📙 The Utopia of Rules
Author: David Graeber
Full Title: The Utopia of Rules
The Iron Law of Liberalism states that any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.
This is to my mind the essence of right-wing thought: a political ontology that through such subtle means allows violence to define the very parameters of social existence and common sense.
The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world.
It’s not that vision, creativity, and mad fantasies are no longer encouraged. It’s that our fantasies remain free-floating; there’s no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh. Meanwhile, in the few areas in which free, imaginative creativity actually is fostered, such as in open-source Internet software development, it is ultimately marshaled in order to create even more, and even more effective, platforms for the filling out of forms. This is what I mean by “bureaucratic technologies”: administrative imperatives have become not the means, but the end of technological development.
We have seen how the European Middle Ages produced the vision of a virtual celestial Bureaucracy, based distantly on that of ancient Rome, which was seen as the embodiment of cosmic rationality, in a time when real Bureaucracy was particularly thin on the ground. Over time, of course, it grew considerably less so. But as new bureaucratic states did emerge, and particularly as bureaucratic rationality became the predominant principle of governance in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, we witness a kind of countermovement: the rise of an equally fantastic vision of the Middle Ages, full of princes, knights, faeries, dragons, sorcerers, and unicorns; and eventually, hobbits, dwarves, and orcs. In most important ways, this world is explicitly antibureaucratic: that is, it evinces an explicit rejection of virtually all the core values of Bureaucracy.
The actual origins of what I’m calling “heroic societies” seem to lie on the hills, mountains, deserts, or steppes on the fringes of the great commercial-bureaucratic societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, and then, later, empires like Rome, Persia, or China. Economically, these societies were in many ways linked to the urban centers.
Urbanites came to define civilization as not acting like a barbarian; the barbarians, in turn, ended up creating social orders that took the key values of commercial-bureaucratic civilization and turned them precisely on their heads.
Where one created and treasured literary masterworks, the other rejected the use of writing, but celebrated bards who could extemporize works of epic verse afresh each time.
Where one carefully stored and registered items of material value, the other sponsored vast potlatch-like festivals in which priceless treasures were either distributed to followers or rivals as a gesture of contempt towards the pretentions of material wealth, or even abandoned, set on fire, or thrown into the sea.
Where one developed a self-effacing Bureaucracy that offered predictable stability, the other organized public life around charismatic egomaniacs in a never-ending struggle for supremacy.
Why did the very sorts of people ridiculed as ignorant barbarians by one civilization of urbanites so often become reimagined as distant heroic ancestors of a later one? Why were stories of their exploits told and retold, in many cases, for thousands of years? I think part of the answer is that heroic societies are, effectively, social orders designed to generate stories.
Everyday politics—whether in a rural village or corporate office—has everything to do with the manufacture of official Narratives, rumors, and accounts. It stands to reason that heroic societies, which turned political self-aggrandizement into an art form, would also have been organized in such a way as to become vast engines for the generation of stories.
This is why poets were so important. The whole point of life was to do things that other people might wish to sing about.
Even from the beginning, the inhabitants of Bureaucratic societies like Egypt or Babylonia could not help develop a certain fascination with the barbarian hinterlands, which quickly became murky lands full of monsters and strange magical powers.
These books are not just appealing because they create endless daydream material for the inhabitants of bureaucratic societies. Above all, they appeal because they continue to provide a systematic negation of everything Bureaucracy stands for.
Historically, one of the most effective ways for a system of authority to tout its virtues is not to speak of them directly, but to create a particularly vivid image of their absolute negation—of what it claims life would be like in the total absence of, say, patriarchal authority, or capitalism, or the state.
J.R.R. Tolkien for example once remarked that politically, he was either an anarchist, or an “unconstitutional” monarchist—it seems he could never make up his mind quite which. The one thing both positions have in common of course is that they are both profoundly antibureaucratic.
This is true of almost all fantasy literature: only evil people maintain systems of administration.
The principle of absolute evil seems to exist to negate the bureaucratic principle of value-free rule-bound neutrality, the fact that principles such as good and evil are utterly alien to administrative orders of any kind. Fantasy worlds create values so absolute it is simply impossible to be value-free.
The existence in fantasy universes of demi-human species—gnomes, drow, trolls, and so on—which are fundamentally human, but absolutely impossible to integrate under the same larger social, legal, or political order, creates a world where racism is actually true.
Legitimate power in fantasy worlds tends to be based on pure charisma, or the memory of past charisma.
Only bad guys ever create a statelike apparatus, and when they do, that apparatus is one of pure coercion.
As a corollary: in fantasy, as in heroic societies, political life is largely about the creation of stories. Narratives are embedded inside Narratives; the storyline of a typical fantasy is often itself about the process of telling stories, interpreting stories, and creating material for new ones. This is in dramatic contrast with the mechanical nature of bureaucratic operations.
Administrative procedures are very much not about the creation of stories; in a Bureaucratic setting, stories appear when something goes wrong. When things run smoothly, there’s no Narrative arc of any sort at all.
What’s more, protagonists are endlessly engaging with riddles in ancient languages, obscure myths and prophecies, maps with runic puzzles and the like. Bureaucratic procedures in contrast are based on a principle of transparency.
Fantasy literature then, is largely an attempt to imagine a world utterly purged of Bureaucracy, which readers enjoy both as a form of vicarious escapism and as reassurance that ultimately, a boring, administered world is probably preferable to any imaginable alternative.
And of course by the time we get to Harry Potter, we have also traveled all the way from expressly heroic realms like Cimmeria or Elfland or Hyperborea, to an antiBureaucratic narrative that’s set within a classic Bureaucratic institution: a British boarding school, in a magical world that is nonetheless replete with banks, Wizard Boards, Commissions of Enquiry, and even prisons.
D&D, as its aficionados call it, is on one level the most free-form game imaginable, since the characters are allowed to do absolutely anything, within the confines of the world created by the Dungeon Master, with his books, maps, and tables and preset towns, castles, dungeons, wilderness.
However, in another sense, D&D represents the ultimate bureaucratization of antibureaucratic fantasy.
Still, the introduction of numbers, the standardization of types of character, ability, monster, treasure, spell, the concept of ability scores and hit-points, had profound effects when one moved from the world of 6-, 8-, 12- and 20-sided dice to one of digital interfaces. Computer games could turn fantasy into an almost entirely bureaucratic procedure: accumulation of points, the raising of levels, and so on.
One reason I have seen fit to spend so much time on fantasy worlds is because the topic opens up some fundamental questions about the nature of play, games, and freedom—all of which, I believe, lie at the core of Bureaucracy’s covert appeal.
The great Dutch sociologist Johann Huizinga wrote a book called Homo Ludens that is ostensibly a theory of play. In fact, the book makes for a very bad theory of play, but it’s not at all a bad theory of games.
Games allow us our only real experience of a situation where all this ambiguity is swept away. Everyone knows exactly what the rules are.
Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules.
Studies of children’s play, for example, inevitably discover that children playing imaginary games spend at least as much time arguing about the rules than they do actually playing them. Such arguments become a form of play in themselves.
What ultimately lies behind the appeal of Bureaucracy is fear of play.
For the social theorist, there is one obvious analogy to play as a principle that generates rules, but is not itself bound by them. This is the principle of sovereignty.
Sovereignty in this sense is ultimately identical to play as the generative principle that produces games; but if so, it is also play in its most terrifying, cosmic form.
Brian Sutton-Smith argues that in the contemporary world the older, “top-down” view of play, what some have called “dark play,” no longer really holds sway. Since the Romantic era, it has been largely replaced by a whole host of more cheerful bottom-up rhetorics that see play variously as subversive, or educational, or imaginative.
On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say.
But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any kind—no semantics, syntax, phonemics—we’d all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other at all.
So at some point along the way, rules-as-constraining pass over into rules-as-enabling, even if it’s impossible to say exactly where.
Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating. And this is what linguists always observe. There is no language without Grammar. But there is also no language in which everything, including Grammar, is not constantly changing all the time.
These books are not just appealing because they create endless daydream material for the inhabitants of bureaucratic societies. Above all, they appeal because they continue to provide a systematic negation of everything bureaucracy stands for. Just as Medieval clerics and magicians liked to fantasize about a radiant celestial administrative system, so do we, now, fantasize about the adventures of Medieval clerics and mages, existing in a world in which every aspect of bureaucratic existence has been carefully stripped away.
In fact, the most recent archeological evidence from Mesopotamia indicates that bureaucratic techniques emerged not just before sovereign states, but even before the existence of the first cities.
The standardization of products, storage, certification, record-keeping, redistribution, and accounting all seem to have emerged in small towns along the Tigris and Euphrates and its tributaries in the fifth millennium BCE, a thousand years before the “urban revolution.”
What does all this have to do with dragons and wizards? Quite a lot, actually. Because all evidence we have suggests that such heroic orders did not just emerge spontaneously, alongside bureaucratic societies; they emerged in a kind of symbiotic rivalry with them; and they were remembered long after because they embodied a rejection of everything bureaucracy was supposed to be about.
Modern fantasy literature might be said to have its origins in late chivalric romances like Amadis of Gaul or Orlando Furioso, but the genre really takes recognizable form in the Victorian Age, around the same time as the height of popular enthusiasm for the postal service.
One is first drawn in to the vision of the alternative world, experiences a kind of vicarious thrill imagining it—only to ultimately recoil in horror at the implications of one’s own desires.
Still, bureaucracy and bureaucratic principles are not entirely absent from such worlds. They creep in from several directions.
So the social relations are the very opposite of impersonal bureaucratic hierarchies. However, in another sense, D&D represents the ultimate bureaucratization of antibureaucratic fantasy.
This in turn set off a move in the other direction, by introducing role-playing back into the computer games (Elfquest, World of Warcraft …), in a constant weaving back and forth of the imperatives of poetic and bureaucratic technology. But in doing so, these games ultimately reinforce the sense that we live in a universe where accounting procedures define the very fabric of reality,
Who hasn’t dreamed of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and—even more—where people who play by the rules can actually still win? The problem is that this is just as much a utopian fantasy as a world of absolute free play would be. It will always remain a glimmering illusion that dissolves away as soon as we touch it.