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Kafka Warned Us

Photo by Sébastien Bertrand | CC BY 2.0

Kafka’s The Trial can be read in retrospect as a prelude to the Twentieth/Twenty-First century. Although probably not written as prophecy, Kafka’s short unfinished book nevertheless provides a road map to the terrors of the current Surveillance State.

As readers of CounterPunch are all too familiar, modern man, as a single individual, is at the mercy of the modern state and those who, lurking in semi-secrecy, direct it.

Kafka’s The Trial superbly conveys the unease of our current existential situation.

Early one morning, The Trial’s main protagonist, Joseph K, awakes to find that, totally unexpectedly, he has been arrested. Throughout the book he endeavors to find the reason for his arrest without any definite success.

However, what he does discover is a vast semi-secret bureaucracy/organizaton whose inner workings and outward displays of power and decision making remain opaque at best.

Initally, Joseph K, believes that he lives in a “Rechtsstaat” (a state where the rule of law is respected) and thus where it is expected that all civilized norms and laws are upheld.

Yet, he soon comes to see that he has lived in a state of fundamental error and illusion about the true nature of his existence.

What appeared to him as a well ordered and just state is, all of a sudden, revealed to be a capricious omnipotent octopus capable of strangling (in this case literally) anyone deemed to be, for whatever reason, expendable.

All law is suspended or, at least, made a mockery of. All that remains are the inner, turgid demands of power.

Joseph K. is convinced of his innocence. But his conviction is no match for the monolithic power that stands against him. He is eventually crushed, if not by his enemy’s repetitive legal machinations, then by his fatalistic far-reaching administrative power.

In the end, the “Organization” which Joseph K has confronted is almighty and can be controlled by neither appeals to law, logic, or custom. In this, modern man is in a similar situation.

He stands, at any moment, beneath the mercy of a gigantic machinery that, if it wills, can almost casually set into motion his utter annihilation. The devastation and erasure of ones past, present, and future self is an ever-present possible function of the modern state. Advances in technology and organization make such a function all the more easier.

How to combat this greatest threat to humankind’s liberty will make the difference of whether or not future generations live in a world of securely grounded freedom or if they will succumb “like a dog” to the increasingly totalitarian powers of what we call today: the Surveillance State.

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Dan Corjescu teaches Political Philosophy at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany.

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