Truths behind red tape

by Saif Asif Khan

effect of increasing the total number of regulations, paperwork and bureaucrats employed. Essentially, what Graeber is arguing is that bureaucracy begets bureaucracy: any efforts to do away with bureaucracy will simply end up increasing bureaucracy.

The argument sounds compelling, especially when applied in our local context.

What is the kneejerk reaction to anything that is brought to the Pakistani authorities` notice but to form a `committee`? So, one could imagine that a proposal to streamline the procedures at the passport office in Karachi would probably elicit the constitution of a team who would visit the premises, talk to relevant officials, prepare a report … so on and so forth. The bottom line is, the problem continues to linger, but you just have more men in safari suits feeling important about being tasked with an assignment. What is remarkable is how Graeber thinks this applies to Western countries equally well, whose governments we would imagine have broken free of the shackles of inefficiency and corruption.

The first essay, `Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity` addresses the relationship between power, violence and human imagination. It posits that modern-day capitalism derives authority from the threat of state-sanctioned violence, which underpins all bureaucratic structures. According to Graeber, whether or not we realise it, all rules and regulations we encounter are undergirded by actual physical violence. So, for instance, a college library may require a student to sign up for membership and swipe a card to borrow a book at the checkout booth. The procedures regulating borrowing a book may appear innocuous, but if an individual were to try to sneak out a book without swiping her card, Graeber bets it won`t be long before uniformed guards stop her.

These rules and regulations ensure that we do not object to the injustices of the status quo. They play a part, therefore, in propping up the incumbent (capitalist) system.

Furthermore, the more bureaucratic an environment, the more violent it potentially is (he mentions prisons, mafias and militaries as some of the most bureaucratic organisations, with clear rules set about decorum, protocol and procedures). Similarly, the Soviet Union with its infamous Purges and Salt Mines was also repressively bureaucratic.

The corollary of this essay is that bureaucracy is not simply annoying, meaningless rules; rather, using the threat of violence, bureaucracy allows the unfair status quo to thrive. The implication, then, is that if we do away with bureaucracy, capitalism would collapse. Somehow, this argument seems a tad stretched. What would Graeber say of tribal societies, where there are rules (customs) and violence, but no bureaucracy and no capitalism? Does Graeber think that the evolution of bureaucracy in aboriginal societies would result in automatic transition to a capitalist mode of production? Surely the link between capitalism and bureaucracy is not as straightforward as he seems to suggest.

While the argument that Graeber makes about the omnipresent threat of violence linking capitalism with bureaucracy is not so apparent, some of his other observations are certainly more relatable. For example, he talks about the use of language in postcolonial Madagascar, where he found that French has been retained as the language of `authority`, while indigenous languages were relegated to the `lesser` status of colloquial speech, or daily conversation. This sounds familiar to anyone from Pakistan who would have seen the instantaneous transition to English from Urdu in situations which supposedly warrant a more seri-ous or difficult message to be conveyed.

Similarly, the author talks about the propensity of disenfranchised groups to be more interested in the lives of the powerful, than the other way around. This explains the appeal, for instance, of outlandish soap operas about the rich among the middle class in South Asia, or the average British tabloid reader`s infatuation with the sordid details of the royal family`s lives.

In the second essay, `Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit`, Graeber argues that capitalism has inhibited, rather than promoted, creativity and technological development over the past 50 years or so. He starts with the lament that the Baby Boomers` expectations for technological progress haven`t been met; that things children in the `60s and `70s grew up watching in science fiction shows (such as flying cars and colonies on Mars) were never realised.

Graeber discounts the importance of the tremendous leaps in information technology as technological progress, calling modern-day computers `technologies of simulation`, rather than progress in reality.

He has a theory to explain the (alleged) slowdown in technical progress: that capitalists realised that better machines would empower workers by making work so easy for them that they would have too much free time, allowing them to dabble in potentially subversive activities, such as collective action. This compelled firms in the Western world during the late 1960s and early `70s to channel funds into research that makes work more bureaucratic, but less creative(more emphasis on labour discipline, workplace ethics and social control; less on creativity and imagination). Additionally, the present-day emphasis on corporatisation and privatisation of research has meant that scientists are often competing with each other, rather than sharing ideas and resources to come up with interesting and useful technologies. Bureaucracy, thus, has stymied human creativity, which cannot flourish within the confines of contemporary capitalism. The obvious implication is, get rid of capitalism, and creativity and technological progress will follow.

Again, the argument sounds slightly disingenuous. Corporatisation of research holding back pooling of ideas is a fair point, but somehow it seems too much of a conspiracy theory that by using bureaucracy, all capitalists are hatching a plot to prevent scientific breakthroughs because they want to hold workers back.

The third essay, `The Utopia of Rules, Or Why we Really Love Bureaucracy After All`, explains that bureaucracy endures because it has a covert appeal. For one, bureaucracy makes human interaction impersonal: I`d rather fill in a form about my medical history than have a conversation with a stranger at the counter about why I wish to see my urologist. But more crucially, bureaucracy helps overcome the instinctive human fear of uncertainty or arbitrariness.

While one might attribute the prevalence of bureaucracy, in at least our part of the world, simply to colonial hangover, of course, Graeber has another leftist argument here.He says that those in power see all freedom and `play` as a source of dangerous, subversive power. Having bureaucratic structures in place allows them to keep that power under control by offering a rule-bound framework for action which protects us from the chaotic and unpredictable nature of reality. The implication here seems to be (though not obvious) that if bureaucracy were to go away, unpredictability (and creativity) would return. This is an interesting proposition, but again, it isn`t entirely believable.

Graeber wraps up his book with a short essay in the appendix called `On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power` which relates Christopher Nolan`s Batman film series to some of the other themes in the book. Here, he refers to superheroes such as Superman and Batman as always being reactionary, thus representing the status quo, while he finds supervillains such as Lex Luthor and the Joker to be creative individuals. Among other things, he explains the eventual victory of superheroes in each comic book or film to be subliminal reinforcement of the eventual triumph of conservative politics over alternative forms of thinking.

Utopia of Rules isn`t quite as brilliant as Graeber`s previous book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. For one, the author seems more prone to hyperbole and a lot of his arguments are not clear or obvious. Rather, it could be argued that many of his theories about modern society appear remarkably clever when one first reads them, but on rereading, make one think, `But that`s just the application of common sense`.

Unfortunately, Graeber`s entire critique of bureaucratisation is typical of defeatist arguments which explain social phenomena as `they exist since they serve vested interests`, because that implies that perhaps nothing can be done about them.

Some of his links, such as that between violence, bureaucracy and capitalism, or between phenomena such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement, are arguably tenuous. Moreover, his definition of bureaucracy isn`t crystal clear until the very end of the book. Lastly, he advocates that removing bureaucracy will lead to the demise of capitalism but will that automatically lead to the emergence of a utopian alternative system? Certainly food for thought; but then, we cannot forget that Graeber is a self-professed anarchist. The reviewer is a political economist and has taught social sciences at various academic institutions in Karachi. N The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, prominent lef tist theorist and London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber talks about the time he needed a power of attorney letter from his mother`s bank to transfer funds, owing to her incapacitation following a stroke. His experience, with its details about endless form-filling, booth-hopping, and the inefficient, unhelpful officials he encountered along the way, is strangely reminiscent of the excruciating ordeal one goes through when visiting a government office in Pakistan for an otherwise routine task such as renewing a driving license or applying for a passport.

The anecdote serves the purpose of driving home, in part, Graeber`s core thesis: that bureaucracy the rules, regulation and paperwork that define modern-day life as we know it is exasperating, pervasive, and cross-cultural, and yet it survives in the world today because it helps maintain the status quo.

Graeber questions the proliferation of bureaucracy in our day-to-day lives: how the post-Cold War era has more application forms to be filled, more red tape, and moreseemingly authoritative experts than ever before. And yet, oddly enough, no one appears to flinch at this. Furthermore, calling the present-day an age of `total bureaucratisation`, he argues that we have been misled to believe that bureaucracy simply means civil servants or government machinery. This is a false perception, because bureaucracy today has extended its reach well beyond the public sector to control each and every aspect of life in the Western world.

Broaching the lef t-right divide in politics, the author says that if you ask anybody up front, they would admit that they revile bureaucracy, but this is a reactionary response.

Proactively, he says, only the right appears to be vociferously opposed to bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the left appears confused at best, and lacks a critique of bureaucracy.

Graeber`s book, then, is an attempt to correct this anomaly, and tries to channel thinking in this direction. Here, we see that the author`s own ideological stance is evident, which is to not-so-subtly advocate the lef t to rise against the (capitalist) status quo, which, he believes, is held in place by bureaucracy.

The manuscript comprises three essays that arebookended by a long Introduction (numbering 44 pages, an essay in itself) and an Appendix. Populated copiously with references to pop culture such as vampires, James Bond, superheroes and Star Trek, the book varies between being a fun read and bordering on the academically dense.

The Introduction gives the author`s take on bureaucracy in general and illustrates how bureaucracy has grown rather than shrunk over the years, using evidence such as the number of hours an average American or Briton spends filling out forms, or how many times bureaucracy-related terms such as `performance review` come up in everyday usage (one may have doubts about Graeber`s data sources since none are mentioned, implying that the evidence is anecdotal, but then I am on shaky ground when questioning the methodology of a London School of Economics professor).

The author goes on to explain what he calls the `Iron law of Liberalism`: that any proposed reform or government initiative that is supposed to reduce red tape (and let market forces have a free hand (something we frequently hear in economic parlance) will have the reverse, unintended

Source: Daily Dawn

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