The Utopia of Rules

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This is an important, lucid and powerful book. Not because David Graeber is saying something radically new and exciting; it’s important because of how he says it.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of essays that explore the themes of bureaucracy, play, technology and the ugly truth of how our society works. It’s a sobering, yet electric breath of fresh air. The suffocating rhetoric of American politics – probably at its all time worst at the moment – is swept away. And that is what makes this book so damn good.

Clearly elucidated, cleverly explained and well laid out, Graeber is able to take the last sixty years of Critical Theory and make it easily accessible to “normal” people. That is, people who haven’t spent years absorbing the history and vocabulary of Theory or pouring through volumes of unbelievably dense and obtuse academic verbiage.

The dualistic quality of American politics – the “on message” narratives that each party peddles (rather shamelessly) is put in a proper perspective. Graeber shows us the truth: we live in the most bureaucratic society that has ever been. And we love it. Bureaucracy is hardly the monopoly of the government; rather it has become the essence of how we think; how we do things. Bureaucracy has always been around; just look at the ancient Babylonian tables that endlessly catalog harvest statistics. Far from a result of the welfare state, it has far more to do with Reaganomics (neoliberalism) and the alliance between management, CEOs, and shareholders. In a nutshell industry went from making things to really only making profit. And this has made bureaucracy go from bad to downright sinister-insane.

The problem is that “market” solutions are not actually reducing bureaucracy because the simple truth is that markets are not self-regulating. Even neoliberal economists like von Mises admit this. And despite decades of the utter failure of neoliberalism the blinding rhetoric of Adam Smith and moralistic arguments about work keep Americans supporting “market reforms”. It’s a vicious cycle, where increasing desperation for reform expresses itself in populist rage that supports “market reform”.

Ultimately, however, its about play oddly enough. Graeber introduces the concept of “interpretive labor”. This is simply the idea of empathy, or “putting yourself in the other’s shoes” expresses as a sociological term. Basically, people in power, be it men over women in the ’50s, or CEO’s over their employees today or say a Roman Emperor over his subjects do little “interpretive labor”. They don’t have to understand (i.e. care) about those they control. Yet the flipside, the ’50’s housewife, the antebellum slave towards the owner, the minimum wage employee engage in a huge amount of “interpretive labor” towards understanding their social/economic/political overlords. The result is that those in power are effectively cocooned from the brutal reality they have created.

Ultimately, Graeber says, it’s about play. Everybody both wants clear rules, yet wants to play fast and loose with them. It’s paradoxical and very human. Bureaucracy’s impersonalness – the fact that we don’t have to care what your check-out clerk at the grocery store thinks about your questionable socks – is it’s biggest emotional selling point for us. As we work more hours and sacrifice more of our mental, emotional and physical health for this neoliberal economy, the more we will depend on the emotional break that bureaucracy allows us to take. This is the truly terrifying thing about the whole dreadful processes.

Graeber also throws in an essay about the new Batman series – especially the extra explicitly conservative The Dark Knight Rises; it’s incoherent portrayal of the Occupy movement. His conclusion is that the Right is always fuelled and supported by those who only understand and depend on violence. It’s a brilliant analysis of why the last one was by far the worst of the three Batman movies; he manages to convince you it’s because of Christopher Nolan’s conservative ideological incoherence.

This is one of the most important, relevant books you will read this year, maybe this decade.

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