The Joy and Pain of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is bad…when it’s self serving. 

The Financial Times published an excerpt from David Graeber’s book ‘The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.’

Here’s the LINK.

In the article, Graeber outlines how “bureaucracy,” typically a word used as a slur by die-hard capitalists, is actually the source of a covert love affair.

To wit (with my emphasis added):

“In this sense, bureaucracy enchants when it can be seen as a species of what I like to call “poetic technology” — when mechanical forms of organisation, usually military in their ultimate inspiration, can be marshalled to the realisation of impossible visions: to create cities out of nothing, scale the heavens, make the desert bloom. For most of human history this kind of power was only available to the rulers of empires or commanders of conquering armies, so we might even speak here of a democratisation of despotism. Once, the privilege of waving one’s hand and having a vast invisible army of cogs and wheels organise themselves in such a way as to bring your whims into being was available only to the very most privileged few; in the modern world, it can be subdivided into millions of tiny portions and made available to everyone able to write a letter, or to flick a switch.

I’m no fan of useless structure or artifice.  But I do like effective structure and relentless clarity.  Sometimes, a little bit of engineered bureaucracy provides that.

Further, in my professional experience, the irony is this:  Those who decry “bureaucracy” the most tend to be the ones who are protecting their own, personal, “democratisation of despotism.”  They cry out against control that is not their own…regardless of its impact on effectiveness.

The real measure ought not be the amount of bureaucracy applied to a given problem, but whether the bureaucracy actually makes you or your organization more effective.

Perhaps one person’s bureaucracy is merely another person’s way of making sense of the world.

It’s bad when it’s self serving.



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