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

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Release Date: 
February 24, 2015
Melville House
Reviewed by: 

mostly surface and anecdote, disorganized, and unserious.”

Given the book’s title: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, this book is greatly disappointing. The Utopia of Rules isn’t really about rules, utopia, technology, or the secret joys of bureaucracy but is instead a collection of essays addressing the cultural malaise called “modernity.”

In his essays, author David Graeber wanders like a curious child, from observation to observation, providing anecdotes and passing judgment. While Graeber’s biography credits him with creating the slogan, “We are the ninety-nine percent,” here his language seems wooden and empty of depth. For example, “All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves.”

As for “modernity” Graeber is afflicted by the necessity of having to fill out forms to get help from government, state, and corporate institutions. From his stressful effort at form filling he observes that that many of today’s jobs apparently consist of nothing more than maintaining forms for other people to fill out. He claims that an increase in form filling corresponds to a decline in the overall quality of life and the quality of work. He also claims this decline is caused by corporations shifting from making stuff to making “efficient financial structures.”

Graeber observes the hypocrisy of corporate discourse with this, “So what are people actually referring to when the talk about ‘deregulation’? In ordinary usage, the word seems to mean ‘changing the regulatory structure in a way I like.’” To which this reviewer must point out that hypocrisy existed long before the invention of the corporation; Francois de La Rochefoucauld wrote in the 17th century that "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue." Though we may not like it, to be hypocritical is to be human.

In The Utopia of Rules Graeber uses the word “bureaucracy” continually without ever defining the term. Interestingly enough he avoids defining many weighted labels. When Graeber does offer the reader a definition for a term he uses, his definition tends to be arbitrary and not hold up to scrutiny, and as a result Graeber gets away with comparing apples to oranges, as for example when he declares, “the middle manager is not a bureaucrat.” Without a clear definition of “middle manager” or “bureaucrat” how can a reader agree or disagree?

Graeber also judges the labels he applies inconsistently, and so corporations, bureaucracies, and rules are things Graeber doesn’t like, except when he does. A reader who is paying attention might question Graeber’s premises. Are bureaucrats, corporatists, and public servants the same thing? And if not, then in what ways are bureaucrats, corporatists, and public servants different? Under what conditions should a person be labeled a bureaucrat, a corporatist, or a public servant? When do the labels refer to a good person? When do the labels refer to a bad person? These are the interesting questions, though the reader won’t see these types of questions asked by Graeber. After Graeber makes a judgment he promptly moves on, observing, labeling, and judging something else.

Graeber’s arbitrary labeling apes Marshall McLuhan’s labeling of media as “hot” and “cool,” where judging “hot,” “cool,” “bureaucrat,” or “corporate” actually conveys little besides “I like this” and “I dislike that.” By using language arbitrarily Graeber appears to turn himself into the hypocrite he rails against (though we prefer to imagine that Graeber is not evil so much as not paying attention, or rather paying greater attention to how words sound than to what words mean.)

All this negativity in a review and this reviewer has only completed the introduction!

Sadly to say, the introduction provides an accurate grasp of what is to follow. Graeber continues labeling without defining into the first chapter but now adds jargon from sociology, anthropology, and post-modernism. Graeber refers to Parkinson’s Law on the growth of bureaucracies but then goes ahead to colonize the Parkinson’s Law for his own purposes, renaming Parkinson’s Law Graeber’s Law.

More of Graeber being Graeber: “Police are bureaucrats with weapons,” which is a phrase as defaming as it is imaginative. All police? All police are bureaucrats? What makes the book even more confusing is that Graeber does occasionally recognize that society is more complex than the labels he applies. He provides examples to this effect, but does not go so far as to reconcile these examples with his previous conflicting statements.

In another essay Graeber delves into the just plain silly, giving the reader an analysis of the vampire in modern culture. Of course this might have been intended as a joke but again possibly not, once you start studying culture as serious it may be difficult to separate the silly from the serious.

In another more obviously serious essay, Graeber expresses his disappointment with the broken promises of technology. One such broken promise is being unable to own a flying car. In this essay Graeber conflates science, technology, and advertising and in not recognizing that there is a difference among them, squanders a golden opportunity to offer insights of greater than fleeting value.

There are more essays in The Utopia of Rules but this reviewer simply had no patience, and gave up about half way through—though halfway may be more than Graeber deserves.

As an observer of culture Graeber makes a common but incorrect assumption that everyone sees what he sees, and thinks what he thinks. He makes clear that anything complex can be simplified and that every simplification must be “obvious.” He sometimes does make a good point but any such points will be hard to find, buried under contradictions and counter examples. A reader may, at the conclusion of The Utopia of Rules be no more informed than he or she was at the beginning, perhaps even less informed, a similar condition to those who watch Fox News.

A reader looking for more serious reading on modernity and on utopia would be better served with Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott and Modernity and The Holocaust by Zygmunt Bauman.

The Utopia of Rules, imaginative catchphrases aside, is mostly surface and anecdote, disorganized, and unserious. There are endnotes but no index and no bibliography.