The Utopia of Rules – David Graeber (2015)

The premise of this book is that we live a deeply bureaucratic society – if we do not notice it, it is largely because bureaucratic practices and requirements have become so all-pervasive that we can barely see them, or worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way. Although this might seem a little exaggerated, I share his critique of our seemingly ever-growing propensity to tackle our problems with rules and regulations.

So, it was with great expectations that I picked up this book, only to be disappointed by its content. David Graeber is an old-fashioned anarchist, and on top of that he is angry. He says he aims to give some possible directions of left-wing critique of bureaucracy. Instead he excels in conspiracy thinking and angry exaggerations, like the one where he states that ‘bureaucrats are in their job because they’re someone’s cousin’. He goes on saying that ‘there are no free media in the US’, that ‘the free market always comes with a gun’ and that ‘all rich rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves’. Of course, this is all ‘to make sure that the inter-tangled world of big corporates and bureaucracy makes more profit’. To prove all this he quotes Marx and Engels and he draws ‘evidence’ upon fantasy and sci-fi literature. I do believe he’s right that we have bureaucratized way beyond the point of a healthy equilibrium, but in my view this has more to do with us not being willing to accept risks anymore, than with the sheer evilness of bureaucrats. Rules and the with-coming bureaucracy can, in healthy doses, be a positive, organizing force in society. Graeber clearly sees bureaucracy as a pejorative element in society, that we should fight with everything we have. To have me join this fight, Graeber’s own analysis will need to be a lot less utopistic.

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