activists among shareholders, consumers and students to hold corporations and politicians accountable, for example, shareholders pressuring companies to get out of politics. They advocate that consumers take their money and purchasing power away from companies that confuse business and political power. They call for the government’s priorities to be set straight. The protestors claim they do not want higher standard of living, they want a better standard of living. And in doing so, they find themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque world of hopelessness despite their protests and general awareness; the Occupiers face the same oppression as Kafka’s apparently naive and harmless characters.
In the End
Kafka’s stories and novels may be about a world where things seem the opposite of what they are; but we find that it is much closer to the truth than we might think. Kafka might have written about bleakness in people’s lives, presenting a forlorn world; however, looking at what is happening around us in the world, we find that he was not that far off from reality. Kafka presented the difficulty of the situation, where one simply cannot escape the law. No matter how Kafka’s protagonist tries to escape the court in The Trial, he only finds himself dragged deeper into its web. This situation resembles Capitalism without a conscience. When we consider how we are stuck in the vast web of capitalism without regulation, the more we try to struggle and wriggle our way out of it, the deeper we engulf ourselves into a Kafkaesque neurosis. As the Occupy protestors have experienced firsthand, it is a long and difficult haul to reform the political and financial sector.