A little ways into The Utopia of Rules, an anarchist critique of state and corporate bureaucracy, author David Graeber asks, “Why are we so confused about what police really do?”
It’s an important question, as the problem of police violence and impunity in America can no longer be ignored. For far too long, argues Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics, Americans have looked upon police as empowered by the communities they serve to protect them from violent crime. This misunderstanding, he says, is fueled by an entertainment industry that distorts our perspective of police. In shows like Law and Order and Blue Bloods, and movies like the Die Hard and Dirty Harry, detectives and officers either solve brutal crimes or stop very bad things from happening, week after week, blockbuster after blockbuster. Mythology naturally ensues.
What we miss, according to Graeber, is this simple fact: “Police are bureaucrats with weapons.” Rather than protecting us from genuine threats, though sometimes they do, “they spend most of their time enforcing all those endless rules and regulations about who can buy or smoke or sell or build or eat or drink what where.” This is something that rings tragically true over the last year or so.
Whether it’s Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in Staten Island, or John Crawford in Dayton, Ohio, many Americans (excluding African-Americans, who are already well aware of this terrifying reality) are beginning to realize that armed agents of the state can snuff out fellow citizens’ lives with little to no accountability, often on mere hunches or as part of their enforcement of petty regulations. Gray because he ran from police. Garner because he was suspected of selling loose (and thus untaxed and illegal) cigarettes. Crawford because he was walking around with an air rifle — in an open carry state, mind you — from the very shelves of the very Walmart he was shot down in.
But Graeber is trying to get at something larger here. He uses police officers shrewdly to represent the quintessential bureaucrat, reminding folks that behind every rule and regulation lies the threat of state violence. Bureaucrats wield hammers. We are their nails. Force rules everything around us, no matter how invisible it may seem.
Dashed to Bits on Bureaucratic Shoals
“Bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim,” writes Graeber, adding a touch later, “We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of our existence.”
The United States is a top-to-bottom bureaucratic society and has been so for at least a century, he reminds us, regardless of how many times you hear the words “freedom” and “free market” uttered like so much abracadabra. Why? Because the welfare state was engineered that way from the start to fend off challenges from working class Americans who began to build mutual aid organizations outside of state control and who agitated for the fall of industrial capitalism and the end to wage slavery.
Pioneer of the welfare state, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, told an American writer that government beneficence was a calculated strategy to train the working class to heal with scraps rather than bite its master’s hand. “My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare.” Bismarck’s sleight of hand was then successfully replicated all across the Western world throughout the 20th century.
What Graeber realizes is that actually existing capitalism endlessly generates bureaucracy so much that he believes it deserves its own general sociological law. He writes:
The Iron Law of Liberalism states 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.
This is the reason why, according to Graeber, so many former Soviet functionaries felt at home when the Soviet Union fell and Russia began to “liberalize” and supposedly throw off the fetters of the state. “[A]nd in the process, true to the Iron Law, [the Russians] managed to increase the total number of bureaucrats employed in their country dramatically” as they transitioned from state-socialism to capitalism. Meet the new boss, Graeber smirks, same as the old boss.
Right libertarians would no doubt claim that they are opposed to what Graeber describes as “state capitalism,” or what is more disparagingly known today as “crony capitalism.” Graeber, however, would push back, much like C4SS’s own Kevin Carson has, and argue historical capitalism was, is, and will always be a creature of the state. This is particularly true inside the United States, where state-subsidized internal improvements, tariffs, and land giveaways after the Revolutionary War created the conditions for domestic industries to survive and then thrive to the benefit of the privileged few who owned and controlled large-scale capital.
In his 2011 book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Graeber makes a compelling argument that the free-market theories of classical liberals, such as Adam Smith, are fundamentally ahistorical. Using anthropology to prove his thesis, Graeber says that impersonal markets and money don’t arise spontaneously among individuals trucking and bartering to make economic life more efficient. Historically speaking, economic exchange was facilitated by credit arrangements, essentially trust, because it occurred locally among people who knew each other. Instead, Graeber argues that formal markets characterized by monetary exchange are the byproduct of imperial armies on the march.
Cash transactions between strangers were different, and all the more so when trading is set against a background of war and emerges from disposing of loot and provisioning soldiers; when one often had best not ask where the objects traded came from, and where no one is much interested in forming ongoing personal relationships anyway. Here, transactions really do become simply a figuring-out of how many of X will go for how many of Y, of calculating proportions, estimating quality, and trying to get the best deal for oneself.
Like many on the Left, however, it is at times difficult to discern what exactly Graeber’s criticizing when he rails against “free-market capitalism,” particularly the “free market” part since he describes it so convincingly as a myth in Debt. Does he mean the status quo of corporate capitalism, which is the antithesis of the free market? Sometimes he certainly does, as when he describes how neoliberal globalization was nothing more than a nightmare masquerading as a fairy tale.
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.
Or is he referring to classical economic theory, which is the unknown ideal, though maybe impossibly and rightly so? Theories, naturally, are destined to be smashed to bits on the rocks of history and human fallibility, but Graeber’s inability to be consistent is a confusing weakness at times.
He does, however, concede in a footnote that market relations and contract enforcement can exist outside the threat of state violence. When this has occurred historically — as in Islamic society during the Middle Ages — which Graeber argues in Debt, cooperation and trust rather than competition and suspicion were the defining values of commerce because there were no authorities to call to arrest a violator or seize property.
Under such a system, your good name effectively became capital because it facilitated access to credit. Your word was your bond. And when you failed to honor it, it got around and you suffered the consequences. And if history proves this true, then it’s hard to conceive of a free society without markets since they’ll no doubt spontaneously emerge as a way for humans to cooperatively solve at least some economic problems, with or without the threat of state violence. Graeber even observes how the Muslim scholar Tusi saw that “[t]he market is simply one manifestation of this more general principle of mutual aid, of the matching of abilities (supply) and needs (demand).”
The Illusion of Bureaucratic Fairness
One of Graeber’s most incisive observations in the Utopia of Rules is that as much as humans loathe bureaucracy, they have a deep craving for its ideal. Bureaucracy in the abstract promises meritocracy and unbiased enforcement of the rules, even if that includes violence. In other words: A semblance of administrative fairness and equality, though in the real world it degenerates into the favoritism and arbitrariness it was created to vanquish, sometimes with homicidal results.
Take law enforcement once again. Police are supposed to be bound by the same laws they enforce, but report after report provides examples of officers who think they’re above the law. They think this way for good reason, Graeber observes, “It’s extraordinarily difficult, for instance, for a police officer to do anything to an American citizen that would lead to that officer being convicted of a crime.” And yet it’s clear that ordinary citizens are implicated in how powerful police have become because we treat them as essential to order. We no longer police ourselves and our immediate communities anymore. We rely on the “professionals” to do it for us, as Graeber observes:
We are now so used to the idea [of widespread police power] that we at least could call the police to resolve virtually any difficult circumstance that many of us find it difficult to imagine what people would have done before this was possible. Because, in fact, for the vast majority of people throughout history — even those who lived in large cities — there were simply no authorities to call in such circumstances.
Bureaucracy, with its rigid conformity and hierarchy, also destroys spontaneity and creativity — or the very things that bring joy. This insight isn’t novel, but Graeber has a unique way of describing it: By comparing the concepts of games and play and the tension between the two. Bureaucracy, according to Graeber, is a rule-governed game, just one that isn’t fun. Play, however, is improvisational and sometimes dangerous, even destructive, because you don’t know where it could lead. “What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play,” and thus freedom itself, suggests Graeber.
This is quite perceptive. By enforcing the rules equally — at least in theory — bureaucracy creates a sense of safety and stability for people who, quite rightly, are afraid of arbitrary power. In other words, you know where you stand and hopefully you can navigate all the rules and regulations intelligently and possibly even win the game, whatever it is. Play, while it can generate rules, is in no way bound by them and thus makes people wary that they will in a sense get “played.” Graeber rightly sees why this is scary to many — possibly even Graeber himself — because few people want to be the plaything of another.
But by fearing the freedom of play, Graeber argues, we have embraced bureaucracy and thus a “utopia of rules” that’s a toxic fantasy.
But … 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 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.
Like all great anthropologists, Graeber slaps us out of our habit of seeing the world ahistorically. We didn’t get to this point of all-encompassing bureaucracy out of nowhere, and for much of human history we didn’t organize ourselves in such alienating fashion. It is the product of decisions made, more often than not with little to no democratic debate and with our “best interests” at heart no less. He reminds us that another world is possible if only we weren’t too afraid to break stupid, arbitrary rules and regulations in the pursuit of a freer society where people cooperate because they want to, not out of compulsion.
If I may be a bit saucy: Don’t hate the player, hate the game. And then do something about it, even if that’s simply refusing to play along.