‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.22
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‘The Utopia of Rules’
David Graeber (2015)

What do Extinction Rebellion and Hollywood superheroes have in common? They both uncritically preserve the bureaucratic status quo by breaking the rules of everyday conduct.

‘A Book in Five Minutes’ No.22 Podcast:

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Cover of ‘The Utopia of Rules’ (2015)
‘The Utopia of Rules’:

Hardback edition, Melville House Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781-6121-9374-8.

Paperback edition, Melville House Publishing, 2015. ISBN 9781-6121-9448-6.

Download free PDF copy from LibCom.

The problem of reading so many books is that sometimes I can’t remember where an idea came from. It’s like having a word on the tip of your tongue, and not being able to say it. A few days ago I needed to explain why superhero films are ideologically ‘statist’, and I couldn’t remember the source. Just now a random comment made me remember: David Graeber’s, ‘The Utopia of Rules’.

Published in 2015, ‘The Utopia of Rules’ is a book about bureaucracy; how bureaucracy, not politics, is the true organising force of modern society; and why the basis of state bureaucracy is the regularisation of force and violence.

As Graeber says:

“This essay is not just... about bureaucracy. It is primarily about violence. What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence invariably tend to create the kinds of wilful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid... but rather, that they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence. This approach, I think, has the potential to tell us a great deal about both how bureaucracy has come to pervade every aspect of our lives, and why we don’t notice it.”

Image of David Graeber
David Graeber
2th February 1961 – 2nd September 2020

Graeber’s idea of bureaucracy being ‘invisible’ – something we are accustomed to – not only hides, it regularises the ‘violence inherent in the system’. Bureaucracy represents a means for power to facelessly enforce order by making people do things to one another that, without the justification of bureaucratic rules, would ordinarily appear callous or inhuman. As in Graeber’s beautiful one-liner, “Police are bureaucrats with weapons.”

Written as a collection of essays, the book outlines why bureaucracy is a force or power which operates above politics, or even capitalism – and so acts to reinforce the ills of society, as well as frustrating any efforts to change those rules.

As Graeber says:

“One thing that 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... They will – like the robber barons of the turn of the last century – insist that they are acting in the name of efficiency, or ‘rationality.’ But in fact this language always turns out to be intentionally vague, even nonsensical.”

Without understanding how bureaucracy – as an impersonal force – works, it is not possible to seriously challenge the functioning of that system. The “rules-based global order” is powerful because of the way those rules frustrate change; and to ‘hack’ that system, it’s necessary to reveal the truth of those rules in order to subvert them.

As Graeber says:

“A critique of bureaucracy fit for the times would have to show how all these threads – financialisation, violence, technology, the fusion of public and private – knit together into a single, self-sustaining web. The process of financialisation 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 legalised extortion, it is accompanied by ever-increasing accumulation of rules and regulations... Indeed they become so omnipresent that we no longer realise we’re being threatened, since we cannot imagine what it would be like not to be.”

‘Trusting yourself is a rebellious act’.

Graeber explains that one of the reasons movements fail – not just progressive movements, but even the neoliberal lobbies trying to ‘shrink the state’ – is that they tinker with the mechanisms of bureaucracy without really changing it; leading to more elaborate and complex rules that frustrate the intent of reform.

As Graeber says about the Situationist’s call to, “be realistic, demand the impossible”:

“Why do movements challenging such structures so often end up creating bureaucracies instead? Normally, they do so as a kind of compromise. One must be realistic and not demand too much... But this raises another question. When we speak of being ‘realistic,’ exactly what reality is it we are referring to?”

This is the trap that allegedly ‘radical’ movements fall into. For example, Extinction Rebellion: Rather than challenge the inequities of the system, they want to preserve it, but without the existential ‘threat’ of climate change. By seeking to ‘stop climate change’, without dealing with the structural inequalities which are the basis of the Western lifestyle, they cannot change the basis of how the economy damages the climate.

This is where the superheroes come in. As Graeber says:

“The heroes are purely reactionary. By this I mean ‘reactionary’ in the literal sense: they simply react to things; they have no projects of their own... In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination... The villains, in contrast, are relentlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas.”

As Graeber points out, ‘heroic’ societies – which is what Western cultures have followed since ancient Greece and Rome – are based upon stories. The problem is, those hyper-individualistic stories of the hero’s role isolates their individual actions from that collective superstructure of bureaucracy: The hero only fights the actions of ‘the villain’; and so cannot change the nature of the system which gave rise to that villain.

Title frame for Ramblinactivist’s Video 2022/40: ‘The Utopia of Rules’ (2015)
Watch the video for this blog post

‘The Utopia of Rules’ expresses some profound ideas about how people strive to make change – and how easily those actions can be negated by bureaucratic rules. We cannot change ‘the system’ without overturning it’s bureaucracy; and we can’t overturn that bureaucracy without fundamentally redefining our identity and relationships to society. In that sense, ‘reason’ demands that we seek the seemingly ‘impossible’.

Some afterthoughts on, ‘The Utopia of Rules’

Fundamentally, I’m a geek... I started out with an interest in electronics and engineering, and then progressed to computers. Later, when I took-up activism, I found that the functioning of council departments or public inquiries was no different to understanding the operation of an engine, a radio, or computer code: All you had to do was understand the general principles of how the bureaucracy worked in that context, and it was possible to create ‘chaos’ no matter what the issue under discussion.

‘It's time to unhinge the wheels of progress’.

Too often people don’t realise that ‘the system’ is so complex that the people charged with administering it don’t understand the rules; or more importantly, their contradictions. Within that misunderstanding exists the potential for subversion. If you take the time to research the bureaucracy, and then think creatively about how those rules can be bent or subverted, it possible to make the system battle itself.

I think that’s why I like, ‘The Utopia of Rules’. It reflects what I discovered about how government worked in the 1980s, and later corporations and national campaign groups (functionally there’s not a lot of difference between the two). More importantly, Graeber makes the distinction between falling into the trap of working ‘within the system’ – where bureaucracy will actively frustrate calls for change – and creatively finding ways to, in Saul Alinsky’s words, push that system ‘beyond its experience’ and exploit its failure.

The first work of Graeber’s that I read was ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’ (2004). He wrote that work in the wake of Seattle, but before his involvement in the Occupy movement.

I think one of the really interesting ideas expressed there, equally relevant to how we subvert bureaucracy, was ‘counterpower’: The capacity for people to imagine a world without the problem they perceive, and then identify the necessary steps or mechanisms required to realise that. And of course, if we want to create a different kind of world, it has to be something we can hold in our minds first, because we need a model in our mind in order to physically create it in the real world.

I see ‘The Utopia of Rules’ as an extension to what Graeber began in ‘Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology’. I was involved with the Seattle protests, where for the first time ‘the public’ emerged as a unified force to challenge the ‘rules based global order’. When that opposition was closed-down under the pretence of fighting a ‘war on terror’, it came as no surprise that the inherent violence of that system created even greater levels of self-justifying inhuman action – from Guantanamo, to Abu Grahib, to the persecution Julian Assange – and that those practises would then be regularised for deployment across civil society. And in fact, from drone strikes to greater public surveillance, those methods are still being intensified today even though that war has, allegedly, ended.

What I think is more important than any historical context, though, is for people to read this book, and then observe and understand why movements fail. If we try to change one aspect of society but keep everything else the same – as so much liberal, middle class ‘single issue’ activism is want to do – then it should come as no surprise that little success comes of that.

I often use Extinction Rebellion as an example here. Their method of throwing themselves into the willing arms of the police, the courts, and the prison system, unsurprisingly causes little distress to the state; while causing maximum annoyance to the general public. The alternative, actually creating the types of future social structures that can operate without fossil fuels – because they operate outside of the economic and legal structures created by a system dependent upon fossil fuels – doesn’t seem to grab Extinction Rebellion’s imagination.

Martin Luther King image.

Even Martin Luther King understood this, as expressed in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice”.

Compare that with Graeber’s point about superheroes:

“In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination. Bruce Wayne, with all the money in the world, can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to design even more high-tech weaponry and indulge in the occasional act of charity. In the same way it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily end world hunger or carve free magic cities out of mountains. Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything.”

If we really want to change the world, then Graeber would have us look to the role of the villain, not the superhero. In every Hollywood film – as ironically expressed in that famous (awful) hacker flick, ‘Swordfish’“The audience love happy endings... the bad guy can’t win”. Bureaucracy cannot tolerate anyone who will not submit to its rules.

We have to move beyond the false dichotomies of the bureaucratic regime. The tool we use to do that is not ‘reform’; it’s the use of our imagination to tell a different story about ourselves, and then working to make that story come true – irrespective of what the bureaucracy dictates. Asking the bureaucracy to change itself is like asking a tiger to be a house-trained pussy cat; it cannot change its fundamentally violent and repressive nature. We can’t reform the rules of bureaucracy: We have to render those rules irrelevant to the conduct of our daily lives.

On that note, I’ll end with Graeber’s quote from the Crimethinc collective, which itself echoes the ideas of Albert Camus:

Albert Camus quote, ‘the only way to deal with an unfree world’.

“We must make our freedom by cutting holes in the fabric of this reality, by forging new realities which will, in turn, fashion us. Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the inertia of habit, custom, law, or prejudice – and it is up to you to create these situations.

Freedom only exists in the moment of revolution. And those moments are not as rare as you think. Change, revolutionary change, is going on constantly and everywhere – and everyone plays a part in it, consciously or not. What is this but an elegant statement of the logic of direct action: the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”