Nobody seems to like bureaucracy very much, and yet somehow we always seem to end up with more of it. One can see its effects in every aspect of our lives. Indeed, bureaucracy has become the water in which we swim. It fills our days with paperwork. Application forms get longer and more elaborate. Ordinary documents like bills or tickets or memberships come to be buttressed by pages of legalistic fine print.
At least since the 19th century, the idea that a market economy is opposed to and independent of government was used to justify laissez-faire economic policies designed to lessen the role of government, and yet they never actually have that effect. Nor, for example, did English liberalism lead to a reduction of state bureaucracy; instead, we ended up with a ballooning array of legal clerks, registrars, inspectors, notaries and police officials who made the liberal dream of a world of free contract between autonomous individuals possible. And there is little doubt that maintaining a market economy requires a thousand times more paperwork than a Louis XIV-style absolutist monarchy.
I’m going to call this the age of “total bureaucratisation”. I’d like to ask why that is and, particularly, to consider the possibility that many of the blanket condemnations of bureaucracy we hear are, in fact, somewhat disingenuous. Does the experience of operating within a system of formalised rules and regulations, under hierarchies of impersonal officials, hold a kind of covert appeal?
There is a 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 a 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.
A slightly different version of the argument is that once a bureaucracy has been created, it 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 monopolise access to certain key types of information.
As Max Weber, one of the greatest German scholars of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, writes: “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret … in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism.”
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 very first bureaucracies we know of were in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and these continued to exist, largely unchanged, as one dynasty or ruling elite replaced another, for literally thousands of years. Similarly, waves of successful invaders were not enough to dislodge the Chinese civil service, with its bureaus, reports, and examination system, which remained firmly in place no matter who actually claimed the Mandate of Heaven. 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 becomes not only 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: on the one hand they are soulless; on the other, they are simple, predictable, and treat everyone more or less the same.
And, anyway, who really wants to live in a world where everything is soul? Bureaucracy enables you to deal with other people without having to engage in all those complex and exhausting forms of labour. Just as you can simply place your money on the counter and not have to worry about what the cashier thinks of how you’re dressed, you can also pull out your validated photo ID card without having to explain to the librarian why you are so keen to read about homoerotic themes in 18th-century British verse. Surely this is part of the appeal.
Of course, there is a possibility that all this goes much deeper. It’s not just that the impersonal relations bureaucracies afford are convenient; to some degree, at least, our very ideas of rationality, justice and freedom are founded on them. Consider a moment in human history when a new form of bureaucracy actually did inspire not just widespread passive acquiescence but giddy enthusiasm, even infatuation, and try to understand precisely what it was about it that seemed, to so many people, so exciting.
One reason it was possible for Weberto describe bureaucracy as the very embodiment of rational efficiency is that in the Germany of his day, bureaucratic institutions really did work well. Perhaps the flagship institution, the pride and joy of the German civil service, was the post office. In the late 19th century, the German postal service was considered one of the great wonders of the modern world. Its efficiency was so legendary that it casts a kind of terrible shadow across the 20th century. Many of the greatest achievements of what we now call “high modernism” were inspired by the German post office. One could indeed make a case that many of the most terrible woes of that century can also be laid at its feet.
To understand how this could be, we need to understand a little of the real origins of the modern social welfare state, which we now largely think of — when we think of them at all — as having been created by benevolent democratic elites. Nothing could be further from the truth. 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, neighbourhood associations, cooperatives, and working-class parties and organisations. Many of these were engaged in a self-conscious revolutionary project of gradually creating socialist institutions from below.
In Germany, the real model for this new administrative structure was, curiously, the post office — though when one understands the history of the postal service, it makes a great deal of sense. The post office was, essentially, one of the first attempts to apply top-down, military forms of organisation to the public good. Historically, postal services first emerged from the organisation 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. The Roman empire had a similar system, and pretty much all armies operated with postal courier systems until Napoleon adopted semaphore in 1805.
One of the great innovations of 18th- and especially 19th-century governance was to expand what had once been military courier systems into the basis for an emerging civil service whose primary purpose was providing services for the public. It happened first in commerce, and then expanded as the commercial classes also began to use the post for personal or political correspondence. Before long, in many of the emerging nation-states in Europe and the Americas, half the government budget was spent on — and more than half the civil service employed in — the postal service.
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.
The sparkling efficiency of the system became a point of national pride. And indeed, the German post of the late-19th century was nothing if not impressive, boasting up to five or even nine delivery times a day in major cities, and, in the capital, a vast network of miles of pneumatic tubes designed to shoot letters and small parcels almost instantly across long distances using a system of pressurised air. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin between 1891 and 1892, was so taken with it that he composed one of his only known non-satirical essays, “Postal Service”, just to celebrate its wondrous efficiency.
Nor was he the only foreigner to be so impressed. Just a few months before the outbreak of Russian revolution, Vladimir Ilych Lenin wrote: “A witty German social-democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At present the postal service is a business organised on the lines of a state-capitalist monopoly. Imperialism is gradually transforming all trusts into organisations of a similar type.
“To organise the whole national economy on the lines of the postal service, so that the technicians, foremen, book-keepers, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than ‘a workman’s wage’, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat — this is our immediate aim.”
So there you have it. The organisation of the Soviet Union was directly modelled on the German postal service.
A vision of a potential future paradise emerging from within the post office was not confined to Europe. It was only with the rise of corporate capitalism after the civil war that the US adopted something closer to the German model of bureaucratic capitalism. Again, the forms of a new, freer, more rational society seemed to be emerging within the very structures of oppression itself. The term “postalisation” emerged, a unique American coinage for nationalisation (and one which has 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 a post office, and scoring major victories for postalisation, such as the nationalisation of the private subway, commuter, and interstate train systems, which in major American cities have remained in public hands ever since.
All these fantasies of postal utopia now seem rather quaint. Today we usually associate national postal systems with the arrival of things we never wanted in the first place: utility bills, overdraft alerts, tax audits, one-time-only credit-card offers, charity appeals, and so on. Insofar as Americans have a popular image of postal workers, it has become increasingly squalid.
Yet at the same time that symbolic war was being waged on the postal service, something remarkably similar to the turn-of-the-century infatuation with the postal service was happening again. Let us summarise the story so far:
1. A new communications technology develops out of the military.
2. It spreads rapidly, radically reshaping everyday life.
3. It develops a reputation for dazzling efficiency.
4. Since it operates on non-market principles, it is quickly seized on by radicals as the first stirrings of a future, non-capitalist economic system already developing within the shell of the old.
5. Despite this, it quickly becomes the medium, too, for government surveillance and the dissemination of endless new forms of advertising and unwanted paperwork.
This mirrors the story of the internet. What is email but a giant, electronic, super-efficient post office? Has it not, too, created a sense of a new, remarkably effective form of cooperative economy emerging from within the shell of capitalism itself, even as it has deluged us with scams, spam and commercial offers, and enabled the government to spy on us in new and creative ways?
It seems significant that while both postal services and the internet emerge from the military, they could be seen as adopting military technologies to quintessential anti-military purposes. Here we have a way of taking stripped-down, minimalistic forms of action and communication typical of military systems and turning them into the invisible base on which everything they are not can be constructed: dreams, projects, declarations of love and passion, artistic effusions, subversive manifestos, or pretty much anything else.
But all this also implies that bureaucracy appeals to us — that it seems at its most liberating — precisely when it disappears: when it becomes so rational and reliable that we are able to just take it for granted that we can go to sleep on a bed of numbers and wake up with all those numbers still snugly in place.
In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I like to call “poetic technology” — when mechanical forms of organisation, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshalled to the realisation 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 democratisation of despotism. Once, the privilege of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organise themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.
This is an edited extract from David Graeber’s book ‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy’ (Melville House), published on March 12; his radio series on debt is currently being broadcast by BBC Radio 4
Slideshow photographs: Courtesy of Carl Hammoud, Galleri Magnus Karlsson and Lora Reynolds Gallery
To hear David Graeber discuss both the stupidity and secret joys of bureaucracy with the FT’s Martin Sandbu and Lucy Kellaway, go to ft.com/redtapepodcast
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