Sociologists since Weber have often noted that one of the defining features of a bureaucracy is that its employees are selected by formal criteria—most often some kind of written test—but everyone knows how compromised the idea of bureaucracy as a meritocratic system is. The first criterion of loyalty to any organization is therefore complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit but on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when in fact they are often deployed as an instrument of arbitrary personal power.

This is how bureaucracies have always tended to work, though for most of history, this fact has only been important for those who actually operated within administrative systems. Other people encountered organizations only rarely, when it came time to register their fields and cattle with the tax authorities. But the explosion of bureaucracy over the past two centuries—and its acceleration over the past forty years—means that our involvement in this bureaucratic existence has intensified. As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than as systems of predatory extraction, we bustle about, trying to curry favor by pretending we actually believe it to be true.

David Graeber, “In Regulation Nation”