By Peter Richardson on March 19, 2015
What intense pleasure this book gave me, despite the dull topic: bureaucracy. Anthropologist 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.
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 resume 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. Banks have always been regulated heavily, and they naturally try to shape those regulations. Sometimes they even 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. Other authors 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.
Graeber’s discussion floats freely between social theory and science fiction, state formation and superheroes, modern anthropology and blockbuster films. Some readers will find the discussion too abstract, while others (fellow academics, for example) will no doubt object that he the analysis is too sweeping. But there’s nothing quite like a fresh vista, and “The Utopia of Rules” is brimming with those.