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Book Review

‘The Utopia of Rules’ by David Graeber

David Graeber is recognized as one of the people who helped plan Occupy Wall Street.Melville House/Courtesy Melville House

“So: Police are bureaucrats with weapons.”

This sentence, given its own paragraph in “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity,” the second of five essays collected in “The Utopia of Rules,’’ David Graeber’s critique of bureaucracy, is meant to stop the reader short. It does.

Graeber elaborates: When we think of the crime we want police to prevent, we usually think of violent crimes, “[e]ven 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.”

The impact of the sentence that begins this review derives from the reader’s knowledge of Eric Garner’s death last summer on Staten Island, the result of a botched enforcement of New York’s cigarette tax.


The opening pair of thought-provoking essays contain Graeber’s hypothesis about the violent foundations of bureaucracy. Bureaucratic structures — whether public or private — derive their authority from the threat of state-sanctioned violence. This foundation is sometimes hard to apprehend because “[b]ureaucracy has become the water in which we swim.” We take its existence for granted, and don’t bother to think about what gives it force.

“[T]he bureaucratization of daily life,” Graeber argues, “means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force.”

Graeber is an anthropologist and anarchist who teaches at the London School of Economics. He is recognized as one of the people who helped plan Occupy Wall Street, and coined its slogan “We are the 99%,” in 2011. That same year he published “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” a surprise bestseller which, among other things, urged readers to reconsider our conception of debt as some immutable, moral obligation rather than an agreement we might break if necessary.


“The Utopia of Rules” is not a similarly wide-ranging work on the history of bureaucracy. It’s a group of pieces loosely organized around a call, as Graeber puts it in his introductory essay, for a “left critique of bureaucracy.” The pieces here, Graeber assures (warns?) us “are not constructed in such a way as to form a single argument.”

These pieces are tied together in that they at least mention bureaucracy in some form or other, but it’s really only the first two pieces that deal with bureaucratic structures as they touch the lives of individuals. The middle essay, “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” is a wholly unconvincing argument about technology in the “where’s my jetpack?” vein.

What do we mean when we say “bureaucracy”? Graeber’s suggestion:
“ ‘Democracy’ thus came to mean the market; ‘bureaucracy’ in turn, government interference with the market; and this is pretty much what the word continues to mean.”

This is true insofar as it describes the attitudes of certain politicians — where “bureaucracy” is a slur, a stand-in for “government waste and inefficiency” — but I’m not sure this public/private distinction matters where bureaucracies touch the lives of individuals. And I’m not sure Graeber thinks so either.

For instance, in the anecdote Graeber uses to open “Dead Zones,” he’s trying to acquire power of attorney on behalf of his ailing, bedridden mother. He’s batted back and forth between private and public bureaucracies — Medicaid officials, notaries, bank personnel — in an ultimately futile quest. This, to me, seems to be what most of us mean by “bureaucracy”: the Pointless Paperwork Carousel. This ride is offered in both public and private institutions.


“Much of the everyday business of social life,” Graeber writes, “consists in trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions.” Graeber calls this “interpretive labor,” and says that the abridgment of this work results in “forms of institutionalized laziness.”

But there’s another way to look at this. Removing the requirements of interpretive labor from clerks and other bureaucratic functionaries could be an attempt to treat everyone equally. That is, in an attempt to make an organization nondiscriminatory, its employees and representatives are sometimes required to be indiscriminate in ways that defy common sense.

Sometimes this creates minor hassles, sometimes major ones: Graeber’s mother died before he could get the power of attorney forms in order in part because he placed his signature on the wrong line.

Bureaucrats aren’t generally vicious, they’re mostly indifferent. That’s the point, and the problem.

Sebastian Stockman is a lecturer in English at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter:@substockman.