Nobody likes talking about bureaucracy anymore. (Ok, there are some people, but they never get invited to fun parties.) Talking about bureaucracy is passé; the main studies of bureaucracy in America were all written at least thirty years ago. The marketization and privatization of everything, and the subsequent dismantling of the administrative state over the last forty years, has made bureaucracy seem irrelevant.
David Graeber thinks we’re doing it all wrong. In Utopia of Rules, he argues that we have entered an era of “total bureaucratization”: rather than disappear, the political foundations of bureaucracy have metastasized into all aspects of life. Privatization has not defeated bureaucratization but rather joined forces with it “in a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth.” Bureaucracy is more important than ever; we just don’t even realize it.
Graeber’s critique is particularly provocative when it comes to the relationship between bureaucracy and left-wing politics. We often think of the political Left in America as defenders of a benevolent bureaucracy, protecting welfare state programs against the predations of right-wing politicians hellbent on shrinking the government. Yet Graeber suggests instead that the fundamental assumptions of Left politics make it incompatible with bureaucracy.
“The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states,” he writes. That “the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state,” is indicative of how American politics has lost its way.
Bureaucracies are arrangements of rules, a particular arrangement of social order that prioritizes predictability, stability, and order. “Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and—-within certain parameters, at least—-treat everyone more or less the same,” he writes. Bureaucracies, then, can be highly effective in certain circumstances—-but they are so only by removing as much humanness as possible.
The departure from human impulses is what makes bureaucracy incompatible with foundational elements of a left political project, he argues, which must be grounded in the idea of imagination. In those youth rebellions of the 1960s, bureaucratic authority represented the fundamental stifling of the human spirit, of creativity and conviviality. The bureaucratic mindset is the rejection of human imagination; a revulsion toward the fetters of bureaucracy is inextricable from the core energy of what motivates a true egalitarian. “The Left, in its essence, is a critique of bureaucracy, even if it’s one that has, again and again, been forced to accommodate in practice to the very bureaucratic structures and mindset it originally arose to oppose.”
Graeber invokes Marx to promote an idea of the political imagination as the inherent human capability of envisioning a better world. In Marx’s terminology, Graeber says, this is production: the ability to envision things, and then bring them into being, unconstrained by the notion that we are limited by what the world currently is.
Imagination does not—-and should not—-be relegated to utopian fantasizing and attempts to use force to impose visions of society from above. It should be a bottom-up project, grounded in the basic creativity of regular individuals. The ability to imagine is not something that is reserved for the prodigies or high-powered elites, while the masses labor purely with their hands and without their minds. Rather, the imagination he speaks of is “the practical common sense imagination of ordinary cooks, nurses, mechanics, and gardeners.”
The combination of the bureaucratic mindset plus the neoliberal belief in markets and individualism creates an environment that seeks to limit the human imagination as much as possible. Graeber’s focus on the importance of political imagination and his sharp critiques of the elite managerial classes echo the more radical writings of George Orwell: “The ultimate imperative of those running the world is choking off the possibility of any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that will be fundamentally different than the world today.”
Even the most benevolent bureaucracies are really just taking the highly schematized, minimal, blinkered perspectives typical of the powerful, turning them into ways of limiting that power or ameliorating its most pernicious effects. Surely, bureaucratic interventions along these lines have done an enormous amount of good in the world…But at the same time, in taking forms of willful blindness typical of the powerful and giving them the prestige of science—for instance, by adopting a whole series of assumptions about the meaning of work, family, neighborhood, knowledge, health, happiness, or success that had almost nothing to do with how poor or working-class people actually lived their lives, let alone what they found meaningful in them—it set itself up for a fall.
In many arenas, most notably academia, radical critics of the status quo often cling to the strictures of bureaucracy to root out existing networks that favor the well-connected and the closed-off, patronage benefits they promote. Bureaucracy is juxtaposed with a feudal system and arbitrary personal authority. Yet, Graeber notes, the comfortable embrace of bureaucracy is dangerous: it adds more rules and limits creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily upset the order of authority. Channeling his anarchist forebears like James Scott, he argues that bureaucratization
had to take what had always been a subtle, nuanced form of procedures and turn them into an explicit set of rules. In effect, they had to turn custom into a kind of board game….Such reforms may aim to eliminate arbitrary personal authority, but of course they never actually do. Personal authority just jumps up a level, and becomes the ability to set the rules aside in specific cases.
The tension between Left politics and bureaucracy was perhaps most apparent in Maoist China. The antithesis to true mass politics was bureaucracy and its associated diseased ideologies was “bureaucratism” and “formalism”—when bureaucrats become too distant from ordinary people and enslave themselves to rules rather than what people need. Bureaucracy won out in the post-Mao era, and the contemporary Chinese bureaucratic state is beset by the key feature that Graeber attributes to the bureaucratic mindset: a fear of arbitrariness, and, thus, an embrace of power that is deeply wary of uninhibited human creativity.