Look Inside. 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, the anthropologist David Graeber—one of our most important and provocative thinkers—traces the peculiar and unexpected ways we relate to bureaucracy today, and reveals how it shapes our lives in ways we may not even notice…though he also suggests that there may be something perversely appealing—even romantic—about bureaucracy. Leaping from the ascendance of right-wing economics to the hidden meanings behind Sherlock Holmes and Batman, The Utopia of Rules is at once a powerful work of social theory in the tradition of Foucault and Marx, and an entertaining reckoning with popular culture that calls to mind Slavoj Zizek at his most accessible. Should we just accept this bureaucracy as inevitable?

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We'd like to understand how you use our websites in order to improve them. Register your interest. Everybody hates bureaucracy—even bureaucrats hate bureaucracy who likes stamping forms all day long? The Utopia of Rules is a clever, freewheeling, readable, and frequently entertaining collection of essays some previously published and some new about bureaucracy as a violent force.

Bureaucracy, Graeber tells us, has swallowed the modern world whole. How did this happen? In the late nineteenth century, private businesses started to adopt bureaucratic techniques, with the result that governments and businesses, especially in Germany and the United States, became increasingly difficult to distinguish in their modus operandi and culture.

This is how corporations were born. For ordinary people around the globe, bureaucracy is not just a source of infinite tedium, it is also the cause of existential violence.

It violates our capacity to imagine, create, play, or even think clearly; and in so doing it infringes upon the very essence of what it means to be human, for imagination is what raises us above other mammals, writes Graeber, citing Edmund Leach. We all know the experience of ticking boxes, which depletes the will of even the most imaginative and playful. Even more treacherously, the bureaucratic process deludes us into believing that its spurious rationality and impersonal quantitative techniques are sources—indeed the only viable sources—of equality, justice, and fairness in the world.

This could not, however, be further from the truth. Bureaucracies are made of hierarchy and alienation, and they serve the private interests of political and economic elites. Graeber is not simply whinging. His book is a manifesto with a clear political aim. What unsettles him at least as much as the iron clutch of bureaucracy is the fact that the political Left had lost its grip.

As the rebellious s receded into a quaint memory,. What they may find less convincing is the therapy he prescribes. To anyone who grew up in the Soviet Union as I did , this will sound like an implausible claim.

You do not need to look to the Soviet Union to see this point. John Maynard Keynes was at one time in his life a top bureaucrat, and dirigisme is a decidedly Leftist system. In fact, most Left-leaning governmental practice has historically lain somewhere between Swedish welfarism and the Khmer Rouge. We must make our freedom by cutting holes in the fabric of this reality, by forging new realities which will, in turn, fashion us.

Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the inertia of habit, custom, law, or prejudice — and it is up to you to create these situations. Freedom only exists in the moment of revolution. And those moments are not as rare as you think. Change, revolutionary change, is going on constantly and everywhere — and everyone plays a part in it, consciously or not pp.

During the first two chapters the reader will find herself wavering between feeling that scales have been removed from her eyes and that conspiratorial wool has been pulled over them. But by the time we are asked to cut holes in the fabric of reality, the book begins to read like a millenarian screed. What he seeks liberation from is quite clear—anything that may stifle human playfulness, imagination, and will.

Less apparent is what it is for. What kind of a world lies beyond the threadbare veil of false reality spun for us by American bureaucrats? And how do we get to the other side? This sounds rather enticing.

One would never have to fill out another form, never again stand in a queue for a visa. But how do we get there? Meanwhile, most of us need to eat, dress, live somewhere and, therefore, work.

Some of us may need to take trains to work. Now, if you needed to take a train, would you or would you not prefer it to run on time?

It may well be that Graeber does not like or need to take trains. Since he tells us that he does not drive a car, it may be that he is waiting for flying cars to come onto the market. In chapter 2, he is genuinely aggrieved that, despite what he was told in the s, there are still none around. But it is difficult to imagine how a set of generalized services that require coordination—a railway system, a postal service, a network of hospitals—can work without abstracted procedures and rules.

DAN did not have much of a budget, but one day, someone gave them a car, an event that precipitated a serious crisis of coordination and responsibility.

In the US cars can be legally owned only by individuals or corporations, who are responsible for insuring, registering them, and paying fines. Very soon, this brave soul became responsible for insurance fees, multiple fines and for retrieving the car when somebody else in the group had it impounded, and life became rather a nightmare. Failing to agree on how to deal with these problems, DAN decided to throw a party at which guests could smash the car with a sledgehammer, for a fee.

Graeber writes that American law, with its narrow definition of ownership and ascription of responsibility, was at fault. Car smashing is a fine anarchist spectacle. Cathartic though this may be, it leaves behind only pieces that someone else needs to clean up. Psychology has much to answer for here. Again and again, Graeber hangs his polemic on supposedly universal psychological states, like boredom or anxiety, which all humans supposedly abhor.

Why is bureaucracy bad for us? It is because it makes us bored. What good would removing bureaucracy do? It would liberate our minds for the fun and the play that we yearn for. For a serious social anthropologist like Graeber, this is an odd approach to adopt. Yet no one—neither the anthropologists nor their informants—gets bored. Rituals are worth the wait because they do important work in society. They turn children into adults, and corpses into ancestors; they forge and sever relations, create and dissolve communities, affirm and shift loyalties, and they may even spark revolts.

Bureaucratic processes do the same kind of work. Who we are alive, married, doctors, or students and what we have cars, children depends on these facts being bureaucratically inscribed. The Indian Association of the Dead, whose 20, undead citizens have been falsely registered as deceased, fight to be recognized as living.

Meanwhile, a dead candidate, whose death was not registered, recently won an election. Insofar as bureaucratic procedures perform transformative work through formalized and abstracted gestures and rules, it makes good sense for anthropologists to think of them as socially constitutive rituals.

One may well feel vacuous or abysmal in the face of an interminable visa application or an Ethics Approval Form. If it was good enough for Gogol and Kafka, surely it is good enough for us.

If, as Graeber no doubt rightly suggests, in the experience of many ordinary people, bureaucracy is a game—with rules and regulations, prizes, disqualifications, and arbiters—there is a world of difference between bureaucratic rules and how people play by them. It may be that the American clerks Graeber dealt with saw fastidious adherence to rules as their chief virtue, but much bureaucratic practice in the world is much more creative: self-aware, tactical, and even strategic.

Few bureaucrats I have known in my life on four continents including Europe and North America think of themselves primarily as mere custodians of correct procedure. I once tried to extend my research visa in a remote area of India. The clerk in the local visa office was visibly displeased: he was large, it was August, and the Desert Cooler was not coping well.

He told me that I could secure my extension only in Delhi, not here. His no really meant no. Did the rulebook really require me to travel to Delhi or was he just making that up? Was this bureaucratic harassment because it was hot, because his boss was out today, or because he was fed up with helping rich, hapless white people? I have charmed my way through many bureaucratic scenarios, and all it usually took was the knowledge of local language and a couple of jokes, never a bribe.

Only rarely were my encounters with Indian bureaucrats impersonal. More often, they were filled with sympathies, purposes, and interests. Their work is full of political, economic, and even moral imagination, and it pursues purposes that are anything but abstract. For them and their petitioners, it is a complicated, and often highly personal, game that relies on a calculus of written rules, but cannot be reduced to it.

Graeber can hope to wish bureaucracy away, but by swapping regulation for autonomy, free choice, and the primacy of individual judgment, he risks collusion with libertarians and the Right. Correspondence to Anastasia Piliavsky. Reprints and Permissions. Piliavsky, A. The wrong kind of freedom? Int J Polit Cult Soc 30, — Download citation.

Published : 12 January Issue Date : March Search SpringerLink Search. Download PDF. You can also search for this author in PubMed Google Scholar. About this article. Cite this article Piliavsky, A.


The Utopia of Rules

We'd like to understand how you use our websites in order to improve them. Register your interest. Everybody hates bureaucracy—even bureaucrats hate bureaucracy who likes stamping forms all day long? The Utopia of Rules is a clever, freewheeling, readable, and frequently entertaining collection of essays some previously published and some new about bureaucracy as a violent force.


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