The shape of our bureaucracy
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
by David Graeber
Introduction – the Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization
Bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim.
We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of our existence. It’s as if, as a planetary civilization, we have decided to clap our hands over our ears and start humming whenever the topic comes up. Insofar as we are even willing to discuss it, it’s still in the terms popular in the sixties and early seventies. The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in aspiration, 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.
With the collapse of the old welfare states, all this has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on “market solutions” to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced with–often even spearheaded–attempts to make government efforts more “efficient” through the partial privatization of services and the incorporation of ever-more “accountability processes” into the structure of the bureaucracy itself.
The result is a political catastrophe. there’s really no other way to put it. What is presented as the “moderate” Left solution to any social problems–and radical left solutions are, almost everywhere, ruled out tout court–has invariably come to be some nightmare fusion of the worst elements of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism. It’s as if someone had consciously tried to create the least appealing possible political position.
The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy. It’s not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none. As a result, when those who identify with the Left do have anything negative to say about bureaucracy, they are usually forced to adopt a watered-down version of the right-wing critique.
The emergence of modern bureaucracies was always something of a problem for this story because it didn’t really fit. In principle, all these stuffy functionaries in their offices, with their elaborate chains of command, should have been mere feudal holdovers, soon to go the way of the armies and officer corps that everyone was expecting to gradually become unnecessary as well. One need only flip open a Russian novel from the late nineteenth century: all the scions of old aristocratic families–in fact, almost everyone in those books–had been transformed into either military officers or civil servants (no one of any notice seems to do anything else), and the military and civil hierarchies seemed to have nearly identical ranks, titles, and sensibilities. But there was an obvious problem. If bureaucrats were just holdovers, why was it that everywhere–not just in backwaters like Russia but in booming industrial societies like England and Germany–every year seemed to bring more and more of them?
First of all, historically, markets simply did not emerge as some autonomous domain of freedom independent of, and opposed to, state authorities. Exactly the opposite is the case. Historically, markets are generally either a side effect of government operations, especially military operations, or were directly created by government policy. This has been true at least since the invention of coinage, which was first created and promulgated as a means of provisioning soldiers; for most of Eurasian history, ordinary people used informal credit arrangements and physical money, gold, silver, bronze, and the kind of impersonal markets they made possible remained mainly an adjunct tot he mobilization of legions, sacking of cities, extraction of tribute, and disposing of loot. Modern central banking systems were likewise first created to finance wars. … While the idea that the market is somehow opposed to and independent of government has been used at least since the nineteenth century to justify laissez faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, they never actually have that effect. English liberalism, for instance, did not lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy, but the exact opposite: an endlessly ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries, and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible. It turned out that maintaining a free market economy required a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.
This apparent paradox–that government policies intending to reduce government interference in the economy actually end up producing more regulations, more bureaucrats, and more police–can be observed so regularly that I think we are justified in treating it as a general sociological law. I propose to call it “the iron law of liberalism”:
The Iron Law of Liberalism states that any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.
In contemporary American populism–and increasingly, in the rest of the world as well–there can be only one alternative to “bureaucracy,” and that is, “the market.” Sometimes this is held to mean that government should be run more like a business. Sometimes it is held to mean we should simply get the bureaucrats out of the way and let nature take its course, which means letting people attend to the business of their lives untrammelled by endless rules and regulations imposed on them from above, and so allowing the magic of the marketplace to provide its own solutions.
“Democracy” thus came to mean the market; “bureaucracy,” in turn, government interference with the market; and this is pretty much what the word continues to mean to this day.
It wasn’t always so. The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen at the same time as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private sector–and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated a world of small family firms. The pioneers of these new, private bureaucracies were the United States and Germany, and Max Weber, the German sociologist, observed that Americans in his day were particularly inclined to see public and private bureaucracies as essentially the same animal[.]
…for much of the nineteenth century, the United States was largely an economy of small family firms and high finance–much like Britain’s at the time. But American’s advent as a power on the world stage at the end of the century corresponded to the rise of a distinctly American form: corporate–bureaucratic–capitalism. … Unlike the British Empire, which had taken its free market rhetoric seriously, eliminating its own protective tariffs with the famous Anti-Corn Law Bill of 1846, neither the German or American regimes had ever been especially interested in free trade. The Americans in particular were much more concerned with creating structures of international administration. The very first thing the United States did, on officially taking over the reins from Great Britain after World War II, was to set up the world’s first genuinely planetary bureaucratic institutions in the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions–the International Monetary Fun, World Bank, and GATT, later to become the WTO. The British Empire had never attempted anything like this. They either conquered other nations, or traded with them. The Americans attempted to administer everything and everyone.
British people, I’ve observed, are quite proud that they are not especially skilled at bureaucracy; Americans, in contrast, seem embarrassed by the fact that on the whole, they’re really quite good at it. It doesn’t fit the American self-image. We’re supposed to be self-reliant individualists.
The impression that the word “bureaucrat” should be treated as a synonym for “civil servant” can be traced back to the New Deal in the thirties, which was also the moment when bureaucratic structures and techniques first became dramatically visible in many ordinary people’s lives. But in fact, from the very beginning, Roosevelt’s New Dealers worked in close coordination with the battalions of lawyers, engineers, and corporate bureaucrats employed by firms like Ford, Coca Cola, or Proctor & Gamble, absorbing much of their style and sensibilities, and–as the United States shifted to war footing in the forties–so did the gargantuan bureaucracy of the U.S. military. And, of course, the United States has never really gone off war footing every since. Still, through these means, the word “bureaucrat” came to attach itself almost exclusively to civil servants: even if what they do all day is sit at desks, fill out forms, and file reports, neither middle managers nor military officers are ever quite considered bureaucrats. (Neither for that matter are police, or employees of the NSA.)
Still, with the rise of the financial sector, things have reached a qualitatively different level–one where it is becoming almost impossible to say what is public and what is private. This is not just due to the much-noted outsourcing of one-time government functions to private corporations. Above all, it’s due to the way the private corporations themselves have come to operate.
So what are people actually referring to when they talk about “deregulation”? In ordinary usage, the word seems to mean “changing the regulatory structure in a way that I like.” In practice this can refer to almost anything. … This is what makes the term so handy. Simply by labeling a new regulatory measure “deregulation,” you can frame it in the public mind as a way to reduce bureaucracy and set individual initiative free, even if the result is a fivefold increase in the actual number of forms to be filled in, reports to be filed, rules and regulations for lawyers to interpret, and officious people in offices whose entire job seems to be to provide convoluted explanations for why you’re not allowed to do things.
this process–the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits–does not yet have a name. That in itself is significant. These things can happen largely because we lack a way to talk about them. But one can see its effects in every aspect of our lives. It fills our days with paperwork. Application forms get longer and more elaborate. Ordinary documents like bills or tickets or memberships in sports or book clubs come to be buttressed by pages of legalistic fine print.
I’m going to make up a name. I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratization.” (I was tempted to call this the age of “predatory bureaucratization” but it’s really the all-encompassing nature of the beast I want to highlight here.) It had its first stirrings, one might say, just at the point where public discussion of bureaucracy began to fall off in the late seventies, and it began to get seriously under way in the eighties. But it truly took off in the nineties.
In an earlier book, I suggested that the fundamental historical break that ushered in our current economic regime occurred in 1971, the date that the U.S. dollar went off the gold standard. This is what paved the way first for the financialization of capitalism, but ultimately, for much more profound long-term changes that i suspect will ultimately, for much more profound long-term changes that i suspect will ultimately spell the end of capitalism entirely. I still think that. But here we are speaking of much more short-term effects. What did financialization mean for the deeply bureaucratized society that was postwar America?
I think what happened is best considered as a kind of shit in class allegiances on the part of the managerial staff of major corporations, from an uneasy, de facto alliance with their own workers, to one with investors. As John Kenneth Galbraith long ago pointed out, if you create an organization geared to produce perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, those who make it up will, if left to their own devices, tend to concentrate their efforts on producing more and better perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, those who make it up will, if left to their own devices, tend to concentrate their efforts on producing more and better perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, rather than thinking primarily of what will make the most money for the shareholders. What’s more, since for most of the twentieth century, a job in a large bureaucratic mega-firm meant a lifetime promise of employment, everyone involved in the process–managers and workers alike–tended to see themselves as sharing a certain common interest in this regard, over and against meddling owners and investors. This kind of solidarity across class lines even had a name: it was called “corporatism”. One mustn’t romanticize it. It was among other things the philosophical basis of fascism. Indeed, one could well argue that fascism simply took the idea that workers and managers had common interests, that organizations like corporations or communities formed organic wholes, and that financiers were an alien, parasitical force, and drove them to their ultimate, murderous extreme.
What began to happen in the seventies, and paved the way for what we see today, was a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy–away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole. The mergers and acquisitions, corporate raiding, junk bonds, and asset stripping that began under Reagan and Thatcher and culminated in the rise of private equity firms were merely some of the more dramatic early mechanisms through which this shift of allegiance worked itself out. in fact, there was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized, and investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors. As a result the investor class and the executive class became almost indistinguishable.
No political revolution can succeed without allies, and bringing along a certain portion of the middle class–and, even more crucially, convincing the bulk of the middle classes tht they had some kind of stake in finance-driven capitalism–was critical. Ultimately, the more liberal members of this professional-managerial elite became the social base for what came to pass as “left-wing” political parties, as actual working-class organizations like trade unions were cast into the wilderness. … These were of course people who already tended to work in thoroughly bureaucratized environments, whether schools, hospitals, or corporate law firms. The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right.
This was not just a political realignment. It was a cultural transformation. And it set the stage for the process whereby the bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys…) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of society–education, science, government–and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life. One can best trace the process, perhaps, by following its language. There is a peculiar idiom that first emerged in such circles, full of bright, empty terms like vision, quality, stakeholder, leadership, excellence, innovation, strategic goals, or best practices. … Now, imagine it would be possible to create a map of some major city, and then place one tiny blue dot on the location of every document that uses at least three of these words. Then imagine that we could watch it change over time. We would be able to observe this new corporate bureaucratic culture spread like blue stains in a petri dish, starting in the financial districts, on to boardrooms, then government offices and universities, then, finally, engulfing any location where any number of people gather to discuss the allocation of resources of any kind.
For all its celebration of markets and individual initiative, this alliance of government and finance often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worst excesses of bureaucratization in the former Soviet Union or former colonial backwaters of the Global South. There is a rich anthropological literature, for instance, on the cult of certificates, licenses, and diplomas in the former colonial world. Often the argument is that in countries like Bangladesh, Trinidad, or Cameroon, which hover between teh stifling legacy of colonial domination and their own magical traditions, official credentials are seen as a kind of material fetish–magical objects conveying power in their own right, entirely apart from the real knowledge, experience, or training they’re supposed to represent. But since the eighties, the real explosion of credentialism has been in what are supposedly the most “advanced economies, like the United States, Great Britain, or Canada. As one anthropologist, Sarah Kendzior, puts it:
“The United States has become the most rigidly credentialised society in the world,” write James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield in their 2005 book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. “A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of full-time training, let alone four.”
The promotion of college as a requirement for a middle-class life …has resulted in the exclusion of the non-college educated from professions fo public influence. In 1971, 58 percent of journalists had a college degree. Today, 92 percent do, and at many publications, a graduate degree in journalism is required–despite the fact that most renowned journalists have never studied journalism.
Journalism is one of many fields of public influence–including politics–in which credentials function as de facto permission to speak, rendering those who lack them less likely to be employed and less able to afford to stay in their field. Ability is discounted without credentials, but the ability to purchase credentials rests, more often than not, on family wealth.
One could repeat the story in field after field, from nurses to art teachers, physical therapists to foreign policy consultants. Almost every endeavor that used to be considered an art (best learned through doing) now requires formal professional training and a certificate of completion, and this seems to be happening, equally, in both the private and public sectors, since, as already noted, in matters bureaucratic, such distinctions are becoming effectively meaningless. While these measures are touted–as are all bureaucratic measures–as a way of creating fair, impersonal mechanisms in fields previously dominated by insider knowledge and social connections, the effect is often the opposite. As anyone who has been to graduate school knows, it’s precisely the children of the professional-managerial classes, those whose family resources make them the least in need of financial support, who best know how to navigate the world of paperwork that enables them to get said support. For everyone else, the main result of one’s years of professional training is to ensure that one is saddled with such an enormous burden of student debt that a substantial chunk of any subsequent income one will get from pursuing that profession will henceforth be siphoned off, each month, by the financial sector. In some cases, these new training requirements can only be described as outright scams, as when lenders, and those prepared to set up the training programs, jointly lobby the government to insist that, say, all pharmacists be henceforth required to pass some additional qualifying examination, forcing thousands already practicing the profession into night school, which these pharmacists know many will only be able to afford with the help of high-interest student loans. By doing this, lenders are in effect legislating themselves a cut of most pharmacists’ subsequent incomes.
The latter might seem an extreme case, but in its own way it’s paradigmatic of the fusion of public and private power under the new financial regime. Increasingly, corporate profits in America are not derived from commerce or industry at all, but from finance–which means, ultimately, from other people’s debts. These debts do not just happen by accident. To a large degree, they are engineered–and by precisely this kind of fusion of public and private power. The corporatization of education; the resulting ballooning of tuitions as students are expected to pay for giant football stadiums and similar pet projects of executive trustees, or to contribute to the burgeoning salaries of ever-multiplying university officials; the increasing demands for degrees as certificates of entry into any job that promises access to anything like a middle-class standard of living; resulting rising levels of indebtedness–all these form a single web. One result of all this debt is to render the government itself the main mechanism for the extraction of corporate profits. (Just think, here, of what happens if one tries to default on one’s student loans: the entire legal apparatus leaps into action, threatening to seize assets, garnish wages, and apply thousands of dollars in additional penalties.) Another is to force the debtors themselves to bureaucratize ever-increasing dimensions of their own lives, which have to be managed as fi they were themselves a tiny corporation measuring inputs and outputs and constantly struggling to balance its accounts.
It’s also important to emphasize that while this system of extraction comes dressed up in a language of rules and regulations, in its actual mode of operation, it has almost nothing to do with the rule of law. Rather, the legal system has itself become the means for a system of increasingly arbitrary extractions. As the profits from banks and credit card companies derive more and more from “fees and penalties” levied on their customers–so much so that those living check to check can regularly expect to be charged eighty dollars for a five-dollar overdraft–financial firms have come to play by an entirely different set of rules. I once attended a conference on the crisis in the banking system where I was able to have a brief, informal chat with an economist for one of the Bretton Woods institutions (probably best I not say which). I asked him why everyone was still waiting for even one bank official to be brought to trial for any act of fraud leading up to the crash of 2008.
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less.
ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job…
[Bureaucratic] institutions always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules–it’s that loyalty to the organization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.
This point is worth expanding on. What I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere. All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are selected by formal, impersonal criteria–most often, some kind of written test. (That is, bureaucrats are not, say, elected like politicians, but neither should they get the job just because they are somebody’s cousin.) In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true. Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.
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…the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last thirty or forty years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence. As a result, this culture of complicity has come to spread as well. many of us actually act as if we believe that the courts really are treating the financial establishment as it should be treated, that they are even dealing with them too harshly; and that ordinary citizens really do deserve to be penalized a hundred times more harshly for an overdraft. As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than systems of arbitrary extraction, everyone duly scurries about trying to curry favor by pretending they actually believe this to be true.
Thus when the Global Justice Movement started, the media spin was that it was a rearguard action of a hoary, carbuncular leftists who wished to restore protectionism, national sovereignty, barriers to trade and communication, and, generally, to vainly stand against the Inevitable Tide of History. The problem with this was that it was obviously untrue. Most immediately, there was the fact that the protestors’ average age, especially in wealthier countries, seemed to be about nineteen. More seriously, there was the fact that the movement was a form of globalization in itself: a kaleidoscopic alliance of people from every corner of the world, including organizations ranging from Indian farmers’ associations, to the Canadian postal workers’ union, to indigenous groups in Panama, to anarchist collectives in Detroit. What’s more, its exponents endlessly insisted that despite protestations to the contrary, what the media was calling “globalization” had almost nothing to do with the effacement of borders and the free movement of people, products, and ideas. It was really about trapping increasingly large parts of the world’s population behind highly militarized national borders within which social protections could be systematically withdrawn, creating a pool of laborers so desperate that they would be willing to work for almost nothing. Against it, they proposed a genuinely borderless world.
Until the movement came to North America with the siege of the World Trade Meeting in Seattle in November 1999–and subsequent blockades against the IMF/World Bank Meetings in Washington–most Americans simply had no idea that any of these organizations even existed. The actions operated like a magic charm that exposed everything that was supposed to be hidden: all we had to do was show up and try to block access to the venue, and instantly we revealed the existence of a vast global bureaucracy of interlocking organizations that nobody was supposed to really think about. And, of course, at the same time, we would magically whisk into existence thousands of heavily armed riot police ready to reveal just what those bureaucrats were willing to unleash against anyone–no matter how nonviolent–who tried to stand in their way.
It was a surprisingly effective strategy. Within a matter of two or three years, we had sunk pretty much every proposed new global trade pact, and institutions like the IMF had been effectively expelled from Asia, Latin America, and, indeed, most of the world’s surface.
The imagery worked because it showed everything people had been told about globalization to be a lie. This was not some natural process of peaceful trade, made possible by new technologies. What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the self-conscious completion of the world’s first effective planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system. The foundations for this system had been laid in the 1940s, but it was only with the waning of the Cold War that they became truly effective. … Let us think about it this way: At the top were the trade bureaucracies like the IMF, World Bank, WTO and the G8s, along with treaty organizations like NAFTA or the EU. These actually developed the economic–and even social–policies followed by supposedly democratic governments in the global south. Just below were the large global financial firms like Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, American Insurance Group, or, for that matter, institutions like Standard & Poors. Below that came the transnational mega-corporations. (Much of what was being called “international trade” in fact consisted merely of the transfer of materials back and forth between different branches of the same corporation.) Finally, one has to include the NGOs, which in many parts of the world come to provide many of the social services previously provided by government, with the result that urban planning in a city in Nepal, or health policy in a town in Nigeria, might well have been developed in offices in Zurich or Chicago.
Even the emphasis on inventing new forms of democratic processes that was at the core of the movement–the assemblies, the spokescouncils, and so on–was, more than anything else, a way to show that people could indeed get on with one another–and even make important decisions and carry out complex collective projects–without anyone ever having to fill out a form, appeal a judgment, or threaten to phone security or the police.
The Global Justice Movement was, in its own way, the first major leftist antibureaucratic movement of the era of total bureaucratization. As such, I think it offers important lessons for anyone trying to develop a similar critique. Let me end by outlining three of them:
1. Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence
The armies of highly militarized police that appeared to attack the summit protestors were not some sort of weird side effect of “globalization.” Whenever someone starts talking about the “free market,” it’s a good idea to look around for the man with the gun. He’s never far away. Free-market liberalism of the nineteenth century corresponded with the invention of the modern police and private detective agencies, and gradually, with the notion that those police had at least ultimate jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of urban life.
History reveals that political policies that favor “the market” have always meant even more people in offices to administer things, but it also reveals that they also mean an increase of the range and density of social relations that are ultimately regulated by the threat of violence. … The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only opeate if they are backed up by the threat of force. And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating, and ultimately deploying violence, appear just about everywhere–even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.
In my native New York, I have observed the endless multiplication of bank branches. … They define the perfect point of conjuncture between guns and information, since that’s really all that’s there. And that conjuncture has come to provide the framework for almost every other aspect of our lives.
2. Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor.
Just as what came to be called “globalization” was really a creation of new political alignments, policy decisions, and new bureaucracies–which were only later followed by physical technologies like containerized shipping, or the Internet–so the pervasive bureaucratization of everyday life made possible by the computers is not, itself, the result of technological development. Rather it’s the other way around. Technological change is simply not an independent variable. Technology will advance, and often in surprising and unexpected ways. But the overall direction it takes depends on social factors.
Rather than causing our current situation, the direction that technological change has taken is itself largely a function of the power of finance.
3. Always remember it’s all ultimately about value (or: whenever you hear someone say that what their greatest value is rationality, they are just saying that because they don’t want to admit what their greatest value really is)
…if one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true.
One thing the Global Justice Movement taught us is that politics is, indeed, ultimately about value; but also, that those creating vast bureaucratic systems will almost never admit what their values really are.
In the big picture it hardly matters, then, whether one seeks to reorganize the world around bureaucratic efficiency or market rationality: all the fundamental assumptions remain the same. This helps explain why it’s so easy to move back and forth between them, as with those ex-Soviet officials who so cheerfully switched hats from endorsing total state control of the economy, to total marketization–and in the process, true to the Iron Law, managed to increase the total number of bureaucrats employed in their country dramatically.
Much of what bureaucrats do, after all, is evaluate things. They are continually assessing, auditing, measuring, weighing the relative merits of different plans, proposals, applications, courses of action, or candidates for promotion. Market reforms only reinforce this tendency. … All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves.
A critique of bureaucracy fit for the times would have to show how all these threads–financialization, violence, technology, the fusion of public and private–knit together into a single, self-sustaining web. The process of financialization has meant that an ever-increasing proportion of corporate profits come in the form of rent extraction of one sort or another. since this is ultimately little more than legalized extortion, it is accompanied by ever-increasing accumulation of rules and regulations, and ever-more sophisticated, and omnipresent, threats of physical force to enforce them. Indeed they become so omnipresent that we no longer realize we’re being threatened…
We are faced with a problem. Bureaucratic practices, habits, and sensibilities engulf us. Our lives have come to be organized around the filling out of forms. Yet the language we have to talk about these things is not just woefully inadequate–it might as well have been designed to make the problem worse. We need to find a way to talk about what it is we actually object to in this process, to speak honestly about the violence it entails, but at the same time, to understand what is appealing about it, what sustains it, which elements carry within them some potential for redemption in a truly free society, which are best considered the inevitable price to pay for living in any complex society, which can and should be eliminated entirely.
Chapter 1 Dead Zones of the Imagination
An Essay on Structural Stupidity
Chapter 2 Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
Chaper 3 the Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All
On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power