Also by David Graeber
Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value
The False Coin of Our Own Dreams
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar
Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire
The First 5,000 Years
Revolutions in Reverse
Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination
The Democracy Project
A History, A Crisis, A Movement
THE UTOPIA OF RULES
Copyright © 2015 by David Graeber
First Melville House printing: February 2015
Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint a panel from Kultur Dokuments, which originally appeared in Anarchy Comics #2 and was collected in Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, edited by Jay Kinney and published by PM Press in 2012.
Copyright © 1979 and 2013 by Jay Kinney and Paul Mavrides.
The following chapters originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in the following publications:
“Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as “Dead Zones of the Imagination: On Violence, Bureaucracy, and Interpretive Labor. The 2006 Malinowski Memorial Lecture,” in HAU: The Journal of Ethnographic Theory, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2012.
“Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” in The Baffler, No. 19, 2012.
“On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power” as “Super Position,” in The New Inquiry, October 8, 2012.
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A catalog record for this book is available from the Library of Congress.
The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total
Nowadays, nobody talks much about bureaucracy. But in the middle of the last century, particularly in the late sixties and early seventies, the word was everywhere. There were sociological tomes with grandiose titles like A General Theory of Bureaucracy,1 The Politics of Bureaucracy,2 or even The Bureaucratization of the World,3 and popular paperback screeds with titles like Parkinson’s Law,4 The Peter Principle,5 or Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them.6
There were Kafkaesque novels, and satirical films. Everyone seemed to feel that the foibles and absurdities of bureaucratic life and bureaucratic procedures were one of the defining features of modern existence, and as such, eminently worth discussing. But since the seventies, there has been a peculiar falling off.
Consider, for example, the following table, which diagrams how frequently the word “bureaucracy” appears in books written in English over the last century and a half. A subject of only moderate interest until the postwar period, it shoots into prominence starting in the fifties and then, after a pinnacle in 1973, begins a slow but inexorable decline.
Why? Well, one obvious reason is that we’ve just become accustomed to it. Bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim. Now let’s imagine another graph, one that simply documented the average number of hours per year a typical
I imagine such a graph would look something like this:
This is not a graph of hours spent on paperwork, just of how often the word “paperwork” has been used in
By the way, most similar
The essays assembled in this volume are all, in one way or another, about this disparity. We no longer like to think about bureaucracy, yet it informs every aspect of our existence. It’s as if, as a planetary civilization, we have decided to clap our hands over our ears and start humming whenever the topic comes up. Insofar as we are even willing to discuss it, it’s still in the terms popular in the sixties and early seventies. The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole,
With the collapse of the old welfare states, all this has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the language of antibureaucratic individualism has been adopted, with increasing ferocity, by the Right, which insists on “market solutions” to every social problem, the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state: it has acquiesced
The result is a political catastrophe. There’s really no other way to put it. What is presented as the “moderate” Left solution to any social
capitalism. It’s as if someone had consciously tried to create the least appealing possible political position. It is a testimony to the genuine lingering power of leftist ideals that anyone would even consider voting for a party that promoted this sort of
Is there any wonder, then, that every time there is a social crisis, it is the Right, rather than the Left, which becomes the venue for the expression of popular anger?
The Right, at least, has a critique of bureaucracy. It’s not a very good one. But at least it exists. The Left has none. As a result, when those who identify with the Left do have anything negative to say about bureaucracy, they are usually forced to adopt a watered- down version of the
The emergence of modern bureaucracies was always something of a problem for this story because it didn’t really fit. In principle, all these stuffy functionaries in their offices, with their elaborate chains of command, should have been mere feudal holdovers, soon to go the way of the armies and officer corps that everyone was expecting to gradually become unnecessary as well. One need only flip open a Russian novel from the late nineteenth century: all the scions of old aristocratic
There followed stage two of the argument, which was, in its essence, that bureaucracy represents an inherent flaw in the democratic project.9 Its greatest exponent was Ludwig von Mises, an exiled Austrian aristocrat, whose 1944 book Bureaucracy argued that by definition, systems of government administration could never organize information with anything like the efficiency of impersonal market pricing mechanisms. However, extending the vote to the losers of the economic game would inevitably lead to calls for government intervention, framed as
administrative means. Von Mises was willing to admit that many of those who embraced such solutions were entirely
In this view, the rise of bureaucracy was the ultimate example of good intentions run amok. Ronald Reagan probably made the most effective popular deployment of this line of thought with his famous claim that, “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’ ”
The problem with all this is that it bears very little relation to what actually happened. 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. This has been true at least since the invention of coinage, which was first created and promulgated as a means of provisioning soldiers; for most of Eurasian history, ordinary people used informal credit arrangements and physical money, gold, silver, bronze, and the kind of impersonal markets they made possible remained mainly an adjunct to the mobilization of legions, sacking of cities, extraction of tribute, and disposing of loot. Modern central banking systems were likewise first created to finance wars. So there’s one initial problem with the conventional history. There’s another even more dramatic one. While the idea that the market is somehow opposed to and independent of government has been used at least at least since the nineteenth century to justify laissez faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, they never actually have that effect. English liberalism, for instance, did not lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy, but the exact opposite: an endlessly ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries, and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible. It turned out that maintaining a free market economy required a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis
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.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim was already observing this tendency at the turn of the twentieth century,10 and eventually, it became impossible to ignore. By the middle of the century, even
Wallace is actually a crucial figure here. Nowadays, Americans mainly remember him as a failed reactionary, or even a snarling lunatic: the last
In contemporary American
“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 to this day.
It wasn’t always so. The rise of the modern corporation, in the late nineteenth century, was largely seen at the time as a matter of applying modern, bureaucratic techniques to the private
sociologist, observed that Americans in his day were particularly inclined to see public and private bureaucracies as essentially the same animal:
The body of officials actively engaged in a “public” office, along with the respective apparatus of material implements and the files, make up a “bureau.” In private enterprise, “the bureau” is often called “the office” …
It is the peculiarity of the modern entrepreneur that he conducts himself as the “first official” of his corporation, in the very same way in which the ruler of a specifically modern bureaucratic state spoke of himself as “the first servant” of the state. The idea that the bureau activities of the state are intrinsically different in character from the management of private economic offices is a continental European notion and, by way of contrast, is totally foreign to the American way.13
In other words, around the turn of the century, rather than anyone complaining that government should be run more like a business, Americans simply assumed that governments and
True, for much of the nineteenth century, the United States was largely an economy of small family firms and high
British people, I’ve observed, are quite proud that they are not especially skilled at bureaucracy; Americans, in contrast, seem embarrassed by the fact that on the whole, they’re really quite good at it.14 It doesn’t fit the American
not talking about functionaries in the Department of Landmarks and Preservation or the Social Security
The impression that the word “bureaucrat” should be treated as a synonym for “civil servant” can be traced back to the New Deal in the thirties, which was also the moment when bureaucratic structures and techniques first became dramatically visible in many ordinary people’s lives. But in fact, from the very beginning, Roosevelt’s New Dealers worked in close coordination with the battalions of lawyers, engineers, and corporate bureaucrats employed by firms like Ford, Coca Cola, or Proctor & Gamble, absorbing much of their style and sensibilities,
In the United States, the lines between public and private have long been blurry. The American military, for example, is famous for its revolving
Still, with the rise of the financial sector, things have reached a qualitatively different
Let me give an example. A few weeks ago, I spent several hours on the phone with Bank of America, trying to work out how to get access to my account information from overseas. This involved speaking to four different representatives, two referrals to nonexistent numbers, three long explanations of complicated and apparently arbitrary rules, and two failed attempts to change outdated address and phone number information lodged on various computer systems. In other words, it was the very definition of a bureaucratic runaround. (Neither was I able, when it was all over, to actually access my account.)
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
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. And the same would be true of anything from credit ratings, insurance premiums, mortgage applications, to, for that matter, the process of buying an airline ticket, applying for a scuba license, or trying to requisition an ergonomic chair for one’s office in an ostensibly private university. The vast majority of the paperwork we do exists in just this sort of
In cases like this the language we
Consider the word “deregulation.” In today’s political discourse, “deregulation”
But this debate is based on false premises. Let’s go back to banks. There’s no such thing as an “unregulated” bank. Nor could there be. Banks are institutions to which the government has granted the power to create
So what are people actually referring to when they talk about “deregulation”? In ordinary usage, the word seems to mean “changing the regulatory structure in a way that I like.” In practice this can refer to almost anything. In the case of airlines or telecommunications in the seventies and eighties, it meant changing the system of regulation from one that encouraged a few large firms to one that fostered carefully supervised competition between midsize firms. In the case of banking, “deregulation” has usually meant exactly the opposite: moving away from a situation of managed competition
between midsized firms to one where a handful of financial conglomerates are allowed to completely dominate the market. This is what makes the term so handy. Simply by labeling a new regulatory measure “deregulation,” you can frame it in the public mind as a way to reduce bureaucracy and set individual initiative free, even if the result is a fivefold increase in the actual number of forms to be filled in, reports to be filed, rules and regulations for lawyers to interpret, and officious people in offices whose entire job seems to be to provide convoluted explanations for why you’re not allowed to do things.16
I’m going to make up a name. I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratization.” (I was tempted to call this the age of “predatory bureaucratization” but it’s really the all- encompassing nature of the beast I want to highlight here.) It had its first stirrings, one might say, just at the point where public discussion of bureaucracy began to fall off in the late seventies, and it began to get seriously under way in the eighties. But it truly took off in the nineties.
In an earlier book, I suggested that the fundamental historical break that ushered in our current economic regime occurred in 1971, the date that the U.S. dollar went off the gold standard. This is what paved the way first for the financialization of capitalism, but ultimately, for much more profound
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 John Kenneth Galbraith long ago pointed out, if you create an organization geared to produce perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, those who make it up will, if left to their own devices, tend to concentrate their efforts on producing more and better perfumes, dairy products, or aircraft fuselages, rather than thinking primarily of what will make the most money for the shareholders. What’s more, since for most of the twentieth century, a job in a large bureaucratic
benign social democratic versions, in Europe or America, the attendant politics often came tinged with
From the perspective of sixties radicals, who regularly watched antiwar demonstrations attacked by nationalist teamsters and construction workers, the reactionary implications of corporatism appeared
What began to happen in the seventies, and paved the way for what we see today, was a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of U.S. corporate
At the same time, the new credo was that everyone should look at the world through the eyes of an
Still, that extension was extremely important. No political revolution can succeed without allies, and bringing along a certain portion of the middle
historically formed their strongest base of support). These were of course people who already tended to work in thoroughly bureaucratized environments, whether schools, hospitals, or corporate law firms. The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right.21
This was not just a political realignment. It was a cultural transformation. And it set the stage for the process whereby the bureaucratic techniques (performance reviews, focus groups, time allocation surveys …) developed in financial and corporate circles came to invade the rest of
For all its celebration of markets and individual initiative, this alliance of government and finance often produces results that bear a striking resemblance to the worst excesses of bureaucratization in the former Soviet Union or former colonial backwaters of the Global South. There is a rich anthropological literature, for instance, on the cult of certificates, licenses, and diplomas in the former colonial world. Often the argument is that in countries like Bangladesh, Trinidad, or Cameroon, which hover between the stifling legacy of colonial domination and their own magical traditions, official credentials are seen as a kind of material
“The United States has become the most rigidly credentialised society in the world,” write James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield in their 2005 book Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money. “A BA is required for jobs that by no stretch of imagination need two years of
The promotion of college as a requirement for a
renowned journalists have never studied journalism.22
Journalism is one of many fields of public
One could repeat the story in field after field, from nurses to art teachers, physical therapists to foreign policy consultants. Almost every endeavor that used to be considered an art (best learned through doing) now requires formal professional training and a certificate of completion, and this seems to be happening, equally, in both the private and public sectors, since, as already noted, in matters bureaucratic, such distinctions are becoming effectively meaningless. While these measures are
The latter might seem an extreme case, but in its own way it’s paradigmatic of the fusion of public and private power under the new financial regime. Increasingly, corporate profits in America are not derived from commerce or industry at all, but from
they were themselves a tiny corporation measuring inputs and outputs and constantly struggling to balance its accounts.
It’s also important to emphasize that while this system of extraction comes dressed up in a language of rules and regulations, in its actual mode of operation, it has almost nothing to do with the rule of law. Rather, the legal system has itself become the means for a system of increasingly arbitrary extractions. As the profits from banks and credit card companies derive more and more from “fees and penalties” levied on their
OFFICIAL: Well, you have to understand the approach taken by U.S. prosecutors to
financial fraud is always to negotiate a settlement. They don’t want to have to go to trial. The upshot is always that the financial institution has to pay a fine, sometimes in the hundreds of millions, but they don’t actually admit to any criminal liability. Their lawyers simply say they are not going to contest the charge, but if they pay, they haven’t technically been found guilty of anything.
ME: So you’re saying if the government discovers that Goldman Sachs, for instance, or Bank of America, has committed fraud, they effectively just charge them a penalty fee.
OFFICIAL: That’s right.
ME: So in that case … okay, I guess the real question is this: has there ever been a case
where the amount the firm had to pay was more than the amount of money they made from the fraud itself?
OFFICIAL: Oh no, not to my knowledge. Usually it’s substantially less. ME: So what are we talking here, 50 percent?
OFFICIAL: I’d say more like 20 to 30 percent on average. But it varies considerably case by case.
ME: Which means … correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t that effectively mean the
government is saying, “you can commit all the fraud you like, but if we catch you, you’re going to have to give us our cut”?
OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I can’t put it that way myself as long as I have this job …
And of course, the power of those same banks to charge
action when the bank itself commits fraud.
Now, on one level, this might just seem like another example of a familiar story: the rich always play by a different set of rules. If the children of bankers can regularly get off the hook for carrying quantities of cocaine that would almost certainly have earned them decades in a federal penitentiary if they happened to be poor or Black, why should things be any different when they grow up to become bankers themselves? 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
This point is worth expanding on. What I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere. All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are selected by formal, impersonal
This is how bureaucracies have always tended to work. But for most of history, this fact has only been important for those who actually operated within administrative systems: say, aspiring Confucian scholars in Medieval China. Most everyone else didn’t really have to think about organizations very often; typically, they only encountered them every few years when it came time to register their fields and cattle for the local tax authorities. But as I’ve pointed out, the last two centuries have seen an explosion of bureaucracy, and the last thirty or forty years in particular have seen bureaucratic principles extended to every aspect of our existence. As a result, this culture of complicity has come to spread as well. Many of us actually act as if we believe that the courts really are treating the financial establishment as it should be treated, that they are even dealing with them too harshly; and that ordinary citizens really do deserve to be penalized a hundred times more harshly for an overdraft. As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than systems of arbitrary extraction, everyone duly scurries about trying to curry favor by pretending they actually believe this is to be true.
So: what would a
I think the story of the Global Justice Movement provides a
movement that, rather to its own surprise, discovered this was what it was about. I remember this quite well because I was deeply involved in the movement at the time. Back in the 1990s, “globalization,” as touted by journalists like Thomas Friedman (but really, by the entire journalistic establishment in the United States and most of it in other wealthy countries) was portrayed as an almost natural force. Technological
Thus when the Global Justice Movement started, the media spin was that it was a rearguard action of hoary, carbuncular leftists who wished to restore protectionism, national sovereignty, barriers to trade and communication, and, generally, to vainly stand against the Inevitable Tide of History. The problem with this was that it was obviously untrue. Most immediately, there was the fact that the protestors’ average age, especially in the wealthier countries, seemed to be about nineteen. More seriously, there was the fact that the movement was a form of globalization in itself: a kaleidoscopic alliance of people from every corner of the world, including organizations ranging from Indian farmers’ associations, to the Canadian postal workers’ union, to indigenous groups in Panama, to anarchist collectives in Detroit. What’s more, its exponents endlessly insisted that despite protestations to the contrary, what the media was calling “globalization” had almost nothing to do with the effacement of borders and the free movement of people, products, and ideas. It was really about trapping increasingly large parts of the world’s population behind highly militarized national borders within which social protections could be systematically withdrawn, creating a pool of laborers so desperate that they would be willing to work for almost nothing. Against it, they proposed a genuinely borderless world.
Obviously, these ideas’ exponents did not get to say any of this on TV or major
It was a surprisingly effective strategy. Within a matter of two or three years, we had sunk pretty much every proposed new global trade pact, and institutions like the IMF had been effectively expelled from Asia, Latin America, and, indeed, most of the world’s surface.28
The imagery worked because it showed everything people had been told about globalization to be a lie. This was not some natural process of peaceful trade, made possible by new technologies. What was being talked about in terms of “free trade” and the “free market” really entailed the
At the time, we didn’t talk about things in quite these
In retrospect, I think this is exactly what we should have emphasized. Even the emphasis on inventing new forms of democratic processes that was at the core of the
The Global Justice Movement was, in its own way, the first major leftist antibureaucratic movement of the era of total bureaucratization. As such, I think it offers important lessons for anyone trying to develop a similar critique. Let me end by outlining three of them:
1. Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence.
The armies of highly militarized police that appeared to attack the summit protestors were not some sort of weird side effect of “globalization.” Whenever someone starts talking about the “free market,” it’s a good idea to look around for the man with the gun. He’s never far away.
the modern police and private detective agencies,30 and gradually, with the notion that those police had at least ultimate jurisdiction over virtually every aspect of urban life, from the regulation of street peddlers to noise levels at private parties, or even to the resolution of bitter fights with crazy uncles or college roommates. We are now so used to the idea that we at least could call the police to resolve virtually any difficult circumstance that many of us find it difficult to even imagine what people would have done before this was possible.31 Because, in fact, for the vast majority of people throughout
Here I think it is possible to add a kind of corollary to the Iron Law of Liberalism. History reveals that political policies that favor “the market” have always meant even more people in offices to administer things, but it also reveals that they also mean an increase of the range and density of social relations that are ultimately regulated by the threat of violence. This obviously flies in the face of everything we’ve been taught to believe about the market, but if you observe what actually happens, it’s clearly true. In a sense, even calling this a “corollary” is deceptive, because we’re really just talking about two different ways of talking about the same thing. The bureaucratization of daily life 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.32 And indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating, and ultimately deploying physical violence, appear just about
All this takes place as social theorists continue to insist that the direct appeal to force plays less and less of a factor in maintaining structures of social control.33 The more reports one reads, in fact, of university students being tasered for unauthorized library use, or English professors being jailed and charged with felonies after being caught jaywalking on campus, the louder the defiant insistence that the kinds of subtle symbolic power analyzed by English professors are what’s really important. It begins to sound more and more like a desperate refusal to accept that the workings of power could really be so crude and simplistic as what daily evidence proves them to be.
In my own native New York, I have observed the endless multiplication of bank branches. When I was growing up, most bank offices were large, freestanding buildings, usually designed to look like Greek or Roman temples. 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
conjuncture has come to provide the framework for almost every other aspect of our lives. When we think about such matters at all, we generally act as if this is all simply an effect
of technology: this is a world whisked into being by computers. It even looks like one. And indeed, all these new bank lobbies do bear a striking resemblance to the
But this sense that we are living in a world created by computers is itself an illusion. To conclude that this was all an inevitable effect of technological development, rather than of social and political forces, would be making a terrible mistake. Here too the lessons of “globalization,” which was supposed to have been somehow created by the Internet, are critically important:
2. Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor.
Just as what came to be called “globalization” was really a creation of new political alignments, policy decisions, and new
This is easy to forget because our immediate experience of everyday bureaucratization is entirely caught up in new information technologies: Facebook, smartphone banking, Amazon, PayPal, endless handheld devices that reduce the world around us to maps, forms, codes, and graphs. Still, the key alignments that made all this possible are precisely those that I have been describing in this essay, that first took place in the seventies and eighties, with the alliance of finance and corporate bureaucrats, the new corporate culture that emerged from it, and its ability to invade educational, scientific, and government circles in such a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth. This was not a product of new technologies. To the contrary, the appropriate technologies took decades to emerge. In the seventies, computers were still something of a joke. Banks and government offices were keen on putting them into service, but for most of those on the receiving end, they were the very definition of bureaucratic idiocy; whenever something went terribly, obviously wrong, the reaction was always to throw up one’s eyes and blame “some computer.” After forty years and the endless investment of research funding into information technologies, we have gotten to the point where the kinds of computers bankers employ, and provide, are our very definition of infallible, magical efficiency.
Consider the ATM machine. In the last thirty years, I can’t remember a single occasion in which I have asked an ATM machine for money and gotten an incorrect amount. Nor have I been able to find anyone I know who can. This is so true that in the wake of the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, when the public was being regaled with statistics on the 2.8 percent
degree of error expected from this type of voting machine, or the 1.5 percent expected from that, some had the temerity to point out that in a country that defines itself as the world’s greatest democracy, where elections are our very sacrament, we seem to just accept that voting machines will regularly miscount the vote, while every day hundreds of millions of ATM transactions take place with an overall zero percent rate of error. What does this say about what really matters to Americans as a nation?
Financial technology then has gone from a running gag to something so reliable that it can form the assumed backbone of our social reality. You never have to think about whether the cash machine will dispense the correct amount of cash. If it’s working at all, it will not make a mistake. This gives financial abstractions an air of utter
3. Always remember it’s all ultimately about value (or: whenever you hear someone say that what their greatest value is rationality, they are just saying that because they don’t want to admit to what their greatest value really is).
In the north Atlantic countries, all this is the culmination of a very long effort to transform popular ideas about the origins of value. Most Americans, for instance, used to subscribe to a
life were assumed to exist because people took the trouble to produce them; doing so was seen as involving both brain and muscle, usually, in roughly equal proportions. In the mid- nineteenth century even mainstream politicians would often use language that might seem to have been taken straight from Karl Marx. So Abraham Lincoln:
Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.34
The rise of bureaucratic capitalism in the Gilded Age was accompanied by a
One thing that the global justice movement taught us is that politics is, indeed, ultimately about value; but also, that those creating vast bureaucratic systems will almost never admit what their values really are. This was as true of the Carnegies as it is today. Normally, they
In other words, talking about rational efficiency becomes a way of avoiding talking about what the efficiency is actually for; that is, the ultimately irrational aims that are assumed to be the ultimate ends of human behavior. Here is another place where markets and bureaucracies ultimately speak the same language. Both claim to be acting largely in the
name of individual freedom, and individual
The most profound legacy of the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization over the last two hundred years is that it has made this intuitive division between rational, technical means and the ultimately irrational ends to which they are put seem like common sense. This is true on the national level, where civil servants pride themselves on being able to find the most efficient means to pursue whatever national destiny their country’s rulers happen to dream up: whether that be rooted in the pursuit of cultural brilliance, imperial conquest, the pursuit of a genuinely egalitarian social order, or the literal application of Biblical law. It is equally true on the individual level, where we all take for granted that human beings go out into the marketplace merely to calculate the most efficient way to enrich themselves, but that once they have the money, there’s no telling what they might decide to do with it: whether it be to buy a mansion, or a race car, engage in a personal investigation of UFO disappearances, or simply lavish the money on one’s kids. It all seems so
In the big picture it hardly matters, then, whether one seeks to reorganize the world around bureaucratic efficiency or market rationality: all the fundamental assumptions remain the same. This helps explain why it’s so easy to move back and forth between them, as with those
era of total bureaucratization.
For anyone who has ever been a refugee, or for that matter had to fill out the
A critique of bureaucracy fit for the times would have to show how all these threads— financialization, violence, technology, the fusion of public and
bureaucracies become extensions of the financial system.
Every now and then you chance on a particular example that brings everything together. In September 2013, I visited a tea factory outside Marseille that was currently being occupied by its workers. There had been a standoff with local police for over a year. What had brought things to such a pass? A
For years, he explained, there had only been two executives in the factory: the boss, and a human resources officer. As profits rose, more and more men in suits appeared, until there were almost a dozen of them. The suits all had elaborate titles but there was almost nothing for them to do, so they spent a lot of time walking the catwalks staring at the workers, setting up metrics to measure and evaluate them, writing plans and reports. Eventually, they hit on the idea of moving the entire operation
A left critique of bureaucracy, therefore, is sorely lacking. This book is not, precisely, an outline for such a critique. Neither is it in any sense an attempt to develop a general theory of bureaucracy, a history of bureaucracy, or even of the current age of total bureaucracy. It is a collection of essays, each of which points at some directions a
The chapters do not form a single argument. Perhaps they could be said to circle around one, but mainly, they are an attempt to begin a
We are all faced with a problem. Bureaucratic practices, habits, and sensibilities engulf us. Our lives have come to be organized around the filling out of forms. Yet the language we have to talk about these things is not just woefully
Dead Zones of the Imagination
An Essay on Structural Stupidity
Let me begin with a story about bureaucracy.
In 2006, my mother had a series of strokes. It soon became obvious that she would eventually be incapable of living at home without assistance. Since her insurance would not cover home care, a series of social workers advised us to put in for Medicaid. To qualify for Medicaid, however, one’s total worth can only amount to six thousand dollars. We arranged to transfer her
I went to her bank, picked up the requisite forms, and brought them to the nursing home. The documents needed to be notarized. The nurse on the floor informed me there was an in- house notary, but I needed to make an appointment; she picked up the phone and put me through to a disembodied voice, who then transferred me to the notary. The notary proceeded to inform me I first had to get authorization from the head of social work, and hung up. So I acquired his name and room number and duly took the elevator downstairs and appeared at his
The next week the notary duly appeared, accompanied me upstairs, made sure I’d filled out my side of the form (as had been repeatedly emphasized to me), and then, in my mother’s presence, proceeded to fill out her own. I was a little puzzled that she didn’t ask my mother to sign anything, only me, but I figured that she knew what she was doing. The next day I took the document to the bank, where the woman at the desk took one look, asked why my mother hadn’t signed it, and showed it to her manager, who told me to take it back and do it right. It seemed that the notary indeed had no idea what she was doing. So I got new set of forms, duly filled out my side of each, and made a new appointment. On the appointed day the notary appeared, and after a few awkward remarks about how difficult these banks are (why does each bank insist on having its own, completely different
power of attorney form?), she took me upstairs. I signed, my mother
“I did? Well, I just did exactly what the notary told me to do.” “But it clearly says ‘signature’ here.”
“Oh, yes, it does, doesn’t it? I guess she told me wrong. Again. Well … all the information is still there, isn’t it? It’s just those two bits that are reversed. So is that really a problem? The situation is kind of pressing, and I’d really rather not have to wait to make another appointment.”
“Well, normally we don’t even accept these forms without all the signatories being here in person.”
“My mother had a stroke. She’s bedridden. That’s why I need power of attorney in the first place.”
She said she’d check with the manager, and after ten minutes returned, the manager hanging just within earshot in the background, to announce the bank could not accept the forms in their present
I pointed out that no one had mentioned any such letter previously.
“What?” the manager suddenly interjected. “Who gave you those forms and didn’t tell you about the letter?”
Since the culprit was one of the more sympathetic bank employees, I dodged the question,40 noting instead that in the bankbook it was printed, quite clearly, “in trust for David Graeber.” He of course replied that would only matter if she was dead.
As it happened, the whole problem soon became academic: my mother did indeed die a few weeks later.
At the time, I found this experience extremely disconcerting. Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian student existence comparatively insulated from this sort of thing, I found myself asking my friends: is this what ordinary life, for most people, is really like? Running around feeling like an idiot all day? Being somehow put in a position where one actually does end up acting like an idiot? Most were inclined to suspect that this was indeed what life is mostly like. Obviously, the notary was unusually incompetent. Still, I had to spend over a month not long after dealing with the ramifying consequences of the act of whatever anonymous functionary in the New York Department of Motor Vehicles had inscribed my given name as “Daid,” not to mention the Verizon clerk who spelled my surname “Grueber.” Bureaucracies public and private
up to them?41 But in fact all bureaucracies do this, insofar as they set demands they insist are reasonable, and then, on discovering that they are not reasonable (since a significant number of people will always be unable to perform as expected), conclude that the problem is not with the demands themselves but with the individual inadequacy of each particular human being who fails to live up to them.
On a purely personal level, probably the most disturbing thing was how dealing with these forms somehow rendered me stupid, too. How could I not have noticed that I was printing my name on the line that said “signature”? It was written right there! I like to think that I am not, ordinarily, a particularly stupid person. In fact I’ve made something of a career out convincing others that I’m smart. Yet I was doing obviously foolish things; and not because I wasn’t paying attention; in fact, I had been investing a great deal of mental and emotional energy in the whole affair. The problem, I realized, was not with the energy spent, but with the fact that most of this energy was being sunk into attempts to try to understand and influence whoever, at any moment, seemed to have some kind of bureaucratic power over
As an anthropologist, all this struck me as strangely familiar. We anthropologists have made something of a specialty out of dealing with the ritual surrounding birth, marriage, death, and similar rites of passage. We are particularly concerned with ritual gestures that are socially efficacious: where the mere act of saying or doing something makes it socially true. (Think of phrases like “I apologize,” “I surrender, or “I pronounce you man and wife.”) Humans being the social creatures that they are, birth and death are never mere biological events. It normally takes a great deal of work to turn a newborn baby into a
of the plump,
Why, then, I wondered, are there not vast ethnographic tomes about American or British rites of passage, with long chapters about forms and paperwork?
There is an obvious answer. Paperwork is boring. One can describe the ritual surrounding it. One can observe how people talk about or react to it. But when it comes to the paperwork itself, there just aren’t that many interesting things one can say about it. How is the form laid out? What about the color scheme? Why did they choose to ask for certain bits of information and not others? Why place of birth and not, say, place where you went to grade school? What’s so important about the signature? But even so, even the most imaginative commentator pretty quickly runs out of questions.
In fact, one could go further. Paperwork is supposed to be boring. And it’s getting more so all the time. Medieval charters were often quite beautiful, full of calligraphy and heraldic embellishments. Even in the nineteenth century some of this remained: I have a copy of my grandfather’s birth certificate, issued in Springfield, Illinois, in 1858, and it’s quite colorful, with Gothic letters, scrolls and little cherubs (it’s also written entirely in German). My father’s, in contrast, issued in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1914, is monochrome and utterly unadorned, just lines and boxes, though they are filled out in a nice florid hand. My own, issued in New York in 1961, lacks even that: it’s typed and stamped and utterly without character. But of course the computer interfaces used for so many forms nowadays are more boring still. It’s as if the creators of these documents were gradually trying to strip them of anything even slightly profound, or remotely symbolic.
It’s hardly surprising that all this might drive an anthropologist to despair. Anthropologists are drawn to areas of density. The interpretative tools we have at our disposal are best suited to wend our way through complex webs of meaning or signification
of society, hierarchy, nature, all the fundamental passions and dilemmas of human existence. This simply would not be possible to do with a mortgage application, no matter how dense the document itself; and even if some defiant soul set out to write such an
One might object: but haven’t great novelists often written compelling literature about bureaucracy? Of course they have. But they have managed to do this by embracing the very circularity and
Great writers, then, know how to deal with a vacuum. They embrace it. They stare into the abyss until the abyss stares back into them. Social theory, in contrast, abhors a vacuum
The lack of critical work is especially odd because on the surface, you would think academics are personally positioned to speak of the absurdities of bureaucratic life. Of course, this is in part because they are
meaning of paperwork anyway? What are the social dynamics behind it? Yet for some reason, this never happens.44
It has been my experience that when academics gather around the water cooler (or the academic equivalent of a water cooler, which is usually a coffee machine) they rarely talk about their “real” work but spend almost all their time complaining about administrative responsibilities. But in those
But there is something even deeper going on here, I
Consider, for example, the extraordinary prominence in U.S. social science in the postwar period of two continental theorists: German sociologist Max Weber in the fifties and sixties, and French historian and social philosopher Michel Foucault ever since. Each attained a kind of intellectual hegemony in the United States that they never managed to achieve in their own countries. What made them so appealing to American academics? No doubt their popularity had much to do with the ease with which each could be adopted as a kind of
But I also think that a large part of the appeal was their attitude toward bureaucracy. Indeed, it sometimes seems that these were the only two intelligent human beings in twentieth century history who honestly believed that the power of bureaucracy lies in its effectiveness. That is, that bureaucracy really works. Weber saw bureaucratic forms of organization as the very embodiment of Reason in human affairs, so obviously superior to any alternative form of organization that they threatened to engulf everything, locking humanity in a joyless “iron cage,” bereft of spirit and charisma. Foucault was more subversive, but he was subversive in a way that only endowed bureaucratic power with more effectiveness, not less. In his work on asylums, clinics, prisons, and the rest, absolutely every aspect of human
It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Weber and Foucault’s popularity owed much to the fact that the American university system during this period had itself increasingly become an institution dedicated to producing functionaries for an imperial administrative apparatus, operating on a global scale. In the immediate wake of World War II, when the United States was first establishing its global administrative apparatus, all this was often fairly explicit. Sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils45 were deeply embedded in the Cold War establishment at Harvard, and the
At that time, even anthropologists like Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Clifford Geertz had no compunctions against cooperating closely with the
With Weber dethroned, it was at first unclear who, if anyone, would replace him. For a while there was a lot of interest in German Marxism: Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Lukacs, Fromm. But the focus eventually shifted to France, where the uprising of May 1968 had produced an efflorescence of extremely creative social
No doubt any such pocket historical summary can only be a bit caricaturish and unfair. Still, I believe there is a profound truth here. It is not just that academics are drawn to areas of density, where our skills at interpretation are best deployed. We also have an increasing tendency to identify what’s interesting with what’s important, and to assume that places of density are also places of power. The power of bureaucracy shows just how often exactly the opposite is in fact the case.
But this essay is not
Now, I admit that this emphasis on violence might seem odd. We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent
It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about this fact, or how instinctively we try to discount its importance. This is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over
Actually, the very use of the term “structural violence” is an excellent case in point. When I first began working on this essay, I simply took it for granted that the term referred to actual violence that operates in an indirect form. Imagine, if you will, some warlike tribe (let’s call them the Alphas) that sweeps out of the desert and seizes a swath of land inhabited by peaceful farmers (let’s call them the Omegas). But instead of exacting tribute, they appropriate all the fertile land, and arrange for their children to have privileged access to most forms of practical education, at the same time initiating a religious ideology that holds that they are intrinsically superior beings, finer and more beautiful and more intelligent, and that the Omegas, now largely reduced to working on their estates, have been cursed by the divine powers for some terrible sin, and have become stupid, ugly, and base. And perhaps the Omegas internalize their disgrace and come to act as if they believe they really are guilty of something. In a sense perhaps they do believe it. But on a deeper level it doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask whether they do or not. The whole arrangement is the fruit of violence and can only be maintained by the continual threat of violence: the fact that the Omegas are quite aware that if anyone directly challenged property arrangements, or access to education, swords would be drawn and people’s heads would almost certainly end up being lopped off. In a case like this, what we talk about in terms of “belief” are simply the psychological techniques people develop to accommodate themselves to this reality. We have no idea how they would act, or what they would think, if the Alphas’ command of the means of violence were to somehow disappear.
This is what I had in mind when I first began using the phrase “structural violence”— structures that could only be created and maintained by the threat of violence, even if in their ordinary,
reflects on the matter, the same can be said of most phenomena that are ordinarily referred to as “structural violence” in the
Here I was probably inspired most by my readings in feminist literature, which often does speak of structural violence in this way.48 It is widely noted, for instance, that rates of sexual assault increase dramatically at precisely the moments when women begin challenging “gender norms” of work, comportment, or dress. It’s really quite the same as the conquerors suddenly taking out their swords again. But for the most part, academics do not use the term this way. The current usage really harkens back to sixties “Peace Studies,” and it is used it to refer to “structures” that, it is claimed, have the same effects as violence, even though they may not involve physical acts of violence at all.49 The list of structures is pretty much the same list (racism, sexism, poverty, and the rest), but the implication is there could, for example, exist a system of patriarchy that operated in the total absence of domestic violence or sexual assault, or a system of racism that was in no way backed up by
Most of these doors lead directly to the problem of what we call “the
In many of the rural communities anthropologists are most familiar with, where modern administrative techniques are explicitly seen as alien impositions, things much more resemble my example of the Alphas and Omegas. We are usually dealing with conquered populations of one sort or
could buy or sell or smoke or build or eat or drink what where, where people could play music or tend their animals. Or anyway, if there were such laws, no one knew what they were because it never occurred to anyone, even the police, to enforce
This situation actually created some interesting dilemmas for my own research. I had done a good deal of work in the Malagasy national archives before heading out to the countryside. The
As I got to know people better, I slowly realized that it wasn’t just that the government didn’t regulate daily
Part of the reason was the initial impact of conquest nearly a hundred years before. At the time, most inhabitants of the Merina kingdom had been slaveholders, at the heart of a great kingdom. An important thing to remember about slavery is that it is never
considered morally objectionable, essentially just variations on slavery, or the state. Proper Malagasy people didn’t act this way. So even though the Malagasy government was far away, its shadow was everywhere. In the community I studied, such associations were most likely to come to the fore when people spoke of the great
I have particularly vivid memories of one occasion when an affable minor official who had had many conversations with me in Malagasy was flustered one day to discover me dropping by at exactly the moment everyone had apparently decided to go home early to watch a football game. (As I mentioned, they weren’t really doing anything in these offices anyway.)
“The office is closed,” he announced, in French, pulling himself up into an uncharacteristically formal pose. “If you have any business at the office you must return tomorrow at eight a.m.”
This puzzled me. He knew English was my native language; he knew I spoke fluent Malagasy; he had no way to know I could even understand spoken French. I pretended confusion and replied, in Malagasy, “Excuse me? I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.”
His response was to pull himself up even taller and just say the same thing again, slightly slower and louder. I once again feigned incomprehension. “I don’t get it,” I said, “why are you speaking to me in a language I don’t even know?” He did it again.
In fact, he proved utterly incapable of repeating the sentence in the vernacular, or, for that matter, of saying anything else at all in Malagasy. I suspected this was because if he had switched to everyday language, he would not feel he could be nearly so abrupt. Others later confirmed this was exactly what was happening: if he were speaking Malagasy, he would at the very least have had to explain why the office had closed at such an unusual time. In literary Malagasy, the French language can actually be referred to as ny teny baiko, “the language of command.” It was characteristic of contexts where explanations, deliberation, and, ultimately, consent, were not required, since such contexts were shaped by the presumption of unequal access to sheer physical force. In this instance, the actual means to deploy such force was no longer present. The official could not in fact call the police, and nor would he want
In Madagascar, bureaucratic power was somewhat redeemed in most people’s minds by its connection to education, which was held in
But the Malagasy state was also not particularly violent. Comparative analysis suggests there is a direct relation however between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity and ignorance it is seen to produce. Keith Breckenridge, for example, has documented at some length the regimes of “power without knowledge” typical of colonial South Africa,52 where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding African subjects. The actual installation of apartheid that began in the 1950s, for example, was heralded by a new pass system that was designed to simplify earlier rules that obliged African workers to carry extensive documentation of labor contracts, substituting a single identity booklet, marked with their “names, locale, fingerprints, tax status, and their officially prescribed ‘rights’ to live and work in the towns and cities,” and nothing else.53 Government functionaries appreciated it for streamlining administration, police for relieving them of the responsibility of having to actually talk to African workers. African workers, for their parts, universally referred to the new document as the “dompas,” or “stupid pass,” for precisely that reason.
Andrew Mathews’s brilliant ethnography of the Mexican forestry service in Oaxaca likewise demonstrates that it is precisely the
There are traces of the link between coercion and absurdity even in the way we talk about bureaucracy in English: note for example, how most of the colloquial terms that specifically refer to bureaucratic
Violence’s capacity to allow arbitrary decisions, and thus to avoid the kind of debate, clarification, and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations, is obviously what allows its victims to see procedures created on the basis of violence as stupid or unreasonable. Most of us are capable of getting a superficial sense of what others are thinking or feeling just by observing their tone of voice, or body
As an anthropologist, I know I am treading perilous ground here. When they do turn their attention to violence, anthropologists tend to emphasize exactly the opposite aspect: the ways that acts of violence are meaningful and
of philistinism: “are you honestly suggesting that violence is not symbolically powerful, that bullets and bombs are not meant to communicate something?” So for the record: no, I’m not suggesting that. But I am suggesting that this might not be the most important question. First of all, because it assumes that “violence” refers primarily to acts of
Let me take these points one at a time. Is it accurate to say that acts of violence are, generally speaking, also acts of communication? It certainly is. But this is true of pretty much any form of human action. It strikes me that what is really important about violence is that it is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even the possibility of having social effects without being communicative. To be more precise: violence may well be the only way it is possible for one human being to do something which will have relatively predictable effects on the actions of a person about whom they understand nothing. In pretty much any other way in which you might try to influence another’s actions, you must at least have some idea about who you think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the situation, their aversions and proclivities, and so forth. Hit them over the head hard enough, and all of this becomes irrelevant.
It is true that the effects one can have by disabling or killing someone are very limited. But they are real
I do need to introduce one crucial qualification here. Everything, here, depends on the balance of forces. If two parties are engaged in a relatively equal contest of
in fact, where acts of spectacular physical violence are least likely to occur. These are of course precisely what I have just defined as situations of structural violence, systematic inequalities ultimately backed up by the threat of force. For this reason, situations of structural violence invariably produce extreme lopsided structures of imaginative identification.
These effects are often most visible when the structures of inequality take the most deeply internalized forms. Gender is again a classic case in point. For example, in American situation comedies of the 1950s, there was a constant staple: jokes about the impossibility of understanding women. The jokes (told, of course, by men) always represented women’s logic as fundamentally alien and incomprehensible. “You have to love them,” the message always seemed to run, “but who can really understand how these creatures think?” One never had the impression the women in question had any trouble understanding men. The reason is obvious. Women had no choice but to understand men. In America, the fifties were the heyday of a certain ideal of the
This kind of rhetoric about the mysteries of womankind appears to be a perennial feature of such patriarchal arrangements. It is usually paired with a sense that, though illogical and inexplicable, women still have access to mysterious, almost mystical wisdom (“women’s intuition”) unavailable to men. And of course something like this happens in any relation of extreme inequality: peasants, for example, are always represented as being both oafishly simple, but somehow, also, mystically wise. Generations of women
Nothing I am saying here is particularly new to anyone familiar with Feminist Standpoint Theory or Critical Race Studies. Indeed, I was originally inspired to these broader reflections by a passage by bell hooks:
Although there has never been any official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black
folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversations with one another “special” knowledge of whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of white people. Deemed special because it is not a way of knowing that has been recorded fully in written material, its purpose was to help black folks cope and survive in a white supremacist society. For years black domestic servants, working in white homes, acted as informants who brought knowledge back to segregated
If there is a limitation in the feminist literature, I would say, it’s that it can be if anything a tad too generous, tending to emphasize the insights of the oppressed over the blindness or foolishness of their oppressors.61
Could it be possible to develop a general theory of interpretive labor? We’d probably have to begin by recognizing that there are two critical elements here that, while linked, need to be formally distinguished. The first is the process of imaginative identification as a form of knowledge, the fact that within relations of domination, it is generally the subordinates who are effectively relegated the work of understanding how the social relations in question really work. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant kitchen, for example, knows that if something goes terribly wrong and an angry boss appears to size things up, he is unlikely to carry out a detailed investigation, or even to pay serious attention to the workers all scrambling to explain their version of what happened. He is much more likely to tell them all to shut up and arbitrarily impose a story that allows instant judgment: i.e., “you, Joe, you wouldn’t have made a mistake like that; you, Mark, you’re the new guy, you must have screwed
The second element is the resultant pattern of sympathetic identification. Curiously, it was Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, who first observed the phenomenon we now refer to as “compassion fatigue.” Human beings, he proposed, are normally inclined not only to imaginatively identify with their fellows, but as a result, to spontaneously feel one another’s joys and sorrows. The poor, however, are so consistently miserable that otherwise sympathetic observers are simply overwhelmed, and are forced, without realizing it, to blot out their existence entirely. The result is that while those on the bottom of a social ladder spend a great deal of time imagining the perspectives of, and genuinely caring about, those on the top, it almost never happens the other way around.
Whether one is dealing with masters and servants, men and women, employers and employees, rich and poor, structural
At this point I can return to the question of bureaucracy.
In contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “criminal law enforcement”— particularly, to police officers. I say “euphemistically” because generations of police sociologists have pointed out that only a very small proportion of what police actually do has anything to do with enforcing criminal
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.63 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. I find this all the time in public discussions. When trying to come up with a hypothetical example of a situation in which police are likely to be involved, people will almost invariably think of some act of interpersonal violence: a mugging or assault. But even a moment’s reflection should make it clear that, when most real acts of physical assault do occur, even in major cities like Marseille or Montevideo or
On the other hand, try driving down the street of any one of those cities in a car without license plates. We all know what’s going to happen. Uniformed officers armed with sticks, guns, and/or tasers will appear on the scene almost immediately, and if you simply refuse to comply with their instructions, violent force will, most definitely, be applied.
Why are we so confused about what police really do? The obvious reason is that in the popular culture of the last fifty years or so, police have become almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture. It has come to the point that it’s not at all unusual for a citizen in a contemporary industrialized democracy to spend several hours a day reading books, watching movies, or viewing TV shows that invite them to look at the world from a police point of view, and to vicariously participate in their exploits. And these imaginary police do, indeed, spend almost all of their time fighting violent crime, or dealing with its consequences.
If nothing else, all this throws an odd wrinkle into Weber’s famous worries about the iron cage: the danger that modern society will become so well organized by faceless technocrats that charismatic heroes, enchantment, and romance will completely disappear.64 Actually, as it turns out, bureaucratic society does indeed have a tendency to produce its own, unique forms of charismatic hero. These have, since the late nineteenth century, arrived in the form of an endless assortment of mythic detectives, police officers, and
It strikes me that contemplating the role of the police in our society actually allows us some interesting insights into social theory. Now, I must admit that over the course of this essay I have not been especially kind to academics and most of their theoretical habits and predilections. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were inclined to read what I’ve written as an argument that social theory is largely
Here a comparison of bureaucratic knowledge and theoretical knowledge is revealing. Bureaucratic knowledge is all about schematization. In practice, bureaucratic procedure invariably means ignoring all the subtleties of real social existence and reducing everything to preconceived mechanical or statistical formulae. Whether it’s a matter of forms, rules, statistics, or questionnaires, it is always a matter of simplification. Typically, it’s not very different from the boss who walks into the kitchen to make arbitrary snap decisions as to what went wrong: in either case it is a matter of applying very simple
I am not trying to say there’s anything wrong in this kind of theoretical reduction. To the contrary, I am convinced some such process is necessary if one wishes to say something dramatically new about the world.
Consider the role of structural analysis, of the sort that in the sixties and seventies was
made famous by anthropologists like Claude
The basic principle of structural analysis, I was explaining, is that the terms of a symbolic system do not stand in
By observing these axes of inversion, we can get a sense of what such symbols are really about: that vampires, for instance, are not necessarily so much about death, or fear, but about power; about the simultaneous feelings of attraction and repulsion that relations of domination tend to create.
Obviously this is an extremely simple example. What I’ve described is just the initial move, there’s a whole series of more sophisticated ones that normally follow: inversions within inversions, mediating terms, levels of hierarchical encompassment … There’s no need to go into any of that here. My point is just that even by making this initial move, one will almost invariably discover something one would not have thought of otherwise. It’s a way of radically simplifying reality that leads to insights one would almost certainly never have achieved if one had simply attempted to take on the world in its full complexity.
I often used that example when explaining structural analysis to students. Students always liked it. One time, I suggested we try collectively try our hands at another analysis,
of a similar pop culture figure, and someone suggested James Bond.
This made sense to me: James Bond is clearly a mythical figure of some kind. But who was his mythic opposite? The answer soon became obvious. James Bond was the structural inversion of Sherlock Holmes. Both are
Where Holmes is asexual but fond of cocaine and opium, Bond is oversexed, but uninterested in drugs except for liquor. Holmes is an amateur. Bond is the quintessential
All this, though, really just sets up the key inversion, which is in terms of what they actually do: Sherlock Holmes seeks information about past acts of violence inside his country, while James Bond seeks information about future acts of violence outside it.
It was in mapping out the field that I came to realize that everything here was organized, precisely, around the relation between information and
One might object that all this is a simplification of a much richer, more complex and nuanced, tradition of popular culture. Of course it is. That’s the whole point. Structural
analysis of this sort makes a virtue of simplification. For my own part, I see
As long as one remains within the domain of theory, then, I would argue that simplification is not necessarily a form of
This analysis, too, is no doubt a simplification, but it’s a productive one. Let me try to demonstrate this by applying some of these insights to understanding the type of politics that can emerge within a fundamentally bureaucratic society.
One of the central arguments of this essay so far is that structural violence creates lopsided structures of the imagination. Those on the bottom of the heap have to spend a great deal of imaginative energy trying to understand the social dynamics that surround
This much seems to be the case wherever one encounters systematic inequality. It was just as true in ancient India or medieval China as it is anywhere today. And it will, presumably, remain true so long as structural inequalities endure. However, our own bureaucratic civilization introduces a further element. Bureaucracies, I’ve suggested, are not themselves
forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing
Why does this happen? Because even the most benevolent bureaucracies are really just taking the highly schematized, minimal, blinkered perspectives typical of the powerful, turning them into ways of limiting that power or ameliorating its most pernicious effects. Surely, bureaucratic interventions along these lines have done an enormous amount of good in the world. The European social welfare state, with its free education and universal health care, can justly be
And how was this uneasiness expressed? Largely, by the feeling that bureaucratic authority, by its very nature, represented a kind of war against the human imagination. This becomes particularly clear if we look at the youth rebellions from China to Mexico to New York that culminated in the insurrection of May 1968 in Paris. All were rebellions first and foremost against bureaucratic authority; all saw bureaucratic authority as fundamentally stifling of the human spirit, of creativity, conviviality, imagination. The famous slogan “All power to the imagination,” painted on the walls of the Sorbonne, has haunted us ever
This is important. Actually it could not be more important. Because I think what happened in ’68 reveals a contradiction at the very core of Leftist thought, from its very
In this sense, the Left’s current inability to formulate a critique of bureaucracy that actually speaks to its erstwhile constituents is synonymous with the decline of the Left itself.
Without such a critique, radical thought loses its vital
It seems that every time the Left decides to take a safe, “realistic” course, it just digs itself deeper. To understand how this happened, let alone what we might be able to do about it, I think it will be necessary to reexamine some very basic assumptions: first and foremost, about what it means to say one is being “realistic” to begin with.
Be realistic: demand the impossible.
(another ’68 slogan)
So far, I have been discussing how structural violence creates lopsided structures of the imagination and how bureaucracy becomes a way of managing such
Why do movements challenging such structures so often end up creating bureaucracies instead? Normally, they do so as a kind of compromise. One must be realistic and not demand too much. Welfare state reforms seem more realistic than demanding a broad distribution of property; a “transitional” stage of state socialism seems more realistic than jumping immediately to giving power to democratically organized workers’ councils, and so forth. But this raises another question. When we speak of being “realistic,” exactly what reality is it we are referring to?
Here, I think an anecdote about an activist group I was once involved with might prove instructive.
From early 2000 to late 2002, I was working with the New York Direct Action Network— the principal group responsible for organizing mass actions as part of the global justice movement in New York City at that time. I call it a “group,” but technically DAN was not a group at all but a decentralized network, operating on principles of direct democracy according to an elaborate, but quite effective, form of consensus process. It played a central role in ongoing efforts to create new organizational forms. DAN existed in a purely political space. It had no concrete
Then one day someone gave DAN a car.
The DAN car caused a minor, but ongoing, crisis. We soon discovered that legally, it is impossible for a decentralized network to own a car. Cars can be owned by individuals, or they can be owned by corporations (which are fictive individuals), or by governments. But they cannot be owned by networks. Unless we were willing to incorporate ourselves as a nonprofit corporation (which would have required a complete reorganization and an abandonment of most of our egalitarian principles) the only expedient was to find a volunteer willing to claim to be the legal owner. But then that person was held responsible for all outstanding fines and insurance fees, and had to provide written permission to allow anyone else to drive the car out of state. And, of course, only he could retrieve the car if it were impounded. One courageous activist did agree to undertake the responsibility, but as a result, weekly meetings were overwhelmed by reportbacks about his latest legal problems. Before long the DAN car had become such an endless source of tribulation that we decided to organize a fundraiser, throwing a big party where we provided a sledgehammer to
anyone willing to pay five dollars to take a whack at the thing.
It struck me there was something profound to this story. Why is it that projects like DAN’s
When one is asked to be “realistic,” then, the reality one is normally being asked to recognize is not one of natural, material facts, nor some supposed ugly truth about human nature. Being “realistic” usually means taking seriously the effects of the systematic threat of violence. This possibility even threads our language. Why, for example, is a building referred to as “real property,” or “real estate”? The “real” in this usage is not derived from Latin res, or “thing”: it’s from the Spanish real, meaning, “royal,” “belonging to the king.” All land within a sovereign territory ultimately belongs to the
In the same way, when one takes a “realist” position in International Relations, one assumes that states will use whatever capacities they have at their disposal, including force of arms, to pursue their national interests. What “reality” is one recognizing? Certainly not
material reality. The idea that nations are humanlike entities with purposes and interests is purely metaphysical. The King of France had purposes and interests. “France” does not. What makes it seem “realistic” to suggest it does is simply that those in control of nation- states have the power to raise armies, launch invasions, and bomb cities, and can otherwise threaten the use of organized violence in the name of what they describe as their “national
The critical term here is “force,” as in “the state’s monopoly on the use of coercive force.” Whenever we hear this word invoked, we find ourselves in the presence of a political ontology in which the power to destroy, to cause others pain or to threaten to break, damage, or mangle others’ bodies (or just lock them in a tiny room for the rest of their lives) is treated as the social equivalent of the very energy that drives the cosmos. Contemplate, if you will, the metaphors and displacements that make it possible to construct the following two sentences:
Scientists investigate the nature of physical laws so as to understand the forces that govern the universe.
Police are experts in the scientific application of physical force in order to enforce the laws that govern society.
This is to my mind the essence of
This is why I say that the Left has always been, in its essential inspiration, antibureaucratic. Because it has always been founded on a different set of assumptions about what is ultimately
Around the same time, utopian Socialists like St. Simon were arguing that artists needed to become the
From a left perspective, then, the hidden reality of human life is the fact that the world doesn’t just happen. It isn’t a natural fact, even though we tend to treat it as if it
To this emphasis on forces of creativity and production, the Right tends to reply that revolutionaries systematically neglect the social and historical importance of the “means of destruction”: states, armies, executioners, barbarian invasions, criminals, unruly mobs, and so on. Pretending such things are not there, or can simply be wished away, they argue, has the result of ensuring that
Obviously, this is something of a simplification, and one could make endless qualifications. The bourgeoisie of Marx’s time, for instance, had an extremely productivist
One of the reasons it is difficult to see all this is because the word “imagination” can mean so many different things. In most modern definitions imagination is counterposed to reality; “imaginary” things are first and foremost things that aren’t really there. This can cause a great deal of confusion when we speak of imagination in the abstract, because it makes it seem like imagination has much more do with Spenser’s Faerie Queene than with a group of waitresses trying to figure out how to placate the couple at Table 7 before the boss shows up.
Still, this way of thinking about imagination is relatively new, and continues to coexist with much older ones. In the common Ancient and Medieval conception, for example, what
we now call “the imagination” was not seen as opposed to reality per se, but as a kind of middle ground, a zone of passage connecting material reality and the rational soul. This was especially true for those who saw Reason as essentially an aspect of God, who felt that thought therefore partook in a divinity which in no way partook
The solution was to propose an intermediary substance, made out of the same material as the stars, the “pneuma,” a kind of circulatory system through which perceptions of the material world could pass, becoming emotionally charged in the process and mixing with all sorts of phantasms, before the rational mind could grasp their significance. Intentions and desires moved in the opposite direction, circulating through the imagination before they could be realized in the world. It’s only after Descartes, really, that the word “imaginary” came to mean, specifically, anything that is not real: imaginary creatures, imaginary places (Narnia, planets in faraway galaxies, the Kingdom of Prester John), imaginary friends. By this definition, a “political ontology of the imagination” could only be a contradiction in terms. The imagination cannot be the basis of reality. It is by definition that which we can think, but which has no reality.
I’ll refer to this latter as “the transcendent notion of the imagination” since it seems to take as its model novels or other works of fiction that create imaginary worlds that presumably remain the same no matter how many times one reads them. Imaginary
It was precisely in the mid- to
Two hundred and fifty years later, we might do well to begin to sort these matters out. Because honestly, there’s a lot at stake here. To get a sense of just how much, let’s return
for a moment to that ’68 slogan: “All power to the imagination.” Which imagination are we referring to? If one takes this to refer to the transcendent
impose some sort of prefab utopian
This confusion, this jumbling of different conceptions of imagination, runs throughout the history of leftist thought.
One can already see the tension in Marx. There is a strange paradox in his approach to revolution. As I’ve noted, Marx insists that what makes us human is that rather than relying on unconscious instinct like spiders and bees, we first raise structures in our imagination, and then try to bring those visions into being. When a spider weaves her web, she operates on instinct. The architect first draws up a plan, and only then starts building the foundations of his edifice. This is true, Marx insists, in all forms of material production, whether we are building bridges or making boots. Yet when Marx speaks of social creativity, his key
Why the discrepancy? The most generous explanation, I would suggest, is that Marx did understand, at least on some intuitive level, that the imagination worked differently in the domain of material production than it did in social relations; but also, that he lacked an adequate theory as to why. Perhaps, writing in the
To recall the argument so far: structural inequalities always create what I’ve called “lopsided structures of imagination,” that is, divisions between one class of people who end up doing most of the imaginative labor, and others who do not. However, the sphere of factory production that Marx concerned himself with is rather unusual in this respect. It is one of the few contexts where it is the dominant class who end up doing more imaginative labor, not less.
politicians, celebrities, or CEOs prance about oblivious to almost everything around them while their wives, servants, staff, and handlers spend all their time engaged in the imaginative work of maintaining them in their fantasies. Most situations of inequality I suspect combine elements of both.
The subjective experience of living inside such lopsided structures of
The tradition of Political Economy, within which Marx was writing, tends to see work in modern societies as divided between two spheres: wage labor, for which the paradigm is always factories, and domestic
So far I have proposed that bureaucratic procedures, which have an uncanny ability to make even the smartest people act like idiots, are not so much forms of stupidity in themselves, as they are ways of managing situations already stupid because of the effects of structural violence. As a result, such procedures come to partake of the very blindness and foolishness they seek to manage. At their best, they become ways of turning stupidity against itself, much in the same way that revolutionary violence could be said to be. But stupidity in the name of fairness and decency is still stupidity, and violence in the name of human liberation is still violence. It’s no coincidence the two so often seem to arrive together.
For much of the last century, the great revolutionary question has thus been: how does one affect fundamental change in society without setting in train a process that will end with the creation of some new, violent bureaucracy? Is utopianism the
Since the sixties, one common solution has been to start by lowering one’s sights. In the years leading up to May ’68, the Situationists famously argued that it was possible to do this through creative acts of subversion that undermined the logic of what they called “the Spectacle,” which rendered us passive consumers. Through these acts, we could, at least momentarily, recapture our imaginative powers. At the same time, they also felt that all such acts were
gone today. If the events of May ’68 showed anything, it was that if one does not aim to seize state power, there can be no fundamental, onetime break. As a result, among most contemporary revolutionaries, that millenarian element has almost completely fallen away. No one thinks the skies are about to open any time soon. There is a consolation, though: that as a result, insofar as one actually can come to experiencing genuine revolutionary freedom, one can begin to experience it immediately. Consider the following statement from the Crimethinc collective, probably the most inspiring young anarchist propagandists operating in the Situationist tradition today:
We must make our freedom by cutting holes in the fabric of this reality, by forging new realities which will, in turn, fashion us. Putting yourself in new situations constantly is the only way to ensure that you make your decisions unencumbered by the inertia of habit, custom, law, or
Freedom only exists in the moment of revolution. And those moments are not as rare as you think. Change, revolutionary change, is going on constantly and everywhere— and everyone plays a part in it, consciously or not.
What is this but an elegant statement of the logic of direct action: the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free?76 The obvious question is how this approach can contribute to an overall
In retrospect, what seems strikingly naïve is the old assumption that a single uprising or successful civil war could, as it were, neutralize the entire apparatus of structural violence, at least within a particular national
One of the most remarkable things about such insurrectionary upheavals is how they can seem to burst out of
public” is an entity with opinions, interests, and allegiances that can be treated as relatively consistent over time. In fact what we call “the public” is created, produced through specific institutions that allow specific forms of
To illustrate what I mean, consider that in
All these entities are the product of bureaucracies and institutional practices that, in turn, define certain horizons of possibility. Hence when voting in parliamentary elections one might feel obliged to make a “realistic” choice; in an insurrectionary situation, on the other hand, suddenly anything seems possible.
What “the public,” “the workforce,” “the electorate,” “consumers,” and “the population” all have in common is that they are brought into being by institutionalized frames of action that are inherently bureaucratic, and therefore, profoundly alienating. Voting booths, television screens, office cubicles, hospitals, the ritual that surrounds
view; everyone feels not only the right, but usually the immediate practical need to re- create and reimagine everything around them.
The question, of course, is how to ensure that those who go through this experience are not immediately reorganized under some new
Such is the lesson, I think, for politics. If one resists the reality effect created by pervasive structural
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. Bureaucracies can democratize this sort of power, at least to an extent, but they can’t get rid of it. It becomes forms of institutionalized laziness. Revolutionary change may involve the exhilaration of throwing off imaginative shackles, of suddenly realizing that impossible things are not impossible at all, but it also means most people will have to get over some of this deeply habituated laziness and start engaging in interpretive (imaginative) labor for a very long time to make those realities stick.
I have spent much of the last two decades thinking about how social theory might contribute to this process. As I’ve emphasized, social theory itself could be seen as kind of radical simplification, a form of calculated ignorance, a way of putting on a set of blinkers designed to reveal patterns one could never otherwise be able to see.
What I’ve been trying to do, then, is to put on one set of blinkers that allows us to see another. That’s why I began the essay as I did, with the paperwork surrounding my
mother’s illness and death. I wanted to bring social theory to bear on those places that seem most hostile to it. There are dead zones that riddle our lives, areas so devoid of any possibility of interpretive depth that they repel every attempt to give them value or meaning. These are spaces, as I discovered, where interpretive labor no longer works. It’s hardly surprising that we don’t like to talk about them. They repel the imagination. But I also believe we have a responsibility to confront them, because if we don’t, we risk becoming complicit in the very violence that creates them.
Let me explain what I mean by this. The tendency in existing social theory is to romanticize violence: to treat violent acts above all as ways to send dramatic messages, to play with symbols of absolute power, purification, and terror. Now, I’m not saying this is exactly untrue. Most acts of violence are also, in this sort of very literal sense, acts of terrorism. But I would also insist that focusing on these most dramatic aspects of violence makes it easy to ignore the fact that one of the salient features of violence, and of situations it creates, is that it is very boring. In American prisons, which are extraordinary violent places, the most vicious form of punishment is simply to lock a person in an empty room for years with absolutely nothing to do. This emptying of any possibility of communication or meaning is the real essence of what violence really is and does. Yes, sending someone into solitary is a way of sending a message to them, and to other prisoners. But the act consists largely of stifling out the possibility of sending any further messages of any kind.
It is one thing to say that, when a master whips a slave, he is engaging in a form of meaningful, communicative action, conveying the need for unquestioning obedience, and at the same time trying to create a terrifying mythic image of absolute and arbitrary power. All of this is true. It is quite another to insist that that is all that is happening, or all that we need to talk about. After all, if we do not go on to explore what “unquestioning” actually
There is another reason I began with that story about my mother and the notary. As my apparently inexplicable confusion over the signatures makes clear, such dead zones can, temporarily at least, render anybody stupid. Just as, the first time I constructed this argument, I was actually unaware that most of these ideas had already been developed within feminist standpoint theory. That theory itself had been so marginalized I was only vaguely aware of it. These territories present us with a kind of bureaucratic maze of blindness, ignorance, and absurdity, and it is perfectly understandable that decent people seek to avoid
Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
“Contemporary reality is the
There is a secret shame hovering over all us in the
For those in what should be the high point of their lives, in their forties and fifties, it is particularly acute, but in a broader sense it affects everyone. The feeling is rooted in a profound sense of disappointment about the nature of the world we live in, a sense of a broken
I am referring, of course, to the conspicuous absence, in 2015, of flying cars.
Well, all right, not just flying cars. I don’t really care about flying
Speaking as someone who was eight years old at the time of the Apollo moon landing, I have very clear memories of calculating that I would be
science fiction realized in my lifetime (even assuming my lifetime was not extended by centuries by some newly discovered longevity drug). If you asked me at the time, I’d have guessed about half. But it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.
I have long been puzzled and fascinated by the near silence surrounding this issue in public discourse. One does occasionally see griping about flying cars on the Internet, but it’s muted, or very marginal. For the most part, the topic is treated almost as taboo. At the turn of the millennium, for instance, I was expecting an outpouring of reflections by forty- somethings in the popular media on what we had expected the world of 2000 to be like, and why we had all gotten it so wrong. I couldn’t find a single one. Instead, just about all the authoritative
To a very large extent, the silence is due to fear of being ridiculed as foolishly naïve. Certainly if one does raise the issue, one is likely to hear responses like “Oh, you mean all that Jetson stuff?” As if to say, but that was just for children! Surely, as
The fact that all these voices turned out to be wrong doesn’t just create a deep feeling of largely inexpressible betrayal; it also points to some conceptual problems about how we should even talk about history, now that things haven’t unfolded as we thought they would. There are contexts where we really can’t just wave our hands and make the discrepancy between expectations and reality go away. One obvious one is science fiction. Back in the twentieth century, creators of science fiction movies used to come up with concrete dates in which to place their futuristic fantasies. Often these were no more than a generation in the future. Thus in 1968, Stanley Kubrick felt that a moviegoing audience would find it perfectly natural to assume that only
to start playing around with alternate time lines and realities just as a way of keeping the whole premise from falling apart.
By 1989, when the creators of Back to the Future II dutifully placed flying cars and antigravity hoverboards in the hands of ordinary teenagers in the year 2015, it wasn’t clear if it was meant as a serious prediction, a bow to older traditions of imagined futures, or as a slightly bitter joke. At any rate, it marked one of the last instances of this sort of thing. Later science fiction futures were largely dystopian, moving from bleak technofascism into some kind of
I think it would be wrong, however, to say that our culture has completely sidestepped the issue of technological disappointment. Embarrassment over this issue has ensured that we’ve been reluctant to engage with it explicitly. Instead, like so many other cultural traumas, pain has been displaced; we can only talk about it when we think we’re talking about something else.
In retrospect, it seems to me that entire fin de siècle cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as “postmodernism” might best be seen as just such a prolonged meditation on technological changes that never happened. The thought first struck me when watching one of the new Star Wars movies. The movie was awful. But I couldn’t help but be impressed by the quality of the special effects. Recalling all those clumsy effects typical of fifties
That last word, “simulate,” is key. What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information
It’s worthy of note that in the earliest formulations of postmodernism, which largely came out of the Marxist tradition, a lot of this technological subtext was not even subtext; it was quite explicit. Here’s a passage from Frederick Jameson’s original Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in 1984:
It is appropriate to recall the excitement of machinery in the moment of capital preceding our own, the exhilaration of futurism, most notably, and of Marinetti’s celebration of the machine gun and the motorcar. These are still visible emblems, sculptural nodes of energy which give tangibility and figuration to the motive energies of that earlier moment of modernization … the ways in which revolutionary or communist artists of the 1930s also sought to reappropriate this excitement of machine energy for a Promethean reconstruction of human society as a whole …
It is immediately obvious that the technology of our own moment no longer possesses this same capacity for representation: not the turbine, nor even Sheeler’s grain elevators or smokestacks, not the baroque elaboration of pipes and conveyor belts, nor even the streamlined profile of the railroad
Where once the sheer physical power of technologies themselves gave us a sense of history sweeping forward, we are now reduced to a play of screens and images.
Jameson originally proposed the term “postmodernism” to refer to the cultural logic appropriate to a new phase of capitalism, one that Ernest Mandel had, as early as 1972, dubbed a “third technological revolution.” Humanity, Mandel argued, stood on the brink of a transformation as profound as the agricultural or industrial revolutions had been: one in which computers, robots, new energy sources, and new information technologies would, effectively, replace
Jameson thought of himself as exploring the forms of consciousness and historical sensibilities likely to emerge from this emerging new age. Of course, as we all know, these technological breakthroughs did not, actually, happen. What happened instead is that the spread of information technologies and new ways of organizing
from the perspective of those living in Europe and North America, or even Japan, the results did seem superficially to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did increasingly disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers. But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that this whole new
So: Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was
When cultural analysts nowadays do consider the
Obviously there is truth in this. There were powerful myths at play. But most great human projects are rooted in some kind of mythic
in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of
There is reason to believe that even by the fifties and sixties, the real pace of technological innovation was beginning to slow from the heady pace of the first half of the century. There was something of a last spate of inventions in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the pill (1957), and lasers (1958) all appeared in rapid succession. But since then, most apparent technological advances have largely taken the form of either clever new ways of combining existing technologies (as in the space race), or new ways to put existing technologies to consumer use (the most famous example here is television, invented in 1926, but only
Toffler argued that almost all of the social problems of the 1960s could be traced back to the increasing pace of technological change. As an endless outpouring of new scientific breakthroughs continually transformed the very grounds of our daily existence, he wrote, Americans were left rudderless, without any clear idea of what normal life was supposed to be like. Perhaps it was most obvious in the case of the family, where, he claimed, not just the pill, but also the prospect of in vitro fertilization, test tube babies, and sperm and egg donation were about to make the very idea of motherhood obsolete. Toffler saw similar things happening in every domain of social
The fascinating thing is that while many of the historical trends Toffler describes are accurate, the book itself appeared at almost precisely the moment when most of them came to an end. For instance, it was right around 1970 when the increase in the number of scientific papers published in the
The fact that Toffler turned out to be wrong about almost everything had no deleterious effects on his own career. Charismatic prophets rarely suffer much when their prophecies fail to materialize. Toffler just kept retooling his analysis and coming up with new spectacular pronouncements every decade or so, always to great public recognition and applause. In 1980 he produced a book called The Third Wave,86 its argument lifted directly from Ernest Mandel’s “third technological
There are all sorts of ironies here. Probably one of the greatest
Gingrich liked to call himself a “conservative futurologist.” This might seem oxymoronic; but actually, if you look back at Toffler’s work in retrospect, the guru’s politics line up precisely with his student’s, and it’s rather surprising anyone ever took him for anything else. The argument of Future Shock is the very definition of conservatism. Progress was
always presented as a problem that needed to be solved. True, his solution was ostensibly to create forms of democratic control, but in effect, “democratic” obviously meant “bureaucratic,” the creation of panels of experts to determine which inventions would be approved, and which put on the shelf. In this way, Toffler might best be seen as a latter day, intellectually lightweight version of the early
Gingrich did have another guru who was overtly religious: George Gilder, a libertarian theologian, and author, among other things, of a newsletter called the “Gilder Technology Report.” Gilder was also obsessed with the relation of technology and social change, but in an odd way, he was far more optimistic. Embracing an even more radical version of Mandel’s Third Wave argument, he insisted that what we were seeing since the 1970s with the rise of computers was a veritable “overthrow of matter.” The old, materialist, industrial society, where value came from physical labor, was giving way to an information age where value emerged directly from the minds of entrepreneurs, just as the world had originally appeared ex nihilo from the mind of God, just as money, in a proper
Gilder, who had begun his career declaring that he aspired to be “America’s premier antifeminist,” also insisted that such salutary developments could only be maintained by strict enforcement of traditional family values. He did not propose a new religion of society. He didn’t feel he had to, since the same work could be done by the Christian evangelical movement that was already forging its strange alliance with the libertarian right.87
One would be unwise, perhaps, to dwell too much on such eccentric characters, however influential. For one thing, they came very late in the day. If there was a conscious, or
semiconscious, move away from investment in research that might have led to better rockets and robots, and towards research that would lead to such things as laser printers and CAT scans, it had already begun before the appearance of Toffler’s Future Shock (1971), let alone Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty (1981).88 What their success does show is that the issues these men
So what happened? Over the course of the rest of this essay, which is divided into three parts, I am going to consider a number of factors that I think contributed to ensuring the technological futures we all anticipated never happened. These fall into two broad groups. One is broadly political, having to do with conscious shifts in the allocation of research funding; the other bureaucratic, a change in the nature of the systems administering scientific and technological research.
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 technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control
“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … All fixed,
“I said that fun was very important, too, that it was a direct rebuttal of the kind of ethics and morals that were being put forth in the country to keep people working in a rat race which didn’t make any sense because in a few years the machines would do all the work anyway, that there was a whole system of values that people were taught to postpone their pleasure, to put all their money in the bank, to buy life insurance, a whole bunch of things that didn’t make any sense to our generation at all.”
Since its inception in the eighteenth century, the system that has come to be known as “industrial capitalism” has fostered an extremely rapid rate of scientific advance and technological
Is it possible that they were right? And is it also possible that in the sixties, capitalists, as a class, began to figure this out?
Marx’s specific argument was that, for certain technical reasons, value, and therefore profits, can only be extracted from human labor. Competition forces factory owners to mechanize production, so as to reduce labor costs, but while this is to the
I’ve already observed that there’s reason to believe the pace of technological innovation in productive
considerably in the fifties and sixties. Obviously it didn’t look that way at the time. What made it appear otherwise were largely the
It’s often said that the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism. Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo. Even putting things this way is a bit startling. “Cosmic ambitions?” 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
Even the golden age of science fiction, which had its heyday in the fifties and sixties, and
which first developed that standard repertoire of future
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. Granted, the Star Trek universe has been endlessly elaborated, with multiple series, movies, books and comics, even encyclopedias, not to mention decades’ worth of every sort of fan fiction, so the question of the political constitution of the Federation did eventually have to come up. And when it did there was no real way anyone could say it was not a democracy. So one or two late references to the Federation as having an elected President and legislature were duly thrown in. But this is meaningless. Signs of real democratic life are entirely absent in the
One might object: the characters themselves are part of Star Fleet. They’re in the military. True; but in real democratic societies, or even constitutional republics like the United States, soldiers and sailors regularly express political opinions about all sorts of things. You never see anyone in Star Fleet saying, “I never should have voted for those idiots pushing the expansionist policy, now look what a mess they’ve gotten into in Sector 5” or “when I was a student I was active in the campaign to ban terraforming of
But this is of course exactly what one would expect under some form of state socialism. We tend to forget that such regimes, also, invariably claimed to be democracies. On paper, the USSR under Stalin boasted an exemplary constitution, with far more democratic controls than European parliamentary systems of the time. It was just that, much as in the Federation, none of this had any bearing on how life actually worked.
The Federation, then, is Leninism brought to its full and absolute cosmic
While no one seems to know or much care about the Federation’s political composition, its economic system has, from the eighties onward, been subject to endless curiosity and debate. Star Trek characters live under a regime of explicit communism. Social classes have
been eliminated. So too have divisions based on race, gender, or ethnic origin.97 The very existence of money, in earlier periods, is considered a weird and somewhat amusing historical curiosity. Menial labor has been automated into nonexistence. Floors clean themselves. Food, clothing, tools and weapons can be whisked into existence at will with a mere expenditure of energy, and even energy does not seem to be rationed in any significant way. All this did raise some hackles, and it would be interesting to write a political history of the debate over the economics of the future it sparked in the late eighties and early nineties. I well remember watching filmmaker Michael Moore, in a debate with editors of The Nation, pointing out that Star Trek showed that ordinary
By the time of the moon landing of 1968, U.S. planners no longer took their competition seriously. The Soviets had lost the space race, and as a result, the actual direction of American research and development could shift away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories, let alone become the technological basis for a communist utopia.
The standard line, of course, is that this shift of priorities was simply the natural result of the triumph of the market. The Apollo program was the quintessential Big Government
First of all, the amount of really innovative research being done in the private sector has actually declined since the heyday of Bell Labs and similar corporate research divisions in the fifties and sixties. Partly this is because of a change of tax regimes. The phone company was willing to invest so much of its profits in research because those profits were highly
choice was obvious. After the changes in the seventies and eighties described in the introduction, all this changed. Corporate taxes were slashed. Executives, whose compensation now increasingly took the form of stock options, began not just paying the profits to investors in dividends, but using money that would otherwise be directed towards raises, hiring, or research budgets on stock buybacks, raising the values of the executives’ portfolios but doing nothing to further productivity. In other words, tax cuts and financial reforms had almost precisely the opposite effect as their proponents claimed they would.
At the same time, the U.S. government never did abandon gigantic
These military projects did have their own civilian
One might suggest an even darker possibility. A case could be made that even the shift into R&D on information technologies and medicine was not so much a reorientation towards
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
Yet even those areas of science and technology that did receive massive funding have not seen the breakthroughs originally anticipated
At this point, the pieces would seem to be falling neatly into place. By the 1960s, conservative political forces had become skittish about the socially disruptive effects of technological progress, which they blamed for the social upheavals of the era, and employers were beginning to worry about the economic impact of mechanization. The fading of the Soviet threat allowed for a massive reallocation of resources in directions seen as less challenging to social and economic
I think all this is true as far as it goes; but it can’t explain everything. Above all, it cannot explain why even in those areas that have become the focus of
Obviously, there have been advances in military technology. It’s widely acknowledged that one of the main reasons we all survived the Cold War is that while nuclear bombs worked more or less as advertised, the delivery systems didn’t; Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles weren’t really capable of hitting cities, let alone specific targets inside them, which meant there was little point in launching a nuclear first strike unless you were consciously intending to destroy the world. Contemporary cruise missiles, in contrast, are fairly accurate. Still, all those
The same, as I’ve already noted, can be said of widely anticipated breakthroughs in medicine, and even (dare I say?) computers. The Internet is surely a remarkable thing. Still, if a fifties
have pointed out that all we are really talking about here is a
All this is true, despite the fact that overall levels of research funding have increased dramatically since the 1970s. Of course, the proportion of that funding that comes from the corporate sector has increased even more dramatically, to the point where private enterprise is now funding twice as much research as the government. But the total increase is so large that the overall amount of government research funding, in real dollar terms, is still much higher than it was before. Again, while “basic,”
One common explanation is that when funders do conduct basic research, they tend to put all their eggs in one gigantic basket: “Big Science,” as it has come to be called. The Human Genome Project is often held out as an example. Initiated by the U.S. government, the project ended up spending almost three billion dollars and employing thousands of scientists and staff in five different countries, generating enormous expectations, only to discover that human gene sequences are nearly identical to those of chimpanzees, distinctly less complicated than the gene sequences of, say, rice, and that there would appear to be very little to be learned from them that’s of immediate practical application. Even more— and I think this is really
Here, I think our collective fascination with the mythic origins of Silicon Valley and the Internet have blinded us to what’s really going on. It has allowed us imagine that research and development is now driven, primarily, by small teams of plucky entrepreneurs, or the sort of decentralized cooperation that creates
Here I can speak from experience. My own knowledge comes largely from universities, both in the United States and the UK. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative paperwork, at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have not only more administrative staff than faculty, but the faculty, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administrative responsibilities as on teaching and research combined.102 This is more or less par for the course for universities worldwide. The explosion of paperwork, in turn, is a direct result of the introduction of corporate management techniques, which are always justified as ways of increasing efficiency, by introducing competition at every level. What these management techniques invariably end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell each other things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of our students’ job and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors, institutes, conference workshops, and universities themselves, which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors. Marketing and PR thus come to engulf every aspect of university life.
The result is a sea of documents about the fostering of “imagination” and “creativity,” set in an environment that might as well have been designed to strangle any actual manifestations of imagination and creativity in the cradle. I am not a scientist. I work in social theory. But I have seen the results in my own field of endeavor. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have, instead, been largely reduced to the equivalent of Medieval scholastics, scribbling endless annotations on French theory from the 1970s, despite the guilty awareness that if contemporary incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or even Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the U.S. academy, they would be unlikely to even make it through grad school, and if they somehow did make it, they would almost certainly be denied tenure.103
There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional
If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out largely by individuals, with minimal overhead, one can only imagine how much worse it is for physicists. And indeed, as one physicist has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences, even when one does emerge from the usual
You [will] spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems … It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal; because they have not yet been proved to work.104
That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense dictates that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea
comes into their heads, and then leave them alone for a while. Most will probably turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something completely unexpected. If you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they already know what they are going to discover.105
That’s pretty much the system we have now.106
In the natural sciences, to the tyranny of managerialism we can also add the creeping privatization of research results. As the British economist David Harvie has recently reminded us, “open source” research is not new. Scholarly research has always been open- source in the sense that scholars share materials and results. There is competition, certainly, but it is, as he nicely puts it, “convivial”:
Convivial competition is where I (or my team) wish to be the first to prove a particular conjecture, to explain a particular phenomenon, to discover a particular species, star or particle, in the same way that if I race my bike against my friend I wish to win. But convivial competition does not exclude cooperation, in that rival researchers (or research teams) will share preliminary results, experience of techniques and so on … Of course, the shared knowledge, accessible through books, articles, computer software and directly, through dialogue with other scientists, forms an intellectual commons.107
Obviously this is no longer true of scientists working in the corporate sector, where findings are jealously guarded, but the spread of the corporate ethos within the academy and research institutes themselves has increasingly caused even publicly funded scholars to treat their findings as personal property. Less is published. Academic publishers ensure that findings that are published are more difficult to access, further enclosing the intellectual commons. As a result, convivial,
There are all sorts of forms of privatization, up to and including the simple
Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some
I could go on, but I assume the reader is getting the idea. A timid, bureaucratic spirit has come to suffuse every aspect of intellectual life. More often than not, it comes cloaked in a language of creativity, initiative, and entrepreneurialism. But the language is meaningless. The sort of thinkers most likely to come up with new conceptual breakthroughs are the least likely to receive funding, and if, somehow, breakthroughs nonetheless occur, they will almost certainly never find anyone willing to follow up on the most daring implications.
Let me return in more detail to some of the historical context briefly outlined in the introduction.
Giovanni Arrighi, the Italian political economist, has observed that after the South Sea Bubble, British capitalism largely abandoned the corporate form. The combination of high finance and small family firms that had emerged after the industrial revolution continued to hold throughout the next
As I mentioned, contemporary, bureaucratic, corporate capitalism first arose in the United States and Germany. The two bloody wars these rivals fought culminated, appropriately enough, in vast
The current age of stagnation seems to have begun after 1945, precisely at the moment the United States finally and definitively replaced the UK as organizer of the world economy.111 True, in the early days of the U.S. Space
Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of
On the Movement from Poetic to Bureaucratic Technologies
It is the premise of this book that we live in a deeply bureaucratic society. If we do not notice it, it is largely because bureaucratic practices and requirements have become so all- pervasive that we can barely see
Computers have played a crucial role in all of this. Just as the invention of new forms of industrial automation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more and more of the world’s population into
Someone once figured out that the average American will spend a cumulative six months of her life waiting for the light to change. I don’t know if similar figures are available for how long she is likely to spend filling out forms, but it must be at least that much. If nothing else, I think it’s safe to say that no population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork.
Yet all of this is supposed to have happened after the overthrow of horrific,
Clearly, these problems are
I would put it this way: in this final, stultifying stage of capitalism, we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies.
By poetic technologies, I refer to the use of rational, technical, bureaucratic means to bring wild, impossible fantasies to life. Poetic technologies in this sense are as old as civilization. They could even be said to predate complex machinery. Lewis Mumford used to argue that the first complex machines were actually made of people. Egyptian pharaohs
were only able to build the pyramids because of their mastery of administrative procedures, which then allowed them to develop production line techniques, dividing up complex tasks into dozens of simple operations and assigning each to one team of
Yet still, again and again, we see those
From this perspective, all those mad Soviet
So what, then, are the political implications?
First of all, it seems to me that we need to radically rethink some of our most basic assumptions about the nature of capitalism. One is that capitalism is somehow identical to the market, and that both are therefore inimical to bureaucracy, which is a creature of the state. The second is that capitalism is in its nature technologically progressive. It would seem that Marx and Engels, in their giddy enthusiasm for the industrial revolutions of their day, were simply wrong about this. Or to be more precise: they were right to insist that the mechanization of industrial production would eventually destroy capitalism; they were wrong to predict that market competition would compel factory owners to go on with mechanization anyway. If it didn’t happen, it can only be because market competition is not, in fact, as essential to the nature of capitalism as they had assumed. If nothing else, the current form of capitalism, where much of the competition seems to take the form of internal marketing within the bureaucratic structures of large
Defenders of capitalism generally make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological development; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way that increases overall
prosperity for everyone; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world. It is quite clear that in the
As an anthropologist, I find myself dealing with this latter argument all the time.
SKEPTIC: You can dream your utopian dreams all you like, I’m talking about a political
or economic system that could actually work. And experience has shown us that what we have is really the only option here.
ME: Our particular current form of limited representative
SKEPTIC: Sure, but you’re talking about simpler,
much simpler technological base. I’m talking about modern, complex, technologically advanced societies. So your counterexamples are irrelevant.
ME: Wait, so you’re saying that technological progress has actually limited our social possibilities? I thought it was supposed to be the other way around!
But even if you concede the point, and agree that for whatever reason, while a wide variety of economic systems might once have been equally viable, modern industrial technology has created a world in which this is no longer the
Granted, there are people who take that
modest improvements (the latest iPhone!), rumors of inventions about to happen (“I hear they actually are going to have flying cars pretty soon”),115 even more complex ways of juggling information and imagery, and even more complex platforms for the filling out of forms.
I do not mean to suggest that neoliberal
At this point, the one thing I think we can be fairly confident about it is that invention and true innovation will not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate
The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All
Everyone complains about bureaucracy. The essays in this book have themselves largely consisted of such complaints. Nobody seems to likes bureaucracy very
In this essay I’d like to ask why that is, and particularly, to consider the possibility that many of the blanket condemnations of bureaucracy we hear are in fact somewhat disingenuous. That the experience of operating within a system of formalized rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, actually does
Now, I am aware this is not the only possible explanation. There is a whole school of thought that holds that bureaucracy tends to expand according to a kind of perverse but inescapable inner logic. The argument runs as follows: if you create a bureaucratic structure to deal with some problem, that structure will invariably end up creating other problems that seem as if they, too, can only be solved by bureaucratic means. In universities, this is sometimes informally referred to as the “creating committees to deal with the problem of too many committees” problem.
A slightly different version of the
Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of “secret sessions”: in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism …
The concept of the “official secret” is the specific invention of bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude, which cannot be substantially justified beyond these specifically qualified areas. In facing a parliament, the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or from interest groups …
The absolute monarch is powerless opposite the superior knowledge of the bureaucratic
constitutional king agrees with a socially important part of the governed, he very frequently exerts a greater influence upon the course of administration than does the “absolute monarch.” The constitutional king can control these
One side effect, as Weber also observes, is that once you do create a bureaucracy, it’s almost impossible to get rid of it. The very first bureaucracies we know of were in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these continued to exist, largely unchanged, as one dynasty or ruling elite replaced another, for literally thousands of years. Similarly, waves of successful invaders were not enough to dislodge the Chinese civil service, with its bureaus, reports, and examination system, which remained firmly in place no matter who actually claimed the Mandate of Heaven. In fact, as Weber also noted, foreign invaders needed the skills and knowledge so jealously guarded by Chinese bureaucrats even more than indigenous rulers did, for obvious reasons. The only real way to rid oneself of an established bureaucracy, according to Weber, is to simply kill them all, as Alaric the Goth did in Imperial Rome, or Genghis Khan in certain parts of the Middle East. Leave any significant number of functionaries alive, and within a few years, they will inevitably end up managing one’s kingdom.
The second possible explanation is that bureaucracy does not just make itself indispensable to rulers, but holds a genuine appeal to those it administers as well. One need not agree here with Weber’s curious celebration of bureaucratic efficiency. The simplest explanation for the appeal of bureaucratic procedures lies in their impersonality. Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable,
This is, as I say, the simplest explanation. But in this essay I’d like to explore the possibility that all this goes much deeper. It’s not just that the impersonal relations bureaucracies afford are convenient; to some degree, at least, our very ideas of rationality,
justice, and above all, freedom, are founded on them. To explain why I believe this to be the case, let me begin, first of all, by examining two moments in human history when new bureaucratic forms actually did inspire not just widespread passive acquiescence but giddy enthusiasm, even infatuation, and try to understand precisely what it was about them that seemed, to so many people, so exciting.
I. The Enchantment of Disenchantment, or The Magical Powers of the Post Office
One reason it was possible for Weber to describe bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rational efficiency is that in the Germany of his day, bureaucratic institutions really did work well. Perhaps the flagship institution, the pride and joy of the German civil service was the Post Office. In the late nineteenth century, the German postal service was considered one of the great wonders of the modern world. Its efficiency was so legendary, in fact, that it casts a kind of terrible shadow across the twentieth century. Many of the greatest achievements of what we now call “high modernism” were inspired
To understand how this could be, we need to understand a little of the real origins of the modern social welfare state, which we now largely think
Germany was one of the places where such parties were most successful. Even though Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the great mastermind behind the creation of the German state, allowed his parliament only limited powers, he was confounded by the rapid rise of workers’ parties, and continually worried by the prospect of a Socialist majority, or a possible Paris
platform, but in every case, carefully purged of any democratic, participatory elements. In private, at least, he was utterly candid about describing these efforts as a “bribe,” an effort to buy out
In Germany, the real model for this new administrative structure was, curiously, the post
One of the great innovations of eighteenth- and especially
In Germany, one could even make the argument that the nation was created, more than anything else, by the post office. Under the Holy Roman Empire, the right to run a postal courier system within imperial territories had been granted, in good feudal fashion, to a noble family originally from Milan, later to be known as the Barons von Thurn and Taxis (one later scion of this family, according to legend, was the inventor of the taximeter, which is why taxicabs ultimately came to bear his name). The Prussian Empire originally bought out the Thurn and Taxis monopoly in 1867, and used it as the basis for a new German national
Map of Berlin pneumatic tube postal system, 1873
Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin between 1891 and 1892, was so taken with it that he composed one of his only known
A witty German
So there you have it. The organization of the Soviet Union was directly modeled on that of the German postal service.
Neither were state socialists the only ones to be impressed. Even anarchists joined the chorus; though they were less interested in the national system than in relations between
The Postal Union did not elect an international postal parliament in order to make laws for all postal organizations adherent to the Union … They proceeded by means of agreement. To agree together they resorted to congresses; but, while sending delegates to their congresses they did not say to them, “Vote about everything you
This vision of a potential future paradise emerging from within the Post Office was not confined to Europe. Indeed, the country that was soon to emerge as Germany’s chief rival for global influence, the United States, was also held out as a model for a new type of civilization, and the efficiency of its own Post Service was considered prima facie evidence. Already in the 1830s, Tocqueville had been startled by the size of the postal system and the sheer volume of letters being moved about even on the frontier. During one journey through Kentucky to Michigan he noted: “There is an astonishing circulation of letters and newspapers among these savage woods,” far more, he calculated, than in even the most populous and commercial provinces of France. In the words of one later historian of the American Republic:
Americans would soon make their postal system larger than the postal systems of either Britain or France. By 1816 the postal system had over
In fact, for much of the century, from the perspective of a majority of Americans, the postal service effectively was the Federal government. By 1831, its staff already far outnumbered that of all other branches of government combined, it was substantially larger than the army, and for most
In Europe, the United States was at that time itself seen as a kind of utopian experiment, with its rejection of laissezfaire economics, and widespread reliance on cooperatives and
capitalism after the Civil War that the United States also adopted something closer to the German model of bureaucratic capitalism. When it did, the post office model came to be seen, by Populists and especially Progressives, as the major viable alternative. Again, the forms of a new, freer, more rational society seemed to be emerging within the very structures of oppression itself. In the United States, the term used was
In retrospect, all these fantasies of postal utopia seem rather quaint, at best. We now associate national postal systems mainly with the arrival of things we never wanted in the first place: utility bills, overdraft alerts,
In a fascinating book called Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion from Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond, Mark Ames carefully picked through journalistic accounts of such events (which did, indeed, quickly spread from the Post Office to private offices and factories, and even to private postal services like UPS, but in the process, became so commonplace that many barely made the national news) and noted that the language they employ, which always described these events as acts of inexplicable individual rage and
the eighties reforms in corporate culture that destroyed earlier assurances of secure lifetime employment and protections for workers against arbitrary and humiliating treatment by superiors, there had not been a single workplace massacre in all American history (other than by
It can’t be denied, too, there was a major racial component in the rhetoric. Just as for much of the twentieth century the post office stood, in the eyes of
Yet at the very same time that symbolic war was being waged on the Postal
1. A new communications technology develops out of the military. 2. It spreads rapidly, radically reshaping everyday life.
3. It develops a reputation for dazzling efficiency.
4. Since it operates on
5. Despite this, it quickly becomes the medium, too, for government surveillance and the dissemination of endless new forms of advertising and unwanted paperwork.
Put it in these terms, it should be obvious enough what I’m referring to. This is pretty much exactly the story of the Internet. What is email, after all, but a giant,
Obviously, there are differences. Most obviously, the Internet involves a much more participatory,
Well, first of all, it seems significant that while both postal services and the Internet emerge from the military, they could be seen as adopting military technologies to quintessential antimilitary purposes. Organized violence, as I’ve argued, insofar as it is a form of communication, is one that radically strips down, simplifies, and ultimately
prevents communication; insofar as it as a form of action, it is really a form of
In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I’ve called poetic technology, that is, one where mechanical forms of organization, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshaled to the realization of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratization of despotism. Once, the privileged of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organize themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.129
All this implies a certain very peculiar notion of freedom. Even more, I think, it marks a reversal of earlier ways of thinking about rationality whose significance could hardly be more profound.
Let me explain what I mean by this.
Western intellectual traditions have always tended to assume that humans’ powers of reason exist, first and foremost, as ways of restraining our baser instincts. The assumption can already be found in Plato and Aristotle, and it was strongly reinforced when classical theories of the soul were adopted into Christianity and Islam. Yes, the argument went, we all have animalistic drives and passions, just as we have our powers of creativity and imagination, but these impulses are ultimately chaotic and antisocial.
The emergence of bureaucratic populism, as I’ve been describing it, corresponds to a complete reversal of this conception of
cannot tell us what we should want. It can only tell us how best to get it.
In both versions, reason was somehow outside of creativity, desire, or the passions; however, in one, it acted to restrain such passions; in the other, to facilitate them.
The emerging field of economics might have developed this logic the furthest, but it is a logic that traces back at least as much to bureaucracy as to the market. (And one must remember, most economists are, and always have been, employed by large bureaucratic organizations of one sort or another.) 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.131 In this way, bureaucracy really has become embedded in the common sense of at least a very substantial part of the world’s population for quite a long period of time.
But at the same time, it’s not as if the older idea of rationality has ever entirely gone away. To the contrary: the two coexist, despite being almost completely
II. Rationalism as a Form of Spirituality
This bizarre state of affairs is worth reflecting on, because it is at the very core of our conception of bureaucracy. On the one hand, we have the notion that bureaucratic systems are simply neutral social technologies. They are just ways of getting from A to B, and have no implications whatsoever for the rights and wrongs of the matter. I well remember a friend who attended the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, a
On the other hand, in complete contradiction with this, there remains a modern incarnation of the earlier idea of rationality as moral order and therefore as an end in itself. Pretty much anyone with a utopian vision, whether Socialist, free market, or for that matter religious fundamentalist, dreams of creating a social order that will, unlike current arrangements, make some sort of coherent
turns out to be the cornerstone of any such project.
Arguments about the role of “rationality” in politics almost invariably play fast and loose with these two contradictory ideas.
If one tries to go back to basic definitions, things don’t get much better. In many ways they become considerably worse. There is no consensus amongst philosophers about what the word “rationality” even means. According to one tradition, for instance, rationality is the application of logic, of pure thought untempered by emotions; this pure, objective thought is then seen as the basis of scientific inquiry. This has attained a great deal of popular purchase, but there’s a fundamental problem: scientific inquiry itself has proved it cannot possibly be true. Cognitive psychologists have demonstrated again and again that there is no such thing as pure thought divorced from emotions; a human being without emotions would not be able to think at all.133
Others prefer a more pragmatic approach, claiming merely that a rational argument can be defined as one that is both grounded in empirical reality, and logically coherent in form. The problem here is that these two criteria don’t really have much to do with one another. One is about observation; the other is about reasoning.134 What do they have in common? Mainly, it seems, that when someone makes an argument that is either delusional or incoherent, we are equally likely to write that person off as not right in the head. On one level, that’s fair enough: we do call crazy people “irrational.” But if so, calling someone, or an argument, “rational” is saying almost nothing. It’s a very weak statement. You’re just saying they are not obviously insane.
But the moment you turn it around, you realize that claiming one’s own political positions are based on “rationality” is an extremely strong statement. In fact, it’s extraordinarily arrogant, since it means that those who disagree with those positions are not just wrong, but crazy. Similarly, to say one wishes to create a “rational” social order implies that current social arrangements might as well have been designed by the inhabitants of a lunatic asylum. Now, surely, all of us have felt this way at one time or another. But if nothing else, it is an extraordinarily intolerant position, since it implies that one’s opponents are not just wrong, but in a certain sense, wouldn’t even know what it would mean to be right, unless, by some miracle, they could come around and accept the light of reason and decide to accept your own conceptual framework and point of view.
This tendency to enshrine rationality as a political virtue has had the perverse effect of encouraging those repelled by such pretentions, or by the people who profess them, to claim to reject rationality entirely, and embrace “irrationalism.” Of course, if we simply take rationality in its minimal definition, any such position is absurd. You can’t really make an argument against rationality, because for that argument to be convincing, it would itself have to be framed in rational terms. If one is willing to argue with another person at all, one must accept, at least on a tacit level, that arguments based in an accurate assessment of reality are better than ones that are not (that is, that any argument that proceeds from the assumption that all buildings are made of green cheese is not worth taking seriously), and that arguments that follow the laws of logic are better than those that violate then (i.e., that an argument that since the Mayor of Cincinnati is human, all humans are the Mayor of Cincinnati, can be similarly dismissed).
This is not the place to enter into all the logical traps and contradictions that result from this situation. I simply wish to ask how we ever got to this point at all. Here I think we have no choice but to go back to the very beginning, and look at the historical origins of the Western concept of “rationality” in the Greek cities of Southern Italy in the middle of the first millennium BC.
The first philosophical school to represent themselves as rationalists, and to treat rationality as a value in itself, were the Pythagoreans, who were simultaneously a philosophical and scientific school, and a kind of political cult or confraternity that managed, at one point or another, to take control of several Italian cities.135 Their great intellectual discovery was that there was a formal similarity between the kind of mathematical ratios that could be observed in geometry, musical intervals, and the movements of the planets. The conclusion they reached was that the universe was, on some ultimate level at least, composed of
This was the picture of the universe Plato largely adopted in Timaeus, and it had enormous influence. By the first and second century of the Roman Empire, in fact, variations on the basic Pythagorean set of ideas had been adopted by pretty much all major philosophical
This set of assumptions about the nature of rationality, absorbed into Christianity through Augustine, informs pretty much all Medieval philosophy as well, however difficult it was to reconcile with the notion of a transcendent willful Creator (and indeed, much Medieval philosophy was precisely concerned with arguing about different ways of reconciling them).
In many ways, all these assumptions are very much still with us. Take the notion, which we all learn as children and most of us accept as
This conclusion inevitably followed from the logic of the Great Chain of Being, where all living creatures were ranked in a single hierarchy of increasing rationality according to their proximity to God, with humans placed at the top of the natural order, between animals and angels.
It’s easy to see the grand cosmic hierarchies of late Antiquity, with their archons, planets, and gods, all operating under the unfolding of abstract rational laws, as simply images of the Roman legal bureaucratic order writ very, very large. The curious thing is how this ultimately bureaucratic picture of the cosmos was maintained for a thousand years after the Roman Empire had collapsed. Medieval and Renaissance theologians produced endless speculative tracts about angelic hierarchies that if anything represented the universe as more systematically bureaucratic than anything ancient philosophers had imagined:142
So, for instance, in the sixteenth century, Marsilio Ficino provided the following summary of the angelic hierarchy, drawing from the work of a fourth century Christian Neoplatonist whose real name has long since been forgotten, via the elaborations of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante:
Seraphim speculate on the order and providence of God. Cherubim speculate on the essence and form of God. Thrones also speculate, though some descend to works. Dominions, like architects, design what the rest execute.
Virtues execute, and move the heavens, and concur for the working of miracles as God’s instruments.
Powers watch that the order of divine governance is not interrupted and some of them descend to human things. Principalities care for public affairs, nations, princes, magistrates.
Archangels direct the divine cult and look after sacred things.
Angels look after smaller affairs and take charge of individuals as their guardian angels.143
Angels are “celestial intelligences” ranked in order from those who engage in pure thought to those who concern themselves with the actual governance of worldly affairs. At a time when actual governance in Europe was as broken and fragmented as it could possibly be, its intellectuals were busying themselves arguing about the exact division of powers within a single, grand, unified, imaginary system of cosmic administration.
Nowadays, the grand synthesis of late Antiquity, revived by Renaissance alchemists and mages like Ficino, Agrippa, and Giordano Bruno (and in the process infused with Cabala, and other spiritual traditions), survives largely as the basis of Western ceremonial magic. The Enlightenment is supposed to have marked a fundamental break with it. But the fundamental structure of assumptions did not really change. The appeal to rationality in Descartes and his successors remains a fundamentally spiritual, even mystical, commitment, that the mathematical or
It is hard to think this way because of course we have by now come to identify the soul not with reason, but with everything that makes us unique, idiosyncratic, or imaginative. But this view is a product of the Romantic era, and one that, at the time, marked a near total break from earlier conceptions. Again, this is hardly the place to go into detail concerning the arguments about the relation between reason, imagination, and desire that came out of it, but it does help us understand why it is that the notion of “rationality,” and particularly, of bureaucratic rationality, never seems to be able to contain itself to simple questions of deductive reasoning, or even technical efficiency, but almost invariably ends up trying to turn itself into some grandiose cosmological scheme.
III. On the Bureaucratization of the Antibureaucratic Fantasy
“The point when I decided I just didn’t care about that [academic] job any more was when I stopped turning off the sound on my computer games during office hours.
There’d be some student waiting outside for feedback on his assignment and I was like, ‘Wait, just let me finish killing this dwarf and I’ll get back to you.’ ”
The fact that modern science is to some degree founded on spiritual commitments, of course, in no way implies that its findings are not true. But I think it does suggest that we might do well to step back and think very carefully the moment whenever someone claims to be trying to create a more rational social order (especially, when they could have just as easily described that social order as reasonable, more decent, less violent, or more just.)
We have seen how the European Middle Ages produced the vision of a virtual celestial bureaucracy, based distantly on that of ancient Rome,144 which was seen as the embodiment of cosmic rationality, in a time when real bureaucracy was particularly thin on the ground. Over time, of course, it grew considerably less so. But as new bureaucratic states did emerge, and particularly as bureaucratic rationality became the predominant principle of governance in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe and America, we witness a kind of countermovement: the rise of an equally fantastic vision of the Middle Ages, full of princes, knights, faeries, dragons, sorcerers, and unicorns; and eventually, hobbits, dwarves, and orcs. In most important ways, this world is explicitly antibureaucratic: that is, it evinces an explicit rejection of virtually all the core values of bureaucracy.
In the last essay, I observed that science fiction has come to assemble a fairly standardized list of future
We are used to speaking of “the state” as a single entity but actually, I think, modern states are better seen as the confluence of three different elements, whose historical origins are quite distinct, have no intrinsic relation with one another, and may already be in the process of finally drifting apart.
I will call these sovereignty, administration, and politics.
Sovereignty is usually taken to be the defining feature of the state: a sovereign state is one whose ruler claims a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. Most governments in the ancient world, or for that matter the Middle Ages, never claimed sovereignty in this sense. Nor would it have occurred to them to do so: this was the logic of conquering empires, not of any sort of civilized community.
The second principle is administration, which can and often does exist without any single center of power to enforce its decisions. It could also, of course, simply be referred to as
bureaucracy. In fact, the most recent archeological evidence from Mesopotamia indicates that bureaucratic techniques emerged not just before sovereign states, but even before the existence of the first cities. They were not invented to manage scale, as ways of organizing societies that became too big for
years before the “urban revolution.”145 We don’t really know how or why; we don’t even know whether there were actual bureaucrats (in the sense of a distinct class of trained officeholders) or whether we are simply talking about the emergence of bureaucratic techniques. But by the time historical records do kick in there certainly are: we find vast temple and palace complexes with a hierarchy of trained scribes carefully registering and allocating resources of every sort.
We can refer to the third principle as “politics” if one takes that word in what might be termed its maximal sense. Obviously, there is a minimal sense in which anything people do can be said to have a political aspect, insofar it involves jockeying for power. But there are only some social systems in which politics in this sense becomes a spectator sport in its own right: where powerful figures engage in constant public contests with one another as a way of rallying followers and gathering support. We now think of this as an aspect of democratic systems of government, but for most of human history, it was seen as more of an aristocratic phenomenon. One need only think of the heroes of Homeric, or for that matter Germanic or Celtic or Hindu epics, who are constantly engaged in boasting, dueling, vying to organize the most splendid feasts or most magnificent sacrifices, or to outdo one another with the giving of extravagant gifts.146 Such “heroic” social orders, as they’ve been called, represent the quintessence of the political. They recognize no principle of sovereignty, but create no system of administration either; sometimes there is a high king but usually he has very limited power, or is a pure figurehead; real power fluctuates continually as charismatic aristocrats assemble bands of followers, the most successful poaching off their rivals’ retinues, while others crash magnificently, or decline into brooding obscurity.
Politics in this sense has always been an essentially aristocratic phenomenon. (There is a reason why the U.S. Senate, for example, is inhabited entirely by millionaires.) This is why for most of European history, elections were assumed to be not a democratic, but an aristocratic mode of selecting public officials. “Aristocracy” after all literally means “rule by the best,” and elections were seen as meaning that the only role of ordinary citizens was to decide which, among the “best” citizens, was to be considered best of all, in much the same way as a Homeric retainer, or for that matter, a Mongol horseman might switch allegiance to some new charismatic
What does all this have to do with dragons and wizards? Quite a lot, actually. Because all evidence we have suggests that such heroic orders did not just emerge spontaneously, alongside bureaucratic societies; they emerged in a kind of symbiotic rivalry with them; and
they were remembered long after because they embodied a rejection of everything bureaucracy was supposed to be about.
Here again I must return to archeology, and particularly to the work of my friend David Wengrow on the ancient Middle East.147 The actual origins of what I’m calling “heroic societies” seem to lie on the hills, mountains, deserts, or steppes on the fringes of the great
The original heroic societies emerged in the Bronze Age, and by the time of Plato, or Confucius, they must have been only very distant memories. Yet nonetheless, those memories remained vivid. Almost all the great literary traditions begin with heroic epics that are, essentially, later fanciful reconstructions of what those Bronze Age heroic societies must have been like. We might well ask why this happened. Why did the very sorts of people ridiculed as ignorant barbarians by one civilization of urbanites so often become reimagined as distant heroic ancestors of a later one? Why were stories of their exploits told and retold, in many cases, for thousands of years?
I think part of the answer is that heroic societies are, effectively, social orders designed to generate stories. This takes us back to questions about the very nature of politics. One might well argue that political
strange magical powers. And of course, dramatic stories about violent barbarians became even more compelling in ages when actual violent barbarians were no longer much around.
Barbarians always exist in a symbiotic relation to bureaucratic civilization. Over the course of Eurasian history, the pattern recurred again and again. Heroic societies formed at the fringes of empire; often (like the Germanic societies that formed on the fringes of the Roman Imperium, or the Northern Barbarians across the Great Wall from China, or the Huns that spent time on the borders of both) they would even sweep in and overwhelm those empires; in such cases, though, they would usually quickly dissolve away into legend.149
Modern fantasy literature might be said to have its origins in late chivalric romances like Amadis of Gaul or Orlando Furioso, but the genre really takes recognizable form in the Victorian Age, around the same time as the height of popular enthusiasm for the postal service. It is set in a very peculiar sort of time. In a way, this time is just a modern version of the “once upon a time” of fairy tales, which was both a kind of floating, unspecified past, and another dimension existing simultaneously with our own (as many stories confirm, there are, still, portals between our world and fairyland, a land where time and space work entirely differently). But the temper of such fantasy literature is not at all the same. Fairy tales reflect a women’s and children’s perspective on Medieval and Early Modern society; their heroes are more likely to be milkmaids and crafty cobblers’ sons than courtiers and princes; in what has to be come to known as fantasy literature, in contrast, this “once upon a time” has been transformed entirely by a massive infusion of heroic epic. By “fantasy literature,” here, I am referring above all to what’s sometimes called the “sword and sorcery” genre, whose origins lie in late Victorian figures like George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany, and whose most shining avatars remain J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula K. Le Guin.150 It’s within this tradition that the standard set of characters (warrior, cleric, mage), types of spells, types of monstrous creature, etc., formed: a standard repertoire that recurs, in endless idiosyncratic variations, in hundreds if not thousands of works of contemporary fiction.
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.
Why do we do so? Well, the simplest explanation is that we are dealing with a form of ideological inoculation. Historically, one of the most effective ways for a system of authority to tout its virtues is not to speak of them directly, but to create a particularly vivid image of their absolute
Roman games provide an excellent example. Until the coming of the empire, most
Mediterranean cities had had some form of
In other words, the Empire not only justified itself largely by imposing a uniform system of law over its subjects, it also made a point of encouraging those subjects to form organized lynch mobs (the games were often sponsored by the very magistrates who presided over the courts), as if to say, “Democracy? Now you know where that will lead.” This was so effective that for the next two thousand years, warnings about the perils of
I don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that all such institutions are simply tricks set up by the ruling classes to manipulate the masses. Or that even insofar as they are, they can’t backfire. The Roman circuses might have been unusually
No doubt fantasy literature, too, is contested ground. Its authors themselves were often unsure about the political implications of their work. J.R.R. Tolkien for example once remarked that politically, he was either an anarchist, or an “unconstitutional” monarchist— it seems he could never make up his mind quite which.153 The one thing both positions have in common of course is that they are both profoundly antibureaucratic. 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:
•Fantasy worlds tend to be marked by an absolute division of good and evil (or at best, ambiguous good and absolute evil), implying the existence of forces between which war is the only possible relationship. In fact, when it comes to conflict with such absolute villains, even war tends to be absolute, unmediated by custom, etiquette, or chivalry. This is in striking contrast either with heroic or Medieval societies, where organized
negate the bureaucratic principle of
•The existence in fantasy universes of
•Legitimate power in fantasy worlds tends to be based on pure charisma, or the memory of past charisma. Aragorn never coerces anyone to follow him. Neither does Aslan. Or Ged. Only bad guys ever create a statelike apparatus, and when they do, that apparatus is one of pure coercion. What’s more, charismatic authority that is not constantly renewed tends to wither and become corrupt (e.g., Denethor, Gormenghast), or develop into creepy, Gothic, undead forms. Since the very possibility of real, vital, charismatic authority is always founded on war, this means legitimate authority is itself impossible without constant physical insecurity. In other words, the political ideal of modern “democratic” Republics, in which politicians constantly vie for followers, is
•As a corollary: in fantasy, as in heroic societies, political life is largely about the creation of stories. Narratives are embedded inside narratives; the storyline of a typical fantasy is often itself about the process of telling stories, interpreting stories, and creating material for new ones. This is in dramatic contrast with the mechanical nature of bureaucratic operations. Administrative procedures are very much not about the creation of stories; in a bureaucratic setting, stories appear when something goes wrong. When things run smoothly, there’s no narrative arc of any sort at all.
•What’s more, protagonists are endlessly engaging with riddles in ancient languages, obscure myths and prophecies, maps with runic puzzles and the like. Bureaucratic procedures in contrast are based on a principle of transparency. The rules are supposed to be clear, uniformly expressed, and accessible to all. As we all know, this is rarely actually the case. But it is supposed to be true in principle. For most of us, administrative forms are at least as obscure as elvish riddles that only become visible at certain phases of the moon. But they are not supposed to be. In fact, one of the most infuriating bureaucratic tactics is to disguise information through a false pretense of transparency: for instance, to bury a key piece of information in a flurry of departmental
As the last example makes clear, when we discuss these constants, we are speaking of a
certain abstract ideal of how bureaucratic systems should work, not the way they actually do. In reality, bureaucracies are rarely neutral; they are almost always dominated by or favor certain privileged groups (often racial groups) over others; and they invariably end up giving administrators enormous individual personal power by producing rules so complex and contradictory that they cannot possibly be followed as they stand. Yet in the real world, all these departures from bureaucratic principle are experienced as abuses. In fantasy worlds, they are experienced as virtues.
Still, those virtues are clearly intended to be fleeting. Fantasyland is a thrilling place to visit. Few of us would really want to live there. But if I am right
Fantasy literature then, is largely an attempt to imagine a world utterly purged of bureaucracy, which readers enjoy both as a form of vicarious escapism and as reassurance that ultimately, a boring, administered world is probably preferable to any imaginable alternative.
Still, bureaucracy and bureaucratic principles are not entirely absent from such worlds. They creep in from several directions.
For one thing, the old imaginary cosmic administration of the Middle Ages is not entirely negated in most fantasy worlds. This is because these are almost invariably worlds where, though technology is limited to the wind and water mill level, magic actually works. And the type of magic that appears in the stories tends most often to be drawn from the Western ceremonial magic tradition that runs from ancient theurgists like Iamblichus to Victorian mages like MacGregor Mathers, full of demons invoked in magic circles, chants, spells, robes, talismans, scrolls, and wands. So the cosmic hierarchies, the complex logical orders of spells, orders, powers, influences, celestial spheres with their different powers and denominations and areas of administrative responsibility: all these tend to be preserved, in one form or another, as at least one hidden potential form of power within the fabric of the antibureaucratic universe itself. True, in the earliest, and most resolutely antibureaucratic universes, sorcerers are either evil (Zukala in Conan the Barbarian or a million similar pulp fiction villains, or even Michael Moorcock’s amoral Elric),155 or, if they are good, the technical aspect of their art is minimized (Gandalf’s power seems to be an extension of his personal charisma rather than deriving from arcane knowledge of spells). But as time moved on from there to The Wizard of Earthsea to Harry Potter,
How could this have happened? Well, one reason is that genres of popular fiction are
increasingly not confined to books. (This is especially true if children or adolescents are in any way involved.) Nor do they just extend into movies and television series: there are also everything from board games to models, puzzles, and action figures, multiple forms of fan literature, zines, fan art, video and computer games. In the case of the fantasy genre, it’s impossible to understand the later direction of the literature without first of all understanding the rise, in the late seventies, of the
D&D, as its aficionados call it, is on one level the most
Still, the introduction of numbers, the standardization of types of character, ability, monster, treasure, spell, the concept of ability scores and
IV. The Utopia of Rules
One reason I have seen fit to spend so much time on fantasy worlds is because the topic opens up some fundamental questions about the nature of play, games, and
The great Dutch sociologist Johann Huizinga wrote a book called Homo Ludens that is ostensibly a theory of play. In fact, the book makes for a very bad theory of play, but it’s not at all a bad theory of games.156 According to Huizinga, games have certain common features. First, they are clearly bounded in time and space, and thereby framed off from ordinary life. There is a field, a board, a starting pistol, a finish line. Within that time/space, certain people are designated as players. There are also rules, which define precisely what those players can and cannot do. Finally, there is always some clear idea of the stakes, of what the players have to do to win the game. And, critically: that’s all there is. Any place, person, action, that falls outside that framework is extraneous; it doesn’t matter; it’s not part of the game. Another way to put this would be to say that games are pure
It seems to me this is important, because this precisely why games are fun. In almost any other aspect of human existence, all these things are ambiguous. Think of a family quarrel, or a workplace rivalry. Who is or is not a party to it, what’s fair, when it began and when it’s over, what it even means to say you
Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules.
This is also how we can understand the real difference between games and play. True, one can play a game; but to speak of “play” does not necessarily imply the existence of rules at all.157 Play can be purely improvisational. One could simply be playing around. In this sense, play in its pure form, as distinct from games, implies a pure expression of creative energy. In fact, if it were possible to come up with a workable definition of “play” (this is notoriously difficult) it would have to be something along these lines: play can be said to be present when the free expression of creative energies becomes an end in itself. It is freedom for its own sake. But this also makes play in a certain sense a
On one level, all this is obvious: we are just talking about the emergence of form. Freedom has to be in tension with something, or it’s just randomness. This suggests that the absolute pure form of play, one that really is absolutely untrammeled by rules of any sort (other than those it itself generates and can set aside at any instance) itself can exist only in our imagination, as an aspect of those divine powers that generate the cosmos.
Here’s a quote from Indian philosopher of science Shiv Visvanathan:
A game is a bounded, specific way of problem solving. Play is more cosmic and open- ended. Gods play, but man unfortunately is a gaming individual. A game has a predictable resolution, play may not. Play allows for emergence, novelty, surprise.159
All true. But there is also something potentially terrifying about play for just this reason. Because this
Let me put forth a suggestion, then.
What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.
For the social theorist, there is one obvious analogy to play as a principle that generates rules, but is not itself bound by them. This is the principle of sovereignty. The reader will remember sovereignty was one of the three
Those who argued that sovereigns were not bound by those laws drew an analogy with divine power. God is the creator, and ultimate enforcer, of any system of cosmic morality.
But in order to create a system, one must be prior to it; for this reason God himself cannot be bound by moral laws. This is not at all an unusual conclusion. In Madagascar, proverbial wisdom was quite explicit about this: God was represented as both the ultimate judge— watching from on high and punishing
Sovereignty in this sense is ultimately identical to play as the generative principle that produces games; but if so, it is also play in its most terrifying, cosmic form. Some have called this the notion of
In such a universe, freedom really is a
It shouldn’t be hard to see where all this is going. Modern states are based on a principle of popular sovereignty. Ultimately, the divine power of kings is in the hands of an entity called “the people.” In practice, though, it’s increasingly unclear what popular sovereignty in that sense is even supposed to mean. Max Weber famously pointed out that a sovereign state’s institutional representatives maintain a monopoly on the right of violence within the state’s territory.163 Normally, this violence can only be exercised by certain duly authorized officials (soldiers, police, jailers), or those authorized by such officials (airport security, private guards …), and only in a manner explicitly designated by law. But ultimately, sovereign power really is, still, the right to brush such legalities aside, or to make them up as one goes along.164 The United States might call itself “a country of laws, not men,” but as we have learned in recent years, American presidents can order torture, assassinations, domestic surveillance programs, even set up
a police officer to do anything to an American citizen that would lead to that officer being convicted of a crime.165
This is, indeed, almost precisely what has happened wherever the republican form of government (now largely mislabeled “democracy”) has become the norm. The legal order, and hence the zones where state violence is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, has expanded to define and regulate almost every possible aspect of human activity. Thus, as I’ve said earlier, we end up with regulations prescribing everything from where one can serve or consume different sorts of beverages, how one can work, when one can and can’t walk off from work, to the size of advertisements visible from the street. The threat of force invades practically every aspect of our existence, in ways that would have simply been inconceivable under the rule of Elagabalus, Genghis Khan or Suleiman the Magnificent.
I’ve already written about this invasion of regulation, and violence, into every aspect of our lives. What I want to argue here is that this imperative ultimately derives from a tacit cosmology in which the play principle (and by extension, creativity) is itself seen as frightening, while
This occurs even in contexts where the threat of state violence is maximally far away. A good example is the management of academic departments. As I’ve discussed, anthropologists are notoriously reluctant to turn their tools of analysis on their own institutional environments, but there are exceptions, and one excellent one is Marilyn Strathern’s analysis of what in the UK has come to be known as “audit culture.” The basic idea behind audit culture is that in the absence of clear, “transparent” criteria to understand how people are going about their jobs, academia simply becomes a feudal system based on arbitrary personal authority. On the surface, it’s hard to argue with this. Who could be against transparency? Strathern was head of the anthropology department at Cambridge when these reforms were imposed, and in her book Audit Cultures, she documented the actual consequences of this kind of bureaucratization.168 Cambridge was in its own way the quintessential feudal institution, with an endless accretion of customs and traditions, and anthropology, though a relatively new department, had its own traditional ways of going about everything that no one could entirely articulate; indeed, that no one completely understood. But in order to become “transparent” to the administration, they had to start articulating them; in practice, what this meant was that they had to take what had always been a subtle, nuanced form of procedures and turn them into an explicit set of rules. In effect, they had to turn custom into a kind of board game. Faced with such demands, everyone’s first impulse was just to say, “Well, sure, we’ll just write that for the authorities and proceed as we always have.” But in practice this quickly becomes impossible, because
the moment any conflicts crop up, both parties will automatically appeal to the
actually do. Personal authority just jumps up a level, and becomes the ability to set the rules aside in specific cases (a sort of miniature version of sovereign power again). However, in practice, the fact that the reforms do not in any sense achieve their stated goals doesn’t have the effect of undermining their legitimacy. Instead, the effect is quite the opposite, since anyone who objects to such personalized power can only do so by demanding even more rules and even more “transparency.” Suddenly, freedom and justice really do become a matter of reducing everything to a game.
If we think about it, this sort of thing happens all the
It’s easy to observe this phenomenon in places where grammars were only written recently. In many places in the world, the first grammars and dictionaries were created by Christian missionaries in the nineteenth or even twentieth century, intent on translating the Bible and other sacred texts into what had been unwritten languages. For instance, the first grammar for Malagasy, the language spoken in Madagascar, was written in the 1810s and ’20s. Of course, language is changing all the time, so the Malagasy spoken
In fact, I found this attitude made it extremely difficult to learn how to speak colloquial Malagasy. Even when I hired native speakers, say, students at the university, to give me lessons, they would teach me how to speak
In the case of the Cambridge anthropology department, the rules were made explicit, and were then frozen in place, ostensibly as a way of eliminating arbitrary, personal authority. The Malagasy attitudes towards rules of grammar clearly have nothing to do with a distaste
for arbitrary authority, and everything to do with a distaste for arbitrariness
It’s worth thinking about language for a moment, because one thing it reveals, probably better than any other example, is that there is a basic paradox in our very idea of freedom. On the one hand, rules are by their nature constraining. Speech codes, rules of etiquette, and grammatical rules, all have the effect of limiting what we can and cannot say. It is not for nothing that we all have the picture of the schoolmarm rapping a child across the knuckles for some grammatical error as one of our primordial images of oppression. But at the same time, if there were no shared conventions of any
We rarely ask ourselves why that should be. Why is it that languages always change? It’s easy enough to see why we need to have common agreements on grammar and vocabulary in order to be able to talk to one other. But if that’s all that we need language for, one would think that, once a given set of speakers found a grammar and vocabulary that suited their purposes, they’d simply stick with it, perhaps changing the vocabulary around if there was some new thing to talk
What this suggests is that people, everywhere, are prone to two completely contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a tendency to be playfully creative just for the sake of it; on the other, a tendency to agree with anyone who tells them that they really shouldn’t act that way. This latter is what makes the
if you take the latter tendency to its logical conclusion, all freedom becomes arbitrariness, and all arbitrariness, a form of dangerous, subversive power. It is just one further step to argue that true freedom is to live in an utterly predictable world that is free from freedom of this sort.
Let me finish with another example from my own political experience.
Over the last thirty or forty years,
It is indeed possible to do this, but it takes a lot of work. And the larger the group, the more formal mechanisms have to be put in place. The single most important essay in this whole activist tradition is called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,”170 written in the 1970s by Jo Freeman, about organizational crises that occurred in early feminist consciousness- raising circles when those groups began to attain a certain size. Freeman observed that such groups always started out with a kind of
What I do want to bring attention to is that almost everyone who is not emerging from an explicitly
central committee (or, since that term now has a bad history, usually they say a coordinating committee, or a steering committee, or something of that sort.) One needs to get power out of the
From a practical, activist perspective, this prescription is obviously ridiculous. It is far easier to limit the degree to which informal cliques can wield effective power by granting them no formal status at all, and therefore no legitimacy; whatever “formal accountability structures” it is imagined will contain the
So say one argues this point, and the critic concedes it (which usually they have to because it’s pretty much common sense). If so, the next line of defense is generally aesthetic: the critic will insist it’s simply distasteful to have structures of real power that are not recognized and that can, even if they entirely lack any degree of violent enforcement, be considered arbitrary. Usually, one’s interlocutor won’t go so far as actually admitting their objections are aesthetic. Usually they will frame their arguments in moral terms. But occasionally, you will find some honest enough to admit that’s what’s going on. I well remember having an Occupy Wall
In such arguments, we are witnessing a direct clash between two different forms of materialized utopianism: on the one hand, an
For the last two hundred years, in Europe and North
that emerge from the very technical contingencies of running efficient structures of power. These arrangements seem to preserve the positive elements of play while somehow circumventing its more disturbing potentials.
But time and again, we have seen the same results. Whether motivated by a faith in “rationality” or a fear of arbitrary power, the end result of this bureaucratized notion of freedom is to move toward the dream of a world where play has been limited
Such illusions are not always bad things. One could make a case that most of the greatest human accomplishments were the result of such quixotic pursuits. But in this particular case, and in this larger
On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power
I am appending this piece, ostensibly about the Christopher Nolan film The Dark Knight Rises— the long version of a piece published under the title “Super Position” in The New Inquiry in 2012
On Saturday, October 1, 2011, the NYPD arrested seven hundred Occupy Wall Street activists as they were attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Mayor Bloomberg justified it on the grounds that protestors were blocking traffic. Five weeks later, that same Mayor Bloomberg closed down the nearby Queensboro Bridge to traffic for two solid days to allow for shooting of Christopher Nolan’s last installment of his Batman Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises.
Many remarked upon the irony.
A few weeks ago, I went to see the film with some friends from
I’d like to reflect here, for a moment, on what made the film so awful. Because, oddly, it’s important. I think the understanding of a lot of
One issue I think we should get straight from the outset. The film really is a piece of anti- Occupy propaganda. Some still deny it. Christopher Nolan, the director, went on record to insist the script was written before the movement even started, and has claimed the famous scenes of the occupation of New York (“Gotham”) were really inspired by Dickens’s account of the French Revolution, not by OWS itself. This strikes me as disingenuous. Everyone knows Hollywood scripts are rewritten continually over the course of production, often to the point where they end up looking nothing like the original text; also, that when it comes to messaging, even details like where a scene is shot (“I know, let’s have the cops face off with Bane’s followers right in front of the New York Stock Exchange!”) or a minor change of
wording (“let’s change ‘take control of’ to ‘occupy’ ”) can make all the difference.
Then there’s the fact that the villains actually do occupy Wall Street, and attack the Stock Exchange.
What I’d like to argue is that it’s precisely this desire for relevance, the fact that the filmmakers had the courage to take on the great issues of the day, which ruins the movie. It’s especially sad, because the first two movies of the
Moments like this are potentially enlightening, for one thing, because they provide a kind of window, a way to think about what superhero movies, and superheroes in general, are really all about. That in turn helps us answer another question: What is the reason for the sudden explosion of such movies to begin
Why, in the process, are familiar superheroes suddenly being given complex interiority: family backgrounds, emotional ambivalence, moral crises, anxiety,
Spiderman, too, broke left, just as Batman broke right. In a way this makes sense. Superheroes are a product of their historical origins. Superman is a
Certainly, this is not the conclusion cultural critics have tended to come to in the past.
What, then, can we say about the politics of the superhero genre? It seems reasonable to start by looking at the comic books, since this is where everything else (the TV shows,
cartoon series, blockbuster movies) ultimately came from.
Umberto Eco once remarked that comic book stories already operate a little bit like dreams; the same basic plot is repeated,
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going on here. The heroes are purely reactionary. By this I mean “reactionary” in the literal sense: they simply react to things; they have no projects of their own. (Or to be more precise, as heroes they have no projects of their own. As Clark Kent, Superman may be constantly trying, and failing, to get into Lois Lane’s pants. As Superman, he is purely reactive.) In fact, superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination. Bruce Wayne, with all the money in the world, can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to design even more
Of course, the moment you start arguing that there’s any message in a comic book, you are likely to hear the usual objections: “But these are just cheap forms of entertainment! They’re no more trying to teach us anything about human nature, politics, or society than, say, a Ferris wheel.” And of course, to a certain degree, this is true. Pop culture does not exist in order to convince anyone of anything. It exists for the sake of pleasure. Still, if you pay close attention, one will also observe that most pop culture projects do also tend to make that very pleasure into a kind of argument. Horror films provide a particularly unsubtle example of how this works. The plot of a horror movie is, typically, some kind of story of transgression and
looking through the eyes of the androgynous heroine who will eventually destroy him. The plot is always a simple story of transgression and punishment: the bad girls sin, they have sex, they fail to report a
This is what I mean when I say the pleasure is a form of argument.
Next to this, a superhero comic book might seem pretty innocuous. And in many ways it is. If all a comic is doing is telling a bunch of adolescent boys that everyone has a certain desire for chaos and mayhem, but that ultimately such desires need to be controlled, the political implications would not seem to be particularly dire. Especially because the message still does carry a healthy dose of ambivalence, just as it does with all those contemporary
Still, I think there is reason to believe that at least in the case of most
Costumed superheroes ultimately battle criminals in the name of the
So laws emerge from illegal activity. This creates a fundamental incoherence in the very idea of modern government, which assumes that the state has a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence (only the police, or prison guards, or duly authorized private security, have the legal right to beat you up). It’s legitimate for the police to use violence because they are enforcing the law; the law is legitimate because it’s rooted in the constitution; the constitution is legitimate because it comes from the people; the people created the constitution by acts of illegal violence. The obvious question, then: How does one tell the difference between “the people” and a mere rampaging mob?
There is no obvious answer.
The response by mainstream, respectable opinion is to try to push the problem as far away as possible. The usual line is: the age of revolutions is over (except perhaps in benighted spots like Gabon, or maybe Syria); we can now change the constitution, or legal standards, by legal means. This of course means that the basic structures will never change. We can witness the results in the United States, which continues to maintain an architecture of state, with its electoral college and two
We’ve gone then from a situation where the power to create a legal order derives from God, to one where it derives from armed revolution, to one where it is rooted in sheer
This, as I say, is how these matters are considered by the mainstream. For the radical Left, and the authoritarian Right, the problem of constituent power is very much alive, but each takes a diametrically opposite approach to the fundamental question of violence. The Left, chastened by the disasters of the twentieth century, has largely moved away from its older celebration of revolutionary violence, preferring nonviolent forms of resistance. Those who act in the name of something higher than the law can do so precisely because they don’t act like a rampaging mob. For the Right, on the other
This makes it easier to understand the often otherwise surprising affinity between criminals, criminal gangs,
So what does all this have to do with costumed superheroes? Well, everything. Because this is exactly the space that superheroes, and
Insofar as there is a potential for constituent power then, it can only come from purveyors of violence. And indeed, the supervillains and evil masterminds, when they are not merely dreaming of committing the perfect crime or indulging in random acts of terror, are always scheming of imposing a New World Order of some kind or another. Surely, if Red Skull, Kang the Conqueror, or Doctor Doom ever did succeed in taking over the planet, a host of new laws would be created very quickly. They wouldn’t be very nice laws. Their creator would doubtless not himself feel bound by them. But one gets the feeling that otherwise, they would be quite strictly enforced.
Superheroes resist this logic. They do not wish to conquer the
They aren’t fascists. They are just ordinary, decent,
Why, might we ask, would a form of entertainment premised on such a peculiar notion of politics emerge in early- to
Not exactly. It’s more that both fascism and superheroes were products of a similar historical predicament: What is the foundation of social order when one has exorcised the very idea of revolution? And above all, what happens to the political imagination?
One might begin here by considering who are the core audience for superhero comics. Mainly, adolescent or preadolescent white boys. That is, individuals who are at a point in their lives where they are likely to be both maximally imaginative and at least a little bit rebellious; but who are also being groomed to eventually take on positions of authority and power in the world, to be fathers, sheriffs,
It’s in this sense that the logic of the superhero plot is profoundly, deeply conservative. Ultimately, the division between left- and
This means that it’s not just the mayhem that becomes the reader’s guilty pleasure, but the very fact of having a fantasy life at all. And while it might seem odd to think any artistic genre is ultimately a warning about the dangers of the human imagination, it would certain explain why, in the staid forties and fifties, everyone did seem to feel there was something vaguely naughty about reading them. It also explains how in the sixties it could all suddenly seem so harmless, allowing the advent of silly, campy TV superheroes like the Adam West Batman series, or Saturday morning Spiderman cartoons. If the message was that rebellious imagination was okay as long as it was kept out of politics and simply confined to consumer choices (clothes, cars, accessories again), this had become a message that even executive producers could easily get behind.
We can conclude: the classic comic book is ostensibly political (about madmen trying to take over the world), really psychological and personal (about overcoming the dangers of rebellious adolescence), but ultimately, political after all.171
If this is so, then new superhero movies are precisely the reverse. They are ostensibly psychological and personal, really political, but ultimately, psychological and personal after
The humanization of superheroes didn’t start in the movies. It actually began in the eighties and nineties, within the comic book genre itself, with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s
Unsurprisingly, psychedelic drugs turn out to play an important role here. So do severe mental health issues and bizarre religious cults.
It is curious that commentators on the movie never seem to pick up on the fact that Bruce Wayne, in the Nolan films, is borderline psychotic. As himself he is almost completely dysfunctional, incapable of forming friendships or romantic attachments, uninterested in work unless it somehow reinforces his morbid obsessions. The hero is so obviously crazy, and the movie so obviously about his battle with his own craziness, that it’s not a problem that the villains are just a series of egoappendages: Ra’s al Ghul (the bad father), the Crime boss (the successful businessman), the Scarecrow (who drives the businessman insane.) There’s nothing particularly appealing about any of them. But it doesn’t
There’s also no obvious a political message.
Or so it seems. But when you create a movie out of characters so dense with myth and history, no director is entirely in control of his material. The filmmaker’s role is largely to assemble them. In the movie, the primary villain is Ra’s al Ghul, who first initiates Batman into the League of Shadows in a monastery in Bhutan, and only then reveals his plan to destroy Gotham to rid the world of its corruption. In the original comics, we learn that Ra’s al Ghul (a character introduced, tellingly, in 1971) is in fact a Primitivist and ecoterrorist, determined to restore the balance of nature by reducing the earth’s human population by roughly 99 percent. The main way Nolan changed the story is to make Batman begin as Ra’s al Ghul’s disciple. But in contemporary terms that, too, makes a sort of sense. After all, what is the media stereotype that immediately comes to
In fact, none of the villains in any of the three movies wants to rule the world. They don’t wish to have power over others, or to create new rules of any sort. Even their henchmen are temporary
So here we are back to the central theme of the early superhero universes: a prolonged reflection on the dangers of the human imagination; how the reader’s own desire to immerse oneself in a world driven by artistic imperatives is living proof of why the imagination must always be carefully contained.
The result is a thrilling movie, with a villain both
They would have done well leave it that.
The problem with this vision of politics is that it simply isn’t true. Politics is not just the art of manipulating images, backed up by violence. It’s not really a duel between impresarios before an audience that will believe most anything if presented artfully enough. No doubt it must seem that way to extraordinarily wealthy Hollywood film directors. But between the shooting of the first and second movies, history intervened quite decisively to point out just how wrong this vision is. The economy collapsed. Not because of the manipulations of some secret society of warrior monks, but because a bunch of financial managers who, living in Nolan’s bubble world, shared his assumptions about the endlessness of popular manipulability, turned out to be wrong. There was a mass popular response. It did not take the form of a frenetic search for messianic saviors, mixed with outbreaks of nihilist violence;172 increasingly, it took the form of a series of real popular movements, even revolutionary movements, toppling regimes in the Middle East and occupying squares everywhere from Cleveland to Karachi, trying to create new forms of democracy.
Constituent power had reappeared, and in an imaginative, radical, and remarkably
nonviolent form. This is precisely the kind of situation a superhero universe cannot address. In Nolan’s world, something like Occupy could only have been the product of some tiny group of ingenious manipulators (you know, people like me) who are really pursuing some secret agenda.
Nolan really should have left such topics alone, but apparently, he couldn’t help himself. The result is almost completely incoherent. It is, basically, yet another psychological drama masquerading as a political one. The plot is convoluted and barely worth recounting. Bruce Wayne, dysfunctional again without his alter ego, has turned into a recluse. A rival businessman hires Catwoman to steal his fingerprints so he can use them to steal all his money; but really the businessman is being manipulated by a
Conversely, why does Bane wish to lead the people in a social revolution, if he’s just going to nuke them all in a few weeks anyway? Again, it’s anybody’s guess. He says that before you destroy someone, first you must give them hope. So is the message that utopian dreams can only lead to nihilistic violence? Presumably something like that, but it’s singularly unconvincing, since the plan to kill everyone came first. The revolution was a decorative afterthought.
In fact, what happens to the city can only possibly make sense as a material echo of what’s always been most important: what’s happening in Bruce Wayne’s tortured brain. After Batman is crippled by Bane halfway through the movie, he is placed in the same fetid dungeon where Bane himself was once imprisoned. The prison sits at the bottom of a well, so sunlight is always taunting its
plot contrivance so idiotic it violates even the standards of plausibility expected from a comic
Other things happen, but they’re all similar projections. This time Catwoman gets to play the role usually assigned to the audience, first identifying with Bane’s revolutionary project, then, for no clearly articulated reason, changing her mind and blowing him away. Batman and the Gotham police both rise from their respective dungeons and join forces to battle the evil Occupiers outside the Stock Exchange. In the end, Batman fakes his own death disposing of the bomb and Bruce ends up with Catwoman in Florence. A new phony martyr legend is born and the people of Gotham are pacified. In case of further trouble, we are assured there is also a potential heir to Batman, a disillusioned police officer named Robin. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief because the movie is finally over.
Is there supposed to be a message we can all take home from this? If there was, it would seem to be something along the lines of this: “True, the system is corrupt, but it’s all we have, and anyway, figures of authority can be trusted if they have first been chastened and endured terrible suffering.” (Normal police let children die on bridges. Police who’ve been buried alive for a few weeks can employ violence legitimately.) “True, there is injustice and its victims deserve our sympathy, but keep it within reasonable limits. Charity is much better than addressing structural problems. That way lies madness.” Because in Nolan’s universe, any attempt to address structural problems, even through nonviolent civil disobedience, really is a form of violence; because that’s all it could possibly be. Imaginative politics are inherently violent, and therefore, there’s nothing inappropriate if police respond by smashing apparently peaceful protestors’ heads repeatedly against the concrete.
As a response to Occupy, this is nothing short of pathetic. When The Dark Knight came out in 2008, there was much discussion over whether the whole thing was really a vast metaphor for the war on terror: how far is it okay for the good guys (that’s us) to go adapting the bad guy’s methods? Probably the filmmakers were indeed thinking of such issues, and still managed to produce a good movie. But then, the war on terror actually was a battle of secret networks and manipulative spectacles. It began with a bomb and ended with an assassination. One can almost think of it as an attempt, on both sides, to actually enact a comic book version of the universe. Once real constituent power appeared on the scene, that universe shriveled into
Introduction: The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization
1.Elliot Jacques (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1976).
2.Gordon Tullock (Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1965).
3.Henry Jacoby (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).
4.C. Northcote Parkinson (Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1957). “Work in an organization expands to fill the time allotted to do it.”
5.Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hill (London: Souvenir Press, 1969). The famous work on how those operating in an organization “rise to the level of their incompetence” also became a popular British TV show.
6.R. T. Fishall (London: Arrow Books, 1982). A
7.One could go further. The “acceptable” Left has, as I say, embraced bureaucracy and the market simultaneously. The libertarian Right at least has a critique of bureaucracy. The fascist Right has a critique of the
8.Owing to a peculiar set of historical circumstances, the word “liberal” no longer has the same meaning in the United States as it does in the rest of the world. The term originally applied to
9.In fact, Ludwig von Mises’s position is inherently antidemocratic: at least insofar as it tends to reject state solutions of any kind, while, at the same time, opposing
10.In the Durkheimian tradition this has come to be known as “the
11.Michel Foucault’s essays on neoliberalism insist that this is the difference between the old and new varieties: those promulgating markets now understand that they do not form spontaneously, but must be nurtured and maintained by government intervention. Naissance de la biopolitique, Michel Senellart, ed. (Paris: Gallimard, 2004).
12.“I don’t know how many times I have used the term ‘Government bureaucrat.’ And you will never find a politician using that term that doesn’t have some slightly pejorative connotation. That is, we know taxpayers resent the money they have to pay to the Government, and so we try to get credit by saying we’re being hard on bureaucrats or reducing bureaucrats … But remember, most of those people are just like most of you: They love their children. They get up every day and go to work. They do the very best they can … After what we have been through in this last month, after what I have seen in the eyes of the children of those Government bureaucrats that were serving us on that fateful day in Oklahoma City, or in their parents’ eyes who were serving us when their children were in that daycare center, I will never use that phrase again.” (www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=51382)
13.From “Bureaucracy,” Max Weber, in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp.
14.In many ways, the United States is a German country that, owing to that same early twentieth century rivalry, refuses to recognize itself as such. Despite the use of the English language there are far more Americans of German descent than
English. (Or consider the two quintessentially American foods: the hamburger and the frankfurter). Germany in contrast is a country quite proud of its efficiency in matters bureaucratic, and Russia, to complete the set, might be considered a country where people generally feel they really ought to be better at bureaucracy, and are somewhat ashamed that they are not.
15.A British bank employee recently explained to me that ordinarily, even those working for the bank effect a kind of knowing doublethink about such matters. In internal communications, they will always speak of regulations as being imposed on
16.About the only policies that can’t be referred to as “deregulation” are ones that aim to reverse some other policy that has already been labeled “deregulation,” which means it’s important, in playing the game, to have your policy labeled “deregulation” first.
17.The phenomenon I am describing is a planetary one, but it began in the United States, and it was U.S. elites who made the most aggressive efforts to export it, so it seems appropriate to begin with what happened in America.
18.In a way, the famous TV character of Archie Bunker, an uneducated longshoreman who can afford a house in the suburbs and a
19.Though it is notable that it is precisely this sixties radical equation of communism, fascism, and the bureaucratic welfare state that has been taken up by
20.William Lazonick has done the most work on documenting this shift, noting that it is a shift in business
21.A popular code word from the eighties onwards was “lifestyle liberal, fiscal conservative.” This referred to those who had internalized the social values of the sixties counterculture, but had come to view the economy with the eyes of investors.
22.Just to be clear: this is by no means the case of major journalistic venues, newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, or magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or Harper’s. In such institutions, a degree in journalism would probably be counted as a negative. At this point, at least, it’s only true of minor publications. But the general trend is always towards greater credentialism in all fields, never less.
text is in Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), p. 85. It continues, “Why do Americans think this is a good requirement, or at least a necessary one? Because they think so. We’ve left the realm of reason and entered that of faith and mass conformity.”
24.This was certainly my own personal experience. As one of the few students of
25.Loans directly from the government are not available for continuing education, so borrowers are forced to take private loans with much higher interest rates.
26.A friend gives me the example of master’s degrees in library science, which are now required for all public library jobs, despite the fact that the yearlong course of study generally provides no essential information that couldn’t be obtained by a week or two of
27.This logic of complicity can extend to the most unlikely organizations. One of the premiere left journals in America has, as editor in chief, a billionaire who basically bought herself the position. The first criterion for advancement in the organization is of course willingness to pretend there is some reason, other than money, for her to have the job.
28.I outlined what happened in an essay called “The Shock of Victory.” Obviously, the planetary bureaucracy remained in place, but policies like
29.The League of Nations and the UN up until the seventies were basically
30.In England, for instance, the
31.I was reminded of this a few years ago by none other than Julian Assange, when a number of Occupy activists appeared on his TV show The World Tomorrow. Aware that many of us were anarchists, he asked us what he considered a challenging question: say you have a camp, and there are some people playing the drums all night and keeping everyone awake, and they won’t stop, what do you propose to do about it? The implication is that police, or something like
32.It is possible that there could be market relations that might not work this way. While impersonal markets have been throughout most of history the creation of states, mostly organized to support military operations, there have been periods where states and markets have drifted apart. Many of the ideas of Adam Smith and other Enlightenment market proponents seem to derive from one such, in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages, where sharia courts allowed commercial contracts to be enforced without direct government intervention, but only through merchants’ reputation (and hence creditworthiness). Any such market will in many key ways operate very differently from those we are used to: for instance, market activity was seen as much more about cooperation than competition (see Debt: The First 5,00 Years [Brooklyn:
Melville House, 2011], pp.
33.There is some possibility this has begun to turn around somewhat in recent years. But it has been my own experience that pretty much any time I presented a paper that assumed that some form of social control is ultimately made possible by the state’s monopoly of violence, I would be instantly faced with someone challenging me on Foucauldian, Gramscian, or Althusserian grounds that such an analysis is foolishly outdated: either because “disciplinary systems” no longer work that way, or because we have now realized they never did.
34.The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 5. Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press), p. 52. Anthropologist Dimitra Doukas provides a good historical overview of how this transformation worked itself out in small- town upstate New York in Worked Over: The Corporate Sabotage of an American Community (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003). See also E. Paul Durrenberger and Dimitra Doukas, “Gospel of Wealth, Gospel of Work: Counter- hegemony in the U.S. Working Class” American Anthropologist, Vol. 110, Issue 2 (2008), pp.
35.It would be interesting to compare this campaign to the similarly
36.Even the Soviet bureaucracy combined a celebration of labor with a
37.Similarly in the Classical world, or that of Medieval Christianity, rationality could hardly be seen as a tool because it was literally the voice of God. I will be discussing these issues in more detail in the third essay.
38.Total number of civil servants employed in Russia in 1992: 1 million. Total number employed in 2004: 1.26 million. This is especially remarkable considering a lot of this time was marked by economic
39.The logic is analogous to Marxian notions of fetishism, where human creations seem to take life, and control their creators rather than the other way around. It is probably best considered a subspecies of the same phenomenon.
1. Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity
40.This particular tactic is so common that I think there should be a name for it. I propose to call it the “one more word out of you and the kitten gets it!” move. If you complain about a bureaucratic problem, make it clear that the only result will to get some underling in
41.For example: “We expect everyone to work as hard as possible for the common good without expectation of reward! And if you are not capable of living up to such standards, clearly you are a counterrevolutionary bourgeois individualist parasite, and we’ll have to send you to a gulag.”
42.Insofar as anthropological studies of bureaucracy do
I suppose I should be careful here. I am not saying that anthropologists, and other social scientists, are entirely unaware that immersion in bureaucratic codes and regulations does, in fact, regularly cause people to act in ways that in any other context would be considered idiotic. Just about anyone is aware from personal experiences that they do. Yet for the purposes of cultural analysis, obvious truths are uninteresting. At best one can expect a “yes, but
43.To some degree this is in open defiance of the way the institution constantly encourages them to see the world: I recently had to fill out an online “time allocation report” for my university. There were about thirty categories of admin, but no category for “writing books.”
44.“Never” is no doubt an overstatement. There are a handful of exceptions. A very small handful. In anthropology Marilyn Strathern’s excellent Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy (London, Routledge, 2000) is the most notable.
45.Talcott Parsons & Edward A. Shils, eds., Toward a General Theory of Action (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1951).
46.Eric Ross, “Cold Warriors Without Weapons.” Identities 1998 vol. 4
47.It is interesting to note here that Foucault was himself a relatively obscure figure in France, prior to ’68, a
48.In anthropology, see for instance Nancy
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Carolyn Nordstrom and Joann Martin, The Paths to Domination, Resistance, and Terror (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).
49.The term itself traces back to debates within Peace Studies in the 1960s; it was coined by Johann Galtung (“Violence, Peace, and Peace Research.” Journal of Peace Research 1969 vol.
[Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 1995]), to meet the charge that to define “peace” as the mere absence of acts of physical assault is to overlook the prevalence of much more insidious structures of human exploitation. Galtung felt the term “exploitation” was too loaded owing to its identification with Marxism, and proposed as an alternative “structural violence”: any institutional arrangement that, by its very operation, regularly causes physical or psychological harm to a certain portion of the population, or imposes limits on their freedom. Structural violence could thus be distinguished from both “personal violence” (violence by an identifiable human agent), or “cultural violence” (those beliefs and assumptions about the world that justify the infliction of harm). This is the how the term has mainly been taken up in the anthropological literature as well (e.g., Philippe Bourgois, “The Power of Violence in War and Peace:
Current Anthropology 2004 vol. 45
[Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005]; Arun Gupta, Red Tape: Bureaucracy, Structural Violence, and Poverty in India [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012]).
50.Given the world as it actually exists, this clearly makes no sense. If, say, there are certain spaces women are excluded from for fear of physical or sexual assault, one cannot make a distinction between that fear, the assumptions that motivate men to carry out such assaults or police to feel the victim “had it coming,” or the resultant feeling on the part of most women that these are not the kind of spaces women really ought to be in. Nor can one distinguish these factors, in turn, from the “economic” consequences of women who cannot be hired for certain jobs as a result. All of this constitutes a single structure of violence.
The ultimate problem with Johann Galtung’s approach, as Catia Confortini notes (“Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance.” Peace and Change 2006 vol. 31
51.It is true that slavery is often framed as a moral relation (the master takes a paternal interest in the slaves’ spiritual welfare, that sort of thing), but as many have observed, such pretenses are never really believed by either masters or slaves; in fact, the ability to force the slaves to play along with such an obviously false ideology is itself a way of establishing the master’s pure, arbitrary power.
52.Keith Breckenridge, “Power Without Knowledge: Three Colonialisms in South Africa.” (www.history.und.ac.za/Sempapers/Breckenridge2003.pdf)
53.Keith Breckenridge, “Verwoerd’s Bureau of Proof: Total Information in the Making of Apartheid.” History Workshop Journal 1985, vol. 59:84.
54.Andrew Mathews, “Power/Knowledge, Power/Ignorance: Forest Fires and the State in Mexico.” Human Ecology 2005, vol. 33(6):
55.David Apter, The Politics of Modernization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965); Choice and the Politics of Allocation: A Developmental Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
56.“Violent actions, no less than any other kind of behavioral expression, are deeply infused with cultural meaning and are the moment for individual agency within historically embedded patterns of behavior. Individual agency, utilizing extant cultural forms, symbols, and icons, may thus be considered ‘poetic’ for the
how this substrate is deployed, through which new meanings and forms of cultural expression emerge” (Neil Whitehead, “On the Poetics of Violence,” in Violence, James Currey, ed. [Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press, 2004], pp.
57.In criminal matters, we tend to treat pointing a gun at someone’s head and demanding their money as a violent crime, even though no actual physical contact takes place. However, most liberal definitions of violence avoid defining threats of physical harm as forms of violence in themselves, because of the subversive implications. As a result liberals tend to define violence as acts of nonconsensual harm, and conservatives, acts of nonconsensual harm that have not been approved by legitimate
58.Hopefully at this point I do not have to point out that patriarchal arrangements of this sort are prima facie examples of structural violence, their norms sanctioned by threat of physical harm in endless subtle and
59.Since first writing this passage I have tried in vain to locate the essay where I first read about these experiments (I first encountered them in a magazine I looked at in the American consulate in Antananarivo while doing my fieldwork around the year 1990, in an article about the movie Tootsie). Often when I tell the story, I am told that the real reason teenage boys object to imagining themselves as girls is simple homophobia, and this is surely true, as far as it goes. But then one has to ask why homophobia is so powerful in the first place, and why homophobia takes this particular form. After all, many teenage girls are equally homophobic, but it does not seem to stop them from taking pleasure in imagining themselves as boys.
60.bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness,” in Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: South End Press, 1992), pp.
61.The key texts on Standpoint Theory, by Patricia Hill Collins, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Nancy Hartsock and others, are collected in a volume edited by Harding (The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies
[London: Routledge, 2004]). I might add that the history of this very essay provides a telling example of the sort of gendered obliviousness I’m describing. When I first framed the problem, I wasn’t even aware of this body of literature, though my argument had clearly been indirectly influenced by
62.Egon Bittner, Aspects of Police Work (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1970); also, “The capacity to use force as the core of the police role.” In Moral Issues in Police Work, Elliston and Feldberg, eds. (Savage, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1985), pp.
63.This paragraph is addressed, of course, largely to those of a certain class status: I have often remarked that the real definition of being “middle class” is whether, when one sees a policeman on the street, one feels more, rather than less, safe. This is why only a very small percentage of the population of, say, Nigeria or India or Brazil feel that they are middle class, though most Danes or white Australians do. In most large cities in Europe or North America race is also a huge factor, though often those who face the most direct and consistent racist violence from police will nonetheless insist that fighting crime is what police are fundamentally about.
64.I am aware this is not really what Weber said. Even the phrase “iron cage” is apparently a mistranslation for a phrase that meant something more like “shiny metal
65.Ancient Egypt in contrast created whole genres of literature to warn young students against adventurous occupations. They would typically begin by asking whether the reader had ever dreamed of becoming the captain of a ship, or a royal charioteer, then go on to describe just how miserable such an apparently glamorous occupation would likely really turn out
to be. The conclusion was always the same: don’t do it! Become a bureaucrat. You’ll have a prosperous job and all you’ll be able to order around the soldiers and sailors who will treat you like a god.
66.The real joke in the Bond movies, it seems to me, is that Bond is a terrible spy. Spies are supposed to be discreet and unobtrusive. James Bond is anything but. It’s just that he can get away with being a terrible spy because he’s effortlessly, preternaturally flawless in the performance of any task other than spying. As for his inversions with Holmes, one could multiply these endlessly: Holmes has family history, Bond appears to be an orphan or anyway has no family ties, and further, seems to have constant sex without ever producing offspring. Holmes works with one male partner who does well by their association; Bond with a series of female partners who usually die.
67.The full argument here would take much more time to make, and this is not really the place for it, but note that cop movies of the “rogue cop breaking all the rules” variety, that now seems the default mode for a Hollywood action movie, did not exist at all until the 1970s. In fact for the first
68.Marc Cooper, “Dum Da
69.This might seem to be similar to the fate of liberal or right libertarian free market ideas that oppose government interference but, according to what I’ve called the Iron Law of Liberalism, always produce more bureaucracy anyway. But I don’t think that
70.I use the word “ontology” with some hesitation because as a philosophical term, it has recently undergone a great deal of abuse. Technically, ontology is theory about the nature of reality, as opposed to epistemology, which is theory about what we can know about reality. In the social sciences, “ontology” has come to be used merely as a pretentious way to say “philosophy,” “ideology,” or “set of cultural assumptions,” often in ways that philosophers would find outrageous. Here I am using it in the specific sense of “political ontology,” which admittedly is a sense I made up, but refers to a set of assumptions about underlying realities. When one says “let’s be realistic here,” what reality is it we’re referring to? What is the hidden reality, the underlying forces, assumed to be moving below the surface of political events?
71.Even the rich and powerful will ordinarily concede that the world is a miserable place for most of those who live in it, but still, insist that this is inevitable, or that any attempt to change it will make it
72.Unfortunately he never did. He called it Crack Capitalism (London: Pluto Press, 2010) instead, a far inferior title.
73.Key texts here are: James Engell, The Creative Imagination: Enlightenment to Romanticism (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1981), and Thomas McFarland, Originality and Imagination (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985).
74.I might add that it is a profound reflection on the effects of structural violence on the imagination that feminist theory itself was so quickly sequestered away into its own subfield where it has had almost no impact on the work of most male theorists.
75.No doubt all this makes it easier to see the two as fundamentally different sorts of activity, making it hard for us to recognize interpretive
mind it would probably be better to recognize it as the primary form of labor. Insofar as a clear distinction can be made here, it’s the care, energy, and labor directed at human beings that should be considered fundamental. The things we care about
76.See my book The Democracy Project (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2012). My own chosen title for it was, ironically, “As If We Were Already Free,” but in the end, I wasn’t free to dictate my own title.
77.A Paradise Made in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York, Penguin, 2010).
2. Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit
78.Similarly, in 1949 Orwell had placed his futuristic dystopia, 1984, only
79.In fact, video telephones had first been debuted in the 1930s by the German post office under the Nazis.
80.From Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Duke University Press, 1991), pp.
81.The original book, in German, came out as Der Spätkapitalismus in 1972. The first English edition was Late Capitalism (London: Humanities Press, 1975).
82.Probably the classic statement of this position is Space and the American Imagination, by Howard McCurdy (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian, 1997), but other versions of this sort of rhetoric include: Stephen J. Pyne, “A Third Great Age of discovery,” in Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Pyne, The Scientific and Historical Rationales for Solar System Exploration, SPI
83.Alvin Toffler, Future Shock (New York: Random House, 1970).
84.In this case, too, there’s a Soviet equivalent: the Tupolev
86.Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, 1980).
87.Toffler’s own politics are slightly more ambiguous, but not much. Before the success of Future Shock, he had been known mainly as a business journalist, whose greatest claim to fame was probably that he had interviewed Ayn Rand for Playboy. Like most conservatives, he pays lip service to women’s equality as an abstract principle, but never mentions actual feminists or feminist issues except to criticize them: for a typical example, see his Revolutionary Wealth: How It Will Be Created and How It Will Change Our Lives, Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler (New York: Doubleday, 2006), pp.
88.Eccentric though they were, it’s hard to overestimate the influence of such figures on the Right, because they were considered its creative visionaries. Gilder’s
89.Win McCormick, for instance, informs me that by the late sixties he was involved in a think tank founded by a former president of the University of Chicago, one of whose main concerns was trying to figure out how to head off the upheavals they assumed would ensue within a generation or so, when machines had completely replaced manual labor.
90.I have no time to describe in detail some of the actual political conflicts of the early seventies described in the unpublished Zero Work volume that set the stage for the later emergence of the Midnight Notes Collective, but they reveal quite clearly that in many
91.The United States sometimes likes to maintain the fantasy that it does not engage in industrial planning, but as critics have long since pointed out, it does. Much of the direct planning, and hence R&D, is carried out through the military.
92.The project was just called Energia, and it was the reason for the USSR’s development of the gigantic booster rockets that are still the mainstay of the global space program, now that the Space Shuttle is out of commission. News of the project only really broke in the United States in 1987, two years before the Soviet collapse.
93.This raises an interesting question: how much of this particular mythological world
94.Jeff Sharlet informs me these imaginary connections probably run much further than we think. In the fifties and sixties, many prominent Americans, including a significant number of Congressmen, appear to have strongly suspected that the Soviets actually were in contact with space aliens, and that UFOs were either Soviet allies, or actual Soviet craft built with borrowed alien technology (see e.g., Sharlet’s Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country In Between
[New York: Norton, 2012], pp.
95.As an example, in 368 pages, Judith Barad’s The Ethics of Star Trek (New York: Perennial, 2000) does not mention democracy or issues of collective political
96.Other sentences one would never hear are of this sort: “Did you hear that the
97.Though all ethnic groups seem to be represented in the Federation, I’ve always noticed one curious exception: Jews. It’s all the more striking because both Kirk and Spock, in the original series, were played by Jewish
98.The sequence of events is somewhat hypothetical here as, as I say, the history has not been written. I am certainly not suggesting Michael Moore himself sparked the debate, but rather that his comments gave a flavor for what was being talked about at the time. The Ferengi first appear quite early, in 1987, and the Borg even earlier, but they become much more prominent as contrasting alternatives to the Federation later on. All one has to do is Google (Star Trek creator) “Gene Roddenberry” and “communist” together to get a taste of the kind of ire the issue stirred up in conservative circles.
99.The term originally derives from “Franks,” which was the generic Arabic term for Crusader. Thus the Ferengi have a curious Medieval heritage: their name is a hostile term Muslims applied to Christians, whom they considered barbarous, impious, and so greedy that they lacked all human decency, and their physical appearance and behavior is an allusion to a hostile image those same Christians applied to Jews, for exactly the same reasons.
100.Thus for instance a recent study of work in the
101.Its designer, Mikhail Kalashinikov, who is still alive, recently held a press conference where he pointed out that U.S. soldiers in Iraq regularly discard their own weapons in favor of captured
102.And of course just counting university staff is deceptive in itself, since it ignores the burgeoning numbers of administrators employed by foundations, and other
103.Similarly Don Braben, a physicist at University College London, made headlines in the UK by pointing out that Albert
Einstein would never have been able to get funding were he alive today. Others have suggested most of his major works would never even have passed peer review.
104.Jonathan L. Katz, “Don’t Become a Scientist!” (wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html).
105.Even worse, as some friends in the industry point out,
106.It is true that certain capitalist firms of the Silicon Valley
107.David Harvie, “Commons and Communities in the University: Some Notes and Some Examples,” The Commoner no. 8, Autumn/Winter 2004. (www.commoner.org.uk/08harvie.pdf)
108.We cannot know, for instance, whether there really are alternative fuel formulae that have been bought up and placed in safes by oil companies, but it’s widely speculated that there are. A Russian journalist I know told me about her friend, who invented a design for an Internet base station that could provide free wireless for an entire country. The patent was quickly purchased for several million, and suppressed by a major Internet provider. No such stories can by definition be verified, but it’s significant in itself that they
109.Neal Stephenson, “Innovation Starvation,” World Policy Journal, Fall 2011, pp.
110.It has often occurred to me that Steampunk really represents nostalgia for precisely this state of affairs. I once attended a museum panel on the topic, and it struck me as odd that all the commentators talked exclusively about the “steam” element, but none about the “punk.” Punk rock in the seventies was about the lack of any redemptive
111.Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (London: Verso, 1994).
112.Though possibly, this had at least as much to with his libertarian communist political affinities than his devotion to the occult. His wife’s sister, who seems to have been the ringleader in the magical society, eventually left him for L. Ron Hubbard; on leaving NASA, Parsons went on to apply his magic to creating pyrotechnic effects for Hollywood until he finally blew himself up in 1962.
113.Lewis Mumford, The Myth of the Machine: Technics and Human Development (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966).
114.I note that Peter Thiel, who agreed with much of the original argument of this essay, has recently come out as an antimarket promonopoly capitalist for precisely the reason that he feels this is the best way to further rapid technological change.
115.For as long as I can remember, at least since I was in my twenties, I’ve heard at least one person every year or so tell me that a drug that will stop the aging process is approximately three years away.
3. The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Really Love Bureaucracy After All
116.“Bureaucracy” in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, H. H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp.
117.As he put it to an American visitor at the time: “My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare” (cited in William Thomas Stead, On the Eve: A Handbook for the General Election [London: Review of Reviews Publishing, 1892], p. 62). The quote is useful to bear in mind since I find that the general
118.Herodotus, Histories, 8.98.
119.It’s interesting that in Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson barely mentions this phenomenon, focusing only on newspapers.
120.This is still true: in the United States right now, a third of government employees are in the military, and a quarter are in the postal service, far and away more than any other branch.
121.Unfortunately, the essay is lost. (See The Mark Twain Encyclopedia, J. R. LeMaster, James Darrell Wilson, and Christie Graves Hamric, eds. [New York: Routledge, 1993], p. 71; Everett Emerson, Mark Twain, a Literary Life [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000], p. 188.)
122.Lenin, State and Revolution (London: Penguin, 1992 ), p. 52.
123.Peter Kropotkin, “Anarchist Communism,” in Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings (New York: Dover, 1974), p. 68.
124.Gordon Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic,
125.Indeed, growing up in New York City, I was always struck by the fascinating disparity between the magnificence of public amenities created around the turn of the century, when that very grandeur was seen as reflecting the strength and power of the Republic, and the apparently intentional tawdriness of anything created by the city, for its citizens, since the 1970s. For me, at least, the two greatest exemplars of that earlier age were New York’s monumental Central Post Office, with its sweeping,
126.Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2005.
127.This is beautifully conveyed in the great film The Hollywood Shuffle, featuring a hapless young African American hero willing to endure performing any humiliating racist stereotype in order to make it in the
128.This pattern actually extends to all sorts of movies: even if the maverick hero is a scientist, for example, the superior in a bureaucratic organization is almost invariably a person of color. The hero may occasionally be a person of color, but is usually white; the
129.Needless to say, as my comments on the fate of the Internet in the last essay made clear, such poetic technologies have an unfortunate tendency to themselves become bureaucratic ones.
130.Freud is a fascinating figure for trying to reconcile the two conceptions: rationality (the Ego) no longer represents morality,
as it would have in a Medieval conception where reason and morality were the same, but, rather, is pushed and pulled in contradictory directions by the passions (the Id) on the one side, and morality (the Superego) on the other.
131.One might argue that this is developed most strongly in military bureaucracies, where officers often make it a point of pride to serve whatever civilian leaders political developments throw at them with equal dedication and efficiency, whatever their personal views. But this is just an extension of the bureaucratic
132.There is a growing literature now on the social base of the more extreme form of Political Islam, for instance, that reveals that it has a particular appeal for students of engineering and the sciences.
133.There is a reason Mr. Spock was a fictional character. But of course Spock wasn’t really supposed to be emotionless, he just pretended to be, so in a way he represented the ideal of rationality perfectly.
134.It is perfectly possible to come up with a logically coherent argument based on delusional premises, or to make a realistic assessment of a problem and then apply completely fallacious logic to its solution. People do both all the time.
135.I am referring here to the Pythagorean movement and not to its founder, Pythagoras, because Pythagoras’ own role in creating the doctrines that came to be known under his name is currently a matter of some contention. Walter Burkert has suggested that he was really only responsible for the doctrine of reincarnation, and not the mathematical cosmology, which has been variously attributed to later Pythagoreans such as Hippasus, Philolaus, and Archytas, or even, made up retrospectively and attributed to the Pythagoreans by Plato (this latter, however, strikes me as unlikely).
136.There is a story that such was the political importance of this doctrine that when one later Pythagorean, Hippasus, discovered the irrational number, his fellows drowned him in the sea. Actually, the legend in Antiquity was rather that Hippasus drowned by accident, as punishment from the Gods for his impiety in revealing such matters. Myself, I find more interesting the suggestion, in some sources, that Hippasus held that God was an irrational number: that God, in other words, represented a transcendent principle beyond the immanent rationality of the cosmos. If true, it would have been a major departure from the emerging logic of the “cosmic religion” of Antiquity and it might not be surprising if he thus aroused his comrades’ antipathy. It is intriguing to consider how it relates to the reflections on sovereignty detailed below.
137.Hans Joas (The Gnostic Religion [Boston: Beacon Press, 1958]) was, to my knowledge, the first to use the term “cosmic religion,” in describing Gnosticism, which rejected the notion of an ideal cosmic order and saw human souls as fundamentally alien to creation, as its explicit negation. Augustinian Christianity actually contains elements of both, bringing together a Manichean dualism with a fundamentally Pagan insistence on the identity of mind and divinity.
138.It originates with the Stoics, but in Antiquity was not nearly so universal as it became in the European Middle Ages.
139.Insofar as they do, it’s of course in play.
140.Edmund Leach, Social Anthropology (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 121.
141.It might have made better logical sense to see that what set humans apart from animals lay in imagination, but in Medieval terms this was quite inadmissible, because in the commonplace theology of the time, influenced by astrology and Neoplatonism, it corresponded to a lower
142.From Francis Yates, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 144; originally from Robert Fludd, Meteorologica cosmtca (Frankfort, 1626), p. 8.
143.Translation from Francis Yates, op cit, p. 119.
144.And also, of course, on the Church hierarchy that continued to be based in Rome, which did maintain the most elaborate and geographically
Administration in the Ancient Near East (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1993); see also David Wengrow, What Makes a Civilization? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), pp.
146.Or in the anthropological record, one might think of the Maori, or the First Nations of the Northwest Coast of North America (often referred to as “potlatch societies,” which were divided into aristocrats and commoners with no centralized system of government or administration), or, for that matter, more egalitarian heroic societies like the Iatmul of Papua New Guinea where all adult males were engaged in constant vainglorious behavior of this sort.
147.My key text here is David Wengrow’s “ ‘Archival’ and ‘Sacrificial’ Economies in Bronze Age Eurasia: An Interactionist Approach to the Hoarding of Metals,” in Interweaving Worlds: Systemic Interactions in Eurasia, 7th to the 1st Millennia BC, T. C. Wilkinson, S. Sherratt, and J. Bennet, eds. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2011), pp.
148.Indeed, I have, in an earlier book, Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), pp.
149.Attila the Hun, for example, appears as a character in both the Nibelungenlied and Volsunga Saga.
150.Obviously, “fantasy” can refer to a very wide range of literature, from Alice in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to The Call of Cthulhu, and many critics include science fiction as a subgenre of fantasy as well. Still, Middle Earth style heroic fantasy remains the “unmarked term.”
151.Elsewhere, I’ve referred to this as “the ugly mirror phenomenon.” See David Graeber, “There Never Was a West: Democracy Emerges from the Spaces in Between,” in Possibilities: Notes on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (Oakland: AK Press, 2007), p. 343.
152.The key difference here is no doubt that Medieval carnivals were, in fact, organized largely
153.From a letter to his son written during World War II: “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with
154.Douglas Adams fans will recall that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another of the great midcentury bureaucratic satires, begins with precisely such a scenario, leading to the destruction of the planet.
155.The noble warrior chief versus evil magician scenario is basically a British colonial trope; colonial officials in Africa almost invariably tried to locate warrior elites, whom they admired, and if they did not find them, would assume they had been displaced by the wiles of “witch doctors” of one sort or another, whom they invariably saw as a maleficent influence. King Solomon’s Mines is the ultimate fictional expression of this myth.
156.Huizinga actually assumes that play and games are the same thing. Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens: The Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955).
157.And if one is playing a game, the “play” element is the unpredictable element, the degree to which one is not simply enacting rules, but applying skill, or rolling the dice, or otherwise embracing uncertainty.
158.To take just one typical example: J. Lowell Lewis, “Toward a Unified Theory of Cultural Performance” in Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance, Graham St. John, ed. (London: Berghahn, 2008), p. 47. But the point is made over and over in the literature. I might add that by this analysis, Dungeons & Dragons and similar
159.“Alternative Futures,” Times of India, February 10, 2007, in times of
160.Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004 ). Schmitt’s arguments were used by the Nazis to provide legal justification for concentration camps.
161.“In Indian cosmology, play is a top down idea. Passages to play and their premises are embedded at a high level of abstraction and generality. The qualities of play resonate and resound throughout the whole. But more than this, qualities of play are integral to the very operation of the cosmos,” D. Handelman, 1992. “Passages to play: Paradox and process” Play and Culture vol 5 no. 1, p. 12. Cited in Brian
163.Or to be more precise, its representatives are the only people allowed to act violently in a given situation if they are both present and on the job.
164.During protests against the World Bank in 2002, police in Washington, D.C., decided to surround a public park and arrest everyone inside it. I well remember calling out to the commanding officer asking what we were being arrested for. He answered, “We’ll think of something later.”
165.It can happen, but it usually has to involve anal penetration with weapons. At least, the two cases that jump most readily to mind are officer Justin Volpe, who sodomized a man he mistakenly thought had earlier thrown a punch at him in a street fight with a broom handle in a precinct bathroom in New York in 1997, and Dennis Krauss, a Georgia police officer, who repeatedly responded to domestic violence calls by extorting sexual favors from the women who called him and in 1999, attempted to sodomize one with a gun. Both were sentenced to prison terms. But it usually takes an assault of that outrageousness for an officer to actually go to jail. For instance, during the Global Justice Movement and Occupy Wall Street, there were repeated cases of police systematically breaking wrists and fingers of nonviolent
166.Notice the complex relation between this and the rationalist view described earlier, where creativity was seen as demonic because it was opposed to the divine or cosmic principle of reason. Here, creativity is seen as demonic because it partakes of the divine or cosmic principle of play!
167.Some contemporary political theorists are willing to more or less state this outright. I am thinking particularly here of that school of thought that is referred to as Civic Republicanism, as outlined by intellectual historians like Quentin Skinner and philosophers like Philip Pettit, who argue that “freedom” in the classic liberal tradition is not a matter of being able to act without the interference of power, or even threats of
Absence of Arbitrary Power,” in Republicanism and Political Theory, Cécile Laborde and John Maynor, eds. [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008].)
168.Marilyn Strathern, Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy (London: Routledge, 2000).
169.Not only do they change, they tend to change at a fairly constant rate, regardless of historical circumstances. There is, indeed, a whole science, glottochronology, premised on this fact.
170.Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” First officially published in The Second Wave (vol. 2, no 1). Reprinted in Quiet Rumours: An
Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power
171.I note in passing that my analysis here is of mainstream comic book fiction, especially in the first several decades. When my piece first came out it was often critiqued for not taking consideration of the most sophisticated examples of the literature: Frank Knight’s Batman, the Watchmen series, V for Vendetta, and other more explicitly political comic plots. And even mainstream comics have become more explicitly political over time (Lex Luthor, for example, became President!). Still, if one wants to understand the essence of a popular genre, one does not examine its most sophisticated,
172.Unless you want to count the case of one individual who had clearly seen far too many Batman movies.