Eight years ago David Graeber, an American anthropologist, put his elderly mother into a nursing home, after she’d had a stroke. He was then confronted not just with the horrors of her sickness but with a sea of bureaucracy. Whenever he tried to get seemingly simple things done, such as close his mother’s bank account or apply for Medicare, he encountered endless administration — followed by even more paperwork, because he kept filling the forms out wrong.
“Having spent much of my life leading a fairly bohemian student existence . . . I found myself asking my friends: is this what ordinary life for most people is like? Running around feeling like an idiot each day?” he recalls in a new book, The Utopia of Rules. “On a purely personal level, probably the most disturbing thing was how dealing with these forms somehow rendered me stupid.”
Many FT readers might sympathise. Graeber investigated further. Four years ago he penned a brilliant treatise on debt, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. His new book develops this analysis and asks why so much of modern life is dominated by endless bureaucracy and frustrating administrative tasks, whether in relation to finance, healthcare or almost everything else.
It is a curious question. At first glance, you might suppose that the mass of modern bureaucratic processes simply reflects the fact that we live in a complex world. As organisations swell in scale, they need bureaucracies to manage them. Similarly, as technology becomes more sophisticated, the job of government becomes more complex. Or so we tend to assume.
But the more you reflect on this assumption, the odder it begins to seem, given that we live in a cyber, free-market age. After all, Silicon Valley loves to celebrate the idea that the internet can make us more effective and efficient.
Yet, as Graeber points out, modern technology has not removed the bureaucratic processes, just shifted them online. “The invention of new forms of industrial automation in the 18th and 19th centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more of the world’s population into full-time industrial workers,” he observes. “So has all the software designed to save us from administrative responsibilities in recent decades ultimately turned us all into part- or full-time administrators.”
He blames the issue of spreading bureaucracy on something else: power. A century ago Max Weber, the sociologist, pointed out that bureaucracies always tend to defend their own interests as institutions. Graeber thinks the issue now is not just about the triumph of bureaucratic institutions per se but the bureaucratisation of our entire culture.
For the 21st-century world has now developed an extensive web of subtle rituals and cultural patterns around bureaucracy that make these processes seem normal — if not inevitable. And the crucial point to grasp is that this pattern supports the status quo and the position of the elite. The counterpart of rising income inequality is the spread of those bureaucratic forms.
And what makes the pattern doubly insidious — and ironic — is that reforms that are supposed to promote free-market ideals often end up creating more bureaucratic processes. Take, for example, the post-2008 banking reforms or developments in Britain’s National Health Service.
Americans do not like to think of themselves as a nation of bureaucrats — quite the opposite actually,” Graeber observes. “[But] the final victory over the Soviet Union did not really lead to the domination of the ‘market’ [but] simply cemented the dominance of fundamentally conservative managerial elites . . . no population in the history of the world has spent nearly so much time engaged in paperwork.”
Some FT readers might chafe at these anti-elite attacks. When Graeber is not teaching anthropology, he works as an activist and was a leading light in the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. And his book argues that the best response to the perils of bureaucratisation and income inequality is more Occupy-style protest; he wants radical income redistribution.
But even if you disagree with his politics, Graeber’s book should offer a challenge to us all. Should we just accept this bureaucracy as inevitable? Or is there a way to get rid of all those hours spent listening to bad call-centre music? Do policemen, academics, teachers and doctors really need to spend half their time filling in forms? Or can we imagine another world?
There are no easy answers. But the next time you see a bureaucratic form — and I have several sitting in my inbox right now — it is worth asking who really benefits from it? And, more importantly, who would suffer if we were to all suddenly rip them up? It is, perhaps, one of the more subtly revolutionary ideas of our age.
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Letter in response to this column:
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published