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

★★★★☆

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Buy this book ~May 9, 2015 Books read in 2015

Highlights

First of all, historically, markets simply did not emerge as some autonomous domain of freedom independent of, and opposed to, state authorities. Exactly the opposite is the case. Historically, markets are generally either a side effect of government operations, especially military operations, or were directly created by government policy.
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.
Now, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind that, were I to actually locate a bank manager and demand to know how such things could happen, he or she would immediately insist that the bank was not to blame—that it was all an effect of an arcane maze of government regulations. However, I am equally confident that, were it possible to investigate how these regulations came about, one would find that they were composed jointly by aides to legislators on some banking committee and lobbyists and attorneys employed by the banks themselves, in a process greased by generous contributions to the coffers of those same legislators’ reelection campaigns.
I think what happened is best considered as a kind of shift in class allegiances on the part of the managerial staff of major corporations, from an uneasy, de facto alliance with their own workers, to one with investors.
As anyone who has been to graduate school knows, it’s precisely the children of the professional-managerial classes, those whose family resources make them the least in need of financial support, who best know how to navigate the world of paperwork that enables them to get said support. For everyone else, the main result of one’s years of professional training is to ensure that one is saddled with such an enormous burden of student debt that a substantial chunk of any subsequent income one will get from pursuing that profession will henceforth be siphoned off, each month, by the financial sector.
But I think there is something deeper going on here, and it turns on the very nature of bureaucratic systems. Such institutions always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules—it’s that loyalty to the organization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening.
Over the last thirty years, storefront branches of the same three or four megabanks have opened, it seems, on every third block in the more prosperous parts of Manhattan. In the greater New York area there are now literally thousands of them, each one having replaced some earlier shop that once provided material goods and services of one sort or another. In a way these are the perfect symbols of our age: stores selling pure abstraction—immaculate boxes containing little but glass and steel dividers, computer screens, and armed security. They define the perfect point of conjuncture between guns and information, since that’s really all that’s there. And that conjuncture has come to provide the framework for almost every other aspect of our lives.
And indeed, all these new bank lobbies do bear a striking resemblance to the stripped-down virtual reality one often found in 1990s video games. It’s as if we have finally achieved the ability to make such virtual realities materialize, and in so doing, to reduce our lives, too, to a kind of video game, as we negotiate the various mazeways of the new bureaucracies. Since, in such video games, nothing is actually produced, it just kind of springs into being, and we really do spend our lives earning points and dodging people carrying weapons.
All rich countries now employ legions of functionaries whose primary function is to make poor people feel bad about themselves. But the culture of evaluation is if anything even more pervasive in the hypercredentialized world of the professional classes, where audit culture reigns, and nothing is real that cannot be quantified, tabulated, or entered into some interface or quarterly report.
Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected. It’s in this sense that I’ve said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization. After all, is this not what we always say of utopians: that they have a naïve faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are? Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them?
Much of the everyday business of social life, in fact, consists in trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions. Let us call this “interpretive labor.” One might say, those relying on the fear of force are not obliged to engage in a lot of interpretative labor, and thus, generally speaking, they do not.
...This seems to be one area where anthropologists, and academics more generally, are particularly prone to fall victim to the confusion of interpretive depth and social significance. That is, they automatically assume that what is most interesting about violence is also what’s most important.
So: Police are bureaucrats with weapons. If you think about it, this is a really ingenious trick. Because when most of us think about police, we do not think of them as enforcing regulations. We think of them as fighting crime, and when we think of “crime,” the kind of crime we have in our minds is violent crime. Even though, in fact, what police mostly do is exactly the opposite: they bring the threat of force to bear on situations that would otherwise have nothing to do with it.
In fact what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of action—taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings—and not others. These frames of action imply certain ways of talking, thinking, arguing, deliberating. The same “public” that may widely indulge in the use of recreational chemicals may also consistently vote to make such indulgences illegal; the same collection of citizens is likely to come to completely different decisions on questions affecting their communities if organized into a parliamentary system, a system of computerized plebiscites, or a nested series of public assemblies. In fact the entire anarchist project of reinventing direct democracy is premised on assuming this is the case.
Power makes you lazy. Insofar as our earlier theoretical discussion of structural violence revealed anything, it was this: that while those in situations of power and privilege often feel it as a terrible burden of responsibility, in most ways, most of the time, power is all about what you don’t have to worry about, don’t have to know about, and don’t have to do.
Thesis: There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.
We are used to thinking of the Politburo as a group of unimaginative grey bureaucrats, but while the Soviet Union was certainly run by bureaucrats, they were, from the beginning, bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams. (The dream of world revolution was just the first.) Of course, most of their grandiose projects—changing the course of mighty rivers, that sort of thing—either turned out to be ecologically and socially disastrous, or, like Stalin’s projected one-hundred-story Palace of the Soviets, which was to be topped by a twenty-story statue of Lenin, never got off the ground. And after the initial successes of the Soviet space program, most projects remained on the drawing board. But the Soviet leadership never ceased coming up with new ones.
What I find remarkable about Star Trek, in particular, is that there is not only no real evidence of democracy, but that almost no one seems to notice its absence.
When historians write the epitaph for neoliberalism, they will have to conclude that it was the form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. That is: given a choice between a course of action that will make capitalism seem like the only possible economic system, and one that will make capitalism actually be a more viable long-term economic system, neoliberalism has meant always choosing the former.
True, in the early days of the U.S. Space Program—another period of panic—there was still room for genuine oddballs like Jack Parsons, the founder of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons was not only a brilliant engineer—he was also a Thelemite magician in the Aleister Crowley tradition, known for regularly orchestrating ceremonial orgies in his California home. Parsons believed that rocket science was ultimately just one manifestation of deeper, magical principles. But he was eventually fired.
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.
This is true of almost all fantasy literature: only evil people maintain systems of administration. In fact, one could survey the key features of fantasy literature point by point and see each as a precise negation of some aspect of bureaucracy...
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