Author(s): David Graeber
Where does the desire for endless rules, regulations, and bureaucracy come from? How did we come to spend so much of our time filling out forms? To answer these questions, anthropologist David Graeber - one of the most prominent and provocative thinkers working today - takes a journey through ancient and modern history to trace the peculiar and fascinating evolution of bureaucracy over the ages. He starts in the ancient world, looking at how early civilizations were organized and what traces early bureaucratic systems have left in the ethnographic literature. He then jets forward to the nineteenth century, where systems we can easily recognize as modern bureaucracies come into being. In some areas of life - like with the modern postal systems of Germany and France - these bureaucracies have brought tremendous efficiencies to modern life. But Graeber argues that there is a much darker side to modern bureaucracy that is rarely ever discussed. Indeed, in our own 'utopia of rules', freedom and technological innovation are often the casualties of systems that we only faintly understand. Provocative and timely, the book is a powerful look at the history of bureaucracy over the ages and its power in shaping the world of ideas.
The author found the inspiration to write this book after the hoops and sheer stupidity of the obstacles he had to go through when he had to obtain Power of Attorney for his mother after she had a debilitating stroke. This got him thinking about rules and their unintended consequences. 'Unintended consequences' feature greatly in this book, and the author is particularly good at picking up the consequences that have occurred when conservative governments have continually whittled away at the bureaucracy under the guise of making it more efficient and in fact, to the general public, have made it appear stupid. My personal example of this, co-incidentally, happened while I was reading this book. I applied for my National Superannuation on-line and made an appointment with DSW. I received a reply politely informing me that my appointment was in Motueka as Nelson didn't have a 'Senior Centre'! So, in the interests of efficiency, I am dealt with by someone in Auckland/Wellington who doesn't know their geography and doesn't know that there are 'Senior Centres' in Stoke and Richmond. I hate to think what this would mean to someone who doesn't think to question this and travels unnecessarily to Motueka. Other unintended consequences are that 'deregulation' means changing the system of regulation from one that encourages a few large firms to one that fosters carefully supervised competition between midsize firms, but in the case of banking it has had exactly the opposite, where you now have a handful of financial conglomerates dominating the market. The neo-liberal action of easing the tax regime on business has had an unintended effect: in the days of higher taxation firms were willing to put money into research, as firms were into making things, not money, and into higher wages for workers, which bought loyalty rather than see that money go to the government as tax. The changes in the 1970's and 80's of slashing tax rates saw Chief Executives giving the profits to investors in dividends and no longer looking at productivity or staff. This book certainly gives you food for thought as the author also gives examples of bureaucracy at its best, before it is meddled with my well-intended neo-liberal politicians. - Peter