I intend to build a fictional civilization which operates solely via a sprawling Kafkaesque bureaucracy. My question is this: what conditions are necessary to incentivize the generation and subsequent self-propagation of this hypothetical bureaucracy?


This is not intended to be a streamlined system in any way, therefore as long as the bureaucracy doesn't immediately collapse, it is not necessary for the system to be sustainable under duress from external pressures. This system should reach a point wherein it is completely incomprehensible to any one person; there are so many rules and terms and documents required to do anything that any and everyone is at the behest of paperwork, and every single thing they do is dictated to them by the relevant department(s), each of which operates by their own small set of rules, the purpose of which are unknown to the employees in that department. Therefore, this society cannot have any rulers or an upper class, all members of the society should be oppressed by the constantly changing rules and regulations that exist mostly without purpose, if it were to be otherwise, then people might have some hope of understanding the insanity around them, and the mechanisms of the state would have to be made more intelligible in order to become navigable by those with enough resources at their disposal.

The essence of the system is that of a society which benefits no one, and hurts everyone.

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    $\begingroup$ Your clarification perfectly describes any civil service or local government department I have ever heard of (not joking). However "this society cannot have any rulers or an upper class" sounds like an invalid assumption as even in such a system there is a ranking and regardless of how the decisions are made there can be a ruling class and an upper class. Having a ruling class that are isolated socially (possibly by wealth, possibly by design) is something such a bureaucracy does not, in and of itself, prevent. It may actually encourage such a situation. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ Bureaucracy is bureaucracy in all times and in all countries. It's very easily mocked, and it's a great backdrop for bleak fantasy. However, in real life bureaucracy is what runs a country; and in real life Franz Kafka was a successful insurance inspector. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 20:30
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP Quite right.The Parliament of Northern Ireland had collapsed & not reinstated itself. The Public Service continues running the country. Bureaucracies can be very effective. Imperial China was by its bureaucracy, for millennia. Multinational Corporations are bureaucracies. It is the fate of large organizations to become bureaucracies. They work too well not to exist. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jul 21, 2018 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ What you are describing is a living creature: no cell knows the full plan and they communicate and take decision through regulatory networks that even for single cell organisms we do not fully understand. These regulatory networks can be interpreted as a set of interacting procedures being mindlessly followed by every actor of the bureaucracy. I could develop the analogy in an answer if you consider it would be on topic. $\endgroup$
    – Kolaru
    Commented Jul 24, 2018 at 18:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Kolaru Any inspiration from biology is greatly appreciated, the insight gained is nearly always invaluable. As I see it now, The building of a society as if building a greater organism certainly has relevance when creating frustrating convolution for all involved. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 25, 2018 at 19:17

5 Answers 5


I need to dismiss your limitation of no ruling class. No bureaucracy that touches a society can exist without there first being a leadership that acts on the paradox of helping the people for the good of the society. There are always rulers.

Given that one dismissed requirement, let's have some fun. What we want is the most bureaucratically complex drinking bird heat engine we can: something that employs a lot of effort to achieve a balance it can never achieve for no useful purpose at all.1

The Rule of Law

Bureaucracy cannot exist without the rule of law. Therefore, your society must have the structure of law and its attending bureaucracies: the judiciary, the legislature, and the "funding entity" (we'll get to that momentarily).

What's most important about this is that no solution to a problem can exist without first developing a regulation to express the solution. This is the fundamental problem with the rule of law: government has but one "product," law. It can't divest itself, it cannot diversify its interests, it cannot develop new techniques or technologies, because it has but one product: law.2

The Essential Paradox

A world-class bureaucracy cannot exist without one essential paradox: the need to protect the status-quo while permitting ambition. People want to sandbag their economic and social position so that no one can remove it, but want that same defense removed from the next person in line whose position the first person wants. This paradox creates the illusion of an elite class: those who "understand" the system and can take advantage of it. In reality, the elite class are those who learn how to manipulate the system. Understanding it is someone else's problem.

A Problem Needs Solving

No bureaucracy exists simply to exist. They always begin to solve a problem. For example, how do your judiciary and legislature get paid for creating and adjudicating law? Ah... taxes...

And that explains the U.S. Internal Revenue Agency, probably the most powerful and Kafkaesque bureaucracy on the planet.

My point is, you need a problem, and while the problem is ostensibly for the "good of the people" in reality it's not even "good for society" but is only a means to an end, the end represented by the drinking bird heat engine: it's ultimately self-serving.

Competing Interests

No interest may reign supreme. If it does, your society must collapse. This requires at least one overriding law (call it a "constitution") that establishes the requirement for government (the rule of society over the individual) while protecting the rights of individuals (the rule of the individual over society). This creates a see-saw effect where laws are continuously created and modified to protect the impossible balance between the two.

Add to this additional competing interests: business, local governments, international alliances, and class structures. I know you're trying to avoid having class structures, but they're impossible to avoid and necessary for a good bureaucracy. The desire to be a little better than your neighbor, a little more privileged, is an unbelievably powerful motivator for increased bureaucracy.

It's Gotta Be Valuable

Whether its taxes or your local Department of Motor Vehicles, the "service" being provided requires the appearance of value. You want access to government contracts, you want to drive your car, you want the police to protect you from criminals.... All these things are easily solved by other means (work at McDonalds, take the bus, move to a better neighborhood), but that's how an individual thinks, not how "society" thinks. Put a bunch of us together and we want the shortest path to happiness. That's valuable! So, whatever your bureaucracy does, it needs to be perceived as valuable. Taxes are important! So we need the IRS, right?

You Need Distrust

Finally (I could go on a lot longer, but this answer is getting long...), you need a justification for paperwork — because nothing generates the need for new regulations and laws like the need for paperwork. Paperwork requires instructions, training, processing, disposition, action, and a lot of other things that requires laws (which, in turn, require more paperwork... see?).

And the most obvious way to justify paperwork is to not trust anybody.

Have you ever thought of how to avoid trusting anybody? A needs help from B, who uses paperwork to justify that help which must be validated by C to ensure B isn't giving A a deal they don't deserve (it's the Public Trust, after all!). We can't trust C, so we invite C's peers, D and E to check up on C, who require F to file the paperwork and G to archive it and H to digitize it. And we all know H can't do his job without requesting equipment and supplies via paperwork... which means H = A != B + C + D + E + F + G. Yup, paperwork.

OK, You Need One More Thing: Worry

Finally, finally, you need people to worry about the fact that, because they're in a giant hamster wheel of a bureaucracy, they aren't completely safe. There are performance reviews and layoffs and that ambitious twerp down the hall and the overwhelming desire to not appear less than your neighbor... You need a reason to become the big fish in your small pond... and the only way for everyone to feel more-or-less safe is for there to be a lot of small ponds. Lots and lots and lots.

1I hereby declare entertainment to be a non-useful purpose. So say we all....

2I read a book, "metamagical themas," that included an interesting game to exemplify the problem with the rule of law: a group of people gather around a stack of blank slips of paper and a pencil. They can't do ANYTHING without creating an appropriate law through consensus. They can modify laws, but they can't "delete" or throw out laws. Every action requires a law. (We had to develop a law that determined how a player could ask to go to the bathroom, then another to actually go to the bathroom, then another to deal with how to bring said player up to date after he/she returned from the bathroom....) The game gets out of hand very, very quickly.


There is a reason that Kafkaesque is used to describe unrealistic scenarios. The organization you describe can't really work because if the point is that no productive work gets done, then nothing gets produced. And if nothing ever happens, nothing gets distributed, so people never eat, etc. So you can only have a skeleton of a government, and something outside needs to meet the basic needs of existence in order for people to while away their lives as you describe. But if the whole setup doesn't need a clear beginning or effective maintenance, that skeleton might include:

For Workers

You have an immediate superior, but the decisive authority is never one that you can contact-- it's always two or more hops away. Everyone has work to do, but that work is mechanical (no critical thinking required, or even useful). The work should also be abstract, so that it's not clear what form 2037A actually related to in any way, other than linking to another form or bureaucratic procedure which will be similarly unhelpful. New rules come out periodically, but since their impact is irrelevant workers don't really do anything different-- forms are forms, you just fill them out. You mechanically understand your immediate work that day, and everything else is someone else's job.

As long as everyone has work to do, and that work is never decisive or useful, and no one expects to do anything beyond those immediate tasks, then everyone can invest labor indefinitely and just spin their wheels.

For Consumers

The process for getting what you want seems clear at first, with form A for department A. There is no easy-to-think-of way to get what you want outside of the "proper channels", or the contacts you would need to do so are hard to come by, and the penalties for doing so really severe, few would probably make the effort (or make any headway if they did).

The next step is always the one you need following your current bureaucratic path, and while other possible paths may exist you would have to start over, meaning extra work and headaches all over again. So everyone is always stuck in a mire of endless procedures.

That's really all you would need. Bureaucracy isn't about getting things done, it's about making sure that things happen according to set procedures. And if you completely divorce those procedures from outcomes, then the only thing left to worry about is people trying to blow the whole thing off. As long as that's hard enough to do that even the desperate wouldn't go for it (or can't actually do it), then there's no alternative.


Incentivise every bureaucrat to have as many people who report to them as possible, and be generous when they ask for new positions (to combat unemployment, for example). They will make all kinds of rules to make those chairs occupied.

Limit competition from other societies so that reality will never come to check.


It is very easy to get there. It's harder to get out of it.

Bureaucracy is a very prolific and self-supporting institution. Most governments are designed with the idea that bureaucracy should be restricted and in some cases eliminated. Remove these restrictions, and government will consume the entire country.

In democratic societies, executive branch of government is restricted by the legislative and judicial branches. Parliament will enact laws that would serve as checks against bureaucracy, and courts will issue orders in particular cases, so bureaucracy can never have a final say in any kind of matter.

In not so democratic societies, executive branch can develop massive and unaccountable bureaucracy, and the only remedy for that bureaucracy can come from the top (or from the bottom, in form of revolution, but I would omit that). If upper echelons of government want efficiency, they will try to limit their bureaucracy. But if efficiency is not really required, then bureaucracy will have a free reign, and eventually will put its own representatives to the top of the government. This is essentially a dead end, and Soviet Union, for example, had seen it happen in reality.


Make tools too dangerous to use and put them almost within reach of the common man.

Say someone invents molecular factories that can freely make anything from baby rattles and potato chips to Ebola virus and nuclear bombs. All human work immediately becomes obsolete except keeping it from making things that kill lots of people, while still wanting to let people order pizza and spare Monopoly pieces.

It can work without the grey goo so long as the bureaucracy collectively holds more power than it knows what to do with, say massive oil revenues or Peace Corps drafts, and wants to be responsive to the people.

As people figure out new ways to ask for Bad Things new rule need to be rapidly deployed to be sure no one does. As people figure out ways to prove that what they want isn't actually Bad Things they are allowed to have it.

Can I order 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid? Yes, if I happen to be a chemist with a project that could use it (forms 52643b and 879a), but no if I'm on any watch list in table 43, or anyone in my social network (forms 3123 a through f) has ordered any of the substances on table 3765 in the last month, or have ever watched the Radioactive Man movie (form 8 line 12).


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