By Sasha Mitchell
Shunned by American academia in the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, anarchist author David Graeber is now based in England, where he teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics. Four years after the publication of his best-seller “Debt, The First 5,000 Years,” he crossed the English Channel last week to promote his latest collection of essays, “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,” in the French media. In the book, Graeber contends that state bureaucracy is increasingly outweighed by tedious private sector procedures, a theory that could help debunk the myth of ubiquitous state bureaucracy, particularly in France, a country that many believe is plagued by bureaucratic procedures.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You write that bureaucracy encourages us to behave foolishly. Does this mean that filling out forms isn’t as complicated as it seems? Or is it merely mind-numbing?
DAVID GRAEBER: I do think there is something about paperwork that often makes ordinarily intelligent people begin to act like idiots. A kind of cultivated mindlessness, perhaps. On the one hand, these are very simple tasks. On the other, you have to do them repetitively, and always get them exactly right. Perhaps our minds rebel against the emptiness, we’re not designed to concentrate on nothing, or something very close to nothing, for so long.
WPJ: Why do we always associate bureaucracy with the public sector?
DG: Because we’ve been taught to. Back in the 1960s, revolutionaries started arguing that government bureaucrats and capitalists were basically the same thing, stuffy men in grey suits who wanted to control every aspects of our lives, the enemies of freedom. Then the right picked it up and dropped the part about capitalism. As a result, the stifling welfare state the 1960s revolutionaries were complaining about has largely disappeared, but at the same time, governments and (now largely financial) capitalists have come to overlap in even more virulent forms. But everyone’s still using 1960s rhetoric that has almost nothing to do with the way things nowadays actually work.
WPJ: You argue that bureaucracy can also be found in the private sector. Isn’t it slightly counterintuitive, particularly in a country like France where public sector bureaucracy is ubiquitous?
DG: The other day I went into the Apple Store with a computer with a broken screen that needed to be replaced. I had to stand on line to talk to someone who looked at the computer and said “yes, your screen is broken.” I asked if I could drop it off to be fixed. He said, no, of course not, we had to have someone at the “Genius Bar” fill out the form affirming that the screen was broken. Only then can we authorize sending it to the shop. I asked if I could see him now. He said no appointments were available for at least a week. Though, if I woke up at 8 a.m. every day and checked for drop-outs… This is classic bureaucratic behavior. Yet it’s a private company. Or try setting up a bank account here in England. It’s so complicated I had to be paid in cash for the first two months I was living here because it was so difficult to assemble the forms. You needed bills with your home address. But to get futility service switched to your name you needed to pay a deposit, and for that, you need a bank account. I could multiply examples. Still, what I really wanted to emphasize in the book was that half the time, you can’t even tell what’s public and private any more. The bureaucracies interlock. Why is it so hard to get a bank account? Well the bank employees will all say it’s because of all that intrusive government regulation. But who writes that regulation? Well mostly it’s lawyers for the bank, who then lobby (i.e., bribe) politicians to pass their preferred regulations into law.
WPJ: So why does bureaucracy grow in response to free-market policy?
DG: This is a fascinating question. It has been true for a very long time. In England for instance, most of the modern bureaucratic apparatus of the state, from the police to the civil service, was establishing after the abolition of the Corn Laws, and the embrace of free-market policies. In the U.S., during the 19th century when it pursued protectionist, anti-free market policies, bureaucracy was absolutely minimal: the Federal Government mainly consisted of the army (which was very small) and the post office, and the private sector was also made up of small firms and cooperatives. The free market period of the robber barons saw the birth of both giant corporate firms with elaborate internal bureaucracies, and an increasingly large apparatus of state. It keeps happening. Even Thatcher, who made the reduction of the number of bureaucrats one of her main aims, didn’t really pull it off, and under Reagan, the state bureaucracy grew substantially. Even in Russia after the collapse of communism the total number of civil servants increased by 25 percent in ten years, and that’s not even counting the new private bureaucrats. If I were to hazard a guess, it’s because the market actually involves massively increasing relations that are not based on social trust, but the maximization of individual interest, and thus requires much more elaborate means of enforcement – ultimately much more surveillance and coercion – than other forms.
WPJ: And one more question, on technology — why hasn’t progress allowed us to work less?
DG: There have certainly been points where this has started to happen. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for instance, people were expecting most manual labor to vanish, or to be radically reduced, within a generation — it made sense, since that was the generation who had seen things like the washing machine and dishwasher appear, inventions that really did eliminate a lot of domestic toil. The space race made anything seem possible. But one result was a general sense of panic in ruling class circles. There were a lot of people arguing — like Alvin Toffler — that all the social turmoil of the 1960s was really caused by “too rapid” technological growth, and there was especially worries about what would happen to the working classes if they were replaced by machines (i.e., will they all turn into hippies?). I think future historians will talk about this as the moment where capitalism stopped being a progressive force, in scientific and technological terms at least, and became purely reactionary. The direction of investment shifted. Production was moved overseas, often to lower tech factories than had existed in the richer countries. In retrospect, it’s pretty clear what was going on. It seems to me we’re rapidly moving towards a situation where a similar crisis of immanent robotization is happening again. The amazing thing is this time around, market logic is so completely naturalized that the common reaction is “oh no, what are we going to do when the robots take all our jobs?” This to me is the surest sign we have a completely dysfunctional, basically lunatic economic system: the prospect of people not having to work so much anymore is actually considered a terrible problem.
Sasha Mitchell is a former editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Internaz]