Has the officialdom of rules, regulations, and hierarchical structures ever left you so confused and bereft of dignity that you felt hopelessly alienated?
If the answer is no, I suspect you may not immediately recognize the symptoms. Let me begin with an example.
Working as a freelance journalist, I write for numerous publications across the globe.
This means I have the unfortunate responsibility of dealing with the archaic concepts of foreign checks.
Last July, having lodged four checks into my account, I suspected the money hadn’t cleared. When I went to my local HSBC branch in South East London to inquire why, I was told I couldn’t speak to a bank official on the premises. Instead, I had to ring the HSBC telephone banking service. After two hours, things became seriously confusing.
The telephone official hung up. Furious, I demanded to speak to a member of staff, who eventually then rang the foreign check department. A preposterous situation then followed: The branch official was speaking to a phone operator in some undisclosed location, and then speaking to me through them.
This three-way conversation was extremely confusing. So I asked the bank official to allow me to speak to the foreign check person directly. This was against company policy, I was told.
After three hours, a manager took me to a comfortable air-conditioned room on the second floor.
She was polite and courteous, but still couldn’t tell when the checks would clear.
“And how do I make further inquiries,” I asked?
“You will have to ring the foreign checks department,” she answered.
I then tried the direct approach: “Is the foreign check department a physical building, where I can just turn up and sit down, person-to-person?”
The bank manager, much to my surprise, said she had no idea where it was based.
“So you are taking orders from an authority, and you have no idea where this authority exists as a physical entity,” I replied.
Eventually, I discovered a pattern: The checks were being physically mailed to my apartment in London from the U.S. I was lodging them into my account. They then got sent to a mysterious centralized office in HSBC, the location of which nobody seemed to know. Afterwards, they were being physically mailed back to the same bank in the U.S. where they had originated.
When the checks were being held in the U.S. bank, awaiting clearance, the U.K. bank had no way of finding out the status of the check.
Does this sound confusing and traumatizing? It gets worse.
By the time the checks eventually liquidized into my account—in most cases it was several months later—more than 50 percent of my income had been taken in administrative fees, from banks in both the U.K. and the U.S. respectively.
There was no explanation, phone call, or letter from my bank explaining anything.
What appeared on my bank statement was simply a check number, and the remaining money deposited was minus the fees that had been subsequently deducted.
To find out what fees had been taken, I had to go through weeks of interaction with “talking” computers, which eventually led to real people in foreign countries, which in turn evolved into conversations where both parties were so confused that they may as well have been speaking separate languages.
It appeared that if I lodged a check into my bank account, it was disappearing into a black hole where it was untraceable. After several months of letter writing, and complaining to various departments throughout HSBC—a financial institution whose ethical practices in recent times have included harboring money for Mexican drug cartels, as well as protecting elite tax evaders with secret accounts based in Switzerland—the bank paid me back in full all charges that they had effectively stolen from my account.
So, you may be wondering: Is this all a strange coincidence? And were my dealings with this financial institution simply a series of bad-luck stories that multiplied over time?
Or, is there perhaps an invisible force constantly at work, which disables one’s ability to understand things, or carry out even the most basic functions in society, such as lodging a check and being allowed to withdraw the money afterwards?
The answer to this question can be summed up with one word: bureaucracy.
As soon as I started reading The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, a compelling new book of essays by the American anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber, I felt I was beginning to understand this invisible world I always knew existed, but couldn’t quite fathom.
The book teases out a number of interesting questions, such as: What exactly does bureaucracy entail? What is its function? Why do we never see it? Who is in charge of it? And why has it worked so effectively at controlling human beings for thousands of years?
The main thrust of Graeber’s argument is as follows: In the West today bureaucracy informs almost every aspect of day-to-day existence. If we aren’t consciously aware of its presence, it’s because we cannot imagine living life any other way.
The U.S. may see itself as the embodiment of a free market and liberal culture, where choice dominates every aspect of society. But according to Graeber, it’s still the most bureaucratic place on Earth.
Graeber is a radical thinker unafraid to dream big and envision a society profoundly different from the one we live in. Here, there would be no need for police, or any other form of authority that threatens violence 24 hours a day. And the central message that runs through all of his work is this: We need to radically rethink some of our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of capitalism.
In his last book, The Democracy Project, Graeber argued that anarchism is not a violent movement where chaos ensues and people go around smashing windows with their hoods up. Rather it is essentially about giving the voting population the power to self-govern through egalitarian decision-making called consensus: where systems of hierarchy would automatically dissolve.
In his book, Debt: the First 5000 Years, Graeber argued there is a systematic connection between military systems and money creation, going back to antiquity. And, that there has always been a fundamental link between how money is created and wars driven by imperial dominance. That book also looks at the moral confusion around debt forgiveness and the function of debt in the politics of class division and social control. In light of the current financial and political impasse between Greece and Germany, the book seems more relevant than ever.
Graeber’s chief strategy is to examine the conventional wisdom in popular political discourse, then try to prove why things are not always how they appear. He does this by dismantling what he sees as a web of lies hidden behind enormous and complex systems of power.
Looking at a number of different powerful states throughout history, from ancient Romans to the U.S. today, Graeber points to one commonality: They’ve all dominated their subjects through a hierarchical system that depends for its success on the subjugation of other human beings.
Graeber is certainly no Marxist, but the opening line of the Communist Manifesto—“the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”—could sit well in any one of his books.
He believes that if we want to understand why we live in an unjust society that favors elites at the expense of the majority—incidentally, he helped coined the phrase “We are the 99 percent” in the Occupy Movement—we need to grasp how history actually works.
To do that, he argues, we must first distinguish between the actual events that have taken place during important epochs of history and the mythological histories that have percolated into national narratives down through the ages.
Those who value a Burkean form of conservative thinking—which has enormous respect for historical institutions and favors small, incremental steps over huge changes in a short time—are likely to scoff at Graeber as a delusional dreamer. But for anyone who believes in the power of ideas to change society for the better, there is much to learn from this radical thesis.
Flick through this book at random and you are likely to find a fascinating aphorism on almost any single paragraph.
Here are a few examples:
—The legal system has [become] the means for a system of increasingly arbitrary extractions.
—Paperwork doesn’t open up to anything outside of itself.
—Police are bureaucrats with weapons.
—Bureaucracies are not forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity.
Graeber argues, for example, that the threat of structural violence creates lopsided structures of the imagination. This, in his view, is the essence of right-wing thinking: allowing violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.
Modern bureaucratic society emerged in the mid- to late 18th century, Graeber posits, after industrial capitalism took hold and with it the political division between left and right.
The lack of imagination that Graeber describes, a lack evolving directly from this new economic and political culture, is the most appealing aspect of his argument: We have all become enslaved by and complicit in the inherently bureaucratic actions of modern life, he says, because the rituals that surround these actions are the machinery of alienation that smash the human imagination.
Think back to my banking story earlier. Because the manager worked in a system where she put complete trust in an all-powerful hierarchy, she was unable to explain basic details of what her job description should have entailed. But because meaning is somehow lost in a system of power, it appears, on the surface at least, to make perfect sense.
To put it simply: Nobody questions the stupidity of rules because the respect for hierarchies overrides any form of common sense.
Imagine a conversation where you say to a bank official, “But I really need this money to pay the bills, is there nothing you can do?”
To which she replies: “I’m afraid those are the rules.”
This complex maze that bureaucratic super-structures have created has become so embedded in public life, Graeber argues, that it has overpowered institutions that traditionally might have fought against it.
Universities are a great example. If these were once noble centers of learning where individuals went to think and advance their minds, they are now saturated in a culture of public relations-speak and marketing. Teachers and lecturers spend most of their time persuading students to buy their courses. And when they are not buying or selling education, they are filling in appraisal forms that go to some higher authority. Inevitably, this means less time spent teaching students about powerful ideas that might change society for the better.
Graeber gleans many fundamental ideas here from the German social theorist Max Weber, who wrote extensively about the subject in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Weber viewed bureaucracy as something that facilitated the institutionalization of technical rationality by the coordination of large-scale public and private organizations.
But Graeber opens up a new conversation on this topic by practically applying Weber’s ideas to the modern world. Graeber’s connections between the threat of violence and bureaucracy are particularly pertinent.
He argues that behind nearly every form we fill out, or every rule that brings another level of hierarchy, a very real threat of violence lingers in the background. We may not view nursing homes, banks, universities, and other institutions saturated in bureaucracy as physically threatening. But, says Graeber, all of them “are involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. Force in turn is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence: that is, the ability to call up people dressed in uniforms, willing to threaten to hit others over the head with wooden sticks.”
Even right-wing intellectuals admit that, historically, violence has always been intrinsic to bureaucracy. In his seminal and highly engaging text, “The Origins of Political Order,” the political scientist Francis Fukuyama—who began his academic career as a neoconservative before moving to the center ground—wrote, “To engage in war, a state has to mobilize resources on a larger scale ... Administration of fiscal resources in turn drives increases in the size of state bureaucracy and an increasing rationalization of that state bureaucracy to squeeze the greatest value out of it.
“States need to be territorially large to increase their revenue base, and territorially contiguous for the purpose of defence: hence the need to impose uniform administration over the entire territory of the state.”
Bureaucratic structures can sometimes be so complicated and exhausting that it’s hard to see where the actual power is concentrated.
Last year, as a secular atheist who holds no affiliation whatsoever to any organized religion, I requested to officially leave the Catholic Church, which still hold my records on file in Ireland.
Even though Catholicism’s popularity has waned considerably in Ireland in recent years, the church still holds power over many of the education institutions. (Arguably, the country was a theocracy up until the early ’90s.) So my records on file stating I am still a Catholic are misleading pieces of data in the public sphere, particularly since 277,000 people declared themselves to be of no religious affiliation in the last public census in Ireland.
The official reply I received from the Catholic Church mentioned that in 1983 the Vatican introduced a law that allowed members to defect. The measure was implemented, I was told, “to ensure that any marriage entered into after formal defection would be valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.”
But since canon law was changed in 2009, the letter said, “those [former] defections do not have legal effect.”
In other words: The Catholic Church refuses to allow its members to walk away voluntarily.
I read the letter many times, and it still confuses the hell out of me. But then again, that’s the point, I suppose. It’s the kind of absurdity one finds in a legal document, where words cease to have meaning.
The Vatican, it almost goes without saying, is a powerful state, with its own currency, laws, and judicial system—the very epitome of the classic model of a bureaucratic maze.
What appear on the surface to be benign forms of coercion, hiding behind a wall of confusion, have held these invisible power structures in place for centuries.
Even though social theorists have pondered over the subject of bureaucracy since the days of Marx and Weber, novelists have tended to capture, with greater clarity, the vacuum, abyss, and sheer insanity of it. In his magisterial novel, The Trial, written in the first decades of the 20th century, Franz Kafka tells the story of a young bank official, Joseph K, who is arrested for a crime that doesn’t seem to exist. Eventually he is taken to a quarry outside of his town and killed.
The central theme running through both this book and another Kafka novel, The Castle, (and a theme that would be further developed by David Foster Wallace in his posthumously published novel, The Pale King) is the extent to which bureaucratic power relies on the absolute complicity of its victims. Kafka brilliantly understood how human beings, without their knowledge or consent, can be so easily reduced to pieces of data by a larger apparatus they have no control over, traditionally the military, the church, or the state. In our postmodern world of skewed identities, it is now the too-big-to-fail global corporation. His genius is all the more apparent when you consider that when Kafka was writing about bureaucratic structures, the culture of the modern corporation had only existed for a few decades.
So why should we start caring more about bureaucracies today? After all, they’ve dominated human societies going back to antiquity. Graeber points out that for a number of decades there has been a particularly worrying trend with how much power is being concentrated by major financial corporations, who rose to prominence in the late 19th century in the West.
Bureaucratic techniques that were once only implemented by the state slowly began to creep into the private sector, as corporate jobs began to dominate business. Concurrently, the small networks of personal, informal, or family connections that had previously dominated the economy and society became less vital.
Looking toward the future: Is there any hope that we in the West can move behind what Graeber calls “the age of total bureaucratization”? Possibly, but the shift will only come about if there is a tumultuous reshuffling of the existing global social order, a none-too-plausible concept, given how drastically neo-liberal economics drive the dominant ideology of our present age.
But optimism is our only hope. Who knows, perhaps one day in the not too distant future you will walk into a bank, successfully deposit a check, and withdraw the money afterwards, and it won’t take months of bureaucracy, stress, and despair.
And maybe one human being will be able to communicate with another in a professional capacity, thinking completely for themselves, without being haunted by the underlying fear to fill out another form, or having to consult a member of the authority for assistance in every single thing they think, do, and say.