Utopia of Rules

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* Book: The Utopia of Rules. David Graeber. 2015.



David Graeber:

"At least since the 19th century, the idea that a market economy is opposed to and independent of government was used to justify laissez-faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, and yet they never actually have that effect. Nor, for example, did English liberalism lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy; instead, we ended up with a 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. And there is little doubt that maintaining a market economy requires a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.

I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratisation”. I’d like to ask why that is and, particularly, to consider the possibility that many of the blanket condemnations of bureaucracy we hear are, in fact, somewhat disingenuous. Does the experience of operating within a system of formalised rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, hold a kind of covert appeal?

There is a school of thought that holds that bureaucracy tends to expand according to a kind of perverse but inescapable inner logic. The argument runs as follows: if you create a bureaucratic structure to deal with a problem, that structure will invariably end up creating other problems that seem as if they, too, can only be solved by bureaucratic means. In universities, this is sometimes informally referred to as the “creating committees to deal with the problem of too many committees” problem.

A slightly different version of the argument is that once a bureaucracy has been created, it will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it. The chief way to do this is always by attempting to monopolise access to certain key types of information.

As Max Weber, one of the greatest German scholars of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret . . . in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.”

One side effect, as Weber also observes, is that once you do create a bureaucracy, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it. The very first bureaucracies we know of were in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these continued to exist, largely unchanged, as one dynasty or ruling elite replaced another, for literally thousands of years. Similarly, waves of successful invaders were not enough to dislodge the Chinese civil service, with its bureaus, reports, and examination system, which remained firmly in place no matter who actually claimed the Mandate of Heaven. The only real way to rid oneself of an established bureaucracy, according to Weber, is to simply kill them all, as Alaric the Goth did in Imperial Rome, or Genghis Khan in certain parts of the Middle East. Leave any significant number of functionaries alive and, within a few years, they will inevitably end up managing one’s kingdom.

The second possible explanation is that bureaucracy becomes not only indispensable to rulers but holds a genuine appeal to those it administers as well. The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions: on the one hand they are soulless; on the other, they are simple, predictable, and treat everyone more or less the same.

And, anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy enables you to deal with other people without having to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of labour. Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re 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 18th-century British verse. Surely this is part of the appeal.

Of course, there is a possibility that all this goes much deeper. It’s not just that the impersonal relations bureaucracies afford are convenient; to some degree, at least, our very ideas of rationality, justice and freedom are founded on them. Consider a moment in human history when a new form of bureaucracy actually did inspire not just widespread passive acquiescence but giddy enthusiasm, even infatuation, and try to understand precisely what it was about it that seemed, to so many people, so exciting.

. . .

One reason it was possible for Weberto describe bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rational efficiency is that in the Germany of his day, bureaucratic institutions really did work well. Perhaps the flagship institution, the pride and joy of the German civil service, was the post office. In the late 19th century, the German postal service was considered one of the great wonders of the modern world. Its efficiency was so legendary that it casts a kind of terrible shadow across the 20th century. Many of the greatest achievements of what we now call “high modernism” were inspired by the German post office. One could indeed make a case that many of the most terrible woes of that century can also be laid at its feet.

To understand how this could be, we need to understand a little of the real origins of the modern social welfare state, which we now largely think of — when we think of them at all — as having been created by benevolent democratic elites. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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 organisations. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of gradually creating socialist institutions from below." (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/73212b74-c1ba-11e4-8b74-00144feab7de.htm)

The German Post Office as the paradigmatic example of positive bureaucracy

David Graeber:

"In Germany, the real model for this new administrative structure was, curiously, the post office — though when one understands the history of the postal service, it makes a great deal of sense. The post office was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organisation to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organisation of armies and empires. They were originally ways of conveying field reports and orders over long distances; later, by extension, a key means of keeping the resulting empires together. Hence Herodotus’ famous quote about Persian imperial messengers, with their evenly spaced posts with fresh horses, which he claimed allowed the swiftest travel on earth: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” still appears carved over the entrance to the Central Post Office building in New York, opposite Penn Station. The Roman empire had a similar system, and pretty much all armies operated with postal courier systems until Napoleon adopted semaphore in 1805.

One of the great innovations of 18th- and especially 19th-century governance was to expand what had once been military courier systems into the basis for an emerging civil service whose primary purpose was providing services for the public. It happened first in commerce, and then expanded as the commercial classes also began to use the post for personal or political correspondence. Before long, in many of the emerging nation-states in Europe and the Americas, half the government budget was spent on — and more than half the civil service employed in — the postal service. In Germany, one could even make the argument that the nation was created, more than anything else, by the post office. Under the Holy Roman Empire, the right to run a postal courier system within imperial territories had been granted, in good feudal fashion, to a noble family originally from Milan, later to be known as the Barons von Thurn and Taxis (one later scion of this family, according to legend, was the inventor of the taximeter, which is why taxicabs ultimately came to bear his name). The Prussian empire originally bought out the Thurn and Taxis monopoly in 1867, and used it as the basis for a new German national post — and over the next two decades, the sure sign that a new statelet or principality had been absorbed into the emerging nation-state was its incorporation into the German postal system. The sparkling efficiency of the system became a point of national pride. And indeed, the German post of the late-19th century was nothing if not impressive, boasting up to five or even nine delivery times a day in major cities, and, in the capital, a vast network of miles of pneumatic tubes designed to shoot letters and small parcels almost instantly across long distances using a system of pressurised air. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin between 1891 and 1892, was so taken with it that he composed one of his only known non-satirical essays, “Postal Service”, just to celebrate its wondrous efficiency.

Nor was he the only foreigner to be so impressed. Just a few months before the outbreak of Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilych Lenin wrote: “A witty German social-democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At present the postal service is a business organised on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organisations of a similar type.

“To organise the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service, so that the technicians, foremen, book-keepers, 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.”

So there you have it. The organisation of the Soviet Union was directly modelled on the German postal service. A vision of a potential future paradise emerging from within the post office was not confined to Europe. It was only with the rise of corporate capitalism after the civil war that the US adopted something closer to the German model of bureaucratic capitalism. Again, the forms of a new, freer, more rational society seemed to be emerging within the very structures of oppression itself. The term “postalisation” emerged, a unique American coinage for nationalisation (and one which has since completely disappeared from the language). Yet at the same time as Weber and Lenin were invoking the German post office as a model for the future, American progressives were arguing that even private business would be more efficient were it run like a post office, and scoring major victories for postalisation, such as the nationalisation of the private subway, commuter, and interstate train systems, which in major American cities have remained in public hands ever since." (http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/73212b74-c1ba-11e4-8b74-00144feab7de.htm)


1. Simone Cicero:

"According to Graeber, one of the major innovations of the nineteenth century was the transformation of the postal system born around the Holy Roman Empire (and later evolved around the German army) in a modern system of public post, which became the symbol and the champion of German efficiency. The efficiency of the system was so greatly recognized at the time that even Lenin observed that to organize the whole economy on the lines of the German postal service would be an appropriate target for the revolution. The term “postalization” was often used to identify the industrialization phase of basic public services first, and then of modern capitalism corporations: our whole society has thus over time embraced the model as a symbol of efficiency, transforming it into what we now call bureaucracy and industry.

A “sticky” nature is built-in in the “bureaucratic” systems: once one of these systems makes its way into the economy is indeed difficult to change; a bureaucratic structure created to address a problem in fact ends up creating other problems that can be solved only with typical means of the same bureaucracy. As Graeber says: “once a bureaucracy has been created, it will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it. The chief way to do this is always by attempting to monopolise access to certain key types of information”. (http://meedabyte.com/2015/06/19/the-hacker-ethic-of-work/)

2. By Elaine Glaser:

"Serendipitously, a book of essays on bureaucracy by David Graeber, the anthropologist and activist, appeared in March. Titled The Utopia of Rules, it’s a fascinating elucidation of an ostensibly unpromising topic. Bureaucracy is traditionally associated with the public sphere. But as Graeber demonstrates, this association is far from natural: it is the result of bureaucratic controls being forcibly applied to the public sector. Meanwhile, the private sector appears lean only because the regulatory apparatus has been all but stripped away: in the public sector, bureaucracy is called “accountability”, in the private sector, it’s “red tape”.

Shielded, therefore, by an illusory opposition between the market and bureaucracy, the new university management imposes systems of audit, evaluation, assessment and accreditation in the name of increased value for money. Yet this is deeply ironic, because the infinite regress of online forms and email chains leads academics directly away from productivity. In a related, widely read article for Strike! magazine titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, Graeber asks why it is that in advanced Western economies, saturated in the rhetoric of austerity, and supposedly reaping the rewards of modern technology, administrative labour has proliferated. “In a world ever more in thrall to the imperatives of profit, competition and market-driven efficiency,” Graeber observes, “it is bizarre for employers in the public and private sector alike to be behaving like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union, shelling out wages to workers they do not appear to need.” Graeber’s explanation is that long-hours pen-pushing – or mouse-clicking – is imposed on employees as a form of social control: it’s a way of ensuring that we are too monitored, busy and tired to raise questions or revolt.

The “moral and spiritual damage” resulting from the fact that “huge swathes of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed” is, Graeber claims, “a scar across our collective soul”. Likewise, bureaucracy has become a ubiquitous cliché of modern academia, and to call it out seems naive, as if not accepting the “real world”. Yet it produces a disjunctive sense of playing along with a fiction.

If accounting measures applied to academia to make it more efficient actually have the opposite effect, what is their real purpose? Is the impulse to count and assess all activity via “performance indicators” and “quality assurance” a quixotic yet sincere attempt to increase productivity; the application of a belief that things are not real unless delineated virtually; a simple failure to grasp that the more time one spends trying to “capture” academic “output” via bean-counting and online systems of representation, the more it slips away? Since the financial crash of 2008-09, we have seen ample evidence of misguided faith in marketisation to suggest that this explanation is credible. Yet it does not account for the moralising and punitive manner in which bureaucratic demands are formulated. They are derived from private sector managerialism, yet while they have been largely flushed out of business itself, they are applied to academia in a correctional spirit, as if it is not behaving in a sufficiently businesslike manner.

There’s a simple explanation for the drive to quantify everything: the replacement of the horizontal self-government of university departments with the vertical hierarchy of departmental heads and senior management. Academics used to document their output on their CVs; now, managers have to find ways to justify their existence. “Everyone knows the results are absurd,” Graeber tells me via email. “We all spend more and more hours of our day discussing, analysing and assessing what we do, and fewer and fewer hours actually doing it, and all of it, just to give these high-level administrators who aren’t really needed something to do for their gold-plated salaries.”

But this is more than just a power shift, Graeber notes. “It represents a transformation in our basic assumption about what a university is…Thirty years ago, if you said ‘the university’, people assumed you were referring to the faculty. Now if you say it, people assume you’re referring to the administration.” The corporate bureaucrats who now run universities are “often more interested in real estate speculation, fund-raising, sports, and ‘the student experience’ than anything that has to do with learning, teaching, or scholarship at all”.

Through a curious inversion, to insist that knowledge should be valued in and of itself, and that universities should be places of learning, has come to seem morally suspect. Just as public sector employees are repeatedly reminded that their salaries are funded by “hard-working taxpayers”, academics feel increasingly beholden to fee-paying students. The result is guilt for having a nice job, for being able to stare out the window thinking interesting thoughts about subjects that have no obvious, tangible “application”. It’s almost as if it would be better if academics spent the bulk of their time filling out forms for the sake of it, because at least then they wouldn’t be enjoying themselves on the public, or the students’, purse – even if that resulted in fewer books being written.

One acknowledged that bureaucracy ‘can become addictive and/or act as a means of avoiding other activities’. Is this an awkward truth - that form‑filling provides convenient relief from taxing intellectual labours?" (http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/features/bureaucracy-why-wont-scholars-break-their-paper-chains/2020256.article)

Platforms as the new bureaucracy

Simone Cicero:

"“Only” fifteen years after Himanen’s book, a prophet of business thinking such as Geoffrey Moore looks at Coase’s seminal “The Nature of the Firm” and explores the deep changes that the digitally transformed economy is having on the structure of the firm itself. According to Moore, the transition to post-industrial, information, age is finally getting to maturation and having effects not only on the business models (with the rise of the “age of access” and “on demand” economy) but also onto the very nature of the firm itself.

The growing demand for the firm to be able to act as a pivotal point – interact and collaborate with partners and peers – is being deeply disruptive to the hierarchical and bureaucratic management structures that provided the motivation for the existence of an entire class of middle-management, middle-class jobs for most of the twentieth century.

The transition from corporate bureaucracies to digital empires is, according to Greg Satell, so relevant that he defines Platforms as “bureaucracies for the networked age“.

Ultimately you go then, gradually and with huge differences between different industries, from an industrial perspective, of a linear relationship between firms and the market to one which is networked and post-industrial. While in the first, the company (capital) owns the means of production and workers access them to produce products and services to be marketed, In the latter the market is reticular and indistinguishable from the society, the means of production are dispersed and accessible and companies have the main aim of connecting supply and demand and facilitating the “citizen producer”." (http://meedabyte.com/2015/06/19/the-hacker-ethic-of-work/)

See graphic: https://meedabyte.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/postindustrial.png?w=710

Neoliberalism and bureaucracy

Matthew Harwood:

"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." (https://c4ss.org/content/40445)

More Information

  • On the phenomenon of bullshit shit jobs”. The essay was focused on explaining how the conservative power of modern capitalism is exercised through false incentives. Graeber spoke bluntly of the world’s largest organization, the corporations, as an army of workers: “basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.”