Why Is Bureaucracy Worse Than Ever?

Last month, I became a customer of Time Warner Cable, New York’s favorite quasi-monopolistic provider of patchy broadband that’s worse than the internet in Bucharest. Given the firm’s reputation, I was genuinely surprised at how smoothly it all went, up to the point at which I’d entered my debit card details. (I know, I know; in hindsight it seems so obvious.) Then the trouble began. It took five visits from engineers, plus countless phone calls, to get things working; the job required a specific ladder, but the booking system seemed serially unable to dispatch a van equipped with one. Finally connected, I went online to cancel the stopgap internet service I’d been using from another company, only to find that online cancelation wasn’t allowed. And yet, how weird is this: when the day came for Time Warner to process my first month’s payment, everything went off without a hitch.

No part of this tale of bureaucratic tedium – nor all the stuff I’ve left out, because I don’t want your death from boredom weighing on my conscience – will surprise anyone living in the United States, the UK, most of Europe or much of the world today. Our lives are spent grappling with bureaucracy: filling in online forms; listening to recorded voices claiming that “your call is important to us”; lying to Apple about having read 56-page iTunes Terms of Service agreements; cursing the stupidity of HR departments, government agencies or university subcommittees.

But there’s something strange about this utterly familiar aspect of modern life, as the anthropologist David Graeber notes in his new book, The Utopia of Rules: it’s the opposite of how the free-market world’s meant to work. Capitalism is supposed to be “dynamic, free, and open”; even those of us who favor a big role for government in promoting social welfare tend to accept that this comes at the cost of more red tape. We oppose free-market fundamentalists – but we grudgingly concede that the world for which they yearn would probably involve less brain-meltingly tedious admin.

Not so, insists Graeber, a self-described anarchist best known for his role in the Occupy movement and for his previous book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. Abandon the narrow definition of “bureaucracy” that exclusively involves government functionaries, and it becomes plain that America in 2015 is the most bureaucratic society there’s ever been. “No population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork,” he writes – and not in spite of free-market capitalism, but because of it. Graeber’s “The Iron Law of Liberalism” proposes that there has never been a government policy to “slash red tape” or “reduce government interference” that hasn’t actually led to more red tape, more regulations, and more bureaucrats. “Maintaining a free market economy,” he writes, “[requires] a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.”

For one thing, as Graeber told Salon recently, it takes a huge bureaucracy “to make people behave the way that economists say they are ‘supposed’ to behave”. People must be encouraged to compete fiercely and amorally against each other, motivated solely by personal gain, yet also prevented from taking this to its logical conclusion and simply killing or stealing to get the other guy’s stuff. That necessitates big police and legal bureaucracies, just to begin with.

Then there’s the machinery designed to keep global capitalism running “freely” – the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and the rest – which are in fact a “planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system”, protected by state violence when challenged. And it’s no coincidence, of course, that you end up in bureaucratic quagmires not when paying for (say) internet service, but when you’re canceling it, or trying to get it to function. Bureaucracy is a system “whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits.” Your call isn’t really “important to us”; it’s just vastly cheaper to play that recording, and make you wait, than pay an extra operator to answer it.

Oh, and “deregulation”? This never really happens, Graeber maintains. Mostly it just means “changing the regulatory structure in a way that I like”:

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.

Perhaps Graeber’s most interesting claim, though, is that our expressed hostility toward bureaucracy is at least partly disingenuous: that these thickets of rules and regulations are a source, to quote from his subtitle, of “secret joys” for most of us. Not simply because Brooklynites would have nothing to talk about at the pub if Time Warner Cable weren’t so awful (though there is that). It’s also that bureaucracy helps make daily interactions predictable, anonymous and superficially egalitarian in ways from which we benefit: “Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in 18th-century British verse.”

The egalitarianism is definitely only superficial: fail to show your ID card at the library and you might find yourself getting tasered by another wing of the bureaucracy. But a society based on rules at least allows us to pretend that everyone’s being treated fairly, which is handy, since it means that I get to guiltlessly enjoy the ways my position of privileged position means I get to bend some of those rules – even if Citibank’s senior executives get to bend them far more. So not only do I have to suffer the indignities of trying to get a basic working internet connection in one of the world’s richest megacities; Graeber’s book is a reminder that I’m complicit in those indignities, too.

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