Purg­ing the Left at heart of bu­reau­cracy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Miriam Cosic

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

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