A Reply to Critics of “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber”

Andrew Kliman

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?[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.

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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.[6]

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.

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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.[7] If he can do this, he certainly should. In this case, I would be delighted to be shown that I was wrong.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:[8]

Kliman … [has a] deeply apolitical take on Marxism.

He believes world history will accomplish itself.[9]

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.[10]

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.[11]

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?[12]

Kliman equally fails to understand that human beings – and only human beings – make history.[13]

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.[14]

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.


[1] Introduction to the Grundrisse.

[2] 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.

[3] Ross Wolfe, “The movement as an end-in-itself? An interview with David Graeber,” Platypus Affiliated Society website, January 31st, 2012;  emphasis added.

[4] 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.”

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Note that this sentence does not state or imply that direct action is absurd.

[8] Marianne, “Direct Action Makes History: A Response to Andrew Kliman’s ‘The Make-Believe World of David Graeber,’” Recomposition website, May 15, 2012.

[9] In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”

[10] 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.”

[11] 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.”

[12] I didn’t  criticize OWS for failing to occupy Wall Street. I just “smugly” pointed out that it failed to achieve its own aim.

[13] In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”

[14] In my critique, I wrote, “’Human beings make their own history …’ … is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious.”

Comments

7 Comments on "A Reply to Critics of “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber”"

  1. Nate on Mon, 21st May 2012 11:48 am 

    Hello Andrew,
    I’ve written a response to your reply. Unfortunately, I wrote it through a lot of cutting and pasting in my word processor, copying and pasting between multiple files. The result is a bit jumbled. I’ve tried to mark out the points of yours that I respond to with asterisks, but the order is jumbled, as I said.
    Yours,
    Nate

    * With regard to Graeber “trying to bow out of the disciplinary
    game entirely and saying that we could just do things on our own”
    it seems to me that you’re moving between “Graeber’s doing make believe” and “Graeber has a realist perspective but I disagree with his assessments and proposals.” As best as I can see, the former is either inaccurate or is relatively unilluminating restatement of the latter. The latter, however, is productive and thought provoking and it opens onto a better discussion, at least potentially I think, because it gets into what strategies and practices and proposals are better and worse within Occupy. I’m not plugged in to Occupy unfortunately, as I mentioned elsewhere in these discussions, so I can’t speak as much about that, but I think that’s the most interesting and important bit of all this. Along similar lines, you write that “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 that case, how about a conversation about some of those sorts of more realistic efforts?

    * “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.”

    Maybe it would help if you said what you mean by “make believe,” I’m not sure. I don’t think Graeber’s advocating “when unable to do things on our own, we should make believe that we can.” Graeber says “act as if you’re free,” but it seems to me like that’s a clumsy metaphorical statement on Graeber’s part and he’s not actually advocating what you say he is. In your lightbulb joke you characterized Graeber’s position as pretending a lightbulb hadn’t burnt out. Similarly with his example of digging a well as a response to an imposed water shortage, I think “make believe you’re free” in a strong sense would mean “pretend you already have water.” It’s really clear, and you say this at the end of your article, that Graeber’s advocating a particular approach to conflict with the prevailing powers. That’s what’s implied in his example of digging a well in the face of water shortage imposed by economic and political powers, because digging that well will result in conflict, it’s not as if water companies and political authorities will happily permit the imposed water shortage to be brought to an end. So I think you’re “this is all make believe” thing doesn’t really do much intellectual work here.

    * “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.”

    I think you’re implying things that Graeber doesn’t actually say. Graeber doesn’t say “if you can’t get water, pretend you can get water.” Graeber says “if you can’t get water, dig a well.” I think that’s a stronger metaphor than his bit about “acting as if free.” There’s no pretending involed there. That metaphor also gets at the limits of that perspective, I think. I’ll get back to that in a moment. But you’re whole “this is pretending, this is make believe” thing sounds very forced to me and it’s not illuminating.

    * “the notion that effective action can be based on pretending that things are different than they actually are.”

    I don’t think Graeber advocates this and I don’t think anyone else does either. If Graeber was advocating pretending things are different then he wouldn’t say “dig a well in response to a water monopoly” he would say “water monopoly? What water monopology? We have water!” and pass you an invisible glass.

    * “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.”

    In which case, if he’s acknowledging potential or likely lack of efficacy then he’s not actually making believe. (Again it might help if you’d say that that phrase means to you. Or it might help more if you dropped that line of response to Graeber as it’s the least interesting and thought provoking part of your remarks.)

    * Graeber “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.” [and he] 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. “

    Indeed. Realism. Not make believe. So, why not “The realism of David Graeber” as a title, or “Realism Wins Out In The End?” Less provocative titles, to be sure, but what was the point of your stuff on make believe then…? I think you make a good point that Graeber’s inconsistent, as you point out writing that if it’s direct action when “workers “seiz[ed] for themselves the right to employ coercive force” then it’s direct action when workers seize that right and blockade a politician’s house, even though Graeber says otherwise. I still don’t see pretending or make believe here, that’s a different sort of problem than make believe.

    * I quoted Graeber saying 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.) You said that “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.” I think you and Graeber are likely using the word “right” in a different way. Graeber advocates ignoring the state as a moral actor, or rather, he doesn’t recognize the state as legitimate and doesn’t think other should either. So in saying that “the state’s representative have no more right” he’s saying “don’t let the current distribution of rights define what we can do.” That is, saying “the state’s representatives have no more right to impose their view” means “act as if they have rights that they don’t have” or rather “act despite the lack of political rights, if the action makes sense.” It may be that Graeber is implying a distinction between moral right and political rights.

    * I said that Graeber consistently puts forward a conception of direct action in which it is a matter of “opposing … unfreedom in a specific way.” You reply that “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.”

    I may be being overly charitable here but it seems to me that Graeber recognizes that these acts of withdrawal will be opposed by the powers that be. The practices of autonomy he advocates run up against forces that seek to limit autonomy. Again I think this is implied in the example of digging a well. As you said in response to that example, people who try to dig their own well, unless they’re land owners, will “either be barred from the land before they start digging or thrown off it before they finish.” Which means that the effort to dig a well is a move which will result in and create conflict. As Graeber recognizes, as you said. It seems to me then that what Graeber is advocating is at least in part a way to stage conflicts with the powers that be, because they oppose people meeting their own needs outside currently existing channels within capitalism.

    * “Graeber doesn’t advocate pretending that you’re already free when you’re not. But what he does advocate involves doing just that.”

    That seems like semantics to me. It seems to me that to advocate some X which necessarily involves Y is to also advocate Y. I mean, let’s say someone said “I advocate capitalism but do not advocate exploitation.” As marxists, I think we would reply saying something like “if you advocate capitalism, you advocate exploitation, because capitalism is exploitive; so you must either not be advocating capitalism or you are actually advocating exploitation even if you don’t wish to say so.” Likewise if Graeber’s version of direct action requires make believe then his advocacy for his version of direct action is advocacy for make believe.

    * “insofar as one is capable of proceeding this way” vs “insofar as one’s course of action is able to succeed” sounds like a false dichotomy. It’s pretty clear to me that Graeber does want people to think about and to prepare for the response that the state may have to direct action. I mean, maybe he doesn’t, maybe he really does think that people should just do whatever and be unprepared for the consequences. Given lack of evidence we have to make an assumption either way. The principle of charitable interpretation suggests that we assume a non-absurd meaning on Graeber’s part, ie, assume that he doesn’t mean “just do whatever and let the state decide how to respond to you and don’t bother thinking about or preparing for that response.” I think it’s relatively clear from that bit of Graeber’s book that he’s writing in a moral register primarily, in terms of legitimacy, which doesn’t have to mean “be unprepared for the repressive response by the state.” As you note, “[o]ther things he says and writes seem to contradict the point about not taking likely results into account before acting.”
    .
    *

    * “trying to remake the existing society into something it’s not” and “trying to gradually expand the new world that already exists within the old one” sounds to me like a distinction without substance, or at best it’s a distinction over preference of metaphor. I happen to like the first better than the second, but I don’t think the two must mean something different.

    * You write “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 think that’s a false dichotomy. The new world could exist as dominated within the old world. Indeed, if the new world exists within the old then I think it can only exist as dominated by the old or as a rising challenge that shakes the old and hopefully overthrows it. I’m thinking here of Marx and Engels in the German Ideology, “We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” In your original piece you rejected the idea that a “different world already exists in embryo within the existing one.” I don’t see much difference between “new world in embryo” and “premises now in existence.”

    Getting back to capital as “the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” it’s not clear what “dominating” means here. You quote someone who asked if your relationship with your “was dominated by capital. I guess he expected a ‘no, but …’ answer. My actual answer was ‘of course.’” Indeed. I feel this as a husband and a father all the time in a great many ways. Capitalism limits how I parent and partner and it’s awful. But clearly being a partner and a parent (and a friend, and the many other relationships we all live out) is not reducible to the domination of capital. That is, to be a partner is not ONLY the domination of capital. I think means something similar but makes the point with different vocabulary, though you (in my view rightly) emphasize the shaping and distorting force that capitalist social relations exert on all aspects of society more than Graeber while Graeber emphasizes the degree to which life under capitalism it not reducible to being functional to and dominated by capitalism. But still, when you say that for Graeber “capital is not the all-dominating power” in society I think a lot turns on the meaning of domination. You saying that capital dominates your relationship with your wife suggests to me that you have a concept of domination here which involves some room to live in ways which are not solely a matter of being functional for capital accumulation. Which is what I think Graeber means as well, so that I don’t think there’s quite the gulf between you two as you suggest.

    You write that the claim “that capital is “parasitic” on non-capitalist relations” means that “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.” You don’t establish this point and I don’t think this holds. The metaphors of capital as parasite isn’t one that I particularly but the metaphor doesn’t have to have the political meaning you suggest. And it’s not clear that Graeber disagrees with you when you say what we need to do away with and what we need to establish. As you recognized, he does think some confrontation is necessary and he’s clearly an anticapitalist. He has views about how that confrontation should play out, which are worth engaging with and which may be wrong. They’re not primarily a matter of his theory of direct action and aren’t an issue of “make believe.” He says among other things that movements for a new society probably can’t directly beat the repressive force brought to bear by capitalists and the state and so there has to be something else, some processes and tactics/strategies that prevent that force from being brought to bear. There’s a similar argument, elaborated in a bit more detail, in this article by Alonzo Alcanzar – http://libcom.org/library/radical-leftist-strategy – which is worth discussing. That approach may be wrong, but “it’s make believe” isn’t a fruitful way to address it, nor is “is capital the all dominating power, or not?”

  2. Daniel Taghioff on Fri, 25th May 2012 1:03 am 

    This seems to be a debate that is suffering from

    a) A classic dichotomy between structure and agency

    b) The use of universal terms when talking about specific populations and situations, thus erasing a set of unspecified others.

    Direct action? By whom, when and where? The point about strategy and tactics is that they apply to specific situations and groups, specific phases of history. Even “Capitalism” is conceptualised as a phase of human history, a tiny one in Human historical let alone geological time.

    Graeber is trying to translate the Malagsy experience of statelessness for a period into New York, the financial center of one of the most powerful states in human history. Obviously this translation is fraught with problems, but the point is to explore them specifically.

    What is it about current US capitalism / policing etc.. that makes the specific forms of direct action proposed by Graeber impossible? (i.e. what is lost in his translation.) I agree with Nate that approaching this in universalist terms (“the state” “direct action”) is unhelpful, and it gives littel space, in it’s structural categoricalness, to engage with lived histories and finding spaces for human agency.

    Which is not to say Andrew is not referencing such histories implicitly, but that, as he himself puts it, the current formulations are unhelpful.

  3. Andrew Kliman on Fri, 25th May 2012 11:38 am 

    @ Daniel Taghioff:

    I don’t think there’s a dichotomy between structure and agency here. I addressed this issue in comments below my original article (“The Make-Believe World of David Graeber”), on Mon, 23rd Apr 2012 1:13 pm and Thu, 26th Apr 2012 1:31 pm. As I said in the latter of these comments: “I don’t have the power and ability to fly by running off a cliff and flapping my wings. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have agency. I do have the power and ability to fly by getting on an airplane.”

    I basically agree with your other points, about universalizing things inappropriately, and about fetishizing methods of action by dealing with them in abstraction from their goals and effects. I didn’t refer to these terms, but they are what “The Make-Believe World of David Graeber” is about. Of course, to criticize all this, I have had to deal with it in its own terms. But they’re not my terms.

    You ask, “What is it about current US capitalism / policing etc.. that makes the specific forms of direct action proposed by Graeber impossible? (i.e. what is lost in his translation [of Malagasy experience to the U.S.].)” He gave a pretty clear answer: “they’re … in a situation where it’s much easier to get away with it.” To which I added, “They can get away with it because they are people who have been abandoned in a place that has been abandoned. In contrast, the rest of us are in a situation where we can’t get away with it. The extent to which the state and capitalists care about controlling the people and/or the place is the extent to which you’re not going to be allowed ‘to get away with it.’ Wall Street, a place that matters, was never occupied, and even Zuccotti Park, a place that doesn’t really matter, was occupied only with the mayor’s consent.”

  4. Andrew Kliman on Fri, 25th May 2012 3:01 pm 

    Hi Nate,

    I’ve numbered your points (each starts with an asterisk; there’s an extra asterisk near the end that I’m not counting). I’ll refer to them by number, and use the same numbers.

    1. I don’t think that “Graeber has a realist perspective.” See point 6 below.

    2. You: “Maybe it would help if you said what you mean by ‘make believe,’.” I provided a dictionary definition at the start of my original critique. I’m using the term in the normal way.

    You: “I don’t think Graeber’s advocating ‘when unable to do things on our own, we should make believe that we can.’” I don’t either. I think he advocates that, “when unable to do things on our own, we should engage in actions in which we make believe that we can.”

    You: “Graeber says ‘act as if you’re free,’ but it seems to me like that’s a clumsy metaphorical statement on Graeber’s part and he’s not actually advocating what you say he is.” The following example he gives isn’t clumsy or metaphorical, but says the same thing: “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.” So the “clumsy metaphorical statement”––which he says and writes again and again, and which is a crucial part of his conception of “direct action”––is likewise neither clumsy nor metaphorical, but a generalization of this example.

    I don’t say or believe that “Graeber’s advocating a particular approach to conflict with the prevailing powers.” You’re using the term “advocating” to mean different things. You move back and forth between the meanings. The effect of this is that what Graeber “advocates” becomes a lot more coherent, sensible, and nuanced than what Graeber advocates.

    Point 4 of my “Reply” addressed your claim that “Graeber’s advocating a particular approach to conflict with the prevailing powers.” You haven’t responded to that either. Your interpretation of the well-digging example may seem to do so, but it doesn’t, because the issue is whether, as I put it, “Graeber *consistently* puts forward a conception of direct action in which it is a matter of ‘opposing … unfreedom in a specific way’ (emphasis added)” (emphasis added). You haven’t come close to showing that he *consistently* advocates what you claim. As I pointed out, there are just too 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. Given that his reference in the interview to the well-digging example included nothing about conflict, and given the many instances in which he advocates withdrawal, etc., I think your interpretation of the well-digging example is forced.

    3 and 4. You: “Graeber doesn’t say ‘if you can’t get water, pretend you can get water.’ Graeber says ‘if you can’t get water, dig a well.’” He also “says,” “If you can’t get water, and you can’t dig a well because you’ll be stopped when you try, pretend that you can dig the well by starting to do so.” (I put “says” in quotes because he doesn’t literally say this.)

    5. I wrote, “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.” You replied, “[I]f he’s acknowledging potential or likely lack of efficacy then he’s not actually making believe.” I agree that he’s not making believe. He’s advocating actions that involve make-believe *and* acknowledging that they may be ineffective or are even likely to be ineffective: “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.” He advocates the actions despite the acknowledgement.

    6. You: “Indeed. Realism. Not make believe. So, why not ‘The realism of David Graeber’ as a title, or ‘Realism Wins Out In The End?’ Less provocative titles, to be sure, but what was the point of your stuff on make believe then …” But I didn’t write and don’t think that realism wins out in the end. I wrote, “So realism *seems to* win out in the end. But … 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’” (my point 4; emphasis added). The point is that realism doesn’t really win out in the end; there’s an unresolved contradiction in what he says. It’s not very realistic to advocate practices that involve make-believe, but then introduce qualifications that come close to acknowledging that they won’t succeed, and leave this blatant contradiction hanging there unresolved.

    In any case, at moments where it really counts, the qualifications have been missing. When he spoke with Amy Goodman, he said, “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”—and left it at that! Not a word of qualification in the whole interview.

    7. You: “I think you and Graeber are likely using the word ‘right’ in a different way.” I.e., I’m talking about legal rights, whereas he’s supposedly not. But he is––in both cases under discussion: the sit-down strikers “seiz[ed] for themselves the right to employ coercive force, in direct defiance of the state’s claims of holding a monopoly on violence.” “[T]hose 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.” He’s talking in both cases about rights of subjects in relation to states; these are legal rights. The 2nd statement would perhaps refer (only) to moral right if “that” replaced “on acting as if.”

    8. You: “I may be being overly charitable here but it seems to me that Graeber recognizes that these acts of withdrawal will be opposed by the powers that be. The practices of autonomy he advocates run up against forces that seek to limit autonomy.” Right. There’s a glaring, unresolved contradiction between what he acknowledges and what he advocates despite the acknowledgement. As I wrote in my original critique, “Graeber leaves us with this: pretend that things are different than they really are, which provokes a reaction, which in turn leads to a situation in which force decides. You’ve opened up a space of autonomy, until you haven’t. What had supposedly been a space of autonomy has turned into nothing more than a battleground. Lest it be thought that this is a caricature, reflect on the Zuccotti Park occupation.”

    You: “It seems to me then that what Graeber is advocating is at least in part a way to stage conflicts with the powers that be, because they oppose people meeting their own needs outside currently existing channels within capitalism.” This is certainly NOT charitable. You’re saying that he has an *unstated* aim that’s very different from the *ostensible* aim he actually puts forward! It’s one thing to say, “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,” and another thing to say, “we’re going to try to get as many people as possible to camp in some public place and act as if we could start rebuilding society as we’d like to see it, which we can’t do because this will be opposed by the powers that be, so what we’re really advocating is at least in part a way to stage a conflict with them.” If that’s what he meant, why didn’t he just say it? If he were a garden-variety vanguardist, with garden-variety vanguardist disrespect of people’s “consciousness,” the answer would be clear. In this case, I’m not sure.

    9. I wrote, “Graeber doesn’t advocate pretending that you’re already free when you’re not. But what he does advocate involves doing just that.” You write, “It seems to me that to advocate some X which necessarily involves Y is to also advocate Y. I mean, let’s say someone said ‘I advocate capitalism but do not advocate exploitation.’ As Marxists, I think we would reply saying something like ‘if you advocate capitalism, you advocate exploitation, because capitalism is exploitative; so you must either not be advocating capitalism or you are actually advocating exploitation even if you don’t wish to say so.’”

    I wouldn’t say that. It’s incorrect. The person clearly does not advocate exploitation; we know this because s/he said so. “Advocating exploitation even if you don’t wish to say so” misuses the term “advocating.” S/he might be misleading us, because s/he might actually want exploitation, but even in that case, s/he still isn’t advocating it. But it’s very likely that s/he is speaking in good faith, because there are many reasons why people advocate capitalism but don’t advocate exploitation. They think that capitalism doesn’t have to be exploitative, or they are indifferent to exploitation, or they think it is a lesser evil and that you have to take the bad with the good, or they’ve never given exploitation a thought, etc. So they don’t advocate exploitation, but what they do advocate involves exploitation.

    There is thus a very clear distinction between advocating Y and advocating X that necessarily involves Y. And so my point stands: “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.” If you still want to show that I misread Graeber on this point, you’ll have to show that what he advocates doesn’t involve pretending that you’re already free when you’re not. (We agree that he doesn’t *advocate* this and that he acknowledges that we’re not already free, but neither of these things are relevant here.)

    10. Graeber wrote: “Insofar as one is capable, one proceeds as if the state does not exist.” I commented: “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.’” You respond: “’insofar as one is capable of proceeding this way’ vs ‘insofar as one’s course of action is able to succeed’ sounds like a false dichotomy. It’s pretty clear to me that Graeber does want people to think about and to prepare for the response that the state may have to direct action. … The principle of charitable interpretation suggests that we assume … that he doesn’t mean ‘just do whatever and let the state decide how to respond to you and don’t bother thinking about or preparing for that response.’”

    It’s not a dichotomy. But there is indeed a difference. People were able to camp out in Zuccotti Park in an attempt to start rebuild society as they’d like to see it. (Note that I haven’t claimed that this was what most of them were attempting.) But they weren’t able to succeed in starting to rebuild society in this manner.

    I never suggested that Graeber said, wrote, or suggested that we should not “bother thinking about or preparing for that response.” Someone can certainly “just do whatever and let the state decide how to respond to [her]”—in Graeber’s words, “proceed[ ] as she would if the state did not exist and leave[ ] it to the state’s representatives to decide whether to try to send armed men to stop her”—but also think about and prepare for that response. You’ve confused two different things.

    11. You: “’[T]rying to remake the existing society into something it’s not’ and ‘trying to gradually expand the new world that already exists within the old one’ sounds to me like a distinction without substance, or at best it’s a distinction over preference of metaphor.” I don’t really understand this. … You may be thinking that I favor the former over the latter. I don’t. I don’t think it’s possible to remake the existing society into something it’s not, just like it’s not possible to remake a turnip into a source of blood. This is why I think we need a wholly different society.

    There’s a difference between the two statements, though. Those who favor trying to gradually expand the new world that supposedly already exists within the old one don’t favor remaking the existing society into something that, in their view, it’s not. In their view, much of it is *already* not capitalist: “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.”

    12. You: “But clearly being a partner and a parent (and a friend, and the many other relationships we all live out) is not reducible to the domination of capital. That is, to be a partner is not ONLY the domination of capital. I think means something similar but makes the point with different vocabulary, though you (in my view rightly) emphasize the shaping and distorting force that capitalist social relations exert on all aspects of society more than Graeber while Graeber emphasizes the degree to which life under capitalism it not reducible to being functional to and dominated by capitalism.”

    The issue isn’t whether life under capitalism is reducible to being functional for capitalism, and it isn’t a matter of degree. It’s whether there is such a thing as “life under capitalism” at all, or whether, on the contrary, there are many aspects of society that aren’t shaped by capitalist social relations. You’re thinking in terms of a totality, capitalist society. Graeber isn’t. He rejects the idea that there’s a capitalist totality: “I don’t think there is a capitalist totality.” He says that much of our lives isn’t “subsumed under the logic of capitalism.” That means precisely that these aspects of life are not “under capitalism.” He rejects the idea that the logic of capital (understood as internally contradictory or otherwise) is dominant throughout the whole of society: “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.”

    My differences with him on these things are not matters of emphasis. They can’t be. These are is/isn’t questions: “Is there a capitalist totality?” “Is much of our lives free from subsumption under the logic of capitalism?” “Are there multiple, contradictory logics existing at all times?”

    You: “Getting back to capital as ‘the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,’ it’s not clear what ‘dominating’ means here.” Merriam-Webster defines “dominate” as “to exert the supreme determining or guiding influence on.” For an “operational definition,” I think that if one answers yes, no, and no to the three questions in the preceding paragraph, one holds that capital is the all-dominating power.

    You: “You write that the claim ‘that capital is “parasitic” on non-capitalist relations’ means that ‘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.’ You don’t establish this point and I don’t think this holds. The metaphors of capital as parasite isn’t one that I particularly but the metaphor doesn’t have to have the political meaning you suggest. And it’s not clear that Graeber disagrees with you when you say what we need to do away with and what we need to establish.”

    I don’t know how one could establish this. It’s just what the “parasite” metaphor connotes. The allegedly non-capitalist relations are the host that could do fine on their own, thank you, without the parasite, and better without it than with it. Graeber’s rejection of the concept of a capitalist totality makes clear that he denies that we live in a unitary social formation. His claim that much of our lives isn’t “subsumed under the logic of capitalism,” and his “multiple, contradictory logics” statement, make clear that whatever it is that we do live under is not, in his view, “governed by a very specific set of economic laws.” (Note that I wrote “governed,” not “affected.”) He says that “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.” This, together with the other things, implies that there’s no need to establish a *wholly* new communal society that operates according to *completely* different principles.

    Take care,

    Andrew

  5. Nate on Sat, 26th May 2012 2:59 pm 

    hi Andrew,

    I think we’ve reached an impasse here on the Graeber stuff so I think I’m going to bow out on those points from here on out. I would like to clarify what I meant on a couple thing because I’m not sure I was clear. I’m not trying to get the last word then disappear, though it may seem that way; I would quite like to discuss further one of the points you made (I get back to it below), but on the issue of Graeber interpretation I think we’ve arrived or are rapidly arriving at a condition where we just have two incompatible arguments and don’t agree on how to choose between them. For whatever it’s worth, what I meant by talking about what Graeber advocates was that if a thing entails a second thing then to advocate the first is to advocate the second as well. I mean this in the following sense: successful advocacy of an action results in the entailments of that activity occuring with that activity. If I argue for consensus decision making process as the way for a group to make its decisions as opposed to a faster decision-making process, I am advocating for longer meetings or meetings that don’t accomplish as much, in the sense that if my stated preference for consensus process carries the day then the result will entail one of those two effects. (I’m not actually an advocate of consensus process, by the way.)

    With regard to the points of Graebers that you talk about, I think Graeber is smart enough to get that the views he advances will have entailments like those I’ve suggested. It seems to me that you’re basically saying that he’s not aware of those effects and entailments, and that the difference between the view he favors and its effects are so large that his position is absurd.

    I take your point that Graeber’s inconsistent. I thought I already agreed with you on that. If you don’t accept my interpretation of the well-digging example, fair enough. On your view, the point is an absurd one on Graeber’s part. On my view, it’s a clumsy expression on Graeber’s part. Implied here are two assessments of Graeber, one in which he is someone likely to hold absurd views vs one in which he is likely to clumsily express nonabsurd views. Absent conclusive evidence, we have to pick between them. I choose the latter. I think Graeber is savvy enough to understand that the strategies of withdrawal that he advocates, if pursued, will result in conflict with the state. Again it seems to me that we can either see this absurd or as clumsily formulated and in the absence of compelling evidence I choose the latter.

    None of this, by the way, is me supporting anything Graeber says. I just think that a critical response to Graeber should formulate the strongest possible version of his political position and take that on based on its merits (such as they are) and flaws. I think your piece would be stronger if you formulated the strongest version of Graeber’s politics (ie, the most coherent nonabsurd version) then tried to put that to bed. That’s part of why I linked to that Alcanzar piece, because it formulates a proposal like Graeber’s point about trying to get soldiers not to bomb and shoot movements etc, but Alcanzar goes into more detail about it.

    Finally, you mentioned “efforts to transform society that are more realistic” than things like camping at Zucotti. I’d like to hear what you have in mind.

    take care,
    Nate

  6. MHI on Tue, 29th May 2012 5:18 pm 

    Comment by David Graeber

    David Graeber posted the following on the libcom.org site ( http://libcom.org/library/make-believe-world-david-graeber-reflections-ideology-underlying-failed-occupation-zucco?page=1) on May 29, 2012 at 10:18.

    “Incidentally, sorry about the ‘breezy insouciance’ but I made a decision that Kliman shouldn’t get away with trying to get others to do his work for him. According to normal standards of intellectual labor, one writing a critique is responsible for doing a certain amount of work: locating and at least skimming the relevant passages in the author’s work, trying to figure out what he’s actually arguing, etc. Kliman doesn’t feel he should have to be bothered. Instead he’s written a broadside attacking me, published it as a pamphlet, distributed said pamphlet at events where I appear, even held seminars on it, all without reading a single word of my published writings! And on every possible occasion, in public and in personal communication, he makes clear the response he’s trying to provoke: to make me write long detailed clarifications of my position so he can launch further attacks. In other words, rather than doing even minimal academic labor himself (you know, like, if he wanted to really know my views on direct action, looking up my book suggestively entitled ‘Direct Action’ and flipping to the chapter with the equally suggestive title ‘direct action and anarchism’…), he essentially feels I should write essays meant for him personally mapping out those positions instead.

    “In other word, he is trying to use sheer aggression to place himself in the position of the exploitative bourgeois who does no actual labor, except for some minimal managerial work such as he has performed, but by doing so compels the degraded proletarian to do all his work for him.

    “I won’t be your proletarian, Kliman. Do your own work or stop pretending to be a scholar.”

  7. Andrew Kliman on Tue, 29th May 2012 5:24 pm 

    In reply to the comment by David Graeber (posted by MHI on Tue, 29th May 2012 5:18 pm):

    I have no personal animus toward David and regret that the discussion has become personalized. My piece was not “a broadside attacking [him]” but a critique of ideas he has put forward.

    I have indeed “tr[ied] to figure out what he’s actually arguing,” and have gone to some lengths to do so. My judgments are based on a variety of things he’s written and said, including _Direct Action_. Please see, in addition to the original critique, my “Reply to Critics” above and my comments on this page, especially my response to Nate of Fri, 25th May 2012 3:01 pm.

    David claims that “on every possible occasion, in public and in personal communication, [Kliman] makes clear the response he’s trying to provoke: to make me write long detailed clarifications of my position so he can launch further attacks.” In an e-mail message to him on April 30, I wrote: “I’ve never tried to get you to respond to the article and don’t care whether you do or not. … I wrote to you only to apologize for [things that others wrote], and to find out if there was any basis to your allegation of misrepresentation.” Let me repeat: I don’t care whether he responds or not.

    The “pamphlet” was published and the “seminars” (in which I was not a presenter) were hosted by Marxist-Humanist Initiative, not by me. Again, I regret that the discussion has become personalized.

    I remain willing to retract anything I’ve written if it’s shown to be inaccurate. Thus far, that hasn’t happened. I therefore stand by what I’ve written. So, contrary to what “ocelot” wrote on libcom (May 22 2012 10:45, above David’s comment), I have not “beat a hasty retreat” about anything. If it appears that I’ve done so, that’s because, as I noted in the above “Reply to Critics,” “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.”







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