The Utopia of Rules : On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy Hardback
- Format: Hardback
- Pages: 268 pages, illustrations
- Publisher: Melville House Publishing
- Publication Date: 12/03/2015
- Category: Social & cultural anthropology
- ISBN: 9781612193748
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Review by jcbrunner
This is actually a collection of three essays and a film review. The critique of the quasi-Fascist 2012 Batman film "The Dark Knight rises" is the best part as he shows the strange attraction of the audience for the all powerful superheroes and their opponents who use their powers to fight one another instead of engaging in productive activities. Bane's plan for Gotham City was especially hare-brained, even by the low standards of superhero film franchises.The other three essays work as short pieces but are not profound enough to stand on their own as a book. Graeber's reaction to bureaucracy and its inherent preservation of structural violence ("Herrschaft") is mostly emotional. His bad experience, even, is not the result of actual bureaucracy but is due to his own incompetence as well as the people he selects to do the job. To get legal custody for his ill mother's bank account, Graeber needs a notarized power of attorney. Unfortunately, neither the notary nor Graeber make sure that all the necessary signatures are on the document so that the process has to be repeated three times. The amount of signatures necessary is the absolute minimum for the transaction, so the fault lies with Graeber and the incompetent notary - caused by the reverse Peter principle common in the USA: A job is reorganized until it is executed by the lowest paid person who can barely complete routine transactions.As far as a real bureaucracy is concerned, Graeber's essays suffer from incomplete research. He does not take into account what has been written about the topic in law and economics (what is known in German as Legalitätsprinzip and Ermessensspielraum). Bureaucracy means programming outcomes according to a fixed process which somewhat guarantees a similar treatment for everybody but can be onerous if the conditions required do not match the case. Bureaucracy is not flexible and efforts to change bureaucracy leads to even more layers of bureaucracy.Graeber justly notes that bureaucracy is a form of forcing others into compliance. In contrast to direct force, the veiled fist of bureaucracy hides the real power structures. Graeber, however, fails to see the positive side of bureaucracy in limiting civil servants in their discretion ("Ermessensspielraum"). A core rule of bureaucracy is to treat equal cases equally, so that some can not be more equal. In practice, this is often violated and despite bureaucratic procedures, a bribe can speed of processes or allow different outcomes for those that more equal. This is not a failure of bureaucracy itself but a failure of accountability in the organization and its socio-political environment. Graeber, in my view, cheaply chastises the wrong object. There are unfortunately too few defenders of efficient bureaucracy left. Markets are often ill-equipped to handle the complexities bureaucracies can deal with in their internal contracts.