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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood