The Utopia of Rules Review

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Street art near Skylight. I’m not much of a Bukowski fan, but I enjoyed this.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber (2015)
Melville House
4.5/5

“There are dead zones that riddle our lives, areas so devoid of any possibility of interpretive depth that they repel every attempt to give them value or meaning. These are spaces, as I discovered, where interpretive labor no longer works It’s hardly surprising that we don’t like to talk about them. They repel the imagination. But I also believe we have a responsibility to confront them, because if we don’t, we risk becoming complicit in the very violence that creates them” (102).

I picked this book up, on a bit of a whim, at Skylight while visiting LA last month. I’d noticed it as part of a display of newish, recommended reading, flipped through it, thought it sounded interesting, and snapped a picture of the cover to remind me to think about reading it later. Then I found more copies in the anarchist literature section of the store. They were snuggled between copies of Steal this Book and Situationist manifestos, and this marketing, ironically enough, was what prompted me to buy it then and there despite the limited space in my carry-on. I was the sort of teenager who decorates her room in hand-illustrated Guy Debord quotes, but anarchist theory has been missing from my reading repertoire since I assumed a mildly more conservative bent in college (feel free to laugh at me for this, all of it). I felt a burst of nostalgia and bought the book, and I’m so glad that I did. In addition to being a novel take on notions of the role of bureaucracy in our lives, it was a welcome reminder of the early roots of my thinking about how to live the best life possible as both a private and a public person.

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The Utopia of Rules is a collection of three interconnected essays bookended by an introduction and a wonderful epilogue in which Graeber applies some of his theorizing to the Christopher Nolan Batman series. Due to this organizational scheme, there is a bit of repetition throughout the book, but given the density of the subject matter, I found this repetitive aspect more helpful than irritating. Graeber begins by laying out his thesis, which he revisits and revamps throughout the book as necessary, but which can be summarized briefly with the deceptively obvious statement: Bureaucracy is everywhere. This is deceptively simple because Graeber isn’t just after the usual subjects (governmental institutions); private enterprises is what he seems most concerned with, and this is because the bureaucracy of private enterprise is often to subtle, so stealthy, so ubiquitous, that most of us don’t even realize it’s there, corralling us and influencing us in a myriad of ways we usually don’t even think to track. As he puts it, “they become so omnipresent that we no longer realize we’re being threatened, since we cannot imagine what it would be like not to be” (42). To borrow and tweak one of Graeber’s examples, whether one has the clearance to access something (research records, say, or medical power of attorney) is a function of bureaucracy: it’s a matter of having the right paper trail attached to you, of having jumped through the correct hoops, of having the time and the skills and the patience to have followed all of the rules.

The result of all of this is the emergence everywhere of what Graeber calls “dead zones of the imagination,” aspects of our lives—often some of the most important ones, I would say—that cannot be navigated on the vitality of our creative or innovative skills alone, or even on the strength of a set of basic, mastered skills. Rather, as the second essay in The Utopia of Rules argues, one’s ability to navigate these spaces becomes a function of one’s ability to buy the time to figure out the rules or, more likely, to buy the labor of someone whose sole function in the labor market is, often as not, to navigate the rules that others cannot. We’re used to hearing the Donald Trumps and Ted Cruzes of the world rail against the (usually only vaguely described) exploitations inherent in our tax codes, but Graeber extends these sorts of criticisms to the free market systems that allow for the plethora of jobs which exist only to enlarge and then parse the very arcane, labyrinthine bureaucracies that they have themselves created through their very existence.

The last full essay in this book examines possible reasons why this whole bureaucratic miasma has been able to exist, unquestioned, for so long. Succinctly, we enjoy rules. We enjoy sports, board games, and the pleasure of having successfully navigated government and market-based systems to achieve the effect we were after because human beings like rules and we like the structure they impose even when they make things difficult at times. We enjoy the challenge as well as the challenges we believe are staved off by the rules (playing chess, we may be frustrated periodically that our bishop can only move diagonally, but we’re all the while glad that our opponent’s bishop is similarly limited). This is fine and natural in many areas of life, Graeber argues, but bureaucracy takes this fetishization of rules to levels that are, at best, not helpful to fair play, and, at worst, violent against one or more players. The reasons for this, as he lays out in great detail in this third essay of the book, are multiple and can be traced back to our collective confusion about what is rationale or reasonable and our (sometimes willful) inability to examine the tensions inherent in the relationships between unstructured freedom, constructive regulations, and organized progress.

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Now all of what I’ve just said is a vastly oversimplified account of Graeber’s argument, and I’ve left out the best bits about his proffered visions of better ways of doing things, ways that don’t reduce us to spending increasingly larger chunks of our time becoming bureaucracy-mastering automatons. One of his visions has the added benefit of a real-life example of the theory becoming practice: Graeber was a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a famously nonhierarchical, non-bureaucratic phenomenon. I’ve also left out parts of his argument that were, to me, most compelling, namely, the role played by the notion of interpretive labor (the labor one performs when one is trying to parse out the intentions, needs, desires, etc. of another person or institution) and the unequal distribution of expectations as to who is assumed responsible for the performing of this labor (generally, women, people of color, the poor). I left these fascinating aspects of his argument out of my summary because they’re largely borrowed (as he notes) from feminist theorists whose work I’ve since sought out for myself to read in their original iterations, so hopefully I’ll get to that soon and write it up here.

So often, political theory is a slog, but Graeber’s voice is fresh and clear. His arguments are amply supported with inventive and illuminating examples, and while he does indulge in the occasional digressive tangent, the quality even of these sections makes the tendency an easy one to forgive. I wish I’d read this one more slowly (and I can definitely see myself giving it a reread in the future), because there’s a lot to digest, and for the same reason I wish I’d had some sort of reading group to sit down with regularly for the purposes of hashing out all of the component parts to Graeber’s arguments. I just bought the book that put Graeber on the map, so to speak, which is Debt: The First 5,000 Years; it looks like a sociological history of debt. Maybe when I get around to it, I’ll try to seek out another reader or two to tackle it with.

(As a side note, I’m wondering if a somewhat regular (weekly-ish) effort to post on a shorter work of theory or criticism would be beneficial for me. I’ve been trying to read more of it, and I’m thinking some sort of loosely regimented schedule might be helpful (there’s that human love of rules again!). I’ll give it some thought.)

Anyway. The Utopia of Rules is, by turns, fascinating, troubling, inspiring, enraging, and illuminating. I’ll be thinking over this little book for a long time, I think, and I highly encourage others to look into it. The essays, like I said, are interconnected, but I think one could dip in and out as one wished and not miss too too much of the depth of the individual essays. And this book has the additional perk of being such an original departure from party lines, for any of you who are interested in political theory but frustrated by efforts to find contemporary material that isn’t toeing some sort of line. Graeber’s an anarchist! There’s something to love, or hate with relish and a sense of still broadening horizons, for everyone. Enjoy.

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