The Utopia of Rules - On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy

I’ve always heard great things about Debt, and I still plan on reading it. I fear, though, that Utopia of Rules may not have been a great introduction to the work of David Graeber. As social science, it is weak, lacking in strong evidence, meandering and unstructured. As social commentary, it is unfunny and only slightly insightful. If this was Graeber’s attempt at a Zizek-esque media critique, he missed the mark by quite a bit. Some examples are more on the mark than others. I’m thinking, in particular, about the James Bond vs. Sherlock Holmes dichotomy, the exploration of fantasy, the relationship between magic and law. But most of the other examples, the passages about Star Trek, about games vs play, about “The Dark Knight”, and so on are meandering, lacking structure and ultimately do not build the core argument of the book.

To make the topics he has chosen for this book interesting, Graeber has done a pretty good job. But not enough to rise above the level of novelty. At the end, I came away convinced that there is something worth exploring in the role of bureaucracy in America or democracy, but not that Graeber had done a very good job exploring it.

There are more and more outlets for popular versions of academic social science. You can read about history through Ta’nehisi Coates. Ezra Klein, Nate Silver and Henry Farrel do a good job popularizing political science. Psychology and economics are all over NPR and it’s subsidiary podcasts like Freakonomics and Planet Money. There isn’t, however, a natural place for this kind of popular home for sociology and anthropology. In so far as this book brings these ideas to a popular audience, it is somewhat successful.