Rule by gadgets: demonstrating the Apple Watch. Photo: Jacopo Raule/Getty Images
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Anarchic Apple watches? Face it: we like rules

The latest book by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber reveals the technological age as one of total bureacracy.

The Utopia of Rules: on Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy
David Graeber
Melville House, 261pp, £18.99

What is the Apple Watch for? By all reports it is not very good as a watch, because it takes a moment for the display to light up when you turn your wrist to look at it. Perversely, the gizmo’s main selling point right now seems to be that it is an iPhone accessory that will help you look at your iPhone less often. Notifications that ordinarily could tempt you to take your phone from your pocket can now be dismissed (or answered, with canned responses) from the Watch instead. And so, to the chronic social problem of zombified smartphone absorption, the tech world offers a marvellously self-interested answer: not “use your phone less”, but “buy this new gadget that will make your other gadget less annoying to yourself and others”.

Why, though, would prospective purchasers of the Apple Watch feel the need to process all these notifications in a more streamlined way? Only because they have voluntarily taken on an unnecessary amount of data-juggling labour in their daily lives. Our social as well as work existence has become thoroughly bureaucratised. The Apple Watch’s fitness-tracking sensors further encourage us to measure, chart and plan our every physical activity, too. What once would have taken a roomful of dusty clerks and scriveners, plus a personal assistant bearing stopwatch and stethoscope, can now be managed by a single person festooned with modern gadgets. I am become the bureaucratic support team of the industry of Me.

The Apple Watch is too new to feature in David Graeber’s new book, but it stealthily encapsulates his diagnosis of our age: that it is a time of “total bureaucratisation”. How is it that in the 21st century we spend more time than ever filling in forms and applications and mandates? (Many paper forms did migrate online, but they are still forms; at the same time, the internet enabled a world-historical Cambrian explosion of new and pointless species of forms for creating unnecessary “accounts”.) Meanwhile, banks and utilities invite us to “manage” our accounts online, because the idea of management has become our unquestioned ideal of authority and happy control.

The book is composed of three interconnected essays in which Graeber – the American anarchist anthropologist who wrote the bestselling Debt: the First 5,000 Years, coined the slogan “We are the 99 per cent” for Occupy Wall Street, and is a professor at the London School of Economics – interrogates aspects of bureaucratic modernity that are normally unexamined causes of annoyance. After he gets the runaround at his mother’s nursing home (he is made to do so much form-filling that she dies before she receives any Medicaid), he observes: “Bureaucracies public and private appear . . . to be organised in such a way as to guarantee that a significant proportion of actors will not be able to perform their tasks as expected.” But then he strikes a surprising note of wistfulness: surely, he argues, bureaucracies are truly “utopian” constructs. After all, “they have a naive faith in the perfectibility of human nature and refuse to deal with humans as they actually are”.

Beginning elsewhere from the premise that the police are “bureaucrats with weapons”, Graeber notices that the central heroes of form-filling modernity, too, operate at the intersection of bureaucracy and violence, from Sherlock Holmes to James Bond. Later discussions of fantasy literature and superheroes offer more pungent formulations, my favourite of which comes in the appendix on Christopher Nolan’s 2012 Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Almost as an aside, Graeber writes that the war on terror “began with a bomb and ended with an assassination. One can almost think of it as an attempt, on both sides, to actually enact a comic-book version of the universe.”

The moral universe of Graeber’s book expands when it explains the subtitle’s sympathy for the “secret joys” of bureaucracy. The argument here is that we like rules because they are the opposite of chaos. Unstructured “free play” can be unpredictable and unpleasant (like free jazz). But good rules build good games, which are enjoyable. Bureaucracy itself is like a game, except that it’s no fun to play. Perhaps, Graeber argues, bureaucracy even intimates to us a possible paradise. “Who hasn’t dreamed,” he asks, “of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and – even more – where people who play by the rules can actually still win?”

Such a world, Graeber laments, is a mere “illusion”. Here one might want to add a mention of sport. Professionalised and commercialised though it may be, modern sport surely offers something of the same utopian hope. In football, Cristiano Ronaldo pouts and dives, but we also have the redemptive figure of Lionel Messi, who does indeed play by the rules and win.

In these stylish and witty pieces, Graeber’s arguments sometimes move at exhilarating speed past debatable oppositions. He invites us to marvel, for instance, at the fact that cash machines never give out the wrong amount of money. This is indeed an impressive feat. He then writes: “This gives financial abstractions an air of utter certainty . . . Meanwhile physical infrastructure like roads, escalators, bridges and underground railways crumbles around us . . . None of this just happened. It is, precisely, a matter of national priorities . . .” Well, yes, but this is a false dichotomy. Cash machines weren’t engineered to be error-free at the expense, somehow, of road maintenance. And how much rebuilding of railways and bridges would go on if financial “abstractions” were not (usually) completely reliable?

Another arguable dichotomy is erected in a fascinating essay on why we don’t have the flying cars and robots that we were promised in the 1950s. Graeber suggests that there was a shift in the 1970s “from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment technologies that furthered labour discipline and social control”. But it is not generally the case that technologies are inherently benign or otherwise. Flying cars could have been used by brutal riot police. And even an Apple Watch could in principle be used for some kind of science-fictional pleasure. All you’d need is a sense of playful anarchy, of a kind that David Graeber, too, would surely celebrate.

Steven Poole’s books include “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre)

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

Samuel Beckett in Paris, 1960. Credit: OZKOK/SIPA/REX
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The poets’ home: how one small, heroic publisher shaped modern poetry

Founded in 1967, the pioneering Enitharmon Press established a new poetry world.

Some books make little impression, others earn our respect. And others again make us greedy not just to read but to own them and return to them time and again. Enitharmon’s aptly titled The Heart’s Granary belongs to this last group. Beautifully produced, and with “poetry and prose from 50 years of Enitharmon Press” bursting the seams of its 380-odd pages, it’s an anthology designed not to prove a theory or establish a canon, but to celebrate the work of one of our most remarkable small publishers.

Enitharmon is well-known for its wide-ranging poetry list, but there’s plenty of prose here too. I particularly enjoyed this section of The Heart’s Granary, a tight-focused, characterful set of extracts from, among others, Sebastian Barry, Edward Thomas and Edmund White. There’s also extraordinary artwork. Alongside his literary list, Stephen Stuart-Smith, Enitharmon’s editor for the last 30 years, has run Enitharmon Editions, publishing many of the major names in postwar British art. Peter Blake, Gilbert & George, David Hockney, RB Kitaj and Paula Rego have all worked with him, and are represented in here alongside recouped treasures from David Jones and Gwen Raverat. Also among the colour plates are stunning cover designs from the press’s half century.

So this book is an unusually beautiful object. But its beauty shouldn’t detract from its seriousness. Enitharmon was among the crop of independent poetry publishers that sprang up in the 1960s and 1970s. Poetry was then passing through one of its phases of heightened popularity – it was the era of the Liverpool poets, and of 1965’s International Poetry Incarnation gala at the Albert Hall – just as trade publishers began to trim their lists. Together with Anvil (also founded in 1968), Carcanet (founded a year later), Peterloo (founded in 1972) and Bloodaxe (founded in 1978), Enitharmon established a new poetry world, in which some of the best writing from home and abroad appeared thanks to the editorial flair of a handful of visionary individuals.

Editors like Enitharmon’s founder Alan Clodd, who ran the press for 20 years, and his gifted successor Stuart-Smith, act as both acute literary minds and as entrepreneurs. They present readers with established giants while also mentoring home-grown talent. Early, Enitharmon published Federico García Lorca, Jorge Luis Borges and David Gascoyne; as well as much from Kathleen Raine, who had encouraged the press’s foundation. The list has remained markedly cosmopolitan. This tendency for independent publishers to brave the commercial risks associated with translation means that they become the go-to lists for adventurous readers.

But Enitharmon has also supported an exceptional number of important British and Irish poets at all stages in their careers. To browse The Heart’s Granary is to realise again what a mighty body of work, solo and collective, 50 years of the press represents. Here are Dannie Abse, Fred D’Aguiar, Simon Armitage, Ronald Blythe, Alan Brownjohn, Frances Cornford, C Day Lewis, Douglas Dunn, Ursula Fanthorpe, Thom Gunn, David Harsent, Lee Harwood, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Frances Horovitz, Michael Longley, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, Pascale Petit, Robin Robertson, Benjamin Zephaniah… not to mention four Nobel laureates: Beckett, Heaney, Pinter and Tranströmer. Even this roll-call of “headliners” – just a small proportion of the poets Enitharmon has published down the years – gives a sense of the tremendous range of work the press has nurtured.

Opening up such a broad church might risk diluting the publishing vision. How can, say, Geoffrey Hill and Benjamin Zephaniah be juxtaposed coherently? I suspect the answer lies partly in Stuart-Smith’s acute editorial sensibility, and partly in his poets’ shared shamelessness of artistic purpose. Enitharmon’s house style traditionally stands against hedging or fakery, and for sincerity in whatever poetic form. Open this book at random and, “Bury me up to my neck/in the sands of my father’s desert,” Pascale Petit’s incendiary “The Burning” declares, while in “Irting Valley” Frances Horovitz questions “can a star be lost/or a stone?”, and Isaac Rosenberg, in “August 1914”, asks “What in our lives is burnt/In the fire of this?/The heart’s dear granary?/The much we shall miss?”

Rosenberg’s is of course the anthology’s title poem. For, like Anvil and Peterloo, Enitharmon’s literary list was dealt a mortal blow when the Arts Council cut off funding. The work collected richly here adds up to a joyous read that should be on everyone’s bedside table. But it also reminds us that in certain fields – education, faith, philosophy, poetry – the market is not always right, and neither is cultural fashion. It reminds us, that’s to say, of “The much we shall miss” if every Enitharmon has to close, and the lights of writing, thinking and art go out. 

The Heart’s Granary: Poetry and Prose from Fifty Years of Enitharmon Press
Compiled by Lawrence Sail
Enitharmon Press, 384pp, £30

Fiona Sampson’s books include “In Search of Mary Shelley” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war