Firm Commitment: Why the Corporation Is Failing Us and How to Restore Trust in It, by Colin Mayer. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013, 320 pp., ISBN: 978 0 19 966993 6, £16.99, paperback.

Publication Date01 Dec 2015
AuthorShinichi Hirota
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/bjir.12158
53:4 December 2015 0007–1080 pp. 816–834
The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, by
David Graeber. Melville House, New York,2014, 261 pp., ISBN: 9781612193748,
$21.55, hardback.
Popular right-wing punditry has often emphasized the supposed association between
the public domain and ‘bureaucracy’. It is the profit-making sphere that encourages
individual creativity, and anything that impedes the market only creates more
paperwork. David Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules attacks this self-serving dichotomy
from various angles. In his view, the right wing line has succeeded not because of its
accuracy,but simply in the absence of an alternative. Under neoliberalism, the left has
been cornered into defending bureaucraticpublic institutions, which it once would have
critiqued. The agenda here is to catalyse a strongerleft analysis of bureaucracy, albeit
through a sequence of connected but distinct essays rather than a finished theoretical
Graeber sees bureaucracy as the symbiosis of private profit making and State
power. Stifling and coercive institutions are created by governments, but are shaped
by, and primarily benefit, private interests. He rejects the Weberian characterization
of bureaucracy as rule-based, instead seeing elite connivance as its fundamental
feature. He insists that any system of rules has to have a creator and enforcer
who is, by definition, beyond it (the police force is a poignant example). Violence
therefore implicitly underpins bureaucracies in a very literal sense, and he is annoyed
by the Foucauldian emphasis on symbolic forms of violence. His anthropological
research leads him to argue that the threat of physical violence constantly underpins
the expansion of capitalist societies. And he argues that any expansion of the
market sphere inevitably engenders more coercive rule-making and forces out, rather
than unleashes, individual creativity. He terms this principle the ‘Iron Law of
The themes of bureaucracy and violence converge in Graeber’s idea of ‘structural
stupidity’. The observation that bureaucracymakes intelligent people behave stupidly
is not new, but he oers an interesting explanation for the phenomenon. He refers
to ‘interpretive labour’: the eort that someone has to exert to understand another’s
situation and perspective. Only subordinate groups ever have to do this; others have
the luxury of not needing to. One example among many oered by Graeber: women
have been expected throughout history to view keeping their husbands happy as an
exact science, but men have often made a great song and dance (literally) about the
mystical incomprehensibility of women. This is a kind of ‘institutionalized laziness’
predicated on inequality,which has pedantic form filling and closed-o proceduralism
as its outcome. Against this, Graeberemphasizes the importance of imagination, that
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Book Reviews 817
is the ability to think aboutand understand human needs and to collectively formulate
means of addressing them. This is precisely what capitalists do not want to happen,
and precisely what bureaucracyprevents.
Graeber’s discussion of imagination, or the lack thereof, leads to an entertainingly
provocative essay on technology. He scornfully juxtaposes the assumption of 1950s
sci-fi writers that by 2000 humans would all have flying cars, with the tedious
incremental trudge of slightlyupdated smartphones and tablets (invariablymarketed as
‘revolutionary’). What explainsthis anti-climax? He mentions the Marxist idea of the
declining rate of profit as a cause of technological under-investment, but it is unclear
whether he agrees.His main answer is the ‘Iron Law of Liberalism’. His example may
resonate with readers of this journal:
Common sense dictates that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you
find some bright people, give them resources they need to pursue whatever idea
comes into their heads, and then leave them alone for a while . .. If you want to
minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they
will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing
against each other to convince you they already know what they are going to
The final essay is more psychoanalytical in tone, considering the ‘covert appeal’ of
bureaucracy. He has a fascinating discussion of science fiction and fantasy culture.
Whereas the wizards and adventurers of Victorian romances were profoundly anti-
bureaucratic creations, phenomena such as Harry Potter reflect an appreciative
fascination with the rules and procedures of the worlds they create (this is to say
nothing of the compendia of rules and statistics associated with Dungeonsand Dragons
or Games Workshop hobbying). His conclusion is that these bureaucratized forms of
fun constitute ‘games’ rather than ‘play’. Play rejects rules in favour of free-flowing
creative imagination.Power elites, he argues,have taken full advantage of a deep-lying
fear of playwithin the human psyche. Hence to succeed, activist groups such as Occupy,
the people Graeber is ultimately seeking to inspire and advise, should actively seek
to reclaim untrammelled imagination and reject ‘gaming’ tropes such as rule systems
and ‘accountability’. These are things which legitimate and thus reinforce divisions of
Graeber’s book is enjoyable and thought-provoking, prizing sharp, sometimes
profound, insights over systematic academic rigour. Sometimes, as with Slavoj ˇ
the pop cultural parallels can seem like the tail wagging the dog, but at other
points they are entertaining and genuinely interesting. Graeber pinpoints superheroes
as the perfect icons for the bureaucratic age because their modus operandi is so
pathetically devoidof imagination: Superman’s entire job is to react to individualcases
of rule-breaking as and when they emerge. This seems like a dumbfounding waste
of an extraordinary talent. Imagine what he could do if he turned his attention to
problems such as inadequate housing or sanitationin the developing world. The more
psychological discussion of games and play in the latterstages seems a departure from
the materialist thrust of the earlier chapters. I was not convinced that one necessarily
needs to recognize a ‘secret joy’ in bureaucracy to understand why it exists, especially
given the persuasiveness of Graeber’s own analysis of the power relations and private
interests which it serves.But the task Graeber has set himself is an invaluable one, and
it is a great shame that manyof these insights did not gain wider currency in the earlier
2015 John Wiley& Sons Ltd/London School of Economics.

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