Grafton Tanner reflects on Graeber’s work, discussing what it means to be radical and how to go about being so.
David Graeber, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2016), 272pp.
Why Do We Still Have Bureaucracy?
After previously describing the Occupy Wall Street protestors as bitterly envious of the rich, former presidential candidate and co-founder of Bain Capital Mitt Romney seemingly changed his tune. “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how those people feel,” he said in 2011. The reality is, of course, there is no way Romney, whose net worth currently exceeds $200 million, could understand how “those people” felt or still feel. Yet, in a cruel twist, the protest of alleged envy started by “those people” was dissolved by authorities protecting the sacred interests of Wall Street. Romney and his fellow corporate executives won the day. The presidential office and cabinet of the United States are now staffed with the kinds of people the Occupy movement rallied against, although Romney is not one of them.
Still, a staggering fact must be articulated: eight men own as much wealth as the poorer half of the world’s population. Even in the face of this statistic, the politicians of the United States continue, somehow, to peddle the fiction that everyone can work their way up the wealth ladder if they only choose to. After the 2016 presidential election – during which a criminal class of free-market idealogues used identity politics to convince the American public they were politically opposite – it’s hard to imagine there was once a worldwide movement protesting the massive wealth inequality that has spread under global capitalism. Occupy, with its focus on dismantling the oppressive effects of late capitalism, now seems like a distant memory. Certainly not an asterisk in the history books, as writer Aaron Sorkin deemed the movement, but a class-centered surge that would appear somewhat out-of-place today. Unfortunately, many remember Occupy as a dream that was just too lofty and too disorganized to manifest. Just a bunch of protestors with guitars and street weed who envy successful businessmen like Mitt Romney, we are told.
Anthropologist David Graeber is often credited with popularizing Occupy’s rallying cry, “We are the 99%,” and his book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy is at once a history of bureaucracy, a cultural analysis of the twenty-first century, and a reminder that Occupy was unprecedented in its aim, which was ending global wealth inequality. Graeber, an anarchist and professor at the London School of Economics, has been active in anti-capitalist protests for years and was even allegedly ousted from Yale for his involvement in what the Ivy League university considered to be radical politics.
Graeber is a rare sort of academic. His closest analogue may be the late Mark Fisher, whose writings straddled the divide between Ivory Tower critical theory and the most riveting cultural analysis found in The Wire. The Utopia of Rules is direct without being polemical and references social theorists without getting caught up in the jargon of high academia. Also, like Fisher, Graeber is skilled at turning cultural assumptions upside-down. For example, through some detailed logic, Graeber comes to the conclusion that “[p]olice are bureaucrats with weapons” and that structural violence is boring (for how he arrived at such points, see pages 73 and 102, respectively). In a memorable section, Graeber reads Star Trek as “an Americanized vision of a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, and above all, one that actually ‘worked.’” These zingers, though they push the envelope, are fresh and inspired. He is a skilled anthropologist of popular culture, which is quite a feat since, considering pop culture’s fortified stronghold, it can often be difficult to study thoroughly from an outside perspective.
Graeber’s thesis is simple: people used to complain about bureaucracy, but they don’t anymore. What has happened in the intervening years? Graeber believes bureaucracy has come to be an accepted and perhaps ineffable part of Western daily life in the twenty-first century. Though we abhor paperwork and more activities involve paperwork than before, we don’t question it. As a relatively young man myself, I can’t remember a time when paperwork wasn’t mandatory for most actions involving banks, schools, hospital visits, and the like. Calling a business and getting an automated response is standard procedure for me. For those who do remember a time before “total bureaucratization,” as Graeber calls it, the common behavior has been to grow accustomed to the soul-crushing machinations of bureaucracy. How can one fight it?
Graeber attributes “total bureaucratization” to the Left’s inability to put forth a critique of bureaucracy. “The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy,” he writes. “It’s not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none.” He elaborates that the working class, who have typically worked in “thoroughly bureaucratized environments,” have either “dropped out of politics entirely, or [are] increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right.” Now that the working class has been bought off by the faux-populist rhetoric of the Right, there is no one to hold the corporatized Left accountable. The upshot is a defanged, divided Left.
Bureaucracy, Graeber notes, was created by the private sector. The government, which has been associated historically with bureaucracy, learned the tactics of paperwork filing from major corporations, thus blurring the lines between what is private and public. “This process – the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits – does not yet have a name,” Graeber writes. “That in itself is significant. These things can happen largely because we lack a way to talk about them. But one can see its effects in every aspect of our lives.”
That name would probably be neoliberalism, or the privatization of everything. Perhaps what Graeber means is that that process does not have a name many could identify, but the effects – mounting paperwork, militant police presence, impersonal daily routine, decimated job stability – are felt by many. In a particularly striking section, Graeber recounts the bureaucratic runaround he endured when his mother passed away, which involved notaries, forms, signatures, and middle managers. This bureaucratic process ensured that, though his mother was biologically dead, she “would be legally – hence socially – dead.” Even in death, the bureaucratic apparatus maintains a rigid structure inherited from the financial sector.
Graeber also draws on his experience in the academic field to underscore the point that no place is safe from bureacracy’s tentacles. Since the great hiring of university administrators began some twenty years ago, academia has become something like a Ponzi scheme, promising brilliant students fulfilling (and now nearly nonexistent) careers as professors in exchange for cheap labor. Those who make it through the crucible of graduate school enter a job market saturated with qualified PhDs and an alarming paucity of academic jobs. The upsurge in administrative hires combined with the rise of contingent (i.e., part-time) faculty has led to a gap in solid research, especially in the sciences where sufficient funding ensures quality research. “No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years,” Graeber notes. He continues:
[Social theorists] have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.
These bracing passages illustrate Graeber’s own frustration with what has happened in his line of work. Yet one doesn’t have to pursue a PhD to understand just how corporatized and credentialized higher education has become. Employers place a heavier emphasis on credentials today than they did some decades ago, and universities, in turn, urge students to earn those credentials. Without them, students are told, they can never work as, say, journalists or writers. Never mind the fact that many of the greatest writers and journalists of the twentieth century held neither a MFA nor a degree in journalism.
“The corporatization of education; the resulting ballooning of tuitions as students are expected to pay for giant football stadiums and similar pet projects of executive trustees, or to contribute to the burgeoning salaries of ever-multiplying university officials; the increasing demands for degrees as certificates of entry into any job that promises access to anything like a middle-class standard of living; resulting rising levels of indebtedness – all these form a single web,” Graeber writes. “One result of all this debt is to render the government itself the main mechanism for the extraction of corporate profits.” The university – what was the last bastion of hope in an ever-bureaucratizing society – has now become the epicenter for unfettered corporate exploitation.
The global protests against wealth inequality sought to undo such massive bureaucratization. By the time protesters occupied Zuccotti Park in September 2011, the dream of globalization had been seen by many to be a failure. American jobs were exported to other countries where a decimated work force would work in miserable conditions for little pay, and at home, corporations “[demanded] that workers abandon any control over the conditions under which they worked” as long as they could “guarantee them a wider and cheaper range of products for them to use at home.”
The most distracting products promised to a beleaguered work force are (and have been for a while) consumer electronics. The common narrative of the twenty-first century is that technology has been rapidly increasing at an astonishing rate. Surely, most people in the U.S. would agree that keeping up with the latest consumer technologies is a chore. Graeber shatters this notion. Though it may be difficult to keep up with the latest Apple inventions, the technologies that have progressed over the past half-century have been a specific kind, what Graeber calls “technologies of simulation.” Instead of flying cars, which were dreamt of some fifty years ago in the U.S., we now have smartphones. Instead of robot doctors, we have Fitbit. Instead of interstellar travel, we have virtual reality. Technological wonders have neither ushered in a post-labor era of human history nor brought about a Jetsons society of technological paradise.
“End of work arguments became increasingly popular in the late seventies and early eighties,” Graeber notes, “as radical thinkers pondered what would happen to traditional working-class struggles once there was no longer a working class. (The answer: it would turn into identity politics.)” Except there is still a working class, but the working-class struggle is no longer covered by the media. Why? Because it directly stands in contrast with our techno-capitalist moment. If everyone has an iPhone, how can we effectively leverage a critique of capitalism? The iPhone is neoliberalism run amok. Plus, who is going to make the iPhones for Westerners if workers in peripheral and semi-peripheral countries don’t? What’s left of the American working class has been exported to the “developing” world, leaving the lower class rootless and the upper class to engage in a massive, consensual denial of the conditions leading to their technology’s creation.
“Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not really being produced by intelligent cyborgs,” Graeber writes. Instead, “they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who had, as the result of WTO or NAFTA-sponsored trade deals, been ousted from their ancestral lands.” It’s easy to believe we’re living in “the future” when we don’t have to see how our futuristic gadgets are made. Graeber points out that the narrative of astonishing technological progress came to be accepted through “modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (‘I hear they actually are going to have flying cars pretty soon’), and even more complex ways of juggling information and imagery.” There’s no need to travel to Mars when Mars One can entice the public with promises of a real mission coming soon. When medical science research funds are squandered on another lunatic military endeavor, we can watch the CBS drama Pure Genius, with its futuristic medical procedures pioneered by a Silicon Valley messiah.
We can also pretend stable working conditions still exist. With the rise of post-Fordism, short-term temp jobs and gigs have replaced the prospect of long-term employment. The result is an unmoored work force that must cobble together an income from various sources or labor under the pretense that they could be replaced at any time (a daily reality many adjuncts in academia know quite well). To make matters worse, these same gig workers are often saddled with debt, some of it accrued during higher education as a result of the student loan system. Graeber attributes this ugly turn in the history of American labor to the problems associated with burgeoning “[i]nformation technology,” which has “allowed a financialization of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt.” What originally scanned as flexibility in work (no more cubicles) has soured into work-as-life. With email at our fingertips, work can now travel home with us, erasing any life outside a career.
Without working-class politics, the oligarchy, financed by the debt of the labor force, can continue its unhindered exploitation. Major strides in information technology has given rise not to a better, freer world but one where the 99% works to essentially bankroll the 1%. To pacify the work force, consumer electronics are brought to market as a promise that technology is still progressing and that, one day, we’ll either get to Mars or have excellent VR programs that will bring Mars to us. Yet, as Graeber points out, even our devices serve the oligarchy. We are spied on with ever-increasing efficiency and stealth.
To Be Radical
How can one be radical in the face of such exploitation? It can be hard to imagine alternative futures when one is bombarded with clickbait news stories and identical superhero movies that reinforce the idea that “imagination and rebellion lead to violence.” Graeber concludes his book skewering pop culture, which, he thinks, “exists for the sake of pleasure.” Yet he understands, like many astute theorists of culture, that popular culture is a massively persuasive instrument for conditioning people. Pop culture teaches us that alternative ways of thinking are not only dangerous but also impossible. The superhero genre, with its recycled tropes of heteronormativity, machismo, and fear of Otherness, is one of contemporary pop culture’s most powerful weapons. Order must be maintained in these movies, but that order must be consumerist, white, heterosexual, and devoid of imagination. As an anthropologist, Graeber knows how powerful movies can be, and these Hollywood superhero blockbusters serve as the tools of propaganda, intended to quell the American fear of minority thought.
Though The Utopia of Rules succeeds on many levels, there are a few weak spots throughout. The book touches on so many topics, it is nearly scattershot. It is technically a collection of Graeber’s essays, so keeping that in mind may help when he’s pivoting from discussing the poetic technology of Dungeons & Dragons catalogs to parsing the arbitrariness of language. Furthermore, Graeber too often speaks fondly of the Soviet Union, an experimental superstate that committed some of the worst atrocities in human history. The Soviet Union, like the neoliberal United States, believed in a utopian dream of deliverance from human suffering by way of a state ideology. The difference, of course, between these regimes is that the Soviet Union attempted to achieve such deliverance through forced labor, ethnic cleansing, and unmatched environmental destruction. The book also suffers from multiple typographic errors, a blunder that is uncharacteristic for a Melville House release. A thorough editing of the manuscript is needed.
Still, The Utopia of Rules is an engaging book that covers multiple topics, and by the end, Graeber puts forth several theories as to why Americans love bureaucracy and why the government-corporation complex keeps providing it. The 2017 movements to protest the election of Donald Trump are inspiring and promising, but a global protest against neoliberalism has yet to coalesce since the collapse of Occupy. Until that happens, we are stuck with bureaucracy and the goons who maintain its existence. The Left must put forth a proper critique of bureaucracy and do so quickly, or else this period of “total bureaucratization” will continue unchecked.
Grafton Tanner is a writer, musician, and teacher from Georgia. His book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, was published by Zero Books in 2016. His writing has appeared in The Hong Kong Review of Books and Film Matters. He is a classically trained percussionist and teaches percussion to all ages and talents. He is working on a short story collection.