David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

Originally published at: http://boingboing.net/2015/02/02/david-graebers-the-utopia-of.html
Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber follows up his magesterial Debt: The First 5000 Years with a slim, sprightly, acerbic attack on capitalism’s love affair with bureaucracy, asking why the post-Soviet world has more paperwork, phone-trees and red-tape than ever, and why the Right are the only people who seem to notice or care.


Part of it is definitions – generally bureaucracy is defined as merely the systems used by civil servants and not private sector employees. But there’s obviously a fair amount of similarity in the systems and often much the same sorts of inefficiencies and inconveniences for the client as the systems are designed to avoid giving out unneeded benefits and see that as more important than denying benefits incorrectly.

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That’s a heck of a run-on sentence jhbadger. Corey’s seventh paragraph is terse by comparison:

"Bureaucracy begets bureaucracy. Every effort to do away with bureaucracy ends up with more bureaucracy. "

But I’m not sure it’s any more useful. There is no argument to connect the premise with the conclusion. There is no anecdote, or evidence presented to the reader before moving on: “Bureaucracy lies.”

Corey’s prose is more purple than a “Leonard Cohen song”, but just like Graeber he “manages to tease out something wordless”. I’m no fan of bureaucracy, nor of Foucault, but neither have I been “swarmed by armed cops” for entering the university library without a student ID.


It isn’t so much the idea that “humans can be perfected”, but that we live in an interconnected society so we need systems for getting along as much as possible. I’m sorry that we spend a great deal of effort making up rules and then hire people to spend their lives inspecting companies to make sure the rules are followed, but I’d really like to eat food that isn’t spoiled and enjoy rivers not full of industrial waste.

And I don’t understand “refusing the intimidation of latent violence”. What are you supposed to do to people that actively perform actions that harm you and won’t stop even with a sternly worded “go away bad person!”?


I disagree, it is quite easy to criticize bureaucracy from a leftist perspective, as much as it has ever been. It seems to me that the vocal areas of popular leftist critique these days tend to be in the “identity politics” arena. So bureaucracy itself doesn’t get much attention except when it might be used as part of the mechanisms of institutionalized inequity. Actual discussions of updating forms of governance and civic participation don’t get much play these days in the left, in my experience.

You really think so, Cory? Maybe that might suffice as a “public relations” definition of bureaucracy. If I had a name for a book such as this I might have called it: “The Art of Inefficiency”. Because I think bureaucracy tends to be, by design, a way to avoid doing work. The origin of this practice being that of governmental administration is because the machinery of The State is always there, the taxes which pay them are always there - which amounts to an incentive to offer less work for more money. An institutionalized way of milking jobs, avoiding accountability - to make real goals recede off to the infinity of an unattainable horizon of plausibly deniable postponements.

Hence the pretense of anybody expecting or caring whether or not anybody files their taxes or actually understands and complies with rules. They stand to generate much more revenues through a sequence of further bureaucratic remedies. How much money changes hands to address a legal infraction - even if the accused pays nothing? There is, in reality, as much expectation of these being understood as there is for EULAs and terms of service contracts. It amounts to a token gesture used to fulfill some trifling legal obligations, to make it sound like there are some rules which all parties must adhere to. So they can say that “I’m just doing my job.” when somebody protests their poor treatment, ineffectiveness, or lack of accountability.

The problem tends to be built into a pervasive misunderstanding of “incentive”, which has the result of ever actually fixing problems to be anathema to people. Even though it may be more obvious that such a system encourages a fear of failure, there is also a subtle, very real fear of success. So, we get a culture built upon stasis, where a revolving door of new problems serve as a pointing hand to distract the critical of the lack of meaningful action to address the old problems. Apart from throwing lots of other people’s money at them. Since the accountability is one way, with ordinary people at the bottom, shit rolls downhill onto them as they struggle to break even. It’s a disconnect between the ethos of public service and self interest.

It sounds glibly simplistic for me to just lay it out like this, but what needs to be implemented are ways of rewarding people for actually working to solve real problems, instead of perpetuating them.

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That sounds to me like about the better half of the NSF. It doesn’t exactly reward problem solving, but it’s willing to fund some of that.


My hypothesis is that the papers are a parasitic life form, with breeding and evolution depending on us.

They secrete a neurotoxin through their surfaces. It passes through skin and accumulates in the organism. At higher dose it causes delusions that the papers are important, at even higher doses it causes further delusion that the one who handles them is by that virtue also important.

Would explain a lot.

What we as a society need is to develop an antidote and add it into the water supply…


That sounds almost like the pretense for a Douglas Adams short story :grinning:

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When you’re organizing a large group of people you need at least some bureaucracy to keep everyone coordinated. If you have an increase in centralization you can therefore also expect an increase. When WalMart blows into town and forces out all the mom-and-pop your retail interactions will become more formalized and bureaucratic because now instead of dealing with the owner or his second directly you’re now dealing with someone many layers down from the top. In addition there is the intentionally malignant form where you make settling a dispute so onerous the complainer gives up, or formerly in the case of medical insurance, dies.

On the government side rules get more and more complicated because of the arms race between rule-makers and those exploiting loopholes. This ultimately favors those who have the resources to spare to become experts on the rules. With government bureaucracy the ultimate blame though lies with the legislature, since they’re the ones who make the laws the bureaucrats carry out. The dominance of anti-government conservatives in particular leads to bad bureaucracy. Because of their lack of trust they like to micro-manage things, and we get stuff like “three strikes” laws and mandatory drug testing for welfare applicants. Slashing budgets paradoxically can make agencies worse, as fewer people with fewer resources have to tackle the same amount of work. And since these conservatives don’t believe government can be competent in the first place they have no desire to fix things as government failure just proves to them that they were right to distrust government.


We don’t have Douglas Adams. But we have somebody else, also pretty capable.
Paging @doctorow?

Oh, joy – I see that a third of this book is Graeber’s supremely stupid “Flying Cars” essay, which you can read online in its original form here:

This is one of those amazing essays in which there’s something misleading, confused, or complete wrong in just about every paragraph, starting with the first, where Graeber shows he can’t tell the difference between 30 years and 300 years. Hint: claims made by science fiction shows or films from the late 1960s for the year 2001 are not the same as claims made for the 23rd Century, though Graeber is happy to treat them all equally as evidence for the supposed failure of technological advance circa 2012:

Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?

This isn’t Graeber being silly or playful – he genuinely argues that all of this ought be present by now (he keeps bringing up the absence of “antigravity” and “teleportation”), if weren’t for the deadening hand of capitalist bureaucracy. Combined with confusing Jules Verne with H.G. Wells, confusing “open source” and “open access”, getting the history of science in the last 50 years backwards, completely missing the growth of roboticized factories (something he claims capitalists explicitly rejected), and a host of other mistakes, it’s a remarkable display of confusion and ignorance.


The merit of this comment is that it caused me to read the Graeber essay, but on the downside, the comment’s claims are completely inaccurate. Graeber is perfectly clear about his chronology, providing plenty of examples of near-term predictions from the middle of the last century and contrasting them to our current conditions. His argument is interesting and worth a look.


[quote=“dwrob, post:12, topic:51203, full:true”] His argument is interesting and worth a look.

While I agree that the original comment overstates the issues, I disagree wholly here. It’s clear from reading the essay that Gerber doesn’t understand computers, doesn’t understand medicine, and frequently confuses the fact that something is more difficult than we originally envisioned (e.g. AI) for some conspiracy of grand forces and behaviours.

He brings up the lack of cures for both cancer and the common cold as if they were each singular entities, which is always a good sign of someone either being deliberately reductionist or who simply doesn’t understand what they’re talking about.

(And then there’s the descent into out and out conspiracy theorizing, when he suggests that oil companies are buying up synthetic fuel formulas before anyone can find out about them and locking them away.)

There may be something good in there, but if there is it’s lost in all dad-spam tosh about a prior, purer age of discovery, when men were men and scientists scientists.


“Graber manages to tease out something wordless and important, about how we might imagine a world where we don’t need violence to keep us in check and stop letting the people who say we do run the show.”

This seems to me to be a key point. Thinking beyond violence is extremely difficult in the society and culture we now have. Our language makes it even more difficult. We talk about peace using the language of war, “waging” peace just like we wage war.

There are examples we can point to, if we know about them, Gandhi is one, of course, but completely mistaken, in my view. It wasn’t politics he was focused on but the building of a non-violent culture and economy. My readings in Gandhian economics (google gmoke + Gandhian economics and you’ll find all my notes) convinces me that we don’t understand what he was about. His colleague, Abdul Gaffar Khan also known as Badshah Khan is another great example. He was the founder of the world’s first non-violent army, the Servants of God, in the very area where Pakistan and Afghanistan are now fighting against the Taliban. I suspect that the Taliban learned a lot about organizing from Badshah Khan but have used it for the directly opposite purpose.

Yet another example is Uyeshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido. He wanted to develop a martial art which embodied peaceful resolution. Practicing aikido can bring a profound sense into the body of what non-resistance means and how powerful a force it can be. There are aikido practitioners all over the world trying to build bridges over the political and social divides between warring nations and factions with an important conference and practice sponsored by Aiki Extensions coming up this October in Greece. To be able to put peace into your muscle memory is a powerful thing, a threatening idea to many. One great lesson of aikido is that of practice. Peace is practice. You keep on working at it and improving as you approach an ultimately unreachable goal. Democracy is practice, too, but In the USA we have let it devolve into the idea of voting once a year, an impoverished shadow of what democracy actually means.

How do we think beyond the overt and covert violence that is the foundation of our political, economic, and social system? This is a question that needs much more consideration.


Graeber is perfectly clear about his chronology, providing plenty of examples of near-term predictions from the middle of the last century

I’m sorry, he isn’t. Here’s what he says:

Those who grew up at the turn of the century [i.e., around 1900] reading Jules Verne or H.G. Wells imagined the world of, say, 1960 with flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, radio, and television—and that was pretty much what they got.

He’s already started to undercut himself here, since now we get 60 years for things to come true (or 70, if we include landing on the Moon, which he does at the end of that paragraph). So for predictions made in the late 1960s, we ought to wait till the 2020s or 2030s before we start wondering what’s gone wrong. So why is Graeber complaining in 2012?

But it’s worse than that, because his list of “predictions” is a mish-mash of things that already existed in 1900 – submarines, radio – and things from books that were written decades previously. Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was written in 1865 (and is supposed to take place not long after the end of the American Civil War). So, really, you had to wait a full century between the prediction (humans travel to the moon) and the reality.

(If you want to argue that something vaguely like the powerful submarine of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea – top underwater speed of 50 knots, five days submerged endurance – didn’t really exist until the 1960s, then sure. But you have to deal with the fact that the novel was written in 1869, and actually claimed to be describing something already feasible, since it purports to be a record of events from 1866! Again, a whole century between prediction and reality, not the forty years or so Graeber is complaining about when it comes to predictions from the late 1960s.)

Oh, and Verne [or Verne and his son] did talk about the possibility of things like television – in an essay called "In the Year 2889”. Not “In the Year 1960”. I suppose this is consistent with Graeber’s being unable to tell the difference between 2001 — the nominal date for predictions in Kubrick’s movie — and the 23rd Century, the date for predictions in the original Star Trek….


It sounds glibly simplistic for me to just lay it out like this…

Au Contraire, I very little idea of what your claims are and less about how you back them up.

The good news: we found the antidote.

The bad news: the antidote the internet. It’s clearly very important. But I seem to get less done on it everyday…


I was just casually throwing up a few observations and questions inspired by the OP article. It’s an exercise in comparative realities, I’d rather people develop their own opinions rather than be persuaded.

Shorter Graeber (/Doctorow?):

In all seriousness, I don’t find Graeber convincing, or interesting, at all. Maybe that’s simply because I’m a heretical liberal statist, but he is spouting off a lot of claims that feel “truthy”.

In this case I’m struck by his connection between bureaucracy and violence. I tend to see bureaucracy as an improvement on violence; a replacement of one evil form of government with a mildly irritating one. The whole idea of government as an “impersonal machine” is kind of the point: the paperwork and monotony associated with getting a passport is a better way of doing things than “whoever shows up with the biggest bribe gets his/her drivers license first”. Or more characteristic of non-bureaucracies, “everybody show up at the court and plead before the king. Whoever he likes the most will get the farm.”.

I’m just armchair critiquing, not having read the book, so grain of salt and all. But if anyone is genuinely interested in this sort of thing, I’d recommend Violence and Social Orders by by Douglass North, which investigates how societies become stable, predictable democracies. TL;DR it involves developing impersonal, immortal institutions (or 'bureaucracies", by another name) that create a predictable world for people to plan and build in.

But what the #&$% am I thinking; libertarians don’t want predictability.


Bureaucracy is a good servant and a bad master. When did we allow it to become the master?

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