A History of the World in Admin

(Mortimer, A. E., Press tbc, forthcoming).

It is pretty clear that one of the biggest divisions in the Brexit debate (and it is essentially still a debate) is between people who have some kind of grasp of the operative principles of admin and logistics and those who don’t. Long before the referendum was held it was clear that nobody was publicly asking the people who were actually going to have to, well, Do Brexit (i.e. the civil service and its auxiliary agencies, mostly) for their opinion on the feasibility of what was proposed. Or as it turns out even asking them privately, but that’s another post.

The reasons certain people don’t understand the operative principles of admin and logistics are anecdotally not hard to find. They are the same throughout any organisation that does anything that involves committing things, any kind of things for any reason, to paper. Usually, though not always, these people are men, and these people are senior, and these people are older. The reason they don’t know how to do a mailmerge, or how long it takes to accurately enter 387 marks into a spreadsheet, or what process might be involved in removing something from a website, is because they were mid-career when such things became a possibility at all. Quite probably even at an earlier stage the more privileged among them were never expected to get their heads round equivalent things. It’s just not a habit. No one has ever told them or expected them to figure out how long it takes to actually get stuff done. As a result, they confuse something being simple in its ends and nature with its being easy and quick.

Like many who have worked in various forms of logistical and administrative support services which deal with simple matters, I have learned to dread the (usually) senior man who starts a sentence with “Can’t you just…” That “just” is usually doing about an hour’s work which the man sincerely has no idea won’t happen spontaneously, without any agency at all. After all, for them, it does. Room bookings and meetings fly unbidden into their diaries, words assemble themselves magically upon website pages in such a way as to make them appear to best advantage, spreadsheets complete themselves and turn up from somewhere, and when their continued brilliant trajectory is flagging and in need of sustenance, catering appears. Everything that involves counting, understanding, summarising, categorising, directing, sending, informing, supporting – all the little ings that support the final strategic active verbal formulation “I have decided that…”, all this happens elsewhere. In this, of course, their professional lives are just an extension of the home lives they have long been accustomed to, in which someone else typically does most of the thinking and most of the donkey work. The phrase for this on Mumsnet is “facilitated men”. It goes without saying that the more privileged people are, with maleness as only one form of privilege, the more facilitated they are likely to be.

Now let’s take a look at the Brexiteers. Actually let’s not, I don’t want anybody to bring up their lunch. It is enough to say that what we have here is a small selection of literally the most facilitated men in history, saying repeatedly (well, shouting, really), “Can’t you just…” We all keep asking ourselves how they can be so stupid. Well, this is how. They really, truly, honestly believe that all the things Ian Dunt painstakingly researches and writes about week after week will all just slide into place somehow, because literally everything else in their lives has done exactly that up to this point, and their question – no, their bafflement – is simply over why it hasn’t already happened. This is a division in insight and understanding that we will never, ever get round, whether we Brexit or not.

Anyway, believe it or not, all of that is by the by. The point is, once you start looking at the biggest political question of our times in these terms, it starts to look like a fun tool for interrogating historical events. The players and the distributions of privilege and facilitation will have been different. For one thing, the relegation of admin to “women’s work” is a recent phenomenon owing to women previously not having been in the workforce at all, and it’s either incredibly interesting, or massively unfortunate, or a savage practical joke by a cruel god, or all three, that the entry of women into the workforce has coincided with a colossal explosion of admin, admin requirements and admin-supporting tools in all forms. But whoever is carrying it out, the role of admin has, I think, not really been singled out before as a force across history.

Take the extension of the franchise to half the population. There’s an admin job. I attended a very good mini-conference on Friday about histories of female suffrage and representation across the world, and it became clear to me (I think this is a conflation of several speakers’ points) that one of the reasons New Zealand’s women got the vote all the way back in 1893 was because the population was relatively low and well-administered compared to that of the UK. I can also imagine the sheer lack of entrenched “this is the way we do things” culture in the administration made a difference; the office buildings and facilities will all have been modern and thus more likely to be fit for purpose; land will presumably have been cheaper, storage and transportation of large record classes, for instance, easier.

Admin is clearly not the only reason things do or don’t happen. But once you start off the whole business of state formation, once you start counting or understanding or categorising or informing anything at all, admin and how long it takes and how practically feasible it is, is pretty much an inescapable lens through which you have to view everything you could do, or might want to do, and maybe there have always been people who just don’t get it (or maybe there haven’t, that would be interesting too). James C Scott starts interrogating these questions, I think, at the other end of the “invention of admin” process, and I really need to get around to reading that. It would be productive to pursue some kind of collaboration across all periods to see if you can trace the effects of Admin as a force at different flashpoints in history.



  1. This rings so true! I work in children’s wear design, and so often my (white, male, older) boss would sit there saying ‘can’t somebody just *get* some fabric/zips/thread/buttons, and just MAKE this children’s anorak you’ve drawn on this piece of paper? Can’t be that hard’, while yet again, for the 100th time, the people doing the design and development are forced to explain afresh what their job involves on a day to day basis. The specifications, the lead times, the minimums, all the hard logistical shit that this dude seems eternally unable to retain, even though it’s his own business….

    1. Gah! I’m sure these people think they’re being freethinking and bold and no-bullshit when actually they just sound ignorant. It would be less annoying if more process redesign happened as a result to make things less cumbersome, but rarely does in my experience!

  2. Great piece.

    On the wider point, a professor I used to work with was fond of pointing out that basically everything we think of as a feature of a modern nation is the result of “bureaucracy” (by which he meant admin, but also the kind of organisation you need to have to get complicated admin done…)

    As an aside, the gendertyping of “clerks” in Victorian (and other literature) is definitely “effeminate”…

    1. Ha yes, that’s exactly it! I thought this might be an anthropology thing. I feel like there probably IS a field “history of the world in admin”, but it’s made up of different bits of anthropology, history and political economy and called by different names in each.

      V interesting on the clerks.

  3. I thought a bit about admin in a couple of chapters on my book about police control systems, honest. Yes. It’s really interesting. Um, sorry if I’m ever any aspect of That Guy, Alix.

    (This looks like the sort of discussion best continued over a pint, overdue for one with two of the people on this thread already).

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