Neoliberalism’s rise came with all sorts of advertising for the rollback of the state. Bureaucracy was a byword for everything rigid and oppressive, which marketization promised to dissolve into supple flows of individual choice unburdened by the rigmarole of rules and procedure. Instead, regulations have expanded into every cranny of social existence: the commercial ‘terms and conditions’ generated by corporate bureaucracies are so non-negotiable that we automatically check the box in the knowledge that there’s no point reading them; big-data constructions of our consumer, civic and geographically situated identities are supremely rule-bound and bureaucratic. Yet the ideological opposition between state and free market has become so entrenched that awareness of the hyper-regulatory nature of contemporary capitalism has difficulty gaining ground. Even in the wake of the government bailouts following the 2008 crash, the ideal of the market’s independence from government regulation still reigns supreme.
In his latest book, the American anthropologist David Graeber argues that, with the capillary diffusion of bureaucratization under neoliberalism, we are more subject than ever to the rules of the state—yet, after a spate of imaginative writing on the subject in the 1960s and 70s, left analysis has largely abandoned this terrain. For Graeber, a radical critique of bureaucracy remains a political exigency, not least to combat the claims of the free-market right to a monopoly on the subject. A veteran of the late-90s alter-globalization movement, Graeber was closely involved in planning the occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011—he is purported to have coined the rallying cry, ‘We are the 99 per cent’, from the work of Saez and Piketty—advocating the non-hierarchical organization of the encampment, the rejection of formal leadership and the development of new forms of consensual deliberation. Graeber’s original research explored social divisions in Madagascar; in a series of books, he has argued for the ‘natural affinity’ between anarchists and anthropologists, who share an awareness—one utopian, the other ethnographic—of ‘the very range of possibilities’ beyond the existing social order. His Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, assembled in 2004, drew inspiration not only from Bakunin, Proudhon and Kropotkin, but also from Clastres, Mauss and Graves. The pamphlet-style publication, directed toward activists as much as students of anthropology, drew on Mauss’s ethnographic studies of gift-giving economies which contradicted, Graeber argued, the founding claim of Smithian economics that money emerged to facilitate the human propensity to truck and barter. This line of argument was expanded on in Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2012), which offered an epic, multi-millennial history of debt and the state to expose the ‘structural violence’ at the root of the contemporary financial system. The book’s publication chimed with the revolt of a new generation of the debt-laden young against the bailouts of Wall Street; Graeber reiterated his thesis of ‘revolutionary counter-power’, embodying the tenet of a prefigurative politics in which means are consonant with ends.
The Utopia of Rules continues the project of Graeber’s earlier work, examining contemporary capitalism with an anthropological gaze, and drawing on a longue durée range of ethnographic-philosophical reference points to articulate a theory of radical freedom cut loose from bureaucratic capture. The book includes two previously published texts—the first, a 2006 Malinowski Lecture on the threat of coercion that underlies the bureaucratic administration of pervasive social inequality; the second, a 2012 Baffler article on the limits of the it revolution—bracketed by a long introduction and a concluding philosophical-anthropological speculation. Max Weber features throughout as a point of reference, both as a positive interlocutor and as something of an antagonist to be overcome by Graeber’s own anarchistic thinking. Written in a direct and anecdotal style, purged of academic jargon, the very range of these chapters signals the vastness of bureaucracy’s terrain, far beyond the bureau. But as Graeber recognizes, though the landscape is expansive, it is also characterized by a cultural anomie foreign to anthropologists, usually attracted to ‘networks of density’. This aspect, he argues, has been better captured by the ‘great literature of bureaucracy’—Kafka and Borges, of course, but also Kadaré’s Palace of Dreams, Saramago’s All the Names, Heller’s Catch-22 and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, set in a Midwestern irs office—whose forms partake mimetically of bureaucracy’s circularity, capturing its vacuum and its maze-like, senseless forms: Josef K. navigating the corridors of Der Process in the unblinkingly neutral prose which Adorno identified as the key to Kafka’s ‘flight into the inhuman’.
The Utopia of Rules offers an anthropology of bureaucracy since the 1970s, showing it not as a discrete tier or class of the social order but as a diffuse normalization, infiltrating every crevice of our lives. The state-enterprise parallelism identified by Weber a century ago has swollen to become a sui generis fusion of public and private sectors, all working for profit and against popular autonomy, with the subsequent extension of ‘bureaucratic principles to every aspect of our existence’, in what Graeber terms ‘total bureaucratization’. The book’s long introduction tells the story of this hypertrophied fusion of state and market. Weber’s starting point was the Prussian system, admired in ‘On Bureaucracy’ as a miracle of ‘precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of the files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal cost’, even if it was at the same time an iron cage, or ‘steely casing’. Graeber by contrast describes a particularly American model, later exported to the globe, whose origins can be traced to the take-off and consolidation of us capitalism after the Civil War. But if in the 1860s American (and German) firms overtook English rivals by copying the efficient bureaucratic procedures of government, in the 20th century the flow of influence was reversed, and it was the bureaucrats of the private sector—middle management—who set the standard for administrative functionaries. Roosevelt’s New Deal civil servants, Graeber argues, worked in close coordination with the lawyers, engineers and corporate paper-pushers employed by Ford, Coca-Cola and Proctor & Gamble, ‘absorbing much of their style and sensibility’: ‘from clothing to language to office design, most American bureaucratic habits emerged from the private sector’. The us advent on the world stage in the 1940s corresponds to the rise of this ‘corporate-bureaucratic capitalism as a distinctively American form’. Its most striking achievement was the construction of the first global bureaucratic institutions—the un, imf, World Bank, wto—which would come into their own with the bureaucratized globalization of the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War.
The growth of the financial sector from the 1980s provides the basis for the latest stage of bureaucratization. Graeber explains its onset in terms of the strategic pivot of corporate managements to align themselves with shareholders, rather than with the firm as a whole, as falling profit rates strengthened the shareholder case for more ruthless profit-seeking strategies. As corporations became financialized, so finance became corporatized, with hedge funds and investment banks replacing individual investors, once 1980s deregulation had unleashed pension and insurance funds for riskier investment. This was the context in which the latest corporate-bureaucratic management techniques—‘audit culture’, performance reviews, time-allocation surveys and so on—began to penetrate education, welfare and policing, bringing with them a ‘bright, empty’ vocabulary of ‘vision’, ‘innovation’ and ‘excellence’, as well as bureaucracy’s culture of complicity and its underlying threat of coercion.
Universities, thoroughly infiltrated by the bureaucratic-speak of ‘outcomes’ and ‘stakeholders’, come under particular scrutiny from Graeber, not just for their procedures but for their scholarly complicity—‘a timid bureaucratic spirit has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life’. Here he suggests that the hegemonic hold over us universities of first Weber, in the 1950s and 60s, and then Foucault, from the 1980s onwards, while due in part to ‘the ease with which each could be adopted as a kind of anti-Marx’—their theories optimized to argue that power is not primarily a matter of the control of production but rather a multifaceted and unavoidable feature of social life—might also owe something to the fact that both theorists endowed bureaucratic forms of organization with enormous power and influence. Weber was deployed in ‘stripped-down form’ in Parsons’s General Theory of Action, adopted and further reduced by State Department and World Bank functionaries as modernization theory, ‘promoted as an alternative to Marxism’ on the ideological battlefields of the global South. For Foucault, the spirit of bureaucracy was more powerful still: all aspects of human life—health, sex, work, morality, truth—became products of administrative discourse. After Parsonian functionalism was discredited by the revolts of the 1960s, Foucault gained an even greater hold, at least within the ‘oppositional’ disciplines which had absorbed the former campus radicals (Kafka remains a key reference point in the Foucauldian tradition).
Meanwhile neoliberal ‘emancipation’ has actually resulted in the bureaucratic work of the old clerks being offloaded onto the individual’s shoulders: all of us are effectively part-time administrators now, though tapping on smartphones rather than filling out forms on clipboards. Graeber’s third chapter examines the ways in which capitalist bureaucratization has compromised the utopian promise of the latest technological revolution. The flying cars and colonies on Mars have failed to materialize; far from liberating us into a post-work utopia, technological innovations have only meant the outsourcing of industrial jobs to the lowest-wage zones, with the attendant creation in the advanced-capitalist core of what Graeber has elsewhere called ‘bullshit jobs’: human-resource enablers, innovation strategists and the like. High-tech sneakers are produced not by self-replicating nano-technology but on old-fashioned sewing machines by the daughters of Indonesian or Mexican farmers thrown off their ancestral lands by nafta or the wto.