I wrote this essay with the exception of the final paragraph one year ago when I was taking classes from Andrej Grubačić and Rod Driver in Michael Albert’s School for Social and Cultural Change.
There’s a term called bureaucratization which was theorized by David Graeber. I think it’s important to understand this term, he developed it notably in a book from 2015 called The Utopia of Rules. The way that a society functions is defined by its bureaucracy, basically these are the rules. They are created by government. But increasingly corporations which in theory are supposed to be regulated by these rules, have gained enough influence that through the practice of lobbying, they’re effectively able to influence and even in some cases directly write the rules which regulate them. Some have used the term the revolving door to refer to a class of individual who works first for the government and then later in private industry, and vice versa, as another example of the close interconnection between capital and the state, and Graeber himself has basically stated that the US employs a system of legalized bribery, which in practice creates the conditions whereby people are able to effectively turn their wealth into power, and to use that power to generate more wealth. We should probably understand this to be a complex connection of politics to the economy, which might be termed a political economy.
The political economy of our day and age has taken the form of a financialized capitalism. In effect what this means is that the way money functions in our economy is different now than it was in the past. Most notably money is not backed as it used to be by some commodity, but rather is a commodity unto itself, called fiat money. The value of this fiat money is basically created when it is loaned on interest, effectively meaning that the value of this money is debt itself. What that also means is that without debt, the value of fiat money is useless. The question I want to ask is, what kind of a political economy does this create? It seems to me that it is one based on debt peonage.
Graeber has argued elsewhere that capitalism is really a transformation of slavery. This starts to make a lot of sense if one begins to see political economy as a process of coercion and control. Bureaucratization then is a complex system for bringing into being what it represents, namely a permutation of one order of social relations.
Bureaucratization could be seen as a way that humans create the type of society they have. Crucially this is different from other theories about how society functions which often tend to naturalize some aspect of the operation. What it demonstrates is the way humans shape the societies they live in. Critically, it also shows the way this activity is concentrated in the hands of a few, and is imposed from the top down, excluding the many, who are dominated hierarchically.
This is a problem. So what do we do?
One of the first steps we might take in light of this is to recognize the way bureaucracy appeals to us. Many of us associate the idea of anarchy with a dystopia of no rules. For anyone familiar with the actual political theory of anarchism, however, this is of course a fictionalized distortion which bears no resemblance to the actual political project that anarchists advocate for. If we simply look at the etymology, an in Greek meaning no, and archos, rulers; in essence what anarchism is most concerned with is the question of rulers, and not exactly the question of rules. The idea of a chaos without rules, has no value for anarchism which is actually a theory of organizing; in particular a theory of organizing without a need for coercive force, or hierarchy or domination. One of the primary assertions of anarchism then it should come as no surprise is that peaceful, effective organization without rulers, a society without domination, is possible.
What is it that makes us think otherwise?
It’s probably related to our secret love of bureaucracy, or perhaps a fear of taking genuine control over our lives.
There are trade-offs in authoritarian regimes we’re all familiar with where one gives up their autonomy, but is also relieved of the burden to have to think for themselves.
Graeber describes how in life its rules are often ambiguous, and hence the appeal of “grandiose cosmological scheme[s]” that make a claim for having the right and wrong answer for everything.
Is it that autonomy is so vertiginous to us that we would rather put up with the misery authoritarianism and hierarchy brings?
If we think about it and determine autonomy is a principle we value, then the next step towards realizing autonomy, is to understand that we can act as if we were already autonomous. It is true that the world we inhabit is everywhere filled with structural violence and the threat of coercive force. However there are still spaces, some theorists like Andrej Grubačić have called them exilic spaces, where there is nothing stopping us from acting differently than we may otherwise feel compelled to act, under a political economy which sees us treating ourselves and others as pawns in a game. Rather we could begin to practice mutual aid; we could begin to form alternative structures from the bottom up, that help us to become more autonomous through cooperation.
This leads however to a new problem which we would have to face that is the real problem facing alternative forms of organizing society, and not whether or not these forms are possible; as everywhere in history and even now happening before our very eyes, we can see that they are. The real problem facing movements to create a better world are the authoritarian reactions they produce which overwhelmingly seek to eradicate these movements, not only from existence and any representation in the media, but also from the history books. When these cannot be fully eradicated the reality around them will be distorted; what comes to mind being the popular understanding of anarchy from earlier, or similar notions of any form of emancipatory social project being doomed to failure, or the idea that any possible alternative to the current form of political economy that we have being a nice idea in principle but that in reality it could never work. Broadly, this is how liberals apprehend leftism. So in this way, they share common ground with conservatives. What this seems to show is that ideologies claiming that we can’t be free, bear a strong effect on our ability to imagine alternative social formations other than the ones which currently predominate.
This strikes me as a kind of double move, perhaps one that is related to the problem of bureaucracy.
In short the problem is that bureaucratization has brought all of society under the total control of capital and the state, in a way that is, for the vast majority of its subjects, totally compulsive and non-participatory. Over time this totality has only narrowed our ability to conceive of possible alternatives to this dominant form of social order. As such less and less energy is devoted to trying to oppose this tyranny and to enact viable alternatives, only fueling in a vicious cycle the growth of more and more pessimism and learned helplessness. There is perhaps something in the potential for conditioning the human animal which can make sentient beings come to accept an awful lot in life. But if we are to guarantee that there is a future worth living in for future generations, we simply cannot give in to such nihilism. It may not be possible to transform society for the better overnight, but it will certainly remain impossible forever, if we remain unable to untangle what is truly impossible from what is simply the sum total of decades on decades of assault on the human capacity to dream, and most crucially to enact, a better world.