Sunday, November 22, 2015

All Power to the Imagination

"The Utopia of Rules – On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,” by David Graeber, 2015

Graeber is the author of “Debt,” the blockbuster analyzing financial debt from the beginnings of human civilization.  Yet Graeber is really an anthropologist, not a political economist or a political ‘scientist’ and it shows in this book.  Written as a somewhat gentle description of ‘bureaucracy,’ it might convince you that not all bureaucracy is really so bad.  After all, he calls everything bureaucracy – filling out forms, getting a POA for his dying mother, any paperwork, the military, building codes, government regulations in general, the Post Office, government transparency – everything it seems but the call and response meetings of Occupy.  In this, he seems a bit like a child.

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Graeber sums it up in the phrase ‘all power to the imagination’ – a phrase made popular during the 1968 uprising in France.  Those who can ‘imagine’ another way of being can usher in a new reality – not just escape from this one.  While he is an anarchist, he admits in this book that bureaucracy - the real, hard state bureaucracy of the U.S. government or of international capitalist institutions like the World Bank and IMF – are merely aids to capital. This puts him in the same position as Marxists and Marx, whom he quotes frequently.  Unlike many Libertarians and some anarchists, he does not see the government as separate from the economic system, but an essential part of it.  In addition, he repeatedly describes the inherent violence residing behind even the most innocuous ‘rules’ in a capitalist society – private guard intervention, police action, FBI arrests, NSA surveillance, military occupation. As he figures, rules are only the advance guard of guns.  As Engels wrote about long ago, ‘force’ lies at the bottom of all states, legal systems and property rights.  Mao said the same thing somewhat more crudely - ‘all power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’

Graeber goes on in this book somewhat like Zizek, analyzing bits of culture and bringing out what is underneath. He complains that all the techno-futurism of ‘flying cars’ promised by bourgeois optimists like Alvin Toffler in “Future Shock” has not come to pass – something he as a child actually believed.(!)  He explains, using Marx’s ‘falling rate of profit’ theory, why U.S. technological development is actually stagnant and becoming more so. He praises “Star Trek” as a film showing a regime of communism and also praises the bureaucrats of the Soviet Union for being the last people to ‘dream big’ through their gargantuan projects, something he refers to as ‘poetic technologies.’ (His estimate of Indian or Chinese dam building or American proposals for weather geo-engineering to fight global warming might be interesting to hear.)  He opposes ‘deep ecologists’ who reject nearly all technology and long for a return to the Stone Age.  In that vein he considers the iPhone and the internet to be modest fetishes at best.   

Graeber uses his own experience in the university to decry the time administrative work takes from professors.  He sees this as one of the reasons why, in his area, there has been a stagnation of social theory in the U.S., which instead recycles 1970s French post-modernists like Deleuze, Foucault or Bourdieu.  Graeber even refers to the ‘global class war’ in relation to the competition with the Soviets, a phrase not often heard on the lips of an anarchist.

The discussion of the origins of the excellent Post Office in Prussian Germany, an organization praised by Lenin, is one of the first examples of a possibly ‘good bureaucracy,’ according to Graeber. The post office may lure people into thinking that bureaucracy can be ‘neutral.’  The German post office had many deliveries per day and reached all over Germany.  Berlin had its own series of pneumatic air tubes shooting mail around town.  The German post office was run from the top-down, and also developed as a way to forestall actual Bolshevism.  That must be his point, though you might miss it.  Postal workers will find his description of the post office somewhat odd.  They might work for bureaucrats, but they perform a useful service in spite of that.  Graeber however now thinks his mail is all junk.  Perhaps he relies too much on the internet, something he has mixed feelings about. As the infamous PeeWee Herman once said, ‘you have to send a letter to get a letter.’

Graeber has a section on 20th century science fiction and fantasy, which he understands as a return to the middle ages,  He references Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and assumably JRR Martin as writers that harken back to a time before ‘logic’ and bureaucracy.  A time of desirable and dangerous personalist leadership and unruly, violent behavior.  He seems oblivious of their modern parallels - for Tolkien, a reverberation of World War I; and for Martin, a recreation of the bloodthirsty pursuit of power in our own time inspired by the Vietnam war.  C.S. Lewis was an attempt to bring Christian ‘magic’ back into the world, but ended up being mostly for children.  In other words, he misunderstands the masters.  Harry Potter is in this latter vein as well, which does suggest that one wing of fantasy is concerned with pre-industrial life and rejects modernism.  He intimates that events like the Renaissance Festival harken back to a time of revolt, peasant gluttony and sexual debauchery – yet ignores that all this happens in the shadow of kingly rule.  In one section, he hints that anti-racism and demands for capitalist transparency are both ‘bureaucratic’ thinking – another oddity of his worship of spontaneity and ‘play.’   

Lastly is a chapter on comics and film super-heroes – the conservative ‘superegos’ that all ultimately back up conventional power and law.  Graeber targets the worst example in this avalanche of super-heroes, the blatantly anti-Occupy “Dark Knight Rises.” (reviewed below.)

What are we to make of this grab-bag?  Many interesting ideas here, but ultimately weak execution and questionable logic, or ‘anti-logic.’ 

Graeber’s “Debt;” a review of Situationist books, “The Beach Beneath the Street” and “Society of the Spectacle;” a review of post-modernism, “Fashionable Nonsense,” and reviews of cultural works "The Dark Knight Rises, Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, all reviewed below.  Use blog search box, upper left.

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
November 22, 2015

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