‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ reviewed by Bart Zantvoort

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

Melville House, New York and London, 2015. 256pp., $26.95 / £18.99 hb
ISBN 9781612193748

Reviewed by Bart Zantvoort

About the reviewer

Bart Zantvoort recently completed his PhD on historical development and resistance to change in …


The Utopia of Rules is about bureaucracy, but, as Graeber himself makes clear, it does not offer a theory of bureaucracy. It isn’t, therefore, a systematic and historical analysis of this phenomenon, as Debt: The First 5,000 Years was of debt (Graeber 2012, reviewed here). It is rather a loosely thematically connected collection of three essays, two of which have been published previously: ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity’, which deals with the relation between power, violence and the imagination, and ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, where Graeber argues that capitalism – contrary to a prejudice shared by the political left as well as right – has inhibited rather than promoted technological development. The third essay, ‘The Utopia of Rules, Or Why we Really Love Bureaucracy After All’, tries to explain why we find bureaucracy so appealing, arguing that there is a utopian vision inherent in the kind of rule-governed world bureaucracies seek to create. The three essays are preceded by a long introduction explaining Graeber’s take on bureaucracy more generally, and followed by an appendix, a short essay called ‘On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power’, which offers an interesting take on Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy related to some of the other themes in the book.

In the Introduction Graeber makes some strong claims: according to him we live in a time of ‘total bureaucratization,’ where bureaucratic principles have been extended to every aspect of our existence (18, 29). It is surprising, therefore, that theoretical interest in bureaucracy has declined significantly since the 1960s. The problem, Graeber argues, is that the political Left has no critique of bureaucracy. The Right does, but it is, in his view, a very weak one, which simply identifies bureaucracy with the state (6-7). According to this right-wing critique, which has been taken over in a watered-down version by the moderate left, there can be only one alternative to bureaucracy: the free market (11). But if this is the case Graeber argues, then why has the development of market liberalism gone hand in hand with an unprecedented and continuous expansion of bureaucracy?

The obvious question to ask here is: what does Graeber mean by bureaucracy? This, unfortunately, does not become entirely clear. There are a number of related perspectives which come out more or less strongly in the various essays. The first has to do with the form of bureaucratic activity: Graeber repeatedly claims that paperwork and administrative tasks (‘performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys’ (21)) take up more and more of our life, and that bureaucracy consists of the imposition of ‘complicated and apparently arbitrary rules’ (15). The second aspect deals with the mode of organization of bureaucratic structures: they are hierarchical, with knowledge concentrated at the bottom and power at the top, and they are based on the threat of violence. Finally, there is the question of the purpose of this total bureaucratization: for Graeber, this is ultimately the extraction of profits from labour by corporate capital. This last point is also the link with his work on debt: he argues, for example, that the corporatization of the educational system in the U.S. serves to extract profits from future labour through the student loan system. More generally, his claim is that bureaucratization allows for the ‘engineering’ of debts through the collusion of public and private power in order to facilitate the extraction of profits (24).

The first essay, ‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’, argues that bureaucracy facilitates a special kind of stupidity. Bureaucracy is ultimately based on violence; not, Graeber insists, in the popular Foucauldian sense that society is undergirded by hidden structures of power, but because there is always the real threat (or the actual exercise) of force when you break the rules. We often forget this, but, as Graeber writes, it takes very little for the guards to be called in: ‘graduate students [can] spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required’ (58).

Violence is linked to stupidity because it underlies the capacity, central to bureaucracy on Graeber’s view, to make and enforce arbitrary decisions. In a situation which isn’t characterized by structural violence the different parties have to resort to deliberation, negotiation and imaginative identification (the attempt to understand the situation from the point of view of others) in order to achieve collective action. In the hierarchical organization typical of most of modern life, however, decisions are made on the basis of authority backed by the threat of force (68). A manager can impose his will on a subordinate without understanding the situation, and it is this form of asymmetrical relation of power, Graeber argues, which leads to the stupidity and ‘wilful blindness’ characteristic of bureaucratic procedures (57).

The overall effect of this on society has been the predominance of a kind of realist cynicism: according to Graeber, a realist political ontology, based on the inevitability of violence and the need for power structures to deal with it, is the essence of right-wing thought (87-8). By contrast, left-wing thought recognizes the power of the imagination, even if it is stifled by the predominance of violence. Bureaucracy and violence work together to hide the fact that capitalism as a system is something we create, and could stop creating if we so chose: ‘The ultimate hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and that we could just as easily make differently’ (89).

The second essay, ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’, makes a closely related point. Just as we shouldn’t underestimate the role of violence in shaping the current social system, Graeber writes, we shouldn’t overestimate the role of technology. The rise of bureaucratic forms of administration (and the technical-instrumental form of rationality that goes with it, to which Graeber alludes in the third essay) is often seen as an inevitable result of technological development: because of this development the world becomes more and more complex, and this complexity can only be managed through global forms of bureaucratic administration. Graeber’s point in this essay is that, similarly to the political realism referred to above, this way of thinking obscures the actual dynamics linking technological development to capitalism and the interests it serves. Technological development is not an independent given to which we have to adjust as best we can; it is shaped by social factors and its direction is influenced by political alignments and policy decisions (34).

To support this point Graeber argues that one of the central dogmas of capitalist modernity, shared by both left and right, is wrong: capitalism is not necessarily linked to technological development (143). In fact, he argues, we might ask why we haven’t seen more technological development over the last few decades. While people in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s expected the stuff of science fiction –jetpacks, anti-gravity fields, androids, colonies on Mars – to become reality within the foreseeable future, nothing of the sort has materialized. According to Graeber this is not because such visions were simply naïve: rather, technological development has in fact been inhibited by the logic inherent to contemporary capitalism. He writes: ‘There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment in technologies that furthered labour discipline and social control’ (120). One example of this is medical research, which has (according to Graeber) been focused on medicines such as Prozac, Ritalin and Zoloft – forms of medication designed to help us cope with an increasingly administered, bureaucratized world (128-9). Another example is the fact that labour-saving technologies have so far failed to bring about a reduction of working hours, a theme elaborated on by Graeber (2013) in his earlier essay ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’.

To put this in terms used by Hartmut Rosa (2013), capitalism has changed from an ‘accelerator’ of technological and social development to become a ‘decelerator’. To put it rather simplistically, capitalists realized that technological development has liberating potential, and decided that they would rather stall technological progress than see the end of capitalism. One question we could ask, of course, is whether Graeber is here not at risk of being outdated – it is possible that we will see enormously transformative technological developments in the near future, for example in the fields of robotics and biotechnology. This aside, however, his central claim – that we have to be attentive to the political factors shaping technological development – is well made.

Out of the three essays the third, ‘The Utopia of Rules, Or Why we Really Love Bureaucracy After All’, speaks most directly to the topic of bureaucracy. It is difficult, however, to make out what the central argument is. In the introduction Graeber introduces it as dealing with the notion of value: the overall point is that the supposedly value-free instrumental rationality of bureaucracies in fact serves to hide the fact that those who are pushing such rationality don’t want to say what this rationality is for, what end it is supposed to serve. This connects it to the other two essays; the shared theme is that globalized capitalism is falsely represented as an inescapable fact, the only realistic option, and that therefore we need a politics and a theory of the imagination which can break out of this false image. The essay itself does not really argue this point, however. Graeber is trying to do too much here: amongst other things, he offers an account of the relation between reason and freedom (164), a history of the concept of rationality, a comparison between two conceptions of rationality and their relation to the notion of value (basically Kantian and utilitarian conceptions) (173-4), and a theory of the state as the confluence of three elements, sovereignty, administration and politics (175). Needless to say, none of this is worked out in much detail.

To be brief, and to stick with the topic of bureaucracy, let me just sketch what Graeber has to say about the question raised in the title of the essay – why we love bureaucracy after all. There are a number of reasons, Graeber argues, why bureaucracy has come to play such a large role in our lives. Firstly, once you have bureaucrats it is hard to get rid of them: they maintain themselves in a position of power because they possess hard-to-replace expert knowledge (149-51). Secondly, bureaucracy is genuinely useful. The impartial, impersonal form of administration based on publicly proclaimed rules replaced a form of administration based on family connections, patrimonial power and wealth. Graeber does not elaborate much on this point, even though it is the classical and most convincing argument for bureaucracy. And finally – this is the point Graeber thinks is missing in existing theories and therefore the crux of his analysis – bureaucracy speaks to our deepest desires and fears, because it projects a vision of a world which is entirely under our control. To explain this, Graeber goes into a long discussion of games and ‘play’. The upshot of this is that games are bound by rules, while the real world is characterized by ‘play’, by unexpected events and contingencies which somehow have to be integrated in our experience. The appeal of games is that they are bound by rules and thus predictable and safe, while still allowing an element of play (based on decisions of the players, or chance), which makes the game fun. Bureaucracy, then, has this same kind of appeal. It offers a rule-bound framework for action which protects us from the chaotic and unpredictable nature of reality: ‘What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play’ (193).

This point is not really new – it can be found, for example, in Derrida’s (2001) Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, where he links play to anxiety and the desire for a regulated, controlled structure of meaning. It also needs to be worked out in much more detail. It isn’t clear, for example, whether the ‘utopia’ inherent in the notion of bureaucracy – that of a fair and equal world bound by universally applicable rules – is inherently problematic, or whether it can serve as a kind of regulative ideal, a yardstick by which the actually unfair administered world we have can be measured.

Overall, Graeber presents us with some fascinating ideas, which perhaps do not hang together as much as one might like (to be fair, he warns us in the introduction that he is only ‘circling around’ a single argument about bureaucracy (44)). Aside from this lack of coherence, let me just add one more critical point. Graeber has a knack for bringing together various aspects of contemporary life in a compelling critical vision of capitalist society. But, in this book at least, there is a real lack of empirical evidence, and sometimes a lack of argumentative rigour. Graeber claims, for example, that there has been ‘a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all sections of the population’ (129). This claim is empirically debatable (as far as I know, average working hours have been fairly steady in most Western countries since the ‘60s, with a slight increase in the U.S. over the last decade), and in any case would need to be backed up by data. Similarly, it would be nice to see some evidence for the claim that paperwork and administrative tasks are steadily increasing. In addition, Graeber has a tendency to make rather hyperbolic and unsubstantiated claims (‘All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves’ (41); The US postal service was defunded to ‘convince Americans that government doesn’t really work’ (160)). There is a risk here of blurring the boundary between social theory and political pamphleteering. These problems aside, there is a lot in these essays worth thinking about. Hopefully they are a prelude to a more systematic anthropological study of bureaucracy, something which is sorely needed and which Graeber is well positioned to undertake.

30 May 2015


  • Derrida, Jacques 2001 Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences Writing and Difference (London: Routledge).
  • Graeber, David 2012 Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House).
  • Graeber, David 2013 On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs Strike! (July).
  • Rosa, Hartmut 2013 Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press).

One comment

  1. Thank you for a very thoughtful, accurate, and careful review.

    As pointed out in the review Graeber’s book is not necessarily philosophically systematic. In my estimation Graeber is often too playful with his analogies and illustrations. However, his writing style is powerfully engaging, very important, and penetrating of social ontologies.

    The way I see it is that human beings are currently oppressed by massive forces and institutions, mostly hidden from personal awareness. Entities such as debt, bureaucracies, corporations, money, etc. have ontologies, but no essence. Epistemologically this makes these phantom-like and morph-able entities difficult to study systemically. Graeber takes on analyses of these entities. Moreover, his playful writing style is important to what he is able to accomplish. It allows him to make scrutiny of a social phenomenon without being held to being philosophically precise; often this style allows him to achieve a deeper scrutiny than otherwise.

    Nonetheless, what I am attempting to get at is Zantvoort worries Graeber is too much of a political pamphleteer; I am far less worried about this. Graeber is a highly innovative thinker who is trying to break down epistemological barriers to how we perceive hidden structures of power.

    A couple more points.

    In the essay ‘Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit’ Graeber is analyzing ‘endogenous technological change.’ Lots of other social theorists and political economists have understood that capitalism and the profit-motive usurps the emancipatory potential of technology. Graeber is merely part of a large tradition here. He never claims that technological innovation will halt, but as systems and institutions of Power gain greater control of technological change (i.e. corporations and profit interest, and the US pentagon, via massive R&D departments) the emancipatory potentialities of these technologies become more remote and these technologies give way to being used as systems of control that led to discipline, surveillance, consumer manipulation, etc. etc. (i.e. the internet, TV, etc. etc.).

    Zantvoort is correct to claim there is not much “new” about the links between play, anxiety, and the desire for a regulated controlled structure of meaning. This position far predates Derrida. It goes back to at least Plato, especially The Republic and Laws. Existential philosophers and existential psychologists also underscore these internal tendencies of human beings.

    What is remarkable to me is a leading anarchist in David Graeber is underscoring both the deep internal psychological need for regulated controlled structure of meaning (and for existentialists, a deep need for structured human ontologies) and the social and political benefits of bureaucracies.

    Let us recall that in his book Debt, he argued human societies always necessarily have modes of (1) exchange, (2) hierarchies, and (3) base communism that constitute them. Thus, in a way what he is doing in the new book is unfolding the specifics of the “hierarchical” element of Late Capitalism.

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