The Utopia of Rules


Having been deeply impressed by his Debt: The First 5,000 Years, I was excitedly anticipating this book when it first came out. Yet, while the issue of increasing bureacratisation, control, and regulations are indeed timely, this book sadly fell short of my expectation. Born from what is perceived as the sore lack of left critique on bureaucracy, the book is a collection of essays attempting to elucidate this argument by first focusing on violence; the second on technology; and the third on rationality and value.  Yet the essays, particularly the first two chapters, offer no different insights from the flurries of op-eds against bureaucratisation of academia that can be found in many mainstream media.

I understand that bureaucratisation of campus, of movements, etc. is a widespread, problematic issue. The issue of trying to find alternative organisational forms is almost the standard ending of any articles/books lamenting the current state of the neo-liberal world, or the other extreme, praising/imagining the goods of the so-called “commons”. However, very rarely do they actually deliberate how alternative forms can organise or communicate into a strong collective action beyond raising awareness/consciousness/ resistance). This book doesn’t attempt to do so either, but my point is that we’re not really wanting in criticism of these issues.

His main argument was: that bureaucracies are “not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupid­ity—of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence.”

I find it an almost a cliched, time-worn argument (particularly in technology studies): that organisations and technical systems are derived from (socio-cultural and political) values, and as the seemingly neutral machines that run in the background, these systems in turn construct, exerting power into socio-cultural and political systems. danah boyd, for example, repeatedly makes this assertion in both her academic and popular posts. In short, I don’t think bureaucracy does not receive enough criticism—in fact, I feel that the bad rap has been unfairly directed towards bureaucracy in itself, which now becomes a derogatory shortcut to refer to any convoluted administration. But it also misses the point that what they’re criticising is essentially organisational and technological systems skewed by existing values and power relations.

I therefore question his main proposal: is bureaucracy really inherently a way to organise stupidity? Or is it one of the more “structured” ways to organise networks, be they vertical or horizontal? In practice, power relations are never completely horizontal or equal, and the skewed power relations can be caused not only by economic capital, but also by other forms of capital, including social and symbolic. (Or, what Freeman has mentioned as “star power”. More on Freeman later.)

First, let’s look at the definition. I don’t mean to split hair here, but as he dissected “the state” from a single entity into three analytical parts, that is, sovereignty, administration, and politics, I became genuinely confused. My question is: what is the difference between administration and bureaucracy, then? In describing administration, he pointed out how vast temple and palace complexes with a hierarchy of trained (but nameless, rarely remembered) scribes carefully registering and allocating resources of every sort, creating standardisation of products, storage, certification, record-keeping, and accounting. Meanwhile, politics involve jockeying for power, vying to show off “heroic” social orders, organising the most splendid events, feasts, and sacrifices.

He then pointed out that “heroic orders did not just emerge spontaneously, alongside bureaucratic societies; they emerged in a kind of symbiotic rivalry with them; and they were remembered long after because they embodied a rejection of everything bureaucracy was supposed to be about.” But how is this administration work of the state differ from of, say, businesses or civil movements, then? How is the heroism of activism or businesses doing “social good” different from the heroic orders of the state? As he stated in chapter three:

It’s hard to imagine how, even if we do achieve some utopian communal society, some impersonal (dare I say, bureaucratic?) institutions would not still be necessary. Bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I’ve called poetic technology, that is, one where mechanical forms of organization, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshaled to the realization of impossible visions.(p.164)

Just as “value-free” does not exist, neither does a horizontal, “structureless” network, or formless organisational matter. Once a node connects to another, a structure forms—the question is which node has more power, be they derived from economic (money), social (network), symbolic, or cultural capital. Power relations, dominant or diminishing nodes, will always tilt, contract, and change the balance in the networks. I sympathise with the fact that academics are now deluged with paperwork, but I’ve also seen—too many times—how academics and activists can be very condescending, dismissive, and unfair towards “admin staff” or “bureaucracy”, “civil servants”, feeling that “admin work” are below them. (The same way calling someone a “bureaucrat” is usually used as a damning curse.) What about the many cases of “senior academics” (that arguably seem to have the power to take many sabbatical and do not seem burdened by paperwork) abusing their juniors, or many unspoken harassment in activist circles? I think shifting the blame towards “bureaucracy” misses the point that it should be the underlying imbalance of power and violence, that certain parties can (un/consciously) enforce that are problematic, not the bureaucracy in itself (whose workers might be equally oppressed and un(der)paid).

In that sense, I think Susan Leigh Star’s old (but very recommended) works dissect how the configurations of infrastructure, visible and invisible work, and bureaucracy are networked. Perhaps also Graham and Marvin’s Splintering Urbanism, or Ash Amin and Nigel Thrift’s Arts of the Political (which has a section talking about bureaucracy as habitus, and politics as affective). It also brings me to Jo Freeman’s wonderful essay on “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (also a very recommended read, by the way) which Graeber also discussed at length in chapter 3.

Part of the work of developing new forms of consensus process, for example, is to create institutional forms that encourage, rather than inhibit, improvisation and creativity. As activists sometimes put it: in most circumstances, if you bring together a crowd of people, that crowd will, as a group, behave less intelligently, and less creatively, than any single member of the crowd is likely to do if on their own. Activist decision-making process is, instead, designed to make that crowd smarter and more imaginative than any individual participant. . . It is indeed possible to do this, but it takes a lot of work. And the larger the group, the more formal mechanisms have to be put in place. (p.201)

So, again, my question: how then, do we propose to call these new institutional forms of consensus process….? Graeber in a way contradicts himself in this third chapter. He explains how bureaucracy can make people giddy with enthusiasm, saving people the exhausting imaginative labour, as in the case of the German legendary Post Office, when it hasn’t been skewed by highly unequal power relations.

This brings me to my second point: this pattern of the development of information communication technology—usually initially developed by military then by radicals, to be then strangled and fought over by monopolists or cartels—has been the subject of numerous good, popular books, such as Tim Wu’s The Master Switch, and Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet, and How to Stop It. So it’s not exactly rarely discussed.

Granted, his specialisation is not on ICT. But we’re essentially looking at social and operating systems, to borrow Kelty’s phrase and pun. Graeber argued at length about the slowing down of innovation (compared to what has happened in the 50s-70s), and the shift from material betterment to spectacle, analysis and surveillance technology. This increase of surveillance and analysis technology is indeed an important issue today, and if Graeber aims to discuss the technology, at the very least, he could bring more attention to the important works and advocacy working on the details of how (both formal and informal) power and capital screw the system. I think it would be worth elaborating more on the expansion of “middle” bullshit jobs—analysts, consultants, etc. But don’t forget that we equally have star power in operation here. The analysts, consultants that have more media airtime and connections get more gigs and likely higher pay, though that do not necessarily mean they execute better job.

Lastly, he raised points about language as basic paradox in our very idea of freedom—which I have always pondered on a lot. As Graeber stated, “speech codes, grammatical rules, limit what we can or cannot say. But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any kind—no semantics, syntax, phonemics—we’d all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other at all.” What particularly interests me is how he pointed out that in Malagasy, the spoken forms seem to be widely disassociated from the formal forms, and that people didn’t really speak the language as described in the textbooks.

I have no expert knowledge of Madagascar, but it is a phenomena that I keenly feel in Indonesia, what Ariel Heryanto called as an “orality-based” society. And perhaps in Indonesia, this situation is made even more vastly complicated considering that we have 300 ethnic groups with more than 700 living languages…

He ended his book by saying how “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.” Maybe, in the US, UK, Germany, or “written-based” societies. But what about in post-colonial, orality-based societies with wobbly, cobbled-up infrastructures, like Indonesia? Where written forms are rarely used, or when they are used, they are treated as “hanya di atas kertas” (merely on paper, without any enforcement power), since archives and record-keeping structures are very ephemeral and dysfunctional? We spend a great percentage of our life trying to make sense of arbitrary laws, unstructured WhatsApp messages or demands for ad hoc face-to-face meetings in coordinating our actions instead. (It would be more interesting if he attempts to develop this idea further: analyse cross-culturally the relation between language, writing/orality, and rules. In English we have: scribe, prescribe, subscribe, circumscribe, transcribe…)

To come back to his main proposal, then, if bureaucracy is “ways of organizing stupid­ity—of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence.” What then, if in the absence or wobbliness of structure, we have “unstructured” forms governing the violence? It would be interesting if he expands his arguments further by drawing more on anthropological and historical works in South countries, like he has done in the past.

To sum up, the book was not as insightful as what I had expected, particularly after reading his previous books and articles. The points raised are interesting, but rather commonplace, and the elaborations weak, lacking the fine-grained analysis that have impressed us in Debt. Finding many careless editorial mistakes—and an article already published in TNI as an appendix—makes me think that this book seems like a collection of essays cobbled together to ride on the success of Debt. It’s fine to ride the wave, of course, as we need to popularise these ideas further, but I hope that future publications would take more careful editorial and referencing to relevant other sources to take them further. All in all, Graeber still provides many thought-provoking nuggets using accessible examples from popular culture (though I struggle with the Batman analysis, having not seen it), particularly prevalent in this age.

Title: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
Author: David Graeber
Publisher: Melville House, 2015
Call No: 302.35 GRA Uto

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Founding director, c2o library & collabtive. Currently also working in Singapore as a Research Associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). Opinions are hers, and do not represent/reflect her employer(s), institution(s), or anyone else with whom she may be remotely affiliated.

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