Dead Zones and Flying Cars: On ‘The Utopia of Rules’ with David Graeber


“I am fascinated by the figure of the anthropologist,” author Tom McCarthy wrote this weekend at the Guardian. “What he or she embodies for me is a version of the writer minus all the bullshit, all the camouflage or obfuscation.” Although it’s difficult to say whether McCarthy’s adulation for the anthropologist is just part of a brief cultural or historical fascination, it’s undeniable that anthropology, of late, has reshaped political discussion. And who, among anthropologists, has done this more so than David Graeber?

Once called “the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world” by Maurice Bloch, Graeber is also an activist and anarchist and author, one who has built a reputation for unearthing narratives — about the state, money, debt, and, now, bureaucracy — that clash forcefully against those we’ve inherited from left or right, the academy, politicians, whomever. Take Graeber’s book Debt, for example. Whether you agree with all of its conclusions, it’s difficult to deny that it radically shifted the way we speak about the idea of debt and its weight in our lives.

Since writing Debt, Graeber has complemented his work on the topic with writings about technology and bureaucracy at various journals, including The Baffler, where he contributed the much-discussed essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” That piece and several others are extended and arranged in a throughly argued, funny, and surprising new book titled The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. (The book, I should add, also discusses “dead zones of the imagination,” fantasy literature, and superheroes.) After a series of technological and bureaucratic failures that seemed to prove the book’s point, I was finally able to talk with Graeber on the phone last week.

Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of The Utopia of Rules? On the surface it looks less, sort of, monolithic than Debt. And even though it’s accessible, funny, and deals with pop culture, it’s a substantial book that deals with these linked themes of bureaucracy, technology, and stupidity.

David Graeber: I was thinking to some degree politically. I did think, well, it’s kind of a disaster that the right seems to think it has a monopoly on critiques of bureaucracy, and also that we talk about bureaucracy in terms that are so antiquated. So it came out of this frustration that “bureaucrat” means “big government.” It’s this endless debate of market versus government. It’s not describing what’s actually going on in government at all. So the question is: How do we talk about how bureaucracy really work nowadays?

Although the book is far more substantial, I did see an example of your Iron Law of Liberalism in an Adam Curtis’ film, where he talks about how when Blair and New Labor came to power in the UK, they instituted all of these bureaucracy cutting measures, i.e., goals and targets, that led to insane complications, accountability loopholes, etc., all in the name of the efficiency of markets.

Exactly! And so many people I know who worked in the civil service that’s all they talk about. Every time they come in with a reform to streamline things, it actually gets worse. Thatcher actually made it a campaign issue. She wanted to cut back on the number of bureaucrats. She ended up just getting rid of them on paper, and the guys just kept doing the same thing on contract. So basically she just cooked the books. And a lot of the bureaucrats were working in factories that were state owned, so she just privatized the factories and magically they were no longer civil servants.

Your narrative about bureaucracy will surprise many on the left and right. How did we inherit such a skewed idea of the relation between markets, governments, and this wild proliferation of rules and targets?

It all goes back to the French Revolution, where people were asking, “What just happened?” There was a basic line that said, well, you have these feudal elites with sort of military and governmental functions, and then you have the market. And the market is this sort of self-organizing, free contract, basically this face of human of freedom that will gradually knock these guys off their perches. Thus we’re heading to a society of individualism, where relations are contracted instead of the old caste system…although Europe doesn’t describe it as a caste system…and so forth and so on…

So that was the basic story: that mercantile, commercial, and market relations are this elementary expression of freedom. But from very early on people kept noticing that in these conditions the state was getting bigger and bigger.

One thing I love about the book is that it leans on a different set of inspirations than most works of “social theory.” You write about fantasy novels, superheroes, and non-Marxist sociologists, like Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. I wondered if this was a deliberate move against orthodoxy, or if it is more of a function of your role as an anthropologist. Does it signal a “dead zone of the imagination,” as you would call it, on the Left?

I always say that the only people who are really in the position to generalize about human nature and the nature of society are anthropologists because they have all the cases. Traditionally anthropologists have done the opposite. They’ve been that guy sitting in the corner contradicting anything you say. The anthropologist has been the guy — we call him the Bongo-Bongoist in anthropology — who contradicts, who says “well, actually, among the Bongo-Bongo tribe, the primordial ties are…” But when anthropologists do generalize, things start looking different from what we assume.

Most people just put themselves in a bubble where they read these classic narratives over and over again. We have these texts that we find more interesting than empirical reality. So in a way, I’m trying to write those kind of texts, in the tradition of the grand theorists, because we’re not going to change the story unless someone comes along and puts together these little pieces in a more compelling way. It’s like what I was saying in Debt about the origins of money — that was common knowledge among historians of money. But, you know, historians of money don’t actually talk to anybody else. So all of these people live in bubbles.

You know, my next book is going to be written as an archaeologist, it’s about the origins of social inequality. And it’s the same thing. Archaeologists have learned all sorts of new stuff over the last fifty years that just hasn’t made it to the public domain. It turns out that hunter-gatherers are not particularly egalitarian; it turns out that early cities actually are fairly egalitarian. The basic narrative we have is just totally wrong. But no one who isn’t a specialist pays attention.

One sort of nagging political countermove to your narrative in the book — one that became popular after Occupy — is that horizontalism comes with its own bureaucracy. Many writers and activists on the left, after Occupy was failed, or defeated, or watever, pointed out that direct action or direct democracy comes with its own bureaucratic baggage.

There is a danger of anything slipping into bureaucracy, that’s very true. I think probably that did happen in some places. But that’s just because people brought up in a certain mindset are going to reproduce it. It’s like the myth of barter in Debt, some economists would argue that the example of “prisoner of war” zones contradicts my argument, as if it’s surprising that people who live their whole lives with money then suddenly don’t have any, and voila! they make up something to use as money. It’s similar to that. People who are used to bureaucratic forms all their lives are going to revert to them out of instinct.

That’s the thing about American’s especially. We’re brought up to think that we’re this incredible democratic experiment, but the average American has almost no experience in democratic decision-making. They have lots of experience in bureaucracy. So people do what they’re familiar with, and you have to try to figure out ways of making them not do it. One example: when we were in direct action we had this rule that said, “You cannot do in the movement what you do in your jobs.” Obviously that’s a problem because it means you waste a lot of talent, but otherwise people are just doing what they’ve always done in a hierarchical, bureaucratic environment. And they’re just going to revert.

I want to ask you about your writing since Debt. I actually think this book is better written. It’s a little crisper, funnier. I know some of the writing in this book began with The Baffler, which might surprise earlier readers of that publication…

I’m on the same wavelength as the new management. And the major thing about The Baffler is that they let me write whatever I want.

If you prove to the world that you can say something sort of fresh and creative that actually is of interest to people, then the world, however inadvertently, will conspire to make sure you never do that again. They’ll try to make you write the same paper, the same book, give the same talk, over and over and over again, in slight variations, for the rest of your life. I decided, “OK, I’ve written Debt. I’m in that situation. I could just talk about Debt for the rest of my life. But I’m going to see if I can’t do the opposite. I’m going to see if I can take this small amount of notoriety that I have and publish ideas that would never go to press.” The Baffler basically said, “We will help you do that.” Now you see pieces about flying cars.