Monday, December 7, 2015

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Mercurial cultural and economic writer David Graeber presents five challenging essays on bureaucracy and its tendency towards violence. 

The title of this book by anthropologist David Graeber sounds mighty appealing. All of us, every day, comes up against some set of stupid bureaucratic rules that we must deal with. Why can’t simple common sense prevail? Hence I approached this book with a fair bit of excitement, hoping it would provide a lucid explanation of why we all must suffer so much complex form filling, none of which ever runs particularly smoothly. What I got was something quite different.

The Utopia of Rules is essentially five loosely related essays (an introduction, three main pieces in the middle and an appendix, which is really a final essay) on such themes as technology, literature, pop culture, politics, cultural theory and so on. Graeber has a wide ranging intelligence; he’s clearly a smart cookie, and he likes to riff on whatever he finds interesting. This means it’s hard to really get a handle on what the overall point is that he’s trying to make. It’s like listening to a very intelligent person ramble on to themselves. Graeber cites freely from a broad range - authors, political theorists, historical events, comics and movies - without giving too much backgrounding to his references, which leaves you struggling to connect all the dots. Reading the book was like being stuck in a room full of brilliant university students, everyone feverishly quoting Focault and Baudrillard. Well, maybe not that bad, but you get the idea.

The only really strong thread that runs through the book is the idea that bureaucracies are backed up by the threat of violence. They’re coercive. That doesn’t sound like a particularly new idea, but Graeber does tease out many interesting new strands to the argument.

This doesn’t sound like a very glowing review. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed. On the upside, Graeber clearly is a very interesting fellow. The Utopia of Rules is an odd book, written by an anthropologist who is also an anarchist (he was active in the Occupy movement). It provides many fascinating insights and makes you think outside of the box, but won’t suit those who want something that provides a clear narrative and explanation.

The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber. Published by Melville House. ISBN:9781612194486 RRP: $32.99

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