Book Review – The Utopia of Rules

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of BureaucracyThe Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading something by David Graeber is rewarding and incredibly maddening. Nearly every page leads to a unique insight, one that could potentially change how you and I approach modern capitalist society and our fellow humans, but the thoughts come so thick and fast, that unless one stops to process them and re-create the proofs, it is easy to finish the piece feeling dizzy. So I recommend reading, reading slowly, and re-reading. Or pulling up the wealth of lectures Graeber’s given that you can find online, to really sink into his way of thinking.

If you’re unfamiliar, Graeber is an anthropologist and an anarchist. His anthropological eye lets him analyze and draw cross-cultural comparisons of cultural artifacts that are otherwise dismissible or even invisible. His anarchist lens gives him a framework to critique the cross-currents of power at play in these artifacts. With The Utopia of Rules, he gives three expanded essays, as well as an introduction and addendum, loosely connected around the theme of bureaucracy. The book on the whole is his response to the conservative-liberal narrative of free, unregulated markets v. rule-and-regulation-bound government. As he sets up in the introduction, modern bureaucracy actually began in the unfettered corporations of the Gilded Age, whose practices governments adopted. Furthermore, wherever reforms have been introduced to ease free trade and de-regulate capitalism, such as in Thatcher’s UK, the result has not been less bureaucracy and fewer rules, but more. In fact, Graeber argues, bureaucracy is vital to keeping the wheels of capitalism turning as well as the violence that establishes and perpetuates unequal societies. We aren’t accustomed to thinking of police as bureaucrats with nightsticks (although nowadays armored cars and automatic weapons might be more accurate), but this is precisely what Graeber argues they are–enforcers of the rules and regulations, the ultimate recourse against any citizen or subject who might insist on his or her material rights even if s/he hasn’t filled out the proper paperwork and provided two forms of ID.

As elsewhere, Graeber emphasizes human capacity for productive imagination, and its role in the political structure. The first essay in The Utopia of Rules, “Dead Zones of the Imagination,” explores how unequal societies, and the bureaucracy that sustains them, handicaps this capacity:

Creativity and desire—what we often reduce, in political economy terms, to “production” and “consumption”—are essentially vehicles of the imagination. Structures of inequality and domination–structural violence, if you will–tend to skew the imagination. Structural violence might create situations where laborers are relegated to mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs, and only a small elite is allowed to indulge in imaginative labor, leading to the feeling, on the part of the workers, that they are alienated from their own labor, that their very deeds belong to someone else. It might also create social situations where kings, politicians, celebrities, or CEOs prance about oblivious to almost everything around them while their wives, servants, staff, and handlers spend all their time engaged in the imaginative work of maintaining them in their fantasies. Most situations of inequality I suspect combine elements of both.

The subjective experience of living inside such lopsided structures of imagination—the warping and shattering of imagination that results—is what we are referring to when we talk about “alienation.”

The second essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” introduces the theme of science fiction and its standard tropes, exemplified by Star Trek. Here Graeber focuses on why the future that was imagined in the past—say the first two-thirds of the 20th century—has not materialized. We do not have flying cars, transporters, or robots to do our menial work. Graeber argues that this is not because such things are technically harder to accomplish than past generations thought, but because nations and elites shifted resources away from the technologies that might benefit humanity at large and toward technologies that would help them maintain control: military weapons, surveillance, and medicine. And even in these areas, the logic of bureaucratic capitalism, that insists on profitable, measurable goals, has stifled scientific research and experimentation. Again, imagination is a key factor for a different future:

At this point, the one thing I think we can be fairly confident about it is that invention and true innovation will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism—or, most likely, any form of capitalism at all. … And if we’re going to actually come up with robots that will do our laundry or tidy up the kitchen, we’re going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or desperately poor people willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs. And this is the best reason to break free of the dead hand of the hedge fund managers and the CEOs—to free our fantasies from the screens in which such men have imprisoned them, to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.

The third essay, “Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All,” examines rationality—what this faculty was thought to mean—in past eras, and its connection to the imagination:

Take the notion, which we all learn as children and most of us accept as self-evident truth, that what sets humans apart from other animals is rationality… This is very much a Medieval notion. If you think about it, it also doesn’t make a lot of sense. If “rationality” is just the ability to assess reality more or less as it is and to draw logical conclusions, then most animals are extremely rational. The solve problems all the time. Most might not be nearly as good at it as humans but there is no fundamental difference in kind. There are plenty of other faculties that would make much better candidates—ones that actually do seem to be unique to humans. One obvious choice would be imagination. Animals act in what seem like rational, calculating, goal-directed ways all the time, but it’s harder to make a case that most of them engage in creating self-conscious fantasy worlds.

In fact, Graeber argues, in a discussion of “play” versus “game,” the imagination’s limitlessness thrills and frightens us, such that we take comfort in the very thing that appears as its opposite–“rationality,” or rules. He traces the ascension of rule-bound bureaucracy alongside the rise of fantasy literature (Tolkien as the epitome) in which bureaucracy and administration are wholly absent from politics. Instead, fantasy heroes attain leadership through their worthiness and the loyalty of their followers, not any kind of constitution or rule of law.

Such fantasies offer a balm to regulated real life, and finally point to Graeber’s addendum, “On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power.” Here he turns toward the superhero genre and its limits. There, the villains are the imaginative, productive ones; the heroes are largely reactive and colorless. Like the imagination being pushed back into its box by the forces of (bureaucratic) rationality, supervillains repeatedly threaten to change the world, then get pummeled by superheroes acting in the role of the cop, who enforces the law yet doesn’t have to abide by it him/herself. Closely reading Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Graeber identifies–correctly, I think–the conservative politics of those movies, in which the villains represent anarchist demagogues, and the heroes benevolent G-men. The working class of Gotham have no role beyond the victims or dupes of the protagonist and antagonist, which, Graeber explains, makes the final film dissolve into absurdity. Lacking practice in interpretive labor and the imagination to understand their subordinates, the elite cannot comprehend of a working class who might constitute a set of rules and roles for themselves.

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  1. Jere Said:

    A couple of points with respect to “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”:

    – We essentially do have robots that do the dishes and laundry, among other menial work. Computers are best at repetitive work. If the author’s contention is that capitalism has failed because we haven’t met the 1960’s imagination of the future, I’d ask what did those in the 1800’s imagine the future would be like? Did it include cars? TV? Computers? Smartphones? I don’t know. If I had to guess though, the imagination of the 1800’s was not ambitious enough, and the imagination of 1960’s was too ambitious (or at least the timeline was too ambitious). I don’t know if you can make any conclusion about capitalism from this.

    – Based on the summary given, I’m assuming that the author thinks that research is driven by military interests. Setting aside that is not an absolute, research can be for both military and non-military purposes. NASA was started essentially as a military program, but the engineering advances pervade everyday life. The Internet was funded as a military program. Military programs fund lots of medical research that non-military can benefit from. Of course there is research with solely military application. My point is just that military research isn’t necessarily unaligned with the needs of the public.

    – The arguments I see here are reminiscent of scientists/pseudo-scientists that have a conclusion and then argue the data supports that conclusion rather than the other way around. I’m very wary of people that construct their arguments that way.

    • csmalerich Said:

      Hey Jere,

      I delayed responding because I wanted to re-read the essay. The book has already gone back to the library, but an earlier version of “Of Flying Cars…” is available: Graeber addresses your points of concern, though probably not enough to satisfy you. Unfortunately the essay published in the Baffler lacks the book’s endnotes, which at least would provide some signposts for further research.

      To your second point: Graeber isn’t denying that military-funded research can and has had other applications, but questioning whether, if funding was allocated differently, other advances might have been made in areas that have little or no military application. I should add (and this is missing from my initial summary) that Graeber is also arguing for the capitalist imperative for profit as an obstacle to innovation and theoretical advances, even within the military. This cuts in a couple of ways. One, researchers devote an inordinate amount of time proving to funders that their research will lead to a patent-able, marketable product. Two, (and frankly more interesting to me) it’s proven more profitable to shift production of commodities to lower-waged workers than to invent and implement labor-saving methods. I.e., clothes, sneakers, toys, etc, are still being produced by early 20th-century technology. And the workers who clean the offices, labs, libraries, universities, condos, and houses all over the world today aren’t robots. They may have vacuums, dish washers, and washing machines, but these weren’t future technology in the ’50s, either. Which I think is what interests Graeber in this time frame: there was real expectation that these devices and new inventions would eliminate certain jobs and types of labor; and, at least among some folks, this would push society toward a more equitable and enjoyable existence. Though Graeber’s essay alone can’t explain why that didn’t happen, it seems like a line of inquiry worth exploring.

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