The Make-Believe World of David Graeber
[The version of the article below, posted on April 15 and further corrected on May 12, corrects minor typos in the version originally posted and restores italics it omitted.]
The Make-Believe World of David Graeber:
Reflections on the Ideology Underlying the Failed Occupation of Zuccotti Park
Andrew Kliman, April 11, 2012
1. The act of representing, suggesting, or imagining in advance.
2. Something that prefigures; a foreshadowing.
The following is not a commentary on, much less a condemnation of, the Occupy movement––which I support. It is a critique of key facets of the ideology of David Graeber. These facets of his ideology have informed the politics of some of the movement, most notably that of the leadership of New York’s Occupy Wall Street, and they were the theoretical foundation underlying the occupation of Zuccotti Park. In contrast, the greatest strength of the Occupy movement is the fact that tens of thousands of people have brought to parts of it their own hopes and aspirations, and a somewhat greater degree of realism.
The Zuccotti Park occupation was a dismal failure. The functioning of Wall Street was not disrupted. Occupy Wall Street never occupied Wall Street. Even Zuccotti Park was “occupied” only with the consent of the mayor of New York City, and it was cleared out the moment he withdrew that consent. In the end, no autonomous space was reclaimed. The effort to remake society by multiplying and weaving together autonomous spaces is back to Square One. Even worse, precious little progress was made during the occupation in articulating and working out what the movement is for, or how to solve the serious social and economic problems we now confront.
In light of these failures, it would be a grave mistake to try to glide unreflectively into a “Phase II” of Occupy Wall Street. It is time to think seriously about what went wrong and why it went wrong, in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Above all, I am concerned here to make clear the difference between “prefigurative politics” in the proper sense of the term and what Graeber uses the term “direct action” to mean: “acting as if you were already free” (see below). In the proper sense of the term, “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. The latter notion is the one that was tested at Zuccotti Park and that failed the test.
What follows are questions that Ellen Evans and Jon Moses asked Graeber in their interview with him (published in The White Review on Dec. 7, 2011, www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-david-graeber/), his answers, and my responses. Although I have not reproduced the whole interview, the questions and answers that appear below have not been edited or shortened.
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Q: The White Review — In the UK we often talk about the ‘right to protest’? Should protest be conceived of in a rights discourse?
A: David Graeber — I find the word ‘protest’ problematic. 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. In that sense, Foucault was right: resistance is almost required to have power. Which is why I like the concept of direct action. I think in a lot of ways we’ve been going backwards. I come from the US so I know what’s going on there better, where the right to protest, to dissent, to oppose the government is explicitly enshrined in the constitution, and yet flagrantly ignored.
R: Andrew Kliman — What Graeber chooses to ignore is the reason why the two sides constitute each other another. The reason is that the one side has indeed already lost.
Oppressors and the oppressed, exploiters and the exploited, capitalists and wage workers, do constitute each other. As Marx put it in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “there can no longer be any wage-labour when there is no longer any capital.” But this isn’t because workers freely choose to play a “game,” as if they were sitting down in front of a Monopoly board. Since they lack productive resources of their own, they must either become wage workers for capital or starve.
Why do they lack productive resources of their own? Because they’ve already lost. This is an elemental fact, not a psychological attitude. The expropriation of independent peasants’ land was what created the class of wage workers. And every day, they produce wealth under conditions that ensure that the wealth does not belong to them; every day they’ve “already lost.”
The same goes for oppressed peoples and nations. Black people in this country already lost the moment they were captured and put on slave ships. And thus we had a situation in which masters and slaves constituted each other, but not because the slaves freely opted into any game.
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.
We have to struggle despite having lost the battle, and in full recognition that we’ve lost the battle rather than by pretending that we can freely choose the terms of struggle and the conditions under which we struggle. As Marx put it in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Human beings make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already.” I’ve always thought that this is a rather trivial observation, because it’s so obvious. I still think so, but I quote it here because Graeber rejects it and, as we shall see, his rejection of it is the key to his politics.
Q: The White Review — So, to flesh out the distinctions then: what is the difference between direct action and protest, or direct action and civil disobedience? What is special about the term ‘direct action’?
A: David Graeber — Well the reason anarchists like direct action is because it means refusing to recognise the legitimacy of structures of power. Or even the necessity of them. 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. Direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free.
The classic example is the well. There’s a town where water is monopolised and the mayor is in bed with the company that monopolises the water. If you were to protest in front of the mayor’s house, that’s protest, and 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, because that’s what people would normally do if they didn’t have water. In this respect the Malagasy people are totally engaging in direct action. They’re the ultimate direct actionists, but they’re also in a situation where it’s much easier to get away with it.
R: Andrew Kliman — The “as if” in Graeber’s statement that “direct action is a matter of acting as if you were already free” means that you’re pretending. You’re not free, but you make believe that you are. You can’t make history “under self-selected circumstances,” but you make believe that you can. I’m all for “refusing to recognise the legitimacy of structures of power. Or even the necessity of them.” But pretending that you’re already free when you’re not isn’t a refusal to recognize their legitimacy or necessity. It’s a refusal to recognize facts.
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. Of course, the fact that this notion seems so absurd doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily false. It does mean that this notion is so counterintuitive that we need to be given a good reason to believe that it’s true before accepting it. But Graeber provides no such argument. So don’t believe it.
“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”? Gee, I thought they were more “annoyed” by the sit-down strikes––factory occupations that wrested control of the productive resources––of the 1930s that created the CIO than by the people who dropped out at the end of the 1960s and went off to live in rural communes and just do things on their own. 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. It’s not like writing your congressman to ask that he talk to the company and try to get you higher wages. 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.
Graeber’s “classic example”––“just go and dig your own well” is very contrived as well as heartbreaking. It is very contrived because it blithely assumes that everyone already has the productive resources––well-digging equipment and access to land to dig on––they need in order to produce what they need. Situations like that are few and far between. And the example is heartbreaking because more than a billion people “don’t have access to safe drinking water,” and World Water Council data indicate that, by 2025, about “3.5 billion people will live in places where water is scarce or becoming scarce.”(1)
Now, Graeber may respond that he meant his example to be one in which people don’t have access to the land to dig on, because the land has been monopolized, but they manage to “just go and dig [their] own well” anyway. But that is also completely unrealistic. They’ll either be barred from the land before they start digging or thrown off it before they finish.
Perhaps the strangest part of his answer is his near-admission that the “direct-action” politics he recommends isn’t going to be effective: “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.” 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. Graeberism has been put to the test, and it has failed: Occupy Wall Street was unable to occupy Wall Street. (Again, this is not a comment about the Occupy movement or the aspirations of the people in it. It’s a comment about Graeberian ideology and its track record on the ground. Thankfully, the Occupy movement is not reducible to that.)
Q: The White Review — Do you think that there’s an anarchist theory of revolution that’s quite different? You’re suggesting a kind of compromise situation where the state still seems to be functioning, where at least it still has the superficial pretence of existing, but at the same time, quietly, it isn’t really there.
A: David Graeber — Yes, it’s like an eggshell theory of revolution. You just hollow it out until there’s nothing left and eventually it’ll collapse.
R: Andrew Kliman — This isn’t a theory. It’s a metaphor, and a rather opaque one. What does it even mean to hollow out the state until there’s nothing left? And how is this hollowing-out accomplished? What does one do when there’s resistance to it being hollowed out?
More importantly, since when is the collapse of the state synonymous with revolution? The state essentially collapsed in Somalia two decades ago and never came back. Is this the revolution Graeber advocates? If not, the collapse of the state is insufficient. Something more is needed in order to make a particular kind of post-state society worth working for and struggling for, but he says nothing about what he’s for, only what he’s against. Much less does he grapple with the problem of what new social and economic conditions will need to be created in order to have a viable and free society. The collapse of the old order and the creation of a new one are not the same thing, and focusing on the former while ignoring the latter just leaves a void, theoretically speaking. Practically speaking, Somalia becomes the image of our own future.
My point is not that confrontation is necessary. Graeber recognizes that it sometimes is. A bit later in the interview, he says, “the Zapatistas are experimenting with … opening up a space of autonomy. 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.”
My point is rather that what he proposes as a solution––acting as if you were already free and “hollowing out” the state until it collapses––is actually no solution at all if you’re forced into a confrontation. 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.
It would be a different matter if we could be reasonably sure that the “spaces of autonomy” could persist and flourish, that they wouldn’t just devolve into battlegrounds. But Graeber doesn’t believe that any more than I do.
The moment of confrontation with which he ends up is not only a moment in which we confront the other side. It is also a moment in which we finally have to confront the fact that we’re actually not free, and the fact that the capitalist class and its agents won’t allow us to hollow out their state until it collapses. It’s a shame that this is where Graeber ends up. It should have been where he began.
(1) The World Bank, “Meeting the Global Water Challenge,” web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/ EXTERNAL/ NEWS/0,,contentMDK:21259263~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html