Monday, 22 June 2015

"The Utopia of Rules" by David Graeber: First Thoughts on Reading

David Graeber has two distinct strengths: an ability to overturn common intuitions about everyday institutions and an extraordinarily affable rhetorical style. This book trades out on the latter in order to produce something a little more conceptually in depth. Accordingly, the book's primary thrusts are explicitly anarchist, heavy in theory and come with a social theory orientation that may make the books content too niche for Graeber's usual audience. Yet despite the denser prose The Utopia of Rules is a success that displays trenchant thoughtfulness on the topic of bureaucracy; to be clear, I'm not certain whether he's correct all of the time but he certainly is interesting.

Graeber's reason for writing a book on such a dull subject is given by the way of a hypothesises for why right wing movements often sequester the anti-establishment ticket in the face of left wing opposition. Graeber's contention is that left wing movements rarely produce a critique of bureaucracy, despite leftism being, according to Graeber, an anti-bureaucratic project. Such a reading of modern politics stands in stark contrast to more orthodox understandings of the topic. Since the soviet era onwards, political economy has often been thought of in terms of competing left wing desires for social justice and right wing desires for freedom. The respective drawbacks being either the brutality of right wing policy or the stifling bureaucracy of left wing institutions.

Advancing Graeber's account of leftism while overturning the above dichotomy he notes that bureaucracy has infested almost all organisations (not just the governmental) and that the roots and realities of bureaucracy run contrary to leftist ideals (humanism, pacifism, equality etc). Further development of this account sees Graeber make use of feminist theory. The feminist reading being that the function of bureaucracy is to provide tools for the powerful to monitor and control their subjects and that those in power generally do not need to understand their subordinates as said subordinates are often at the mercy of those in power. Ergo, the reason so much of our paperwork and protocol bears no resemblance to reality is that it is often in service to a power pre-occupied with controlling rather than assisting or understanding.

Graeber argues that alongside an avalanche of pointless paperwork, bureaucracy presents other more pernicious problems for the human race. In particular, it denies humans the possibility of organic social progress thereby crushing our libratory potential. It is when the lawyers turn up that a social movements death knell is properly wrung. In short, integrating social movements into a bureaucracy provides the people in charge with the ability to subsume anti-authoritarian movements; this little trick cajoles the group into conforming to the legal constraints of the very system that they intend to fight. For instance, a group of politically motivated squatters may successfully defend themselves from eviction and get the local council to grant them legal protection. But this legal protection requires the squatters to be integrated into a number of bureaucratic systems (such as regulatory housing bodies, land registries) which quickly force a hierarchy of signatories onto the squatters - both negating their anti-hierarchical modus operandi and leaving them at the behest of local governments and banks.

These restrictive outcomes of expanding bureaucracy are sometimes intended. Graeber makes note of figures such as George Gilder and Newt Gingrich: people who bureaucratised research projects with the aim of restricting the radical potential latent in the emergent technologies of yore. It is sections like these that leave me desiring  a more forward and visible referencing style. I'm sure there is plenty of truth to what Graeber says but these more conspiratorial sections would benefit from references being cited and discussed in the body of the text rather than just tacked on as annotations. 

It is not all doom and gloom however, Graeber, as promised in the book's blurb, offers up an explanation for why we secretly love bureaucracy. Articulating the idea that within bureaucracy is the romantic promise of a world operating by principles of impartiality and reason he concedes that there is something worth salvaging here. Graeber further emphasises that this utopian vision can be pursued without abandoning anarchist living arrangements. The often cited, and just as frequently misunderstood,  essay "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" is raised in aid of such a discussion.

It's hard for me to dislike almost anything that Graeber does. The neutral tone that he presents his arguments in and its infusion with his general warmth and good humour makes him a fantastic champion for anarchism: a movement often associated with dour nihilism. Finding myself soothed by the quality of his presentation I now question whether I can honestly critique him. To my star struck eyes this book is intelligent, comprehensive and novel: easily worth the money spent and time passed book in hand. My only real criticism is that in the aforementioned sections where "who did what" takes precedence over abstract social theory he risks sounding off like Noam Chomsky- allow me to elaborate. Chomsky, as a political writer, provides his audience with a horrifying vision of contemporary politics. His downfall is making of bold claims about U.S. foreign policy while supporting them with references that are rarely explicitly discussed in the text. Graeber teeters close to falling into the same trap of having his work appear a mite less credible than it would have been if he had discussed his sources more openly.

In fairness this book hasn't really garnered the hype that it deserves. The blurb of the book is dotted with quotes in praise of Graeber's earlier work Debt and this is generally not a good sign. I often hesitate to purchase books marketed in this way, taking it as an indication that this is the authors "problem child". Perhaps this is what has put others off the book but then again the subject matter is ostensibly boring which would make for a more likely explanation. Regardless an interesting, if niche, read. 

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