Purging the Left at heart of bureaucracy
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy By David Graeber Melville House, 256pp, $32.99 It’s hard to imagine today, but in the 19th century the most admired and emulated entity in the world was a postal service: the German postal service. It was considered one of the wonders of the modern world, a harbinger of the efficiency and integrity of an amazing future.
It was all things to all men. Mark Twain wrote an admiring essay about it. Vladimir Lenin thought it an example of successful socialist economics. Peter Kropotkin considered the international postal system a model for anarchism because it was maintained not by force but by agreement between sovereign states.
As American anthropologist David Graeber explains in his new book, The Utopia of Rules, 19th-century postal services developed out of military courier systems, expanded first to business correspondence and eventually to every citizen’s personal letters and packages. The post eventually employed more than half the civil service of the most advanced nations.
Indeed, in the US for much of the century, the postal service was the government for most people. By 1831, its staff outnumbered the US army and were the only federal employees many rural dwellers were likely to meet. Herodotus had famously described the Persian imperial messengers, with their evenly spaced posts equipped with fresh horses, as the fastest on earth: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The quote is carved over the entrance to the central post office in New York.
The German postal service, Graeber notes, was “one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organisation to the public good”. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck also practically invented the modern welfare state and, inevitably, the layers of bureaucracy needed to administer it. He didn’t do it out of belief in Christian kindness or egalitarian values.
He did it, very calculatedly, to counter the rising threat of socialism. Trade unions, workers parties and other grassroots organisations were already inventing institutions and winning concessions from business and governments, and the thought of a socialist majority in parliament or an uprising like the 1871 Paris Commune concentrated his mind. He took a two-pronged approach: he banned the socialist party, trade unions and left-wing newspapers, and took over the institu- everything he could on a subject ... Then came the outline, colour-coded A, B, C, D, with detailed subcategories: A1 i, A1 ii, A2 iii etc (more legal pads). Then he sat for hours on end, monklike, at the dining room table assigning each line in his notes, each fact, date, point, or idea, to a tions they had been building from below — free education, clinics, libraries, pensions and other amenities of modern liberal democracies — purging them of any participatory elements. In private, he candidly called his program a bribe to buy working-class loyalty to his “conservative nationalist project”, as Graeber puts it.
By the turn of the 20th century, bureaucracy on an unprecedented scale was indispensable to modernity. By the turn of the 21st century, the US Postal Service was plagued by scandals of inefficiency, hoarding and dumping, and “going postal” became slang for going berserk out of sheer frustrated rage. What happened in between?
German sociologist Max Weber’s critical study of bureaucracy was foundational for 20th-century examination of its expansion and consolidation. He realised that once established bureaucracy was almost impossible to get rid of, and that it spread by self-multiplication, reaching tendrils into the smallest openings.
Bureaucracies from the time of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt have lasted for hun- place in the outline.’’ This meticulousness expresses itself in a tone of serene originality. Judt proves the better organised a writer’s thoughts, the more they are his own.
Judt once said, ‘‘I don’t know whether I write better English than others, but I know that I write it with genuine pleasure.’’ He did, and it shows. His prose is dapper, admirably tactile and implicitly reliable, like a pair of handmade leather boots.
Of course, a few stylistic ticks emerge across the collection. Judt is fond of rhetorical questions and the first person plural: ‘‘Why have we been in such a hurry to tear down the dykes laboriously set in place by our predecessors? Are we so sure that there are no floods to come?’’ Writers, even the best, recycle, and a handful of great ideas pop up more than once, with diminishing returns each time. But repetitions are intrinsic in essay collections.
The world is poorer without Judt. When a writer dies prematurely, as he did at 62, it is easy to mourn the books and articles that will not be written. dreds, even thousands, of years, through violent dynastic change and foreign invasion. In fact, as Weber noted, invaders needed the local knowledge of experienced administrators even more than indigenous rulers did. “Leave any significant number of functionaries alive,” Graeber notes sardonically, “and they will inevitably end up managing one’s kingdom.”
The exceptions to this rule became bywords for destructiveness: Alaric the Goth in imperial Rome and Genghis Khan in parts of the Middle East overturned seemingly impregnable political systems by murdering all their bureaucrats.
But bureaucracy’s strength isn’t only in its stickiness, Graeber points out. It also has appeal, counter-intuitive as that may sound. For example, it does away with the constant “interpretive labour”, required particularly of the less powerful, in traditional small-scale societies. Like cash transactions, that has its pros and cons: it is cold and impersonal but also predictable, reliable and (theoretically at least) egalitarian. “Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you are dressed,” Graeber writes, “you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in 18th-century British verse”.
Bureaucracy is usually conflated with the public service: not only with the machinations of the Sir Humphrey Applebys of the world but also with the hoops we all have to jump through every time we require anything from a government agency. Public servants in frontline service delivery are also jumping hoops. Take “criminal law enforcement”, which Graeber puts into inverted commas because so little of
Two pieces from When the Facts Change, “The glory of the rails” and “Bring back the rails”, make it impossible not to do so. They were treatments for a book on the history of train travel, working title Locomotion, which Judt had started researching and writing, but had had to abandon when he fell ill in 2008.
Pithy, personal, genial and high-minded, touching on architecture, cinema, and economics, they symbolise the polymathic best of Judt’s writing. Locomotion would have been an excellent book.
Yet the most affecting piece is not one of Judt’s fearsome displays of knowledge, but a brief interview with his son Daniel from June 2010. Daniel was 16 and Judt had two months to live. The piece is framed as conversation across generations about how to remedy the world’s economic and environmental problems.
‘‘If you want to change the world, you had better be willing to fight for a long time … Do you really care enough or are you just offended at disturbing pictures?” Judt challenges his son. ‘‘We have no choice but to care enough,’’ Daniel replies. The world may miss Judt, but it can never miss like a son. what police do now relates to criminal matters. Most police work consists of enforcing “endless rules and regulations about who can buy or smoke or sell or build or eat or drink what where”, as Graeber puts it. In other words, “Police are bureaucrats with weapons.” When violence does occur, say in domestic violence or drunken brawls, police are likely to get involved only if someone dies. And then they really know about paperwork.
Despite bureaucracy’s connection in our minds with the public service, private enterprise is just as admin heavy, despite business demands that government remove “red tape”. And information technology is not providing solutions. Ask any manager who once handed off correspondence and small chores to a secretary and now struggles with hundreds of personal emails daily. That’s on top of compliance with endless government and internal regulation, and the constant paring down of workforces in pursuit of profit only compounds the problem for those who are left. Worst of all, for all the griping, bureaucracy has become “naturalised”: we think it’s just the way the world works.
But it needn’t be so. Graeber has a political agenda: anarchism. Alongside his academic work he is a proactive member of the Occupy movement. This may give the heebie-jeebies to conservatives and businesspeople, but it occurred to me reading his book how close anarchism is in many respects to free-market liberalism. Both want government out of our lives as far as possible; both want social and commercial intercourse to develop by negotiation and agreement between participants, not by government fiat. Consider how radical Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was in its day.
Utopia of Rules isn’t quite as brilliant as Graeber’s previous book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, which is available, appropriately for an anarchist author, free online. Nor is it as titillating as his widely read 2013 essay, On Bullshit Jobs. It is, nonetheless, a fascinating and thought-provoking read, conversational in style and bursting with clever leaps from classical to pop culture, from Malagasy ethnography to the machinations of the International Monetary Fund, all made substantial by thorough grounding in the philosophical literature. His analysis may sometimes seem far-fetched, but it is wonderful to have the world tip-tilted so it can be examined from unusual angles. Even free-market enthusiasts the Financial Times and The Economist have enjoyed the view.
Differing views on bureaucracy: Genghis Khan, left, and Otto von Bismarck