david on power, ignorance & stupidity
via nika dubrovsky at time discussing war et al (more notes here: nika on war, david on war, pre m of care – mar 10) – [https://davidgraeber.org/papers/beyond-power-knowledge-exploration-of-the-relation-of-power-ignorance-and-stupidity/]
[guessing i have notes on this somewhere.. but new page.. new notes/quotes]:
(story of his mom – utopia of rules et al)
This essay is not, however, primarily about bureaucracy—or even about the reasons for its neglect in anthropology and related disciplines. It is really about violence. What I would like to argue is that situations created by violence—particularly structural violence, by which I mean forms of pervasive social inequality that are ultimately backed up by the threat of physical harm—invariably tend to create the kinds 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 behavior that they themselves define as stupid, but rather, that are invariably ways of managing social situations that are already stupid because they are founded on structural violence. I think this approach allows potential insights into matters that are, in fact, both interesting and important: for instance, the actual relationship between those forms of simplification typical of social theory, and those typical of administrative procedures
We are not used to thinking of nursing homes or banks or even HMOs as violent institutions—except perhaps in the most abstract and metaphorical sense. But the violence I’m referring to here is not epistemic. It’s quite concrete. All of these are institutions involved in the allocation of resources within a system of property rights regulated and guaranteed by governments in a system that ultimately rests on the threat of force. “Force” in turn is just a euphemistic way to refer to violence.
n Madagascar, bureaucratic power was somewhat redeemed in most people’s minds by its tie to education. 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.
Government functionaries appreciated it for streamlining administration, police for relieving them of the responsibility of having to actually talk to African workers; the latter universally referred to as the “dompas”, or “stupid pass”, for precisely that reason.
There are traces of the link between coercion and absurdity even in the way we talk about bureaucracy in English.. political scientists have long observed a “negative correlation”, as David Apter put it (1965, 1971) between coercion and information
fuller too much law et al
Violence’s capacity to allow arbitrary decisions, and thus to avoid the kind of debate, clarification and renegotiation typical of more egalitarian social relations, is obviously what allows its victims to see procedures created on the basis of violence as stupid or unreasonable. One might say, those relying on the fear of force are not obliged to engage in a lot of interpretative labor, and thus, generally speaking, do not.
interpretive labor ness
It strikes me that what is really important about violence is that it is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even the possibility of having social effects without being communicative. To be more precise: violence may well be the only form of human action by which it is possible to have relatively predictable effects on the actions of a person about whom you understand nothing. Pretty much any other way one might try to influence another’s actions, one at least has to have some idea who they think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the situation, their aversions and proclivities, and so forth. Hit them over the head hard enough, all of this becomes irrelevant.
This is of course why violence is so often the preferred weapon of the stupid: indeed, one might say it is one of the tragedies of human existence that this is the one form of stupidity to which it is most difficult to come up with an intelligent response.
Now, in contemporary industrialized democracies, the legitimate administration of violence is turned over to what is euphemistically referred to as “law enforcement”— particularly, to police officers, whose real role, as police sociologists have repeatedly demonstrated, has much less to do with enforcing criminal law than with the scientific application of physical force to aid in the resolution of administrative problems. Police are, essentially, bureaucrats with weapons. At the same time, they have, significantly, over the last fifty years or so become the almost obsessive objects of imaginative identification in popular culture.
The essay is dedicated to my mother, in honor of her moral political commitment, irreverence, and common sense.