Finished reading: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber 📚

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of three core essays (and a fourth added as an epilogue later) on bureaucracy, power, play, games (and Batman) by David Graeber, who is probably best known for his book on debt.

I think I was drawn to it initially because it offered a chance to move on from Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism and explore a little more the idea Fisher placed out at the very end:

If neoliberalism triumphed by incorporating the desires of the post 68 working class, a new left could begin by building on the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy. For example, the left should argue that it can deliver what neoliberalism signally failed to do: a massive reduction of bureaucracy. What is needed is a new struggle over work and who controls it; an assertion of worker autonomy (as opposed to control by management) together with a rejection of certain kinds of labor (such as the excessive auditing which has become so central feature of work in post-Fordism).

… and I got some of that, but I was also given a chance to reflect a little on where I’ve been over the past while. Graeber, who is himself an anarchist, reminds me a lot of the anarchists I knew and read during my post-socialist political phase, so the book felt a little like being confronted by a past self.

My present self, at least at work, is “senior process person.” I’m perched atop an IT organization, but spend more time sort of pushing along the kinds of things most people do not care to think about most of the time. I have known a number of process people over the years, and I’ve come to believe that one thing I don’t see that often in the other ones that I do see in me is a great deal of inner-directed suspicion and a belief that the moment a bureaucrat comes to believe that people are meant to conform to processes and tools instead of vice versa, that bureaucrat should be moved to a team that makes anything other than more process. People hate bureaucracy, mistrust bureaucrats, and loathe process. Some people are more reflective about this than others, grounding their suspicion and loathing in lived experience of some kind that has taught them to be wary of the complexity bureaucracies will introduce; some are just assholes who want to do whatever they want without regard for others. It’s not a suspiciousness to underestimate. As Graeber notes:

“The European social welfare state, with its free education and universal health care, can justly be considered—as Pierre Bourdieu once remarked—one of the greatest achievements of human civilization. But at the same time, in taking forms of willful blindness typical of the powerful and giving them the prestige of science—for instance, by adopting a whole series of assumptions about the meaning of work, family, neighborhood, knowledge, health, happiness, or success that had almost nothing to do with the way poor or working-class people actually lived their lives, let alone what they found meaningful in them—it set itself up for a fall. And fall it did. It was precisely the uneasiness this blindness created even in the minds of its greatest beneficiaries that allowed the Right to mobilize popular support for the policies that have gutted and devastated even the most successful of these programs since the eighties.”

Anyhow, as a Process Person, it was interesting to spend a whole book written by an anarchist who understands how deeply the bureaucratic urge has become embedded in American society:

“Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of bureaucrats—quite the opposite, really—but, the moment we stop imagining bureaucracy as a phenomenon limited to government offices, it becomes obvious that this is precisely what we have become. The final victory over the Soviet Union did not really lead to the domination of “the market.” More than anything, it simply cemented the dominance of fundamentally conservative managerial elites—corporate bureaucrats who use the pretext of short-term, competitive, bottom-line thinking to squelch anything likely to have revolutionary implications of any kind.”

I liked his consideration of “play” vs. “games”:

“Freedom has to be in tension with something, or it’s just randomness. This suggests that the absolute pure form of play, one that really is absolutely untrammeled by rules of any sort (other than those it itself generates and can set aside at any instance) itself can exist only in our imagination, as an aspect of those divine powers that generate the cosmos. Here’s a quote from Indian philosopher of science Shiv Visvanathan:

“A game is a bounded, specific way of problem solving. Play is more cosmic and open-ended. Gods play, but man unfortunately is a gaming individual. A game has a predictable resolution, play may not. Play allows for emergence, novelty, surprise.”

All true. But there is also something potentially terrifying about play for just this reason. Because this open-ended creativity is also what allows it to be randomly destructive. Cats play with mice. Pulling the wings off flies is also a form of play. Playful gods are rarely ones any sane person would desire to encounter. Let me put forth a suggestion, then. What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.

It’s an enjoyable book, strewn with relatable references, playful, and thoughtful. Recommended. I wish I’d known someone like Graeber during my time among the anarchists.

The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber 📚

Mike Hall @pdxmph