The Utopia of Rules

Last week, I wrote about David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy in the context of Fortnite Battle Royale.

There, Graeber’s most salient observations had to do with the similarities between fantasy role-playing games and accounting, the role of comics in socializing future leaders, and the tension between the fun of rules-based games and that of anarchic play.

That’s certainly an idiosyncratic list of topics to find in a book that is ostensibly about bureaucracy, and still it doesn’t begin to show the extent of the ground that Graeber covers.

It’s a testament to the fact that bureaucracy—the use of impersonal rules and procedures to regulate public life—is so deeply embedded in our lives that I have a hard time thinking of a society that gives a sharp enough counterexample the make it concisely clear what Graeber means by “total bureaucratization.” So I’ll go with Graeber’s: any mythologized, if possibly barbaric, society of the distant past that is believed to adhered to heroic principles of “boasting, dueling, vying to organize the most splendid feasts or most magnificent sacrifices, or to outdo one another with the giving of extravagant gifts.” Whether Homeric, Germanic, Celtic, Aryan, Native American, Elvish, or otherwise, the anti-bureaucrat is a species of Noble Savage who belongs to the past and serves as a relief valve for the present.

Not that we inhabitants of total bureaucratization would ever truly want to live in such a heroic society, for very much the same reasons that Graeber says that superhero stories serve as such effective material for socializing future pillars of bureaucratic society. Though both types of fantasy, we learn, “first off, that imagination and rebellion [and heroism] lead to violence; second, that, like imagination and rebellion, violence is a lot of fun; third, that, ultimately, violence must be directed against any overflow of imagination and rebellion lest everything go askew. These things must be contained!”

What, exactly, is the obviously preferable alternative that we are preserving even as we flirt with this inverted form of “ideological inoculation?” Where did it come from? And what is its purpose?

Graeber finds the roots of our total bureaucratization to lie in its use of violence, of technology, and of rules as a palliative and ostensible social leveler. These topics shape the book’s three main essays which—together with an introductory essay and a bonus closer about superheroes and sovereignty—are clearly separate but hang together well.

Through these lenses, Graeber traces the twentieth-century changes in corporate structure, tax regimes, political narratives, marital relations, birth control, geopolitics, research priorities, and our language around creativity and freedom that brought us to the point that it seems, if not desirable, at least inevitable that a university professor could spend the weeks that his mother was dying trying and failing to navigate the paperwork necessary to enroll her in Medicaid.

And in the process, he teaches us about superheroes and mythic heroes; nursery rhymes and carnival; Soviet dreams of feeding the world from spirulina ponds and launching solar power plants into orbit; how our conception of the imaginary has shifted since the Middle Ages from meaning the possible if as yet unrealized to the impossible and non-existent; kings who had their wives executed for sneezing; and how confused Medieval Europeans would be to hear that Middle Earth or Westeros are supposed to reflect their lives, or that anyone would fantasize about escaping to that warped reflection. (The escape and paradise they themselves dreamed of was full of seraphim, cherubim, and thrones who contemplated God and ranked above all the others in the heavenly host, from dominions on down to mere angels, all of whom took an active role in the administration of God’s creation. Theirs was a hierarchical and bureaucratized vision of heaven.)

You wouldn’t think that a review calling a book about bureaucracy a “fizzing, fabulous firecracker of a book” could be accurate, but The Literary Review is right.


Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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