Book Review 1: The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
After reading his book Bullshit Jobs (which I was led to by the article he had written with the same title), I decided to delve into “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy”. From a purely shallow standpoint, the cover itself is well-designed and cute (I love light pink!), but it was also a bit lighter than the other book of his I have been hoping to read for ages (Debt: The First 5,000 Years).
The Utopia of Rules was striking to me in several ways. First, anecdotally, as someone who has been in paperwork hell for the past eight months due to my mother’s sudden death, I totally agreed with him that we live in an age of “total bureaucratization”, in which more people spend more of their time filling out paperwork than ever before. He has an anecdote in the book about how he went to try and fill out paperwork on his mother’s behalf after a stroke, was misinformed several times that he would need the power of attorney to do so, and misdirected as to how to get that power, and in the end, she ended up dying while he was still in the process of trying to arrange for Medicaid benefits for her — and that those Medicaid benefits hadn’t even been explained properly and that he had been encouraged by the Medicaid employees to commit fraud to be able to access them. We had so many issues with our mother’s paperwork, too, I could write a similar-sized book just on the runarounds.
The two highlights of the book are the first two essays. “Dead Zones of the Imagination” is the first (and where the above anecdote is located). Graeber writes about how the structural inequality in our society is, at its truest core, held up by the threat of physical violence. His definition of the police is that they are, in essence, bureaucrats with weapons. And yes, there is a whole brand of feminist literature that covers the topic of violence in situations that lack egalitarianism that Graeber begrudgingly admits he was ignorant to before writing this essay (and which I hope to read more of this year!), but Graeber’s essay stands out from other philosophical works I’ve read about violence in society for a variety of reasons. First, he brings up “interpretive labor”, the antithesis of violence (those who enact violence are, in essence, stupid, and are never forced to have to think about the nature of the relationship that they are embedding themselves into), which is defined as the work to maintain human relationships that often necessitates “subtle work of the imagination”. This concept becomes super powerful when we think about how the rich interact with the poor. I had already read psychological studies about how people who are born wealthier and who have more privilege than others are less likely to read facial cues well and are more likely to employ therapists to discuss their emotions with (instead of doing so with friends), but the anecdotes he gave really made me consider how I had lived my own life. He gave the example that people who have maids rarely know anything about the maids in question, but that the maids are required to work around their feelings and often know virtually every detail of their life in question (assistants, too). I grew up with live-in maids, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had never, ever known one detail about their lives despite having spent so much time with them. This immediately made me feel sad.
The same could be said about the sex divide. Graeber says that after querying hundreds of creative writing teachers in the U.S. about a writing exercise they do where the girls have to try and write about what the boys are thinking about and vice versa, the girls often write pages of notes on what they think could be going on in the boys’ heads but the boys often refuse to participate or cannot imagine what the girls are thinking about. Structurally and traditionally, men haven’t had to do this, which explains so much of their behavior.
The second essay, “Of Flying cars and The Declining Rate of Profit”, is interesting because it discusses why we haven’t had flying cars yet. This is mostly because “the spread of information technologies and new ways of organizing transport” led to outsourcing jobs to nations that were victims of WTO or NAFTA-sponsored trade deals. I vaguely understood that this could be the case prior, but now I feel as though it was explained in a succinct and easy-to-understand way. What I didn’t know, however, was that part of the reason there is no Bell Labs (or a similar lab like it, despite the fact that we are trying to develop something similar at Stanford), is because of tax regime changes. “The phone company was willing to invest so much of its profits in research because those profits were highly taxed — given the choice between sinking the money into higher wages for its workers (which bought loyalty) and research (which made sense because to a company that was still locked in the old mind-set that said corporations were ultimately about making things, rather than making money), and having that same money appropriated by the government, the choice was obvious.” (127). It was only in the 70s and 80s that these changes began to occur and that is the reason why we haven’t had the same kind of advancements in technology as we did in the first 50 years of the 20th century (one great example Graeber gives is that we haven’t found a new source of energy since the 50s).
All in all, this book was great, especially if you are a fan of Graeber’s. Does he sometimes ramble on and on and rely on anecdotes more than actual research? Perhaps. But his points are so well-thought and he is so articulate it’s like engaging in a debate with a human being. I give this one an 8/10.