The utopia of rules : on technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy

by David Graeber

Paper Book, 2016


"Where does the desire for endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy come from? 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, anthropologist David Graeber ... 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"--Jacket.



Call number



New York : Melville House, 2016.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
This is actually a collection of three essays and a film review. The critique of the quasi-Fascist 2012 Batman film "The Dark Knight rises" is the best part as he shows the strange attraction of the audience for the all powerful superheroes and their opponents who use their powers to fight one
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another instead of engaging in productive activities. Bane's plan for Gotham City was especially hare-brained, even by the low standards of superhero film franchises.

The other three essays work as short pieces but are not profound enough to stand on their own as a book. Graeber's reaction to bureaucracy and its inherent preservation of structural violence ("Herrschaft") is mostly emotional. His bad experience, even, is not the result of actual bureaucracy but is due to his own incompetence as well as the people he selects to do the job. To get legal custody for his ill mother's bank account, Graeber needs a notarized power of attorney. Unfortunately, neither the notary nor Graeber make sure that all the necessary signatures are on the document so that the process has to be repeated three times. The amount of signatures necessary is the absolute minimum for the transaction, so the fault lies with Graeber and the incompetent notary - caused by the reverse Peter principle common in the USA: A job is reorganized until it is executed by the lowest paid person who can barely complete routine transactions.

As far as a real bureaucracy is concerned, Graeber's essays suffer from incomplete research. He does not take into account what has been written about the topic in law and economics (what is known in German as Legalitätsprinzip and Ermessensspielraum). Bureaucracy means programming outcomes according to a fixed process which somewhat guarantees a similar treatment for everybody but can be onerous if the conditions required do not match the case. Bureaucracy is not flexible and efforts to change bureaucracy leads to even more layers of bureaucracy.

Graeber justly notes that bureaucracy is a form of forcing others into compliance. In contrast to direct force, the veiled fist of bureaucracy hides the real power structures. Graeber, however, fails to see the positive side of bureaucracy in limiting civil servants in their discretion ("Ermessensspielraum"). A core rule of bureaucracy is to treat equal cases equally, so that some can not be more equal. In practice, this is often violated and despite bureaucratic procedures, a bribe can speed of processes or allow different outcomes for those that more equal. This is not a failure of bureaucracy itself but a failure of accountability in the organization and its socio-political environment. Graeber, in my view, cheaply chastises the wrong object. There are unfortunately too few defenders of efficient bureaucracy left. Markets are often ill-equipped to handle the complexities bureaucracies can deal with in their internal contracts.
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LibraryThing member willszal
As usual, Graeber's viewpoints and rhetoric are fascinating. This is a book about the Age of Bureaucracy. Unlike many of Graeber's other books, this one is just thrown together: an introduction, plus a series of four essays, already published in other places [albeit found here in long form].

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themes of the book include:
*The tension between imagination and structure, and where violence comes into each
*The myth of progress, and why it has stalled out

When reading the book, you can't help but notice that we're completely surrounded by bureaucracy. Changing plane flights. Going through customs. Changing your cell-phone plan. Filing taxes. It's like anything we do requires paperwork.

And he's also right about paperwork becoming the single most meaningful symbol in our lives. I declined a college degree, precisely because of the value [and privilege] that comes with it. This hasn't been of disadvantage to me, because I'm in the alternative professional world, but I sometimes have discussion with people on the subject.

If I had a critique, it would be that I wish Graeber was more accepting of spirituality and the natural world. For him, society or humanity seem to be everything, and this leaves some of his conclusions rather limited and incomplete.
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LibraryThing member malexmave
Phew. Another book that is hard to rate. I came in expecting a history of Bureaucracy, maybe coupled with a sort of instruction manual for how to navigate it. What I got was a series of essays by a left-wing anarchist sociology professor. Which is awesome, for me at least, but probably not what
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other people may be looking for.

If you are looking for a history and instruction manual, look elsewhere. If you are looking for a sociological analysis of bureaucracy, politics and Batman (yes, Batman), then this may be for you. Just be prepared for excursions into communist and anarchist thinking.
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LibraryThing member johnverdon
Another fine book by Graeber - this one is an even handed exploration of the power of organizations to enact collective efficiencies and simultaneously reduce people to stupidity of enacting mindlessly the rules of order. Well worth the read from the anthropologist who coined the term 'We are the
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LibraryThing member dmturner
Well written, logical, persuasive, and interesting set of three (and 1/3) essays, purportedly about bureaucracy, its appeal, its powers, its flaws, and its dangers, but mostly about why you can't fight the system within the system. An anthropologist and a participant in Occupy Wall Street, Graeber
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combines the rigor of the trained academic writer with a knack for a pungent and articulate put-down: "Bureaucracies public and private appear . . . to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as affected," for instance. (48) He references Marx and Weber, of course, but also Descartes and LeGuin, and he talks about the "grand cosmic hirarchies of late Antiquity, with their archons, planets, and gods" as well as about what made the movie The Dark Knight Rises so bad.

I don't buy his argument that high fantasy is a mechanism for reinforcing bureaucracy, but his notion is interesting that games are a "utopia of rules," and therefore bureaucratic in nature, while play is opposed to bureaucracy. He does a lovely job of pointing out that the Star Trek universe is "an Americanized vision of a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, and above all, one that actually 'worked.'" But it is his comparison of the post office (once such a successful model that "postalization" was an ideal and the Soviets modeled their organization on the German postal system) to the Internet that is the most persuasive.

It's a lovely rant, a little too self-enclosed in its rationality (great discussion of the nature of rationality in the book, by the way) to be entirely true, but I gained a huge number of insights into a thread of American thought that led to the World Trade Organization demonstrations, Occupy Wall Street, and the phenomenon of non-Democrats rallying behind Bernie Sanders.
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LibraryThing member Paul_S
At one point the author writes "it should now be obvious where this is going" but even after finishing the book I'm not quite sure what his point was. On a positive note this is the first time I really understood the argument against grammar books.
LibraryThing member libraryhead
So much to think about. Will need to re-read so I can really parse it all.
LibraryThing member Andjhostet
Not as boring as it sounds? Still kind of boring though.

Basically it is a glimpse into bureaucracy and it's role in society. Some of the points it made, were really interesting. The relationship with capitalism, exploitation, and how bureaucracy enables it was interesting. His points about
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bureaucracy always having a structure of violence to support it really made me look at it differently.

All that being said, there were many tangents that didn't feel relevant at all, and it really felt like padding. I think Graeber is an interesting writing and he brings up a lot of questions that are very insightful. I'll probably check out more of his work. His book on Debt sounds a lot better, honestly.
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LibraryThing member RickGeissal
Interesting perspective on bureaucracies being, rather than a hindrance or frustrating side effect of organization, are essential to the functioning of organizations.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
As always, Graeber manages to observe the world we live in and describe how it is utterly bizarre. Whether or not you agree with Graeber's analysis, he will make you think differently about our society.

This book has four essays focusing on various aspects of bureaucracy and how we hate it but how
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afraid we are of a world without it.
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Original publication date



1612195180 / 9781612195186
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