Ruled by Writing Desk

The Violence and Utopian Promise of Total Bureaucratization

Graeber, D. 2015. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. New York: Melville House Publishing.

Between March and April Dutch citizens engage in the complex national ritual of digitized forms, receipts, documents and endless letters that are lost, retrieved, sent back, lost again and resubmitted –also known as paying income tax. Yet this pinnacle of bureaucratic practice is just one instance of the many unexpected and unnoticed ways in which bureaucracy pervades, structures and captivates our lives. In The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy anthropologist and self-proclaimed anarchist David Graeber plunges us head-first in an intricate analysis of one of the most confounding aspects of the modern condition: being ruled by writing desk. How have we come to live in this “era of total bureaucratization”? In what ways are rules, regulations and paperwork entwined with financialization and violence? And why does the political left fail to articulate any substantive criticism on the encroachment of administrative procedures and control?

Graeber engages these questions in three swift and oftentimes entertaining essays. Unlike the history-dense tome of Debt: The First 5000 Years (2011), The Utopia of Rules packs a little over 200 pages. In this compact space Graeber reveals what popular delusions surround our notion of bureaucracy and suggests how we might begin to question them. For example, in describing how bureaucratic practice became all-encompassing he exposes the ‘Iron Law of Liberalism’: every deregulation in reality produces more paperwork and bureaucratic procedures, instead of less.

This total pervasiveness and proliferation of bureaucratic procedures is problematic because bureaucracies fundamentally manage social situations founded on systematic inequalities backed by the threat of force. Bureaucracies purport to be value-free and transparent but are actually, as Graeber shows and we all secretly know, neither of those things. Administrations rest on lopsided power relations that are regulated by “I-don’t-care-who-you-are-but-this-is-not-allowed” violence.

For example, police officials spend most of their time on administrative regulation: where you can drink or smoke, whether you carry identification, or what foods you can(not) sell on the street. Violate such regulations and armed officials have the power to, quite literally, enforce the law. It is this ever-present lingering threat of violence that underpins bureaucracy. Graeber thus snaps the academic left out of their Foucault-inspired daydream: violence, in particular structural violence, remains entrenched in the ways social control is maintained.

So why do we wake up every day and continue to practice capitalism and bureaucracy? Besides being supportive of violence, bureaucracies are utopian and hold a certain romantic appeal over us. To explain, Graeber presents a cosmology of game and play that hinges on what freedom means to us, and how might we achieve it. One bold move he makes for anthropological theory is the re-valuation of Levi-Strauss’ Structuralist techniques by sketching heroic political orders (such as those in Fantasy literature) as structural inversions of bureaucratic societies. Such a simplification of reality, he argues, can provide insights that cannot be achieved with a holistic perspective.

If we are to understand bureaucracy as ‘rule by writing desk’, Graeber focusses on how bureaucracies rule. He brilliantly outlines how they structure almost all aspects of modern society, backed by the threat of (state) violence and our ultimate desire to create order out of chaos. What becomes lost however, is the writing desk, or what bureaucracies actually consist of: for their material reality surely amounts to paperwork. But paperwork, Graeber notes, is boring. Anthropologists can stare at tax forms for all they like (they usually do not); no one will expect a Geertzian thick description from bureaucratic documents. Indeed, Bruno Latour has called bureaucratic records ‘the most despised of ethnographic objects’ (1990: 54).

However, the content, form and circulation of documents, as well as their forgery or mimicry, can certainly provide insight into the dynamics of social life and our relation to markets and governments. For states do exist ‘as a spectral presence materialized in documents’ (Das 2004: 250–51). Yet, insofar as ethnographies of bureaucracy focus largely on its effects rather than the social fields from which they emanate, The Utopia of Rules provides a language for investigating what drives bureaucracies and opens up promising areas of further inquiry.

Graeber ultimately aims to spark a broadly carried conversation on the predicament of total bureaucratization –its violence as well as its appeal and utopian promises. I have no doubt he will succeed at that; if anything, we will approach parking regulations, insurance protocols and tax-payments from a whole new perspective.


Das V. 2004. The signature of the State: the paradox of illegibility. In Anthropology in the Margins of the State, ed. V Das, D Poole, pp. 225–52. Santa Fe, NM: Sch. Am. Res.

Graeber, D. 2011. Debt: The First 5 000 Years. New York: Melville House Publishing.

Latour B. 1990. Drawing things together. In Representation in Scientific Practice, ed. M Lynch, S Woolgar, pp. 19–68. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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