This essay is good for my KPIs*

LAST DECEMBER, I was planning to write an essay on the politics of the imagination for this magazine. But then I felt so worn out by worrying about how to urgently cut a lot of money from next year’s budget in my corner of the university, as happens every year at this time, while at the same time worrying about how to urgently spend a lot of money from last year’s budget, as happens every year at this time, and then too, worrying about whether our fabulous research group (being only a capital-G Group and not a capital-C Centre) might be left out when the new capital-P Platforms come on line, not to mention worrying about whether my staff had exceeded or only met expectations against their objectives, both cascaded and individual, and how I would handle any difficult conversations with them without having been to any of the four free management coaching sessions I was entitled to – in sum, worrying about a myriad such things, big and small – that I gave up. However, refreshed after the Christmas break, I reconsidered. For one reason, such an essay, in such a distinguished outlet, would be good for my KPIs

But – how have we come to this? How is it that my mind is so comfortably colonised by what American anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bright empty terms’ like strategic planning, quality, vision and excellence and that I no longer even do ironic air quotes when I utter that acronym of distilled jargon: ‘KPIs’? Today, it is almost impossible to imagine an actually existing professional workplace in which we didn’t have a strategic plan, KPIs and all the rest. And not just in the university sector. What would we do all day? Would we simply waft from moment to moment, unstrategically? Surely our KPIs would slump, our competitors would get ahead in the marketplace, we would quickly lose our jobs… This is reality, we tell ourselves. Get a management coach.

Likewise it is almost impossible to imagine an actually existing political system in which we didn’t have two major parties mirroring each other, taking turns to share power with a narrow pool of lobbyists, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, media, legal and other professionals. Conservative politicians such as Josh Frydenberg extol the virtues of ‘democratic capitalism’ as, invoking Winston Churchill with a wry after-dinnerish chuckle, the ‘least-worst’ system of government devised by humans (and implicitly one we are stuck with forever).[1] To which politicians from the left (or notionally from the left) reply, in effect: yes, but surely we can tinker at the edges, can’t we, without upsetting the markets or global trade or, heaven forbid, our credit rating – all of which assume godlike verity, as if we were in ancient Athens and they were Zeus, Poseidon and Athena.

How is it that our imaginations have become so narrowed?

THESE QUESTIONS ARE prompted by a book written by David Graeber with the excellent title The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015). Graeber, who previously achieved breakout fame with the international bestseller Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011), shows a flair for posing serious ideas and provocative theories in a cheeky, almost carnivalesque style that swings well with his argument. The Utopia of Rules is the sort of book you want to press into the hands of others. I took to carrying it around with me to all the most bureaucratic meetings I had to attend, and placing its pastel pink cover face-up on the table in front of me, ready to use as a talisman to ward off any crescendo of idiocy.

In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber sets out to explore and encourage a critique of bureaucracy – specifically, of the current-day social, cultural and economic structures in which bureaucracy and financialised capital are entwined – from a progressive, leftist perspective. What part might imagination play in finding other, as he says, less ‘violent and stupid’ ways to live together?

Bureaucratised systems envelop us and regulate almost every aspect of our lives. Big Brother, as Edward Snowden revealed, is well and truly with us.[2] We inhabit an audit culture that, in the name of transparency and rule-governed fairness, asks us, above all, to be accountable. But at the same time, everyone knows that accountability is not evenly distributed. Those with less power, such as remote Indigenous communities, have their incomes and ‘lifestyle choices’ micromanaged, or mismanaged, by bureaucratic systems overlaid with moral judgments,[3] while concurrently a state government (Western Australia’s), acting to support the interests of mining companies, uses bureaucratic procedures to arbitrarily desacralise (sorry, ‘deregister’) scores of ancient sacred sites, including the world’s oldest and largest collection of rock art,[4] thus with a keystroke removing their legal protection from obliteration. You only have to rise to a certain level in our hierarchies of wealth and power before the same rules of accountability no longer apply – we all know that wealthy people and corporations have all manner of means to avoid paying tax, for instance. Perhaps the quintessential recent example remains the global financial crisis of 2007–08, in which the recklessness and greed of international bankers and financiers led to tragic material hardship for millions of people across the world, and yet scarcely any of the leading bankers responsible, all of whom had profited handsomely along the way, were ultimately held accountable.[5]

The banality and stupidity of bureaucratic systems – endlessly ticking boxes, completing forms, pressing 5 for x, and choosing between a smiley, not-so-smiley, neutral, unhappy or very unhappy face to evaluate a ten-second encounter with an employee at an airport (who, if there aren’t enough smileys, will definitely be held accountable) – is designed in its very tedium, says Graeber, to have us not think about it, critically or creatively. It’s the last thing most of us want to turn our attention to in any systematic way. This helps us to not notice, or forget about, the inherent violence – plain, hit-on-the-head, physical violence – that undergirds our day-to-day systems of bureaucratic regulation. The police, armed forces and rapidly proliferating private security and mercenary enterprises are all sanctioned to use physical violence whenever deemed necessary to uphold the rules, and each of us is aware of this real (if veiled) threat every time we encounter a police officer on the highway, or a bouncer outside a nightclub. Mostly this doesn’t worry us, if we feel ourselves to be on the right side of the law. But, needless to say, the threat of officially sanctioned physical violence is unevenly distributed too, as, for example, any African-American man or boy in the US can attest to, in the shadow of the endemic and ongoing violence by white police officers towards black citizens.

This pointy end, as it were, of state-sanctioned violence operates within a broader process Graeber calls ‘structural violence’. Structural violence is a name for the way in which violence is on hand, in an organised way, to defend the material interests of a small minority of the privileged in our societies. One of Graeber’s most interesting ideas is that structural violence creates lopsided structures of imagination. By this he means that in any given situation of two individuals or groups with unequal power (evidenced by unequal ability to rely upon recourse to bureaucratic regulations that are backed by violence), those in the less powerful position need to devote much greater imaginative energy to interpret the way in which those more powerful see the world, than vice-versa. The oppressed needs to try to figure out how the oppressor thinks and feels, because it could have painful and material consequences for her, and she needs to navigate how best to survive. This applies equally to the asylum seeker, the abused woman, the zero-hours casual employee or the PA to the narcissistic celebrity. The oppressor, or the empowered, who will for his own wellbeing have developed sophisticated belief systems so as to feel like anything but an oppressor (he’s probably, let’s say, a great bloke and a good Christian who goes cycling on Sunday mornings), needn’t bother with spending energy imagining how the weaker party sees the world, because it has never been necessary. It has no consequence. In other words, not only is physical labour unevenly distributed, so that women, migrants, the poor and less educated have to do more of it, but so too is the labour of our imaginations.

One’s relative position of power and privilege within a given social dynamic can be judged by what one doesn’t have to think about, what one doesn’t have to imagine. In the global dynamic that is constituted by the accelerating impact of fossil fuel-induced climate change, affluent Australian city-dwellers (like me) do not have to exercise our imaginative energies nearly so much as do Pacific Islanders, whose daily lives are increasingly occupied with improvising creative responses to the seawater inundation of their land, or, for that matter, rural Australians facing new pest populations, more deadly bushfires, erratic and uncertain rainfall, and record temperatures. Or, to take another uncomfortable example for Australians: asylum seekers. Not too long ago, asylum seekers were typically held in detention centres in major cities like Sydney and Melbourne, separate from but in close proximity to many of us. Later, new prison-like facilities were established far away from where almost anyone would come across them – in the desert, on a remote coast, on a distant offshore island. Finally, the solution became to incarcerate them in specially created bureaucratic prison camps in neighbouring countries too poor to refuse the deal. A small and dedicated group of activists now has to labour tirelessly, and more and more creatively, to try to keep alive in our imaginations the reality of the unspeakably cruel treatment meted out to those poor souls on Manus and Nauru. Because in the absence of their efforts it would be much easier for the rest of us to look away and dream of other things.

Likewise in gender relations, as feminists have pointed out for a long time now. The archetype of a member of a divorcee men’s support group – if it’s not an angry misogynist – is a sad, bewildered bloke who just can’t figure out what went wrong. Women are a mystery, the cultural cliché has it, but perhaps what’s behind this is the fact that men in general have never had to expend the energy to imagine what it would be like to be a woman.

THE OPPOSITION BETWEEN imagination and reality becomes a central ideological battleground. Remember that the ultimate Australian political insult, as directed by Labor senator Peter Walsh towards the Australian Democrats in 1987, is to be the fairies at the bottom of the garden.[6] In these terms, the imagined is defined precisely as what is not the real. For the right, a recourse to the strictures of ‘reality’ is always a tonic, even when the composition of that ‘reality’ is patently absurd; for example, that the Australian economy needs to remain wedded to fossil-fuel extraction even though this flies in the face of cyclones of data demonstrating that said extraction will almost certainly severely harm the living conditions faced by future generations of humans and many other species. Meanwhile, the left is still haunted by the collapse of ‘really existing’ state socialism and the bureaucratic excesses of the welfare state, and has struggled to imagine a political way forward that does not lead to new and more life-sapping structures of bureaucratic regulation.

Lurking within the duel between imagination and reality is the shadow of another pair of opposites: the irrational and the rational. Here there becomes an absolute disjunct, in bureaucratic capitalism, between means and ends. If the agreed end is to enable the unfettered accumulation of private wealth, the means directed towards such wealth creation are scrupulously rational; this is what all of those strategic plans and mission statements, agreed work packages and KPIs are all about, after all – all those forms, spreadsheets, regulations, policies and procedures. To maximise efficiency, maximise productivity – these are our daily mantras. To generate wealth, everyone supposedly has to follow the rules and behave as rationally as possible. But at the other end, when it comes to the question of what anyone does with their accumulated wealth (and the associated question of at what point enough might be enough), the most dearly held tenet of individual freedom is that one can be as irrational as one can get away with. We are encouraged to express our creative imaginations through consumption, and there is no limit to the scale of our material desires. Each of us, the story goes, has the possibility of living literally like a king, with sovereign desires unquestionable by reason (do you really need that fifty-metre yacht, sire?). Graeber, with his anthropologist’s hat on, points out that even though this split between rational means and irrational ends has come to seem absolutely natural to us, it would have seemed very odd indeed in most societies across human history, and there is no particular reason to expect that societies in the future would organise themselves that way.

For those of us on the left, for whom values of mutual co-operation, civic participation, true equality of opportunity and a fair distribution of resources are important, how can our resources of imagination be harnessed to effect change? Imagination, not in the transcendent sense of that which floats dreamily apart from the actual material world (the imagination of the Romantics and Walt Disney), but rather the notion of a more practical yet playful imagination that precipitates action.

Such harnessing is, in fact, already happening in lots of places. Take the imagination of the network of farmers and environmentalists that make up the Lock the Gate Alliance – over two hundred of them across Australia, with forty thousand supporters – who, since 2010, have been using creative and peaceful tactics to campaign against the expansion of coal and coal seam gas mining. They include the Knitting Nannas, who have published a Nannafesto, subtitled Knit the Dream, which ends with the commitment: ‘[The Knitting Nannas] is not affiliated with any political parties – we annoy all politicians equally.’ The self-declared ‘nannas’ choose to trace their activist heritage to les tricoteuses (the ‘knitting women’) of the French Revolution, but their modus operandi plays subversively on the stereotype of the sweet old granny. They turn up for sit-ins or blockades with deck chairs and knitting and ‘have a little tea-party’. Sometimes they might ‘turn up with an esky full of icy poles, and share them with the kiddies [the younger protesters], the truckies and the cops’. The rationale of the group, according to co-founder Clare Twomey,[7] is to find a way for mature women to contribute to movements against fossil fuel extraction, in ways that make a wry strength out of their desire to be non-aggressive and nurturing. In January 2016, the Knitting Nannas achieved national media coverage when three Nannas were arrested for protesting against the construction of a Santos wastewater plant designed to service eight hundred and fifty coal seam gas mining wells above the Great Artesian Basin.[8] On social media, the Knitting Nannas responded to their arrest with a photo of the three alleged criminals grinning broadly in the police station in their characteristic bright yellow outfits, and the post: ‘Naughty naughty Nannas were taken by those well-armed People in Blue to the Narrabri naughty corner. Out of respect for their Nannas, the charge sheets used were yellow.’[9] The Knitting Nannas have inspired other like-minded groups such as the Growling Grannies, a group of Indigenous women in the Northern Territory, and the Grumpy Old Gits Against Unconventional Gas Extraction, a group of blokes.

It is no surprise that there is a long tradition of activists in many spheres using surrealist and satirical humour as an effective way to fight asymmetrical conflicts with mining and other corporate interests backed by the full bureaucratic resources of the state. Just another contemporary Australian example, among the many that could be chosen, are the climate activists of ClimActs who have organised themselves into fictional entities such as the Flat Earth Institute to express ironic support for – and show up the absurdity of – efforts to stop the take-up of sustainable energy, such as the Coalition government-backed Select Committee on Wind Turbines.

IN A LATER essay in The Utopia of Rules, Graeber asks whether we might not harbour a secret love of bureaucracies, no matter now much we complain about them, and suggests that this might go some way to explaining why we accept their dominance in our lives. He does so by thinking through the distinction between games and play. The attraction of games, from soccer to Super Mario, is that they are internally consistent and self-contained universes of behaviour governed by agreed rules. So they are refreshingly unlike real life, characterised as it is by endless, subtle and shifting shades of grey, and the need to negotiate with others while attempting to interpret and predict their actions. It would be easier if as much of reality as possible could be reduced to a rule-governed game: this is the (false) promise bureaucratic systems make. In fact, the image of the level playing field is often invoked, as if creating such a sporty space for us all to compete upon, as individuals and as nations, in the ongoing Olympics of life, should be the main aim of public policy. But at the same time, as soon as the game of life comes up against the realities of unequal power, such as when it comes to US energy security interests in the Middle East, or to Chinese aspirations to engineer new landforms in the South China Sea, then some serious match-fixing occurs, under the name of realpolitik, and the limits of free gameplay are revealed.

Play is what happens within games but also outside of them. Play is the expression of creative imagination; it is where we explore the boundaries of the possible, where we improvise and compose, where flows of unexpected juxtapositions and synergies occur. In play we dance with spectres, shape-shift and ventriloquise. We dress up, make up stories, make up whatever shit we want. Play, in fact, is how we creatively make up the world as we go along. As Graeber points out, play generates rules: it relies on those rules so that it can take shape rather than dissolve into randomness, but it refuses to be bound by them. In language, for example, we follow grammatical structures so that our utterances are comprehensible, and yet we constantly play with those structures and the elements that make them up, and in this way language evolves over time, like any other living thing. In any game there is a tension between the security of operating within the rules and the thrill of bending or breaking them. And play can be terrifying, cruel and destructive as well as benign – the spirit in the flow of play is Freud’s id, with no concern for ethical constraints. Think of pulling the wings off a fly. Following on from all of this, Graeber concludes that ‘freedom is the tension of the free play of human creativity against the rules it is constantly generating’.[10] And given the sometimes discomforting effects of this tension, he suggests: ‘What ultimately lies behind the appeal of bureaucracy is fear of play.’[11]

Fear of play. Certainty, or the cruel illusion of certainty. Just tick this box, and keep ticking the appropriate box every time you are asked, and you will be rewarded with comfort and security. This, along with fear of the unknown, is the lure that keeps those of us in the middle class or aspiring to the middle class busily engaged in helping keep the cogs of the economy machine turning, playing our small part, reaching our KPIs.

AND YET, AS global inequality rises to grotesque levels, to the point where the top sixty-two humans together have the same wealth as the bottom four billion combined[12] – try representing that with matchsticks, and giving each and every one of the four billion a name and a face, as if they were one of your relatives (although on second thoughts let’s reserve this penitent, mindful task as divine punishment for the Koch brothers and their sixty cocktail-party buddies) – more and more people are seeing the bait for what it is: something shiny, dazzling, barbed and ultimately deadly. This is the disillusionment towards the establishment that fuels the attraction, among segments of the disempowered, for novel and semi-improvised forces of reaction like Donald Trump – he who promises furiously to fight the violence and stupidity of bureaucracy, or ‘big government’, by adding yet more violence and stupidity (oh, and more bureaucracy – a database of every Muslim in the US?). But the disillusionment prompted by this live-action train wreck of inequality also engenders progressive movements creatively organising in new ways, from the Occupy movement (in which David Graeber was heavily involved) to the Podemos citizen’s circles participatory democracy experiments of Spain, to the ‘recovered’ worker-run co-operative factories of Argentina. In Australia, along with the creative movements against the ecological vandalism of the fossil fuel extraction industries and the government’s cruel asylum seeker regime, others have joined together to oppose the forced closure of remote Aboriginal communities, and in a myriad other ways to resist the bleakly imaginative power of the ultra-rich (Gina, Rupert, Jamie, Twiggy et al) and those who serve them.

So, note to self: let’s throw caution to the wind, since we only live once, and help make imaginative world-making actions wherever we can. Let’s sit down at long tables in the middle of our suburban streets and meet our neighbours. Let’s make common cause. Let’s imagine something different into life, big or small but often. Yes, the problems of the world are massive. Yes, the violence underpinning unfair rules is real and scary. Yes, and further note to self: this might necessitate adjusting our KPIs. Or else putting them on a bonfire. Imagine that!

* The editor has pointed out that this essay can count, academically speaking, as a commissioned book chapter (B1 [HERDC {see citations and footnotes online}]). Alternatively it could count as an ERA creative work, since the boundaries of the scholarly and the creative sometimes overlap (believe it or not). This will be adjudicated later by the appropriate committee. If you don’t know what the acronyms mean, count yourself lucky. If you do know what they mean, count yourself lucky but in a different way.


[1] ‘Josh Frydenberg: Our democratic capitalism model under challenge’, The Cranlana Programme, [accessed January 20, 2016.]

[2] Greenwald, G 2013.

[3] Altman, J. and Russell, S., 2012.



[6] Senate, Debates, 28 October 1987, p.1377; 25 November 1987, p. 2384

[7] (from


[9] (

[10] Graeber Utopia p.199

[11] ibid p.193





Altman, J and Russell, S 2012 ‘Too much dreaming': Evaluations of the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Intervention 2007-2012’, Evidence Base Issue 3, Australian and New Zealand School of Government.

Australian Associated Press, 2016 ‘Knitting Nannas charged in NSW coal-seam gas protest’, 18 January, [accessed January 21, 2016]

Commonwealth of Australia, Parliamentary Debates. Senate. 28 October 1987, p.1377.;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansards%2F1987-10-28%2F0000%22 [accessed January 24, 2016]

Elliot, L 2016 ‘Richest 62 people as wealthy as half of world's population, says Oxfam’, 18 January, [accessed 19 January, 2016]

Frydenberg, J 2015 ‘Our democratic capitalism model under challenge’, The Cranlana Programme, [accessed January 20, 2016]

Graeber, D 2015 The Utopia of rules: On technology, stupidity, and the secret joys of bureaucracy. Melville House, New York.

Greenwald, G 2014 No place to hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US surveillance state. Macmillan.

Hannam, P 2015 ‘Santos CSG wastewater to top 1 million litres a day – with nowhere to go’

Sydney Morning Herald, March 28, [accessed January 27, 2016]

J.R. (The Economist explains) 2013 ‘Why have so few bankers gone to jail?’ The Economist 13 May, 2013, [accessed 2 February, 2016]

McQuire, A 2015 ‘WA Government Deregisters World's Oldest Rock Art Collection As Sacred Site’, New Matilda April 29, [accessed 30 January 2016]

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review