reading notes from The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber.
As one anthropologist, Sarah Kendzior, puts it: “The United States has become the most rigidly credentialised society in the world,”
in the late twentieth century, middle-class citizens spent ever more hours struggling with phone trees and web interfaces, while the less fortunate spent ever more hours of their day trying to jump through the increasingly elaborate hoops required to gain access to dwindling social services.
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 right-wing critique
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
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.
This apparent paradox—that government policies intending to reduce government interference in the economy actually end up producing more regulations, more bureaucrats, and more police—can be observed so regularly that I think we are justified in treating it as a general sociological law. I propose to call it “the iron law of liberalism”
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.
Mises were willing to admit—at least in their academic writing—that markets don't really regulate themselves, and that an army of administrators was indeed required to keep any market system going. (For von Mises, that army only became problematic when it was deployed to alter market outcomes that caused undue suffering for the poor.)11
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 sector—and these techniques were assumed to be required, when operating on a large scale, because they were more efficient than the networks of personal or informal connections that had dominated a world of small family firms.
for military purposes, and to develop others, has allowed the U.S. government to engage in practically Soviet-style industrial planning without ever having to admit it's doing so.
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
The vast majority of the paperwork we do exists in just this sort of in-between zone—ostensibly private, but in fact entirely shaped by a government that provides the legal framework, underpins the rules with its courts and all of the elaborate mechanisms of enforcement that come with them, but—crucially—works closely with the private concerns to ensure that the results will guarantee a certain rate of private profit.
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 process—the gradual fusion of public and private power into a single entity, rife with rules and regulations whose ultimate purpose is to extract wealth in the form of profits—does not yet have a name. That in itself is significant. These things can happen largely because we lack a way to talk about them
I'm going to make up a name. I'm going to call this the age of “total bureaucratization.”
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
John Kenneth Galbraith
there was a double movement: corporate management became more financialized, but at the same time, the financial sector became corporatized, with investment banks, hedge funds, and the like largely replacing individual investors
a kind of strategic pivot of the upper echelons of U.S. corporate bureaucracy—away from the workers, and towards shareholders, and eventually, towards the financial structure as a whole.
the term “financial management,” which came to refer simultaneously to how the highest ranks of the corporate bureaucracy ran their firms, and how investors managed their portfolios.
No political revolution can succeed without allies, and bringing along a certain portion of the middle class—and, even more crucially, convincing the bulk of the middle classes that they had some kind of stake in finance-driven capitalism—was critical
Ultimately, the more liberal members of this professional-managerial elite became the social base for what came to pass as “left-wing” political parties, as actual working-class organizations like trade unions were cast into the wilderness. (Hence, the U.S. Democratic Party, or New Labour in Great Britain
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 society—education, science, government—and eventually, to pervade almost every aspect of everyday life
There is a peculiar idiom that first emerged in such circles, full of bright, empty terms like vision, quality, stakeholder, leadership, excellence, innovation, strategic goals, or best practices. (Much of it traces back to “self-actualization” movements like Lifespring, Mind Dynamics, and EST, which were extremely popular in corporate boardrooms in the seventies, but it quickly became a language unto itself.)
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
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 fetish—magical objects conveying power in their own right, entirely apart from the real knowledge, experience, or training they're supposed to represent
In some cases, these new training requirements can only be described as outright scams, as when lenders, and those prepared to set up the training programs, jointly lobby the government to insist that, say, all pharmacists be henceforth required to pass some additional qualifying examination, forcing thousands already practicing the profession into night school, which these pharmacists know many will only be able to afford with the help of high-interest student loans.25 By doing this, lenders are in effect legislating themselves a cut of most pharmacists' subsequent incomes
Increasingly, corporate profits in America are not derived from commerce or industry at all, but from finance—which means, ultimately, from other people's debts. These debts do not just happen by accident. To a large degree, they are engineered—and by precisely this kind of fusion of public and private power.
One result of all this debt is to render the government itself the main mechanism for the extraction of corporate profits
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.
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 rules—it's that loyalty to the organization is to some degree measured by one's willingness to pretend this isn't happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.
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.
In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone's cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone's cousin; above all, it's based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.27 Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.
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.
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.
Until the movement came to North America with the siege of the World Trade Meeting in Seattle in November 1999—and subsequent blockades against the IMF/World Bank Meetings in Washington—most Americans simply had no idea that any of these organizations even existed. The actions operated like a magic charm that exposed everything that was supposed to be hidden: all we had to do was show up and try to block access to the venue, and instantly we revealed the existence of a vast global bureaucracy of interlocking organizations that nobody was supposed to really think about. And of course, at the same time, we would magically whisk into existence thousands of heavily armed riot police ready to reveal just what those bureaucrats were willing to unleash against anyone—no matter how nonviolent—who tried to stand in their way.
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 self-conscious completion of the world's first effective29 planetary-scale administrative bureaucratic system.
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 movement—the assemblies, the spokescouncils, and so on—was, more than anything else, a way to show that people could indeed get on with one another—and even make important decisions and carry out complex collective projects—without anyone ever having to fill out a form, appeal a judgment, or threaten to phone security or the police.
1. Do not underestimate the importance of sheer physical violence.
Free-market liberalism of the nineteenth century corresponded with the invention of 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
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 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 everywhere—even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.
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
2. Do not overestimate the importance of technology as a causative factor.
Technological change is simply not an independent variable. Technology will advance, and often in surprising and unexpected ways. But the overall direction it takes depends on social factors.
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
Meanwhile physical infrastructure like roads, escalators, bridges, and underground railways crumbles around us, and the landscape surrounding major cities is peppered with the futuristic visions of past generations now lying smelly, dirty, or abandoned. None of this just happened. It is, precisely, a matter of national priorities: the result of policy decisions that allocate funding for everything from landmark preservation to certain kinds of scientific research. This is the world that all those endless documents about “vision,” “quality,” “leadership,” and “innovation” have actually produced.
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)
if one gives sufficient social power to a class of people holding even the most outlandish ideas, they will, consciously or not, eventually contrive to produce a world organized in such a way that living in it will, in a thousand subtle ways, reinforce the impression that those ideas are self-evidently true.
Neoclassical economics is notorious for making this kind of move. When an economist attempts to prove that it is “irrational” to vote in national elections (because the effort expended outweighs the likely benefit to the individual voter), they use the term because they do not wish to say “irrational for actors for whom civic participation, political ideals, or the common good are not values in themselves, but who view public affairs only in terms of personal advantage.” There is absolutely no reason why one could not rationally calculate the best way to further one's political ideals through voting.
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
The term “rationality” is an excellent case in point here
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 self-evident that it's hard for us to remember that in most human societies[…]
But it also seems as if the moment one divides the world into two spheres in this way—into the domain of sheer technical competence and a separate domain of ultimate values—each sphere will inevitably begin trying to invade the other. Some will declare that rationality, or even efficiency, are themselves values, that they are even ultimate values, and that we should somehow create a “rational” society (whatever that means). Others will insist that life should become art; or else, religion. But all such movements are premised on the very division they profess to overcome.
For anyone who has ever been a refugee, or for that matter had to fill out the forty-page application required to get one's daughter considered for admission by a London music school, the idea that bureaucracy has anything to do with rationality, let alone efficiency, might seem odd. But this is the way it looks from the top. In fact, from inside the system, the algorithms and mathematical formulae by which the world comes to be assessed become, ultimately, not just measures of value, but the source of value itself
A critique of bureaucracy fit for the times would have to show how all these threads—financialization, violence, technology, the fusion of public and private—knit together into a single, self-sustaining web
What had brought things to such a pass? A middle-aged factory worker, who took me on a tour of the plant, explained that while ostensibly the issue was a decision to move the plant to Poland to take advantage of cheaper labor, the ultimate issue had to do with the allocation of profits. The oldest and most experienced of the hundred-odd workers there had spent years tinkering with, and improving, the efficiency of the giant machines used to package teabags. Output had increased and with them profits. Yet what did the owners do with the extra money? Did they give the workers a raise to reward them for increased productivity? In the old Keynesian days of the fifties and sixties they almost certainly would have. No longer. Did they hire more workers and expand production? No again. All they did was hire middle managers.
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 inadequate—it might as well have been designed to make the problem worse. We need to find a way to talk about what it is we actually object to in this process, to speak honestly about the violence it entails, but at the same time, to understand what is appealing about it, what sustains it, which elements carry within them some potential for redemption in a truly free society, which are best considered the inevitable price to pay for living in any complex society, which can and should be entirely eliminated entirely.
When buying or using goods and services privately supplied, the same collection of individuals become something else (“consumers”), just as in other contexts of action they are relabeled a “nation,” “electorate,” or “population.” All these entities are the product of bureaucracies and institutional practices that, in turn, define certain horizons of possibility
Bureaucracies public and private appear—for whatever historical reasons—to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected. It's in this sense that I've said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization
Usually, much of this work is done through ritual. Such rituals, as anthropologists have noted, can vary wildly in form and content: they might involve baptisms, confirmations, fumigations, first haircuts, isolation, declarations, the making and waving and burning and burying of ritual paraphernalia, spells. Death is even more complicated because those same social relationships that one has acquired in life have to be gradually severed, rearranged. It often takes years, repeated burials (even reburials), burning, bleaching and rearranging of bones, feasts, and ceremonies before someone is entirely dead
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.
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
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—we seek to understand intricate ritual symbolism, social dramas, poetic forms, or kinship networks. What all these have in common is that they tend to be both infinitely rich, and, at the same time, open-ended.
This is why almost all great literature on the subject takes the form of horror-comedy. Franz Kafka's The Trial is of course the paradigm (as is The Castle), but one can cite any number of others: from Stanislaw Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, which is pretty much straight Kafka, to Ismail Kadare's Palace of Dreams and José Saramago's All the Names, to any number of works that might be said to be informed by the bureaucratic spirit, such as much of Italo Calvino or most anything by Borges. Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which takes on military bureaucracies, and Something Happened, about corporate bureaucracies, are considered latter-day masterworks in this genre, as is David Foster Wallace's unfinished The Pale King, an imaginative meditation on the nature of boredom set in a Midwestern office of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. It's interesting that just about all these works of fiction not only emphasize the comic senselessness of bureaucratic life, but mix it with at least an undertone of violence.
But academics are also reluctant bureaucrats, in the sense that even when “admin,” as it's called, ends up becoming most of what a professor actually does, it is always treated as something tacked on—not what they are really qualified for, certainly, and not the work that defines who they really are
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.
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.
We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I'm referring to here is not abstract. I am not speaking of conceptual violence. I am speaking of violence in the literal sense: the kind that involves, say, one person hitting another over the head with a wooden stick.
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 Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on that fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required. It's almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.
Is the state's claim to a monopoly of violence ultimately the problem, or is the state an essential part of any possible solution? Is the very practice of laying down rules and then threatening physical harm against anyone who does not follow them itself objectionable, or is it just that the authorities are not deploying such threats in the right way?
Government played almost no role in regulating the minutiae of daily life: there were no building codes, no open container laws, no mandatory licensing and insurance of vehicles, no rules about who 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 them—even in town, and definitely not in the surrounding countryside, where such matters were entirely regulated by custom, deliberation by communal assemblies, or magical taboo. In such contexts, it became all the more apparent that the main business of government bureaucracy was the registration of taxable property, and maintaining the infrastructure that allowed those who collected taxes to show up and take their things away.
We are usually dealing with conquered populations of one sort or another—hence, with people who are keenly aware that current arrangements are the fruit of violence. As a result, it would never occur to anyone to deny that the government is a fundamentally coercive institution—even if they might also be perfectly willing to concede that in certain respects, it could also be a benevolent one
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 Madagascar, bureaucratic power was somewhat redeemed in most people's minds by its connection to education, which was held in near-universal esteem. To enter into the world of government, bureaus, and gendarme stations was also to enter into the world of novels, world history, technology, and potential travel overseas. It was not therefore irredeemably bad or intrinsically absurd.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 law—or with criminal matters of any kind. Most of it has to do with regulations, or, to put it slightly more technically, with the scientific application of physical force, or the threat of physical force, to aid in the resolution of administrative problems
So the only fights which police are sure to get involved in are those that generate some kind of paperwork.
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
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 spies—all, significantly, figures whose job is to operate precisely where bureaucratic structures for ordering information encounter the actual application of physical violence
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
Because the great merit of structural analysis is that it provides a well-nigh foolproof technique for doing what any good theory should do: simplifying and schematizing complex material in such a way as to be able to say something unexpected
The basic principle of structural analysis, I was explaining, is that the terms of a symbolic system do not stand in isolation—they are not to be thought of in terms of what they “stand for,” but are defined by their relations to each other. One has to first define the field, and then look for elements in that field that are systematic inversions of each other.
The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state's bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema and its monopoly on coercive force come together. It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations
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 them—including having to imagine the perspectives of those on top—while the latter can wander about largely oblivious to much of what is going on around them. That is, the powerless not only end up doing most of the actual, physical labor required to keep society running, they also do most of the interpretive labor as well.
Bureaucracies, I've suggested, are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing stupidity—of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence. This is why even if a bureaucracy is created for entirely benevolent reasons, it will still produce absurdities
The European social welfare state
“All power to the imagination,”
When we speak of being “realistic,” exactly what reality is it we are referring to?
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
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 seems to me that the reality effect (if one may call it that) comes rather from the fact that radical projects tend to founder—or at least become endlessly difficult—the moment they enter into the world of large, heavy objects: buildings, cars, tractors, boats, industrial machinery. This in turn is not because these objects are somehow intrinsically difficult to administer democratically—history is full of communities that successfully engage in the democratic administration of common resources—it's because, like the DAN car, they are surrounded by endless government regulation, and are effectively impossible to hide from the government's armed representatives
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.
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
“political ontology of the imagination”
If artistic avant-gardes and social revolutionaries have felt a peculiar affinity for one another ever since, borrowing each other's languages and ideas, it appears to have been insofar as both have remained committed to the idea that the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make, and could just as easily make differently. In this sense, a phrase like “all power to the imagination” expresses the very quintessence of the Left
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 is—it exists because we all collectively produce it. We imagine things we'd like and then we bring them into being. But the moment you think about it in these terms, it's obvious that something has gone terribly wrong. Since who, if they could simply imagine any world that they liked and then bring it into being, would create a world like this one?
Capitalism, he noted, is not something imposed on us by some outside force. It only exists because every day we wake up and continue to produce it. If we woke up one morning and all collectively decided to produce something else, then we wouldn't have capitalism anymore. This is the ultimate revolutionary question: what are the conditions that would have to exist to enable us to do this—to just wake up and imagine and produce something else?
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
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 of—indeed, was absolutely alien to—material reality. (This became the dominant position in the Christian Middle Ages.) How, then, was it possible for the rational mind to receive sense impressions from nature?
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
It was precisely in the mid- to late-eighteenth century, which saw the origins of industrial capitalism, modern bureaucratic society, and the political division between right and left, where the new transcendent concept of imagination really came to prominence. For Romantics, in particular, the Imagination came to take the place once held by the soul—rather than mediating between the rational soul and the material world, it was the soul, and the soul was that which was beyond any mere rationality.
But insofar as the imagination became a residual category, everything that the new order was not, it also was not purely transcendent; in fact, it necessarily became a kind of crazy hodgepodge of what I've been calling transcendent and immanent principles. On the one hand, the imagination was seen as the source of art, and all creativity. On the other, it was the basis of human sympathy, and hence morality
This confusion, this jumbling of different conceptions of imagination, runs throughout the history of leftist thought.
Creativity and desire—what we often reduce, in political economy terms, to “production” and “consumption”—are essentially vehicles of the imagination. Structures of inequality and domination—structural violence, if you will—tend to skew the imagination. Structural violence might create situations where laborers are relegated to mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs, and only a small elite is allowed to indulge in imaginative labor, leading to the feeling, on the part of the workers, that they are alienated from their own labor, that their very deeds belong to someone else. It might also create social situations where kings, 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 imagination—the warping and shattering of imagination that results—is what we are referring to when we talk about “alienation.”
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
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 prejudice—and it is up to you to create these situations 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
One of the most remarkable things about such insurrectionary upheavals is how they can seem to burst out of nowhere—and then, often, dissolve away just as quickly. How is it that the same “public” that two months before say, the Paris Commune, or the Spanish Civil War, had voted in a fairly moderate social democratic regime will suddenly find itself willing to risk their lives for the same ultra-radicals who received a fraction of the actual vote? Or, to return to May '68, how is it that the same public that seemed to support or at least feel strongly sympathetic toward the student/worker uprising could almost immediately afterwards return to the polls and elect a right-wing government?
First of all, they assume that “the 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 action—taking polls, watching television, voting, signing petitions or writing letters to elected officials or attending public hearings—and not others. These frames of action imply certain ways of talking, thinking, arguing, deliberating. The same “public” that may widely indulge in the use of recreational chemicals may also consistently vote to make such indulgences illegal; the same collection of citizens is likely to come to completely different decisions on questions affecting their communities if organized into a parliamentary system, a system of computerized plebiscites, or a nested series of public assemblies. In fact the entire anarchist project of reinventing direct democracy is premised on assuming this is the case
Insurrectionary moments are moments when this bureaucratic apparatus is neutralized. Doing so always seems to have the effect of throwing horizons of possibility wide open, which is only to be expected if one of the main things that that apparatus normally does is to enforce extremely limited horizons. (This is probably why, as Rebecca Solnit has so beautifully observed,77 people often experience something very similar during natural disasters.) All of this would explain why revolutionary moments always seem to be followed by an outpouring of social, artistic, and intellectual creativity. Normally unequal structures of imaginative identification are disrupted; everyone is experimenting with trying to see the world from unfamiliar points of view; everyone feels not only the right, but usually the immediate practical need to re-create and reimagine everything around them.
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.
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.
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 them—in fact, that the most effective strategy of political liberation yet discovered lies precisely in avoiding them—but at the same time, it is only at our peril that we simply pretend that they're not there
Thesis 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</blockquote>
Marx and Engels also believed that that very tendency, or, to be more precise, capitalism's very need to continually revolutionize the means of industrial production, would eventually be its undoing. 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?
The Federation, then, is Leninism brought to its full and absolute cosmic success—a society where secret police, reeducation camps, and show trials are not necessary because a happy conjuncture of material abundance and ideological conformity ensures the system can now run entirely by itself. 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.
Antithesis Yet even those areas of science and technology that did receive massive funding have not seen the breakthroughs originally anticipated
Synthesis On the Movement from Poetic to Bureaucratic Technologies
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, old-fashioned, bureaucratic socialism, and the triumph of freedom and the market. Certainly this is one of the great paradoxes of contemporary life, much though—like the broken promises of technology—we seem to have developed a profound reluctance to address the problem.
And since it was never quite promised, now that it has spectacularly failed to come true, we're left confused; indignant, but at the same time, embarrassed at our own indignation, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to begin with
Well, all right, not just flying cars. I don't really care about flying cars—especially because I don't even drive. What I have in mind are all the technological wonders that any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century simply assumed would exist by 2015. We all know the list: Force fields. Teleportation. Antigravity fields. Tricorders. Tractor beams. Immortality drugs. Suspended animation. Androids. Colonies on Mars. What happened to them? Every now and then it's widely trumpeted that one is about to materialize—clones, for instance, or cryogenics, or anti-aging medications, or invisibility cloaks—but when these don't prove to be false promises, which they usually are, they emerge hopelessly flawed. Point any of this out, and the usual response is a ritual invocation of the wonders of computers—why would you want an antigravity sled when you can have second life?—as if this is some sort of unanticipated compensation. But, even here, we're not nearly where people in the fifties imagined we'd have been by now. We still don't have computers you can have an interesting conversation with, or robots that can walk the dog or fold your laundry
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 voices—both Left and Right—began their reflections from the assumption that a world of technological wonders had, in fact, arrived
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
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.
What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the “hyper-real”—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original
The “postmodern” moment was simply a desperate way to take what could only otherwise be felt as a bitter disappointment, and dress it up as something epochal, exciting and new.
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
End of work arguments became increasingly popular in the late seventies and early eighties, as radical thinkers pondered what would happen to traditional working-class struggle once there was no longer a working class. (The answer: it would turn into identity politics.)
But below it all lay an uneasy awareness that this whole new post-work civilization was, basically, a fraud. Our carefully engineered high-tech sneakers were not really being produced by intelligent cyborgs or self-replicating molecular nanotechnology; they were being made on the equivalent of old-fashioned Singer sewing machines, by the daughters of Mexican and Indonesian farmers who had, as the result of WTO or NAFTA-sponsored trade deals, been ousted from their ancestral lands. It was this guilty awareness, it seems to me, that ultimately lay behind the postmodern sensibility, its celebration of the endless play of images and surfaces, and its insistence that ultimately, all those modernist narratives that were supposed to give those images depth and reality had been proved to be a lie.
Why did the projected explosion of technological growth everyone was expecting—the moon bases, the robot factories—fail to materialize? Logically, there are only two possibilities. Either our expectations about the pace of technological change were unrealistic, in which case, we need to ask ourselves why so many otherwise intelligent people felt they were not. Or our expectations were not inherently unrealistic, in which case, we need to ask what happened to throw the path of technological development off course.
After all, if someone growing up at the turn of the century reading Jules Verne or H. G. Wells tried to imagine what the world would be like in, say, 1960, they imagined a world of flying machines, rocket ships, submarines, new forms of energy, and wireless communication … and that was pretty much exactly what they got. If it wasn't unrealistic in 1900 to dream of men traveling to the moon, why was it unrealistic in the sixties to dream of jet-packs and robot laundry-maids?
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
Toffler's choice of the word “acceleration” turns out to have been particularly unfortunate.
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
The current, industrial age had developed its own system of ideas—science—but scientists had not succeeded in creating anything like the Catholic Church. Comte concluded that we needed to develop a new science, which he dubbed “sociology,” and that sociologists should play the role of priests in a new Religion of Society that would inspire the masses with a love of order, community, work-discipline, and patriarchal family values
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.”
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.
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 inventions—force fields, tractor beams, warp drives—that any contemporary eight-year-old is familiar with (just as surely as they will know that garlic, crosses, stakes, and sunlight are what's most likely to be of help in slaying vampires) occurred in the United States and the USSR simultaneously.93 Or consider Star Trek, that quintessence of American mythology. Is not the Federation of Planets—with its high-minded idealism, strict military discipline, and apparent lack of both class differences and any real evidence of multiparty democracy—really just an Americanized vision of a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, and above all, one that actually “worked”?94
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 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 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 simply appropriated by the government, the choice was obvious.
The most immediate reason we don't have robot factories is that, for the last several decades, some 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is of course has far more interested in the kind of discoveries that might lead to the development of unmanned drones than fully automated bauxite mines or robot gardeners.
humbling of the Soviet Union with total victory in the global class war: not only the imposition of absolute U.S. military dominance overseas, but the utter rout of social movements back home. The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. Computers have opened up certain spaces of freedom, as we're constantly reminded, but instead of leading to the workless utopia Abbie Hoffman or Guy Debord imagined, they have been employed in such a way as to produce the opposite effect.
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 market-driven consumer imperatives, but part of an all-out effort to follow the technological
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 long-term economic system, neoliberalism has meant always choosing the former.
why even in those areas that have become the focus of well-funded research projects, we have not seen anything like the kind of advances anticipated fifty years ago. To take only the most obvious example: if 95 percent of robotics research has been funded by the military, why is there still no sign of Klaatu-style killer robots shooting death rays from their eyes? Because we know they've been working on 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,” “curiosity-driven,” or “blue skies” research—the kind that is not driven by the prospect of any immediate practical application, and which is therefore most likely to lead to unexpected breakthroughs—is an ever-smaller proportion of the total, so much money is being thrown around nowadays that overall levels of basic research funding has actually gone up. Yet most honest assessments have agreed that the results have been surprisingly paltry. Certainly we no longer see anything like the continual stream of conceptual revolutions—genetic inheritance, relativity, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics—that humanity had grown used to, and even to expect, a hundred years before
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 open-source software. It isn't. These are just the sort of research teams most likely to produce results. If anything, research has been moving in the opposite direction. It is still driven by giant, bureaucratic projects; what has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led all parties to adopt language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. While this might have helped somewhat in speeding up the creation of immediately marketable products—as this is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do—in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic
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 self-marketers. As for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical: it would seem society now has no place for them at all.
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 laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one; it—or at least vaguely similar—has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it's patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.109
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 century—Marx's London, a period of maximum scientific and technological innovation; or Manchester; or Birmingham were not dominated by large conglomerates but mainly by capitalists who owned a single factory. (This is one reason Marx could assume capitalism was characterized by constant cutthroat competition.) Britain at that time was also notorious for being just as generous to its oddballs and eccentrics as contemporary America is intolerant. One common expedient was to allow them to become rural vicars, who, predictably, became one of the main sources for amateur scientific discoveries
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 Program—another period of panic—there was still room for genuine oddballs like Jack Parsons, the founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Parsons was not only a brilliant engineer—he was also a Thelemite magician in the Aleister Crowley tradition, known for regularly orchestrating ceremonial orgies in his California home. Parsons believed that rocket science was ultimately just one manifestation of deeper, magical principles. But he was eventually fired.112 U.S. victory in the Cold War guaranteed a corporatization of existing university and scientific bureaucracies sufficiently thorough to ensure that no one like him would ever get anywhere near a position of authority to start with.
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 them—or worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way.
Nor is it merely a matter of bureaucratic, or more specifically managerial, sensibilities having choked off all forms of technical vision and creativity. After all, as we're constantly reminded, the Internet has unleashed all sorts of creative vision and collaborative ingenuity. What it has really brought about is a kind of bizarre inversion of ends and means, where creativity is marshaled to the service of administration rather than the other way around.
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
Yet still, again and again, we see those machines—whether their moving parts are arms and torsos or pistons, wheels, and springs—being put to work to realize otherwise impossible fantasies: cathedrals, moon shots, transcontinental railways, and on and on. Certainly, poetic technologies almost invariably have something terrible about them; the poetry is likely to evoke dark satanic mills as much as it does grace or liberation. But the rational, bureaucratic techniques are always in service to some fantastic end.
What we have now is the reverse. It's not that vision, creativity, and mad fantasies are no longer encouraged. It's that our fantasies remain free-floating; there's no longer even the pretense that they could ever take form or flesh. Meanwhile, in the few areas in which free, imaginative creativity actually is fostered, such as in open-source Internet software development, it is ultimately marshaled in order to create even more, and even more effective, platforms for the filling out of forms. This is what I mean by “bureaucratic technologies”: administrative imperatives have become not the means, but the end of technological development. Meanwhile, the greatest and most powerful nation that has ever existed on this earth has spent the last decades telling its citizens that we simply can no longer contemplate grandiose enterprises, even if—as the current environmental crisis suggests—the fate of the earth depends on it.
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
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 twenty-first century, capitalism is not doing any of these things. In fact, even its proponents are increasingly retreating from any claim that it is a particular good system, falling back instead on the claim that it is the only possible system—or at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own.
if the ultimate aim of neoliberal capitalism is to create a world where no one believes any other economic system could really work, then it needs to suppress not just any idea of an inevitable redemptive future, but really any radically different technological future at all. There's a kind of contradiction here. It cannot mean convincing us that technological change has come to an end—since that would mean capitalism is not really progressive. It means convincing us that technological progress is indeed continuing, that we do live in a world of wonders, but to ensure those wonders largely take the form of 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.
And if we're going to actually come up with robots that will do our laundry or tidy up the kitchen, we're going to have to make sure that whatever replaces capitalism is based on a far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power—one that no longer contains either the super-rich or desperately poor people willing to do their housework. Only then will technology begin to be marshaled toward human needs.
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 capitalism—or, most likely, any form of capitalism at all. It's becoming increasingly clear that in order to really start setting up domes on Mars, let alone develop the means to figure out if there actually are alien civilizations out there to contact—or what would actually happen if we shot something through a wormhole—we're going to have to figure out a different economic system entirely. Does it really have to take the form of some massive new bureaucracy? Why do we assume it must?
to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.
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 them—the fact that it was possible to send a letter from Venezuela to China despite the absence of any single overarching state. In fact, Peter Kropotkin often cited the international “universal postal union” of 1878 (along with accords between railroad companies) as a model for anarchism—again, emphasizing that this was something that was already taking shape at the top of imperial systems</blockquote>
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 freedom—all of which, I believe, lie at the core of bureaucracy's covert appeal. One the one hand, a bureaucracy is anything but playful. Mechanistic and impersonal, it would appear to represent the negation of any possibility of playfulness. On the other hand, being trapped in a bureaucratic runaround feels very much like being caught inside some kind of horrific game
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
Nobody seems to likes bureaucracy very much—yet somehow, we always seem to end up with more of it.
That the experience of operating within a system of formalized rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, actually does hold—for many of us much of the time, for all of us at least some of the time—a kind of covert appeal.
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.
Max Weber's reflections on the subject—is that a bureaucracy, once created, will immediately move to make itself indispensable to anyone trying to wield power, no matter what they wish to do with it. The chief way to do this is always by attempting to monopolize access to certain key types of information.
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 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
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, and—within certain parameters, at least—treat everyone more or less the same.
The Enchantment of Disenchantment, or The Magical Powers of 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 by—or in many cases, built in direct imitation of—the German Post Office. And one could indeed make a case that many of the most terrible woes of that century can also be laid at its feet.
In Europe, most of the key institutions of what later became the welfare state—everything from social insurance and pensions to public libraries and public health clinics—were not originally created by governments at all, but by trade unions, neighborhood associations, cooperatives, and working-class parties and organizations of one sort or another. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of “building a new society in the shell of the old,” of gradually creating Socialist institutions from below
The post office was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organization to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organization of armies and empires. They were originally ways of conveying field reports and orders over long distances; later, by extension, a key means of keeping the resulting empires together. Hence Herodotus' famous quote about Persian imperial messengers, with their evenly spaced posts with fresh horses, which he claimed allowed the swiftest travel on earth: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” still appears carved over the entrance to the Central Post Office building in New York, opposite Penn Station.118 The Roman Empire had a similar system, and pretty much all armies operated with postal courier systems until Napoleon adopted semaphore in 1805.
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 post—and over the next two decades, the sure sign that a new statelet or principality had been absorbed into the emerging nation-state was its incorporation into the German postal system
It was only with the rise of corporate 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 “postalization”—a unique American coinage for nationalization (and one which has, significantly, since completely disappeared from the language). Yet at the same time as Weber and Lenin were invoking the German post office as a model for the future, American Progressives were arguing that even private business would be more efficient were it run like the post office, and scoring major victories for postalization, such as the nationalization of the once-private subway, commuter, and interstate train systems, which in major American cities have remained in public hands ever since.
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 madness—severed from any consideration of the systematic humiliations that always seem to set them off—bears an uncanny resemblance to the way the nineteenth-century press treated slave revolts
In both cases, journalists treated such outbreaks as the result of either individual insanity, or inexplicable malice. In fact, to even suggest possible structural explanations—to speak of the evils of slavery, or to point out that before 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 slaves)—seemed somehow immoral, since it would imply such violence was in some way justified
Yet at the very same time that symbolic war was being waged on the Postal Service—as it was descending in the popular imagination into a place of madness, degradation, and violence—something remarkably similar to the turn-of-the-century infatuation with the Postal Service was happening again
What is email, after all, but a giant, globe-spanning, electronic, super-efficient Post Office?
bureaucracy appeals to us—that it seems at its most liberating—precisely when it disappears
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
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. Reason—whether in the individual or the political community—exists to keep our lower nature in check, to repress, channel, and contain potentially violent energies in such a way that they do not lead to chaos and mutual destruction
The emergence of bureaucratic populism, as I've been describing it, corresponds to a complete reversal of this conception of rationality—to a new ideal, one most famously summed up by David Hume: that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”130
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 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
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 contradictory—in constant friction. As a result, our very conception of rationality is strangely incoherent. It's entirely unclear what the word is supposed to mean. Sometimes it's a means, sometimes it's an end. Sometimes it has nothing to do with morality, sometimes it's the very essence of what's right and good. Sometimes it's a method for solving problems; other times, it is itself the solution to all possible problems.
Rationalism as a Form of Spirituality
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 sense—and which will, therefore, represent the triumph of reason over chaos.132 Needless to say, creating an effective bureaucracy always turns out to be the cornerstone of any such project.
There is no consensus amongst philosophers about what the word “rationality” even means
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 schools—not just the Neoplatonists but the Stoics and even, to some extent, the Epicureans. What's more, it formed the philosophical basis of what Hans Joas originally dubbed the emerging “cosmic religion” of late Antiquity, a fusion of elements of Greek cosmological speculation, Babylonian astrology, and Egyptian theology, often combined with strains of Jewish thought and various traditions of popular magic.137 As Joas noted, this cosmic religion—which assumed that God, Reason, and the Cosmos were the same, and the higher faculties in humans were themselves a form of participation in this rational cosmic order—for all its grandeur, represented a kind of political retreat.
the anthropologist Edmund Leach once remarked that what sets humans apart from animals is not that they possess an immortal soul, but rather, that they are capable of imagining that they have one
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
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 math-like abstractions that are assumed to be the essence of thought, are also the ordering principles that regulate nature—and this remained true whether they were identified with God, or seen as the ultimate proof of God's nonexistence.
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 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
sovereignty, administration, and politics
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 face-to-face interaction. Rather, they seem to have been what encouraged people to assemble in such large communities to begin with. At least, this is what the record seems to show. The standardization of products, storage, certification, record-keeping, redistribution, and accounting all seem to have emerged in small towns along the Tigris and Euphrates and its tributaries in the fifth millennium BCE, a thousand years before the “urban revolution.”145
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 war-leader. (The democratic way of selecting officials, at least from Greek times onwards, was in contrast assumed to be sortition, whereby ordinary citizens were chosen for posts by random lottery.)
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 commercial-bureaucratic societies of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Indus Valley, and then, later, empires like Rome, Persia, or China
However, from quite early on, both sides also came to define themselves as everything the other one was not. Urbanites came to define civilization as not acting like a barbarian; the barbarians, in turn, ended up creating social orders that took the key values of commercial-bureaucratic civilization and turned them precisely on their heads. Where one created and treasured literary masterworks, the other rejected the use of writing, but celebrated bards who could extemporize works of epic verse afresh each time. Where one carefully stored and registered items of material value, the other sponsored vast potlatch-like festivals in which priceless treasures were either distributed to followers or rivals as a gesture of contempt towards the pretentions of material wealth, or even abandoned, set on fire, or thrown into the sea. Where one developed a self-effacing bureaucracy that offered predictable stability, the other organized public life around charismatic egomaniacs in a never-ending struggle for supremacy.
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 action—and this is true even on the micro-level—is a matter of acting in a way that will influence other people at least partially by their hearing or finding out about it.148 Everyday politics—whether in a rural village or corporate office—has everything to do with the manufacture of official narratives, rumors, and accounts. It stands to reason that heroic societies, which turned political self-aggrandizement into an art form, would also have been organized in such a way as to become vast engines for the generation of stories
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
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 negation—of what it claims life would be like in the total absence of, say, patriarchal authority, or capitalism, or the state. As an ideological ploy, the trick works best when the image is on some level, profoundly appealing.151 One is first drawn in to the vision of the alternative world, experiences a kind of vicarious thrill imagining it—only to ultimately recoil in horror at the implications of one's own desires.
Roman games provide an excellent example. Until the coming of the empire, most Mediterranean cities had had some form of self-governance, with public assemblies debating matters of public concern. In democracies, even legal cases were tried by public juries consisting of hundreds of citizens. Under the Empire, of course, these were stripped of all authority, and eventually disappeared. Instead, the main occasion when large numbers of citizens assembled in public was at the Coliseum or the Circus, for chariot races or gladiatorial games, or to watch criminals be torn to pieces by wild animals
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 democracy—and almost all educated Europeans for most of this period were staunchly opposed to democracy—insisted that “the people” in such a system would inevitably end up behaving like the mob at the Roman circus: riven by violent factionalism, careening irrationally between extremes of mercy and cruelty, between blindly following charismatic idols and destroying them again. And to this day, almost all educated people still feel that, even if they are willing to grudgingly accept a few democratic elements in some aspects of society, they need to be kept entirely separate from the administration of justice and the law.
Medieval carnivals, to take one famous example, with their drunken celebration of gluttony, revolt, and sexuality, were clearly contested ground. Its wealthier patrons no doubt saw carnival as a way of warning the masses of the horrors that might ensue were the hierarchical orders of society to dissolve, but it's obvious many of the common folk who were responsible for actually organizing and putting on the bulk of the celebrations did not see this prospect as nearly so horrible (indeed, carnivals often became the occasion for actual revolts).152
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.
one could survey the key features of fantasy literature point by point and see each as a precise negation of some aspect of bureaucracy
the bureaucratic principle of value-free rule-bound neutrality,
bureaucratic principle of indifference
regularity and predictability of bureaucratic procedures, and the routinization of force, which in a bureaucratic order is seen as legitimate only insofar as it is used to uphold that principle of regularity
mechanical nature of bureaucratic operations
principle of transparency.
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
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
D&D, as its aficionados call it, is on one level the most free-form game imaginable, since the characters are allowed to do absolutely anything, within the confines of the world created by the Dungeon Master, with his books, maps, and tables and preset towns, castles, dungeons, wilderness. In many ways it's actually quite anarchistic, since unlike classic war games where one commands armies, we have what anarchists would call an “affinity group,” a band of individuals cooperating with a common purpose (a quest, or simply the desire to accumulate treasure and experience), with complementary abilities (fighter, cleric, magic-user, thief …), but no explicit chain of command. So the social relations are the very opposite of impersonal bureaucratic hierarchies. However, in another sense, D&D represents the ultimate bureaucratization of antibureaucratic fantasy. There are catalogs for everything: types of monsters (stone giants, ice giants, fire giants …), each with carefully tabulated powers and average number of hit points (how hard it is to kill them); human abilities (strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution …); lists of spells available at different levels of capacity (magic missile, fireball, passwall …); types of gods or demons; effectiveness of different sorts of armor and weapons; even[…]
Bureaucracies create games—they're just games that are in no sense fun
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
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 rule-governed action.
Games allow us our only real experience of a situation where all this ambiguity is swept away. Everyone knows exactly what the rules are. And not only that, people actually do follow them. And by following them, it is even possible to win! This—along with the fact that unlike in real life, one has submitted oneself to the rules completely voluntarily—is the source of the pleasure.
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 won—it's all extremely difficult to say. The hardest thing of all is to understand the rules.
Games, then, are a kind of utopia of rules
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
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 higher-level concept than games: play can create games, it can generate rules—in fact, it inevitably does produce at least tacit ones, since sheer random playing around soon becomes boring—but therefore by definition play cannot itself be intrinsically rule-bound. This is all the more true when play becomes social. Studies of children's play, for example, inevitably discover that children playing imaginary games spend at least as much time arguing about the rules than they do actually playing them. Such arguments become a form of play in themselves
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.
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 principles—along with administration and politics—that ultimately came together in our current notion of “the state.” The term “sovereignty” is mostly used in political theory nowadays as a synonym for “independence” or “autonomy”—the right of a government to do what it likes within its own borders—but it originally emerged from very specific European debates about the power of kings. Basically, the question was: is it possible to say that the supreme ruler of a kingdom is in any sense bound by its laws?
Carl Schmitt's “Political Theology,” which argues that in modern states, sovereign power is ultimately the power to set aside the laws.160
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 “top-down” play, a concept that seems to be most explicitly developed in Indian theology, where the cosmos itself is essentially the play of the divine forces.161 But as Brian Sutton-Smith notes in his book The Ambiguities of Play, this was the dominant view throughout the ancient world, where human beings were the playthings of destiny and fate; the exemplary human game, in such a universe, is gambling, where we willingly submit ourselves to the random whims of the gods.162
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 extra-legal zones like Guantanamo where they can treat prisoners pretty much any way they choose to. Even on the lowest levels, those who enforce the law are not really subject to it. It's extraordinary difficult, for instance, for a police officer to do anything to an American citizen that would lead to that officer being convicted of a crime
Brian Sutton-Smith argues that in the contemporary world the older, “top-down” view of play, what some have called “dark play,” no longer really holds sway. Since the Romantic era, it has been largely replaced by a whole host of more cheerful bottom-up rhetorics that see play variously as subversive, or educational, or imaginative. No doubt all this is true. But it seems to me that the older conception has not vanished entirely.166 If nothing else, it is preserved on a political level, where every arbitrary act of power tends to reinforce a feeling that it's not power, but arbitrariness—that is, freedom itself—that is the problem
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.
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 game-like behavior is celebrated as transparent and predictable, and where as a result, the advance of all these rules and regulations is itself experienced as a kind of freedom
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
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 rule-book.
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.
Call it the grammar-book effect. People do not invent languages by writing grammars, they write grammars—at least, the first grammars to be written for any given language—by observing the tacit, largely unconscious, rules that people seem to be applying when they speak. Yet once a book exists, and especially once it is employed in schoolrooms, people feel that the rules are not just descriptions of how people do talk, but prescriptions for how they should talk.
Freedom, then, really is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating. And this is what linguists always observe. There is no language without grammar. But there is also no language in which everything, including grammar, is not constantly changing all the time.
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 kind—no semantics, syntax, phonemics—we'd all just be babbling incoherently and wouldn't be able to communicate with each other at all. Obviously in such circumstances none of us would be free to do much of anything. So at some point along the way, rules-as-constraining pass over into rules-as-enabling, even if it's impossible to say exactly where
We don't know of a single recorded example of a language that, over the course of, say, a century, did not change both in sound and structure.169 This is true even of the languages of the most “traditional” societies; it happens even where elaborate institutional structures have been created—like grammar schools, or the Académie Française—to ensure that it does not
it's hard to escape the conclusion that ultimately, what we are really confronting here is the play principle in its purest form. Human beings, whether they speak Arapesh, Hopi, or Norwegian, just find it boring to say things the same way all the time. They're always going to play around at least a little. And this playing around will always have cumulative effects.
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
The single most important essay in this whole activist tradition is called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,”170 written in the 1970s by Jo Freeman
What I do want to bring attention to is that almost everyone who is not emerging from an explicitly anti-authoritarian position—and no insignificant number even of those who are—completely misread Freeman's essay, and interpret it not as a plea for formal mechanisms to ensure equality, but as a plea for more transparent hierarchy
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 cliques-now-turned-committees can only be far less effective in this regard, not least because they end up legitimating and hence massively increasing the differential access to information which allows some in otherwise egalitarian groups to have greater power to begin with. As I pointed out in the first essay, structures of transparency inevitably, as I've described, begin to become structures of stupidity as soon as that takes place.
In such arguments, we are witnessing a direct clash between two different forms of materialized utopianism: on the one hand, an anti-authoritarianism that, in its emphasis on creative synthesis and improvisation, sees freedom basically in terms of play, and on the other, a tacit republicanism that sees freedom ultimately as the ability to reduce all forms of power to a set of clear and transparent rules.
Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power
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.
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 tradition—“these are the customs of our ancestors, who are we to doubt their wisdom?” (And of course a not insignificant number of American politicians make clear they'd really like to give it back to God again.) 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
Superheroes resist this logic. They do not wish to conquer the world—if only because they are not monomaniacal or insane. As a result, they remain parasitical off the villains in the same way that police remain parasitical off criminals: without them, they would have no reason to exist. They remain defenders of a legal and political order which itself seems to have come out of nowhere, and which, however faulty or degraded, must be defended, because the only alternative is so much worse. They aren't fascists. They are just ordinary, decent, super-powerful people who inhabit a world in which fascism is the only political possibility. 17 May 2559 BE Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power Umberto Eco once remarked that comic book stories already operate a little bit like dreams; the same basic plot is repeated, obsessive-compulsively, over and over; nothing changes, even as the backdrop for the stories shifts from Great Depression to World War II to postwar prosperity, the heroes—whether Superman, Wonder Woman, the Green Hornet, or Dr. Strange—seem to remain in an eternal present, never aging, always fundamentally the same 17 May 2559 BE Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything. The villains, in contrast, are relentlessly creative. They are full of plans and projects and ideas. Clearly, we are supposed to first, without consciously realizing it, identify with the villains. After all, they're having all the fun. Then of course we feel guilty for it, reidentify with the hero, and have even more fun watching the Superego pummel the errant Id back into submission. 17 May 2559 BE Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power 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. 17 May 2559 BE Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power 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. 17 May 2559 BE Appendix: On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power Most of us would like to smash a bank or shopping mall at least once in our lives. And as Bakunin put it, “the urge for destruction is also a creative urge.”
But in the modern state, the very status of law is a problem. This is because of a basic logical paradox: no system can generate itself. Any power capable of creating a system of laws cannot itself
be bound by them
The English, American, and French revolutionaries changed all that when they created the notion of popular sovereignty—declaring that the power once held by kings is now held by an entity that they called “the people.” This created an immediate logical problem, because “the people” are by definition a group of individuals united by the fact that they are, in fact, bound by a certain set of laws. So in what sense can they have created those laws? When this question was first posed in the wake of the British, American, and French revolutions, the answer seemed obvious: through those revolutions themselves. But this created a further problem. Revolutions are acts of law-breaking. It is completely illegal to rise up in arms, overthrow a government, and create a new political order. In fact, nothing could possibly be more illegal. Cromwell, Jefferson, or Danton were all clearly guilty of treason, according to the laws under which they grew up, just as much as they would have been had they tried to do the same thing again under the new regimes they created, say, twenty years later.
For the Right, on the other hand—and this has been true since the rise of fascism in the twenties—the very idea that there is something special about revolutionary violence, anything that makes it different from mere criminal violence, is so much self-righteous twaddle. Violence is violence. But that doesn't mean a rampaging mob can't be “the people” because violence is the real source of law and political order anyway. Any successful deployment of violence is, in its own way, a form of constituent power. This is why, as Walter Benjamin noted, we cannot help but admire the “great criminal”: because, as so many movie posters over the years have put it, “he makes his own law.” After all, any criminal organization does, inevitably, begin developing its own—often quite elaborate—set of internal rules and regulations. They have to, as a way of controlling what would otherwise be completely random violence. But from the right-wing perspective, that's all that law ever is. It is a means of controlling the very violence that brings it into being, and through which it is ultimately enforced.
This makes it easier to understand the often otherwise surprising affinity between criminals, criminal gangs, right-wing political movements, and the armed representatives of the state. Ultimately, they all speak the same language. They create their own rules on the basis of force. As a result, such people typically share the same broad political sensibilities
Why, might we ask, would a form of entertainment premised on such a peculiar notion of politics emerge in early- to mid-twentieth-century America, at just around the time that actual fascism was on the rise in Europe? Was it some kind of fantasy American equivalent? 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, small-business owners, middle managers, engineers. And what do they learn from these endless repeated dramas? Well, first off, that imagination and rebellion lead to violence; second, that, like imagination and rebellion, violence is a lot of fun; third, that, ultimately, violence must be directed back against any overflow of imagination and rebellion lest everything go askew. These things must be contained! This is why insofar as superheroes are allowed to be imaginative in any way, it could only be extended to the design of their clothes, their cars, maybe their homes, their various accessories.
It's in this sense that the logic of the superhero plot is profoundly, deeply conservative
Ultimately, the division between left- and right-wing sensibilities turns on one's attitude towards the imagination. For the Left, imagination, creativity, by extension production, the power to bring new things and new social arrangements into being, is always to be celebrated. It is the source of all real value in the world. For the Right, it is dangerous; ultimately, evil. The urge to create is also a destructive urge.
This is also what separates conservatives from fascists. Both agree that the imagination unleashed can only lead to violence and destruction. Conservatives wish to defend us against that possibility. Fascists wish to unleash it anyway
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 Watchmen—a subgenre of what might be called superhero noir
Nolan's villains are always anarchists. But they're also always very peculiar anarchists, of a sort that seem to exist only in the filmmaker's imagination: anarchists who believe that human nature is fundamentally evil and corrupt. The Joker, the real hero of the second movie, makes all of this explicit: he's basically the Id become philosopher. The Joker is nameless, he has no origin other than whatever he, on any particular occasion, whimsically invents; it's not even clear what his powers are or where they came from. Yet he's inexorably powerful. The Joker is a pure force of self-creation, a poem written by himself; and his only purpose in life appears to be an obsessive need to prove to others first, that everything is and can only be poetry—and second, that poetry is evil.