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The Utopia of Rules

By Timothy Kennett.


Review of David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules (Meville House, 2015)

From the time of the T’ang dynasty until the time of the Ch’ing dynasty – a period of around one thousand years – examinations were held for entry into the Chinese Imperial civil service. These examinations were unusually trying: men would have to study for decades before they could hope to pass them all. Candidates who were successful in the series of regional examinations would be invited to participate, in the Imperial capital, in the final examinations, which would allow them to enter into the civil service with a prestigious rank. The examinations themselves were held in large, specially built compounds comprising thousands of cells, each big enough for one man and equipped with three planks, to use as a bench, desk, and bed. They would last for three days and two nights, during which time the candidates would be prohibited from leaving the compound (they had to bring all their own food) and were surveilled constantly from a tower at its center. If it rained, the candidates, in their open cells, would have to shield their papers as best they could; if they died – and death was not unknown – the officials were prohibited from opening the gates, so they would throw the corpses over the walls.

The Imperial examination system is a clear example of the kind of bureaucracy David Graeber describes in his new book The Utopia of Rules, published by Melville House. Graeber, an anthropologist and political activist based at the London School of Economics, is a provocative critic of bureaucracy, which he believes to be stupid-making, hostile to outsiders, needlessly cruel, explicitly violent (he writes pithily that “Police are bureaucrats with weapons”), and in many ways hopelessly corrupt. Despite these negative traits, he argues, we persist with bureaucracy partly because of the malign influence of powerful pro-bureaucratic interests (e.g., government, multinational corporations, Michel Foucault), which assure us of its effectiveness and necessity, and beat us down when we don’t listen, partly because we are too scared to abandon it. Graeber rightly characterises bureaucracies as “to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.” These are ideals of transparency and regularity, of rules that will be followed in the same way in every case; of fairness and disinterestedness and rationality. For Graeber, theseideals are a lie. We cling to them because we are afraid of arbitrary power, and bureaucracy lets us pretend that arbitrary power doesn’t exist, and keeps us, most of the time, far away from it.


All of these traits, including the arbitrary power that we like to pretend isn’t there, can be observed in the Imperial civil service examinations. It was claimed that the system was open to all, although women were prohibited from entering the examinations, and in practice any scholar who wanted to sit them had to be wealthy. The system claimed to find the best candidates, who would become the best civil servants. In reality, it produced too many civil servants, and the emperor struggled to find jobs for them all. The examinations consisted mostly of memorizing and regurgitating canonical texts (and also memorizing and regurgitating one’s own answers to earlier questions, a measure to guard against cheating), which was not necessarily the best preparation for governing an empire. Worse, the examinations themselves were vulnerable to all kinds of corruption and cheating, including bribery, paying someone else to sit the examination in the candidate’s place, and smuggling crib sheets into the compound, in one case disguised as underwear. And this excludes all the legitimate forms of game-playing that accompany the introduction of any rules, and the legitimate forms of corruption: one emperor, for example, assigned grades after judging the candidates’ physical appearances. Finally, lest we forget, the examinations also foreground the violence that Graeber views as characteristic of bureaucracy: the candidates were guarded and surveilled by soldiers, the examinations were officially opened by firing a cannon, and some of the candidates would die during the examination, as if they were engaged in a trial by combat rather than a test of scholarship.

Nonetheless, the Imperial system was effective at achieving some of its aims. It produced civil servants who were capable of governing a vast empire for a thousand years, and, most importantly, who were solely loyal to the emperor. The civil service was a means of centralizing power, which it did by creating a corps of professional bureaucrats dependent on the emperor for their power – rather than on their own wealth or military strength – and who were trained in classical Han culture, which they propagated, helping to unify the empire culturally. These aims are worth emphasizing because they highlight a point that Graeber fails to address: not all bureaucracies are the same. Different bureaucracies were moulded at different times by different agents for different purposes. While we might view corporate bureaucracy as centralizing corporate power and spreading corporate culture, we wouldn’t say that it aims to promote classical Han culture. Or, to put it more optimistically: bureaucracy doesn’t have to be like it is.

We can see this in the history of the Imperial civil service examinations, too. They were so effective that the Victorians, who were not known for their open-minded approach to other cultures, adopted examinations based on the Chinese model (in the British Empire in 1870 and in the United States in 1883). Thus, as the historian Ichisoda Miyazaki argues in China’s Examination Hell: The Civil Service Examinations of Imperial China, “The case for the Chinese influence on the development of civil service examinations is strong.” And through the example of the civil service examinations, ideas of meritocratic selection evolved in many other areas, such as university admissions and job applications. These systems are far from perfect, and far from truly meritocratic, but they are clearly more meritocratic than they were several hundred years ago: they are open to a wider pool of people and select from that wider pool with more transparency and regularity than they did previously. Bureaucracy, in the right circumstances, can improve. The utopia of rules may remain an asymptote, but we can edge closer to it.

Graeber, however, is skeptical of bureaucracy’s ability to change or improve; indeed, he is skeptical of its ability to be effective at all. He predicts “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.” His pessimism about a bureaucratic future is discussed in his essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” (which first appeared in The Baffler and is reprinted in The Utopia of Rules), which discusses the relationship between bureaucracy and technology. Graeber argues that the promises of 1950s science fiction have not been realized, and that the pace of technological development has slowed. The reason, in Graeber’s eyes, is bureaucracy itself, which is resistant to things that might disrupt the social order. At the same time, bureaucracy has made it more difficult for innovators to come up with new technologies or new ideas, because they are swathed in red tape and buried in large corporations. (Like many right-wingers, Graeber believes in the suffocating effects of red tape; indeed, in his critique of modern technology, he sounds surprisingly like Peter Thiel, the libertarian and slightly crazy face of venture capitalism, who “wonders what happened to the ‘really big dreams’ of the 1950s and 1960s when our pursuits were defined by things like ‘underwater cities’ and ‘supersonic transport.’”)


As with many of the arguments in The Utopia of Rules, Graeber’s claims here are provocative, interesting, and well worth considering, but are not necessarily correct. He assumes that technological development should continue exponentially and never regress or plateau. Furthermore, the proof he offers that the rate of technological development has fallen is doubtful: Is it really the case that the number of patents has fallen? Is this itself a good approximation of technological development? The other measures Graeber offers are not convincing: How can one judge whether the discovery of the structure of DNA is more important than the Human Genome Project, or whether Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is more important than the Higgs boson? Are such claims even meaningful?

At the center of Graber’s argument is the idea that information technologies are not as impressive or as important as early-twentieth-century discoveries in areas like space travel or nuclear physics:

The Internet is surely a remarkable thing. Still, if a fifties sci-fi fan were to appear in the present and ask what the most dramatic technological achievement of the intervening sixty years had been, it’s hard to imagine the reaction would have been anything but bitter disappointment.

Putting aside the absurdity of ranking technologies and the absurdity of allowing a sci-fi fan from sixty years ago to decide the importance of all technological change, Graeber fundamentally undervalues information technologies like the Internet here. (Also, he really believes that someone from the 1950s wouldn’t be impressed by the complexity of a video game like Grand Theft Auto V? Or that Jorge Luis Borges’s reaction to finding out that his Library of Babel now exists, in a way, would be to shrug his shoulders? Perhaps this says more about how high human expectations can be than about how low our age has fallen.)

What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation.… a technological environment where the only major breakthroughs were ones making it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we now came to realize, never really would…. The “postmodern” moment was simply a desperate way to take what could only otherwise be felt as a bitter disappointment, and dress it up as something epochal, exciting and new.

This is the core of Graeber’s disillusionment with bureaucracy and with other information technologies: he does not see differences between simulation – which to him implies a kind of falseness – and organization, nor does he recognize that the creation, transfer, and rearrangement of simulated things can have profound impacts on real things. Take, for example, early computers. Much of the early work on the development of computers was a response to the pressing need for information processing during World War II, resulting in the computers at Bletchley Park that helped to crack the Enigma Code and those in America that were involved in the creation of atomic weapons. In the former case, reorganizing strings of information resulted in significant advantages on the battlefield; in the latter, simulating the potential effects of nuclear reactions was necessary before the actual devices could be created. (We might add that these developments occurred within the vast bureaucracies of the Allied wartime military-industrial economies, which somehow managed not to stifle them.)

The recognition that information technologies can be significant has important implications for bureaucracy’s future – and that of technology at large. In Graeber’s conception, the best path seems to be revolution: bureaucracy is impeding what technological progress we do have, or using it to extend bureaucratic dominion and uphold the interests of bureaucracy, which are explicitly not the interests of society at large. Graeber notes “a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control” (his italics). He is right to focus on the ways in which many information technologies have been used to exert greater control over labor – e.g., some companies track their employees’ locations – but he is wrong to see this control as intrinsic to information technologies. As Graeber himself points out, “Technological change is simply not an independent variable. Technology will advance, and often in surprising and unexpected ways. But the overall direction it takes depends on social factors.” If we view bureaucracy itself as a kind of information technology, then we can understand its current problems not as inherent to all bureaucratic systems, but as the results of the social factors that have guided the development of this bureaucratic system. Graeber describes such a situation in the case of the US postal system, which a century ago was a model of human efficiency, but is now largely viewed as ineffective and wasteful, not because of its inherent failings, but as a “result of intentional policy choices.” Intentional policy choices, of course, can be undone. Or, to put it another way: there might be hope yet for bureaucracy.Colossus

One of bureaucracy’s best hopes might come from technological development itself. One candidate has emerged from the digital currency Bitcoin, which is dependent on a protocol known as “blockchain.” While Bitcoin itself may well die out, or become one of those assets, like London property, that exists only for speculators, the blockchain protocol has the potential to have lasting impact in large areas of information technology. The basic idea behind the blockchain is that it is a digital, public registry that cannot be copied and cannot be changed. Every action undertaken using the blockchain protocol is recorded, and the processing of these records is done by the distributed network of computers that support the protocol (i.e. by all the users). To protect the individual users, the data is anonymized and made cryptographically secure. The result is a bureaucratic system that is decentralized, automated, and transparent. Besides potential gains in efficiency resulting from the removal middlemen like large banks and government, such a system might also be far closer to realizing bureaucracy’s utopia of rules. The rules would be, at least in their day to day application, outside of human interference. They would be more transparent, perhaps open source. They would have to apply to everyone equally. Their power to be abused in the interests of power would be reduced.

Such an outlook for blockchain protocols is utopian, and probably its impacts will be far less dramatic and far more banal. But it is an example that demonstrates the ways in which bureaucratic systems can be improved so as to evolve more closely to their utopian ideals. If we can accept that modern examination systems are in some ways closer to ideals of fairness and meritocracy than Imperial Chinese examination systems – and we should remember that modern examinations, for all their flaws, are open to women and very rarely kill anyone – then we can accept that bureaucratic systems can be improved as well as ruined. Blockchain is currently at an early stage in its development, and, like all technologies, it is subject to a number of influences: from big Wall Street banks, from disruptive start-ups, from ethical consumers, from libertarian cypherpunks, and from crypto-anarchists. (In his book The Dark Net, Jamie Barlett quotes a computer coder and anti-capitalist named Amir Taaki who is involved in the creation of anonymous Bitcoin wallets, discussing the likely impacts of his work: “It’s true – people are going to suffer. Yes, that’s sad. But that’s just the way it is.”) A major weakness of Graeber’s model for understanding how bureaucratic social forces act on technology is that it ignores this plurality of aims and ideologies. Even if bureaucracy is holding back technological development, there are other forces pushing it ahead, and often they will produce things that can make bureaucracy function better.

Nonetheless, Graeber’s book offers an important critique. It dances with insights and provocations, even if it often stumbles in its eagerness to rush to a conclusion, or skips when it should dwell. The Utopia of Rules calls for a revolution, but revolutions are often impractical. Graeber asks us to question the ideologies that underpin bureaucracies of every kind, and such questioning is essential. We must ask not just whether our bureaucracies are functioning as we want them to function in areas like higher education, healthcare, or finance, but also whether the beliefs underpinning them – beliefs in transparency, regularity, meritocracy, technocracy, administration, rationality, efficiency – are the kind of beliefs that would best benefit society. Future utopias of rules are being built today, and they are intrinsically technological. Perhaps other social forces are necessary to influence their development, if we don’t want to live in a utopia designed by Wall Street.


Timothy Kennett writes and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 20th, 2015.