Quick decisions

Last week I went to a rally to protest a series of raids by ICE in my city. The rally turned into an unplanned march through the streets, and I had to make two quick decisions: first, whether to join the march, and second, whether to remain in the street when the police started to give warnings.

When the march started and I had to decide whether or not to join, I had the following thoughts:

  • Shit, are we going to get arrested for this?
  • There’s several hundred of us, they probably won’t arrest us.
  • But it’s illegal, so we *could* be arrested. What would happen if I did?
  • I just got arrested for civil disobedience a few weeks ago, would there be extra consequences because of that?
  • Maybe, but there’d be *less* consequences because I’m white and a woman and a citizen and all my family are citizens.
  • And they’re probably not going to arrest people anyway.
  • Okay, let’s do this.

We marched for about thirty minutes, to the location where the raids had taken place, and then we stayed in the street. At one point, the police started to give warnings, and the leaders of the protest told anyone who didn’t want to risk arrest to move to the sidewalk.

  • Okay, they really might arrest us.
  • There are still a lot of us though. And the more of us stay in the street the less likely they are to arrest any of us.  And I’m still way less vulnerable than a lot of the people here.
  • But I haven’t even told anyone I might be arrested. I have no plan for this.
  • There will be other times to risk arrest later, when I’ve had a chance to research and plan. It’s not selfish to want to be prepared.

So I got up on the sidewalk. A lot of people stayed in the street, and no one ended up getting arrested.

I do feel a little bad that I didn’t stay in the street and risk arrest, but I think it was a reasonable decision. The context changed, and my actions changed, but my values stayed the same, and I stayed consistent with them.

There’s no one set of rules that can govern all of our decisions. There’s no “right choice”, only choices that are better or worse than others, and often you don’t even know what’s better or what’s worse until everything’s over.

One of my favorite fictional characters is Chidi Anagonye from The Good Place. Chidi has severe anxiety about making morally good decisions and I identify with him so much. I mean, my job used to be to stick people inside of magnets and give them moral dilemmas, of course I identify with Chidi. But his approach to morality is unhealthy. He’s obsessed with making the right decision, when the right decision doesn’t exist. His desire to be good actually makes him do less good.

I’m not always going to make the best decision, but I can be thoughtful about the decisions I do make. There will always be room to criticize, but I can learn from self-reflection and from the feedback of others without thinking that a better person would have done something different.

Judgment Above Principle, Judgment After Principle

Principles are really important, and by and large you should try hard to stick to them.  I have tremendous respect for those who have died or gone to jail for their principles.

That said, a principle is just a rule, albeit a highly abstracted and abnormally emotional rule.  And it is important not to follow rules blindly but to consider whether they apply in a given situation.  It is rare that a principle applies in all situations for a given person (how many people truly would never kill, even in self defense?) and it is impossible for a principle to apply in all situations for all people.  So you have to use your personal judgment.

This doesn’t mean “oh, whatever, just go with your gut”.  But it does mean “I have thought deeply about this and weighed the various principles and factors involved and this is what my gut says”.  Hence the title of this post*.  “Judgment Above Principle”: aka personal judgment is more important than sticking to principles.  “Judgment After Principle”: aka personal judgment requires a thoughtful consideration of principles.  It is not a rejection of principles but a transcendence of them.

This post on Emptywheel highlights a great example of putting judgment above principle:

Marcy’s post was not primarily about the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 election, though that is what has gotten a lot of the attention. What she was really talking about was the practice  — or should I say “malpractice”? — of journalism. Woven into the entire post, Marcy laid out how she wrestled with a very basic question: What do you do, as a journalist, when a confidential source lies to you?

I highly recommend reading both Marcy Wheeler’s original post, Putting a Face (Mine) to the Risks Posed by GOP Games on Mueller Investigation, and Peterr’s analysis (linked above).

* The post title is also a play on a paper I was co-author on.  It’s not really relevant to this post, except as a reminder that I’ve been obsessed with morality for a while.  😉

 

Money, and the violence of lost context

It is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.

This is just a thought experiment, of course, but the point of it is to bring out and make explicit that contrast. While the perversity of paying off your debts to your parents hardly needs comment – or of them garnishing your wages to pay for the hospital costs of birthing you – it is just as unspeakably normal for our debts to banks to seem, always and forever, the first thing we need to honor and respect. Graeber argues that this contrast, and our failure to register it as such, demonstrate the conceptual constriction of possibility that has come to be built into the moral landscape of our present: it is because a quantifiable debt could be paid off, with numerical precision, that it can therefore be seen as an imperative to do so, and becomes a moral failing when it is not. More than that, it becomes not only a moral failing that is enforceable and punishable, but a moral reasoning which makes the violence of that constraint your own fault, your own choice: no one forced me to take on student debt, goes the reasoning; it was my own choice. And so, the violence of debt collection is just chickens coming to roost.

Let us, then, look with new eyes at the fact that when a dictator takes out a loan from a Western bank – pledging as his surety the future revenues produced by the people who he uses men with guns to rule — we can be utterly sure that long after he is dead and gone, that debt will live on. Banks will not only claim the right to be paid back, but the moral force of the world’s political and ruling classes will assent to the proposition that children unborn when their nation went into debt will somehow still be on hold as the debt’s guarantors. This will appear normal. This will not seem a monstrous perversity.

from Aaron Bady’s review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 500 Years

Hannah Arendt on the role of reflection in political and moral behavior

Socrates, however, who is commonly said to have believed in the teachability of virtue, seems indeed to have held that talking and thinking about piety, justice, courage, and the rest were liable to make men more pious, more just, more courageous, even though they were not given either definitions or “values” to direct further conduct.  What Socrates actually believed in in such matters can best be illustrated by the similes he applied to himself. He called himself a gadfly and a midwife, and, according to Plato, was called by somebody else an “electric ray”, a fish that paralyzes and numbs by contact, a likeness whose appropriateness he recognized under the condition that it be understood that “the electric ray paralyzes others only through being paralyzed itself.  It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity I feel myself.”

[…]

The trouble – and the reason why the same man can be understood and understand himself as gadfly as well as electric ray – is that this same wind, whenever it is aroused, has the peculiarity of doing away with its own previous manifestations.  It is in its nature to undo, unfreeze as it were, what language, the medium of thinking, has frozen into thought – words (concepts, sentences, definitions, doctrines), whose “weaknesses” and inflexibility Plato denounces so splendidly in the Seventh Letter.  The consequence of this peculiarity is that thinking inevitably has a destructive, undermining effect on all established criteria, values, measurements for good and evil, in short on those customs and rules of conduct we treat of in morals and ethics.  These frozen thoughts, Socrates seems to say, come so handy you can use them in your sleep; but if the wind of thinking, which I shall now arouse in you, has roused you from your sleep and made you fully awake and alive, then you will see that you have nothing in your hand but perplexities, and the most we can do with them is share them with each other.

Hence, the paralysis of thought is twofold: it is inherent in the stop and think, the interruption of all other activities, and it may have a paralyzing effect when you come out of it, no longer sure of what had seemed to you beyond doubt while you were unthinkingly engaged in whatever you were doing.  If your action consisted in applying general rules of conduct to particular cases as they arise in ordinary life, then you will find yourself paralyzed because no such rules can withstand the wind of thought. To use once more the example of the frozen thought inherent in the word “house”, once you have thought about its implied meaning – dwelling, having a home, being housed – you are no longer likely to accept for your own home whatever fashion of the time may prescribe; but this by no means guarantees that you will be able to come up with an acceptable solution for your own housing problems.  You may be paralyzed.

This leads to the last and, perhaps, even greatest danger of this dangerous and resultless enterprise.  In the circle around Socrates, there were men like Alcibiades and Critias – God knows, by no means the worst among his so-called pupils – and they turned out to be a very real threat to the polis, and this not by being paralyzed by the electric ray but, on the contrary, by having been aroused by the gadfly.  What they had been aroused to was license and cynicism. They had not been content with being taught how to think without being taught a doctrine, and they changed the nonresults of the Socratic thinking examination into negative results: if we cannot define what piety is, let us be impious – which is pretty much the opposite of what Socrates had hoped to achieve by talking about piety.

The quest for meaning, which relentlessly dissolves and examines anew all accepted doctrines and rules, can at every moment turn against itself, as it were, produce a reversal of the old values, and declare these as “new values”. This, to an extent, is what Nietzsche did when he reversed Platonism, forgetting that a reversed Plato is still Plato, or what Marx did when he turned Hegel upside down, producing a strictly Hegelian system of thinking in the process. Such negative results of thinking will then be used as sleepily, with the same unthinking routine, as the old values; the moment they are applied to the realm of human affairs, it is as though they had never gone through the thinking process.  What we commonly call nihilism – and are tempted to date historically, decry politically, and ascribe to thinkers who allegedly dared to think “dangerous thoughts” – is actually a danger inherent to the thinking activity itself. There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is dangerous, but nihilism is not its product.  Nihilism is but the other side of conventionalism; its creed consists of negations of the current, so-called positive values to which it remains bound. All critical examinations must go through a stage of at least hypothetically negating accepted opinions and “values” by finding out their implications and tacit assumptions, and in this sense nihilism may be seen as an ever-present danger of thinking.  But this danger does not arise out of the Socratic conviction that an unexamined life is not worth living but, on the contrary, out of the desire to find results which would make further thinking unnecessary. Thinking is equally dangerous to all creeds and, by itself, does not bring forth any new creed.

However, nonthinking, which seems to recommendable a state for political and moral affairs, also has its dangers.  By shielding people against the dangers of examination, it teaches them to hold fast to whatever the prescribed rules of conduct may be at a given time in a given society.  What people then get used to is not so much the content of the rules, a close examination of which would always lead them into perplexity, as the possession of rules under which to subsume particulars.  In other words, they get used to never making up their minds. If somebody then should show who, for whatever reasons and purposes, wishes to abolish the old “values” or virtues, he will find it easy enough provided he offers a new code, and he will need no force and no persuasion – no proof that the new values are better than the old ones – to establish it.  The faster men held to the old code, the more eager will they be to assimilate themselves to the new one; the ease with which such reversals can take place under certain circumstances suggests that indeed everybody is asleep when they occur. This century has offered us some experience in such matters: How easy it was for the totalitarian rulers to reverse the basic commandments of Western morality – “Thou shalt not kill” in the case of Hitler’s Germany, “Thou shalt not bear false testimony against thy nature” in the case of Stalin’s Russia.

Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment, p. 173-178

A matter of trust

This originated as a post to a mailing list on the subject of blockchains and how they might help the cause of open science.  The quote below is the claim I was directly responding to.

Shauna: “but the scientific community is arguably the most effective trust-based system in human history” – according to this view we wouldn’t need version control systems or preregistration either. I couldn’t disagree more; trust has no place in science. To me, that’s one of the major things with open scientific practices: removing the trust from science and instead practice transparency.

My response:

Trust is a fundamental issue in all human relationships and communities.  Every single interaction we have with other human beings involves some level of trust.  Just today I had to trust the people who harvested and packaged my food not to have accidentally or maliciously poisoned me, the drivers on the street to obey traffic conventions, and my house mate to have locked the house and not invited anyone dangerous inside — and those are only the most obvious examples.  I could come up with dozens more.

Different situations require different levels of trust.  If a situation requires more trust than you currently have, you can try to increase trust in a number of ways.  You can build new technologies, but you can also strengthen relationships, create neutral institutions, or add legal or regulatory force to your agreements.  None of these work perfectly, and often you’re best off pursuing a combination of them.  In all cases, though, you will have to trust someone at some point – it’s just a matter of deciding which system will allow you to trust in a way that’s acceptable to you.

The scientific community has trust issues, yes, like every other human community.  But its trust issues are of a specific type.  When you read a scientific paper, what makes you doubt the findings?  Personally, I’m not worried that the authors have faked the data, or that the publisher has changed the content of the paper without anybody knowing, or that the paper is stolen or plagiarized.  I know that the scientific community has very strong norms against these types of violations, and so they’re relatively rare.  Broadly speaking, I trust the scientific community to minimize these problems.  There’s not a lot of communities I would trust like that, which is why I claimed that science is special in this way.

The trust issues that the scientific community currently has are largely based around mis-aligned incentives.  I trust most scientists not to engage in outright fraud but I don’t trust them not to make choices in their research practices that may hurt their careers.  They know how the funding, publication, and tenure systems work, and they know that replications, preregistration, and following strict practices to minimize false positives will hurt their careers.  Simply put: most scientists don’t trust that taking actions to make science better will be rewarded rather than punished.  In a world of decreasing funding and a decaying social safety net, is anyone surprised that people do what’s best for themselves within the existing norms of the community?

My focus, then, is on supporting initiatives that help scientists trust that taking actions to make science better will be rewarded rather than punished.  I don’t see how blockchain helps with that even slightly.  I’d rather put time and energy and resources into things like lobbying funders to require certain research practices, supporting journals that facilitate preregistration and minimize publication bias, convincing departments to require a minimum number of replications per researcher per year, and educating students and early career researchers about the importance of these practices.  In other words, changing the norms so that engaging in these behaviors is easy rather than hard – because I trust humans to prefer the easy thing to the hard thing.

Levy on intermediate group power

Associations and groups that are substantial enough to fulfill needs for belonging and meaning, powerful enough to check the power of the state or to organize democratic life, or institutionally complete enough to offer authoritative norm-generation for their members, are also substantial, powerful, and authoritative enough to potentially threaten the freedom of their members.  That is, it is not just an unfortunate accident that groups come with features that, from a liberal perspective, are both good and bad.

The point is partly an intergenerational one.  Recall from the previous chapter the idea that inequalities of outcomes in one generation becomes inequalities of opportunity in the next and its analog: free associations in one generation become inherited ways of life in the next.  This is a necessary truth; children are born into particular times and places and social worlds that have been shaped by the choices their parents have made. This does not simply mean that the parents were free and the children were not; it was also true of the parents that they were born into particular times and places and social worlds.  If the parents had some freedom to reshape their worlds in partially original ways, to join or form groups into which they were not born, then the children also have some such freedom.  But there could be a narrowing over time; parents can join groups or adopt ways of life that leave their children with fewer choices than they themselves had.

But the point is only partly intergenerational.  It is, more simply, a point about power, even within one generation.  Robert Michels taught us that ‘who says organization, says oligarchy’.  That could suffice as a statement of the problem, but I propose to instead frame it as: whoever says authority, says power – and whoever says organization, says authority.

Jacob Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom, p. 71

Alinsky on doubt, compromise, and the letter of the law

I detest and fear dogma.  I know that all revolutions must have ideologies to spur them on.  That in the heat of conflict these ideologies tend to be smelted into rigid dogmas claiming exclusive possession of the truth, and the keys to paradise, is tragic.  Dogma is the enemy of human freedom. Dogma must be watched for and apprehended at every turn and twist of the revolutionary movement. The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt whether we are right, while those who believe with complete certainty that they possess the right are dark inside and darken the world outside with cruelty, pain, and injustice.  Those who enshrine the poor of Have-Nots are as guilty as other dogmatists and just as dangerous.  To diminish the danger that ideology will deteriorate into dogma, and to protect the free, open, questing, and creative mind of man, as well as to allow for change, no ideology should be more specific than that of America’s founding fathers: ‘For the general welfare’.  (p. 4)

 

A free and open society is an on-going conflict, interrupted periodically by compromises – when then become the start for the continuation of conflict, compromise, and on ad infinitum.  Control of power is based on compromise in our Congress and among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. A society devoid of compromise is totalitarian. If I had to define a free and open society in one word, the word would be ‘compromise’.  (p. 59)

 

No organization, including organized religion, can live up to the letter of its own book.  You can club them to death with their ‘book’ of rules and regulations. That is what the great revolutionary, Paul of Tarsus, knew when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Who also hath made us able ministers of the New Testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth.”  (p. 152)

All quotes taken from Rules for Radicals.

Civic Virtue and the Profit Motive

In an article about Milton Friedman in the Pacific Standard, Rick Paulas quotes from an article of Friedman’s published in 1970:

There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud

The phrase “rules of the game” immediately caught my eye, as it did Paulas’:

Another thing missing from Friedman’s framework of corporations playing “within the rules of the game” was the outsized role that the corporate lobbyists have had in the creation of those rules. As Sachs points out, “[i]n 2016, special interests spent $3.15 billion to employ 11,166 lobbyists in the U.S.” If Friedman’s theoretical world was based on the ability of outside actors—like government regulators—keeping societal rules intact, then that world has long been compromised.

There’s always a gap between rules and reality, and we require good judgment and public spirit from those navigating that gap.

Years ago I read Zephyr Teachout’s excellent book Corruption in America, and was struck by her description of how the framers approached the constitution.  Teachout writes:

We have two thoughts: (1) men are not always angels, and therefore structures must help us; and (2) virtue is necessary, and structures alone cannot help us. The reconciliation between these two Madisonian beliefs holds the key to understanding the moral psychology of the framers. These can both be true if one perceives a dynamic relationship between constitutional structure and political morality. Because men are not always virtuous, structures must be enacted in order to discourage self-serving behavior in public life. The public orientation that flourishes in these structures in turn helps maintain the structures, which in turn helps maintain virtue.

The argument is not merely that, in the absence of good regulations, individuals (or companies) must temper their self-interest with civic virtue.  It is that good regulations must be actively maintained, and that it takes virtuous individuals to do so.

Okoye’s Judgment Call

Warning: Black Panther spoilers.

Elle Magazine gets it right: one of the best scenes in Black Panther is between Okoye and Nakia, after Killmonger has defeated T’Challa in combat and legally taken control of the country.  Nakia has gotten the royal family to safety, and turns to Okoye for help, but Okoye refuses.  “I am loyal to that throne,” she says, “no matter who sits upon it.”

Let’s leave aside the wisdom of a hereditary monarchy.  It’s a system ripe for abuse, but any system can be abused, and one can imagine Okoye and Nakia’s debate taking place in any government during any period of destabilization.  At its heart, the debate is whether one should go outside a system in order to save it.

R. Eric Thomas, the author of the Elle Magazine piece, says that Okoye eventually comes around to Nakia’s point of view:

Ultimately, she and the rest of the Dora Milaje turn on Killmonger and fight for Wakanda because he reveals through his actions that he is less interested in a political shift in the country—one that aligns more closely with Nakia’s missions to save those in peril in other countries—than in destroying the nation, and perhaps the whole world, as a grand act of damaged vengeance.

That’s one reading.  But when T’Challa returns he immediately makes a legal argument, that because he neither died nor yielded the challenge is still active.  When Killmonger refuses to continue the challenge, he’s violating the rules of the system which Okoye is loyal to.  Okoye’s motives in this moment are certainly complex, but it seems plausible, even likely, that she’s driven not by a reassessment of Killmonger’s character but by the change in Killmonger’s relationship to the system.

In some ways, this is a cop out.  It allows Okoye to avoid the question of when to go outside the system by offering her a resolution within the system. But I’m okay with her avoiding it.  In the United States we place a lot of emphasis on the distinction between military and civilian power.  The answer to “When should the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff act outside the system in order to save it?” is “Pretty much never.”  As the country’s most talented fighter and as the head of the its military force, Okoye is the character most analogous to our military leadership.  She should remain a loyal enforcer of the system longer than any other character.

But this denies the fundamental complexity of the situation.  Whatever Wakanda’s rules actually are, they likely do not contain a clause covering ‘what to do if you think a combatant for the throne is dead but they re-emerge days later’.  Once T’Challa returns they are all already, irreversibly ‘outside’ the system.  All Okoye can do is make a judgment call about what course of action is most consistent with the system’s traditions and values.  And so in that moment she’s analogous not just to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs but also to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – the chief interpreter of law.  It’s a tremendous amount of power, and it speaks to Okoye’s integrity that she hesitates to use it.

In a working system, people can specialize and act according to their roles.  T’Challa can wield the power the system gives him.  Okoye can enforce the law neutrally.  But when the system breaks down we may be called upon to act as a whole individual: to use whatever power we have according to our own judgment.  This can be restorative, or it can be deeply destructive.  It all depends on the situation: on the specific decision being made, on the character of the person making the decision, and on whether the decision is made with the aim of returning the system to a state where such judgments are no longer needed.

Mind the Gap: Navigating Between Rules and Reality

Bureaucracy is stupid, David Graeber writes in The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy.  As the premise for a book, it’s more fertile than it sounds.

At their bare bones, bureaucracies are systems of impersonal rules.  This is my definition, not Graeber’s – he never specifies what he means when he uses the term, although he does trace its history, detailing all the things it could mean.  He also seems to believe that all bureaucracies (whatever they are) are dysfunctional.  While he admits that impersonal rules systems can be appealing, and even that they may be the best option when, for instance, coordinating organ donation, he spends most of his time elaborating bureaucratic “stupidities”.

Below, I will repurpose his critiques as descriptions of unhealthy systems, which can give us guidance for how to construct healthy ones.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies blame all failures on individuals

Every system is imperfect.  There’s always a gap between rules and reality.  An unhealthy bureaucracy blames this gap on reality:

Bureaucracies public and private appear – for whatever historical reasons – to be organized in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.  It’s in this sense that I’ve said one can fairly say that bureaucracies are utopian forms of organization.  After all, is this now what we always say of utopians: that they have a naive faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are?  Which is, are we not also told, what leads them to set impossible standards and then blame the individuals for not living up to them?  But in fact all bureaucracies do this, insofar as they set demands they insist are reasonable, and then, on discovering that they are not reasonable (since a significant number of people will always be unable to perform as expected), conclude that the problem is not with the demands themselves but with the individual inadequacy of each particular human being who fails to live up to them.”  (p. 48-49)

Failures may be caused by the individual, or they may be caused by the bureaucracy itself, or by the complex interaction of both.  They may be unanticipated consequences or they may be known bugs.  (Voltaire famously said that it was better two guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer.  The presence of guilty but free men in a society governed by Voltaire’s rules would be a ‘known bug’.)

A healthy bureaucracy is capable of dealing with these failures accordingly: by acknowledging problems with their own rules systems, fixing those they can fix, apologizing for known deficiencies, and sanctioning individuals when it is truly necessary.

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies rely on the threat of personal force

Violence is central to Graeber’s conception of bureaucracy:

The bureaucratization of daily life means the imposition of impersonal rules and regulations; impersonal rules and regulations, in turn, can only operate if they are backed up by the threat of force.  And, indeed, in this most recent phase of total bureaucratization, we’ve seen security cameras, police scooters, issuers of temporary ID cards, and men and women in a variety of uniforms acting in either public or private capacities, trained in tactics of menacing, intimidating, and ultimately deploying physical violence, appear just about anywhere – even in places such as playgrounds, primary schools, college campuses, hospitals, libraries, parks, or beach resorts, where fifty years ago their presence would have been considered scandalous, or simply weird.”  (p. 32-33)

A system which always blames the individual for failing to obey its rules will not last very long if it depends on the voluntary cooperation of individuals.  If, on the other hand, it can respond to disagreement with violence, it has no need to avoid disagreement via self-reflection or compromise.

I agree with Graeber that violence underlies most bureaucracies, but I think he’d agree with me that bureaucracies can be more or less violent, and that the more violent they are, the less functional they are.  He cites a study of 19th century South Africa that shows as much: “Comparative analysis suggests that there is a direct relation however between the level of violence employed in a bureaucratic system, and the level of absurdity and ignorance it is seen to produce.”  (p. 65)

A healthy bureaucracy therefore almost never resorts to violence, even if the exclusive use of force is where it draws its foundational legitimacy from, as is the case of the state.  This includes not just acts of violence but both explicit and implicit threats of violence because, as Graeber rightly notes, the tendency to overlook implicit violence allows it to spread in ways that explicit violence can’t:

It is curious how rarely citizens in industrial democracies actually think about [structural violence], or how instinctively we try to discount its importance.  That is what makes it possible, for example, for graduate students to be able to spend days in the stacks of university libraries poring over Foucault-inspired theoretical tracts about the declining importance of coercion as a factor in modern life without ever reflecting on the fact that, had they insisted on their right to enter the stacks without showing a properly stamped and validated ID, armed men would have been summoned to physically remove them, using whatever force might be required.  It’s almost as if the more we allow aspects of our everyday existence to fall under the purview of bureaucratic regulations, the more everyone concerned colludes to downplay the fact (perfectly obvious to those actually running the system) that all of it ultimately depends on the threat of physical harm.”  (p. 58)

(Unhealthy) bureaucracies create a culture of complicity

Graeber writes:

In theory [bureaucracies] are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways. Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.”  (p. 27)

A dysfunctional bureaucracy blames all failures on individuals and responds to them with threats or use of force.  It also creates a culture of complicity within the system such that even internal change is stymied.

This culture of complicity is not inevitable.  A bureaucracy which recognizes its own inherent imperfections, and which sees its primary goal as identifying and addressing those imperfections, will not tend to reward those who claim no imperfections exist.  But this is a difficult culture to develop, and so few bureaucracies have it.

These three critiques revolve around a central flaw: the inability of unhealthy bureaucracies to self-correct.  To get at this from another angle, I want to discuss another concept from Graeber’s book: interpretive labor.

Interpretation and Imagination

Graeber borrows from feminist theory and critical race studies the term “interpretive labor”, which he defines at first as “trying to decipher others’ motives and perceptions” (p. 67).  Because violence often obviates the need for interpretive labor – you don’t need to understand someone’s perceptions if you can just threaten or hurt them – systems of structural violence tend to produce structural inequalities of interpretive labor as well:

Jim Cooper, a former LAPD officer turned sociologist has observed that the overwhelming majority of those who end up getting beaten or otherwise brutalized by police turn out to be innocent of any crime. “Cops don’t beat up burglars,” he writes. The reason, he explained, is simple: the one thing most guaranteed to provoke a violent reaction from police is a challenge to their right to, as he puts it, “define the situation.” That is, to say “no, this isn’t a possible crime situation, this is a citizen-who-pays-your-salary-walking-his-dog situation, so shove off,”  let  alone  the invariably disastrous, “wait, why are you handcuffing that guy? He didn’t do anything!” It’s “talking back” above all that inspires beat-downs, and that means challenging whatever administrative rubric (an orderly or a disorderly crowd? A properly or improperly registered vehicle?) has been applied by the officer’s discretionary judgment. The police truncheon is precisely the point where the state’s bureaucratic imperative for imposing simple administrative schema and its monopoly on coercive force come together. It only makes sense then that bureaucratic violence should consist first and foremost of attacks on those who insist on alternative schemas or interpretations.”  (p. 80)

Graeber goes on to discuss imagination, using the terms “interpretive labor”, “imaginative labor”, “interpretation” and “imagination” interchangeably.

I would prefer to define imagination and interpretation as two distinct concepts.  Imagination is the act of creating what-ifs: alternative ways of living, alternative ways of relating, alternative rules systems.  Interpretation is the act of matching up someone else’s what-ifs to your reality.  In some ways, these concepts are not just distinct but opposite: interpretation fills the gaps that imagination leaves.  And, in systems of structural violence, the labor is performed by different groups of people.  The powerful imagine, while the powerless are forced to interpret.

Graeber’s conflation of interpretation and imagination make it difficult for him to critique Marx’s use of the same terms:

One can already see the tension in Marx. There is a strange paradox in his approach to revolution. As I’ve noted, Marx insists that what makes us human is that rather than relying on unconscious instinct like spiders and bees, we first raise structures in our imagination, and then try to bring those visions into being. […] Yet  when Marx speaks of  social creativity, his key example—the only kind of social creativity he ever talks about actually—is always revolution, and when he does that, he suddenly changes gears completely. In fact he reverses himself. The revolutionary should never proceed like the architect; he should never begin by drawing up a plan for an ideal society, then think about how to bring it into being. That would be utopianism. And for utopianism, Marx had nothing but withering contempt. Instead, revolution is the actual immanent practice of the proletariat, which will ultimately bear fruit in ways that we cannot possibly imagine from our current vantage point.

Why the discrepancy? The most generous explanation, I would suggest, is that Marx did understand, at least on some intuitive level, that the imagination worked differently in the domain of material production than it did in social relations; but also, that he lacked an adequate theory as to why. Perhaps, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, long before the rise of feminism, he simply lacked the intellectual tools.  Given the considerations already outlined in this essay, I think we can confirm that this is indeed the case. To put it in Marx’s own terms: in both domains one can speak of alienation. But in each, alienation works in profoundly different ways.

To recall the argument so far: structural inequalities always create what I’ve called “lopsided structures of imagination,” that is, divisions between one class of people who end up doing most of the imaginative labor, and others who do not. However, the sphere of factory production that Marx concerned himself with is rather unusual in this respect. It is one of the few contexts where it is the dominant class who end up doing more imaginative labor, not less.”  (p. 93-94)

I’ve never read Marx, so I won’t assert what he “really” meant.  But I think distinguishing between imagination and interpretation makes for a clearer argument than the one Graeber provides.

By my definitions, the dominant class performs more imaginative labor, while those who are subservient perform more interpretive labor.  That is, the dominant design the system – whether that’s a social system, or a material tool – and everyone else is forced, under threat of violence, to perform the interpretive labor that will allow them to exist within the system.

Note that neither imaginative labor nor interpretive labor are bad things.  Both are required for any community to function and to grow.  What’s ‘bad’ is that the labor is performed unequally, the inequities sustained under threat of violence.

These definitions justify Marx’s disdain for utopianism.  Utopianism is imagination without connection to reality.  A utopian performs imaginative labor without bothering with interpretation – they leave that hard work to someone else, often people less powerful than themselves.  When Marx via Graeber calls revolution “the actual immanent practice of the proletariat” (p. 93) he is tying imagination to reality through interpretation, and demanding that the proletariat, already skilled in interpretation, have the right to imagination as well.

Another way for bureaucracies to grow unhealthy, then, is to separate out the labor of imagination and the labor of interpretation.  When the interpreters who bridge the gaps between system and reality are prevented from imagining changes in the system, we cut off any chance for the system to self-correct.  The system grows sick.  The bureaucracy grows stupid.

Final Thoughts

This post is not a review so much as some musings directly provoked by the book.  I do recommend it, even though it’s difficult at times to grasp what Graeber’s really asserting.  He wanders through a lot of interesting content that I didn’t have time to cover here, ending with a sociological critique of Batman.  If nothing else, it’s a fun read.