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

David Graeber

Book cover

This book piqued my curiosity, as someone who both enjoyed Graeber’s “Debt” and works in a bureaucratic organization (a federal regulatory body). Although the essays are either almost all, or all, reprints of work that has appeared elsewhere, I had only encountered one of them previously.

The book was fun to read and, I thought, impressively balanced, given Graeber’s well-known anarchist bent. He isn’t simply putting bureaucracy down, but rather encouraging us to think critically about it. He’s striving to remind us that, contra Margaret Thatcher, there IS an alternative, and while it’s one that he clearly supports, he acknowledges that there are real tradeoffs. I was often put in mind, while reading this book, of Ursula Le Guin’s novel “The Dispossessed.” In that book, a splinter group has left their planet for a marginally habitable world and set up an anarchist society there. UKL does a good job of portraying how their success at establishing an anarchist society comes at the cost of, basically, not getting to have very much or very nice stuff. To me, that, in a nutshell, is the tradeoff associated with bureaucracy. Without bureaucracy (both governmental and corporate), you can’t really have mass production and consumption. Dealing with everything judgmentally on a case-by-case basis probably means that any individual case is going to be handled better, but also that we just can’t get through as many cases. So we can have a high-consumption, high-bureaucracy equilibrium, or a low-consumption, low-bureaucracy equilibrium. To some extent these decisions take place on an individual level–the more you take yourself “off the grid,” the less bureaucracy you have to deal with–but in large part they are made at a societal level. I think Graeber wants us to understand that the way our society is now is the product of collective choices that could have been made differently, and to reflect on whether we are happy with where things stand. I suspect that most people would in fact answer that last question more or less affirmatively; that we consider elevated levels of bureaucracy an acceptable tradeoff for more, nicer, and cheaper things.

I also appreciated that one of the essays includes an extended discussion of, as the title presages, the things that we actually like about bureaucracy. To illustrate this, he talks about something near and dear to my heart–games. If you think about it, playing a game is essentially a temporary voluntary submission to a bureaucratic regime, where you try to achieve goals while governed by a set of rules that is almost literally arbitrary. And they’re fun! Graeber says that in non-bureaucratic settings we are constantly dealing with ambiguity, and that basically we only have a limited capacity to do that–it’s hard and takes effort. It can be relieving or even fun to take part in a bureaucracy because your choices are presented more clearly and it’s easier to tell how you are doing. This taps into a primal reward center, and can be good in a limited or focused sense. But it’s also why the trend toward “gamification” abetted by smartphones is dangerous–because ultimately, there is no substitute for assessing how you are doing for yourself, by your own standards.

A particular thing that I found interesting in that essay was Graeber’s discussion of fantasy in literature and games. He highlights how, over a period of only a few decades, it went from being completely non-bureaucratic–think classic fantasy novels such as “The Lord of the Rings”–to being partially bureaucratized via the Dungeons and Dragons RPG system, which blended narrative and open-world aspects of fantasy through the role of the Dungeon Master with bureaucratic rules around hit points, levels, and 1d8+2 longswords; to complete bureaucratization in the form of computer RPGs, which are fully rules-governed with no DM. I have never played pen & paper D&D (though I would love to), but I am a fan of both fantasy novels and of one particular CRPG series. I never thought about this relationship before, but it is extremely interesting to me. One quirky but perhaps very telling piece of information is that, when I was a kid, despite the fact that I never played D&D, I owned a copy of the D&D Monstrous Manual, which catalogs all of the canonical D&D creatures and their various statistics. And I loved to just read it! Anyway, Graeber’s discussion of this history is quite interesting, highlighting how the developments in fantasy gaming fed back to influence fantasy literature.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars