Review: The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber

 

Reviewed: The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (2015) Brooklyn and London: Melville House.

Reading a book about bureaucracy may not sound like an exciting way to spend a weekend off with my family. And yet, having just started David Graeber’s latestA Utopia of Ruleswhen I wasn’t making tea for my elderly grandmother, I curled up in a comfy chair with this little pink book, mocked up to look like one of the forms it excoriates, and excited by each new page. Although many of the ideas Graeber presents here aren’t new, the clarity and force with which they are drawn together and set out is a rare pleasurea contrast with turgid official paperwork that was almost certainly intentional.

Graebera social anthropologist, anarchist, and prominent leftist thinker, based at the London School of Economics (LSE)develops his argument, in part, by thinking ethnographically with his own personal experiences of officialdom, beginning with a heartbreaking account of his own struggle to deal with his elderly mother’s Medicaid application. In response to this, he introduces the book as a series of short essays on different facets of what he calls “total bureaucratisation”defined as “the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Bureaucracy is not a simple matter of red tape created by the state tying up private enterprise, as right-wing pundits would have us believe: Graeber points out that bureaucratic forms have become intrinsic to both private and public spheres.

While the Left has been largely unable to produce a critique of bureaucracy, the Right has such a critiquebut efforts to “roll back” the state by the Right have had the opposite effect, producing even more paperwork than ever. This leads Graeber to propose what he calls “the Iron Law of Liberalism”, which states that “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”

In stressing the coeval nature of the free market and an expansive state, Graeber directs his analysis away from shallow criticism of big government, towards the common institutional basis of all inequality, found at the heart of neoliberal governance. Given the extent to which the general public in the English-speaking world continue to view the expansive state and the “free” market as antithetical to one another and synonymous with the Left and the Right of politics respectively, this is an important point to make.

With the foundations laid, Graeber’s lucid prose carries the reader briskly through a sequence of stand-alone essays, each of which engages with a particular aspect of total bureaucratisation today. Each of these, Graeber claims, will need to be addressed by any critique of bureaucracy the Left might develop. Dead Zones of the Imagination utilises feminist theory of imaginative labour to develop the argument that bureaucracyin addition to being stupidexists to create stupidity. Its impersonal procedures, backed up by threat of violence, ensure that those in positions of authorityespecially the policeare able to avoid doing the imaginative labour of empathising with others, while forcing those others to engage in imaginative labour towards the authorities, simply in order to avoid physical harm. Police insist upon being able to “define the situation”those who contest this, rather than violent criminals, are the ones who are routinely meet with physical violence. This serves to emphasise a very basic point: don’t underestimate the importance of physical violence, even if it takes place behind a veil of paper.

In Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit, Graeber turns his attention to the trajectory of technological development in the modern world. Why is it, he asks, that in the 1950s we were able to explore space, and expected to be surrounded by robotic servants and flying cars by now, but that this awesome potential has not been realised? The answer, he suggests, is that rather than cause social change by itself, the direction of technological innovation is directed by financial interestsso that instead of pursuing automation and space travel that could disrupt existing economic relations on Earth, major funders have prioritised less disruptive research lines, such as information technology. The greatest achievement of the late 20th centurythe Internetis revealed as decidedly chimeric; both a tool for enhanced communication, but also a means of surveillance and manipulation on an industrial scale. The promise of technology has been broken in favour of labour discipline and social control; R&D budgets have been slashed in favour of boosting executive pay and shareholder dividends. Instead of being allowed to pursue their research interests, academics are increasingly forced to spend more and more of their time doing paperwork. Rather than a driver of social change, technology is itself subject to the demands of capital.

The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All concludes the triptych, by exploring the ways in which bureaucracy can, in fact, be deeply enchantingwhen it works wellproviding human beings with a sense of predictability and certainty that can be deeply seductive. While the second essay uses science fiction to reflect upon the curious falling short of innovation, this essay turns to magic and fantasy fiction in an attempt to understand how the appeal of bureaucratic rationality is generated. Graeber argues that the elaborate angelic hierarchies and formulaic modes of ritual address, developed in the Rennaissance but that now enliven Western Ceremonial Magic, actually reflect a political imaginarya vision of the chaotic, violent world of the Middle ages reordered according to a spiritualised version of the old, lost, Roman bureaucracy. Nowadays, however, this vision is invertedfantasy fiction today constructs a pseudo-Medieval world, where bureaucracy is almost entirely absent, where creativity is directly channelled into reality via magic, and where leadership is acquired on the basis of personal virtue and conquest, rather than through impersonal qualification or graduate recruitment. However, while giving us an opportunity to vicariously enjoy a world without bureaucracy, medievalist fantasies – with their perennial sense of threat and danger – nonetheless reinforce our sense that it’s probably preferable to live with the devil we know. Just as the gruesome spectacle of Gladitorial combat both beguiled and repulsed the populace of Rome from the idea of democracy, the blood-soaked cities of Westeros instill in us a fear of a world without bureaucratic order.

Perhaps the most fascinating contestation made by Graeberalbeit, only in passingis that bureaucratic rationality rests upon a resolutely spiritual set of commitments. The idea that numbers and their rational appraisal can help one to understand and manipulate reality, reaches back to the Pythagoreanism of ancient Greece. They, in turn, directly inspired Plato, the father of Western formalism, and in turn the Medieval angelic hierarchies mentioned above. This commitment to the power of logic and pure numbers conferred upon bureaucracy a utopian air; bureaucrats envision a world of perfect harmony, governed by well-designed, efficient institutions, and develop frameworks that attempt to make that world a reality. The fact that the complexity of the world-as-lived rarely fits these lofty ideals ensures that bureaucracy requires constant enforcementwith the force in question being the threat of violence meted out by private security, the police or the military.

But it is in the AppendixBatman and the Problem of Constituent Powerthat we find some of Graeber’s most timely observations for the present moment. In a playful analysis of the cultural and political significance of superheroes, Graeber points out thatbuilding upon his analysis of medievalist fantasy in the previous chaptercomics teach the same kind of lesson. In pitting basically passive superheroes who seek to preserve the status quo against endlessly creative and scheming villains who wish to unseat it, comics allow the reader to vicariously enjoy the thrill of unfettered creative potential, only to enforce the idea that such potential necessarily leads to violence, and that violence is in turn the only way that it can be controlled.

In the Marvel and DC Universes, the only alternative to bureaucracy is violent creativity of villainsin short, fascism. This, in turn, allows Graeber to highlight a broad distinction between the left and the right: “Ultimately, the division between left-and right-wing sensibilities turns on one’s attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge. This kind of sensibility was rife in the popular Freudianism of the day [1950s]: where the Id was the motor of the psyche, but also amoral; if really unleashed, it would lead to an orgy of destruction. This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway. They aspire to be, as Hitler imagined himself, great artists painting with the minds, blood, and sinews of humanity.”

Following from the magistral philosophical treatise Debt: The First 5,000 years (2011), The Utopia of Rules is a more modest project. Graeber does not attempt to propose a leftist critique of total bureaucratisation within its pages, though he argues such a critique is long overdue. Nor does he advance a singular argumenthis goal is simply to prompt a conversation. With the rise of the populist right, this conversation is more important than ever. The mainstream Left, Graeber points out, has for too long positioned itself on the side of state control, leaving critiques of bureaucracy to the Right. As the pro-market efforts of neoliberalism have done nothing but concentrate capital in the hands of the rentier classes, the frustration is now boiling over. And yet, in unveiling the mystical roots of stultifying modern paperwork, Graeber reveals a way forward for usif total bureaucratisation is a spell laid over the world, that spell may be broken. We need not live out the fevered dreams of Renaissance mystics; we can awaken. Nor shall the dark blood and bone portraits of fascists necessarily hold sway over the human imagination, for the Left is just as creative as the right; indeed, unlike them, we can create without fear of creativity. The Right may aspire to break this world, but it is the birthright of the Left to make a better one.


Jonathan Woolley

1b&w copyJonathan is a social anthropologist and human ecologist, based at the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in the political economy of the British landscape, and in the relationship between spirituality, the environment, and climate change. A member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, and an eco-animist, Jonathan maintains a blog about his academic fieldwork called BROAD PATHWAYS.


 You can still purchase our entire digital catalogue for $20 US until 1 June.


Weekly Update: 18 September

Awesome writing elsewhere

We’ve got a lot of really cool links for you!

We’ve heard this is pretty cool: The Burning Times Never Ended:A Story of Disenchantment and Re-membering Resistance

Crystal Blanton has a great column over at The Wild Hunt on #MyPolytheism.

Also at The Wild Hunt, Heathen Chinese has written an essay looking at the post-colonial resistance and Tupac Shakur.

We’re big fans of ROAR Magazine, and also of David Graeber. So this interview is pretty exciting.

Rhyd Wildermuth was a guest on the Tree of Life Hour discussing his essay, “Fuck The Good People.”

Pipelines? Totally safe!!!

Some good news. The United States Government was about to kill 45,000 wild horses. Outrage changed their mind.

Poet, writer, and editor of the second issue of A Beautiful Resistance Lorna Smithers has a new book coming out!

And some reminders!

The call for submissions for the next issue of A Beautiful Resistance ends 1 November.

We have a neat instagram account. And we’re also on twitter, tumblr, and facebook. And possibly hiding behind your compost bin.

And a teaser!

We’re about to announce the publication of our first book!  But we’re not ready to announce it yet. So we’re sorta being jerks. But check back soon!

magicofcrimedrbones

 

Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence

by James Lindenschmidt

Lately, I’ve been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber. I recommend the book wholeheartedly for anyone who wishes to understand the theory, history, psychology, and ethics of debt. This is not a review of the book, but look for a review by George Caffentzis coming soon to Gods & Radicals. Graeber’s book has been food for thought to say the least, and has me thinking about the function of debt under capitalism. It pervades the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about not only our individual places in society but also the structure of society itself. One of the main themes of Graeber’s book is that debt functions as the primary arbiter of morality in society; many contemporary religions speak in terms of debt help & advice as well as repayment in their cosmologies, often in terms of the afterlife. Debt can also function as “fate,” in the sense that with debt, one can accumulate restrictions that limit the potentialities of one’s existence, further chaining us inside the capitalist workforce. As Graeber shows us, these stories about debt are worth further attention.

The Tiv Flesh-Debt & The Society of Witches

Graeber reminds us repeatedly that these questions of debt and economy are, above all, human stories, and as such are well served by his anthropological approach. One of the human stories he tells is of the Tiv flesh-debt and the society of witches, a story worth quoting at some length:

“The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eating human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim’s food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a “flesh-debt,” and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.

Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh….

If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a “strong heart”—the potential to become a witch—you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screetching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. “You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you. Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat.”

There’s only one way out, and that’s to pledge a member of your own family as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.

The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming.”
–David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, emphasis added

Interesting, but more than a little morbid, right? This story of debt & cannibalism is useful precisely because it horrifies our western minds, and yet it reveals the arbitrary construct of the psychology of debt as it operates in our consciousnesses. A few points about the above passage:

Trickery & entrapment as foundational recruitment practice. The “society of witches” are “always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people.” This is a political organization, in the sense that they have a certain amount of power in the Tiv culture. This political organization reproduces itself through trickery, bonding its new members after the trick to use their “terrible new powers” in service to the group.

An ability to ignore one’s conscience and act in ways that are normally repugnant. New members of the society of witches must have “a strong heart,” which means that they are able to overcome their distaste and disgust for the group’s cannibalistic activities which are repugnant to the core. It is interesting that an ability to shut off one’s conscience is seen as “strength.”

Blame-shifting & corroboration of a lie benefiting the conspirators. The deceptive recruiter then confronts the new recruit: he “pretends to be tortured” which shifts the blame for murdering, cooking, and eating another human away from the very person responsible for the deed. Instead, everyone already invested in the society of witches pretends that there is nothing at all unusual about the arrangement, and that the flesh-debt is the fault and responsibility of the person tricked into cannibalism. They not only tell the story & believe it, but also behave as if the story is true. The society of witches, after all, ensures that “flesh debts are always paid.” As always, the repayment of debt is always seen as sacrosanct and legitimate, no matter how abhorrent the story of any specific debt might be.

Debt is now a tool of capitalism

All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org
All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org.

These structures of the debt relationship repeat themselves through many of Graeber’s examples of how debt works. I invite the reader to take a look at how the above structures of debt relationship manifest in our culture, indeed in many of our lives, since the amount of debt people carry these days is greater than ever. Indeed, as Jacques Laroche pointed out at strikedebt.org, debt might be the single unifying factor in all the various struggles going on against capitalism.

Debt is arbitrary, and not always tied to the value of specific things that have been purchased. As an example, one needs only look at the story of student debt and the “deal” between the capitalists and the working class of my generation, growing up in the 80s. This deal was reinforced in our young minds, and continues to be reinforced in schools across the nation. The story is something like this: “hire education” is mandatory for those who wish to work at well-paying jobs. Those who don’t achieve this hire education are fated to mop floors or flip fast food burgers — a story accepted as axiomatic by millions despite the fact many successful capitalists are not college educated. Furthermore, even more so than debt in general, student debt is completely arbitrary. My wife and I have the exact same degree from the exact same educational institution. One of us managed to get this degree without incurring any debt, whereas the other one accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, again, for the same degree from the same institution. I will leave it to you students of kyriarchy to determine which of us was saddled with the debt (hint: it wasn’t the straight white male).

Debt is not the same thing as capitalism, having been around at least 10x longer than capitalism has. Debt is now a prime mechanism by which the working class is kept under control, giving millions of people no other choice but to sell the only thing they have left to sell: their labor power in order to survive. Debt underlies all aspects of class struggle. Since the destruction of the Commons, there is no other possibility for most people to subsist and reproduce their lives.

Robert Anton Wilson had a great thought-experiment, where instead of using the term “money” (which also is not the same as debt, by the way, despite their close relationship) he suggests using the term “survival tickets.” This thought-experiment shows that money and debt introduce an abstraction into the most basic survival impulses in the most primitive parts of our consciousness. We humans evolved with “fight or flight” instincts to protect us from imminent danger, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Now, few of us are in danger of being consumed by a wild animal, yet these instincts remain with us. The “survival ticket” concept illustrates this fear beautifully, as these completely arbitrary and abstract tickets are the way we survive, and the fear of their lack drives many of our actions.

Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.

The importance of stories & violence of silence

“When you begin to believe in your own B.S., you enter the state that I call self-hypnotic ideational trance, and pretty soon you’ve got a headful of S.H.I.T.”
Robert Anton Wilson

Wilson also had some other fabulous ideas about the ideas we hold in our minds. He warned us to be mindful of our B.S. (belief systems), and to make sure we don’t operate with destructive S.H.I.T. (self-hypnotic ideational trances) that we aren’t deliberately cultivating for ourselves. I would call this process decolonizing the mind. Graeber’s book can certainly help us see through some of the constructs lurking below our everyday awareness, that help push capitalism forward and reproduce itself. This leveling process of capitalism requires us to lose sight of stories, whether it be the debt-stricken person being thrown into the street, or the ecosystem being raped and its inhabitants destroyed, because capitalism cannot operate under the nuances of existence:

“To make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence.”
—David Graeber, from Debt: The First 5000 Years

We must refuse to be silent. We must insist on stories, both in telling our own and hearing those of others. Don’t believe the same old B.S. that capitalism sells, and get that S.H.I.T. out of your head. We are Pagans, and we are (or should be!) sensitive to the stories that lurk, undiscovered, in the corners of consciousness and the forest. It is these stories that will transform & re-enchant the world.


Support our work by buying our books and stickers here.

Panphage/Pangenetor

In his book Apocalyptic Witchcraft, as well as his shorter essay Rewilding Witchcraft, one of Peter Grey’s central arguments is that contemporary paganism has been tamed by the standards of urbane bourgeois consumer society and the capitalist system that underlies it. He mocks what I call “Lifestyle Paganism” which he sees as a superficial expression of belief, identity and aesthetics (robes, rituals, multi-gods, pentragrams, Pantheacon) with little impact or effect on the dominant culture that look upon it as an amusing distraction.

This system, regardless of small steps we each personally take, is hegemonic and structurally dominant. His call is for the reclamation of the Witch as a transgressive force in response to this larger social order’s continued drive toward ecological collapse. In order to do this, he asks for a rewilding of our relationship to self, nature, society and cosmos.

What Grey is saying bares a family resemblance to those who call for a decolonization of minds, and practices in Post-colonial theory. Post-Colonial theory recognizes the insidious way in which the power and ideals of a dominant culture infiltrate and co-opt the consciousness and behavior of the disenfranchised.

We each have been subjected to a set of nature alienating values, beliefs, and practices which underlie everything we experience in urbane modernity. This colonization is woven into our architecture, our social norms, our ways of thinking, even our language. In essence, the normative culture is embedded in our subconscious, and the default state is one of profound alienation from the natural world, and thus ultimately ourselves. In order to create resistance to power, we must first decolonize our minds and practices.

panIn parallel, Peter calls for a fully present Animistic engagement with nature in order for Witchcraft to be more than a colorful effort at creative anachronism. No matter what robes, rituals, or gods we may adhere to, nature-centricity is a common thread that can unite Neopagans. The root of the shamanic tradition from which paganism emerges is the awareness of the underlying sacredness, intelligence and aliveness of all beings animate and inanimate. To be alienated from our own souls and the soul of nature (Anima – Mundi) is to spiral out in a variety of dysfunctions.

Symptomatic of this, a growing litany of voices both Pagan and Non Pagan are pointing out how this “Nature Deficit Disorder” increasingly expresses itself in rising rates of depression, anxiety, violence and addictive behaviors. The relatively nascent field of eco-psychology diagnoses this problematic relationship between mind and nature seen in the alarming trend of children’s increased immersion in video game and social media. Our domesticated children and their colonized imaginations no longer play in the woods and the wild, but online fantasy worlds constructed to siphon their attention and energy down the path of addictive consumption.

Grey’s perspective on Witchcraft positions itself firmly on one side of the split between radical Deep Ecology seen among Pagan members of the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) vs. liberal bourgeois corporatist environmentalism most clearly expressed in the Sierra Club. According to anarchism, this contrast between radical and liberal perspectives on the environment is not one of mere taste, preference, or opinion, but rather the depth or superficiality of one’s level of analysis of the conditions at hand and how invested one is in the system itself.

Rewilding isn’t a fad or fashion; it’s an adaptive response to an alienated social order and the inherent psychopathology and ecocide thereof. Rewilding is likely the first step in “Exodus” from Capitalist modernity. As Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes, our best hope may be in refusing to live in a dying world, but deciding to create an entirely different one:

“The theory of exodus proposes that the most effective way of opposing capitalism and the liberal state is not through direct confrontation but by means of what Paolo Virno has called “engaged withdrawal, “mass defection by those wishing to create new forms of community. One need only glance at the historical record to confirm that most successful forms of popular resistance have taken precisely this form. They have not involved challenging power head on (this usually leads to being slaughtered, or if not, turning into some—often even uglier—variant of the very thing one first challenged) but from one or another strategy of slipping away from its grasp, from flight, desertion, the founding of new communities.” (Graeber)

Like the Zapatistas who first marched on Mexico City with the classic Marxist ideal of claiming state power, to later return to their hills and valleys and “secede” from the Neo-Liberal system in order to practice and live their sacred life ways, we ourselves might have to do the same things in the coming years. These “Lines of Flight” from the “Striated” social order with its hierarchical control systems into more organic, bottom up “Rhizomatic” ways discussed by Deleuze in A Thousand Plateaus may be our best hope. To do this we need to pay attention to how we our reproducing the dominant culture even while we think we are part of the alternative.

It’s likely that as we go further into these transition times from Peak Oil (What Starhawk calls The Great Turning)…as our water supply continues to dry up, our weather patterns become increasingly extreme, and our social order, both domestic and international, tilts further towards collapse, the message of Apocalyptic and Rewilding Witchcraft will become only more resonant.

A rewilded Witchcraft expressed in activist social efforts (either in the form of direct action or the creation of alternatives via permaculture, art, and spiritual cooperatives) may serve as a rallying point for those of us that want to create new beautiful gardens as a counterpoint to techno-industrial collapse. In turn, the voice of lifestyle paganism will, as John Michael Greer says, become as “quaint and outdated as Theosophy, Spiritualism and Nehru jackets.”

Grey is asking us to both destroy old relationships and mindsets and create new ones. Such a dual approach is evident in the image of Pan who is both all destroyer and all creator: Panphage/Pangenetor…and Pan is the essence of Wilderness.

Inspiration/Further Reading

Apocalyptic Witchcraft
Rewilding Witchcraft
Nature Deficit Disorder
Spell of the Sensuous
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Wobblies and Zapatistas
An Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory
A Thousand Plateaus