David Graeber. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2015).
This book is, properly speaking, not a book at all, but a collection of essays loosely clustered around the common theme of bureaucracy. Of the material in the book, only the long introductory essay “The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization,” and the third essay (from which the book gets its title) appear in print for the first time. After his general outline of the problem in the Introduction, the collected essays serve as a series of alternative possibilities for (or different facets of) an anti-bureaucratic Left.
Introduction: The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization
Graeber begins in the Introduction by arguing that bureaucracy is a lacuna in the liberal theory of history. In the classical form of that theory, stated in the nineteenth century, society was in transition from the feudal (or militant) stage, based on status, to a new liberal (or industrial) order based on contract and markets. Why, then, was bureaucracy so sharply on the rise in the nineteenth century and afterwards?
Graeber’s answer is that the dichotomy between “states” and “markets” (at least in the common identification of the latter with a society based predominantly on the cash nexus and commodity exchange) is a false one. Rather, societies in which money exchange is the primary form of economic organization have historically been creatures of the state (an argument he developed at length in Debt). And given the artificiality of the cash nexus economy, and its nature as an artifact of state power, it follows that maintaining a capitalist society on a stable basis requires an enormous ongoing exercise of state power.
While the idea that the market is somehow opposed to and independent of government has been used at least since the nineteenth century to justify laissez faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, they never actually have that effect. English liberalism, for instance, did not lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy, but the exact opposite: an endlessly ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible It turned out that maintaining a free market economy [sic] required a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.
Graeber states this as a general law — The Iron Law of Liberalism — that “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”
Meanwhile, the proliferation of bureaucrats has led to a kind of right-wing anti-bureaucratic populism, in which “politicians” and “bureaucrats” are seen as strategically allied to the parasitic underclass (witness the meme, originally crafted in response to Occupy’s attack on the 1% and eventually embraced by the Romney campaign, of the “47%” who “don’t pay taxes”). Even what passes for the “mainstream Left” in the United States these days has been driven to embrace “a watered-down version of this right-wing language.”
In the framing of mainstream American political culture, the only alternative to “bureaucracy” is “the market.”
Sometimes this is held to mean that government should be run more like a business. Sometimes it is held to mean that we should simply get the bureaucrats out of the way and let nature take its course, which means letting people attend to the business of their lives untrammelled by endless rules and regulations imposed on them from above, and so allowing the magic of the marketplace to provide its own solutions.
“Democracy” thus came to mean the market; “bureaucracy,” in turn, government interference with the market…
But, Graeber points out, this is a departure from the earlier understanding of bureaucracy, both government and corporate, as a progressive source of order.
The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen at the time as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private sector — and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated a world of small family firms. The pioneers of these new, private bureaucracies were the United States and Germany, and Max Weber, the German sociologist, observed that Americans in his day were particularly inclined to see public and private bureaucracies as essentially the same animal….
In other words, around the turn of the century, rather than anyone complaining that government should be run more like a business, Americans simply assumed that governments and business — or big business, at any rate — were run the same way.
As I have written elsewhere, Progressivism was originally the ideology of the managers of the new large corporations at the turn of the 20th century, who came mostly from industrial engineering backgrounds; they saw society, as a whole, as something to be managed and rationalized by the same process engineering approach they used inside their organizations.
Michael Jensen’s proposals for “shareholder sovereignty,” and all the subsequent corporate management fads of the ’80s and ’90s, were a revolt against the mid-20th century mass-production era understanding of the corporation as a Weberian-Taylorist bureaucracy, on the model described by Joseph Schumpeter, John Kenneth Galbraith and Alfred Chandler.
But if what Thomas Frank calls “market populism” was about pretending the large corporation had anything to do with “free markets,” the ideology of Frank and like-minded analysts was a defense of the progressive benefits of the old Galbraithian “Organization Man” culture. While the rear-guard apologists for mid-20th century Consensus Capitalism defended corporate bureaucracy as a positive good, the “market populists,” by pretending that the large corporation could be about anything other than an interlocking directorate of bureaucratic oligarchies, actually increased the power of the managerial bureaucracy behind a phony legitimizing ideology of “shareholder value.”
Graeber also notes that, despite official American “free market” rhetoric, the United States was really never “especially interested in free trade” in the same way as Great Britain (reflected in the latter’s repeal of the Corn Laws). The United States, rather, was “much more concerned with creating structures of international administration.”
The very first thing the United States did, on officially taking over the reins from Great Britain after World War II, was to set up the world’s first genuinely planetary bureaucratic institutions in the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions — the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and GATT, later to become the WTO.
It was actually Americans who invented the 20th century model of managerial capitalism. But the American official ideology of “rugged individualism” requires the pretense that corporate managers are not bureaucrats — a term reserved for government functionaries. But as Graeber points out, the explosion of state bureaucracy in the New Deal was closely intertwined with
the battalions of lawyers, engineers, and corporate bureaucrats employed by firms like Ford, Coca Cola, or Proctor & Gamble, absorbing much of their style and sensibilities, and — as the United States shifted to war footing in the forties — so did the gargantuan bureaucracy of the U.S. military. And, of course, the United States has never really gone off war footing ever since. Still, through these means, the word “bureaucrat” came to attach itself almost exclusively to civil servants: even if what they do all day is sit at desks, fill out forms, and file reports, neither middle managers nor military officers are ever quite considered bureaucrats.
And in reality, Graeber argues, the lines between “private” and “public” have been blurry since the beginning of the permanent war economy in the mid-20th century. There’s a constant revolving door of high-ranking officials between the government military procurement bureaucracies and the management of military contractors. And (as anyone familiar with David Noble’s work knows quite well) the American permanent war economy is the core of what amounts to “practically Soviet-style industrial planning” without anyone ever admitting that that’s what’s going on.
But despite the long-time existence of a planned industrial economy organized around the permanent warfare state, “with the rise of the financial sector, things have reached a qualitatively different level — one where it is becoming almost impossible to say what is public and what is private.”
Graeber is eloquent on the ubiquitous statist legal framework that capitalist markets are embedded in.
The vast majority of the paperwork we do exists in just this sort of in-between zone — ostensibly private, but in fact entirely shaped by a government that provides the legal framework, underpins the rules with its courts and all of the elaborate mechanisms of enforcement that come with them, but — crucially — works closely with the private concerns to ensure that the results will guarantee a certain rate of profit.
In other words, the state overcomes all the transaction costs involved in negotiating the terms of contracts from the ground up, and establishes a legal regime almost entirely on terms favorable to one party. The resulting legal framework is one-sided, with terms devised almost entirely by one privileged party at the expense of the non-privileged party.
In legal terminology, a contract of adhesion is any contract drafted entirely by one party in an unequal power relationship, which the other party is “free” to take or leave — but in practice really can’t afford to leave. Pretty much any “standard contract” or boilerplate used by an entire industry is a contract of adhesion. Our relations with the powerful institutions that control our lives are largely governed by contracts of adhesion. Instead of individually negotiated contracts, whose terms we play a role in defining, we’re faced with contracts drafted by the powerful institutions we have to deal with and ratified by the state, and left with the choice of taking them or leaving them. As Roderick Long describes it:
Suppose you forget to pay your power bill (or your phone bill, or your cable tv bill, or your internet access bill, or your credit card bill, or whatever). What happens? Your provider disconnects you, and you’ll probably have to pay an extra fee to get service reestablished. You also get a frowny face on your credit report.
On the other hand, suppose that, for whatever reason (internet glitches, downed power lines after a storm, or who knows), you suffer a temporary interruption of service from your provider. Do they offer to reimburse you? Hell no. And there’s no easy way for you to put a frowny face on their credit report.
Now, if you rent your home, take a look at your lease. Did you write it? Of course not. Did you and your landlord write it together? Again, of course not. It was written by your landlord (or by your landlord’s lawyer), and is filled with far more stipulations of your obligations to her than of her obligations to you. It may even contain such ominously sweeping language as “lessee agrees to abide by all such additional instructions and regulations as the lessor may from time to time provide” (which, if taken literally, would be not far shy of a slavery contract). If you’re late in paying your rent, can the landlord assess a punitive fee? You betcha. By contrast, if she’s late in fixing the toilet, can you withhold a portion of the rent? Just try it.
Now think about your relationship with your employer. In theory, you and she are free and equal individuals entering into a contract for mutual benefit. In practice, she most likely orders the hours and minutes of your day in exacting detail. As with the landlord case, the contract is provided by her and is designed to benefit her. She also undertakes to interpret it; and you will find yourself subjected to loads of regulations and directives that you never consented to. And if you try inventing new obligations for her as she does for you, I predict you will be, shall we say, disappointed.
These aren’t merely cases of some people having more stuff than you do. They’re cases in which some people are systematically empowered to dictate the terms on which other people live, work, and trade. And we generally take it for granted. But it’s not obvious that things have to be that way.
What mainstream American political discourse calls “deregulation” is nothing of the sort. There is no major constituency for deregulation in the American political system — just competing (and in fact considerably overlapping) agendas on what regulatory mix to put in place. There is not, and could not, be such a thing as an “unregulated” bank, Graeber argues, because banks “are institutions to which the government has granted the power to create money.” By the nature of that power, they are creatures of the state, and any power they exercise is thus defined by a web of state regulations. So “deregulation” really just means “changing the regulatory structure in a way that I like.” A “deregulatory” regime, in reality, is the choice of a regulatory regime that produces results to one’s liking.
Like Graeber, Nicholas Hildyard has argued that the so-called neoliberal “free market” agenda in fact requires the most thorough-going state intervention in every aspect of the economy.
Far from doing away with state bureaucracy, free market [sic] policies have in fact reorganised it. While the privatisation of state industries and assets has certainly cut down the direct involvement of the state in the production and distribution of many goods and services, the process has been accompanied by new state regulations, subsidies and institutions aimed at introducing and entrenching a “favourable environment” for the newly-privatised industries.
The state has actually played a central role in implementing free market [sic] policies and, moreover, has a continued “intimate and ubiquitous” involvement in regulating the minutiae of the market economy — a direct consequence of the hand-in-glove relationship that free market [sic] governments have fostered between “adjusted” state institutions and market interests….
So-called “privatization,” for example, ranges from mere outsourcing of government functions (which continue to be taxpayer-funded) to private contractors, to the sale of government services to private corporations (after which they continue to exist in a dense web of government monopolies, protections and subsidies).
And where it takes place, such “deregulation” and “privatization,” far from involving a reduction of government power, typically involves the unlimited exercise of government power over a population which has been rendered prostrate by war or bankruptcy (Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism,” or — in Rahm Emanuel’s words — never letting a good crisis go to waste). We see the full-blown phenomenon in Chile and Russia after the respective coups of Pinochet and Yeltsin, in the auctioning off of the Iraqi economy under Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, in the ethnic cleansing and charterization of schools in New Orleans after Katrina, and in the Robocop-style vulture capitalism being implemented under the Emergency Manager in Detroit.
The evolution of corporate capitalism has been characterized, in Graeber’s words, by “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” And although this thing does not yet have a name, “one can see its effects in every aspect of our lives” in the form of ubiquitous “total bureaucratization.”
And Graeber sees this intensified bureaucratization as one aspect of the financialization of the economy in recent decades. Conventional analysts tend to see the evolution of corporate governance since the late ’70s as a shift from the earlier divorce of management from ownership (the model of managerial autonomy from investors described by Berle and Means and by Galbraith) to shareholder sovereignty over management. The new model of shareholder capitalism, of which Michael Jensen was the prophet, supposedly aligns senior management incentives with the interests of investors through tying compensation to share value or earnings.
Of course the idea that this amounted to a loss of management autonomy is nonsense. Management is just as much a self-perpetuating oligarchy as before. Management’s massaging of quarterly earnings to game their bonuses frequently amounts to hollowing out their organizations’ long-term productive capacity and gutting human capital. The investors remain just as much an outside interest as before, and management remains just as much in control of the internal operation of the corporation.
Further, management is even more empowered in practice, because it can use the myth of shareholder sovereignty as an ideological weapon against the internal power of other stakeholders like labor, and expropriate their contributions to productivity in the name of the shareholder.
Graeber sees the change as a broad transfer of senior management allegiance from the workers under the postwar Consensus Capitalism model, to the investor, accompanied in a change in management culture from the “organization man” of Galbraith’s “technostructure” to the cowboy CEO: “a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy — away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole.” At the same time, the financial sector became corporatized with the rise of institutional investment banks and hedge funds. In the process, society went through a cultural revolution in which everyone was expected to look at the world through the eyes of an investor.
This was not just a political realignment. It was a cultural transformation. And it set the stage for the process by which the bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys…) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society — education, science, government — and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life.
This society of total bureaucratization, with its alliance of government, finance and corporate management, “often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worse excesses of bureaucratization in the former Soviet Union….” It is associated, among other things, with escalating levels of credentialism, and the professionalization of all aspects of life — with bachelor’s degrees being required for functions whose objective skill requirements would not entail even a two-year degree. This state-mandated credentialing, when it intersects with double-digit tuition inflation in increasingly corporatized and administrator-heavy higher education and the federally subsidized student loan industry, amounts to lenders “in effect legislating themselves a cut of [licensed professionals’] subsequent incomes.”
This last is just one example of the broader phenomenon, by which finance — the extraction of interest on debt — has become the main source of profit under financialized corporate-state capitalism. And as in the case of lifetime interest on student loans to finance state-mandated credentialing through corporatized universities, “[t]hese debts do not just happen by accident. To a large degree, they are engineered — and by precisely this kind of fusion of public and private power.”
And the expansion of bureaucratic culture to encompass society as a whole means that the internal culture of bureaucratic complicity and corruption has come to characterize society as a whole.
As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than systems of arbitrary extraction, everyone duly scurries about trying to curry favor by pretending they actually believe this to be true.
Besides the thorough-going bureaucratization of society, the hegemony of the market — in the sense of the cash nexus — has also been characterized by “an increase of the range and density of social relations that are ultimately regulated by the threat of violence.”
We’re so used to the ever-present possibility of calling the police “to resolve virtually any difficult circumstance that many of us find it difficult to even imagine what people would have done before this was possible.” But “for the vast majority of people throughout history” — even in large cities — “there simply were no authorities to call in such circumstances.”
And the pervasiveness of violence, as the basis for social control, has continued to escalate in recent years.
On the need for a genuine Left alternative.
What passes for a mainstream “Left,” Graeber argues — the Democratic Party in the U.S. and New Labour in the UK — has been essentially coopted by this system. So what kind of a genuine Left do we need, as an alternative to the left wing of the One Corporate Party, to combat this corporate-state-finance monolith of pervasive bureaucracy?
Graeber suggests the Global Justice Movement, which emerged from the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, as a good model for such a Left. This movement, unlike the existing center-left political establishment, set itself explicitly and directly against the system of power dominating the world. By taking to the streets to block the meeting of the World Trade Organization in December 1999, they brought the Bretton Woods agencies to the attention of an American public that has previously been unaware that they even existed. In so doing, they “showed everything people had been told about globalization to be a lie.”
This was not some natural process of peaceful trade, made possible by new technologies. What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. The foundations for the system had been laid in the 1940s, but it was only with the waning of the Cold War that they became truly effective. In the process, they came to be made up — like most other bureaucratic systems being created on a smaller scale at the same time — of such a thorough entanglement of public and private elements that it was often quite impossible to pull them apart — even conceptually….
At the time, we didn’t talk about things in quite these terms — that “free trade” and “the free market” actually meant the creation of global administrative structures mainly aimed at ensuring the extraction of profits for investors, that “globalization” really meant bureaucratization….
In retrospect, I think this is exactly what we should have emphasized. Even the emphasis on inventing new forms of democratic processes that was at the core of the movement — the assemblies, the spokescouncils, and so on — was, more than anything else, a way to show that people could indeed get on with one another — and even make important decisions and carry out complex collective projects — without anyone ever having to fill out a form, appeal a judgment, or threaten to phone security or the police.
And any Left worthy of the name must confront the system as a totality. It must “show how all these threads — financialization, violence, technology, the fusion of public and private — knit together into a single, self-sustaining web.”
The process of financialization has meant that an ever-increasing proportion of corporate profits come in the form of rent extraction of one sort or another. Since this is ultimately little more than legalized extortion, it is accompanied by ever-increasing accumulation of rules and regulations, and ever-more sophisticated, and omnipresent, threats of physical force to enforce them. Indeed they become so omnipresent that we no longer realize we’re being threatened, since we cannot imagine what it would be like not to be.
This reference to the all-pervasiveness of the threat of physical force is the perfect note on which to transition to his first essay, whose main theme is violence.
Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity
Graeber’s argument in this essay is that systemic violence creates, on the level of society as a whole, the kind of willful stupidity we find within the internal culture of bureaucracies.
…situations created by violence — particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm — invariably tend to create the kinds of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behavior that they themselves define as stupid — though they do do that — but rather, that they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.
Here Graeber hits on an old theme, reiterated from thinkers ranging from R.A. Wilson to James Scott — that authority creates stupidity. This is true, first of all, because (in Wilson’s words) nobody tells the truth to someone with a gun, or with the power to fire them, and second, because conflicts of interest in which one party benefits at the other’s expense make it impossible for one party to trust the other with the discretion to use their hidden knowledge.
And given a zero-sum game set up to benefit one party at the other’s expense, violence is used to minimize the need for direct communication or cooperation from the ruled. Graeber gives the example of the single, streamlined identification booklet carried by blacks under the Apartheid regime, which enforcement personnel liked because it freed them with the burden of having to communicate with the ruled population in ways previously required by the complex collection of documents that black workers were expected to carry.
But an example closer to home, it occurs to me, is Taylorism and similar regimes of “best practices,” Weberian job descriptions, deskilling, etc., which are all attempts to design the subordinate’s tacit, hidden, job-specific knowledge out of the process and make the process as independent as possible of any input or active cooperation from the worker. It also removes the need for negotiation, which results from the leverage conferred by a worker’s special knowledge of the work process.
Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work in theory. In practice, a system is just as likely to be rendered inoperable by the irrational rules imposed from above. The real function of the “dumbing down” imposed by violence is not so much to do away with the job-related knowledge of the worker, as to render those in authority unaware of it.
One of the benefits of power is that the powerful can afford to be stupid, and to pretend that the rules are working as intended. This is an insight originally derived from feminist theory, that Graeber applies to all forms of domination. “Power” — privilege! — “makes you lazy.” Although the powerful often frame their power as “a terrible burden of responsibility,” power is really “all about what you don’t have to worry about, what you don’t have to know about, and don’t have to do.”
Although workers are not permitted to openly contribute their knowledge to the production process, they are still required to do so through the back door. They do not have the luxury, the privilege, of ignorance. While pretending to comply with the irrational rules, they bear the burden of figuring out how to circumvent their irrationality and work around them.
When the system of authority in the workplace reaches a crisis point, workers can bring an organization to its knees by literally obeying the rules, instead of just pretending to, and ceasing to surreptitiously keep things going by surreptitiously contributing their hidden knowledge.
One of the more interesting parts of this essay is Graeber’s very nuanced discussion of legitimizing ideologies. Systems of domination created by violence also typically have an official ideology that justifies the oppression of the ruled. And it’s possible that the ruled come to believe it.
But on a deeper level it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask whether they do or not. The whole arrangement is the fruit of violence and can only be maintained by the threat of violence: the fact that the [ruled] are quite aware that if anyone directly challenged property arrangements, or access to education, swords would be drawn and people’s heads would almost certainly end up being lopped off. In a case like this, what we talk about in terms of “belief” are simply the psychological techniques people develop to accommodate themselves to this reality. We have no idea how they would act, or what they would think, if the [rulers’] command of the means of violence were to somehow disappear.
This — the direct violence lurking in the background as a reserve force which makes open violence unnecessary most of the time — is what Graeber means by “structural violence.”
Graeber’s understanding of structural violence is heavily influenced by feminist literature on rape culture, in which a comparatively small amount of open violence is sufficient to condition the character of the whole system, with the entire structure of domination and subordination permeated by an implicit threat of violence that need only occasionally be manifested. In a rape culture, for example, the existence of rape as a pervasive threat against which women must be protected confers patriarchal authority even on “nice guys” who presumably would never directly resort to force themselves. The very existence of structural violence constitutes a source of privilege for some.
And when gender norms (or other social roles based on domination) begin to break down, the implicit violence in the system can become explicit in short order.
It is widely noted… that rates of sexual assault increase dramatically at precisely the moments when women begin challenging “gender norms” of work, comportment, or dress. It’s really quite the same as the conquerors suddenly taking out their swords again.
Ultimately, all the various structures of domination, backed by structural violence, “lead directly to the problem of what we call ‘the state’ — and the bureaucratic structures through which it actually exercises power.” To ignore the role of actual, non-metaphorical force as the ultimate guarantor of the system, and “talk of racism, sexism, and the rest as a bunch of abstract structures floating about” is a way to avoid confronting the question of the state and the existence of an institution with a monopoly on legitimate violence.
I see this a lot myself from people who regard themselves as in some sense on “the Left” (actually center-left liberals), and go through incredible contortions to avoid acknowledging that the state in its essence is violence. Hence the common description of government as “all of us working together,” and laws as things that “we all agree on” in order to “socially allocate resources.”
The myth of democracy, as a legitimizing ideology, is pernicious precisely because it successfully obscures (pardon the Monty Python allusion) the “violence inherent in the system” so much of the time. Outside the West, with its veneer of representative democracy overlying the actual system of class domination, people in the global South tend to perceive the nature of power far more accurately. “We are usually dealing with conquered populations of one sort or another — hence, with people who are keenly aware that current arrangements are the fruit of violence. As a result, it would never occur to anyone to deny that the government is a fundamentally coercive institution.”
Graeber’s description of the police as “bureaucrats with weapons” is another valuable insight. Although popular media and culture depict the police as fighting crime — usually violent crimes like muggings and assault — in reality there’s almost never a cop to be found when such crimes take place. Most of what cops actually do involves the violent enforcement of what amount to bureaucratic regulations — rules about who can do what, where, at what time. Rather than preventing violent crime, police “bring the threat of force to bear on situations that would otherwise have nothing to do with it” (Graeber gives the example of someone driving down the street without a license plate, but this was written before Eric Garner was suffocated for selling “loosies”).
And the most extreme forms of police violence occur, not when police confront someone actually involved in a violent crime, but when someone challenges the system of structural violence (namely, the template of oversimplification — of stupidity — which those in power have imposed on a complex reality).
…[T]he one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is their right to… “define the situation.”… It’s “talking back” above all that inspires beat-downs, and that means challenging whatever administrative rubric has been applied by the officer’s discretionary judgment. The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema and its monopoly on coercive violence come together…. At the same time, if one accepts Jean Piaget’s famous definition of mature intelligence as the ability to coordinate between multiple perspectives (or possible perspectives) one can see, here, precisely how bureaucratic power, at the moment it turns to violence, becomes literally a form of infantile stupidity.
Having laid this groundwork on the nature of structural violence and its relation to imposed stupidity, Graeber turns back to the question of the Left. How can the Left create a new world without this system of structural violence — especially when the traditional model of Revolution involves a violent, millennarian rupture with the old system in which power is seized and a new order established. “…[H]ow does one affect fundamental change in society without setting in train a process that will end with the creation of some new, violent bureaucracy?”
The answer, he suggests, is direct action: “acting as if one is already free.” Rather than “a single moment of revolutionary redemption,” we need a process: “a cumulative movement towards a world without states and capitalism.”
At the same time, however, populations sometimes unexpectedly erupt in insurrectionary outbreaks a lot like the sudden phase transition of a crystallizing liquid. How does this happen?
Graeber argues that the mass of individuals in a given geographical area is not simply a public, but can be any different number of alternative publics depending on how they are constituted, and the possibilities open to them under a given constituent form.
In fact what we call “the public” is created, produced, through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action — taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings — and not others. These frames of action imply certain ways of talking, thinking, arguing, deliberating. The same “public” that may widely indulge in the use of recreational chemicals may also consistently vote to make such indulgences illegal; the same collection of citizens are likely to come to completely different decisions on questions affecting their communities if organized into a parliamentary system, a system of computerized plebiscites, or a nested series of public assemblies. In fact the entire anarchist project of reinventing direct democracy is premised on assuming this is the case.
To illustrate what I mean, consider that in America, the same collection of people referred to in one context as “the public” can in another be referred to as “the workforce.” They become a “workforce”, of course, when they are engaged in different sorts of activity. The “public” does not work — at least, a sentence like “most of the American public works in the service industry” would never appear in a magazine or paper — if a journalist were to attempt to write such a sentence, their editor would certainly change it. It is especially odd since the public does apparently have to go to work: this is why, as leftist critics often complain, the media will always talk about how, say, a transport strike is likely to inconvenience the public, in their capacity of commuters, but it will never occur to them that those striking are themselves part of the public, or that whether if they succeed in raising wage levels this will be a public benefit.
And certainly the “public” does not go out into the streets. Its role is as audience to public spectacles, and consumers of public services. When buying or using goods and services privately supplied, the same collection of individuals become something else (“consumers”), just as in other contexts of action they are relabeled a “nation”, “electorate”, or “population”.
All these entities are the product of institutions and institutional practices that, in turn, define certain horizons of possibility. Hence when voting in parliamentary elections one might feel obliged to make a “realistic” choice; in an insurrectionary situation, on the other hand, suddenly anything seems possible.
What “the public”, “the workforce”, “consumers”, and “the population” all have in common is that they are brought into being by institutionalized frames of action that are inherently bureaucratic, and therefore, profoundly alienating. Voting booths, television screens, office cubicles, hospitals, the ritual that surrounds them — one might say these are the very machinery of alienation. They are the instruments through which the human imagination is smashed and shattered. Insurrectionary moments are moments when this bureaucratic apparatus is neutralized. Doing so always seems to have the effect of throwing horizons of possibility wide open. This only to be expected if one of the main things that apparatus normally does is to enforce extremely limited ones.
So how do we prevent a society that has gone through this kind of euphoric transformation from being “reorganized under some new rubric… that then gives way to the construction of a new set of rules, regulations, and bureaucratic institutions around it, which will inevitably come to be enforced by new categories of police”?
Part of the answer lies in attempts by recent feminist praxis “to shift the emphasis away from millenarian dreams and onto much more immediate questions” of how to organize day-to-day activity in a non-bureaucratic fashion that “can be sustained over the long term.” As an example, he cites the prefigurative nature of the Global Justice movement and even more so the Arab Spring, Syntagma and M15, for whom their methods of internal governance were more important than the goals of the actions themselves.
These were simultaneously direct actions, practical demonstrations of how real democracy could be thrown in the face of power, and experiments in what a genuinely non-bureaucratized social order, based on the power of practical imagination, might look like.
Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
Graeber’s taking-off point in this essay is the general sense of disappointment, on the part of us now living in the once-futuristic date of 2015, at the failure of flying cars, moon bases, and all the other stuff once expected by our date to actually arrive.
But the one thing we are good at is simulating the fictional technological artifacts of a future that never actually panned out. Graeber’s initial reaction to the second Star Wars trilogy was to imagine how impressed Fifties movie audiences would have been by the special effects, compared to the tinfoil saucers hanging from wires they were used to. But then he realized “They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought that we’d actually be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”
Graeber sees this failure of actual modernist technologies of doing stuff, accompanied by our preeminence at creating illusions, in light of the postmodernist sensibility
that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period where we understood that there was nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation and pastiche; all this only makes sense in a technological environment where the only major breakthroughs were ones making it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we now came to realize, never really would. Surely, if we were really taking our vacations in geodesic domes on Mars, or toting about pocket-sized nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices, no one would ever have been talking like this.
All the powerful and highly visible new technologies of the early and mid-20th century, which “gave us a sense of history sweeping forward,” have been replaced by “a play of screens and images.”
This failure of all the science fictiony technologies of the future to materialize, Graeber argues, can only be explained in one of two ways.
Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic, in which case, we need to ask ourselves why so many otherwise intelligent people felt they were not. Or our expectations were not inherently unrealistic, in which case, we need to ask what happened to throw the path of technological development off course.
Although our contemporary cultural narratives mostly embrace the first alternative — those silly people in the Fifties! — Graeber focuses on the second possibility. After all, he points out, Jules Verne’s and H.G. Wells’s visions of future technological advances , in general outline– automobiles, flying machines, rockets, wireless communications, powerful energy sources — came true.
Graeber argues that there was “a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.” This shift redoubled after the Cold War ended.
A case could be made that even the shift into R&D on information technologies and medicine was not so much a reorientation towards market-driven consumer imperatives, but part of an all-out effort to follow the technological humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war: not only the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, but the utter rout of social movements back home. The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control…. Information technology has allowed a financialization of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new “flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population. Along with the export of traditional factory jobs, this has put the union movement to rout and thus destroyed any real possibility of effective working-class politics…. [T]he most dramatic medical breakthroughs we have seen take the form of drugs like Prozac, Zoloft, or Ritalin — tailor-made, one might say, to ensure that these new professional demands don’t drive us completely, dysfunctionally, crazy.
He also argues that capitalists themselves realized the significance of Marx’s prediction that capitalism’s imperative of continually revolutionizing the instruments of production would be its undoing. And from the standpoint of Marx’s argument that surplus value can only be extracted from human labor, and that substituting capital for labor will ultimately reduce the rate of profit, capital’s decision to focus on offshoring production to sweatshop factories rather than invest in automation makes perfect sense. (I would point out, though, that monopoly capitalism involves at least a partial shift from the direct extraction of surplus value through the labor process, to the indirect extraction of surplus value through unequal exchange and monopoly pricing. This means that capital can make enormous profits from highly efficient, automated production technologies simply by enclosing them through patents as a source of monopoly rents.)
So to the extent that corporate capitalism functions at all, it does so in a way that contradicts all the apologetic myths about it: 1) “that capitalism is somehow identical to the market, and that both are therefore inimical to bureaucracy; and 2) “that capitalism is in its nature technologically progressive.”
But despite all this, Graeber argues, capitalism has in many ways outsmarted itself.
First, even the areas of technology that received the most research funding never saw breakthroughs — not even in military robotics and all that other totalitarianism porn at DARPA — commensurate with the resources invested in them.
The reason is that the entire state-corporate-university complex administering these hundreds of billions in R&D money are governed by the kind of bureaucratic ethos that all but ensures no revolutionary breakthroughs will occur. Even basic research “seems to be driven by political, administrative, and marketing imperatives… that make it increasingly unlikely that anything particularly revolutionary will result.” Scientific and technological progress have been killed off by pointy-haired bosses.
The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. While this might have helped somewhat in speeding up the creation of immediately marketable products… in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.
…In [universities in both the US and UK] the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion in the proportion of working hours spent on administrative paperwork, at the expense of pretty much everything else…. The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals, book proposals… and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.
The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle.
On top of all this, the open-source ethos which prevailed in science over the past several centuries has been effectively killed off by the proprietary culture of corporate or government secrecy, patents and paywalls. The old “shoulders of giants” effect, by which researchers constantly built on each other’s findings, has been replaced by the erection of toll-gates for sharing knowledge.
This bureaucratic environment, which sounds like the script proposal for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is the real answer to the question of “why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes.”
Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.
And second, capitalism is unable to completely suppress technological progress that occurs outside its institutional framework.
the pace of change can’t be held back forever. Breakthroughs will happen; inconvenient discoveries cannot be permanently suppressed. Other, less bureaucratized parts of the world—or at least, parts of the world with bureaucracies that are not so hostile to creative thinking—will slowly but inevitably attain the resources required to pick up where the United States and its allies have left off. The Internet does provide opportunities for collaboration and dissemination that may help break us through the wall as well. Where will the breakthrough come? We can’t know.
In discussing the bureaucratization of research, Graeber mentions that whatever genuine breakthroughs actually still do happen, happen in small, autonomous skunk works where researchers have comparatively free rein to follow their enthusiasm. And as it turns out, the proliferation of homebrew/open source hardware tinkering, garage manufacturing, and DIY scientific research has created just the kind of hospitable ground needed for real imagination and creativity that will run rings around the institutional R&D complexes.
Over the last couple of years, since the first version of this essay saw print, there has been a whole spate of new possibilities: 3-D printing, advances in materials technologies, self-driving cars, a new generation of robots, and as a result, a new spate of discussion of robot factories and the end of work.
Even technologies which were intended for social control and labor discipline turn out to be two-edged swords that either have been or can be recuperated for liberatory purposes.
Computer numeric control of machine tools (CNC) was originally introduced after WWII as a way of deskilling labor on the shop floor and shifting power over the production process upward to engineers and managers. But the scale and cost of such machinery fell by an order of magnitude in the next generation, leading to the kind of agile job-shop manufacturing in Asia that destroyed mass-production industry; and another order of magnitude or more drop since then in the cost and most economical scale has brought garage manufacturing with open-source tools into the same historic price range as a pre-industrial artisan’s craft tools. The likely result will be hundreds of thousands or millions of garage shops all around the world, equipped with cheap open-source tabletop machinery, producing goods for neighborhood markets from pirated CAD/CAM files.
And we’ve seen how the Internet has inflicted severe damage on the entertainment industry, given rise to networked horizontal resistance movements all over the world from the Zapatistas to Anonymous, and made possible Wikileaks — which, in turn, spurred a new cycle of horizontal movements from the Arab Spring to Occupy.
The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All
In this final essay, Graeber explores the possibility that bureaucracy exists on the scale that it does, at least in part, because we like it.
Of course, he begins, bureaucracies have proliferated because of their own inherent imperative of expanding, and because the institutional structure of power makes them necessary.
But they also afford an escape into impersonality, from the investment of personal energy required to deal with everyone as an individual human being: “just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you are dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in eighteenth century British verse.”
And more fundamentally, Graeber speculates, “our very ideas of rationality, justice, and above all, freedom, are founded” on bureaucracies. The reason we so closely identify hierarchy and bureaucracy with progress lies in recent history: namely, the suppression of the working class’s self-organized social safety net and its replacement by a state-controlled alternative. The modern welfare state was not “created by benevolent democratic elites.” Far from it.
In Europe, most of the key institutions of what later became the welfare state — everything from social insurance and pensions to public libraries and public health clinics — were not originally created by governments at all, but by trade unions, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives, and working-class parties and organizations of one sort or another. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of “building a new society in the shell of the old,” of gradually creating Socialist institutions from below.
Bismarck’s conservative agenda entailed first suppressing the socialist parties and trade unions, and then creating a comprehensive state-based safety net that was to become the model for the rest of Western Europe and then the United States. His welfare state was
a top-down alternative to the free schools, workers’ associations, friendly societies, libraries, theaters, and the larger process of building socialism from below. This took the form of a program of social insurance (for unemployment, health, disability, etc.), free education, pensions, and so forth…. When left-wing regimes did later take power, the template had already been established, and almost invariably, they took the same top-down approach, incorporating locally organized clinics, libraries, mutual banking initiatives, workers’ education centers, and the like into the administrative structure of the state.
The model for all these new bureaucracies was the German Post Office, world-renowned for its efficiency. And Lenin heartily endorsed the idea of the postal service as “an example of the socialist economic system.”
At present the postal service is a business organized on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organizations of a similar type….
To organize the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service, so that the technicians, foremen, bookkeepers, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than “a workman’s wage,” all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat — this is our immediate aim.
But this universal model of bureaucracy, where it does in fact work efficiently, provides freedom of a certain type. Bureaucracy “appeals to us — …seems at its most liberating — precisely when it disappears: when it becomes so rational and reliable that we are able to just take it for granted….”
But this is “a very peculiar notion of freedom,” that involves inverting classical notions of rationality. The Western tradition originally treated reason as the governor of the soul, subjecting emotion and instinct to control and directing them into positive, non-destructive channels. The bureaucratic notion of rationality, on the other hand, treats it as purely instrumental — a means, rather than an end. The ends are given by the passions, and reason supplies the most effective means of achieving them. “The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values” — and that the values are purely arbitrary and subjective — “is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done.”
So we’re left with two conflicting conceptions of rationality. First, “we have the notion that bureaucratic systems are simply neutral social technologies.” Bureaucrats are simply “public servants… [who] do their masters’ bidding, no matter what that bidding is.” But alongside this, we have an earlier understanding of rationality as a positive moral order and an end in itself. And grand ideological projects for reshaping the social order conflate these two conceptions — on the one hand desiring to create a social order which is rational in the old sense, but also viewing a bureaucracy of the post office type Lenin so admired as “the cornerstone of any such project.”
Graeber then argues that there has been a tendency throughout history for intellectuals to equate rationality in the general social or cosmic order to the internal organization of royal bureaucracies. Hence “the grand cosmic hierarchies of late Antiquity, with their archons, planets, and gods, all operating under the unfolding of abstract rational laws” can be seen as “simply images of the Roman legal bureaucratic order writ very, very large.”
Interestingly, Graeber also argues that bureaucratic rationality — in such forms as standardized measures and accounting procedures in temples and among merchants — preceded the rise of the first states. And this form of bureaucratic-administrative rationality coexisted alongside a rival heroic (or epic, or charismatic) ethos that prevailed in barbarian hinterlands (a geographical division that parallels James Scott’s state and non-state spaces).
Of course, neither can exist in pure form. And each form of society tends to be simultaneously fascinated by its opposite, and repelled by it. The idealized heroic societies we read of in fantasy literature or recreate in fantasy games still have some embedded rule sets; or if not, they approach horror to the extent that they approach rule-free play (pulling the wings off a fly is a form of play without rules, as is a cat toying with a mouse; and “[p]layful gods are rarely ones any sane person would desire to encounter.”).
So, Graeber speculates, “[w]hat ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.”
Along with bureaucratic rules and the heroic ethos (or “politics”), our modern conception of the state includes a third component: sovereignty. The sovereign “generates rules, but is not itself bound by them.” The sovereign authority, like God, makes laws but is not bound by them. In this regard, the sovereign is comparable to the playful god. And to the extent that the sovereign is free — i.e., not bound by rules — everyone else is a slave. Freedom, in this sense, is a “zero-sum game.”
It follows that genuine freedom is potentially terrifying, because it opens up the possibility of chaos and bloodshed. The lack of rules defining all human interactions leaves us vulnerable to the arbitrary exercise of personal will from anyone and everyone. On the other hand the subjection of every aspect of behavior to rules and regulations is “experienced as a kind of freedom.” So we gain “freedom” through “transparency” — the proliferation of clear, objective criteria that prescribe the correct procedure for everything. The form this takes — turning “a subtle, nuanced form of procedures… into an explicit set of rules” — sounds an awful lot like James Scott’s concept in Seeing Like a State of taking social orders which are horizontally legible but illegible from above, and rendering them legible to those in authority.
But the formation of a “transparent” or legible rule system most commonly involves taking an existing body of custom and formalizing it. Scott gives the example of Malagasay, whose written form and grammar date back to efforts by Christian missionaries in the early nineteenth century to translate the Bible into the language. The formalized grammar was initially created by simply listening to the actual spoken language. But once the grammar was set down in writing, it became a standard of “correctness” rather than simply an observation of how people actually talked. So by Graeber’s time, much of common usage was dismissed as “slang” that deviated from “correct” grammar; but, as he observed, had the missionaries come two hundred years later the current spoken language would be the standard of “correctness.” And even those who speak in the common dialect dismiss it as slang: they are “actually denying… the legitimacy of collective creativity, the free play of the system.”
“Freedom… really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating.” But there is a parallel tendency to formalize rules and attempt to render them permanent and beyond individual choice, because of the unconscious fear that freedom will become arbitrary power if not reduced to total predictability.
Graeber concludes this essay by arguing that this fear — that freedom, if not subject to administrative rationality, will always degenerate into arbitrary exercise of power — is groundless. He uses Jo Freeman’s essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” — and common authoritarian misreadings of it and its significance — as an illustration.
A certain kind of verticalist is as fond of pulling out Freeman as a certain kind of right-libertarian is of pulling out Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons.” Although Freeman’s essay is commonly drawn on today as a critique of consensus process, consensus process was in fact developed in response to the problems she described (i.e. informal cliques emerging, controlling information and setting agendas, as feminist groups grew to over twenty people or so).
…almost everyone who is not emerging from an explicitly anti-authoritarian position… completely misread Freeman’s essay, and interpret it not as a plea for formal mechanisms to ensure equality, but as a plea for more transparent hierarchy. Leninists are notorious for this sort of thing, but Liberals are just as bad…. First, Freeman’s argument about the formation of cliques and invisible power structures is taken as an argument that any group of over twenty people will always have to have cliques, power structures, and people in authority. The next step is to insist that if you want to minimize the power of such cliques, or any deleterious effects those power structures might have, the only way to do so is to institutionalize them: to take the de facto cabal and turn them into a central committee…. One needs to get power out of the shadows — to formalize the process, make up rules, hold elections, specify exactly what the cabal is allowed to do and what it is not. In this way, at least, power will be made transparent and “accountable.”….
From a practical, activist perspective, this prescription is obviously ridiculous. It is far easier to limit the degree to which informal cliques can wield effective power by granting them no formal status at all, and therefore no legitimacy; whatever “formal accountability structures” it is imagined will contain the cliques-now-turned-committees can only be far less effective in this regard, not least because they end up legitimating and hence massively increasing the differential access to information which allows some in otherwise egalitarian groups to have greater power to begin with…. [S]tructures of transparently inevitably… begin to become structures of stupidity as soon as that takes place.
When forced to concede this, verticalists fall back on the argument that, even if formalizing the power of cliques actually gives them more power, it is nevertheless desirable because they find it more distasteful or aesthetically repugnant to be subject to a small amount of informal power from the “shadows” (even though it’s not backed up by force), than to be subject to a larger amount of formally defined power.
In such arguments, we are witnessing a direct clash between two different forms of materialized utopianism: on the one hand, an anti-authoritarianism that, in its emphasis on creative synthesis and improvisation, sees freedom basically in terms of play, and on the other, a tacit republicanism that sees freedom ultimately as the ability to reduce all forms of power to a set of clear and transparent rules.
This latter, “bureaucratized notion of freedom” has predominated for the last two hundred years or so, spreading from Europe and North America to much of the rest of the world. And it shows a chronic tendency to become a “utopia of rules,” in which “every aspect of life is reduced to some kind of elaborate, rule-bound game.”
But not only is this “just as much a utopian fantasy as a world of absolute free play would be.” More importantly, “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,” this utopian fantasy leads to
a situation where the pursuit of freedom from arbitrary power simply 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.