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Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial.

A 1915 portrait of Franz Kafka. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Kafkaesque” is a word much used and little understood. It evokes highbrow, sophisticated thought but its soupçon of irony allows those who use it to avoid being exact about what it means. When the writers of Breaking Bad titled one of their episodes Kafkaesque, they were sharing a joke about the word’s nebulousness. “Sounds kind of Kafkaesque,” says a pretentious therapy group leader when Jesse Pinkman describes his working conditions. “Totally Kafkaesque,” Jesse witlessly replies.

If the word is widely misused, it is also increasingly valuable. Last year, when the attorney and author John W Whitehead wrote about the US National Security Agency scandal in an article headlined “Kafka’s America”, the reference to Kafka clearly made sense:

“We now live in a society in which a person can be accused of any number of crimes without knowing what exactly he has done. He might be apprehended in the middle of the night by a roving band of Swat police. He might find himself on a no-fly list, unable to travel for reasons undisclosed. He might have his phones or internet tapped based upon a secret order handed down by a secret court, with no recourse to discover why he was targeted. Indeed, this is Kafka’s nightmare and it is slowly becoming America’s reality.”

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial. This year marks the centenary of the book’s composition, though it was not published until after Kafka’s death, in 1925.

Kafka’s texts age far more slowly than those of almost any other author of his era. In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme. Readers under communism, however, pictured a situation that they knew all too well, in which the fundamental rights of the individual had been stripped away. Many gravitated to a political interpretation of Kafka, bolstered by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, who had proclaimed Kafka a prophet. Those in power did not appreciate having a mirror held up to them and attached the label of “bourgeois decadence” to Kafka; his work was banned in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The communist literary scholar and social scientist Georg Lukács was one of Kafka’s strongest critics but after his arrest in 1956 in Budapest, he is said to have admitted, “Kafka was a realist after all.” This about-turn was as narrow-minded as his earlier indictment because both missed the point of Kafka’s work.

Kafka was not a prophet. He did not foresee the systematic persecution and annihilation of the Jews to which his three sisters fell victim. As a teenager, he experienced pogrom-like conditions in Prague; his family had to barricade itself in the apartment for days on end and his German-Jewish high school was vandalised. But these persecutions had yet to turn murderous. The state-sponsored killing of Jews, which was occurring in Russia on a regular basis, was considered unthinkable in the multinational Austria-Hungary and the “highly civilised” German empire.

It is easy to see how The Trial resonates with those living under a dictatorship. However, even the most cursory look at the novel reveals that Kafka was not depicting the sufferings of innocent victims. The protagonist, Josef K, is not especially likeable; he does not have any relationships with others and he is clearly tormented by some hidden guilt of which the court incessantly reminds him. The execution at the end takes place with K’s assent and as such is a suicide. Kafka went to great pains at this juncture to show that the court is merely reacting. Nothing occurs in this novel against the unequivocal will of the accused man.

Kafka did not merely portray how people become victims; he also showed the extent to which power relies on the complicity of its victims. This phenomenon goes beyond the political and touches on the insights of psychoanalysis. If a son continues to obey his father long after the latter’s death, it means that he has taken into his own hand the whip that once held him down. Freud explained how this could be possible with the existence of the superego, a psychological entity that represents the father and renders him immortal, ensuring that his repressive values system is passed on to the following generations.

Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.

One can follow this process of infiltration in The Trial in slow motion; Josef K’s voluntary walk to the execution site is only the unhappy culmination. The process begins quite subtly, with K being placed under observation. He is told that there is a large and powerful authority that will be dealing with him from then on. This is borne out by the way that many pairs of eyes are trained on him: neighbours peer into the window, work colleagues show up uninvited at his apartment, strangers know all about his case.

From the moment that he becomes the accused man and so the object of suspicion, he suffers the loss of his privacy. No one causes him harm, no one locks him up, even his initially belligerent outbursts at the court go unpunished and no one contests his right to keep his management position at a bank. Even so, K feels like a hunted animal, an impression Kafka steps up to the point where even the reader loses the ability to draw a clear distinction between real threats and paranoia.

Today, we are far more sensitised to infiltration that does not involve physical contact than the first generations of Kafka’s readers were. This is a result of atmospheric changes in our society. In 2004, the European Union decided to collect the fingerprints of all of its passport holders and take digital photographs of their faces. This came about as a result of enormous pressure from the US, which cited security issues. It is no longer possible to get a new passport in any European country without fingerprinting. Refusal to submit to this on the grounds that the state is not entitled to make baseless encroachments on the bodies of its citizens would make a person look ridiculous and suspicious. Not long ago, a character in a detective film being fingerprinted was an unequivocal sign of that character’s stigmatisation, a marker of social and moral failure.

Eyes in the sky: a security camera monitoring station in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong 

Something similar is happening with facial recognition. The passport agency points a camera at me, an upstanding citizen. Other agencies point thousands of cameras at me as I walk through town. These cameras impart the message that everyone is a potential offender, including me and the nice lady sitting across from me in the subway.

A second message is that I am living more safely than before, since everyone else is also aware of being observed, even though it is unclear whether there are human eyes lurking behind all these cameras, or sophisticated recognition software, or nothing at all. Does one really want to know? Seeking the details could result in a fate like that of Josef K, who, in his desire to confront the anonymous powers, ultimately saps his vitality.

It does not take much imagination to fathom where the unrestricted accumulation of monitoring equipment will lead. Being suspect will become an inescapable and natural social condition, while surveillance staff will become invisible. That was apparent even before the NSA scandal, because data storage devices are voracious no matter whose hands they are in and electronic information tends to consolidate into increasingly detailed profiles. What ethical qualms would hold back a state with a serious security problem from using an instrument of this kind? Or a state that might some day be saddled with a problem like this?

Data collection has a crucial role in Kafka’s novels: in The Castle, there is almost incessant talk of record-keeping and the collection of personal data is shown in all its grotesque detail. This, too, has little to do with any clairvoyant abilities on Kafka’s part and instead a great deal to do with his professional experiences: he was an official at a state-run insurance company for workers and he quicklyrealised that the emphasis on statistical assessment was something new and daunting. In his office, individual lives and catastrophes became fodder for files and actuaries. Kafka, who was sensitive to the social implications of these modern means of bureaucracy, recognised that they also altered the thinking of people affected. Anyone who deals with this kind of agency has no choice but to adapt to its routines. Kafka was surprised that the system’s worst victims did not force their way into his office but instead filled out the forms submissively, then awaited their notification.

This can also be regarded as the result of infiltration. Kafka graphically portrays the process in The Trial, in which the accused man questions the proceedings quite forcefully at first but then less and less often. Like K in The Castle, he lets himself be bought off with a convoluted description of bureaucratic procedures and for a while labours under the delusion that this has brought him closer to an understanding of his fate.

Readers experience a shock of recognition as they travel down this blind alley. They know what it is like to be swamped with legal and technical details in public debates on surveillance and terror prevention, which often pivot on the notion that technical solutions are the answer. It is useful to know why the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which works in secret, has approved 34,000 government surveillance requests and rejected only 11 (in part because it has to provide written reasons for rejections – but not for approvals), or to consider the security of cloud computing and online storage. And it is legitimate for European governments to think about replacing US-based data lines with their own. Yet this single-minded focus on technical problems is bound to stupefy us in the long run.

Josef K loses his case because he loses sight of what set it in motion. In The Castle, K wants to know why he was summoned to work as a land surveyor in a remote village where he is not needed. The circuitous answer he receives amounts to the idea that bureaucratic procedures of this kind are exceedingly complex and, as a result, fateful decisions are sometimes arrived at spontaneously. No one is responsible and there is nowhere to address complaints. (This reminds me of a Dilbert comic strip in which staff members suggest that their boss should set up a customer service line – but keep the number secret).

It gets even more problematic when those with power argue that they are only implementing what we have been secretly wishing for all along. For years, any criticism of how social media sites such as Facebook were dealing with personal data elicited the flippant response that the classic idea of privacy was outdated anyway – as if the technology of social networks was only reacting to a historic shift in our mindset that had already taken place and no one was being forced into anything.

There is an element of truth to that argument. I don’t have to let Google Street View make a digital record of my property and post the image online but it is such a hassle to prevent this from happening that I don’t bother. No one forces me to check a box confirming that I have accepted the terms and conditions of Facebook but I do it anyway, without understanding any of the mumbo-jumbo. As a result, I get used to entering into contractual obligations blindly – which is taken as proof of my trust. Eventually, I make peace with a historically unprecedented form of “pseudo-privacy” (as the German blogger Sascha Lobo has called it) and tacitly allow the state to scrutinise my private affairs – as long as the neighbours don’t learn anything about me.

This sense of moral isolation in an overly complex, obfuscating world is something we can relate to. Kafka was the first author to understand what it means when people are turned into statistical entities and when every move they make is compiled as data. For Kafka, the problem was not the machine – bureaucracy itself is blameless; it is not an active agent. The blame is ours. We are the ones checking the boxes, sharing our photographs and forgetting to delete.

Officially, we have the freedom to do as we please in our personal lives and yet we have grown increasingly beleaguered by the feeling that we have already given away this freedom. “So then you’re free?” someone asks Karl, the protagonist of Kafka’s novel The Man Who Disappeared: “‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.” For once, we must not let Kafka have the final word.

Written for the New Statesman, this essay was translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. “Kafka: the Decisive Years” by Reiner Stach is published by Princeton University Press (£16.95)


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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.


The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.


In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at:

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt