Tag Archives: David Graeber

an end in itself

As I remarked to a friend last night, the defining feature of middle age seems to be that it’s the period when you start losing friends, family, heroes and teachers at a distressingly regular rate. The latest to go—and to go far too early—is David Graeber.

I never knew the guy, and I’ve never read as much of his work as I meant to, but I feel fairly safe in saying he’d probably rather be celebrated than mourned—celebrated not for himself, but for his work, and for his work’s unapologetic yet cheery defiance.

To exercise one’s capacities to their fullest extent is to take pleasure in one’s own existence, and with sociable creatures, such pleasures are proportionally magnified when performed in company. From the Russian perspective, this does not need to be explained. It is simply what life is. We don’t have to explain why creatures desire to be alive. Life is an end in itself. And if what being alive actually consists of is having powers—to run, jump, fight, fly through the air—then surely the exercise of such powers as an end in itself does not have to be explained either. It’s just an extension of the same principle.

His work was also his play. Ironically, perhaps, that’s a tough example to live up to—but only because we’ve been atomised into a system of relentless competition that sets us one against the other. What I’ll take with me going forward is this bit, which Graeber wrote with Andrej Grubačić as part of an introduction to a new edition of Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid:

In Capital, the only real attention to cooperation is an examination of cooperative activities as forms and consequences of factory production, where workers “merely form a particular mode of existence of capital.” It would seem that two projects complement each other very well. Kropotkin aimed to understand precisely what it was that an alienated worker had lost. But to integrate the two would mean to understand how even capitalism is ultimately founded on communism (“mutual aid”), even if it’s a communism it does not acknowledge; how communism is not an abstract, distant ideal, impossible to maintain, but a lived practical reality we all engage in daily, to different degrees, and that even factories could not operate without it—even if much of it operates on the sly, between the cracks, or shifts, or informally, or in what’s not said, or entirely subversively. It’s become fashionable lately to say that capitalism has entered a new phase in which it has become parasitical of forms of creative cooperation, largely on the internet. This is nonsense. It has always been so.

This is a worthy intellectual project. For some reason, almost no one is interested in carrying it out. Instead of examining how the relations of hierarchy and exploitation are reproduced, refused, and entangled with relations of mutual aid, how relations of care become continuous with relations of violence, but nonetheless hold together systems of violence so that they don’t entirely fall apart, both traditional Marxism and contemporary social theory have stubbornly dismissed pretty much anything suggestive of generosity, cooperation, or altruism as some kind of bourgeois illusion. Conflict and egoistic calculation proved to be more interesting than “union.” (Similarly, it is fairly common for academic leftists to write about Carl Schmidt or Turgot, while is almost impossible to find those who write about Bakunin and Kondiaronk.) As Marx himself complained, under the capitalist mode of production, to exist is to accumulate[. F]or the last few decades we have heard little else than relentless exhortations on cynical strategies used to increase our respective (social, cultural, or material) capital. These are framed as critiques. But if all you’re willing to talk about is that which you claim to stand against, if all you can imagine is what you claim to stand against, then in what sense do you actually stand against it?

That last line there chimes bright and clear with Matt Colquhoun’s statement from a few days back, and with much of my own experience in the last decade or so. Positive projects… the hacienda must be built.

Rest in power, man.

a science designed to solve problems that no longer exist

David Graeber at NYRoB, reviewing Skidelsky’s Money and Government. Graeber’s acid prose is almost always a delight to this household, and this piece has plenty of it — though it is the exact opposite of a hatchet-job review.

On the tautology of monetarism:

The premise that markets will always right themselves in the end can only be tested if one has a commonly agreed definition of when the “end” is; but for economists, that definition turns out to be “however long it takes to reach a point where I can say the economy has returned to equilibrium.” (In the same way, statements like “the barbarians always win in the end” or “truth always prevails” cannot be proved wrong, since in practice they just mean “whenever barbarians win, or truth prevails, I shall declare the story over.”)

On the ideological origins of income tax:

… there’s absolutely no reason a modern state should fund itself primarily by appropriating a proportion of each citizen’s earnings. There are plenty of other ways to go about it. Many—such as land, wealth, commercial, or consumer taxes (any of which can be made more or less progressive)—are considerably more efficient, since creating a bureaucratic apparatus capable of monitoring citizens’ personal affairs to the degree required by an income tax system is itself enormously expensive. But this misses the real point: income tax is supposed to be intrusive and exasperating. It is meant to feel at least a little bit unfair. Like so much of classical liberalism (and contemporary neoliberalism), it is an ingenious political sleight of hand—an expansion of the bureaucratic state that also allows its leaders to pretend to advocate for small government.

And the leakage of economic assumptions into the humanities more broadly:

… by the 1950s and 1960s almost every scholarly discipline in the business of preparing young people for positions of power (political science, international relations, etc.) had adopted some variant of “rational choice theory” culled, ultimately, from microeconomics. By the 1980s and 1990s, it had reached a point where even the heads of art foundations or charitable organizations would not be considered fully qualified if they were not at least broadly familiar with a “science” of human affairs that started from the assumption that humans were fundamentally selfish and greedy.

Free market bullshit

David Graeber’s on tour, plugging his new book on the remarkably successful and resonant “bullshit jobs” hypothesis. Snipping this from an interview with him at Dissent Magazine:

Brooks: And this also helps to explain why market enthusiasts are wrong in their claims that it’s impossible or unlikely that capitalism will produce bullshit jobs.

Graeber: Yes, exactly. Amusingly enough both libertarians and Marxists tend to attack me on these grounds, and the reason is that both are still basically operating with a conception of capitalism as it existed in maybe the 1860s—lots of little competing firms making and selling stuff. Sure, that’s still true if you’re talking about, say, owner-operated restaurants, and I’d agree that such restaurants tend not to hire people they don’t really need. But if you’re talking about the large firms that dominate the economy nowadays, they operate by an entirely different logic. If profits are extracted through fees, rents, and creating and enforcing debts, if the state is intimately involved in surplus extraction, well, the difference between the economic and political sphere tends to dissolve. Buying political loyalty for your extractive schemes is itself an economic good.

Earlier in the piece Graeber makes that point that, far from being a conspiracy theory, this is precisely the opposite, in that it neatly explains the absence of concerted elite action to rig the econopolitical system: if it ain’t broke (for you), then why expend any effort trying to fix it?