What Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ tells us about authoritarian bullying

A significant hallmark of an authoritarian government is the way it uses the power of the state to bully people.

A beautiful picture from the other week of Earth from 1.6 million km sunwards. NASA, public domain.
From a million miles out in space, human cruelty to each other doesn’t seem to be too visible (luckily). NASA, public domain.

The spectre was raised a century ago by Franz Kafka, whose unfinished novel The Trial summed up the whole problem. In the story, Kafka’s narrator was arrested and put on trial – all without even knowing what the charges were.

The concept was intentionally surreal, one of Kafka’s hallmarks: but the concept of an all-powerful state taking away even the right of the individual to know what they had been charged with was one familiar even in his day. When he began writing it in 1914, for instance, Tsarist Russia was being run as a police-state – a characteristic retained when the Communists took it over three years later (before Kafka had finished writing the novel). And there had been many instances of such conduct through history – not least in the ‘witch hunting’ of the medieval and early modern period.

The other point of his story was the way that the mind-set of state bullying also gives permission for its functionaries to unleash their own tendencies towards bullying. After all, it’s a no-risk strategy: if you take away somebody’s ability to defend themselves, you can have uninterrupted target practise on them, all without fear of comeback. This is largely why bullying is so widespread in general: it’s easy, it’s risk-free, and the person doing it always wins. What’s not for the bully to like about it? And in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the state is a very powerful device for removing that power of defence from innocent citizens.

Strange though Kafka’s writing is – particularly once translated – he had a point.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017

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5 thoughts on “What Franz Kafka’s ‘The Trial’ tells us about authoritarian bullying

  1. I’m reading this and it’s still the 10th March here. Creepy! Not as creepy as the Trial, though. I did a review of it recently and used a big word for it: prescient. Which indeed it is.

  2. Actually never really took to Kafka’s writing but for a really great laugh and cry satire on all the pretensions of society (and academia) try Jorge Louis Borges. Appreciate his ‘stuff’ many times more than Kafka. Amazing thing is his poetry is not the fun writing he did, much more emotive and essential to the human spirit.

  3. As we come to rely on ever more corporations in our daily lives the unaccountable loop we can find ourselves in when something goes wrong is also frustrating. (Although it does come without a threat to life and liberty.) The latest craze seems to be HSBC closing bank accounts without explaining why. So many small charities in the UK left in the lurch because of the bank’s over-reaction to cleaning up its own dodgy recent history.

  4. Great post- what’s especially spooky about Kafka is how he foresaw things getting so much worse under the totalitarian regimes of the far right and the far left. What’s creepy to me is how willing people are to give power to faceless bureaucrats without so much as a whimper- it really resonates with me that in the story he has the ability to just refuse to take part at any point- he actively chooses to participate- and it is through his own complicity in giving people authority over him that causes his own destruction.

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