Intellectual Progress at The Baffler

Once upon a time at The Baffler, Thomas Frank explained the backwardness of American politics by reference to the false consciousness of the benighted masses out there in Kansas and elsewhere. You remember them, they were repeatedly hoodwinked into voting against their own working-class interests—which Tom of course knew better than they themselves did because he went to the University of Chicago—by conservative rascals who made social issues like abortion the regulative principles of political discourse. Like Richard Rorty, Todd Gitlin, Alan Brinkley, and dozens of other intellectuals mystified by identity politics and the success of conservative ideologues, Old Tom was also upset by liberals who wouldn’t reinvent the New Deal and talk about economic issues. But mainly, he blamed the victims of ideological manipulation.

Steve Almond, bless his beautiful soul, cast a wider net last year in the resurrected Baffler. He explained the backwardness of American politics by reference to the false consciousness of y’all—everybody entertained by the anchors of Comedy Central, John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. You remember this earnest piece. Almond accused these two of violating the sacred principles of political humor, of validating the corporate agenda of the parent company, of downright cowardice, and in the process he made all their viewers—that would be most of us—eager co-conspirators.

Where once we could blame the benighted masses, we could now indict ourselves! That’s what I call progress.

And now David Graeber, the esteemed author of Debt (where the endless argument finally boils down to capitalism = debt = war), adds new weight to this intellectual momentum. In the current issue of The Baffler, he writes something so confused that I hesitate to call it an essay or even a blog post. It doesn’t matter, I guess, because Graeber goes Almond one better. We’re all stupid, he announces, because we all believe our fellow citizens are stupid.

Magic is crucial to the argument, if what he writes deserves the dignity of this designation. In the first paragraph, he notes that the US economy has been driven for thirty years by “the magical creation of wealth through financial securities and derivatives.” In the second, he declares that “we understand that this kind of magic is everywhere.” In the third and fourth paragraphs, he departs for Madagascar and his encounter with a magician named Rokoto at the foot of a sacred mountain, where his female friend declines an offer of a love potion.

“What would a theory of America look like that featured stories like this one?” Graeber then asks. Good question, I suppose, if you’re an anthropologist embittered by the absence of protest against the powers that be. Here’s the answer:

“It would start by calling out our telltale assumptions that all political systems must possess some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of those over whom they rule. It would then note that our own system attains its legitimacy by asserting a series of simple belief statements, such as ‘America is a democracy,’ ‘We are all equal before the law,’ and ‘In a free market everyone is rewarded according to his or her merits.’ Next, the theorist would observe how our politics, conducted in this fairy tale universe, is largely a matter of trying to convince everyone to believe that these statement are true.”

The third sentence in this paragraph can’t be true if the second sentence is. But that egregious idiocy aside, what happened to the magician? What happened to a theory of America that included him? Here’s a clue from Debt: “There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun.” Translation: “modern money is based on government debt, and governments borrow money in order to finance wars.” (p. 364)

And it seems everybody already knows this about the bankers, our magicians. For Graeber goes on to explain:

“But as anyone who has spent time at working-class bars or diners or picnics can testify, almost no one in America really believes ‘We are all equal before the law’ or ‘America is a democracy.’ Instead, the controlling assumption is this: most Americans are utterly convinced most other Americans believe such things. Most Americans, that is, think most other Americans are profoundly stupid.”

Let me get this straight. Most Americans don’t believe the magicians, but, like anthropologists in the field, they assume that somebody must believe the potions the magicians peddle. Doesn’t that suggest a certain ideological sophistication rather than the nihilistic “hucksterism” Graeber attributes to the benighted masses?

No, not according to the anthropologist. We’re all not merely complicit in this “fairy tale universe,” as Almond would have it, we’re too stupid to know how stupid we are.



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4 responses to “Intellectual Progress at The Baffler

  1. Jason Weidner

    I just read Graeber’s post, and I didn’t take his meaning to be that “we’re too stupid to know how stupid we are.” Instead, I took his point to be that most Americans (and I found one of the flaws of his post to the assumption that the US is exceptional in this regard) have a cynical attitude about the legitimizing myths of our political order–not believing the myth but assuming that many or most other Americans do. If I read him correctly, this is not the same thing as being “too stupid to know how stupid we are,” but rather an incorrect assumption of how the political order is maintained: namely by getting most other people to buy into it. I’m not sure I completely buy the argument, but I don’t get the hostile tone of this post or even why this particular Graeber post is considered important enough to attack. Graeber’s other recent Baffler article, “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse,” is much more substantive and I imagine that a critical engagement with it would possibly be more illuminating than this post.

  2. Jason Weidner

    I do agree, however, that the paragraph quoted in this post (beginning with “What would a theory of America look like that..” and ending with “Next, the theorists would observe how our politics…”) is confusing at best and that the second and third sentences seem a bit inconsistent. But that’s not really Graeber’s point, at least as I read it. Anyway, I agree that Graeber’s post could have been worded much more clearly, but the author of this post seems to have a beef with Graeber (you’d have to only superficially glance at “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” to think that it boils down to “capitalism = debt = war’). Not that there isn’t much that can be critiqued in Graeber’s scholarly work and political views, but I’d prefer to see a critique that is more substantive. Then again, maybe an academic’s blog is the wrong place to look for this.

  3. Kurt Newman

    Just skimmed the Graeber piece. It certainly is one of the most puzzling things I’ve ever read. “Buncombe” is such a strange word–he reminds me, to be honest, most of Jonathan Franzen’s bungling processing of Kraus–maybe a Graeber/Franzen parallel isn’t so far-fetched. In any event, who doesn’t like carnival barking? That’s like hating puppies and George Romero movies. Which aren’t about false consciousness, either.

  4. David M

    I was watching Henry Louis Gates’ latest PBS doc yesterday and was reminded of your great defense of Booker T Washington in Against Thrift. Skip, of course, tended to favor DuBois, or at least that was the tone of the show. Anyway, that inspired me to check in on the blog, and happy to see you’re fighting the good fight.

    Almond’s piece in The Baffler is absolutely vile–elitist and intellectually lazy. As for Graeber, I haven’t read Debt or the latest essay, but I read Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value a few years back and found it terribly frustrating, seeming to make claims that he can never really pin down. His discussion of magic in that book tries to have it both ways: belief in magic is simple false consciousness of which we can be disabused, but it’s also the structuring principle of value and hierarchy in society. Sounds like he’s still stuck in that same tautological loop. And don’t get me started on his attack on “bullshit jobs”, which, again, he never really deigns to define; he just knows them when he sees them.

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