“Well, that’s the last bureaucrat hung with the guts of the last priest!” “Let’s all sing!” - title page comic
“Nightmare people shape our culture.” - Amazon.com review
Bureaucracy gets a bad rap, and the above sentiments are only a scant sampling of the charges leveled in its direction. But critiques of bureaucracy often come in a knee-jerk format (e.g., “What idiot thought it’d be a good idea to spend six months ripping up an intersection to put in a roundabout?”) that tends to dissolve upon investigation or reflection. David Graeber went far, far deeper down the rabbit hole.
The Utopia of Rules is a sprawling series of essays on the nature of bureaucracy, its origins, and why people secretly like it - at least, why the people behind it like it:
- Dead Zones of the Imagination: an Essay on Structural Stupidity
- Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
- The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All
Graeber framed his book as an effort to start a conversation about whether or not bureaucracy (in its current forms) is an imperative in our world, which is fair. Much food for thought, few resounding conclusions or paths forward. And to reiterate: sprawling. Graeber will leave you hanging for a good thirty pages sometimes before you even get a sense of the point he’s driving towards.
There’s a certain irony in Kent’s concluding notion that Graeber’s work is sprawling and leaves you hanging for extended periods of time before you get a sense of the point he’s trying to make … It kind of makes you wonder if his critique is intentionally analogous to that which he is critiquing. Regardless of whether it was by design or by neglect the result was the same, the number of pages I dog-eared declined dramatically the further into the book I read.
That said, if you want some zingers about the bureaucracy, Graeber is your man:
“The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization over the last two hundred years is that it has made this intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like common sense.” (p.40)
Again, like Kent said, zingers yes, solutions path, not so much and as a result, the book just didn’t live up to my expectations.
Unlike The Black Swan, there's no way to quickly sum up the point or the key takeaways on this one. I was with Graeber through the introduction, calling for an investigation into the nature of bureaucracy. However, he followed that lead with a dive into interesting but highly abstract possible elements of bureaucracy — bureaucracy as the threat of violence, or bureaucracy as the elimination of the possibility for human play and imagination — which I don't see as a good starting point for most people who'd need to be a part of that investigation.