“At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace. ”—A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse David Graeber
Interview with David Graeber
- The White Review: How do anarchist circles work?
- David Graeber: One difference between the kind of anarchist groups I like and the classic Marxist group, for instance, is that we don’t start by defining reality – our points of unity are not our analyses of the situation, but rather what we want to do, the action we want to take, and how we go about it. Plus you have to give one another the benefit of the doubt. One of the principles of the consensus process is that you can’t challenge anyone on their motives; you have to assume that everyone is being honest and has good intentions. Not because you necessarily think it’s true, but as an extension of what might be considered the fundamental anarchist insight: if you treat people like children they will tend to act like children. If you treat them like adults, there’s at least some chance they will act responsibly. Ironically, I found this habit of generosity, this giving people the benefit of the doubt, was the exact opposite of the way I was taught to argue as a scholar.
Several excerpts from The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement by David Graeber:
Until 1968, most world revolutions really just introduced practical refinements: an expanded franchise, universal primary education, the welfare state. The world revolution of 1968, in contrast—whether it took the form it did in China, of a revolt by students and young cadres supporting Mao’s call for a Cultural Revolution; or in Berkeley and New York, where it marked an alliance of students, dropouts, and cultural rebels; or even in Paris, where it was an alliance of students and workers—was a rebellion against bureaucracy, conformity, or anything that fettered the human imagination, a project for the revolutionizing of not just political or economic life, but every aspect of human existence. As a result, in most cases, the rebels didn’t even try to take over the apparatus of state; they saw that apparatus as itself the problem.
It’s fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late sixties as an embarrassing failure. A case can be made for that view. It’s certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense—a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire; a hatred of bureaucracy; and suspicions about the role of government—was the political Right. Above all, the movements of the sixties allowed for the mass revival of free market doctrines that had largely been abandoned since the nineteenth century. It’s no coincidence that the same generation who, as teenagers, made the Cultural Revolution in China was the one who, as forty-year-olds, presided over the introduction of capitalism. Since the eighties, “freedom” has come to mean “the market,” and “the market” has come to be seen as identical with capitalism—even, ironically, in places like China, which had known sophisticated markets for thousands of years, but rarely anything that could be described as capitalism.
The ironies are endless. While the new free market ideology has framed itself above all as a rejection of bureaucracy, it has, in fact, been responsible for the first administrative system that has operated on a planetary scale, with its endless layering of public and private bureaucracies: the IMF, World Bank, WTO, trade organizations, financial institutions, transnational corporations, NGOs. This is precisely the system that has imposed free market orthodoxy, and opened the world to financial pillage, under the watchful aegis of American arms. It only made sense that the first attempt to recreate a global revolutionary movement, the Global Justice Movement that peaked between 1998 and 2003, was effectively a rebellion against the rule of that very planetary bureaucracy.
I’ll take an obvious example. One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest—and even more, with unrest within the military itself, which was genuinely falling apart by the early seventies—that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.
The problem was that since those rules of engagement ensured that thousands of women, children, and old people would end up “collateral damage” in order to minimize deaths and injuries to U.S. soldiers, this meant that in Iraq and Afghanistan, intense hatred for the occupying forces would pretty much guarantee that the United States couldn’t obtain its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.
Clearly, an antiwar movement in the sixties that is still tying the hands of U.S. military planners in 2012 can hardly be considered a failure. But it raises an intriguing question: What happens when the creation of that sense of failure, of the complete ineffectiveness of political action against the system, becomes the chief objective of those in power?
The thought first occurred to me when participating in the IMF actions in Washington, D.C., in 2002. Coming on the heels of 9/11, we were relatively few and ineffective, the number of police overwhelming. There was no sense that we could succeed in shutting down the meetings. Most of us left feeling vaguely depressed. It was only a few days later, when I talked to someone who had friends attending the meetings, that I learned we had in fact shut them down: the police had introduced such stringent security measures, canceling half the events, that most of the actual meetings had been carried out online. In other words, the government had decided it was more important for protesters to walk away feeling like failures than for the IMF meetings to take place. If you think about it, they afforded protesters extraordinary importance.
In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically. Eliminating guaranteed life employment for precarious contracts doesn’t really create a more effective workforce, but it is extraordinarily effective in destroying unions and otherwise depoliticizing labor. The same can be said of endlessly increasing working hours. No one has much time for political activity if they’re working sixty-hour weeks.
At the moment, the planet might seem poised more for a series of unprecedented catastrophes than for the kind of broad moral and political transformation that would open the way to such a world. But if we are going to have any chance of heading off those catastrophes, we’re going to have to change our accustomed ways of thinking. And as the events of 2011 reveal, the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die.
Just read the whole thing.
Anarchist and Marxist Communism
David Graeber’s characterizations of Marxism and Anarchism are useful:
- Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy.
- Anarchism has tended to be an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.
The implication for me is this: if we want to progress as communists (anarchist, socialist or marxist [or other]) we need to put these two tendencies back together.
Not to undo the rift between Marx and Bakunin of 1872, but to understand, synthesize, and move beyond it. There is no Anarchist or Marxist route, but there must be a single communist route. The technique with which we do this will be a modern, and simultaneously historical, dialectic.
“Here of course one has to deal with the inevitable objection: that utopianism has lead to unmitigated horror, as Stalinists, Maoists, and other idealists tried to carve society into impossible shapes, killing millions in the process. This argument belies a fundamental misconception: that imagining better worlds was itself the problem. Stalinists and their ilk did not kill because they dreamed great dreams - actually, Stalinists were famous for being rather short on imagination - but because they mistook their dreams for scientific certainties. Thie led them to feel they had a right to impose their visions through a machinery of violence. Anarchists are proposing nothing of the sort, on either count. They presume no inevitable course of history and one can never further the course of freedom by creating new forms of coercion. In fact all forms of systemic violence are (among other things) assaults on the role of the imagination as a political principle, and the only way to begin to think about eliminating systematic violence is by recognizing this. And of course one could write very long books about the atrocities throughout history carried out by cynics and other pessimists…”—David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Against Anti-Utopianism section)
“Recall here what Smith was trying to do when he wrote THE WEALTH OF NATIONS. Above all, the book was an attempt to establish the newfound discipline of economics as a science. This mean that not only did economics have its own peculiar domain of study - what we now call "the economy," though the idea that there even was something called an "economy" was nvery new in Smith's day - but that this economy operated according to laws of much the same sort as Sir Isaac Newton had so recently identified as governing the physical world. Newton had represented God as a cosmic watchmaker who had created the physical machinery of the universe in such a way that it would operate for the ultimate benefit of humans, and then let it run on its own. Smith was trying to make a similar, Newtonian argument. God - or Divine Providence -, as he put it - had arranged matters in such a way that our pursuit of self-interest would nonetheless, given an unfettered market, bu guided "as if by an invisible hand" to promote the general welfare. Smith's famous invisible hand was, as he says in his THEORY OF MORAL SENTIMENTS, the agent of Divine Providence. It was literally the hand of God. ”—
David Graeber Debt: The first 5,000 Years
THIS IS AMAZING and totally up my alley as per my interest in the intersections of metaphysics and economics. I wrote about the fight between Proudhon and Marx last winter (which I felt like reading again tonight any1want to publish eet?) as dealing with a whole bunch of the same issues, but in terms of idealism vs. materialism.
I also just read in the footnotes that Smith MIGHT have been influenced by medieval Islam and I have a feeling that this particular strain Graeber is referring to is the occasionalist one. Occasionalism is basically just the thesis that no two objects touch without God providing the medium of their touching (obvs more complicated than this). God then is a kind of ontological relation machine. This has some very interesting links with what Harman calls Latour’s “secular occasionalism” and Whitehead’s process philosophy, which is very occasionalist.
Anyways: Was Adam Smith Medeval Islam’s Mugatu? A lame white guy appropriating / decontextualizing stuff to sell to other boring white people???
“One of the puzzling things about all the theories about the origins of money that we've been looking at so far is that they almost completely ignore the evidence of anthropology. Anthropologists do have a great deal of knowledge of how economies within stateless societies actually worked-how they still work in places where states and markets have been unable to completely break up existing ways of doing things. There are innumerable studies of, say, the use of cattle as money in eastern or southern Africa, of shell money in the Americas (wampum being the most famous example) or Papua New Guinea, bead money, feather money, the use of iron rings, cowries, spondylus shells, brass rods, or woodpecker scalps. The reason that this literature tends to be ignored by economists is simple: "primitive currencies" of this sort is only rarely used to buy and sell things, and even when they are, never primarily to buy and sell everyday items such as chickens or eggs or shoes or potatoes. Rather than being employed to acquire things, they are mainly used to rearrange relations between people. Above all, to arrange marriages and to settle disputes, particularly those arising from murders or personal injury.”—David Graeber - Debt
“Defenders of capitalism make three broad historical claims: first, that it has fostered rapid scientific and technological growth; second, that however much it may throw enormous wealth to a small minority, it does so in such a way as to increase overall prosperity; third, that in doing so, it creates a more secure and democratic world for everyone. It is clear that capitalism is not doing any of these things any longer. In fact, many of its defenders are retreating from claiming that it is a good system and instead falling back on the claim that it is the only possible system—or, at least, the only possible system for a complex, technologically sophisticated society such as our own.”—David Graeber
Reading David Graeber is such a weird experience for me. he had all these political opinions and then realised quite late in life, after he’d already forged a solid career as an anthropologist, that he could actually act on them as part of a Social Movement. then he started writing on anarchist social movements in North America. I actually really like most of the things I’ve read by him, but it’s strange to see this guy who clearly knows a lot more than me about lots of things get really excited about the idea of “spokescouncils” and want to explain them to me like it’s something I’ve never heard of before. And I mean, I want to challenge that reaction in myself, because I want to challenge the idea that if you don’t get involved in social movements when you’re very, very young, you’ve lost your chance. But it also does actually shit me? I’ve been active in anarchist-y social movements about as long as he has, why don’t I have a desk? I am also wondering what this says about anthropology and about the rest of Graeber’s work. What does it mean that I am vaguely annoyed by some of his work, but only the ethnographies of environments I’m familiar with?
I should mention here that I don’t trust people who are not constantly challenging themselves — which describes a lot of the people I’ve met who critique theory as “inaccessible”. I’m mostly talking about white, professional-class humanities students with English as a first language and no learning/developmental disabilities that make it particularly difficult to parse nonstandard language. That is the #1 population I have heard make this critique of theory, by a huge distance. But theory’s not inaccessible — to them. The word you are looking for is “challenging”. I don’t understand how you even justify going to uni and doing a humanities degree if you don’t see the value of theory. and like — I know so many people for whom this knowledge is a lifeline, who’ve struggled so hard just to get in the door — and then there’s a bunch of losers just vaguely percolating about because university seemed like the Thing To Do and it was the easiest choice for them, talking shit about what kind of loser actually thinks this is important, lol, eat pills, meet people who go to cool parties, complete your socialisation into the middle+ classes, that’s what university is for, that’s way less self-indulgent than theory.
Obviously there are a lot of ways to challenge yourself and develop your understanding of the world, and some people are challenging themselves just by getting up every morning, or 70% of mornings, or staying alive at all, and there are a lot of problems with the applicability and accessibility of the loose conceptual lineage we call theory — but c’mon, some of us are just being lazy, and that’s a fundamentally untrustworthy quality, if you ask me. to contextualise this, I once had an anglo Art History intentional drop-out from an elite uni throw their hands in the air and snap at me for my “academic language”. The language in question was the phrase “social democracy”. if this isn’t you, I’m not talking about you, but trust me, these people exist, and they make me a bit defensive sometimes, yes, okay, that’s true.
However, I also don’t trust people who spend a lot of time developing their theory and then decide to put this elaborate conceptual framework into practice. I’ve organised with sheltered radical theory nerds before and it’s a fucking nightmare. they think they know more than everyone but actually they’re pretty useless. theory needs to develop in concert with action or it gets weird and floppy and self-indulgent.
I suspect this was what was going on with a lot of the problems with Occupy but I don’t really know. this wasn’t even really about Graeber in the end.
DG: The idea that alienation is a bad thing is a modernist problem. Most philosophical movements—and, by extension, social movements—actually embrace alienation. You’re trying to achieve a state of alienation. That’s the ideal if you’re a Buddhist or an early Christian, for example; alienation is a sign that you understand something about the reality of the world.
So perhaps what’s new with modernity is that people feel they shouldn’t be alienated. Colin Campbell wrote a book called The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism , in which he argued that modernity has introduced a genuinely new form of hedonism. Hedonism is no longer just getting the sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll or whatever but it’s become a matter of selling new fantasies so that you’re always imagining the thing you want. The object of desire is just an excuse, a pretext, and that’s why you’re always disappointed when you get it.
Campbell’s argument makes total sense when you first read it. But in fact, again, it’s backward. If you look at history—at, say, medieval theories of desire—it’s utterly assumed that what you desire is—
DG: Or courtly love, yes. But whatever it ultimately is, the idea that by seizing the object of your desire you would resolve the issue was actually considered a symptom of melancholia. The fantasies themselves are the realization of desire. So by that logic, what Campbell describes is not a new idea. What’s actually new is the notion that you should be able to resolve desire by attaining the object. Perhaps what’s new is the fact that we think there’s something wrong with alienation, not that we experience it. By most medieval perspectives, our entire civilization is thus really a form of clinical depression. [laughter]
Can’t ever be reminded of quotes from this book enough. I only hope that the thought in the final sentence below fulfills itself sooner rather than later.
“The last 30 years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed first and foremost to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world — in response to the upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s — with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish or propose alternatives. That those who challenge existing power arrangements can never under any circumstances can never be seen to win. Maintaining this illusion requires armies, prisons, police and private security firms to create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity and despair. All these guns, surveillance cameras and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and produce nothing — they’re economic deadweights that are dragging the entire capitalist system down.”
David Graeber is Coming to Reed in January
I am so excited. David Graeber has helped me understand how activism and academia can be successfully merged and showed me why anthropology and anarchism go together.
Anarchism is about imagining different possible configurations of human cultures and societies, ones free from oppression.
Anthropology is the study of different configurations of human cultures and society.
Anarchism is not about high theory but about what and how we can prefigure the world we want to see through our own practice and how our experience on the ground influences is our theory.
Anthropology, with its commitment to ethnography, allows on the ground circumstances to dictate theory and not the other way around. (well, ideally…)
Praxis makes perfect!
Also, I am reading his new book Debt right now and it is great! In an entertaining way, he rips through basic economic theories and shows the intimate connection between the state and capitalism.
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is online: http://www.abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf
“I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we care to acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one's penchant for self-destruction. ”—David Graeber. Debt: the first 5000 years
“I once put out the idea that the best way to think about anarchism is as a combination of three levels. On the one hand, the sort of instinctual revulsion against forms of inequality in power; on the other hand, a reappraisal of what one is already doing in egalitarian relations; and then the projection of these principles on all sorts of relations. So those three moves making what you’re already doing self-conscious and trying to take those principles and project them to all sorts of relations… But that’s what I’m trying to do in the book and I hadn’t really thought of it until I just said that—when I say that what we’re already doing is communism. The first step we have to make is to realize that we’re already closer to it than we think. We don’t live in a capitalist totality. Capitalism couldn’t survive as a totality anyway. We live in this complex system and we already live communism and anarchism in a million forms everyday.”—
David Graeber, in an interview with Rebecca Solnit in Guernica. If you haven’t read Debt: The First 5,000 Years yet, this is a pretty good discussion to see how Graeber’s argument gets from anthropology at the beginning to political criticism at the end. They manage to touch on a number of the themes that he’s written about in various places.