Middle Earth and form-filling – David Graeber on bureaucracy

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews of books I’ve been reading.

David Graeber – The Utopia of Rules

A wonderful  book! Graeber manages to write in a relaxed comprehensible – even witty – style about a subject that normally kills anything like that stonedead: bureaucracy. He asks pointed and excellent questions: why has bureaucracy in fact increased exponentially, especially in the USA, UK and Europe, while every right wing commentator is noisily insisting it’s going to be reduced? Why has it extended its tentacles from the military and government and corporations to education and the rest of society? Why does bureaucracy make us act so stupidly? Do we actually secretly like bureaucracy, because it makes us feel safe inside a game with rules, even if we don’t actually understand the rules?

More seriously he also examines what is the connection between state violence and Batman? And why doesn’t Middle Earth have any bureaucracy?

There’s one thing I’d like to ask him: have you read any Terry Pratchett? And particularly “Going Postal” and “Making Money”, late books where the Wizard of Ankh-Morpork dares to contemplate the irruption of bureaucracy into a fantasy world? Or “Small Gods” one of the finest religious satires ever written, which contains a particularly poisonous example of the perfect bureaucrat?

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You can buy the book here.

 

Bloody foreigner – Bureaucracy Games #3

 

I sat down on a very hard chair and took another look. Yes, no mistake, they had got through a whole two people in the time I’d been gone. So I did some meditation. Once you’re in the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room, you’re in an endurance contest and it’s essential to be calm or you’ll blow a gasket. If you turn into Basil Fawlty and rave about the British consul, you’ve lost humiliatingly.

Returning from the land of Om, I finally noticed a tatty notice in English on a pillar which alleged that if we wanted to get our documents back, we should photocopy them. Ah shit – the oldest trick in the book, the Duplicate Documents They Don’t Tell You About. Amazingly there was a photocopier and it worked. I quickly photocopied everything before it broke.

Back to sitting. Two nice girls asked me if I could change some money so they could work the passport photo machine. I did it and then thought… “Oh no! What about photos? Yikes!” The Passport Photo That Has To Be Precisely Correct That They Don’t Tell You About is a much loved late move in the Bureaucracy Game, I’m looking at you, USA. I was sure I’d had some passport photos taken a couple of weeks ago for something else, surely… I shuffled through my enormous rucksack with which I accidentally knock over at least one Magyar on every bus, and found… Three passport photos. Yess!

Back to waiting. 608. Lots of numbers beginning with 3. 610. More numbers beginning with 3. I looked around and realised that there were in fact two kinds of people in the Official Standard Bureacracy Game Waiting Room. Most were harassed non-Magyars, dressed either sexy-cute or smart-casual, recently shaved, haircut, staring at the digital scoreboard.

Some were Magyars, striding through importantly, wearing suits. One particularly fine gentleman was in a shiny grey silk suit, pink shirt, white contrast collar, cream-and-gold striped tie, with the jacket slung round his shoulders. Shit! I thought, realising what I should have worked out a couple of hours before.

Lawyers!

The implications were devastating. That means they haven’t separated out the Appeals from the easy-peasy-I’m-an-EU-citizen and there are LOTS of Magyars in England, so deal with me and get rid of me first. The mysterious numbers in the 3 series on the board are the ones who brought their lawyers. Hence the taxis skulking outside to take the important lawyers home. Shit! Shit!

Looking around with new eyes, there were lots of lawyers. One gent from the Gambia sat down and started barking fluent Hungarian into his mobile after gently explaining to his client in English what was going on. Then he started explaining to a fellow lawyer about how he was going to Vienna for a one day conference which was all paid for by some agency or other. Then he started a fascinating story about how a dentist in the north of somewhere had a big herd of cows and was actually paid in cows but before he clarified whether this was in Hungary, the Gambia or somewhere else, his client’s number came up and off he went. Both he and his client had come in some hours after me, I noted. They left before me too.

I sat. I wandered about. I asked whether I actually needed a passport photo. No, said the girl. Five fifteen, said the nearly stationary clock. OK. Now I was worried. There’s a particularly nasty late-game stand-by in which, if they haven’t got to your number before closing time, you have to come back another day and start again. I anxiously checked my diary: yes, I could ruin two more mornings this week if necessary.

Paranoia got too strong. I lost some Patient Waiting points by asking the information desk girl if they played the Closing Time move, but they didn’t. They just don’t let anybody else in after 6.00 pm. Slowly the OSBGWR emptied as the digital board rattled up through the 300s and in the 400s. A 627 flashed by and was gone. The 400s continued their slow parade.

Right, I thought, I know what’s going on. You’re playing the two queues system and you’re doing it badly. You’re putting the Appeals + Lawyers through before the boringly ordinary and easy EU citizens and that, as you should know, expert players as you are, is a Foul. You should at least have a quota for how many Appeals go through before waiting EU citizens and you know it.

It was late for calling a Queuing Foul but on the other hand, I knew I’d been accumulating Patient Waiting points and I should be able to do something with them. I went up to one of the girls who had been processing a different lot of people who was clicking through the digital numbers. Yes, she spoke English. “I wonder,” I asked with elaborate timidity, “if I’ve missed my number? I came in at 14.31.” She asked to see my ticket which meant she knew I had her: I showed it to her, 628, stamped 14.31.  “627 was quite a while ago,” I amplified. “You’re next,” she said and trotted backstage.

And I was. Ten minutes later I was into the Inner Sanctum with the booths and the bulletproof glass, in front of a very pretty girl with pink trousers and a cute layered hairdo with black underneath and bottle-blonde on top. In the time she could spare from flirting with the tanned lawyer at the next door booth who was sorting a footballer’s application, she input all the stuff, collected the photocopies, had me sign six or seven documents. Where’s the stamp, she demanded, perhaps hoping for a late turn of play. Nah. Very slowly I got it out of my purse and handed it over. Stamp stamp, sign sign, stamp. I read the card to check it had the correct details. Despite the tanned lawyer tilting back on his chair beside me, it did.

Hot plastic lamination – yess! A beautiful smell! I got the card (the other one comes later in the post.) Hah! I may have lost Rounds #1 and #2, but I narrowly won Round #3 and Round #4 is a knockout to me!

I won. Again. Hot damn, I’m good.

Bloody Foreigner – Bureaucracy Games #2

The following Tuesday I still had three weeks to complete the Bureaucracy Game and get the special card/document/stamp you have to have to avoid deportation or something. I’ve learned the hard way against the expert players in the UK, that when you have to play the Bureaucracy Game, it’s no good putting it off until the last minute. You need plenty of time so that you can play at your best with the champion players inhabiting whichever branch of the state you’re dealing with. Once you’re up against a deadline and they  know it, you’re doomed.

I only waited two months in the hope I’d be able to understand a bit more Magyarul. Ha! “Magyarúl nagyon nehéz” say the Magyars sympathetically when you tell them about your crazy plan to learn it, which means literally “Hungarian is very heavy”, but actually means it’s difficult. It’s complicated, is what it is, and they’re very proud of it and of it being non-Indo-European (Finno-Ugric, if you’re interested). So not even the numbers sound familiar.

Anyway, I followed my usual Bureaucracy Game strategy and gathered every document I could think of, got confirmation of where I’m living, teaching contract, passport etc etc yadda yadda. This is so worthwhile. I still remember the joy of watching the sad deflation of the little man with the dodgy toothbrush mustache and starched shirt in the Spanish equivalent of the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal. Among the many documents I had brought him were two that were not mentioned on any list anywhere but were still completely essential. Hai! Yeah! I win, Mr Toothbrush Mustache, and you LOSE. He knew it too and my prize was the relevant card in record time so he could get rid of me and Forget.

With the light of battle in my eyes and a rucksack full of paper ammo, I headed for the correct bus. Bus #1, check, bus #2, check, Ujbuda Tesco’s, check, hello Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal – and yes, hooray, there were plenty of pissed-off foreigners hanging around, some black, some brown and quite a lot of them Chinese. Plus two taxis waiting by the side of the road which I should have recognised as a sign of trouble.

In I trotted to the first office, ignoring a sign telling me that holders of Type D passports should go somewhere else, on the grounds that if I was a Type D passport holder, I’d know I was, on account of having a funny Cornish-pasty-forehead and being a Klingon. Luck was with me – there was no queue for the information desk, although I was in the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room – about 50 bored people distributed around 70 very hard chairs in a striplit stuffy hot room, all gazing in despair at a digital noticeboard with numbers on it. Uh oh, I thought.

The nice girl at the information desk spoke embarassingly good English, as so many Magyars can, and told me that I needed a special payment stamp which I could only get from the Post Office across the road and asked if I had my Ehic card (European Health Insurance Card, if you’re wondering). By sheer good paranoia I did have it, as I carry it with my passport in case I’m in an accident. Or, as it turned out a few days later, have a stroke.

She gave me the essential Magic Ticket for the queue lottery (628) and when I looked, there was only 601 showing alongside several other sequences of numbers starting with 2s and 3s. OK, I’ve got an hour or two, I though in my innocence.

Across the road I twice completely circumambulated the large shopping centre, looking for the Posta. Various helpful Hungarians tried to explain where it was and I still couldn’t find it, until a girl at the Tesco’s information desk led me to it personally and I found it in a separate section only signposted with a toyshop. So well done, Tesco’s customer survice, you gained me some good points so I could win Round #3 of the Bureaucracy Game. Finding the Posta was their second try at their favourite Invisible Office gambit and might even have worked. Heh!

The nice girl at the information desk had written down the name of the special official stamp I had to get, so I got it, easy as pie. The whole thing had only taken an hour.

Back I trotted to the Bevándorlási és Állampolgarsági Hivatal, feeling optimistic. Back to the Official Standard Bureaucracy Game Waiting Room with the digital board and the numbers.

They had got to 603.