Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 19:17 | SYDNEY
Sunday 10 Oct 2021 | 19:17 | SYDNEY

World apparatchiks losing their touch


Graeme Dobell

9 August 2011 10:14

From the Arab Spring to the Washington budget fiasco to Japan's disaster agonies, this has been a calamitous year for apparatchiks. The inside men and women who understand power and make it run smoothly seem to have lost their touch.

Every system produces its own forms of career machine mechanics. US politics is run by apparatchiks who started off studying law, while China is run by Party apparatchiks who studied engineering. In both the US and China, the operatives are having trouble applying the disciplines of their formal degree to the workings of the system.

Consider the high-speed train wreck in China and the slow-motion train wreck of the US budget. In the case of the China train disaster, the proper response of any engineer would be to carefully investigate every bit of evidence to make the machine better. The response of the engineers at the peak of the Chinese system was to order the wreckage to be buried and to try to shut down the media.

In the US, popular passions overwhelmed a bit of budget business that the legislature had easily ticked off more than 70 times before. In Japan, the engineers may have run bullet trains for 47 years without a fatal accident, but the nuclear industry seems not to have held itself to the same standards.

In each case, popular belief in the smooth workings of the system has been seriously damaged. The norms the apparatchiks work to no longer look normal. Sam's piece on how the 'norms' of Washington are being trashed by a bunch of radicals who used to be conservatives turned me to musing on why the 'chiks seem to be choking all over the place.

Apparatchiks are essential to the workings of any system of politics and government. But the worker bees get very close to the honey. The proximity to power means cronyism and corruption walk down the corridors of power along with some of the other necessary competencies.

There's a rich body of literature on all this. One of the best is Milo Minderbinder, who started off as mess officer and ended up franchising out most of the war in Catch 22. For the mess our current apparatchiks face, though, it is hard to go past this description of the atrophy of the modern mechanism:

The law was a large, rusting machine that sucked up people and lives and money. I was just a mechanic. I had become expert at going into the machine and fixing things and extracting what I needed from it in return…notions about the virtue of the adversarial system, of the system’s checks and balances, of the search for truth, had long since eroded like the faces of statues from other civilisations. The law was not about truth. It was about negotiation, amelioration, manipulation.

This isn't about  politics but about the law, as offered up by Michael Connelly in The Lincoln Lawyer, where the hero worries about walking the line between being a criminal attorney and a criminal: 'Sometimes I’m not sure which side of the bars I am on.'

Senior apparatchiks everywhere would recognise the dilemma. And they'd understand the Lincoln Lawyer's lament that the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is one who is actually innocent. Then all the usual deals and compromises and plea bargains won't suffice: only one verdict will do.

For today's apparatchiks, the equivalent line would be that the scariest thing they can confront is a populace that no longer accepts the workings of the system as it is. The whole purpose of the apparatchik is to service the system. But what if that purpose comes up against passions and principles that will not bend the knee nor be bent by the old norms? Suddenly, the usual stuff – negotiation, amelioration, manipulation, insider knowledge and constant compromises – may not deliver the deal that everyone can live with.

And what use is the apparatchik who no longer understands how the machine really works?

Photo by petercastleton.