Ben Smithgall

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I work at the US Digital Service. Previously at Code for America, Spotify, and Obama 2012.

The Utopia of Rules

02 April 2017

Though I said that I was going to write a new post every month, I failed to do so for March. So I’m writing this a few days late.

I recently read David Graeber’s book The Utopia of Rules and had a number of thoughts about it. The book concerns itself with the Bureaucracy – how it is overwhelmingly more and more part of daily life in both the public and private sectors of our life. Examples abound about the ways that private corporations increasingly operate like government bureaucracy, and he spends time thinking about why things have ended up this way:

The vast majority of the paperwork we do exists in just this sort of in-between zone – ostensibly private, but in fact entirely shaped by a government that provides the legal framework, underpins the rules with its courts and all of the elaborate mechanisms of enforcement that come with them, but – crucially – works closely with the private concerns to ensure that results will guarantee a certain rate of private profit.

This public/private “in-between zone” has come about for a number of reasons, but Graeber points out that as bureaucracy has come to be a larger and larger part of our lives, there exists a fiction surrounding the whole enterprise. Those inside a bureaucracy do a sort of performance where they pretend everything is based on merit but instead everything is based on an unfailing loyalty to the organization (this notion of a false meritocracy has been widely discussed in terms of how Silicon Valley operates).

So if everyone just doing this work is just putting on a performance, this raises a secondary question: where does the bureaucracy’s power come from? Ultimately, Graeber argues convincingly that it arrives from the state monopoly on violence. The police, he argues, are just armed bureaucrats; minor functionaries designated to make sure everyone is properly following the rules:

[W]hen most of us think about police, we do not think of them as enforcing regulations. We think of them as fighting crime, and when we think of “crime”, the kind of crime we have in our minds is violent crime. Even though, in fact what police mostly do is exactly the opposite: they bring the threat of force to bear on situations that would otherwise have nothing to do with it… The only fights which police are sure to get involved in are those that generate some kind of paperwork… On the other hand, try driving down the street […] without license plates. Uniformed officers armed with sticks, guns, and/or tasers will appear on the scene almost immediately, and if you simply refuse to comply with their instructions, violent force will, most definitely, be applied.

Taken together, these two thoughts show that we are living in a society where a blurred mix of public and private bureaucracies compel us into following rules enforced by a state monopoly on violence. Not only that, but Graeber argues that we cannot just replace this system with another one: any major change to our existing social order will ultimately result in the creation of “some new, violent bureaucracy”. This is because the bureaucracy is useful for political leaders: it creates a system of rules, and theoretically binds everyone to them where they can be treated equally.

In this way, the bureaucracy is actually a utopian project: it hopes not only that people are able to adequately follow some set of rules, but that the complexity of existence can be bound up into fields on a form that have a fixed set of possible answers. Here I am reminded of something that I read recently about software: software forcibly reduces complexity, often by forcing things into database fields. I am reminded of falsehoods programmers believe about names, time, and addresses. All the forms that I have seen and worked with during my time in the federal government have these properties (both the physical forms and their digital counterparts). Graeber’s point is well-taken, though: how can we imagine a society where we do not have to make these sorts of simplifications in order to effectively govern?

Thought this question is never answered definitively, Graeber does discuss at length why we always come back to bureaucratic societies (and why we appear to love them) – the thought of their absence is frightening to us. He traces how, throughout history, non-bureaucratic societies will sweep into and conquer bureaucratic ones before installing a new version of rules and regulations, retrenching themselves into the previous bureaucratic mold. Why is this? He discusses how rules provide us not just value, but a utopian vision of equality and fairness:

Who hasn’t dreamed of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and – even more – where people who play by the rules can actually still win?

This thought is certainly bound up in modern US politics – making “everyone play by the same rules” was a common rhetorical refrain from President Obama. Graeber points out, however, that this is just a utopian fantasy (hence the title of the book): seeing the bureaucracy as a mindless power without feeling that applies rules to all equally is a form of make-believe. There is an interesting corollary here that I want to develop about modernization, perhaps in another post.

In any case, this book is interesting and thought-provoking on many levels.