A Reply to Critics of “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber”
A number of people, including David Graeber, have claimed that my article, “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber,” misrepresented him. Most of them have just leveled charges that they didn’t even try to substantiate. Others have mischaracterized what I wrote or have made irrelevant points. The only response to my critique of Graeber that’s worth responding to was posted by “Nate” on May 18 as a comment below the article. It’s a serious piece. My reply thus takes the form of a reply to him, but I hope that it will address the concerns of the other critics as well.
Before getting into that, let me just say that there seem to be a lot of people out there who should read more carefully than they do, especially when they publicly criticize what they think they’ve read. They should avoid claims that an author wrote something when that something is just their own sense of what he or she was getting at. And they should make a lot more distinctions than they seem to make.
1. Nate wrote:
Final thing, this strikes me as semantic hairsplitting: “‘prefigurative politics’ refers to practices that foreshadow and anticipate a different world, a world that does not exist, ‘Direct action’ in Graeber’s sense refers to practices that make believe that this different world already exists in embryo within the existing one.” I don’t see why “XYZ foreshadows and anticipates a not-yet-existing new world” and “XYZ is a new world in embryo” can’t be synonyms. If Graeber makes any claims along the lines of “XYZ is a new world in embryo” someone should point them out. Then we can paraphrase them as “XYZ practices foreshadow and anticipate a not-yet-existing new world” and see if they look substantially different. I doubt they will.
Does the new world already exist within the existing one, or, on the contrary, is “[c]apital … the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” as Marx put it? I’ve begun with this, although it is Nate’s final point, because what strikes him as semantic hairsplitting is actually the key issue. The other aspects of Graeber’s ideology that I criticized flow naturally from his answer to this question. I think his answer is incorrect. I say “incorrect” because it’s an empirical question.
Graeber is far from the only one whose ideology and politics flow from and are inextricable from the belief that that the new world already exists. Lots of autonomists share that belief, and differences on this question were central to Raya Dunayevskaya’s break from Johnsonism in 1953 and her development of the philosophy of Marxist-Humanism on the basis of that break. Johnson (C. L. R. James) was a direct influence on others who’ve since adopted this belief.
As for evidence that this is Graeber’s belief as well, take the following statement he made in an interview with Ross Wolfe:
It’s not like everything we do corresponds to a logic of capitalism. There are those who’ve argued that only 30–40% of what we do is subsumed under the logic of capitalism. Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels, so it’s a question of gradually expanding that and ultimately destroying the power of capital, rather than this idea of absolute negation that plunges us into some great unknown.
The part of the quote I’ve italicized is a straightforward denial that capital is the all-dominating power in society and a straightforward affirmation that the communism he favors “already exists” within existing society “on a million different levels.”
I’ll never forget a converation I had with a well-known autonomist. He told me that “less than half” of our lives is subsumed under the logic of capitalism. I was floored, because he had always stressed the totalizing nature of capital. But he asked me if my relationship with my wife was dominated by capital. I guess he expected a “no, but …” answer. My actual answer was “of course.”
The political implication of Graeber’s belief is exactly what he says it is. If the new world already exists, if capital is not the all-dominating power, there is no need for absolute negation, total transcendence. Instead, we simply need to gradually expand the communism that already exists on a million different levels. In my critique, I referred to this as the “effort to remake society by multiplying and weaving together autonomous spaces.” The Zuccotti Park occupation was a failed attempt to start doing this. As Graeber said in an interview with Amy Goodman, “The system is not going to save us; we’re going to have to save ourselves. So we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.” This precisely expresses his notion of “acting as if you were already free,” not prefiguration in the proper sense. He didn’t say foreshadow the kind of society that we’d like to see, but start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it. And he wasn’t speaking just for himself here.
The second of the statements below is not a paraphrase of the first, and it makes no sense:
- “Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels, so it’s a question of gradually expanding that”
- “Communism already exists in our intimate relations with each other on a million different levels, so it’s a question of gradually expanding practices that foreshadow and anticipate a world that does not exist.”
In case anyone still thinks that I’ve quoted Graeber out of context and have failed to read what he said charitably, here is more from Ross Wolfe’s interview with him:
I think that kind of totalizing logic ends up requiring a total rupture. Perhaps after the revolution we can imagine a rupture, whereby we now live in a totally different society, but we all know it’s not going to happen through a total rupture. (emphasis added)
Those who want social change but have given up on the possibility of a total rupture have no alternative but to try and remake the existing society into something it’s not. But some of them, including Graeber, also want to be revolutionaries. So they resolve the contradiction by saying (and believing) that they’re not really trying to remake the existing society into something it’s not, but instead trying to gradually expand the new world that already exists within the old one.
And again, in the same interview, Graeber says
I think the “capitalist totality” only exists in our imagination. I don’t think there is a capitalist totality. I think there’s capital, which is extraordinarily powerful, and represents a certain logic that is actually parasitic upon a million other social relations, without which it couldn’t exist. …
I think that the real problem is Marx’s Hegelianism. The totalizing aspect of Hegel’s legacy is rather pernicious. …
It’s much more sensible to argue that all social and political possibilities exist simultaneously. Just because certain forms of cooperation are only made possible through the operation of capitalism, that consumer goods are capitalist, or that techniques of production are capitalist, no more makes them parasitical upon capitalism than the fact that factories can operate without governments. Some cooperation and consumer goods makes them socialist. There are multiple, contradictory logics of exchange, logics of action, and cooperative logics existing at all times. They are embedded in one another, in mutual contradiction, constantly in tension.
Most of this is just elaborates on the denial that capital is the all-dominating power in society and the claim that communism already exists. But it also makes another crucial empirical claim, which again seems to have originated with C. L. R. James, namely that capital is “parasitic” on non-capitalist relations. In fact, this claim is the foundation of the denial that capital is the all-dominating power in society. Its political implication is that we just have to get the parasite off our back in order to be free. There is no need to do away with a social formation governed by a very specific set of economic laws and establish a wholly new communal society that operates according to completely different principles.
So what’s at issue here is not semantic hairsplitting, but extremely sharp differences on empirical and political matters.
As an aside that I can’t develop here, I’ll point out that not all conceptions of totality are alike. For instance, Dunayevskaya profoundly disagreed with Lukacs’ conception. Some conceptions have the harmful effects that Graeber mentions elsewhere in this interview––but not all.
2. Nate wrote:
In Andrew’s first long comment in response to a Graeber quote, I think I agree with much of what he says, but it’s not at all clear that he’s actually addressing what Graeber said or what Graeber thinks.
I don’t know what Graeber thinks; I can only infer it from what he said. The part of what he said that I criticized is “With ‘protest’ it sounds as though you’ve already lost. It’s as though it’s part of a game where the sides recognise each other in fixed positions. It becomes like the Foucauldian disciplinary game where both sides sort of constitute each other.” What I criticized was the denial that we’ve already lost, the denial that the two sides constitute each other, and thus the suggestion that one can choose to opt out of the “game” in which the two sides constitute each other.
Given what Graeber says above about communism already existing on a million different levels, it’s clear to me that his denial that you’ve already lost is not a local denial, one that pertains just to the immediate isssue. It’s a global denial, based on his empirical claim that much or even most of what we do is not “subsumed under the logic of capitalism.” If that’s the case, then we don’t have to play its game; we have the ability to opt out of it. As he put it later in the interview, “Nothing annoys forces of authority more than trying to bow out of the disciplinary game entirely and saying that we could just do things on our own.” Now, I wrote “have the ability to” while he said “trying to.” But the logic of his position is that we should “gradually expand[ ]” the huge chunk of what we do (which is perhaps 60% to 70% of what we do) that isn’t subsumed under the logic of capitalism, and in this way “ultimately destroy[ ] the power of capital.” It would be nonsensical to recommend doing this if we don’t have the ability to do it.
On the other hand, Graeber knows that we often don’t have that ability: “the Malagasy people are … the ultimate direct actionists, but they’re also in a situation where it’s much easier to get away with it.” So the most charitable reading of his position I can come up with is this. We should act as if “we could just do things on our own” in either case. In other words, when we’re able to do so, we should just do things on our own, and when we’re not able to do so, we should make believe that we can.
If Nate still thinks that “it’s not at all clear that [Kliman was] actually addressing what Graeber said,” it’s really up to him to make an argument that I didn’t do so.
3. Nate wrote:
The second moment when Andrew responds to a Graeber quote is even worse. “You’re not free, but you make believe that you are” is so uncharitable a reading of what Graeber said that it’s a distortion. Graeber is not advocating “pretending that you’re already free when you’re not.” Take the example he gives, of digging a well in response to a water monopoly. It’s really clear to me that Graeber means pursuing an approach which recognizes the reality of unfreedom, and opposing that unfreedom in a specific way. And the joke for rhetorical purposes doesn’t illuminate (pardon the pun). “How many direct-action anarchists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: None. They just sit in the dark and act as if the light bulb didn’t burn out.” If Graeber said “there’s a water monopoly? just pretend you have water to drink” then the joke would be accurate as an analogy. As it is, it doesn’t do any substantive intellectual work as far as I can tell.
I’ll address the first five sentences of this below. As for the joke, analogies aren’t claims that two different things are the same in all senses. They are claims that the two things are the same in one or more specific senses. I wrote, “The notion that effective action can be based on pretending that things are different than they actually are strikes me as utterly absurd. How many direct-action anarchists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: None. They just sit in the dark and act as if the light bulb didn’t burn out” (emphasis added). “Acting as if you were already free” to do things that you’re not free to do (which Graeber advocates) is the same as acting as if the light bulb didn’t burn out when it has in fact burnt out, in the following sense: in both cases, you are acting as if (pretending) that things are different than they actually are. And trying to do things that you’re not free to do is the same as sitting in the dark and acting as if the light bulb didn’t burn out, in the sense that both are ineffective actions.
Incidently, I should point out that the joke was about one specific conception of direct action,“[t]he notion that effective action can be based on pretending that things are different than they actually are.” It wasn’t a joke about direct action as such or anarchists as such or direct-action anarchists as such. Its only target was those who favor acting as if you were already free (when you’re not) on the specific grounds on which Graeber stated that he favored it, namely as an attempt to“just go and dig your own well.” Those who favor direct and acting as if you were already free only on different grounds were not targets.
4. Nate wrote:
Andrew [writes], “The notion that effective action can be based on pretending that things are different than they actually are strikes me as utterly absurd.” Generally it seems to me that no one believes things while also believing “my belief is absurd.” People *do* believe absurd things sometimes, but engaging meaningfully with those views involves getting at how they manage to believe those things in such a way that they don’t think their beliefs are absurd. Andrew’s article does no such thing.
What’s more, generally it seems to me as well that when one hears someone’s view and thinks “that view is absurd!” it’s worth trying to figure out if the person *actually* believes something absurd, or if they may actually believe something more sensible than the apparently absurd belief.
I more or less agree with all of this, except for the last sentence of the first paragraph. My article didn’t make a big point of it, but I do think it showed how Graeber advocates actions that involve make-believe in a manner that can make this seem reasonable. Basically, he shifts back and forth between advocating such actions and acknowledging that they may be ineffective or are even likely to be ineffective. I quoted and discussed a statement in which he advocates going off and digging your own well, and alludes to what the Malagasy people in Madagascar have done that’s like this, which he followed with the qualification that “they’re … in a situation where it’s much easier to get away with it.” I also quoted and discussed another passage in which he again advocates rebuilding society by means of what he characterizes as “withdrawal” and “opening up a space of autonomy,” which he follows with the qualification that “I don’t think we can do without confrontation of any kind, I think that’s equally naïve, but the exact mix of withdrawal and confrontation cannot be predicted.”
So realism seems to win out in the end. But as I noted, “It’s a shame that this is where Graeber ends up. It should have been where he began.” The failed Zucotti Park occupation might have been bypassed in favor of efforts to transform society that are more realistic than “get[ting] as many people as possible to camp in some public place and start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it.”
In any case, there’s a glaring contradiction between his ultimate realism and his advocacy of “trying to bow out of the disciplinary game entirely and saying that we could just do things on our own.” I think Nate is wrong to conclude (in the paragraph quoted in point 4, above) that Graeber consistently puts forward a conception of direct action in which it is a matter of “opposing … unfreedom in a specific way” (emphasis added). To arrive at that conclusion, one has to dismiss, as somehow not his real view, the many instances in which he advocates withdrawal, trying to just do things on our own, spaces of autonomy, digging our own well, rebuilding society here and now, etc. But such statements cannot plausibly be dismissed in that way; there simply are too many of them.
In addition to trying to explain how people can advocate absurd things, one should also try to explain how they can tolerate contradictions, especially glaring contradictions. I think Graeber and others who wish to be revolutionaries but who reject the perspective of total transformation are between a rock and a hard place. So self-contradiction may be a lesser-evil option for them. Other factors may be involved as well. I know lots of people who regard self-contradiction as much less of an offense than I do.
Of course, I could be wrong about all this. Graeber might have a way of reconciling what seems contradictory that I don’t know about. And he might be able to successfully explain away the statements that seem to provide an absurd basis for action. If he can do this, he certainly should. In this case, I would be delighted to be shown that I was wrong.
5. Nate wrote:
I looked on google books for about twenty minutes, digging around in Graeber’s book called Direct Action. It seems to me that Andrew could have done better by doing the same than he did with this interview. I think it’s a failing of comradely intellectual due diligence not to have done so, to be quite frank.
On page 201 Graeber provides a number of quotes of anarchists talking about what they mean by the term, all of which are more substantive than Andrew’s presentation of what he takes to be Graber’s absurd view.
Graeber’s book is an ethnography. As such, it is wrong to infer that its author endorses what he quotes unless he explicitly says that he does. When Graeber speaks for himself, he’s pretty consistent about his conception of direct action, as far as I can see. I also think my characterizations of his position, in my critique and here, are accurate. More on this below.
6. Nate wrote:
Graeber points on page 204 that he means “acting as if, at least as a moral entity, the state does not exist.” (204) That is, the point is not to “make believe you’re free”, it’s to treat the state as illegitimate and not a moral actor. I happen to think Graeber’s “as if you’re free” thing is a really clumsy metaphor, but it’s really clear to me on even a really cursory reading that Andrew is not presenting Graeber’s view in an accurate way.
I agree that the point, the purpose, is not to make believe you’re free. I never suggested otherwise. I said and say that to act as if you were already free when that’s not the case is to make believe that you’re already free. That’s because making believe is acting as if something were the case when you know it’s not. For instance, if we say that some kids made believe that they are cowboys, what we mean is that they acted as if they were cowboys although they knew that they were not.
So this comment of Nate’s and his comment (in the paragraph quoted in point 4, above) that “Graeber is not advocating ‘pretending that you’re already free when you’re not’” just miss my point. I agree that Graeber doesn’t advocate pretending that you’re already free when you’re not. But what he does advocate involves doing just that. Once this is understood, I think it’s clear that my reading is neither uncharitable nor a distortion.
On p. 203 of Direct Action, he writes that direct action involves the following: “Insofar as one is capable, one proceeds as if the state does not exist.” But it does exist and one knows it exists, so one is only making believe that it doesn’t. And don’t be mislead by “insofar as one is capable.” It means “insofar as one is capable of proceeding this way,” not “insofar as one’s course of action is able to succeed.” On the same page, he writes, “The direct actionist proceeds as she would if the state did not exist and leaves it to the state’s representatives to decide whether to try to send armed men to stop her.” This means that, according to this formulation of what direct action is––which is Graeber’s, not mine––if one is capable of proceeding in this way, one does so without regard to the likelihood that the action will succeed.
Other things he says and writes seem to contradict the point about not taking likely results into account before acting. However, the seemingly contradictory statements might be descriptions of actual practice while the above refers to an ideal. See for example p. 405, where he writes, “The ideal, when conducting an action, is to behave as if one is already living in a free society ….” But there might also be instances in which he contradicts himself on this issue.
In any case, Graeber again and again defines direct action as acting as if we were already free to do things on our own, including in cases in which we aren’t. (See, in addition to the statements quoted in my original critique and above, p. 433 and p. 527 of Direct Action.) I haven’t found any cases in which he contradicts such definitions when he’s speaking for himself rather than describing or quoting.
7. Nate wrote:
Andrew contrasts Graeber’s hypothetical example with the sit-down strikes of the 30s. Graeber in his book makes an admittedly cursory mention of the US labor movement prior to the 1950s and the frequency of direct action in that era, including this quote: “To go on strike, to destroy machinery, occupy factories, establish picket lines so as to physically prevent scabs from entering a workplace: all this was a matter of workers seizing for themselves the right to employ coercive force, in direct defiance of the state’s claims of holding a monopoly on violence.” (205) That is: these are examples of what Graeber sees as direct action, so that the sit-down strikes that Andrew invokes fit within Graeber’s framework.
I didn’t deny that the sit-down strikes fit within Graeber’s framework in some sense. What I wrote was, “I think that’s pretty direct action. … But according to Graeber’s formulation, the sit-down strikes were not direct actions, because the workers didn’t ‘just go and dig [their] own well’––in other words, they didn’t just set up their own auto and steel factories ‘as if they were already free’ to do so” (emphasis added). Note that I didn’t write “Graeber believes” or “according to Graeber” but “according to Graeber’s formulation.” I wasn’t describing or trying to describe his beliefs. I was criticizing a formulation, and I was criticizing the conceptual muddiness involved in a theorization of direct action that meshes so poorly with what he elsewhere seems to accept as being direct action.
I think part of the problem is that Graeber’s notion of what constitutes direct action is so malleable. That’s a good thing for an ethnography like Direct Action, since the actual usage of the term is so malleable, as he emphasizes. But this malleability is not a good thing when it comes to articulating and explicating the particular conception of direct action that he advocates. It allows him to advocate a very particular conception of direct action but also to subsume under it things like the sit-down strikes that don’t fit in with it. Recall his statement in the White Review interview: “if you were to blockade the mayor’s house, it’s civil disobedience, but it’s still not direct action. Direct action is when you just go and dig your own well ….” The sit-down strikes were much more like the first example than the second. Of course, he says (in the passage that Nate quotes) that the workers “seiz[ed] for themselves the right to employ coercive force,” but if that is taken as his own conception of what constitutes direct action, then blockading the mayor’s house also becomes direct action in his sense, though he denies here that it is.
As for Graeber’s claim that the sit-down strikers “seiz[ed] for themselves the right to employ coercive force” (emphasis added), see the next point.
8. Nate wrote:
Graeber also notes that “those conducting a direct action insist on acting as if the state’s representatives have no more right to impose their view of the rights or wrongs of the situation than anybody else.” (203.) Graeber points out clearly that this manner of proceeding will involve conflict with the state. So there’s no “pretending” here as far as I can tell.
Again, to pretend is precisely to act as if something were the case when you know that it’s not.
As long as the state exists, people can act as if they have rights that they don’t have, and they can demand rights that they don’t yet have and maybe obtain them (though Graeber doesn’t really approve of demands), but they can’t seize rights or grant themselves rights. Only the state can grant rights. See the 10th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the last of the Bill of Rights.
9. Nate wrote:
The core of the stuff on Graeber here is three quotes from Graeber with a response to each by Andrew. That’s not a good format, in my opinion. At the very least, Andrew should have take the time to present a reconstruction of Graeber’s views in each case that was the strongest possible version of those views that Andrew could formulate. That doesn’t happen, and so weakens the piece.
I don’t see point of reconstructing what I think is perfectly well constructed in the first place—Graeber writes and speaks extremely clearly—especially since I quoted in full what I criticized, so that anyone who wants to reconstruct it can do so. And I provided a link to the whole interview, so that anyone who wants to try to reconstruct it from that larger context can do so. In any case, I would have thought that an editor of Recomposition––in his comment, Nate identifies himself as such––which has published slanderous, unsubstantiated, patently absurd, and self-contradictory accusations against me, would think twice before criticizing my interpretive methods. I’m referring to the following accusations contained in a response to my critique of Graeberism:
Kliman … [has a] deeply apolitical take on Marxism.
He believes world history will accomplish itself.
Simply describing to people the problems they face, in a systematic way, actually makes them retreat even further into inaction, especially if you describe those problems as a plenum in which there is no room for meaningful resistance, which Kliman all but does in his piece.
Kliman attacks a straw man when he reduces direct action to a lifestylist opting-out of capitalism (“rural communes”), and contrasts that with the sit-down strikes that created the CIO. Of course, the irony is that those sit-down strikes are a quintessential form of direct action.
Kliman smugly points out that OWS never actually occupied Wall Street. … this seems like an especially inane charge: what would physically occupying the New York Stock Exchange have accomplished, in an era in which financial transactions are global and electronic?
Kliman equally fails to understand that human beings – and only human beings – make history.
He … is guilty of precisely the kind of pathetic and dangerous idealism that Marx warned against, most perniciously the belief that history itself has agency.
Nate’s own contribution on the MHI site is a model of reasoned discourse but, as an editor of Recomposition, he does bear responsibility for publishing the garbage above.
 Introduction to the Grundrisse.
 Although the Johnson-Forest Tendency, of which Dunayevskaya (Forest) was co-leader, broke up two years later, her philosophical break from Johnsonism took place in 1953, in two letters on Hegel’s Absolute Idea and Absolute Mind.
 Ross Wolfe, “The movement as an end-in-itself? An interview with David Graeber,” Platypus Affiliated Society website, January 31st, 2012; emphasis added.
 Interview on “Democracy Now!,” available here. He said this at about 1:44 minutes into the video. The person who posted it wrote that the interview took place “soon after the ball of Occupy Wall Street began rolling.”
 The way James put it was, “the integument is burst asunder,” i.e. capital is just a shell that contains the embryonic new world and that prevents it from fully emerging––until the shell is burst asunder. James was quoting Marx, but I think Marx meant something very different.
 Note that I said that this is the most charitable reading of his position that I can come up with, not the most approving way of expressing it. I’ve expressed it as I have in order to make explicit what remains only implicit when it’s expressed in an approving way.
 Note that this sentence does not state or imply that direct action is absurd.
 Marianne, “Direct Action Makes History: A Response to Andrew Kliman’s ‘The Make-Believe World of David Graeber,’” Recomposition website, May 15, 2012.
 In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”
 In my critique, I wrote, “The fact that we’ve already lost doesn’t mean that we should give up. We may have lost the battle, but we haven’t yet lost the war.”
 In my critique, I wrote, “I don’t recall any police who were annoyed enough to use guns and tear gas in order to try to force these folks off of the communes. But that’s what happened when the workers sat down in the factories. I think that’s pretty direct action.”
 I didn’t criticize OWS for failing to occupy Wall Street. I just “smugly” pointed out that it failed to achieve its own aim.
 In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”
 In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”