The Revolution and the Conference Room

A leading modern leftist overlooks the ways the bureaucracy of private industry might actually make the world a better place.

Occupy Wall Street
Occupy Wall Street protesters march on 47th Street in New York City on Sept. 17, 2013.

Photo by Joshua Lott/Reuters

You can read David Graeber’s new collection of essays, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, as a critique of our age of “total bureaucratization,” which he defines as a process of “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.” That’s how the book jacket suggests you read it, though it’s not, in the end, the most satisfying mode. Instead, experience the book as something like an intellectual hike led by an eccentric guide: a winding set of anecdotes, schematics, juxtapositions, and assertions, leading the reader to new and unexpected hilltop vistas, but also down into dark, dank holes that collapse in on themselves. This sort of adventurous reading is what, I think, Graber intends; he is a master of opening up thought and stimulating debate, and as such, the essays seem intended to be generative, rather than didactic and self-contained. This is ultimately what makes reading them fun, even at the times when Graeber overreaches or oversimplifies.

The Utopia of Rules is at its best when critiquing the state and police power. Read in the wake of the police abuses that have taken center stage over the past year, Graeber’s essays provide context that moves beyond a single officer or even one town’s police department. But when he starts to equate state-run bureaucracy with corporate bureaucracy, his argument begins to break down, and he misses some of the areas of hope that he might otherwise find.

That description of total bureaucratization should give you hints of Graeber’s political affiliation: He is a leading modern leftist, an anthropologist, and a self-identified anarchist. He’s written a number of books, including the very readable Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He’s been active and instrumental in the global justice movement and direct action groups, and, more recently, was part of organizing Occupy Wall Street. Graeber, in his writing and in his actions, fuses an anthropological understanding of the history of human relations with a deep opposition to present-day capitalism and a commitment to anarchism and anti-authoritarianism as serious paths for pursuing human freedom.

In practical terms, Graeber is part of a leftist project that argues that capitalism, especially since the breakdown of Bretton Woods in 1971, is neither good, nor natural, nor inevitable. It is not good in the sense that it actively harms and immiserates most of the world’s population; not natural due to the immense machinery of both real and potential violence required to maintain it; and finally, not inevitable in the sense that most humans throughout history have lived under very different social orders. Whereas past anti-capitalist movements have tried to seize control of the state, either democratically or through the use of force, in order to turn the state’s monopoly of violence against class enemies in order to build a pre-fab utopian society, Graeber (and, really, anyone with a basic understanding of history) has seen how that turned out. This has birthed a vital modern left that is allergic to power—that sees the end of authority as the first order of business, rather than something to undertake once society is “clean.”

So what does a political movement that doesn’t seek power look like? Well, to most Americans, totally unintelligible. But I think two main projects emerge: One is to expose the often unexpressed physical violence that underpins modern capitalism. The other is to organize in such a way as to create spheres of human relations that are not marked by lines of authority, and to carry out experiments in living and relating to one another that will fuel the imagination and begin to make the contours of post-capitalist life clearer. Presumably, those efforts will build and snowball, leading to widespread recognition of the current order as bad, man-made, and entirely replaceable with a society based on human freedom.

The essays themselves are far more entertaining than what I have written above. But back to “total bureaucratization”: The problem with positing that there’s a singular mode of organization common across society is that it stretches the word “bureaucracy” beyond any coherent or productive definition. In Graeber’s telling, bureaucracy is variously always undergirded by actual physical violence; concerned with the filling out of paperwork; epitomized by the postal service; epitomized by performance reviews. It’s clear that not all of these things can be true.

More concretely, in the first essay, originally published in 2012, he argues:

It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.

In the wake of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police, nominally for having at some point sold loose cigarettes, it’s clear that there’s truth here. Shortly before his death, Garner told the police, “Every time you see me, you want to mess with me. I’m tired of it. It stops today.” Graeber, paraphrasing an ex-LAPD officer, writes, “the one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is to challenge their right to … ‘define the situation.’ ” Following Graeber’s analysis, Garner’s refusal to see things through the eyes of the police—or, more accurately, his refusal to substitute their judgment for his own—issued enough of a challenge to the police that the order of things had to be preserved through violence.

This is how we go from a seemingly neutral bureaucratic rule restricting the sale of cigarettes to a man’s death on the street. The sheer volume of restrictions, from where and how to walk and stand to what can be consumed, by whom, and where, create a state where police can and do create small confrontations with ordinary citizens—especially people of color and other victims of discrimination—all day long, essentially daring them to challenge the state’s authority in ways that would occasion violence.

This first essay, “Dead Zones of the Imagination,” also includes an extremely clear and compelling account drawn from feminist theory of the interpretive labor that those who are potential victims of systemic violence go through in order to avoid being victimized by those who hold arbitrary power over them. This is terrifying and draining work for those forced to do it; in the end, it leads people to naturally identify with those who hold power over them: “What we talk about in terms of ‘belief’ are simple the psychological techniques people develop to accommodate themselves to this reality.” Most importantly, he argues that this isn’t some abstract cycle of pathological behavior on the part of the oppressor and the oppressed; instead, it’s the perpetual threat of physical violence that keeps the whole edifice intact. This portion alone is worth the price of the book. While the ideas are not new, they are expressed well, and the ways in which Graeber writes in this section about institutionalized power are moving.

David Graeber.

However, in the book’s third essay, “Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All,” Graeber contends that the public and private spheres have merged, implying that the threat of violence drives private bureaucratic relations as well. It’s hard to imagine that employee performance reviews in a mid-sized business are undergirded by the threat of physical harm. Sure, there are unequal power relations between employer and employee, and there are property rights in play that could conceivably result in physical violence if, say, an employee went Bartleby and preferred not to. But this feels remote, especially when compared to the very real threat of random challenges and physical violence documented above.

What the performance review and law against selling untaxed cigarettes have in common, Graeber says, is that they both seek to create a world in which all human behavior follows a pre-defined set of rules. And the intensification of these rules—even bureaucratic ones aimed at transparency—is a way of mediating human relationships through formal structures of authority, and limiting what can be thought and said in order to keep real human creativity at bay.

Bureaucracy organizes against creativity because bureaucracy abhors uncertainty and unmanaged change. But to Graeber, that’s precisely what’s at the heart of human creativity. Finding ways that people can play out their true, unbounded creativity is the ultimate expression of human freedom. Inside of government bureaucracy, there’s a special importance placed on following the rules, regardless of outcomes. But within private industry, bureaucracy often fulfills a different role. It seems to me that Graeber doesn’t quite understand that.

The private sector is so vast, of course, that it defies universal characterization. But Graeber argues that the private sector as a whole is timid, focused on micro-optimizations and quarterly profits at the expense of vision and true creativity. It’s true there are companies that strive for machine-like efficiency and predictability from humans, and these humans perform actions that are fundamentally robotic; this occurs in old jobs, like picking food in the fields, and new jobs, like working in Amazon’s shipping centers.

But once you get away from more mechanical operations, rules and procedures in private companies take on an entirely different purpose. Instead of being oriented around the risk of people failing to do their highly repeatable, measureable jobs, rules strive to make workers more creative and productive. The notion that bureaucracy involves rules that will be followed without exception, and that those rules stifle human creativity, is one that’s totally foreign and alien to large swaths of the economy.

Inside many private companies, transparent rules and procedures are there to establish fairness, and to encourage creativity and risk-taking, rather than restrict it. For example, inside of software development, which is the field I’m most familiar with, the past several decades of practice have focused on providing developers with an understanding of overall objectives, and then asking them to use their creativity to solve problems. A passionate, committed professional will use his or her insight to solve a problem in a way that could not be defined by a rule-maker beforehand. Here, the appropriate metaphor is language itself; we agree upon the grammar that makes speech possible, and the creativity of speech is not reducible to the grammar in which it finds expression.

Crucially, the rules of grammar themselves are fluid and contestable—as are the rules in our most innovative, energetic companies. While this isn’t true of all businesses, it is fairly commonplace for modern professionals to work in a place where not just obedience but active, enthusiastic participation is necessary for success.

The political project this suggests is to expand access to these fields. How can we do so? Well, by establishing bureaucratic rules, procedures, and processes that make them welcoming to populations that have been left out. Imagining how the insights and ethos of these kinds of organizations, if distributed more evenly around the economy, might transform our society, suggests that the bureaucrats might have more in common with the radicals then either group might think.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber. Melville House.

See all the pieces in this month’s Slate Book Review.
Sign up for the
Slate Book Review monthly newsletter.