Reconciling the Irreconcilable:
On Bureaucracy, Violence, and a Trip to Europe
by Jessica Dai, 2022 Design & Technology Fellow
For one of the last sessions of the trip, all forty-plus of us trooped up a carpeted spiral staircase and crammed into a room on the top ﬂoor of an ancient building of the Uniwersytet Jagielloński. Physically and emotionally drained at this point, it took all I had to pull myself together enough to be present.
The session was titled “positionality”: three of our instructors, one from each cohort, gave their own positionality statements, a biosketch, and some discussion of how their biosketch shaped their experience of the trip.
I, for one, felt like I had heard a million of these before, at school and elsewhere, felt like I had spent maybe too much time over-analyzing my own identity already. I scribbled down some bullet points and even then didn’t try too hard to arrange them in any particular order. What about myself would or could I even forget?
I have no personal connection to the Holocaust.
None of my family were implicated, either as perpetrators or victims; I’m not German, nor am I Jewish, or Slavic, or Roma, or Sinti.
I’m a (cis, able-bodied) Asian woman.
I’m (often hyper-) aware of the ways in which phenotype and visual tereotype shape how I move through the world, how others see and treat and (purport to) understand me. I get how macro-level international politics spill down into interpersonal relations.
I’m the child of immigrants.
I’ve never really known an extended family. I’m a US citizen by birth, which means my passport is powerful, probably even more powerful than I realize. My parents’ immigration was made possible by a speciﬁc conﬂuence of time and geopolitics such that getting advanced degrees could be a ticket into the country, just a few decades, in fact, after Chinese nationals were banned altogether. I’ve beneﬁted from the wealth and power of this country, arguably all of which was extracted violently from Black, Indigenous, and other oppressed peoples, and from colonization around the globe.
I have access to elite networks.
It’s a somewhat-recent realization. I’ve been trying to get here pretty much as far back as I can remember. I’m an ambitious person. I’m not wealthy, but I have access to capital, and if I really wanted to make something happen, I can see the path to getting there.
I have no personal connection to the Holocaust.
It’s true, I have no familial or historical relationship to the Shoah. But I don’t need to annotate that positionality statement for the parallels to be obvious.
I want to work backwards from here, then, the end of the trip. Why was I here? Why does it matter that all of this happened? I felt a bit silly sometimes, during the two weeks, when we were having discussions about theoretical toolkits and academic frameworks while on land that once saw genocide. I tend to have the same feeling when reading theory or academic work that purports to describe violence. Throughout the program, I thought of Utopia of Rules by David Graeber, which I had read over a year ago but never quite digested. I didn’t remember too much of it, other than a general feeling that it felt right.
In retrospect, Utopia of Rules stayed in my mind because—like many of Graeber’s other works—the theory, despite describing real and material violence, strikes a more personal chord. If I wanted to ﬁnd theory to engage more directly with what happened in the Holocaust, Graeber is probably not who I’d look to. Agamben, Mbembe, biopower, bare life, bio/necropolitics…any number of buzzwords might be worth name-dropping here.
But Graeber’s writing, I think, understands the urgency of the question why. “No political revolution can succeed without allies,” he writes in the introduction.1 This rings true, whether it’s in the context of neutralizing or weaponizing the professional-managerial class (for or against the interests of capital, as was the original context Graeber was writing about), or in the context of the Nazi regime and the millions who mobilized to make it happen.
I should mention that Utopia of Rules is a set of three essays about bureaucracy, a theory of bureaucracy and how its tendrils (whether in a state, corporate, or ‘organizing’ context) shape the way we interact with one another, shape the way we organize and develop the material world, and yes, ultimately shape how violence is enacted. Most of the work is on the conﬂuence of corporate and government power, how bureaucracy is a hydra that helps one support the other (“Whenever someone starts talking about the “free market,” it’s a good idea to look around for the man with the gun. He’s never far away,” Graeber wrote of the 1999 IMF protests).2
What stuck with me from my ﬁrst read, though, is his descriptions of what it feels like to participate in, and to succeed in, a bureaucracy. He describes a “culture of complicity,” where “it’s not just that some people get to break the rules—it’s that loyalty to the organization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening,”3 where (career) advancement within the bureaucracy is based primarily on being willing to play along. It’s eerie how closely this aligns with my experiences with academia, and with working in large corporations; it’s unsettling to think about the extent to which I’ve been willing, the extent to which I am willing, to play these games.
Dead Zones of the Imagination
Power is all about what you don’t have to worry about.4
The House of the Wannsee Conference was beautiful: sunny but not too hot, the lake glittering with gentle waves, winding gravel paths through manicured lawns lined by early June roses. But for the knowledge that this was where the Final Solution was planned, it might well have been a vacation home. And, as we would hear from our tour guides, it was for years, even after the war, in part due to various entanglements: legal, ﬁnancial, logistical, and, one might say, bureaucratic.
It was our ﬁfth day on the trip, and our cohort’s classroom session that day involved reading through primary documents, records from Topf and Sons, the engineering ﬁrm contracted to build crematoria for the Nazi regime. We saw internal memos, diagrams and schemata, communications with Nazi officials. In one, an engineer asked for an upgrade to what we assumed was the equivalent of “business class” for his train ticket to an extermination site. Other documents discussed promotions, negotiated contracts.
In other words, all the petty dramas and minor ambitions one might ﬁnd in any organization, only that in this case, the organization was in service of creating a more efficient killing machine.
The ﬁrst essay in Utopia of Rules, “Dead Zones of the Imagination,” sets the foundation for Graeber’s theory of bureaucracy, outlining relationships between (structural) violence, stupidity, imagination, and, of course, bureaucracy. Graeber deﬁnes structural violence as “forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm,” and argues that bureaucracy and violence are co-created.5 More speciﬁcally, bureaucracy organizes stupidity, which Graeber uses as synecdoche for “unequal structures of imagination.” Under conditions of structural violence, the dominated care much more about the dominators in that those who lack power must continually anticipate and imagine what those who hold power are thinking and feeling; Graeber calls this “interpretive labor” and argues that the powerful—who can rely on (the fear of) physical force to get their way—make no such mental calculations.
This disparity was laid bare at Wannsee. Here was the conference table where these men drew up the plan. There, the paths they walked, the rooms they occupied. Here are their faces, their names, what happened (or didn’t happen) to them after the war. This was a business meeting; they probably had coffee and tea brought in while drafting the memo and sorting out logistics; this meeting was an offsite, if you will, a retreat; they probably took breaks to walk along the water.
Having visited Sachsenhausen just a few days prior, having seen the grimness of the camp—well, of course the architects of the Final Solution weren’t thinking about the subjectivity of those they were planning to execute. The prisoners, on the other hand, in addition to enduring constant bodily brutalization, would have been psychically exhausted as well—monitoring the mental and emotional states of their guards, and of those decisionmakers higher up, trying to anticipate what horrors might come next.
So, what does bureaucracy have to do with it?
I ﬁrst thought of Utopia of Rules while we were at Brandenburg, when the tour guides emphasized how systematic, how organized the process of tagging and tracking and killing was. This is bureaucracy, I thought, the reduction of humans and human relations to paperwork that can be stamped, ﬁled, and shredded.
In rereading more closely, I now see that bureaucracy is partially that, but Graeber’s analysis of imagination makes “bureaucracy” a much larger structuring force than can be reduced to “just” paperwork. Bureaucracy is the machine that normalizes — to use a term we discussed at length during the trip—the underlying threat of physical violence, a machine that encourages individuals to “collud[e]” to hide that fact.6 Even and especially when violence isn’t necessarily visible: “It is only when one side has an overwhelming advantage in their capacity to cause physical harm that they no longer need to do so.” Think of, for example, police departments outﬁtted with combat weapons, or even the American military and its bases around the world.
With this in mind, it’s all the more striking how gratuitous the violence of the Holocaust was, how racial/ethnic hatred transcends rationality, how, in the camps, of course there was no need for ongoing brutality. The hierarchy of power lay clearly established, and yet.
Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Proﬁt
This is what I mean by “bureaucratic technologies”: administrative imperatives have become not the means, but the end of technological development.7
At ﬁrst glance, the Enigma machine looks like a typewriter, three rows of round glass keys in a square wooden case. Our tour guide slipped on gloves to open the case and wire the machine up. As she demonstrated how it worked, she explained something about how both Allied and Axis troops set up teams for communications infrastructures in a back-and-forth game of code making and code breaking. But I found myself unable to look away from the machine itself, the gears clicking and turning. There was an algorithm behind the code, to be sure, but this was all implemented mechanically. Press one letter and click, another would light up; press that same letter again and click, now a different letter was lit. Encode a silly word with repeated letters, like B-A-N-A-N-A and get back something like N-H-V-G-F-Q. Type banana again and you’d get yet another sequence: V-Y-X-N-Q-O. Deterministic on one end, apparent random noise on the other. My friend put on some gloves himself, asking me for a picture with it as he played around. Of course, I obliged. The Enigma machine was cool. It felt elegant. I wanted to know how it worked.
It was easy to forget what it was working for. Had Enigma not been cracked, we might be living in a very different world today.
The second essay in the collection, “Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Proﬁt,” focuses on scientiﬁc innovation or the lack thereof, especially from the 1960s onward. Graeber spends a lot of time on the portrayal of scientiﬁc progress (and of the future more broadly) in cultural artifacts from the 20th century, extending to
a lamentation on the declining rate of techno-development (where are our ﬂying cars, after all?). Some of the things he wrote in 2015 have since become untrue—most notably, one probably can have a convincing conversation with a computer with the newest large language models (though the political economy of those developments merits its own separate analysis). Regardless, his arguments are still worth considering. Graeber pinpoints the 1970s as a turning point after which the worldwide output of new patents, books, and scientiﬁc publications slowed; the exponential growth in the literal speed of human travel (from train to car to plane to spaceship) also came to an end.
Why? First, because political elites wanted to manage the development of new technology such that it would not lead to social upheaval, such that it “did not challenge existing structures of power” (there’s even a digression about Newt Gingrich, and his involvements with tech policy in the 1990s). More generally, the ending of the Cold War paradoxically resulted in a redirection of government funding for scientific development through the military, which has a particular set of priorities for both “basic science” and its applications. Second, because bureaucratic structures actively disincentivize risky scientiﬁc research, and for work that is impactful, slow the pace at which it can be released. (Another moment where Graeber’s writing felt just a little too familiar—the grant writing, the applications, the administrative work that is now fundamental to academia.)
As a consequence, Graeber argues, there has been “a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment in technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.”8
After the program ended on the plane back home to Boston, I ﬁnished A Mind at Play, a biography of Claude Shannon by Jimmy Soni.9 Shannon is famous for founding the ﬁeld of information theory, and for laying the technical foundations of modern communications technology. By any measure, he was brilliant, and he’s lauded as a hero today.
Shannon—like other mathematicians, including Alan Turing, credited with cracking Enigma—was more-or-less conscripted to do math for the war effort. In A Mind at Play, it’s framed as something he didn’t have much of a choice about, something he didn’t spend too much energy mulling over, just enough to not die in battle on the frontlines. Supposedly he did some genuinely interesting and inﬂuential work during this period too, like modeling ﬂight paths such that weapons could be more accurately targeted (or was it such that pilots could more easily avoid missiles?), which required substantively novel mathematical approaches.
We can feel “good” looking back and celebrating him (and Turing) now, because the Allies were the “good guys” and the Nazis were so clearly the “bad guys,” but I can’t help but feel intensely ambivalent about this standard view. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine that many German mathematicians were in the same boat—simply not wanting to die on the frontlines—but does that excuse the fact that they were also enabling genocide? How much choice was available to them? What does that mean for what seems to be the general indifference Shannon and others had about their military work?
I began this section with my fascination with the Enigma machine, with how easy it was to be thrilled with the technical object independent of its use, with sympathy and respect, in other words, for those who built it. Now, for better or for worse, we’re no longer in a situation where war is at the forefront of the national consciousness, no longer in a situation where war shapes every single person’s life and the pathways available to them. Most of American civil society is shielded from the decisions of our generals and the consequences of our military actions. At the same time, the question of whether our military represents “the good guys” is murkier than ever before.
The other obvious distinction to draw here is that Graeber’s essay focuses on the decades after the Second World War, and mostly characterizes the invention of net new technology rather than the implementation and development of existing, more mundane technologies. Still, there are some interesting parallels between technology in the Third Reich, and Graeber’s ultimate argument: that “we are moving from poetic technologies to bureaucratic technologies.”10 Guess which kind he prefers?
Bureaucratic technology was deﬁned at the top of this section: technologies developed to the end of administration (think, for example, of the explosion of apps developed for making forms or writing documentation or organizing knowledge). What is poetic technology? Graeber defines it thus: “the use of rational, technical, bureaucratic means to bring wild, impossible fantasies to life.”11 He repeatedly returns to space exploration, done by both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., as a prime example of poetic technology: literal moonshots, done partially for reasons of morale and national pride, but mostly just to push the boundaries of what was possible.
But this easy distinction seems undercooked. There’s more than a bit of irony that the American space program was led by a Nazi and scientist and SS-man, Wernher von Braun, that Hitler’s rocket program was instrumental to this “poetic technology.” Code making and code breaking—these might be bureaucratic in that they’re fundamentally in service of communication, but the computer scientist in me believes that to communicate in code is “wild, impossible.” IBM’s punch cards, built for the management of (human) data, were bureaucratic; to the extent that the Nazi regime did not view its victims as humans but rather problems to be “solved,” one might say that the entire physical apparatuses of concentration camps, gas chambers, and crematoria might be considered bureaucratic.
But then again: the Holocaust itself was Hitler’s “wild, impossible fantasy,” brought to life by the Third Reich’s infamous “rational, technical, bureaucratic” approaches.
To falsify Graeber’s claim, to assess whether he was ‘right,’ is far beyond the scope of what I can accomplish here. But at the very least, these observations from decades before Graeber starts his analysis call into question his point of transition, that is, whether the 1970s was truly such a unique inﬂection point, not to mention the value judgment implicit in his thesis. In fairness, Graeber does add the caveat that “poetic technologies almost invariably have something terrible about them.”12 But maybe when considering poetic versus bureaucratic technologies, it’s necessary to acknowledge that they might ultimately be subsumed by a higher-order vision of “progress,” whatever that vision entails. Both types of technology might coexist; either can be in service of horrors or delights.
The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Love Bureaucracy After All
The whole idea that one can make a strict division between means and ends,
between facts and values, is a product of the bureaucratic mind-set, because
bureaucracy is the ﬁrst and only social institution that treats the means of doing things as entirely separate from what it is that’s being done.13
I would be remiss to omit that one of the reasons the trip felt so intense was our continual oscillation between extremes. We witnessed horrors, yes, or the ghosts thereof, and the days were emotionally demanding. But in the evenings, we had three-course dinners and (sometimes unlimited) wine; we wandered the streets of Berlin and Krakow; we went to a smoky club on a Wednesday and, on our last night, karaoke in an underground cave. I thought of this, too, when I came to this passage on (the impossibility of) disentangling the means and the ends.
The ﬁnal essay in the collection is titled “The Utopia of Rules, or Why We Love Bureaucracy After All.” It’s a sprawling piece, covering, among other topics: how structures of power, whether implicit or explicit, emerge from unorganized mass movements; on the cult of rationality, and how it’s profoundly irrational; storytelling in “heroic societies,”14 and how evil governments in science ﬁction tend to be portrayed as hyper-bureaucratic; the relationships between play and games and rules.
As much as this book is, for the most part, a critique of bureaucracy, this ﬁnal essay seeks to explain why, when, and how bureaucracy might be useful, desirable, and appealing. The inherently impersonal quality of bureaucracy means that it is “at its most liberating […] precisely when it disappears: when it becomes so reliable that we are able to just take it for granted,” when there are things we want to do that are less relational and more transactional, like, say, buying something from a store. Bureaucracy also “enchants when it can be seen as… poetic technology,”15 with the post office—and the shockingly smooth, universal functioning thereof—as an archetypal example (supposedly, the German post office was “legendary” in the late 19th century, laying the foundation for the hyper-efficient bureaucracy in the decades to come). Separately, in the context of governance, bureaucracy might be useful in making coalitions of power explicit, in refusing to accept that “it’s okay to be governed, even a tiny bit, from the shadows”16—it’s easier to effect change on an organization when vectors of influence are clear.
To return to the question we began with. Why was I here? If it’s the case that the means and ends are inseparable—why does it matter? “It” being any number of things: my participation in this trip, my understanding and empathy and identiﬁcation with both the Jewish victims and the German perpetrators, challenges to my understanding of geopolitics, being forced as someone with generally-paciﬁst tendencies to confront the realities of hard military power. It’s easy enough to say war is bad, the military is bad, interventionism is bad, American imperialism is bad; it’s easy enough to say, “I would never,” or to say “I’d just say no.” It’s harder to square those platitudes with what plays out in reality.
I felt that I had come to the same aporia after reading Graeber, engaging with the work, recognizing so much of my daily and immediate life in his higher-level analyses of bureaucracy and bureaucratic violence. Utopia of Rules is in large part an extended engagement with how we might bring about pathways to a different political and economic order. It’s not meant to be solely descriptive of history or of the status quo; still, it’s not necessarily prescriptive, either.
My experience on the trip, and my experience with Utopia of Rules—ultimately, both primarily provoked emotional and intellectual responses. I’m trying to pay attention to how things feel and how they felt, because if there’s anything that stands out from the trip, it’s that the capital-h Holocaust was enacted by thousands of human beings, each with their own feelings, desires, and personal stories; that there’s nothing intellectual that can replace the gut punch of walking along the train tracks at Grunewald, and counting the numbers inscribed on the bricks.
What to do with this knowledge, this understanding? At one extreme is continuous self-ﬂagellation for the inevitable failure of living a perfectly “ethical” life; at the other extreme is smug self-satisfaction, complacency with the limitations of living in a compromised society serving as carte blanche to do whatever one desires. Neither is particularly satisfying, nor do they seem like terribly productive ways to engage with the world.
To be honest, I’m still not sure where I come down on these questions, nor do I expect to arrive at particularly strong conclusions. This is a bit unsettling to me. I was explaining the trip, along with my associated confusion with respect to hard power, governance, international relations, geopolitics, to a friend. “I just don’t know what the right take is,” I said.
He replied, “but does it matter what you think? What difference does it make to the world whether you have the ‘right’ take or not? Whether you have a ‘take’ at all?”
Only a few days later, a guest on a podcast I was listening to said something along the lines of: “It’s a very American thing, to assume that one can and should have opinions on what’s going on in the rest of the world, when as an ordinary citizen you have functionally no inﬂuence on foreign policy; it’s some second- or third- order manifestation of imperialism, really, to think that your opinion on what ‘should’ happen, somewhere else around the world, is even marginally relevant.”17
I think both of them have a point. It would be silly to assume that my coming up with a more nuanced opinion about international relations would automatically result in some material change in the world. Maybe there’s no such thing as the “right” take.
But I don’t think that’s any reason to be nihilistic, to give up, to stop caring; collective action is ultimately the coordination of individuals. And what each individual believes to be true about the world matters; what I believe to be true about the world matters. What I ask of myself is that I care, that I continue to care, that I do the best with the information I have but maintain skepticism that I’m always “right.” The sphere of our personal inﬂuence, the radius over which it’s possible for us to exert power, is always wider and more elastic than we ﬁrst assume. Our understanding of the political must begin with individuals and their choices.
Maybe it’s a little delusional, where I’ve come down. At the very least, it’s hard to draw direct lines between individual political orientations and what happens in the world at large, but history is the sum of billions of decisions made by billions of people. To believe that never again is possible, that the Holocaust wasn’t inevitable, that we can and will choose differently in the future, that we can and will build a better tomorrow, in the broadest sense of the term—the only way to believe in such a future wholeheartedly is to try, and to trust that everyone around us is trying too.
Jessica Dai was a 2022 FASPE Design and Technology Fellow. She is a Computer Science PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley.
- Graeber, D. (2016, February 23). The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Reprint). Melville House., 20.
- Graeber, 31.
- Graeber, 26.
- Graeber, 101.
- Graeber, 57.
- Graeber, 58.
- Graeber, 142.
- Graeber, 120.
- Soni, J., & Goodman, R. (2018, July 17). A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age (Unabridged). Simon & Schuster.
- Graeber, 141.
- Graeber, 141.
- Graeber, 142.
- Graeber, 165.
- Graeber, 178.
- Graeber, 164.
- Graeber, 204.
- Bessner, D. (2022, July 6). The End of the American Century with Danny Bessner (E. T. Kim & J. C. Kang, Interviewers.