February 23, 2016

On sale today: Utopia of Rules by David Graeber


The Utopia of Rules 154x200

Where does the desire for endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy come from? How did we come to spend so much of our time filling out forms? And is it really a cipher for state violence?

To answer these questions, anthropologist David Graeber—one of our most important and provocative thinkers—traces the peculiar and unexpected ways we relate to bureaucracy in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy—available in paperback today!

The following is excerpted from book’s introduction, aptly titled: The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization. 

The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen at the time as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private sector—and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated a world of small family firms. The pioneers of these new, private bureaucracies were the United States and Germany, and Max Weber, the German sociologist, observed that Americans in his day were particularly inclined to see public and private bureaucracies as essentially the same animal: The body of officials actively engaged in a “public” office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a “bureau.” In private enterprise, “the bureau” is often called “the office” . . . It is the peculiarity of the modern entrepreneur that he conducts himself as the “first official” of his corporation, in the very same way in which the ruler of a specifically modern bureaucratic state spoke of himself as “the first servant” of the state. The idea that the bureau activities of the state are intrinsically different in character from the management of private economic offices is a continental European notion and, by way of contrast, is totally foreign to the American way.

In other words, around the turn of the century, rather than anyone complaining that government should be run more like a business, Americans simply assumed that governments and business—or big business, at any rate—were run the same way. True, for much of the nineteenth century, the United States was largely an economy of small family firms and high finance— much like Britain’s at the time. But America’s advent as a power on the world stage at the end of the century corresponded to the rise of a distinctly American form: corporate—bureaucratic— capitalism. As Giovanni Arrighi pointed out, an analogous corporate model was emerging at the same time in Germany, and the two countries—the United States and Germany—ended up spending most of the first half of the next century battling over which would take over from the declining British empire and establish its own vision for a global economic and political order. We all know who won. Arrighi makes another interesting point here. Unlike the British Empire, which had taken its free market rhetoric seriously, eliminating its own protective tariffs with the famous Anti–Corn Law Bill of 1846, neither the German or American regimes had ever been especially interested in free trade. The Americans in particular were much more concerned with creating structures of international administration.

The very first thing the United States did, on officially taking over the reins from Great Britain after World War II, was to set up the world’s first genuinely planetary bureaucratic institutions in the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and GATT, later to become the WTO. The British Empire had never attempted anything like this. They either conquered other nations, or traded with them. The Americans attempted to administer everything and everyone. British people, I’ve observed, are quite proud that they are not especially skilled at bureaucracy; Americans, in contrast, seem embarrassed by the fact that on the whole, they’re really quite good at it.14 It doesn’t fit the American self-image. We’re supposed to be self-reliant individualists. (This is precisely why the right-wing populist demonization of bureaucrats is so effective.) Yet the fact remains the United States is—and for a well over a century has been—a profoundly bureaucratic society. The reason it is so easy to overlook is because most American bureaucratic habits and sensibilities—from the clothing to the language to the design of forms and offices—emerged from the private sector. When novelists and sociologists described the “Organization Man,” or “the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” the soullessly conformist U.S. equivalent to the Soviet apparatchik, they were not talking about functionaries in the Department of Landmarks and Preservation or the Social Security Administration—they were describing corporate middle management. True, by that time, corporate bureaucrats were not actually being called bureaucrats.

But they were still setting the standard for what administrative functionaries were supposed to be like. The impression that the word “bureaucrat” should be treated as a synonym for “civil servant” can be traced back to the New Deal in the thirties, which was also the moment when bureaucratic structures and techniques first became dramatically visible in many ordinary people’s lives. But in fact, from the very beginning, Roosevelt’s New Dealers worked in close coordination with the battalions of lawyers, engineers, and corporate bureaucrats employed by firms like Ford, Coca Cola, or Proctor & Gamble, absorbing much of their style and sensibilities, and—as the United States shifted to war footing in the forties—so did the gargantuan bureaucracy of the U.S. military. And, of course, the United States has never really gone off war footing ever since. Still, through these means, the word “bureaucrat” came to attach itself almost exclusively to civil servants: even if what they do all day is sit at desks, fill out forms, and file reports, neither middle managers nor military officers are ever quite considered bureaucrats. (Neither for that matter are police, or employees of the NSA.)


THE UTOPIA OF RULES, by David Graeber 
PAGES: 272
Available in paperback today!