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Kafka’s Laws of Modern Day Totalitarianism

Photograph Source Arturo Espinosa | CC BY 2.0

We live in a world of mass surveillance. A world directed by elites for elites. However, for most of us, our daily lives are expressed by the French saying metro, boulot, dodo (metro, work, sleep)Yet, at any time for anyone and for any reason the seeming safety of everyday life could change in an instant. Franz Kafka captured our current situation in his book Der Process (The Trial) more than a hundred years ago. The following are some excerpts from that book which I have reformulated as laws.

The First Law: Jemand mußte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daß er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet. (Somebody must have slandered Josef K. since despite having done nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.)

This First Law of Modern Day Totalitarianism allows for anyone to be suspect, held, and charged even though they have committed nothing in the way of any kind of crime. Global elites have the power, connections, and capital to construct any kind of cage for any person if they work together. The lone individual can be criminalized at any time.

The Second Law: K. lebte doch in einem Rechtsstaat, überall herrschte Friede, alle Gesetze bestanden aufrecht, wer wagte ihn in seiner Wohnung zu überfallen?(K lived after all under the rule of law, everywhere there reigned peace, all the laws were obeyed, who would assault him in his own apartment?)

This Second Law of Modern Day Totalitarianism rips away the sheen of security of everyday life as lived in so called “Modern Democracies”. In a world where elites have for decades cultivated close ties to each and every important societal institution including most crucially, the courts, the police, the security forces and government in general the veneer of individual safety can be torn with surprising ease. The ancient rule of the stronger has not, by any means, been eliminated; it has just become more cunning. Indeed, the philosophic and practical challenge of Thrasymachus lives on today just as it did when he debated Plato two and a half thousand years ago: It is natural that the strong prey on the weak.

The Third Law: er kenne das Gesetz nicht und behauptet gleichzeitig schuldlos zu sein (He did not know the law and yet at the same time believed himself to be innocent)

This Third Law of Modern Day Totalitarianism makes it starkly clear that an individual’s own beliefs about him/herself are irrelevant when caught in the wheels of power. Through the careful use of power ones own subjectivity can be systematically destroyed. Subtly at first and then with increasing psychological and physical abuse. Indeed, all modern day elites are skilled practitioners in the art of Zersetzung (the art of undermining an enemy; allegedly perfected by the Stasi, the East German police).

And finally, the Fourth Law: schuldig ist die Organisation, schuldig sind die hohen Beamten (The organization is guilty; the high officials are guilty)

This final law expresses the plain truth that in Modern Day Totalitarianism which we can also somewhat facetiously call Totalitarianism Lite nothing can be accomplished without wide ranging and close cooperation among elites. They must, almost to a man, have decided upon a plan of action; whether it be a so called terrorist act or the Ausschaltung (elimination) of a particularly bothersome individual. Real cooperation among the elites is essential. Any serious rift among them would eventually lead to global conflict and a complete breakdown of what is now a de facto world government. Interestingly, this leads to the idea that the only way out from under this perpetual Iron Heel is from a rupture emanating from the apex of the system. Quite the dramatic reverse of many a Marxian dream and expectation. The elites will always have enough money and influence and collusive and coercive power to infiltrate/penetrate any movement and corrupt, frame, or eliminate any individual. All they have to do is stick together as they do in The Trial while what we must/can do is interpret the system, point out its flaws, offer alternatives and hope that we do not end up as Josef K forour presumptuous efforts.

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

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