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

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  2,369 ratings  ·  309 reviews
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 bureaucr
Hardcover, 261 pages
Published February 24th 2015 by Melville House (first published 2013)
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☘Misericordia☘ ~ The Serendipity Aegis ~  ✺❂❤❣
Loved it! Now, where exactly ARE:
🎲 my flying cars &
🎲 clones & androids & their electric sheep &
🎲 teleportation &
🎲 the (anti)gravity fields &
🎲 the era of time & space travel &
🎲 the era of space-travelling societies &
🎲 all the visits to other galaxies &
🎲 all the other miracles things I was promised in all the sci-fi (including the Star Track!)?
I'm not too sure I really want clones and the idea of time travel gives me migraines but the rest, I want it. Who stole it, now, raise my hand! All the
Kevin Elliott
Feb 02, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2015-reads
I want to nominate David Graeber as national treasure. Not only was he responsible for planning the Occupy Wall Street movement and coining the slogan, "We are the 99%," but Graeber is one of those rare academic writers who writes clearly and entertainingly. Unlike many high profile intellectuals and activists, he also doesn't turn a blind eye from his current place in the system he often critiques and urges conversations about.

In THE UTOPIA OF RULES, Graeber examines the evolution, reaction aga
Mar 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
I thought this would be a soggy cornflakes sort of book: comforting, full of history and anecdote, and a bit of superficial social theory thrown in to demonstrate the author's intellectual credentials.

It was a full English breakfast - with the black pudding! This is a densely packed series of essays that explores the theoretical underpinnings of bureaucracy; our hate-love affair with it; its role in society and history; and even its meanings as understood, symbolized, and depicted in popular cul
Michael Burnam-Fink
Sep 16, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: academic, sts, 2015
I feel disappointed, and a little betrayed. Debt was my most important book of the decade; A sequel on bureaucracy could be an equally ground breaking contribution. Unfortunately, this is a wandering and disconnected series of weakly researched essays that, while making a few interesting points, buries them under digressions and inaccuracies.

Graeber start with the experience of having his stroke-ridden mother declared legally incompetent, disabled, and then dead, and the kafka-esque absurdity o
Feb 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
Graeber is a good writer (I enjoyed Debt and Fragments) - but, having finished this book, I'm just not sure what I read.

So, bureaucracy is institutionalized violence - okay. Bureaucracy can be efficient, so workers get more things if they don't mind being alienated (defined as the 'warping and shattering of the imagination'). Bureaucracy describes the rules of the game that emerge from anarchic free-play. And "What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play" (p.193).

I thin
Emma Sea
An exceptional book. Elegantly argued, clear, and insightful. I really cannot recommend this enough.

Mar 05, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: reviewed-by-me
Graeber's topic in this book is, more or less, an attempt work through some answers to the question: why are we so in love with rules? And why is it that even when we try to get rid of rules, paperwork, "red tape," and bureaucracy, we always seem to get more?

I'm going to sum this book up with a summary of a section towards the end: pp. 190-200 or so.

Graeber notes that for a long time academic departments ran themselves based on custom. I can tell you that this is true as well for a lot of small
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
This is the third book by Graeber that I have read the other two books being, "Bullshit Jobs", and "Debt". All three books are on realities staring us in the face, that we ignore, and take as a given rarely thinking about the nature of what they really are and really mean in our lives. The first book, Bullshit Jobs, explores the fact that 40% of workers in the US think their jobs contribute nothing of useful economic value and what it is like to draw a paycheck from pointless labor.
"Debt" exp
Apr 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I was gripped and absolutely fascinated by this book. It is one of those pieces of writing that examines matters that I’ve read quite a lot about (the structural flaws of capitalism, why we can’t imagine a better world, what X popular cultural artifact tells us about society) yet from what feels like a fresh perspective. Moreover, this fresh perspective illuminates certain other things I’ve read recently and forges fresh connections between existing bits of knowledge in my head. Reading it was t ...more
Lewis Hodgson
Jan 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I found the ideas in this book and Graeber's writing style oddly calming. Reflecting on the absurdity that modern power structures are based on (essentially, we all do as we're told because the state has a monopoly on the power to hit people over the head with a stick) and the bureaucratic pretence that informs much of our lives is freeing and will resolve anxiety more than any self help book.
William Leight
Sep 18, 2015 rated it it was amazing
The only problem with “The Utopia of Rules” is that you end up wishing you were reading “Bureaucracy: The First 5000 Years” (to coin a title) instead. Well, it probably wouldn’t be called that, since Graeber is more concerned with bureaucracy in the modern world, and in particular the way that our society is the most bureaucratized in history, but it would still be an overview of the subject that would fully flesh out the arguments and tie all the pieces together in a way that “The Utopia of Rul ...more
Dubi Kanengisser
Sometime in 2000 I came across an ad in the newspaper telling of a panel that will take place in a club in Tel-Aviv on the topic of "can there be revolution in Israel?". Naive, young, libertarian me understood this to be a debate on whether Israel is in danger of a revolution. I was wrong. It was a panel of anarchists bemoaning the fact that revolution will never occur in Israel for various nonsensical reasons.

Many years have passed since. I drifted left and now consider myself a social-democrat
May 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sociology
I read this book during subway rides to and from administrator-led meetings on methods of assessment for student learning "competencies" for such abstract concepts as "Global Learning" to ensure we can show our "outcomes" are such that we can receive accreditation . I'm sure my fellow riders took me for a little off my rocker as I was nodding furiously or chuckling frequently at the descriptions of bureaucratic stupidity so completely familiar.
Some of the reviews here have complained that the e
Rob Trump
Apr 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Not quite as mind-expanding as either Debt or Graeber's under-appreciated (at least on Goodreads) book on value theory, but still brimming with novel ideas, erudite in an off-beat way (topics range from Madagascar to the postal service to Dungeons & Dragons), and most of all incredibly fun to read. Two of these essays (on flying cars and Batman) I had read and re-read in The Baffler and The New Inquiry, enough times that I feel confident in saying both have 20-30% more material than the original ...more
Oct 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I love practically everything Graeber writes. This one made me see the world differently. I wish I had read this one before a few of his other ones (like the Democracy Project and Bullshit Jobs) because this one holds the theoretical foundations under the other two. I have to think more about the theories in here and I'll probably come back to a few of these essays again, but it was such an enlightening read. He's just so lucid and radical that it's really refreshing.
Jan 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, politics
This book wasn't quite as good as Debt, which is one of my favorite books, but does a really spectacular job of showing the invisible structure created by bureaucracy. I say invisible because the rules by which bureaucracy is governed so often go unseen and unquestioned. By design, each person does their little job and doesn't question or even think much about the bigger picture. It's a good way to keep control and authority in the hands of the powerful and money in the hands of the already rich ...more
Tara Brabazon
Jun 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Tremendous book. This book won me over the moment Graeber asked why he was printing his name where he was asked to sign, and sign where he was asked to print. The irrational - stupid - rules and procedures of bureaucracy of outlined and explained.

There are so many sentences that can trigger entire books in response. This is rich research. Evocative. Powerful. Provocative. A thrill and pleasure to read.
Jun 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
The digressions are reason enough to read this book. Tangential topics included Star Trek Universe politics, Superhero Comics, The Dark Knight Rises (sucks), the idea of the postal service, and rural life in Madagascar. I thought the real focus of this book is how violence is integrated into our everyday systems of rules, and how that leads us to accept the idea that everyday violence is necessary to maintain society.
Jan 24, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: social-science
I loved the author's book on Debt and greatly enjoy his authorial voice. Like him or hate him, he has a way of reconsidering social structures that stimulate new ways of thinking about subjects like money, power, play, and work. So as something of a career civil servant and David Graeber fanboy, I had tremendous anticipation to read this anthropologist's exposition of bureaucracy. But what an infuriating and disappointing book! Here we have essays of ill-considered invective, signifying very lit ...more
Ármin Scipiades
Nov 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: politics, society
Well, wow.

So, this is a collection of three essays about bureaucracy. Not really scientific essays, more like musings and ramblings about humanity's love/hate relationship with bureaucracies. When I picked it up, I thought it'd be some light reading. I mean, like, it would feature cute little stories, and some deep truths one could ruminate on, but not too much unpleasantness, sort of like Private Island: How the UK Was Sold was. I didn't know much if anything about Graeber (yes, SHAME ON ME).

Mar 29, 2015 rated it did not like it
We are told right on the cover that David Graeber is brilliant. The overwhelming number of stars and praise for The Utopia of Rules seems to justify it. What I read though, was a a bunch of thrown together essays written stream of consciousness style, jumbles of logic with vague points leading nowhere, and statements of caricature masquerading as fact, and several fantastical 'rebuttal' arguments with fictional critics.
What is bureaucracy? We don't know. Mr Graeber launches into the subject wit
Oct 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
I just don't know how David Graeber can be so politically and intellectually radical and still present his work in a way that's engaging and easy to understand. In this book, he explains why bureaucracy is so stupid, why we don't have flying cars yet, why some people find steam punk so appealing, how Lenin felt about the German postal system, and why The Lord of the Rings had to be written in the 20th century. If you like anything geeky or fannish (police procedurals, Star Trek, LOTR, Dungeons a ...more
Nov 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book! I don't understand how Graeber, in between teaching anthropology at Yale, occupying Wall Street, and coining the phrase "the 99 percent", found time to experience life in a large USAmerican corporation. He probably didn't. And the book is not really about that, anyway. But -- it's uncanny -- there are moment when I feel he must've spent considerable time in my world. Sitting just millimeters behind my left ear, for example, as I scan my Outlook for nuggets of relevant information ...more
Deep and disquieting book. With Batman.
Alison Smith
Bullshit Jobs was, for me, a worldview-altering, I-will-reference-this-book-for-the-rest-of-my-life type of book.¹

So I picked up David Graeber’s earlier book, The Utopia of Rules, and OH BOY. Rather than having one central thesis like Bullshit Jobs, it’s a collection of essays around a central theme: bureaucracy in its modern, late-stage-capitalist incarnation. Graeber is a visionary thinker who left me all, “Can you use fewer big words pls?” once per page. I often felt like it was only at the
Bar Shirtcliff
Feb 25, 2015 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Edward Rathke
Mar 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I avoided this book by Graeber primarily because it sounds incredibly dull. But I should have known better, Graeber being the writer that he is, that he could turn something as dull as bureaucracy into a riveting examination of political and social life.

As is typical of Graeber, he doesn't set out to prove anything or even to really make an ideological stand. His books and essays are almost always open ended questions. Sort of if X, then Y...what does this all say about A?

This book is really jus
Mar 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Absolutely fantastic. I work in a bureaucracy for a living and, after seeing how ridiculous it can be, wanted to find something outside of the usual Public Administration tomes like Bureaucracy: What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It. You're probably wondering, "Why in the world would someone who works for the Federal Government want to read about bureaucracy? You live it daily!." Well, that is true. However, The Utopia of Rules is much more about the bureaucratization of everyday life t ...more
Rob Adey
Apr 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fun read and not what I was expecting. I was a little worried at first by the often hand-wavy approach to evidence ("There's no data for this phenomenon, but if you imagine this graph for me, it'd probably look like this over time..."), but I guess evidence isn't the thing with anthropologists, and anyway the book becomes a fairly convincing philosophical argument about the stupidity and, ultimately, violence of bureaucracy, and for some kind of anarchism.

I knew vaguely enough about a
Mar 11, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: theory
Graeber has been on my radar for a while now, mainly for his role as a supplier of anarchist sound bites to major media outlets, but also for his writing. The Utopia of Rules was the first time he made it into my hands. I found it smart, easy (for theory), and entertaining--everything you might expect given his relative popularity.

I should clarify: it's entertaining as reading (good questions, fast moving, plenty of cookies), but boring as politics. The anarchism he promotes (not very rigorously
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David Rolfe Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist.

On June 15, 2007, Graeber accepted the offer of a lectureship in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he currently holds the title of Reader in Social Anthropology.

He was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him, and his te

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