What we cannot say about bureaucracy

“..the situations created by violence — particularly structural violence, by which I means pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed by the threat of physical harm — invariably tend to create the kids of willful blindness we normally associate with bureaucratic procedures. To put it crudely: it is not so much that bureaucratic procedures are inherently stupid, or even that they tend to produce behaviour that they themselves define as stupid — though they do do that — but rather, that they are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence.

…Comparative analysis suggests there is a direct relation, however, between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity it is seen to produce. Keith Breckenridge (2008), for example, has documented at some length the regimes of “power without knowledge,” typical of colonial South Africa, where coercion and paperwork largely substituted for the need for understanding African subjects. The actual installation of apartheid in the 1950s, for example, was heralded by a new pass system that was designed to simplify earlier rules that obliged African workers to carry extensive documentation of labor contracts, substituting a single identity booklet, marked with their “names, locale, fingerprints, tax status, and their officially prescribed ‘rights’ to live and work in the towns and cities” (Breckenridge 2005: 84), and nothing else. Government functionaries appreciated it for streamlining administration, police for relieving them of the responsibility of having to actually talk to African workers. African workers, for their parts, universally referred to the new document as the dompas , or “stupid pass”, for precisely that reason.

Andrew Mathews’ ethnography of the Mexican forestry service in Oaxaca likewise demonstrates that it is precisely the structural inequality of power between government officials and local farmers that allows foresters to remain in a kind of ideological bubble, maintaining simple black-and-white ideas about forest fires (for instance), that allow them to remain pretty much the only people in Oaxaca who don’t understand what effects their regulations actually have.

..Bureaucracies, I’ve suggested, are not themselves forms of stupidity so much as they are ways of organizing that stupidity — of managing relationships that are already characterized by extremely unequal structures of imagination, which exist because of the existence of structural violence. This is why even if a bureaucracy is created for entirely benevolent reasons, it will still produce absurdities.”

—-‘Dead Zones of the Imagination’, David Graeber.


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