Readings — From the March 2015 issue

In Regulation Nation

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By David Graeber, from The Utopia of Rules, published last month by Melville House. Graeber is the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. His most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “Army of Altruists,” appeared in the January 2007 issue.

Nobody thinks much about bureaucracy anymore. But in the middle of the twentieth century, particularly in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the word was everywhere. It dominated works of sociology with grandiose titles like A General Theory of Bureaucracy, popular paperbacks like The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong, and novels and films such as Joseph Heller’s Something Happened and Jacques Tati’s Playtime. Everyone seemed to feel that the foibles and absurdities of bureaucratic life were among the defining features of modern existence and, as such, worth discussing.

Today, the subject rarely comes up; perhaps we’ve simply become habituated. When we do discuss bureaucracy, we still use terms established in the Sixties and Seventies. The social movements of the Sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against the bureaucratic mind-set, the gray functionalism of both state-capitalist and state-socialist regimes, the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states. In the face of social control, Sixties rebels stood for individual expression and spontaneous conviviality.

With the collapse of the old welfare states, this kind of rebellion has come to seem decidedly quaint. As the right has adopted the language of anti-bureaucratic individualism, insisting on “market solutions” to every social problem, the mainstream left has limited itself to salvaging remnants of the old welfare state. It has acquiesced to — and often spearheaded — traditionally right-wing attempts to make government efforts more “efficient,” whether through the privatization of services or the incorporation of “market principles,” “market incentives,” and marketbased “accountability processes.” The result has been political catastrophe.

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