Utopian Bureaucracy

There are important books that can teach us a lot that tend to get overlooked. One of these is David Graeber’s short collection of essays, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, which I discovered by accident at the Denver Public Library.

Basically, Graeber, an anthropology professor, dissects the whole phenomenon of bureaucracy and arrives at some startling and disturbing conclusions. Graeber is apparently a leftist and a supporter of the Occupy nonsense, but he arrives at some important conclusions that could also be used for a conservative critique of bureaucracy.

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These conclusions are:

  1. Bureaucracy is basically a utopian experiment because its practitioners often disregard reality and human nature and expect unrealistic results. They seek to perfect society and humanity itself by setting up bureaucratic structures and imposing and enforcing rules. Examples of this paradigm include Prohibition, the War on Drugs, the Iraq War, The War on Poverty, foreign aid, regulation of business, deregulation of business, the War on Terror, nationalization of industries, denationalization of industries, colonialism, and the Soviet Union, among other stupidities.

 

  1. The tendency towards such utopian thinking exists within all bureaucracies: military, government, social services, religious, corporate, law enforcement, etc.

 

  1. Many of the constructs of modern technological society, including corporations, websites, television, social media, newspapers, magazines, and the internet itself, are really bureaucracies. Graeber points out that the internet is simply a virtual version of the Post Office and the mail system. It is simply a more efficient means of disseminating information, which is one of the goals of bureaucracy. In a similar light, corporations, like Google, Apple and Facebook, can be viewed as bureaucracies, not business enterprises.

 

  1. Modern technology is turning us all into bureaucrats. I, for example, am a writer, but I spend much of my day engaged in bureaucratic chores, such as website maintenance, checking social media, marketing, bookkeeping, accounting, responding to emails, following up on emails, banking, etc., rather than actually writing. Somedays, I actually envy people like Hemingway, who spent their days at typewriters and only had to deal with rejection letters from publishers.

 

  1. Bureaucracy, in all its forms, often makes us stupider. I experienced a prime example of this process of retardation recently when, from an editor at a website (a bureaucrat who thinks he is a writer, an absurdity, which is pretty stupid in itself) that had purchased dozens of my articles, which had attracted tens of thousands of views and presumably made a large amount of advertising money for his organization, sent me an email threatening to terminate my services because one reader made a snide remark in one email. The editor, whom I presume is an intelligent, capable, and kind man, responded only to this remark, which was fairly stupid.

 

The bureaucratic structure of the website made both the editor and the creator of that nasty remark, whom I presume to be a decent and reasonably intelligent person, stupider. The remark writer wrote something stupid, which was transmitted instantly to the editor, who responded quickly without thinking and compounded the stupidity. It made me angry, which also makes me stupider. I was so pissed off, I nearly made a knee jerk response, which could have cost me an important business relationship.

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  1. By making us stupider and distracting us with endless administrative chores, bureaucracy actually impedes communication. It thwarts much of the advantage of modern technologies, such as the internet, which make communications faster.

 

  1. Bureaucracy is effectively dumbing down science and impeding scientific and technical progress.

 

  1. People actually like bureaucracy and enjoy it. Both enforcing and breaking rules can be very fun. Figuring out a bureaucratic process can be an interesting and challenging intellectual game. Learning how to manipulate bureaucracy to one’s advantage can be both very fun and highly profitable.

 

 

  1. Much of modern entertainment and art, including superhero comics and movies, sword and sorcery fantasies, and action movies, are reactions to bureaucracy. Graeber notes that both superheroes and sword and sorcery characters live in alternate universes where there are no bureaucracies, large corporations, politics, laws, or governments. All relationships in their worlds are based on simple one-on-one communications or interactions, usually violence. For example, in the last Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, terrorists seize control of Gotham City and imprison its police, yet neither the U.S. President, nor the governor of whatever fictional state Gotham is located in, sends in the Army or the National Guard to restore order. Instead, it is up to the hero, Batman, to save the day. The exact same observation can also be made of so-called thriller novels (in which both heroes and villains litter the streets with dead enemies and never attract police attention), video games, and Westerns.

 

  1. There are strong Leninist or Communist tendencies in the American character. Graeber rightly points out that Star Trek is effectively a Leninist fantasy of a scientific utopia with no religion, no money, no capitalism, and no politics. He also notes the Leninist undertones to the space program and the military industrial complex. Graeber speculates that fear of creeping Leninism convinced America to abandon the space program. An interesting line of thought here that Graeber does not explore is that American Cold War thinking was motivated by an envy of Leninism, generated by the susceptibility of some Americans to Soviet fairy stories about the wonders and successes of Communism. Some Americans were jealous of the Russians’ claims of creating a technocratic utopia and wanted to beat them at their own game.

 

Graeber’s work is an important and thought provoking one that every thinking person should take a look at. Hopefully, it will inspire Graeber or some other critic to write an intelligent postmodern review of bureaucracy’s history. Such a work is sorely needed in today’s increasing bureaucratic and technocratic world.