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This article is taken from PN Review 262, Volume 48 Number 2, November - December 2021.

The Bureaucratic Sublime
On the Secret Joys of Contemporary Poetry
Alex Wylie
Since the untimely death of David Graeber, a year ago at the time of writing, I have been looking once more through his catalogue of work: a catalogue, leaving the many articles and essays aside, which includes such brilliant, mind-altering books as Debt: The First Five Thousand Years; Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (a real life-ring, this one was, when I first read it in 2018); and, perhaps my favourite, The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. These are all books that, if not necessarily that cliché of ‘changing my life’, I think made my life seem more valid: they suggested that, perhaps, I wasn’t completely losing my grip, and was not as isolated as I felt. In the more circumspect mood in which I re-read his work after his death, The Utopia of Rules, with its account of the bureaucratic as cultural-political paradigm, seemed even more urgent and timely beyond its personal appeal to me; and it has prompted me to consider its connections to the poetry of this current, bureaucratic, paradigm. Its point for political ideology as for poetry (and of much of Graeber’s work) is, I think, that what the citizens of the freedom-advertising democracies of the West really desire, or are made to desire, is freedom from freedom itself. This is what the bureaucratic, considered in its broader and deeper dimensions, affords the citizens of liberal democracies; it is the utopian form of our various dystopias, the waking dream of freedom underpinned by the secret joys of a commodious, but guiltless, unfreedom.

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