Book Review: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy by David Graeber

An excellent and horrible book at the same time. There is one underlying argument, and that is bureaucracy has shaped our societies, cultures, and systems and a lot. It has staunched creativity and innovations, and we seem to tell stories that try to break free of it or conform with it. But there is no apparent coherence in the book expect that assumption which David Graeber argues through the prologue, three essays, and conclusions. All of those are a miscellaneous collection of ideas and arguments, sometimes going to “odd” sidetracks and then coming back to the original sentence and its content after several pages. He writes a disclaimer in the prologue to this, saying that conventional writing is part of the bureaucracy and its attempt to smother creativity (he argues that violence is part of creativity) and manage the chaos of existence.

For me, this felt like, now you cannot argue against my style of writing, if you do, that makes you part of the system. And oh boy, was I pissed after that despite enjoying some of his rants and sidesteps and wondering that where was the coherence. I’m not entirely sure if it was because he was insulting the reader (me as well) who likes structure or because that is a cheating way to put a disclaimer upfront and do whatever pleases afterward and then point back, I already said that you are part of the problem (part of the bureaucratic machine that has taken over your life), if you complain. But I trotted onward with the book, and surrender to its writing without the need to control the outcome or care where it was heading. It was the right thing to do, and I ended up enjoying the book. It taught me a thing or two about history, the German postal system, and how it ties to our modern societies. Reaffirmed my own thoughts about academic life (got to see my fair share of it at the University.) It provoked me to think of things differently and ponder about our technological advancements and why aren’t we at the point where we have flying cars. All this despite not agreeing on with his assessment with everything. Especially his idea that leftists are somewhat freer from the bureaucracy than conservatives. I don’t disagree because I have something against leftist views; I grew up in a country and town ruled by such ideas, and I can see their merits, but humans are humans in whatever system takes over. Corruption, hierarchies, fearing change, need for power and organization are as present in leftist policies. We are, in the end, arguing about the shades of pink here.

Yet, after all this. I agree with David Graeber’s assessment about how bureaucracy stifles creativity and innovations, and how maddening it is. Also, his words about for us taking it for granted nowadays holds too true. We have seemed to forget to criticize it, question the values and rules behind bureaucracy, and why we conduct our ways as we do. The mantra for efficiency and rationalization holds too true both in our governmental procedures and in our businesses. All of us know someone who has been laid off because of those reasons despite the company making still a profit. It is easy to hide behind rules and systems. It makes us all faceless yet equal. I do wonder, does bureaucracy indeed promote equality at all? It is still a system build on the values we have come up with within specific space and time.

There is value in this book, and I would recommend reading it not because it delivers what the sales pitch tells you but because it provokes thought. You can end up disagreeing or agreeing with the writer, that doesn’t matter. At least, you have thought through what the essays and rants try to say to you, and that is valuable.

Thank you for reading! Have a great day!

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