Critics have been denouncing “bureaucracy” for more than 250 years, since the word was first coined by the political economist Vincent de Gournay (who also gets credit for the maxim laissez-faire). Paperwork, as bureaucracy's most tangible instrument, makes for an especially easy target. These attacks have taken on a new sense of urgency as the forces of neoliberalism have pursued their war on regulation. “Have you seen the red ribbons on ads, cars, or as a big banner on the outside of the headquarters of the World Bank during the first week of December? It showed support for the global HIV/AIDS campaign. Other than for such limited purposes, red tape is rarely a positive contribution to anything,” we read on the World Bank's Doing Business blog. “One day, when there is a global movement against unnecessary red tape, another color must be chosen for a ribbon and it will show in magazines and cars, or maybe even hang as a big banner on the outside of buildings. Anyone who wants to jump start this global movement? I invite you to become creative and come up with a color that shows that unnecessary bureaucracy is not cool.”
This television commercial belongs to a paperwork-reduction campaign launched by the Belgian government in 2003 with support from Microsoft and KPMG. The campaign, with the evocative name KAFKA.BE, sought to simplify or eliminate the steps required for many ordinary government transactions, from registering births to obtaining handicapped-parking placards. Filmed in a bleak style reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki, the commercial follows a disembodied arm around the streets of what I take to be Brussels, though it may well be some other city. Abandoned by its owner, the arm is finally reduced to prostituting itself: “Will masturbate for money (no fistfucking).” What kind of person would abandon his arm to this fate? We meet the owner in the final shot, a one-armed man in jeans and a tank top. He pauses for a moment, looks at his arm lying there on the street, and then continues on his way. His arm gives him the finger before finally collapsing in the gutter. The message: “Plus besoin d’avoir le bras long,” “no more need for the long arm,” from an idiomatic expression meaning to have connections or contacts.
Such are the rhetorical extremes of rationalization. The KAFKA.BE logo promises “Strength through simplification” and shows a man incinerating documents in a wastepaper basket. But like a duck-rabbit, this is an image with more than one aspect: Look again to see a man huddled over a trash-can fire for warmth. We must remain aware of these multiple aspects of paperwork. It may inconvenience us, even torment us, but it is still our best protection against the depredations of the free market, against the loss of life and limb — and ecosystem — that are the inevitable consequences of deregulation.