By the late 20th century, Graeber argues, citizens in the great free society of the Unites States had come to spend “ever more hours struggling with phone trees and web interfaces, while the less fortunate spent ever more hours of their day trying to jump through the increasingly elaborate hoops required to gain access to dwindling social services.” Bureaucracy dominates our lives and is, in fact, a defining feature of how the United States (and some European states) project power domestically and across the world.
The proposition that the United States is a nation of bureaucrats grates on anti-government ideals of individualism and self-reliance, Graeber notes. Bureaucrats are supposed to be the antithesis of true Americans. After civil servants died in the Oklahoma City bombing, President Bill Clinton was forced to point out that bureaucrats are “people … just like most of you.” Our reliance on bureaucracy also clashes with a free-market ideology that defines bureaucracy as government red tape. One of President Ronald Reagan’s famous quips was, “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
But the complete interdependence of the U.S. military and the defense industry is a forceful example of how corporations actually love bureaucratic rules that work in their favor. The true definition of the corporate rallying cry in favor of “deregulation” is in fact “changing the regulatory structure in ways that I like,” Graeber writes.
Accompanying the expansion of bureaucracy is an expansion of the use of force, or at least the threat of it, into parts of life that were not previously administered. We might think of police as principally protecting us from violent crime, solving murders and muggings and rapes, but they are mainly occupied in enforcing disputes over property and non-violent behaviors. “Bureaucrats with guns,” as Graeber puts it. He notes that the United States became a world power as it built up international administrative and enforcement bodies like the United Nations, the World Bank, NATO, and the World Trade Organization; global bureaucrats with mandates in addition to guns.
“The legal order, and hence the zones where state violence is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, has expanded to define and regulate almost every possible aspect of human activity,” Graeber writes.
The “utopia of rules” in the title of the book is twofold. In their ideal form, rules exist to control bad behavior. Even young children create rules for their games because they recognize that play, creativity, and joy can be destructive and arbitrary. Societies create rules to stop the worst inclinations of the mob.
Behind the utopia of rules is a belief in fairness — that the rules are the same for everyone. This, Graeber argues, is predicated on the idea that the system is perfect. He asks, “Is this not what we always say of utopians: that they have a naïve faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are?”
The problem is that those in power can always interpret or change the rules to their benefit.
Bureaucratic systems aspire to be regarded as “neutral social technologies,” Graeber notes, just a means to an end. But he doesn’t believe bureaucracy is actually neutral: he thinks it stymies creativity and, under the cover of neutrality, preserves the advantages of the powerful by dominating the weak. He’s onto something. As we have seen with drone strikes, spying by the National Security Agency, and detainee torture by the CIA, laws and rules are not always obeyed, and they can be designed or twisted to authorize horrendous things.
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