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.


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What’s A Nice Atheist Like Me Doing At Gods & Radicals?

“The Sources” by Emy Blesio (oil on canvas)

 

Recently, some criticisms of the Gods & Radicals community have included condemnation of the inclusion of a self-proclaimed atheist — me — among the contributors.1

What’s an atheist doing at Gods & Radicals?  It’s a fair question.

The truth is, while I am an atheist, I am also a non-theistic humanist, a Gaian pantheist, an archetypal polytheist, a naturalistic animist.  And which one I answer to really depends on how you ask the question or what aspect I am choosing to emphasize at the time.

I am but atheist north-north-west.

When the wind is southerly, I know a god from a geist.

My worldview does not accommodate supernatural beings that exist separately and independently of human beings — and in that sense I am an atheist.

And yet, my world is full of gods.  Let me give you an example …

Each morning, I wake up and greet the rising sun with arms upraised and an invocation of Indra, adapted from the Rig Veda, on my lips:

Scaling heaven, splendor encompasses you,

Chariot-Borne, sun-bright, and truly potent,

You pour forth, bursting the clouds,

Giving life to sun and dawn …

You say the sun is no god?  What is it else that rules outside our selves?

I saw that there are, first and above all,
The hidden forces, blind necessities,
Named Nature, but the thing’s self unconceived :
Then follow, — how dependent upon these,
We know not, how imposed above ourselves,
We well know, — what I name the gods, a power
Various or one: for great and strong and good
Is there, and little, weak and bad there too,
Wisdom and folly : say, these make no God, —
What is it else that rules outside man’s self?

— Robert Browning, “The Ring and the Book”

Do I believe the gods are real?  Of course!  What could be more real than the sun?

For ages, humankind, we’ve wanted to celebrate what brings us life. What is this thing that allowed us to emerge. …

The Sun. The Star.

That right there is the source of all of our myths and allegories and hopes and dreams. It gave life to the world; gave birth to life.

Its core burns at ten million degrees and it consumes millions of tons of matter per second – we ourselves are made of remnants of its fallen siblings.

The preconditions for our humanness, that, certainly, is what god is right? ‘Let there be light!’

— Jason Silva, “What is a God?”

But you say, it’s impossible to interact with this god?  Not so.  I interact with it every morning when I open my eyes to the growing light.  I interact with it every time I step outside and feel its warmth on my flesh, my cells absorbing  its rays.  I interact with it every time I take a breath of air which is warmed its radiation.  I interact with it every time I eat a vegetable which transformed its energy into life-sustaining matter.

True, the sun does not hear or respond to my prayers.  You might say it is indifferent to me.  And yet, in a sense, I am an extension of the sun.  I am its energy transformed into living matter.  I am the light of the sun made conscious, capable of reflecting back on itself, seeing and appreciating its own warmth and beauty.  “Indifference” does not seem a fitting word to describe this relationship.

“I want to know why beauty exists, why nature continues to contrive it, and what is the link between the life of a lightning storm with the feelings these things inspire in us? If God does not exist, if these things are not unified into one metaphorical system, then why do they retain for us such symbolic power?”

— Anne Rice, The Vampire Lestat

Why does the sun hold such beauty and power for us?  Because there is a sun within us too, an inner sun god.  Indra, to whom I call in my invocation, is just one of the names of this god.  He is the power of the sun personified.2  Indra is my internal sun — the part of me that is called forth by the sight of the rising sun.  The sun god without speaks to the sun god within, and the sun god within responds.

Have you ever felt the sun rise within you?  Words like “archetype” and “symbol” are inadequate to capture this experience.

You say this Indra is not real because he is “in my head”?  It’s true it is all in our heads, but if we think this makes them less real, then, as Lon Milo DuQuette has written, we have no idea how big our heads really are.

For the pioneers of modern psychology, Freud and Jung, the deepest levels of the psyche merged with the physical body and the physical stuff of the world.  Ecopsychologists like James Hillman and Theodore Roszak extend Freud’s id and Jung’s collective unconscious and draw the rational conclusion that what these terms imply is literally the world.

The most profoundly collective and unconscious self is the natural material world.

— James Hillman, “A Psyche the Size of

the Earth”

What meaning does the phrase “merely psychological” have if the psyche is “the size of the earth”, a literal anima mundi which suffused with subjectivity, interiority, intimacy, and reciprocity.

But you say this Indra is not real because he is not separate from me?  But if that’s the case, then you and I are not real either, because we are not separate:

We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Our interconnectedness makes us more, not less, real.  From this perspective, the more we emphasize the separateness of the gods, the less real they become.

What does any of this have to do with being a “radical” or with anti-capitalism?

In order to answer that, I need to explain briefly the relationship between capitalism and the disenchantment of the world.

According to Morris Berman, “The story of the modern epoch, at least on the level of mind, is one of progressive disenchantment,” which Berman defines as “nonparticipation”  and “alienated consciousness.”  A disenchanted consciousness sees everything else, even living beings, as objects — objects to be bought and sold, in the case of the capitalist form of disenchantment.

Capitalism is one of the driving forces behind the disenchantment of the world.   It alienates workers from the products of their labor, but it also alienates us from the physical world, from nature (including our own bodies).  Capitalism disenchants the world by reducing everything to resource and commodity, fungible and without intrinsic meaning.

Nothing we come upon in the world can any longer speak to us in its own rights. Things, events, even the person of our fellow human beings have been deprived of the voice with which they once declared their mystery to men.

— Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture

This disenchantment of the world happened, not when we stopped seeing gods and spirits in nature — gods and spirits can be objectified too — but when we stopped feeling our connection to nature, when we lost our sense of essential participation in the world.

The view of nature which predominated in the West down to the eve of the Scientific Revolution was that of an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human beings felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short was a place of belonging. A member of the cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with its destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to his life.

— Morris Berman, The Re-Enchantment of the World

The re-enchantment of nature, then, is a means overcoming capitalist alienation.  It means relating to nature once again as our home — in the deepest sense of that word.  (The prefix eco- means “house”.)  It means cultivating a profound awareness of our interconnectedness — our kinship  — with every other living being — and, yes, even with the rocks and other unconscious, yet animate, matter.

So let’s go back to my morning ritual …

When I raise my arms in greeting to the sun, I am re-storying myself to my proper place in the universe.  I am re-placing myself in the vast cosmic drama which began billions of years ago, when stars were born and died, and spread their life throughout the universe.  I am re-calling the time when the rays of the sun gave life to our first simple-celled ancestors.  I am re-membering how my body and yours evolved in response to the sun — how our sensory organs were shaped by a long and delicate process of interaction with the world around us, how our eyes were shaped by and then finely tuned by the light of the sun and its reflections off of the myriad surfaces of the natural world.

… when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up—many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big—but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

I am also reviving the energetic process which sustains my life today.  I am re-cognizing my kinship with all other life — both human and other-than-human, both plant and animal — all life that depends on the energy from the sun — as well as to the winds and waters whose cycles are driven by the sun’s rays.  And I am re-connecting the experience of the light and warmth outside of me to the experience of psychological light and warmth inside of me — as above so below.

This simple gesture of greeting the sun is one way of re-enchanting the world.  Ritual gestures like these work together as an antidote against the disenchantment of capitalism …

… the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

— Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”

Doing this reminds me of my place in the cosmos — not a “stranger in a strange land”, not a exile from heaven, and not a mere consumer of widgets and producer of GDP — but a child of Sol and Terra, kin to wolf and salmon, redwood and moss, earthworm and parasitic wasp.  Knowing I am a part of this earth, and it me, and that my destiny in continuous with it, helps me see capitalist alienation for what it is.  It helps me find ways to resist that alienation and to imagine a different kind of life.

So am I an atheist?  Yes, but that’s not all I am.  I am also a worshiper of many gods … and a radical too.  And as surely as the earth is my home, so is Gods & Radicals.


With gratitude to Rhyd Wildermuth and others who have defended my participation in this community.


Endnotes:

1 I am not the only non-theistic writer at G&R.

2 Indra was a sun god in his earliest form in the Rig Veda. In later forms, he became a god associated with rain and lightning.


John Halstead

John Halstead is Editor-At-Large and a contributor at HumanisticPaganism.com. He blogs about Paganism generally at AllergicPagan.com (which is hosted by Patheos) and about Jungian Neo-Paganism at “Dreaming the Myth Onward” (which is hosted by Witches & Pagans). He is also an occasional contributor to GodsandRadicals.org and The Huffington Post and the administrator of the site Neo-Paganism.com. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment,” which can be found at ecopagan.com. He is a Shaper of the fledgling Earthseed community, which is described at GodisChange.org. John is also the editor of the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. To speak with John, contact him on Facebook.


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