When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles
Wallace Stevens, 13 ways of looking at a blackbird
There is a strange book out there, which, if I ever develop these blogged posts into a more scholarly collection of essays, I suppose I will have to read, and it is called On the Utopia of Rules: on technology, stupidity and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Written by an American activist academic, David Graeber, who describes himself as an “anarchist anthropologist”, it declaims the “total bureaucratization” of the world. This is the utopia of rules, in which there is a strange marriage between the worst of Capitalism and the worst of Bureaucracy, both accented with pantomime capitals.
It is very much a view from outside bureaucracy; the libertarian anarchism that seems so prevalent in American culture, and the resentment of constraints by rules and resources that is so common among the modern salaried professoriat. As a way of looking at bureaucrats, it is strangely unconvincing.
For a start, it misses the mark in describing the people who it caricatures. There are plenty of Graebers who I have encountered within the bureaucracy, who make it their mission to deregulate and strip away all constraints on the creative destruction of the merchants who they adore from afar. Far from utopians of rules, some bureaucrats are utopians of markets. I am not claiming there are not silly rules in all forms of modern bureaucracy, but these accounts of petty, rule-bound bureaucrats obsessed with process and paperwork are little more than thoughtless sneers. They bring us no closer to understanding the importance of law, as a repository of Edmund Burke’s compact between the past, present and future; nor do they really help us understand the strange and more pervasive role of utopian fallacies in modern bureaucracies.
These ways of looking at the bureaucrat suffer a conceptual hostility to the state that is itself utopian, or at least suffers from the born free fallacy described in Roger Scruton’s ever-useful, The Uses of Pessimism: and the Danger of False Hope. So John Gray’s review of Graeber’s The Utopia of Rules isolates the book’s account of bureaucracy as a utopian vision of the world ruled by rational principles. Graeber extends his anarchist vision to believing in the deformation of of the true “insurrectionary moment” by the deviation of revolutionaries from their true lawless path through the maze of bureaucracy. So Graeber quotes Lenin scornfully saying he wanted to run the Revolution “like a postal service”. And John Gray scornfully corrects Graeber in believing that such martinet exclamations were the real cause of the disappointments of the Revolution.
The state, law and strong bureaucratic institutions are gifts of the political world. They are the artefacts that make freedom possible, not the curses that suppress it. They are the associations in which negotiated solutions to our many conflicts may be discovered, beyond the limited vision, however utopian, of any one mind. As John Gray observes:
“But does it follow that state power is always and only repressive? Can’t it sometimes also be liberating? Turning away from these awkward questions to a fantasy of unfettered freedom, Graeber joins hands with the neoliberals he scorns.”
John Gray has in mind some specific examples of bureaucratic institutions, such as the United Kingdom’s post-war National Health Service, that are threatened by both the libertarianism of the merchants, the follies of the spin-doctors and a more pervasive utopia of Reform. And it is here that I begin to see more connections with my own experience.
“In Graeber’s neo-anarchist view, the state is a demonic force thwarting human freedom. This seems to me a simple-minded philosophy, but perhaps it explains why he says so little about the public services that were created as part of the postwar settlement in Britain. Not entangled in government directives as almost every public body is at the present time, these were genuinely autonomous institutions. Regulated by those who worked in them, they weren’t burdened by the bloated bureaucracy that strangles them today. But they were able to enjoy this freedom only because a public space had been created for it by the use of state power.” John Gray
I work in one deformed successor to such an institution, although its origins are further back in the nineteenth century. The Health Department of Victoria has had many incarnations, and like public health departments around the world, it has long been at the heart of the modern state. It has used public resources, rules, professional expertise, imaginative action and the authority of the state to improve the lives of the community it serves. There is no clearer measure of this than the exceptional growth in life expectancy since the mid-nineteenth century.
Yet today this public institution and its best traditions are entangled in overheated grand plans, a bloated senior executive court, and a poisonous growth of bureaucratic utopianism. This poison is not Graeber’s Utopia of Rules, but a Utopia of Reform. It is a poison not of pettiness, but of grandiosity.
This Utopia of Reform is not an exclusively bureaucratic phenomenon. The Utopian plans, visions, “systems reforms” and targets to eliminate all blights on the human condition come from many sources – politicians, activists, lawyers, academics, the not-for-profit sector, even some business leaders. There is not a single Utopia pursued, but many Reforms – projected into a “future state” which these once prudent, proud institutions now kowtow before. All of these reform ideas commit the utopian fallacy, as Roger Scruton describes it:
“Hence the utopian fallacy, which tells us that the ideal is immune to refutation. We need never turn back on our utopian aims, since utopia itself can never be realized and thus never disproved. It serves instead as an abstract condemnation of everything around us, and it justifies the believer in taking full control.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
It may seem surprising to describe the upper courts of bureaucracy as infected by Utopianism, but that is what I see around me. It is not necessarily a Utopianism without pragmatism, without cynicism, without opportunist careerism. To present yourself as a reformer, as an advocate of “change”, is the badge that marks belonging to the executive class of the bureaucracy today. And like group markers everywhere, this apparent idealistic, enthusiastic embrace of change is a declaration that those outside the club are the enemy of all their striving.
“The ideal remains forever on the horizon of our experience, unsullied and untried, casting judgement on all that is actual, like a sun that cannot be looked at but which creates a dark side to everything on which it shines.” Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
The blackbird files out of sight of the institutions which they have coerced into their dreams, and marks the edge of the future circles from which the actual people of those institutions are excluded.
Is it any wonder that there are political revolts around the world against these Utopias of Reform that have come to dominate our bureaucratic and political elites over the last thirty years? People realise, as Scruton says, that “Behind the utopia there advances another aim altogether, which is the desire for revenge against reality.” (Uses of Pessimism)
This virus of reform cannot be effectively opposed by dreams of liberation from the state, but by a restitution of the institutions of law, good government and bureaucracy. It requires a defence of the tradition of bureaucracy, governing and authority that I am groping my way towards understanding in these posts. This is necessary since, as Scruton argues, the reform solutions of the bureaucratic utopians destroy the institutions that enable us to resolve our conflicts one by one.
Rather than pursue the disappearing circles of our utopian blackbirds, we need to restore a bureaucratic tradition of sober judgement, cautious authority, prudent thought, and respectful talking to strangers.
“The solution to human conflicts is discovered case by case, and embodied thereafter in precedents, customs and laws. The solution does not exist as a plan, a scheme or a utopia. It is the residue of a myriad agreements and negotiations, preserved in custom and law. Solutions are rarely envisaged in advance, but steadily accumulate through dialogue and negotiation. They are a deposit lad down by the ‘we’ attitude, as it unfolds through norms of mutual dealing. And it is precisely this deposit, in customs and institutions, that the utopians set out to destroy.”Scruton, The Uses of Pessimism
The antidote to the Utopias of Rules and the Utopia of Reform is thus not liberation, freedom or markets, but law, institutions and a modest belief that we are all blackbirds.