Some readers of the blog have complained that going after David Graeber’s latest expostulation at The Baffler was like shooting fish in a barrel. They urged me to get serious and tackle his much more significant essay for the journal, “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse,” in No. 22 (2013).
So I went and read it, and thought, oh shit, I can’t deal with this without addressing his big book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (2011), and without addressing my own failings as an analyst of Occupy Wall Street. As some faithful readers may remember, I went all in for that cause. I spent a lot of time in Zuccotti Park, I went to the demonstrations and marches—even got myself beat up by a cop—I assembled (with Temma Kaplan) a teach-in at Rutgers, and, at the request of movement organizers, I gave a talk on financial history to an Occupy crowd gathered under the winter’s shadow of the Brown Brothers Harriman building, right across from Zuccotti.
But at dinner last Saturday with some old friends, I admitted that I had romanticized this cause, this movement, this moment—-and with it, my self. My girlfriend turned to me and said, “That’s the first time you’ve ever said something critical of it!” And I said, “Well, that’s because this is the first time I’ve thought it.” We were both right. I went on to say that I should have known better than to put my faith in a movement intellectually shaped by Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and David Graeber. It was a painful confession anesthetized by the good vibe of the occasion.
By all accounts, including contemporary ones that I read while hanging around the park, this trio of thinkers determined the ideological arc of OWS. Lasn, I knew, was the holy fool who ran Adbusters as a war of position against advertising and consumer culture as such (I was a subscriber already, preparing to write a book in defense of the consumers Lasn excoriated). The call to occupy a space in Manhattan came, originally, from his glossy, goofy, demented magazine. Hedges was the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter emeritus for the New York Times whose hyperventilated book on the subject of troops in combat supplied the epigraph (“War is a drug”) for Kathryn Bigelow’s compelling and disgusting movie, “The Hurt Locker.” He has recently become a political evangelical whose fire-and-brimstone prose is so purple he could be mistaken for an itinerant preacher in Northhampton, Massachusetts, ca. 1742. Back then, though, just two years ago, he was less sure that the Apocalypse was Now.
And Graeber was of course the author of Debt, a huge book that proved money was the root of all evil, including capitalism as such. The book came out in May 2011, and led to the author’s participation in the local discussions inspired by Adbusters’ calls to protest on Wall Street. I didn’t read it until I used excerpts from it in a graduate class on the history of capitalism I taught at Rutgers in the Spring of 2012; but, like most people reared in an America familiar with the Gospel of Luke and Paul’s Acts of the Apostles, I knew the argument: the pursuit of money or wealth as an end in itself was the source of everything we designate as awful and eventually denominate as sinful.
To be fair to myself, Lasn’s book, Culture Jam (2009), was better than the magazine in describing how our rage against the machine could take the form of better products rather than abstention from products as such. In fact I cited it in Against Thrift (2011) as an intelligent instance of insurgent thinking about how to cure the ills of consumer culture by means of parody—-transformation by repetition, I called it. Meanwhile Hedges was loud and angry and mean-spirited, but three years after the commencement of the Great Recession (and two years after its official end), who was I to criticize the poor bastard for not knowing how to think or what to do? Nobody else did, why would I single him out? And Graeber, well, his book is an unforgiving moral treatise that is also as convincing as a slumbering woman and child. But it took me a while to understand what Debt convinced me of.
What was that? I will make this short, because a lot of people have written a lot about the book, and because what I have to say implicates me in the intellectual idiocy of its moment.
Debt couldn’t convince me that capitalism resides in its rendering of financial obligation as the essence of social relations, as against Marx’s notion that wage labor (to be specific, abstract social labor) defines this mode of production. But it did convince me that the origin story of capitalism told by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morals in terms of debt, rather than by Marx in Capital in terms of primitive accumulation, is Graeber’s special object of critique. This is the intellectual space where, for all his ostensible disagreement with both Nietzsche and Marx, his narrative intervention matters most—-where equality signifies danger, the specious equivalence conferred by monetary devices, while freedom or autonomy means the cancellation of obligation or reciprocity, in effect the absence of what 18th-century observers called civil society, where the exchange of equivalents takes place by means of money (see chaps. 1-5, esp. pp. 73-126, and for empirical elaboration, chaps. 11-12).
The libertarian/anarchist implications are plain enough in retrospect. Once Graeber’s intellectual displacement is completed, all you have are individuals—-there’s nothing left to think about, or with, not if you want to think politically about the future as if social democracy matters. The rejection, not just the absence, of programmatic thinking by OWS derives, I think, from this displacement. At the time, I applauded the absence and its intellectual antecedents as openings onto the different conception of politics and “dissent” sponsored by Vaclav Havel and the Velvet Revolution. I’m now convinced I was wrong to do so, and I feel almost apologetic toward the liberal columnists who kept pleading for something from OWS that could be translated into the vernacular of party programs. I haven’t given up on my Gramscian ideas about a dispersal of power from state to society and the consequent rise of cultural politics, no, I’ve just decided that if Kalle Lasn, Chris Hedges, and David Graeber are your gurus, you need help—you need a broader education in the meanings of politics and revolution.
And that brings me to the Baffler piece my critics think is so much more important than the one I made fun of. It begins by asking “What is a revolution?” and ends with a programmatic statement I wish I had written: “At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume that the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious.”
He’s wrong about everything else, but he’s right about this. I’ll leave it at that for now. How David Graeber and I could reach the same political conclusion from completely different premises is the subject of another session.