Red tape’s true role, and how to cut free of it

Symposium speakers, including activist David Graeber, examine the real function of bureaucracy and how the academy can fight back

July 9, 2015
Man sat between piles of files looking at watch
Source: Getty
Time and inefficiency: scholars discussed paperwork as a form of control

A seminar has explored how bureaucracy – “advanced capitalism’s guilty secret” – has been taking over our universities and much of our lives, and how we can fight back.

The event was initiated by Eliane Glaser, senior lecturer in creative writing at Canterbury Christ Church University. Although academics often produced inspiring work, she told Times Higher Education, “they were also spending increasing amounts of time on form-filling and paperwork that doesn’t contribute to that fantastic product”.

“Could bureaucracy be advanced capitalism’s guilty secret – that it’s not as efficient as it’s made out to be?” she asked. “And, if that’s so, what’s the function of bureaucracy?”

She questioned whether the red tape existed “to make us keep our heads down” and said that it smacked of a “punitive attitude: if you enjoy your work, you should be doing more form-filling”.

First to take up these issues at the symposium, held at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts on 1 July, were the co-organisers, artists and curators Pil and Galia Kollectiv, who also teach fine art at the University of Reading and elsewhere.

“Raw human potential is forged into human capital through bureaucracy,” they argued. Artists and academics were among the previously independent groups that had now been “proletarianized” and “brought under stricter capitalist control”.

Mark Fisher, lecturer in visual cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London, recalled experiences in his career “where there was no management. It was like Apocalypse Now: ‘Who’s the commanding officer around here?’ I was once informed a week into a module that I was teaching it. Managers [seem to have] ‘better’ things to do than seeing that courses are actually running.”

The real goal of neoliberal managerialism, in Dr Fisher’s view, was “to stop people talking to each other, by breaking up departments and bringing in professional administrators”. Although he was all in favour of administrators and managers whose basic roles were troubleshooting and providing support for academics to do their jobs, “‘professional administrators’ are neither professional nor administrators”.

Activist David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, described universities as “quintessentially feudal systems” that often operate on the class-based principle: “If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be here.” In many institutions, he said, he had been forced to “ask the students about how the grading system works”.

Asked for ways to combat bureaucracy, one speaker suggested “radical democracy”. Dr Fisher proposed that academics should talk to each other, in a form of “consciousness-raising” similar to that pioneered by feminists in the 1970s, since bureaucracy is inevitably “consciousness-deflating”.

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Article originally published as: Is red tape about sealing mouths? (9 July 2015)

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