David Graeber: flash in the pan

Bureaucracy - in the state and on the left

Mike Macnair reviews: David Graeber The utopia of rules: on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy Melville House, 2015, pp274, £9.47

Bureaucracy is a big political issue. Whether it is to be taken to mean ‘red tape’, the fetishism of procedural rules and forms, or the political rule of a group of full-time administrators, it is a large-scale political problem.

The standard liberal and conservative answer to all suggestions of radical change leading beyond capitalist rule is still the strongly negative experience of the Soviet bureaucratic dictatorship, and its eventual collapse, due to its unattractive tyrannical character and inability to overtake the development of the productive forces of western capitalism.

This standard objection is persistently reinforced by the practical experience of bureaucratic rule on the left and in the broader workers’ movement. We have had a striking example in the Socialist Workers Party leadership’s endeavours to protect one of their own against rape charges in the ‘Delta’ affair.

One more recent example on a large scale is provided by the endeavours of the Blairite right wing of the Labour Party and their allies to use their control of the bureaucratic apparatus to resist the movement which emerged round the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign. Another, on a very much smaller scale, is provided by the leadership of Left Unity’s manipulation of procedural rules to attempt to avoid even debatingthe substance of proposals which would reduce LU’s over-elaborate and unworkable constitutional arrangements and its completely non-transparent ‘disputes’ procedures.

I have recently had occasion to read some books about aspects of bureaucracy. Christopher Kelly’s Ruling the later Roman empire (Harvard 2004) begins with an epigraph from historian AHM Jones, that “The later Roman empire was before all things a bureaucratic state”; the first part of Kelly’s book works by exploring 6th century bureaucrat John of Lydia’s On the magistrates of the Roman state, a view from within the offices of the praetorian prefecture (a central bureaucratic-judicial institution).1

Kelly is concerned with the complex relation between bureaucracy and law. Hegel notoriously argued in the latter part of Philosophy of right that the executive state bureaucracy expressed, through the dialectical development starting from individual right and worked through in the book, the general interest. Marx countered in his early Critique of Hegel’s doctrine of the state that bureaucrats in fact had their own individual interests qua bureaucrats.2 This aspect of the problem, strongly present in Kelly, is curiously missing from David Graeber’s account in The utopia of rules.

I have a curious small additional contribution to this stuff. Last week I spent a few days scanning all the 2015 decisions of the civil side of the court of appeal. The remarkable circumstance which emerged was that so far this year, this three-judge court was almost invariably unanimous. Further, it was extraordinarily rare for the court to reverse the decision under appeal.

Law is - as Graeber points out (p24) - not necessarily bureaucratic in character: it can be, as in classical sharia, rabbinical, old Irish brehon or the ‘classical’ law of the Roman jurists, largely a field of discourse and argument.3 This aspect persists in state law down to modern times. But the 2015 court of appeal does seem to have come to act as a bureaucratic institution - with ‘classic’ bureaucratic decision-making, which appears to aim at covering its own back and the backs of its subordinates within the bureaucratic apparatus. It looks more like a pure bureaucratic institution than it did five years ago.

This tendency to increasing bureaucracy, in the sense of form-filling, red tape or regulation, in the world neoliberalism has made, is the starting point in this book.

Right and left critiques

David Graeber is an academic anthropologist by profession, and an anarchist who came to public prominence through acting as a spokesperson for Occupy. His 2011 book Debt: the first 5,000 years was given favourable reviews,4 perhaps for reasons similar to the media buzz round Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century: that is, that non-Marxist explanations of the striking phenomena of violent and growing economic inequality were in vogue in the aftermath of the 2008 crash and its ongoing fallout.

The utopia of rules is a collection of five essays, or perhaps more appropriately ‘reflections’ or ‘meditations’, loosely linked by the theme of bureaucracy (which Graeber interprets, to put the point very roughly, as decision-making according to rules). Although the book was a pretty enjoyable read and contained some seriously interesting individual observations, for me the parts did not add up to a larger whole (and the parts of the individual chapters did not really add up to wholes either). I can, however, recommend the book as an entertaining read - whatever your political views, it raises some interesting questions.

In the introduction Graeber argues that, even as paperwork and regulation have expanded, discussion of bureaucracy as a social form has plateaued or decreased. The left, he says, remains trapped within the rightwing critique of bureaucracy, which was developed by marrying Hayek, Mises and Austrian-school economics to the late-60s hippie cults of personal experience and authenticity. This sees only government action as bureaucracy and renders invisible ‘corporate’ bureaucracy - which is, in reality, completely interpenetrated with governmental bureaucracy through lobbying for favourable regulations, etc.

An “iron law of liberalism” (p9) says that marketisation, etc, produces more red tape and bureaucrats. ‘Iron laws’ have pretty dubious antecedents: eg, Malthus’s ‘iron law of population’ that the poor must starve; Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’ (actually derived from Malthus); and Michels’ ‘iron law of oligarchy’ in the process of Michels’ transition from revolutionary syndicalist to rightist ...

To take one of Graeber’s examples, he suggests (pp22-24) that ‘credentialism’ - the increasing need to hold degrees for anything other than precarious employment - is a device to enable the financial services sector to extract money through student loans. While this may be plausible for the US, it is not for the UK, where government has serious problems trying to sell off the student loan book because of the extent of defaults.5

It is an equally likely speculation that ‘credentialism’ on both sides of the Atlantic developed, along with various other devices, to conceal the extent of unemployment after the neoliberal turn. It would also be saleable to teenagers as - at first sight - giving them three years as students before they had to start real drudgery. But, if concealing the extent of unemployment is even part of what is going on, this has implications for the general nature of Graeber’s argument, in which coercion is not merely a necessary backstop to the routine functioning of a class social order, but is the prime, immediate cause of exploitation. It has this implication, since both deception and, in a peculiar sense, a concession of later start to work (analogous to the extension of compulsory education as an alternative to child labour) may be playing as important a role as coercion.

Graeber proposes a “leftwing critique of total, or predatory, bureaucratisation” based on the “global justice movement” (aka ‘anti-globalisation movement’ or ‘alter-globalisation movement’) - now some years dead, along with the leftwing character of its prime backer, the Brazilian Workers Party, but evidently already an object of anarchist nostalgia. He draws three lessons from this movement: “Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence”; “Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor” (mainly in relation to computers/IT); and “Always remember it’s all ultimately about value” (though virtually nothing is said under this head about how “total, or predatory, bureaucratisation” relates to the production of surplus value).


Chapter 1, ‘Dead zones of the imagination’, is in some ways the most ‘anthropological’ of the arguments. It begins with anecdotes of the author’s engagements with US state and bank bureaucrats, attempting to deal with his hospitalised mother’s assets, and the sense he experiences in the process of being made to feel stupid by the mistakes of the bureaucrats, which they offload onto the ‘client’. It is, he suggests, peculiar that, while there is important ethnographic work on the symbolic significance of rituals and so on in ‘primitive’ societies, there is no such work on the symbolic significance of bureaucratic rituals in modern societies.

The point segues into an interesting observation on the successive popularity of Max Weber and Michel Foucault in US universities. The point, he suggests, is that both Weber (openly) and Foucault (in the apparent form of critique of bureaucracy) exalt the actual power and effectiveness of bureaucracies, and miss altogether their inefficiencies. The US university system is, he argues - at least as far as the humanities and social sciences are concerned - geared to produce state or corporate bureaucrats; Weberianism and Foucaultianism provide self-satisfaction for bureaucrats and their professor-trainers.

There follows the obligatory disclaimer - perhaps this is “caricaturish and unfair” (p57) - and moves immediately on to another topic: that power derived from violence produces stupidity in those who have the power. The point is an interesting one, and developed at some length, before we move, again, into something else: police as bureaucrats; and through police as bureaucrats to Levi-Straussian structural analysis of vampires versus werewolves, Sherlock Holmes versus James Bond.

Then the chapter returns abruptly to the political in the form of the New York Direct Action Network’s inability to manage the gift of a car, because of the state bureaucratic regulation which attaches to cars (one might add: a fortiori such regulation attaches to access to land, which is - unlike cars - completely indispensable to any human activity). From here it shifts again, to the situationist May 68 slogan, ‘Imagination is seizing power’, and some ideas about early modern meanings of ‘imagination’. Finally, it comes back to power-over others making the powerful stupid.

Chapter 2, ‘Of flying cars and the declining rate of profit’, is the least interesting part of the book. It is a speculative piece which explores the (apparent) slowing in technical innovations in the last half-century, and suggests that this may be because corporate capital, recognising the law of the falling rate of profit at work through technical innovations, has elected not to pursue possible technical innovations. The basic premise is desperately ‘western’, or, indeed, Anglo-American: in the first place, the last half-century has seen massive extension of technologies into the ‘third world’ at the expense of peasant agriculture and artisan production; in the second, robotics, high-speed trains and other innovative techniques are more prevalent in the far east.

Chapter 3, ‘The utopia of rules, or why we really love bureaucracy after all’, explores the possibility that complaints about bureaucracy cover for a sort of “covert appeal” of “operating within a system of formalised rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials” (p149). I am not convinced that this appeal is, in fact, covert: it is, in substance, the core of Hayek’s and Oakeshott’s cases for the ‘rule of law’,6 and is at the core of the traditional ‘Whig interpretation of history’.

The last part of the chapter addresses anarchists’ need for procedural rules and Jo Freeman’s The tyranny of structurelessness - while endeavouring to avoid the use of this text by ‘Leninists’ (Graeber does not respond to any particularly developed versions of the ‘Leninist’ argument, or, a fortiori, to any of the work which addresses the difference between pre-1918 and post-1921 ‘Leninism’).

Finally, and also mildly entertainingly, the appendix is a hostile review of the Christopher Nolan Batman movie, The dark knight rises, which is distinguished among these movies by casting anti-capitalist protestors as the villains - with, Graeber argues, negative aesthetic consequences.


Mike Beggs’ review of Graeber’s history of debt in Jacobin concluded that “we need the right kind of history, which seeks to explain the evolution of a material system. Stringing together 5,000 years of anecdotes is not enough.”7

I have to say that I found that The utopia of rules, while extremely readable, merited a similar characterisation. The problem of bureaucracy - and that of ‘rule-of-law’ rules-games, too - demands a much more fully developed theorisation, and, in particular, fuller theorisation of what the alternativeis to be. Graeber’s anecdote of the Direct Action Network’s inability to manage a car brought to my mind not the effects of state power, but Charles Landry’s What a way to run a railroad: an analysis of radical failure (London 1985). Bureaucracy in left groups does not depend on immediate access to the power of coercion. It is based on a combination of the practical needs of organising for any substantial period of time, with mistaken beliefs about ‘expertise’, derived from the general division of labour in capitalist society.

The essays were, of course, mainly written in 2012, when it might have been (and was) still thought that the Occupy movement was going to be more than the usual flash-in-the-pan product of direct-action anarchism. It was then possible to imagine that this was the revival of the anarchist wing of the ‘alter-globalisation movement’, showing the way to the future. Three years later, much more rewriting is needed to address the evident failure of both the ‘alter-globalisation movement’ and Occupy.



1. I Lydus On powers or the magistracies of the Roman state New York 2013.

2. GWF Hegel Elements of the philosophy of right Cambridge 1991; K Marx Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right Cambridge 1970.

3. Sharia: eg, WB Hallaq Authority, continuity and change in Islamic law Cambridge 2001; Rabbinical law: eg, NS Hecht (ed) An introduction to the history and sources of Jewish law Oxford 1996; Brehon law: eg, RC Stacey Dark speech: the performance of law in early Ireland Pennsylvania 2007; Roman: eg, A Watson The spirit of Roman law Georgia 2008.

4. Eg, R Kuttner: www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/may/09/debt-we-shouldnt-pay; R Blackburn: https://newleftreview.org/II/79/robin-blackburn-finance-for-anarchists; H High Cambridge Anthropology No30, pp152-53 (2012). I Stultze (http://communism.blogsport.eu/2012/06/12/debt-and-punishment-a-critical-review-of-david-graebers-debt), while critical, cites favourable reviews in the German bourgeois press. More hostile are N Smith at http://noahpinionblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/book-review-debt-first-5000-years.html; Aufheben: https://libcom.org/library/5000-years-or-debt.

5. Eg, ‘UK ministers grapple with problem of unpaid student loans’ Financial Times May 21 2015.

6. FA Hayek Law, legislation and liberty London 1993; M Oakeshott, ‘The rule of law’ On history and other essays reprint Indianapolis 1999.

7. www.jacobinmag.com/2012/08/debt-the-first-500-pages.