Bashing the bureaucracy

Chris has offered another fantastic set of reflections on his latest reading and how its topic is applicable to social care, and people with learning disabilities in particular. [1]

The book in question is David Graeber’s latest on rules and bureaucracy, and I’d strongly recommend reading all of Chris’s reflections on it. [2]

For what they’re worth, here are some reflections of my own.

First, a point of disagreement: I’m not keen on talking about “bullshit jobs”. For me, this has a bit of the ring of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and general public sector skepticism abut it. Though there are undoubtedly some such jobs, any complex environment needs a variety of people with a range of skills to help that whole work together; resulting jobs won’t always be roles that work directly with people or that have the most descriptive job titles. For me, it’s ensuring we regularly challenge ourselves over what different jobs contribute to people’s lives, rather than what their function in feeding a machine might be.

Second, this:

Bureaucracies perform an ongoing con trick on people who have to engage with them. They are explicitly designed to be inhuman, so that actual people engaging with these bureaucracies are set up to fail. And people administering bureaucracies still have as much arbitrary power as they ever did, except that it is now cloaked and not to be challenged (except within the nonsensical terms of the bureaucracy itself). And everyone knows this, including (especially) people administering these bureaucracies, but there is a collective complicity within bureaucracies that does not allow this fact to be spoken.

This is exactly right. Chatting with someone the other day, they said that bureaucracies don’t exist in some perfect vacuum: they exist within and themselves contribute to a cultural context that brings norms, values, beliefs and cultures with it, and as a result behaviours and approaches that are ridiculous. As Chris goes on to note:

[I]t’s only in such totalizing inhuman systems that people have to be told to act with ‘candour’ or that we really need ‘empathy’ in the workforce.

The fact that this has to happen shows that bureaucracies are in no way, and could never be, neutral.

Finally, the discussion of violence – literal and symbolic – made me stop in my tracks. Of course this is what the health and social care system sometimes does. The idea that a general member of the population may be made to leave their home or physically restrained/attacked is abhorred if, say, the police do it; but it’s both absolutely typical for people with learning disabilities or mental health problems and systematically under-reported. Placing these actions within a ‘care’ system doesn’t change what it is: violence, and things we would in no other circumstances accept.

I’m personally glad Chris finished on notes of hope in #justiceforLB and human rights. The characteristic these share is that neither is located within any system or bureaucracy. The challenge they offer from beyond a bureaucracy’s borders can hopefully remind people who work inside those boundaries that they, too, are human, and not beholden to what the bureaucracy says.


[1] – The title of Chris’s post is “The four staplers of the apocalypse”. If there was an award for the best blogpost titles, Chris would be on the shortlist.

[2] – Chris often worries about the length of his posts. I don’t think he should.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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