Bureaucracy: why won’t scholars break their paper chains?

The academy may be relatively untroubled by UKAS but it has its own substitute bureaucracy that is no better.  In the Times Higher Education, Eliane Glaser enquires why academics comply with so many pernicious requirements.  The rewards of technological progress have been removed by the remorseless demands of the administrators and inspectors.

She quotes Occupy! activist, David Graeber, who has crystallised her frustration with the university administration.  He says the modern bureaucracy is,

“- imposed on employees as a form of social control: it’s a way of ensuring that we are too monitored, busy and tired to raise questions or revolt.

The “moral and spiritual damage” resulting from the fact that “huge swathes of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed” is, Graeber claims, “a scar across our collective soul”. Likewise, bureaucracy has become a ubiquitous cliché of modern academia, and to call it out seems naive, as if not accepting the “real world”. Yet it produces a disjunctive sense of playing along with a fiction.”

The reasons for it?

“Surveillance is imposed, but also internalised, as the cultural theorist Rosalind Gill has observed, by the repeated habit of describing one’s own activities.

“There is an obvious practical explanation for compliance: fear of censure, of not being promoted or even of losing one’s job – not necessarily by being fired but through increased precarity once inevitable cuts are made. But my survey elicited more counter-intuitive motivations. One respondent acknowledged that bureaucracy “can become addictive and/or act as a means of avoiding other activities”. Is this an awkward truth – that while research and writing are highly prized and fiercely defended by academics, form-filling provides convenient and increasingly ubiquitous relief from the taxing intellectual labour that those really important activities require?

“In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber offers a convincing account of bureaucracy’s perverse attractions. It offers a chimera of absolute transparency, consistency and fairness. It is like a game with perfect rules – and which is also not at all fun. In this sense, Graeber argues, at the heart of bureaucracy is a fear of play, of creativity. Unsurprisingly, numerous studies illustrate how creativity is inhibited by the restriction of autonomy, the hallmark of bureaucracy. The fear of freedom may be an understandable human quality, therefore, but it’s lamentable that it’s becoming so firmly enshrined in our work culture.”

The accountancy firms that enable banksters’ financial crimes also threaten academics with more, crippling surveillance,

“A recent KPMG report on time allocation monitoring stressed that “it is important that the sector understands that there is a risk of more punitive requirements being imposed on it if the reported credibility of the…data does not improve”. Here we have a tantalising glimpse of the recognition of an open secret: that the forms are largely bunk. But this is swiftly closed off with the threat of redoubled “requirements”.

“Having knowledge does not confer power, as academics now know to their cost. Instead, power is exerted precisely through processes that seem innocuously blank.” 

Read the whole article.

She calls for solidarity in refusing the wasteful impositions, just like Bartleby the Scrivener.

John Taylor Gatto explains,

Obduracy personified…

The simple exercise of free will, without any hysterics, denunciations, or bombast, throws consternation into social machinery — free will contradicts the management principle. Refusing to allow yourself to be regarded as a “human resource” is more revolutionary than any revolution on record. After years of struggling with Bartleby, he finally taught me how to break the chains of German Method schooling. It took a half-century for me to understand the awesome instrument each of us has through free will to defeat Germanic schooling, and to destroy the adhesive which holds it together – standardized testing.”

Maybe the trades unions will catch on.  Instead of outdated pickets, cross-sectoral organisation of boycotts of compliance that is unnecessary could hit the managerialists and inspectors where it hurts – by removing the bumph they manage.

Such thoughts are building…


Bloodless revolutions are rare.  Starving the managerialists and inspectors of material to burden others with would do the rest of civilisation a great service.  Let us reap the benefits of technology, not retreat into administrative slavery that makes a third of our work simply wastage.





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