The Epic Bureaucrat

Hannah Arendt often seems to counterpoise the epic nature of political action, the glorious and distinctive deeds of ancient heroes, to the anonymous and impersonal processes of modern life. Where is the Achilles of bureaucracy, the Pericles of the corporation? Nowhere, she appears to say: we live in an age where everyone behaves, no one rules.

Patchen Markell has an excellent article, “Anonymous Glory,” in the latest issue of the European Journal of Political Theory showing how subtly and carefully Arendt helps to undermine that distinction. The opposition she appears to draw between ancient action and modern behavior, between glorious deeds and impersonal processes, is not nearly as stark as we might imagine on a first—or second or third—read of her work.

There’s actually a wonderfully illustrative moment for Markell’s argument in the history of the New Deal. Hallie Flanagan—immortalized by Cherrie Jones in The Cradle Will Rock—was the head of the Federal Theater Project, which was an agency of the WPA, hiring actors, directors, stagehands, writers, and more, to, well, put on a show. In an article in 1939, in The Virginia Quarterly Review, she captures what Markell is talking about, turning the statistics of unemployment and poverty—and the Federal Theater Project’s efforts—into a glorious and heroic epic. “The bare statistics of Federal Theater,” she writes, “are in themselves a drama.”

So the government of the United States, upon the recommendation of Congress, gave papa a job. The result was an unprecedented outpouring of music, painting, writing, acting, some of it brilliant, some of it indifferent, but all of it together, while probably impossible for us to evaluate at present, significant in the pattern of contemporary American culture. For these actors, directors, designers, writers, dancers, musicians, receiving only the small security wage set by Congress, with no stellar billings and with a press and public at first hostile or skeptical, leaped to meet their chance, becoming, almost overnight, performers in a drama more exciting than any which has yet reached our stage. The bare statistics of Federal Theater are in themselves a drama [my emphasis]: some nine thousand theater workers employed in forty theaters in twenty states, playing within three years before audiences totaling twenty-five million. It is not only the drama of theater successes in what is probably the world’s most critical theater center, plays such as ” . . one-third of a nation . . .”’ “Prologue to Glory,” “Haiti,” and “Big Blow,” together with earlier New York successes: “Murder in the Cathedral,” “Dr. Faustus,” “Macbeth,” “Chalk Dust,” “Battle Hymn,” “Triple-A Plowed Under,” “Power,” “Class of ‘29,” “The Sun and I,” “Emperor’s New Clothes,” “Processional,” “Professor Mamlock.” It is also the drama of the Caravan Theaters in city parks, Shakespeare on a hillside, Gilbert and Sullivan on a lagoon, the circus under canvas, opera on a truck. It is the drama of a theater for the children of the steel mills in Gary, and for other children in Cleveland, New York, New Orleans, Newark, Los Angeles. It is the drama of a theater for the blind in Oklahoma; of a repertory theater, presenting Shaw, Shakespeare, O’Neill, Fitch, and Toller, on Long Island. It is the drama of “Created Equal” in Boston, of “Let Freedom Ring” in Detroit, of “Altars of Steel” in Atlanta, of “The Man in the Tree” in Miami, of “The Lonely Man” in Chicago, of the “International Cycle” in Los Angeles, the “Northwest Cycle” in Portland, Seattle, Denver, and San Francisco.

But I’ve been mostly thinking about Markell’s argument as I write about Eichmann in Jerusalem. Particularly, how his argument might be applied in contexts less heroic and glorious than the situation described by Flanagan or some of the situations described by Markell. (To be clear, Markell doesn’t suggest that Arendt’s intertwining of process and action is meant to be entirely salutary or redemptive; it can pose, he insists, as many risks as it does opportunities). I won’t give the game away here, but this quote from a review essay Arendt wrote in 1952, eleven years before Eichmann, gives us a hint of how she thinks the realms of action and behavior, the desire for glory and the reality of red tape, can be brought together in the most malignant ways.

The truth is, as I think Mr. Poliakov’s book helps make clear, that the secrets of the Nazi regime were not so well kept by the Nazis themselves. They behaved according to a basic tenet of our time, which may be remembered in the future as the Age of the Paper. Today no man in an official position can take the slightest action without immediately starting a stream of files, memos, reports, and publicity releases. The Nazis left behind them mountains of records that make it unnecessary to confide the slaking of our thirst for knowledge to the memories of people who were in the main untrustworthy to begin with. Nor could it have been otherwise. Hitler’s great ambition was to found a millennial empire and his great fear, in case of defeat, was lest he and his fellows go unremembered for centuries to come. Red tape was not simply a necessity forced on the Nazis by the organizational methods of our time; it was also something they enthusiastically welcomed and multiplied, and so they left to history, and for history, typewritten records of each and every one of their crimes in at least ten copies.

Ever since Weber, probably Tocqueville, we’ve tended to think of the soulless bureaucrat as the very opposite of the impassioned political actor. In her sharpest and darkest moments, Arendt saw otherwise: not only would the political aspirant have to work with and in a bureaucracy, but in his desire to be remembered for all time, to do something that no future could ever forget, he would happily find himself basking in paper, festooned in red tape.


  1. Roquentin February 5, 2015 at 8:17 am | #

    I have to disagree with some of this, I think there’s something reactionary about the desire for politics to be heroic. It lends itself pretty well to the idea that great, heroic men shape history and this has been the bread and butter of dictatorships the world around. If you ever need a good laugh, just look at the Stalinist propaganda of the 30s and 40s. All this stuff about him being the “greatest genius of all time” and hyperbolic things of this sort. That’s effectively what the Cult of Personality is, that the heroic actions of one person above everything else shape history. Closer to home for Arendt, this was a part of the appeal of Hilter as well. The idea that it was the destiny of one man to heroically come along and shape history was key to his appeal. This is all to say perhaps the world of “ancient heroes” needs to die and stay buried, and that perhaps the faceless bureaucracy of the modern world isn’t as bad as it seems.

  2. Roquentin February 5, 2015 at 11:28 am | #

    Sorry if I am posting too much. I cranked out that first response in the few minutes I had between getting ready and catching the train to work. Anyhow, after thinking about it some more maybe my objections to these ideas of Arendt’s run deeper, and perhaps the influence of Heidegger on her thought is far more pronounced than I previously understood. Perhaps this is indeed why she would fall back on such seemingly reactionary concepts.

    What I mean by that is this. In Heidegger’s Being and Time, the only ethical priority in the entire text is to be authentic. However, more than that you see time and time again that what Heidegger loathes is the destruction of individuality, becoming “das man,” the standardized, serialized person who has lost whatever makes him or her a subject. I don’t think anyone would object to me calling Heidegger a reactionary or a right winger (Ha!). Still, if this is his logic why should it be any different coming out of Arendt’s mouth? Are these ideas inherently reactionary? Are we far too willing to disparage bureaucracy and promote heroic individuality simply because the latter suits our conceit? People always lambaste “red tape,” but how would one expect a modern state to be run? Some kind of Wagnerian fantasy, an epic tale of heroism straight out of Don Quixote?

  3. Benjamin David Steele February 5, 2015 at 11:39 am | #

    This post makes bureaucracy as an extension of rhetoric. That is an interesting thought. It reminds me of the role rhetoric played in its early development. Some theorize (e.g., Julian Jaynes) that a new mentality arose that made the persuasion of rhetoric both possible and necessary. There was a lot of fear about rhetoric in early Greece, for it had usurped the power of the gods and the old god-kings. It was also a time when more complex forms of government were forming along with better ways to create records, all the elements for bureaucracy. I’m not sure how all that might relate, but I thought I’d throw it out.

  4. jonnybutter February 5, 2015 at 7:18 pm | #

    we live in an age where everyone behaves, no one rules.

    When you put it that way, it sounds like a hoary chestnut (are they ‘hoary’?) of conservative rhetoric. It sounds like sentiment rather than observation – an excuse to say something directly positive about the – presumably masterful – political actor (or indirectly by way of being negative about the bureaucrat). It says nothing about them both, including about how they work together, or can be the same person. So maybe it’s barking up the wrong chestnut tree

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