The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber

utopia of rulesBureaucracy! You hate it! You love it! Quite possibly your workday is clenched between its squeaky-clean cogs.

Inflexible and stupid rules. Little else can make me as furious. Someone simply saying “but those are the rules!” regardless of how stupid they are is incomprehensible to me. Non-negotiability is madness. Especially when wielded by those with real power over me.

Graeber’s essays go beyond the mere stupidity of bureaucracy into deeper, sinister territory.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

  • Bureaucracy is tightly coupled with the threat of violence. The rules only truly work because if you don’t follow them, men in uniform, be they police or security guards or whatever, will throw you in a cage or charge you exorbitant fees.
  • Bureaucracy used to be more a government technique, but Graeber coined the term ‘total bureaucratization’ to encompass our modern era where government bureaucracy is inextricably linked with corporate bureaucracy. See banks throwing up their hands and saying there’s nothing we can do while pointing at inflexible regulations that they themselves encouraged. Or consider work within corporations themselves, which now includes all sorts of metrics and rubrics and paperwork to measure performance. 
  • Bureaucracy, at least the current American version, stunts technology. By forcefully pointing tech and science in directions of further bureaucratization / social control, it keeps it from inventing alternate technologies that change the world and possibly obsolete capitalism or bureaucracy itself. For instance, the ‘mechanized worker’ people of the early 19th century were sure would be invented never materialized.
  • Bureaucracy totally morphs the concept of value in baffling ways. Value becomes a ubiquitous concept to be arrived at, rather than the obvious result of labor. See:

The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends, between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because bureaucracy is the first and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done

Worst of all, as a result of all these things (and more), modern Americans now think that the hard-line, impersonal rulecraft of bureaucracy is the only correct way civilization works. Yet for the vast majority of human history, it wasn’t required at all. Somehow people got by without being able to instantly call men in uniform to threaten (&inflict) violence in the name of Rules.

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A-general-theory-of-oblivionPop Quiz: Name a country in Africa that notes Portuguese as an official language.

 

Think about it…

 

Waiting…

 

 

Answer: There’s actually six. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.

A General Theory of Oblivion is about Angola. Its bloody revolution, booting out the Portuguese colonials, and later its civil war, conflicts of capitalism and communism. But mostly it’s about a cadre of individual characters, criss-crossing over the 30-40 years leading to the present. Chief among them is Ludo, a portuguese agoraphobe who moved from Lisbon to Luanda to be with her sister and brother and law. When the wealthy portuguese fled Angola on the eve of Revolution, this family stayed a bit too long, sister and brother in law disappeared, and Ludo was left to brick herself into her apartment and spend the next three decades in isolation. The other leads include military police, imprisoned dissidents, men unsure whether they’re portuguese or angolan.

Agualusa, a man of portuguese descent born in Angola, initially wrote this story as a screenplay, and it shows. It’s extremely short. I read it on my kindle, but goodreads lists the hardcover as 256 pages. It must be like 24 point font with 3 inch margins to stretch that long. The length is actually perfect, because I found the book pleasant but lacking in depth and feel my good will would have evaporated had it gone on much longer.

As a country’s history, it does not delve deeply. I barely know any more about Angola than I did when I started (which can be summed up as: nothing). And since the details revealed are minimalist, the book short, and the character list long, I never got the sense of most of the characters. As a book describing agoraphobia, it fails completely when stacked up against classics like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Where it succeeds is in capturing a feeling. I get the sense of Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the various zeitgeists that flowed through it from Independence until today. I didn’t grow attached to the many characters, partly due to the clinical narrative style detailing them, but I found that same style of writing very readable. It didn’t ask much of me and I got more than I expected in return. The blurbs compare it to Kafka which is frankly laughable, but I don’t regret reading it.