Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”

bureaucracy Today anthropologists talk constantly about the need for “public scholarship.”  There are programs that promote it and a handful of anthropologists who successfully publish in popular venues such as the Huffington Post (e.g., the indefatigable Paul Stoller).  The problem is that the textual tics and high-mandarin vocabulary  of contemporary social science are hard to unlearn after decades of trafficking in them.  This makes it especially challenging for academics to write theoretically rich accounts capable of engaging ordinary readers.  We think we know how to do it, but few of us succeed.

An exception is David Graeber, an anthropologist and self-described anarchist who moved to a position in the UK after a high-profile departure from Yale a decade ago.  Graeber’s 2011 book Debt: The First 5000 Years, was widely reviewed in the trade press and is described as an “international best-seller,” although what that means in actual sales isn’t clear to me.  Perhaps it’s enough to say that it doubtless beat the average lifetime sales of a typical work of anthropology (well under a thousand copies these days, I’m told) by several orders of magnitude.  Not every review of Debt was glowing—a book covering so much history is bound to violate the understandings of some experts—but many reviewers found it witty, accessible, and convincing.

What is distinctive about Graeber’s writing, aside from its radical underpinnings, is its conversational quality.  He sometimes grapples with the work of major theorists (Lévi-Strauss, Jameson, Weber, Marx, etc.) but always manages to represent their thinking with refreshing clarity.  Whether critics find his arguments right or wrong is less interesting than is his ability to make the ideas seem worthy of contemplation because of what they tell us about contemporary realities, including the multiple ways that capitalism shapes our experience and understanding of the world.  And he’s often funny, which helps.

These gifts are on display in Graeber’s latest work, The Utopia of Rules, a collection of  essays on bureaucracy—its history, key features, and impact on societies and individuals.

I was predisposed to quarrel with the book based on a reading of Graeber’s 2006 Malinowski Lecture, a first draft of parts of Utopia of Rules.  I found it too simplistic, too inclined to associate bureaucracy with violence, too unwilling to recognize that in some ways we demand bureaucracy even as we claim to detest it.  (I expressed my reservations here and here.)

“Bureaucracies, I’ve said, are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity–of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence. This is why even if a bureaucracy is created for entirely benevolent reasons, it will still produce absurdities” (The Utopia of Rules, p. 81)

The new book, though, does an admirable job of explaining our love/hate relationship with bureaucracy–why, as Graeber repeatedly says, we demand it even though it “makes us stupid” by derailing the imagination.  Bureaucratic rules impose a schematized regime that seems to be impartial.  It also frees us from the “interpretive labor” of trying to figure out what someone else really means.

The bureaucratic impulse contrasts with true popular democracy, which requires imaginative energy to understand the desires of others and respond to them in constructive ways.

What saves the book from an over-simplistic identification of bureaucracy with structural violence is Chapter 3, “The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All.”  Graeber launches the chapter with a thumbnail history of the German postal system, and later the U.S. one, both of which were celebrated as exemplars of efficiency, rationality, and democracy.  For most Americans, Graeber says, the Post Office was the primary face of the federal government until after the Civil War.  It represented government at its best, offering secure and dignified employment.  This “utopia” of bureaucracy was eroded beginning in the 1980s by the move to privatize as much of the state as possible.  Postal work went from being a solid, respected middle-class job to a site of government waste and mindless violence (“going postal”) in the popular imagination.

This leads Graeber to an extended discussion of the utopian imagination and the escapist lure of literary worlds offered by works such as Lord of the Rings, which is “utterly purged of bureaucracy.” Against the brutality of a good-versus-evil universe populated by killer Orcs, bureaucratic boredom begins to look attractive.  This in turn leads Graeber to ruminations on play, which fuels the human imagination.

 “[T]his invasion of regulation … derives ultimately from a tacit cosmology in which the play principle (and by extension, creativity) is itself seen as frightening, which game-like behavior is celebrated as transparent and predictable, and where as a result, the advance of all these rules and regulations is itself experienced as a kind of freedom” (p. 196).

Although impartial bureaucracy has long been lauded as a way to free ourselves from the arbitrary power of rulers, the actual result is that “science and creativity are smothered, and all of us end up finding increasing percentages of our day taken up in the filling out of forms” (p. 205).

Graeber’s analysis is compelling in places and exhilarating throughout, but it dodges difficult questions.  For one thing, he grapples only tangentially with the problem of social scale.   In the history of the world has there been any democratic society with a population in the millions that has been able to run effectively without some kind of administrative (hence bureaucratic) structure?  I can’t think of one.  Another world is possible, as the slogan goes, but what those possibilities might look like remains undefined.  Graeber refers several times to the Occupy movement, with which he has been associated and which presumably represents a model for the kind of radically democratic, non-bureaucratic governance that he favors.  I leave it to readers to decide whether they would want to live in a society organized around Occupy’s approach to debate.  Having attending my share of New England town meetings, which represent a primordial American version of face-to-face local democracy, I can say that I both admire their spirit and am grateful that they take place only once a year.

Related to the scale problem is the matter of rules  intended to protect public safety, which Graeber scarcely mentions.  Would you want to live in a world in which drivers were totally unregulated and airlines could put planes into the air free of public oversight?  (The NRA seems to favor this approach to the possession of firearms, thus making the U.S. the laughingstock of civilized nations everywhere.) What about building codes, as imperfect and warped by vested interests as they may be?

Whether readers will accept Graeber’s assertion that bureaucracy is always the handmaiden of structural violence depends on their point of view.  What I can say is that Graeber’s book represents a kind of anthropology that truly matters because of the way that it prompts reflection on everyday experience.  For that, he has earned my admiration.  He has found that most elusive quality of writing, a unique personal voice.  Best of all, he doesn’t use the word “imbricated” even once.

Addendum, 7 July 2015.
I couldn’t resist adding the following note that I recently received from the US Postal Service regarding a change of address request submitted months before.  If you can divine what it means, you’re a better bureaucrat than I!


One thought on “Regarding Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy””

  1. Reblogged this on Phalanxed Noise and commented:

    I found this review very intellectually stimulating. It’s focus is a book concerned with the nature of bureaucracies but I think it raises a lot of interesting questions about human organization in general. If you already like social theory, or you’re just curious enough to give a good introductory article a try, this is a nice concise read.


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