Austrian Bureaucracy — A Personal Anecdote

Because I just moved to Vienna, I want to share a personal anecdote about the experience with the Austrian Bureaucracy so far. Since May, I’ve been steadily working towards receiving what is essentially the Austrian version of the “Green Card,” and have had to complete the final steps in-person this last week.

Writing about bureaucracy in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx notes that “bureaucracy is a circle from which no one can escape. Its hierarchy is a hierarchy of knowledge. The highest point entrusts the understanding of particulars to the lower echelons, whereas these, on the other hand, credit the highest with an understanding in regard to the universal; and thus they deceive one another.” Although the bureaucracy he is talking about in this essay is slightly different than that which I’ve been forced to encounter recently, the central idea applies: When one’s life/body gets transformed into an ID number and carted around a widely dispersed informational hierarchy, it becomes easy to feel trapped and confused.

I spent the better part of my mornings during the last week shuffling to-and-fro in the streets of Vienna. In one building, I would take a number and sit in a waiting room until my number was called, only then to enter an office and receive a stamp on a form, which I would then be required take to another building on the other side of the city to have approved, in which building there would be another machine to take a number from, another waiting room, another office, another stamp, etc. No one part of the chain had any idea about the total project that all the stamps and signatures were leadings towards: It was just another paper to stamp if the previous stamps and signatures were already on it.

In one building alone, at the immigration office, I sat through three different waiting rooms before finally reaching the person I needed to talk to. Each time my number was called, I would enter a office where someone in a suit would be waiting—my new number already printed out and in hand—and would inform me that I now needed to proceed to waiting room X and wait for this new number to be called. I rode up and down elevators, criss-crossed bleak hallways filled with bleary-eyed people, and made waiting-room small talk with other hopeful Austrian immigrants: “Oh, you got K409? Nice. I’m still in G206. Yeah, I know….”

In the end, after months of gathering documents, filling out paperwork, and writing emails, and this last intense week of in-person bureaucratic hubbub, I’m happy to say that I’ll be receiving my Austrian “Green Card” at the beginning of October. It should be a good year!

P.S. I finally had to learn to spell ‘bureaucracy’ without looking it up every time to write this post. :)