Hate bureaucrats? Then stop supporting violent states.
By Graeber’s (Anthropology/ London School of Economics; Debt: The First 5,000 Years, 2011) account, the unbending single-mindedness of the bureaucratic is not “inherently stupid” but is instead a function of that violence: Bureaucratic procedures “are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.” Waiting in line at the DMV is, of course, better than being tortured in some dank basement. But what Graeber means by structural violence is a system “that ultimately rests on the threat of force,” whether police officers, drill sergeants, tax auditors, or all the other agents who support a system that spies, cajoles and threatens—but that also makes it possible, he reminds us, for graduate students to read Foucault and think lofty thoughts. This complex of definitions lands Graeber squarely in the anarchist tradition, and though he layers contemporary anthropological theory into his analysis, he serves up a clear and generally jargon-free argument. Interestingly, he ventures, arguments against bureaucracy tend to come from the right wing and not the left because the right, at least, has a theory of what bureaucrats do, even if “the right-wing critique can be disposed of fairly quickly.” The author’s analysis of how bureaucracies form lacks historical depth but ranges widely across the modern stage, and it offers a critique that a good leftist can use without simply watering down what a rightist might say—including his elegant “iron law of liberalism,” which holds that “any market force, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.”
A sharp, oddly sympathetic and highly readable account of how big government works—or doesn’t work, depending on your point of view.