I suggest to Graeber that he should bring his laptop to a new store that has just opened up in Soho, which subcontracts out to Apple customers who want a speedy return on computers with technical problems. This then leads to a conversation that draws parallels between technology and bureaucracy. It doesn’t take long for Graeber to start giving examples. “So something goes wrong with your MacBook Pro”, says the 54-year-old New Yorker, who looks considerably younger than his years. “You bring it to the Apple Store and tell them you need a new one. The employee then says that in order to get the form that says your screen is broken, you have to talk to the technical support. So immediately this bureaucratic run around begins. This is the kind of bureaucracy we used to associate with government offices, but nowadays we get it from private corporations”.
Graeber is speaking at length about this Kafkaesque form of absurdity because he’s just written a new book that explores the subject with scrupulous analysis. The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy is Graeber’s eighth publishing venture to date. In his last book, The Democracy Project, Graeber argued that anarchism— rather than being a violent movement where chaos ensues and people go around smashing windows with their hoods up— is essentially about giving the voting population the power to self-govern through egalitarian decision-making. It also publicised the fact that he was one of the leading figures in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, where he co-authored the phrase “we are the 99%”. The premise of this latest tome is that all modern western capitalist societies have become so engrossed in ubiquitous bureaucratic practices that bureaucracy has effectively become invisible. And as a result, we cannot imagine living life any other way.
Sign here, here and here
So where does technology fit into all of this? Well, Graeber says that computers have played a crucial role in keeping this endless conveyor belt of bureaucracy in motion. Just as the invention of new forms of industrial automation in the 18th and 19th centuries had the paradoxical effect of turning more and more of the world’s population into full time industrial workers, so too, says Graeber, has the software that was designed in recent decades to save us from administrative responsibilities, turned us into, well, ironically again, full time administrators. “Never before in human history have people spent as much time doing paperwork than they currently do almost anywhere in the world where computers are widely used”, Graeber says. “Of course we don’t think of this form filling as paperwork, but imagine if you had a piece of paper for every time you fill in an online form: think about how big that room would be. There would be towers miles high full of the stuff. How have we suddenly ended up in this insane maze of paperwork, without even noticing or talking about it? That’s the question I want to figure out the answer to”. Graeber makes a convincing argument about why the rulingcapitalist- class have somehow always managed to stifle the imagination of technology: pointing it in a direction that allows them to tailor it to their needs, and, crucially, to exercise social control over the masses.
To illustrate this point, Graeber quotes one of the founding fathers of liberalism, John Stuart Mill, who once said: Never did a Labour saving device actually save Labour. What exactly did Mill mean by this? And how does the quote fit into Graeber’s argument? “Well, industrial technologies were supposed to replace manpower in the 18th and 19th centuries, and presumably make our lives easier”, Graeber explains. “But huge proportions of the population actually turned into industrial workers as a result of the technology.
Somehow there seemed to be more, not less toil. And something on a similar scale seems to be happening with computers today. Just as we come up with these machines that are supposed to do the boring administrative work for us, suddenly everybody is supposed to become a travel agent, an accountant, or an administrator. Technology therefore has the exact opposite effect that it advertises”.
Smoke and mirrors
Graeber has a curious habit of connecting together various scraps from the soup of human culture, to make parallels between subjects that mightn’t normally seem to have anything binding them together. He claims, for instance, that a direct link can be made between the disappointments of the post-modern movement in the west, to how badly factory workers are treated in the impoverished global south today.
In an essay he wrote called “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” – which is included in this latest book – Graeber argues that the entire cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as ‘postmodernism’, at best can be seen as a meditation on technological changes that never happened. Bizarrely enough, he explains, this idea first occurred to him when he watched the new Star Wars movies. He began a thought experiment: contemplating how impressed people in the 1950s might be if they were transported directly to today’s world to view the movies. Would they compliment us on our ability to amalgamate graphics and technology, to produce such spell bounding effects?
Initially Graeber thought they would. But pretty quickly he changed his mind. After all, he concluded, people who wrote science fiction stories during the 1950s were convinced that we would actually be visiting other galaxies by 2015 – not creating artificial versions of these places through CGI. This initial thought then led Graeber to immerse himself in vast amounts of critical theory on the history of postmodernism. Much of this theory comes out of the Marxist tradition. In his 1991 book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism the political theorist, Fredric Jameson, argued that if the power of technologies themselves once gave us a sense of history sweeping forward, we were now reduced to a play of screens and images. When speaking about postmodernism, Jameson was referring to a new phase of capitalism, one that Ernest Mandel, another Marxist theorist, came up with back in 1972: the idea that humanity was involved in what he called the ‘Third Wave’.
This is a concept that identifies three great technological revolutions: the neolithic agricultural revolution; the industrial revolution; and a new robotic revolution, which, by Mandel’s predictions, we are now on the cusp of. According to Graeber, both Mandel and Jameson imagined that such a revolution would create a world of nano-technology and nuclear energy, where robots would reduce the toil of industrial manual labour exponentially. Such a utopian world imagines a society where production disappears, humans have more leisure time, and energy is free for everyone. The only problem, however, says Graeber, is that it didn’t happen.
“Frederick Jameson imagined postmodernism as the emerging cultural sensibility that was going to be accompanying a transformation to this new world where things would just make themselves. One of the arguments I make in this book why this didn’t happen is because industrialists, and the people in the ruling classes, were really scared of the prospect of it. So instead of robotising the factories, they actually begin to move factories overseas, where they use even lower technologies in the impoverished global south: in places like Mexico, Guatemala, Indonesia and China”. “Postmodernism was this cultural sensibility that was supposed to accompany vast technological change. But the whole concept now seems like this great enormous fraud”.
Through numerous essays he’s written, such as ”On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”, ”Technological Stagnation” and “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit”, Graeber points out that defenders of capitalism predominately use the same argument, time and time again, to justify its existence: namely, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological development. “Well that argument is now self-evidently false”, says Graeber. “It used to be that there were technological and scientific breakthroughs all the time – things like quantum theory; the Freudian unconscious; genetics; DNA; and so forth. All these things changed our fundamental ideas about reality. And we got to the point by the late 19th and early 20th century where we just expected these things to happen all the time. Similarly, in the 200 years before, say, 1960, there were new sources of energy that would just crop up every couple of generations: steam engines, internal combustion and nuclear power for instance. Then suddenly there were no new ones anymore”.
Graeber’s critics could easily put his thesis down to a daft leftwing- anarchist-conspiracy-theory. But many who come from the opposite end of the political spectrum actually agree with him. Peter Thiel, the multi-billionaire venture capitalist, founder of Paypal, and right-wing libertarian, lavished praise on Graeber, after he read his essays criticising the stagnation of technology in recent decades. “Thiel wrote to me immediately after he read “Technological Stagnation” and said: we’ve got to talk”, says Graeber. “So we did an event together with the Baffler magazine. Thiel used almost the same metaphor as me when talking about technology. He said: we were promised flying cars but instead we only got 140 characters. So there is no doubt the scientific and technological breakthroughs have clearly slowed down in the last few decades”.
Today, argues Graeber, almost all of the things that seem like technological breakthroughs, are actually much more efficient applications of technologies that already existed. A good example of this, he says, is video phones. “In 1968 Stanley Kubrick directed 2001: A Space Odyssey. Several decades later, almost none of the technologies that they expected to exist in 2001 actually did. Of course, there were the video phones, we’ve got those now. But if you look into it, the first video phone was actually debuted by the Nazi post office in 1937. They knew how to do it, but nobody wanted one”.
March of the bureaucrats
Our conversation eventually evolves to a discussion about a prominent trend that seems to have occurred at various epochs in history: where there has always been those who think that technological progress is corrupting society in some shape or form. The Luddites are one such example: these were the 19th century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-replacing machinery, as the industrial revolution exploded in Britain. The luddites smashing their machines has since become a symbol of reactionary behaviour in the face of inevitable technological progress. But, as british historian Eric Hobsbawm posits in his 1952 essay, “The Machine Breakers”, they were merely displaying worker solidarity, and not a distrust of technology.
“The luddites were not against technology as such. They were against those forms of technology that mitigated against communal well being. They saw that if you unleash this thing, it will untie all the social fabrics that make life meaningful for people. Now you could apply a similar analysis to computers and other new technologies”. Today, there exists a neo-liberal consensus that has subtly coerced people through technology, Graeber argues, by presenting the complete financialisation of every aspect of our society as almost infallible. This predominately began, he claims, in the 1970s, when the banking sector seemed to be far keener than most to incorporate computers into their operating procedures. “Back then, computers were just the epitome of bureaucratic stupidity and mindlessness”, says Graeber.
He pauses for a moment and begins to smile. As someone who was a teenager in the 1970s, Graeber says he remembers a time when computers used to be the butt end of everyone’s jokes. And yet, he says, it seems like all of a sudden we have got to the point where they’ve become the ground of our existence. “It began with what I call the double movement, which happened in the 1970s: where basically there was a realignment of the upper echelons of the corporate bureaucracy, who shifted from being orientated to making cars, perfume, or whatever other goods you can think of, towards information technologies and computers. This makes sense for those who are obsessed with bureaucracy because financialisation is a realisation of a core bureaucratic principle: that value comes from paperwork”.
Ultimately, Graeber believes, the bureaucratisation of society is now driving technology, rather than the other way around. And should we be worried about how this paperwork and bureaucracy – which essentially shapes the path to which technology constantly evolves towards – is drastically changing society, presumably for the worse? Graeber seems to think so. “All we need to do is look at the straight path from the guys who are deciding how disabled you are, to the audit culture deciding how good your teaching is, to the guys in the city [of London, ed.] who are sitting around taking bets on how long it’s going to be before you default on your mortgage”, he says. “What this shows us is that financialisation is the ultimate apotheosis that value comes from paperwork. That’s all a debt obligation, or any of those derivatives actually are: fancy pieces of paperwork. And yet, we are constantly told that these are supposed to be the ultimate source of value in our society”.