The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

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After multiple exposures to David Graeber’s writing, I now know what to expect-a long, meandering, somewhat in need of an editor diatribe on topics that I’m genuinely curious about. Thus I settled in to attack his latest, diving deeply into the interesting bits and floating through his frequent long-winded expositions that veer off course. I figure I should give this guy a break, him being hailed as the originator of the term “99%” and being one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street and all. With the freedom to just ingest the parts that I was keen to devour, I enjoyed his exploration of bureaucracy in these three essays (with an “appendix” essay trashing Chris Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight Rises, which I didn’t realize was considered anti-Occupy propaganda).

He starts with charts on how often the words “bureaucracy”, “paperwork”, and “performance review” were used in English language books over the last 150 years, the kind of hockey stick charts that startups and businesses of all kinds drool over, but in this case shudderingly-so. We’ve just become accustomed to the morass of paperwork that is required for daily life now. Graeber starts the collection with a personal story about his encounter with the bureaucracy surrounding getting his mother onto Medicaid and gaining control of her bank account after she’d been debilitated by a series of strokes. “Is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Running around feeling like an idiot all day? Being somehow put in a position where one actually does end up acting like an idiot?” He points out that Americans are really good at bureaucracy (but embarrassed to be so) while the British are proud not to be, tracing this back to the fact that the U.S. is really “a German country that, owing to an early twentieth century rivalry, refuses to recognize itself as such. Despite the use of the English language there are far more Americans of German descent than English. Germany in contrast is a country quite proud of its efficiency in matters bureaucratic…”

Continuing with the theme of Germany, Graeber explores the role that the post office played in creating bureaucracy, one of the “first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organization to the public good.” I didn’t realize the “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” quote originated with Herodotus about the Persian imperial messengers (Histories, 8.98). Graeber then connects us to Mark Ames’ book, Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond (added to the queue!), where he makes the connection that these “acts of inexplicable individual rage and madness–severed from any consideration of the systematic humiliations that always seem to set them off–bears an uncanny resemblance to teh way the nineteenth-century press treated slave revolts.”

I appreciated his frequent hat-tipping to readings of feminist literature, admitting, “When I first framed this problem, I wasn’t even aware of this body of literature, though my argument had clearly been indirectly influenced by it– it was only the intervention of a feminist friend that put me on to where many of these ideas were actually coming from.” A lot of Graeber’s juicy bits are hidden away in the footnotes… 172 of them to be exact.

Another surprising insight– police are bureaucrats with guns. Essentially they’re there to enforce the rules, and whenever they’re involved, there’s a lot of paperwork to fill out.