What intense pleasure this book gave me, despite the dull topic: bureaucracy. My reading experience almost certainly reflected my surroundings. Book in hand, I spent seven hours next to a luggage carousel at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. My flights had been canceled, and my only goal was to reclaim my bag and return home. A battery of airline employees, bristling with devices, could tell me nothing about my bag’s location, though we all knew it was lying only yards away from us. The airline’s technology was surprisingly effective in other ways. For example, it automatically rebooked me on a flight I never wanted. As a result, my luggage arrived safely in Syracuse a few hours before I touched down in San Francisco. Only a cultural anthropologist could explain this system’s deep logic.
David Graeber is perhaps best known for Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), which became required reading for the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that book, Graeber showed that the standard explanation for the origins of money, rehearsed in dozens of economics textbooks, was a fairy tale. In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber similarly claims that the conventional wisdom about bureaucracy is misleading; although strongly associated with the public sector, today’s bureaucracies can’t be understood apart from the rise of the modern corporation. Noting that the right’s critique of bureaucracy has been extraordinarily successful, Graeber maintains that the left needs to develop a new way of talking about it. This set of loosely connected essays is an attempt to begin that conversation.
The book’s title is keyed to a major claim: that all bureaucracies are in some sense utopian insofar as they “propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.” To function, these schemes must ignore 98 percent of the social experience they’re designed to order. (In my case, a robot concluded that I should travel to Syracuse the day after my scheduled meeting.) This split between the map and the territory points to another one between the rational, technical means a bureaucracy employs and the irrational ends to which they are often put. The parade example might be U.S. policy in Vietnam, especially under the direction of uber-bureaucrats Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk; according to Norman Mailer, Rusk was “always a model of sanity on every detail but one: He had a delusion that the war was not bottomless in its lunacy.” But one can easily identify similar patterns in today’s private sector; for example, the countless efficiencies built into our industrial food system, whose overall rationality is questionable.
Graeber argues that we have entered the era of total (or predatory) bureaucratization. Characterized by advanced technology, a fusion of public and private power, and the state violence to maintain it, this new system is exceedingly wasteful, at least for the ordinary citizen. If you’ve ever retyped your entire résumé into a potential employer’s database, you have some inkling of its extravagance. But total bureaucratization, Graeber argues, is remarkably efficient at one thing — extracting profit. Based on the notion that paperwork creates value, it begins with “the irritating case worker determining whether you are really poor enough to merit a fee waiver for your children’s medicine,” and it ends with “men in suits engaged in high-speed trading of bets over how long it will take you to default on your mortgage.”
To support his analysis, Graeber returns to familiar turf: banking. Governments regulate banks in part because they determine the size of the money supply. Banks try to shape those regulations, and sometimes they capture the regulatory institutions themselves. But total bureaucratization goes beyond regulatory capture. Now when the government catches banks defrauding customers, it issues fines that represent only a fraction of the swag. No one goes to prison, even when the fraud is massive. Matt Taibbi (The Divide) and Brandon Garrett (Too Big to Jail) have documented this point and its obvious injustice. But Graeber argues that what appears to be a bug in the justice system is actually a feature. Noting that the government is essentially accepting a percentage of the corporation’s haul, he concludes that the relationship between the two organizations is symbiotic.
It was not always thus. Graeber shows how past bureaucracies have served important civic purposes. The post office, which began as an expansion of the military courier system, was once regarded as a marvel. Both in Europe and America, it accounted for half the government budget and more than half the civil service. Mark Twain celebrated the efficiency of the German post office, and Lenin wanted to organize the entire Soviet economy in its image. Now the object of right-wing attacks, the U.S. Postal Service is ceding ground to the Internet, but Graeber notes that the two have a great deal in common. Like the post office, the Internet was originally developed by the military, is rapidly reshaping everyday life, has a reputation for dazzling efficiency, and inspires utopian ideas about cooperative economies. Also like the post office, the Internet became a medium for unwanted communications and government surveillance.
Graeber concludes with a counterintuitive argument: that we secretly love bureaucracies. Like games, they are a utopia of rules: “Who hasn’t dreamed of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and — even more — where people who play by the rules can actually still win?” He contrasts games with play, which is more open ended and less rule governed; its appeal is complete, if sometimes frightening, freedom. Games and play in their pure forms are utopian fantasies, but the tension between the two is inevitable and potentially productive. As a kind of conceptual parallel, Graeber offers language, the quintessential human faculty, which is both rule governed and endlessly playful.
The upshot of Graeber’s analysis could be clearer. The body of the book ends on a decidedly pessimistic note:
[I]n this particular case, and in this larger political-economic context, where bureaucracy has been the primary means by which a tiny percentage of the population extracts wealth from the rest of us, they have created a situation where the pursuit of freedom from arbitrary power ends up producing more arbitrary power, and as a result, regulations choke existence, armed guards and surveillance cameras appear everywhere, 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.
For his suggestions on how to proceed, readers must return to the introduction, where he offers the Global Justice Movement — which was perhaps most visible at the 1999 World Trade Meeting in Seattle — as a starting point.
A senior colleague once observed that professors came in two types: field mice and parachutists. The former works a small patch of ground intensively, while the latter lands in a different place with each jump. Graeber is a first-class parachutist. His discussion floats freely between social theory and science fiction, state formation and superheroes, modern anthropology and blockbuster films. Field mice will no doubt object that he has misconstrued some feature of the terrain; such objections come with the territory, as it were. But when you’re chained to a luggage carousel, there’s nothing quite like a fresh vista, and The Utopia of Rules is brimming with those.
Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.
Photo: Christian Schnettelker via Flickr