Book Report:
David Graeber — The Utopia of Rules

27. July 2022

Having read a few books by David Graeber, his 2015 publication “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy” has remained my favorite, particularly because it is a quick and easy read — it consists of three essays of medium length and it is written in a very colloquial style.

book summary

However rereading it after a few years I read it for the first time in 2017 and reread it in 2021., I also realize the drawbacks of this approach: Graeber often argues in very broad strokes and you have to give him a lot of leeway to follow along. The quality that makes the book easy to read at the same time makes it somewhat harder to agree with.

When it comes to “opinionated” non-fiction books, the ones I find the most insightful are the ones where you agree with about a third of what is written, are wary of one third and disagree with a third, because those are the ones that keep you on your toes while reading. So, even if I have some objections or question some of the central lines of arguments, several of the ideas and observations presented in this book have had a great impact on my thinking. It is a worthwhile read whether you agree with its conclusions or not.

Why it’s worth reading §

There are two main reasons why I find this book interesting. The first is the general selling point of the book: As humans in modern society, we are surrounded by (and constantly find ourselves in the midst of) bureaucratic systems and have gotten so used to them we often hardly notice them anymore, or question their necessity. This book urges us to stop and take a look around and reflect on their existence, nature, ramifications, and why they always seem to sprout, even though ostensibly nobody wants them to. It is hard to argue that this is not a good idea.

Secondly, I find this book interesting because there are so many interconnections between bureaucratic systems and the practice of design. As interface designers, in particular, we spend a lot of time designing forms. There is a reason, why the most standardized elements of interfaces — and the first ones to be documented in any design system — are form inputs: checkboxes, text fields, etc. What is social media, if not a bureaucratic way of keeping in touch with your friends, of maintaining relationships by filling out forms? Couldn’t something similar be said of most interfaces?

Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity §

The first central takeaway of this essay is that any rule, whether significant law or mundane bureaucratic rule is ultimately backed by the threat of physical violence. Depending on how you look at this, it is either a revelation or completely obvious, or both Aren’t all the most interesting observations?. But it is hard to argue with — just pick any rule and ask yourself: “If I didn’t do this, what would happen next?” and keep going. Pretty quickly you are going to end up with “The police will come, physically restrain me and throw me in jail.”

The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force.

David Graeber, 2015: “The Utopia of Rules”, p. 32

The Role of the Police §

Because of this Grueber writes: “Police are bureaucrats with weapons”. “[G]enerations of police sociologists have pointed out that only a very small proportion of what police actually do has anything to do with enforcing criminal law — or with criminal matters of any kind. Most of it has to do with regulations, or, to put it slightly more technically, with the scientific application of physical force, or the threat of physical force, to aid in the resolution of administrative problems.” ​(p. 73). The common idea, propagated by popular culture, that the central task of the police is to solve or even prevent violent crime, which many think of as self-evident, quickly falls apart when you actually think about it: “[W]hen most of us think about police, we do not think of them as enforcing regulations. We think of them as fighting crime, and when we think of ‘crime,’ the kind of crime we have in our minds is violent crime. Even though, in fact, what police mostly do is exactly the opposite: they bring the threat of force to bear on situations that would otherwise have nothing to do with it.” ​(p. 73).

When I first read this some years ago, my attitude towards the police changed. The state has the absolute monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, and we, the people, pass this on as a mandate to the police. Becoming a police officer, in turn, means accepting this mandate. We as citizens have decided to allow police officers — in their role as police, not as regular citizens — to use violent force against ourselves. It is hard to overstate the amount of trust that this requires, but of course, it must also come with an outrageous amount of scrutiny. That police may — may! — use violence at all is not a given fact, but a privilege that has been granted. It ought to go without saying, that the police, therefore, owe the public absolute accountability concerning the use of this privilege and that any slightest abuse must have repercussions. It is shocking that there often seems to be a sense that the police are entitled to it, and accountability is treated as a courtesy.

What’s most interesting is not what’s most important §

The threat of force backing any bureaucratic structure is not based on subtle, hidden structures of power, encoded in the system, doing their work out of sight, but obvious, outright physical violence. Graeber notes how peculiar it is that social theorists discuss Foucault’s theories on hidden forms of power and force at length but seem to pay little notice to the unconcealed threat of violence all around them. He writes how graduate students can “spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required” ​(p. 58). He finds the cause for this in another obvious, yet eye-opening statement: What’s most interesting to think about is usually not what is most important.

Lopsided Structures of the Imagination §

Violence is the only form of communication with which you can get somebody to do something without having to understand them. “In pretty much any other way in which you might try to influence another’s actions, you must at least have some idea about who you think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the situation, their aversions and proclivities, and so forth. Hit them over the head hard enough, and all of this becomes irrelevant.” ​(p. 68)

According to Graeber, because of this fact whenever there is a relationship characterized by structural violence — the threat of violence rather than necessarily physical acts of violence — what he calls “lopsided structures of the imagination” appear: “Those on the bottom of the heap have to spend a great deal of imaginative energy trying to understand the social dynamics that surround them — including having to imagine the perspectives of those on top — while the latter can wander about largely oblivious to much of what is going on around them.” ​(p. 81).

This is of course also reflected in bureaucracies: bureaucrats do not have to care about the specifics of any situation. Because their position is backed by the violence of the state, they can insist on applying their rules without caring to learn anything about the needs or constrictions of the person sitting opposite.

Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae.

David Graeber, 2015: “The Utopia of Rules”, p. 75

Imagination is the opposite of bureaucracy, and whenever a compromise is reached to get to a “realistic” goal, more bureaucracies are created.

[…] Bureaucratic procedures, which have an uncanny ability to make even the smartest people act like idiots, are not so much forms of stupidity in themselves, as they are ways of managing situations already stupid because of the effects of structural violence. […] Stupidity in the name of fairness and decency is still stupidity, and violence in the name of human liberation is still violence. It’s no coincidence the two so often seem to arrive together.

David Graeber, 2015: “The Utopia of Rules”, p. 95

For Graeber, this focus on the imagination is key. His goal is to find the kernel for a modern critique of bureaucracy for the left. The right’s critique is easy to summarize: Bureaucracy is bad because it’s the state interfering where it shouldn’t. But what is the left’s? Graeber argues that the left is fundamentally about imagination — imaging a better future that ought to be created, rather than dreaming about a better past that ought to be returned to. It is in this reliance on imagination that the left clashes with bureaucracy and where it can find the beginnings of a substantial critique.

What I Take Away From This §

Bureaucracy is about scale — about creating a single process and applying it to a large number of situations. Design In the sense of the modern practice of design as it emerged during industrialization and has been practiced since. is about the same thing: The practice of design is explicitly focused on mass-production, on moving away from finding an individual solution to an individual’s problem (after all, this is what distinguishes it from crafts).

But while bureaucracy, backed by violence, can brush over the specifics, design must not. What designers do is the opposite of “lopsided structures of the imagination” — they are expending a huge amount of imagination to try and anticipate the multiplicity of contexts that their design will be used in. They often fail, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes not.

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit & The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All §

The remaining two essays in the book failed to convince me of Graeber’s arguments and my notes on them do not enable me to write much more about them. I am, admittedly, a bit late with writing this. It’s been a few months since I read the book.

One interesting observation stuck in my mind: In the past, science fiction was considered an actual vision of what human life would look like in the future — authors often gave a concrete date of when they think their vision might have materialized Think of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: ”[In 1968 Kubrick] felt that a moviegoing audience would find it perfectly natural to assume that only thirty-three years later, in 2001, we would have commercial moon flights, city-like space stations, and computers with humanlike personalities maintaining astronauts in suspended animation while traveling to Jupiter.” ​(p. 108). Nowadays science fiction is usually treated as a parallel universe, with only little relation to our world:

This Future is, most often, not really a future at all, but more like an alternative dimension, a dream-time, some kind of technological Elsewhere, existing in days to come in the same sense that elves and dragon-slayers existed in the past; just another screen for the projection of moral dramas and mythic fantasies. Science fiction has become just now another set of costumes in which one can dress up a Western, a war movie, a horror flick, a spy thriller, or just a fairy tale.

David Graeber, 2015: “The Utopia of Rules”, p. 109