The make-believe world of David Graeber: reflections on the ideology underlying the failed occupation of Zuccotti Park - Andrew Kliman

The make-believe world of David Graeber: reflections on the ideology underlying the failed occupation of Zuccotti Park - Andrew Kliman

Andrew Kliman of the Marxist-Humanist initiative criticises the arguments of David Graeber, which have been widely influential within the US Occupy movement.

pre•fig•u•ra•tion n.
1. The act of representing, suggesting, or imagining in advance.

2. Something that prefigures; a foreshadowing.

make–be•lieve adj.
Imaginary, pretended.

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.

* * *

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 consituted 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

Originally published in With Sober Senses.

Posted By

Django
May 1 2012 09:01

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Django
May 1 2012 09:05

NB - I think that it's fine to write a critique of someone else's published arguments. However, if you're going to criticise "graeberism" it needs to be done on the basis of more than a single interview. The guy has an extensive bibliography which isn't even mentioned. I imagine lots of Marxists would be upset if an anarchist "critiqued" "Marxism" on the basis of a single piece of correspondence.

Anne Jaclard
May 7 2012 17:10

Libcom,

You neglected to cite this article to its place of publication, Marxist-Humanist Initiative's web journal, "With Sober Senses" http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/our-publication

The MHI website clearly states, "You are free to republish any material on this website, as long as the website is credited in the republication." Please abide by this common practice.

The URL of the article is
http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/the-make-believe-world-of-david-graeber.html

Your readers may well be interested in the discussion taking place in the comments that follow the article. They do much to articulate and to clear up some misconceptions about it, including some people's initial difficulty in distinguishing between a critique of Graeber's theory, and criticism of the Occupy Movement, which the article begins by praising.

As for Django's comment, please note that the Graeber interview quoted is recent--last December, after the eviction from Zuccotti Park. Moreover, it is consistent with talks I have heard him give recently, and with his earlier writings. Does Django have any reason to think that the quotes from the interview do not represent Graeber's views? It is, after all, an interview given for publication, not "correspondence" which might need to be understood in a context.

Anne Jaclard
Organizational Secretary
Marxist-Humanist Initiative

Spikymike
May 7 2012 18:29

Based only on the quoted short interview by Graeber Kliman's point seems justified though the M-H discussion on their website is full of a lot of overgeneralisations about 'anarghists'.

A related, and dare I say it better discussion, can be found in Joseph Kays blog ''Thoughts on David Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 years.''

Should have been automatically linked but this facility not available anymore it seems.

Khawaga
May 7 2012 18:48
Quote:
You neglected to cite this article to its place of publication, Marxist-Humanist Initiative's web journal, "With Sober Senses" http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/our-publication

The MHI website clearly states, "You are free to republish any material on this website, as long as the website is credited in the republication." Please abide by this common practice.

Added accreditation and link to the end of the article.

Black Badger
May 7 2012 19:54

It's so nice to see people being kind and considerate to Trots.

Jason Cortez
May 8 2012 12:20

Not trots actually.
The article is really just a point scoring exercise, to prove how great MHI are.

Edit I really don't see why this was posted up because as a critique it is disingenuous

Jared
May 8 2012 10:24

Communists getting upety on citations? Classic wink

Black Badger
May 8 2012 14:10
Quote:
as a critique it is disingenuous

How about in complete bad faith? Seems as though almost all critiques of anarchists and anarchism from that sort of Marxist ("not trots" then what? Did they break with Leninism or just the Leninist Party form?) fall into the same pattern: find a failing (real or imagined) in one anarchist, then extrapolate that failing onto anarchism as a philosophy or social theory, thereby showing the inherent uselessness. It's a brilliant ploy if you begin from the premise that all anarchists agree with each other...

Binh
May 8 2012 19:46

Sadly, this is true. And I say this as a Marxist. It's a disgrace and a disservice.

D. Caffey
May 11 2012 15:34

I agree that it is nice to see people being kind and considerate when it comes to critique. In theoretical discussions substantive disagreement via articulated reasons is the only way to go, and one ought never use inappropriately generalizing labels (whether it be Trots?! (as if the break with Trotsky could be any less clear as a fundamental starting point for MHI), or anarchists (who also have rich and divergent intellectual inheritances). Surely we can all agree narrow-minded point-scoring and bad faith/disingenuousness help no one, and to my eye there’s some of the latter in the comments but none in the article itself. Kliman is taking Graeber’s words themselves – words after the eviction of Zuccotti – and drawing out their implications. At any rate, some of the recent comments level accusation without much, or indeed any, argumentation. So I just wanted to defend a strong but, to my mind, well-argued position against some of the unsupported slander here.

Cortez’s Point-Scoring (to prove how great MHI are). The article goes point by point, and develops substantive criticism. If it turns out Kliman has some thought through the implications of Graeber’s positions better than Graeber himself, then I suppose one could call this point-scoring, but then I don’t see how this amounts to a criticism. If an idea is bad, there’s a responsibility to take it seriously and challenge it, and that’s all that seems to be happening here (in the article, not the comments). If the analysis here, when directly compared with the implications of Graeber’s thoughts, shows shortcomings in the latter, then so much the better that someone took the time, point by point, to improve the theoretical grounds for action – the left sorely needs such improvement. If we didn’t we would be much closer to a real revolution than we are now. Anyway, if by “point” the commenter means Kliman has missed the general thrust of Graeber’s theory and somehow isolated weak trees rather than confront a forest, this would be more substantive. Of course, this would also require a more sustained engagement at the level of ideas than s/he has done. Instead of hurling accusations, let’s develop a real exchange of thoughts. Either respond directly to thought you think is poor (as Kliman has done in the piece), or be quiet.

Badger/Cortez’ bad faith/disingenuousness. The accusation of “disingenuousness” lacks a shred of support, but one valence of it is perhaps given voice in the subsequent charge of “bad faith”. This “bad faith” claim accuses the piece of both an assumption and extrapolations that it nowhere comes close to doing. The piece does not “begin from the premise that all anarchists agree with each other.” Upon inspection it does begin with the statement: “facets of his [Graeber’s] 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.” That last bit, the “greater degree of realism,” is pointing to a plurality of positions, i.e., the existence of positions not in line with Graeber’s, as a strength of the movement. Far from operating with an assumption of a homogenous ideological position, the piece explicitly identifies the object of its objections as just one strand (albeit a strong one) in OWS. Finally, as is clear, the piece is not (not at all!) a critique of anarchism tout court. It is a critique of one theory, and Kliman is careful to point out that his criticism is leveled at Graeber’s version of “direct-action” multiple times in the beginning. It is not, at any point, a critique of anarchism, or direct-action in general, one form of which, the sit-down factory occupations, is repeatedly described in favorable terms. It is only a critique of direct-action insofar as the theoretical basis for it is Graeber’s ideology.
So, if the definition of bad faith is the attribution of a general critique to an approach that doesn’t deserve it, that’s fine, but then it turns out Badger has unintentionally engaged in a bit of auto-critique.

david graeber
May 10 2012 05:37

Just cruised by and noticed this thread.

Since the matter came up the White Review interview was conducted in May or maybe early June 2011, in London, well before I'd even heard of Zuccotti Park

Spikymike
May 10 2012 15:48

Vot sure what I said to upset D.Caffey. - perhaps they mixed me up with someone else?

Arbeiten
May 10 2012 16:23

Spikey, looks like you were mixed up with Cortez.

Also, lol @ Graeber response. Come on guys, if your going to snipe someone based on an interview, could at least get the right one!

Dola
May 11 2012 03:23

Boy no one 'cruises by' with breezier insouciance than David Graeber. It's nice that he cleared up the matter once and for all, since this line in TWR is hidden away in an obscure place right before the interview begins:

"This interview was conducted with David Graeber in person last summer."

I don't see how the ideas in this interview predating OWS has any bearing on a critique of their implications, unless of course if Graeber reconsidered his views on prefiguration and direct action in light of subsequent experience.

Spikymike where on MHI's site would the over-generalizations of anarchists be?

D. Caffey
May 11 2012 15:35

My apologies Spikymike, and thanks for pointing out my mistake. I did indeed mix you up with someone else. I meant Cortez, not you, and I've edited my earlier comment accordingly.

Still, I'm surprised at how neither Graeber, nor any of those who agree with the position shown to be problematic here, have given voice to anything like a response. More substance - less skirting!

Juan Conatz
May 16 2012 08:32
ocelot
May 16 2012 16:01

Good recomposition piece there.

I guess you learn something new every day. I had previously come across Kliman in relation to the TSSI business (not a fan, personally) and had looked up some of his texts on the MHI site. I had gathered and impression from them that, despite his somewhat odd pastimes of creating Rube Goldberg style constructions to rescue orthodox Marxism economics, he was basically a reasonable, well-meaning soul. Having read the above, I now realise he is a total dick on the level of the level of late, unlamented Chris Harman. Dear, oh dear...

As as for D. Caffy

Quote:
Surely we can all agree narrow-minded point-scoring and bad faith/disingenuousness help no one, and to my eye there’s some of the latter in the comments but none in the article itself.

Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

Quote:
Finally, as is clear, the piece is not (not at all!) a critique of anarchism tout court.

Sure, that's exactly what the gag about the direct action anarchists and the light-bulb is about. Denying it just makes you look like a total knob. Or worse, someone with a thoroughly Bolshevik attitude to the truth.

tastybrain
May 16 2012 16:23

I disagree with plenty of stuff Graeber has written, but I don't this critique is very good. This kind of made me laugh:

doctrinaire Marxist wrote:
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...[the cops] were annoyed enough to use guns and tear gas...when the workers sat down in the factories.
doctrinaire Marxist wrote:
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.

So apparently occupying "means of production" is possible, legitimate, and a real threat to the ruling class, but occupying the means of subsistence is totally unfeasible and unrealistic? This seems like a clear case of Marxist bias towards the urban/industrial end of things as well as a tendency to view everything Graeber says in the worst possible light. He admits Graber may actually mean expropriating resources from the ruling class, not "dropping out" in the hippie sense, but still tries to discredit Graeber's ideas by insisting that such a course is unrealistic.

Melancholy of R...
May 16 2012 20:36

The response to some of the Occupy stuff was pretty strong too, teargas, rubber bullets, baton charges, women being dragged by their hair, mass arrests, the odd entrapment case and so on. I guess that means that Occupy is a challenge to the system like sit-down protests at factories?
Replying to someone else's interview, without allowing the original interviewee to extend their answers is pretty disingenuous.
And a big lol at an "organizational secretary" coming over to credit the piece. How big are you that you need somebody to be called an organizational secretary (LOL) and trawl the internet for unattributed copying? So sad...

D. Caffey
May 17 2012 23:39

The recompositoin piece Conatz points to is explicitly - in the first lines - not a defense of Graeber. But it is a confused misunderstanding struggling to synthesize unfounded accusations into a critique of Kliman. I'm actually surprised how bad it is, but I'll post substantive critique of it over on that thread. Here on this one, by my view, we have ad homine, dismissal, and attempts at humor, but so far only tastybrain approaching a limited defense.

Anyway, re: Ocelot 1: I gave what I thought was a reasonable account for why prior comments were disingenuous and the piece was not. If you think I'm wrong, even laughably so, that's a possibly defensible opinion, but I've yet to be given an argument.

re: Ocelot 2: The joke about "direct action anarchists" quite explicitly narrows the object of critique from anarchists tout-court (which was my point) to a smaller subset. Denying that the piece is a critique of anarchism tout-court makes me a careful reader. I'm not exactly sure what it means to look like a knob or what you think Bolshevik truth-conditions are, but I am sure your claim above is unsubstantiated by the evidence you cite.

Also, it should be remembered that the joke is made in the context of a point. The point, as far as I can tell, is that Graeber's position promotes the kind of direct-action that proceeds counter-factually, that is, from the supposition that things are other than they are in reality (namely, the thought that we're already free). If this is accepted, and if one acknowledges the ample support in the rest of the piece for direct-action inspired by more realism, then we can see how the joke amounts to neither a critique of direct-action nor of anarchism tout-court. After all, there are ways to do direct-action without being an anarchist just as there are ways to be an anarchist without a commitment to either the grounds of Greaber's version of direct-action, or even direct-action generally.

Finally, with only a shred of generosity it seems likely, again at least to me, that the joke is aimed at Graeber's direct-action anarchism, and not even all forms of direct-action anarchism.

As a coda, I'm having some trouble understanding why a strongly-worded but careful and narrow critique is bringing out such vitriol. If the anger is a sign of disagreement rather than frustration associated with either style of presentation or the inability to accept being shown theoretical problems, then I'm still looking forward to some better, substantive responses.

tastybrain
May 17 2012 19:37
D. Caffey wrote:
The recompositoin piece Conatz points to is explicitly - in the first lines - not a defense of Graeber. But it is a confused misunderstanding struggling to synthesis unfounded accusations into a critique of Kliman. I'm actually surprised how bad it is, but I'll post substantive critique of it over on that thread. Here on this one, by my view, we have ad homine, dismissal, and attempts at humor, but so far only tastybrain approaching a limited defense.

Anyway, re: Ocelot 1: I gave what I thought was a reasonable account for why prior comments were disingenuous and the piece was not. If you think I'm wrong, even laughably so, that's a possibly defensible opinion, but I've yet to be given an argument.

re: Ocelot 2: The joke about "direct action anarchists" quite explicitly narrows the object of critique from anarchists tout-court (which was my point) to a smaller subset. Denying that the piece is a critique of anarchism tout-court makes me a careful reader. I'm not exactly sure what it means to look like a knob or what you think Bolshevik truth-conditions are, but I am sure your claim above is unsubstantiated by the evidence you cite.

Also, it should be remembered that the joke is made in the context of a point. The point, as far as I can tell, is that Graeber's position promotes the kind of direct-action that proceeds counter-factually, that is, from the supposition that things are other than they are in reality (namely, the thought that we're already free). If this is accepted, and if one acknowledges the ample support in the rest of the piece for direct-action inspired by more realism, then we can see how the joke amounts to neither a critique of direct-action nor of anarchism tout-court. After all, there are ways to do direct-action without being an anarchist just as there are ways to be an anarchist without a commitment to either the grounds of Greaber's version of direct-action, or even direct-action generally.

Finally, with only a shred of generosity it seems likely, again at least to me, that the joke is aimed at Graeber's direct-action anarchism, and not even all forms of direct-action anarchism.

As a coda, I'm having some trouble understanding why a strongly-worded but careful and narrow critique is bringing out such vitriol. If the anger is a sign of disagreement rather than frustration associated with either style of presentation or the inability to accept being shown theoretical problems, then I'm still looking forward to some better, substantive responses.

I think one reason people have been reacting in this way is that, to me at least, the criticisms of the interview come off as a bit nitpicky and "in bad faith". For one thing, I think Kliman's interpretation of Graeber's description of direct action as "acting as if you were already free" is a bit ungenerous. Kliman says that this means he/OWS is proceeding from a delusional point of view. I'm not sure this is the case. I think Graeber's point could just as easily have been about the refusal of structures of mediation and authority in the attainment of goals. In a free society, we would be able to strive for what we want without political or economic restraint (except economic restraint imposed by scarcity and so forth). Direct action means (more or less) taking action to further the change you want directly without mediation or representation. Hence, direct action is, in a sense, "behaving like you are already free", because you are eschewing mediation, symbolic protest, political representation, and so forth and simply acting to achieve a goal. In other words, perhaps "behaving as through you were already free" means acting autonomously without bureaucratic sanction, not literally living your life as if you were already in a free society. (After all strikes, occupations, looting and rioting--activities that are often termed direct action--would be unnecessary in a free society.)

I think either interpretation could be correct, although I lean towards the latter. As Kliman himself admits, the meaning is somewhat ambiguous. From Graeber's example, it could be either an unrealistic model of "dropping out" which neglects to consider the reality of capital's monopoly/domination over all resources or it could be a straightforward call for the occupation of private/public property-which would imply that Graeber does understand that "we have already lost," as this would be a fundamentally confrontational scenario.

I haven't read too much of Graeber's work. I recall parts of "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology" that could support Kliman's view of Graeber; calls for "retreat", criticism of the idea of "The Revolution" as one large event, and a model of social change/revolution that seems to imply a long-term development of autonomy from statism and capitalism without confrontation. I also think Graeber has on multiple occasions and in multiple texts endorsed confrontation with as well as "retreat"/withdrawal from capitalism.

This brings us back to why people are reacting negatively to this article. As others have pointed out, the basis for this critique is a bit thin. This is one interview given by a thinker who has written several books and published probably dozens of articles. If Kliman was able to show that Graeber consistently proceeds (and advocates proceeding from) a delusional starting point I might think this critique holds water. Since it is based solely on one brief interview, and much of the critique relies on what Kliman himself acknowledges could be an erroneous reading of Graeber's position, it strikes me as a bit partisan/in bad faith. From the outside, it kind of seems like, since Graeber's politics are clearly pretty far away from Marxism, Marxists like Kliman and yourself are attempting to criticize him by whatever means possible in an attempt to displace him and assert your own "leadership of ideas". There are certainly criticisms that can be leveled at Graeber, but Kliman's attempt really seems like it was done in bad faith.

Finally, I'm not really sure what pointing out the failure of OWS to occupy and disrupt Wall St. is supposed to tell us in regards to Graeber. Is Kliman implying that if OWS had been influenced more by other political tendencies it would have succeeded? That the occupation attempt was misguided to begin with? Surely everyone in OWS, including Graeber, was aware that the movement would have to confront the state at some point? Does Kliman really believe Graeber and others naively assumed that Wall St. or even Zucotti Park could be occupied and become an "autonomous zone" without facing confrontation? Surely there is merit to "aiming high" even if you don't succeed, as you are likely to radicalize some people and expose the state's function as guardian of capital.

Also, I think there is some merit in Graeber's ideas about "retreat"/withdrawal and they should be considered and not dismissed out of hand.

tastybrain
May 17 2012 19:20

double post

Nate
May 18 2012 04:39
D. Caffey wrote:
My apologies Spikymike, and thanks for pointing out my mistake. I did indeed mix you up with someone else. I meant Cortez, not you, and I've edited my earlier comment accordingly.

Still, I'm surprised at how neither Graeber, nor any of those who agree with the position shown to be problematic here, have given voice to anything like a response. More substance - less skirting!

It's probably because the criticism is really bad and doesn't come off like a constructive engagement. The sentiment of the piece - from the beginning, "Make Believe World" - makes it very clear that it's an entirely negative polemic, not a comradely invitation to think together with someone in a respectful way. (Ditto for the tone of the MHI people on here, like the opening comment from Ann Jaclard, or the other one being like "indubitably old bean, what breezy insouciance!") If MHI was a bigger deal with more of an audience I could see him wanting to respond, but you're not, so I can see why he wouldn't. Not least because the piece isn't particularly accurate in its depictions of Graeber's views. (More on that from me later.)

Nate
May 18 2012 05:12

I just commented this on the MHI web site, it's in moderation currently, I'm copying it here, not totally sure if I should do that or not (I find it confusing when conversation happens on the same piece in multiple places), but what the hey.

I went back and re-read Andrew’s article. Here are my comments on it. Andrew’s article has two threads as far as I can see, one about OWS and one about Graeber. The former strikes me as a much more interesting topic, but it gets much, much less space in Andrew’s article. And the stuff on Graeber is really unconvincing. For now, I’m just going to get to the latter, the Graeber stuff. I don’t live in New York and am not active in Occupy where I live (not for lack of interest, just lack of time because of work and parenting), so I can’t address those more important matters.

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. 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.

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. Andrew rights, “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’ve not read much by Graeber as far as I can remember – I know I’ve read some things he’s written about Italian marxists like Antonio Negri, but I don’t think I’ve read anything else by him. In response to Andrew’s article 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

ocelot
May 18 2012 08:58
D. Caffey wrote:
re: Ocelot 2: The joke about "direct action anarchists" quite explicitly narrows the object of critique from anarchists tout-court (which was my point) to a smaller subset. Denying that the piece is a critique of anarchism tout-court makes me a careful reader.

Epic fail. This is symptomatic of the whole problem, both of Kliman's shoddy piece and your attempts to defend it. Both start from the incredibly ignorant and arrogant position that you don't need to know anything about anarchism to criticism it, because, in your view, anyone dim enough to be swayed by "the influence of anarchist ideas in the Occupy movement" will be too thick to notice that you know next to nothing about what you're criticising.

The original piece is just a giant strawman by someone, who despite being a full-time academic, can't be bothered to do even the most basic homework to figure out the actual politics of a) Graeber b) the Occupy movement c) the anarchist movement. If you were a teacher at high school or college and gave a student an assignment to go away and produce a critical review of the influence of the ideas of Graeber on the Occupy movement, and they came back with this, you'd give them a big fat F, with the accompanying comment of "failed to do basic research, or make any effort, must try harder". Or at least I would (not that I have ever been a teacher or, god forbid, an academic).

Its the fact you think this lazy doggerel is good enough for the job, that is the biggest insult to the political intelligence of all concerned.

There are many different strands of anarchism - anarcho-syndicalists, platformists, anarchist-communists, insurrectionists, etc, to name but a few. But all of them determine their praxis by reference to the principle of direct action, even if there are be differences on what the most strategically effective forms may be. The fact you think that "direct action anarchists" is some obscure subtype of anarchist, just shows how little you know about anarchism. The fact that you think you can engage critically from such a position of ignorance, just shows your contempt and hubris. May your punishment be to be cast out into the utter darkness of academia, condemned to re-read Hegel forever...

tastybrain
May 19 2012 01:10

So, uh, D. Caffey...

We've provided in depth reasons we disagree. Are you or any other people who see things as you do going to defend your bro Kliman?

D. Caffey
May 19 2012 16:03

I want to sincerely thank tastybrain and nate - they've given me food for thought, and I'll do my best to consider their developed views. I'm not a knee-jerk defender of anyone or any -ism, so I'll consider their thoughts more carefully and respond as, if, and when I can.

But for now, the low hanging fruit and yes, the personal satisfaction of responding to personal attacks: Ocelot's epic fail.

Again, lots of ad homine attack and vitriol, but the only argument I can decipher is "There are many different strands of anarchism - anarcho-syndicalists, platformists, anarchist-communists, insurrectionists, etc, to name but a few. But all of them determine their praxis by reference to the principle of direct action." I take it that the claim amounts to the ideas that all anarchisms are committed to praxis, and that such commitments are in reference to the principle of "direct-action." While I am willing to acknowledge that even a majority of anarchists are committed to direct-action, it is not the case that all are. Anyway, your claim as I understand it is false for two reasons.

First, it is false because not all anarchists are committed to praxis. Just think of Tolstoy, or maybe even Stirner. There are surely rich heritages of theoretical and cultural developments that are fully committed to anarchism, but not by way of insistent praxis. Unless you consider literary, poetic works and theoretical developments "praxis" in the same way as other forms of acting, then you're eliding an important difference. There are even some religious, aesthetic, or reclusive (think Thoreau at moments) anarchists whose interventions are far from what I imagine you mean by "praxis". There are actions, productions, works or what have you that are anarchists, but not "praxis" as I think you intend.

Second, it is false because not all anarchists committed to praxis do so by way of the category direct-action. In addition to the kind described above, there are all kinds of indirect actions that I think anarchists are committed to in addition to direct kinds. If not all action is (or even can be) direct, then it is certainly possible (as is in fact the case) that among the richly different anarchisms, there will be some more and some less committed to praxis by way of direct-action. The critique of [Graeber's]direct-action anarchism is itself a critique that points, in part, to an over-emphasis on the immediacy of the deed. Also, instead of "direct-action", an anarchism could prefer to think or act by way of a whole variety of competing concepts, just one of which might be "resistance" (the difference is explained in Graeber's response to the third question in the White Riot interview Kliman is exceprting). I think your position makes "direct action" far more totalizing and anarchism far more homogenous than they, in praxis, in fact are.

Further, I take (but I could be wrong) a central feature of "direct action" to be the idea of collective action, or action in concert. Now, I'm fairly sure there are individualistic anarchists, as in the go-it-alone types. I at least have known a few that so identified, and they - even when committed to praxis - couldn't be so by way of reference to direct-action if part of the definition of it is social action.

Your accuse me of not knowing the meaning of anarchism, and I accuse you of imposing one meaning, even if broad, on a range that cannot be captured by it. Ocelot, if you (or others wishing to defend your view) can respond without being a jerk, I will continue the conversation, but I will not further participate in an exchange of ideas while being insulted.

D. Caffey
May 19 2012 16:28

Also, and sorry to add, but I wanted to stress this point again: It is certainly possible to be (an anarchist) committed to direct action, but such possibilities aren't exhausted by Graeber's problematic position. In the final analysis, I think the need for something-other-than-Graeber as the basis is what Kliman's piece is showing to be necessary.

Nate
May 19 2012 19:21

D. Caffey, I hope you will come back to my and Tastybrain's comments. Since, as you said, you consider Ocelot's comments less substantive then I hope you'll deal with the points that you think are more substantive. Not least because I think, as I said, Kliman doesn't really get at Graeber's position very much/very well as far as I can tell, so that when you refer to "Graeber's problematic position" it's not clear if you mean Kliman's version of Graeber or Graeber's actual views.

That aside, two other things. One, you refer to "the need for something-other-than-Graeber as the basis." Kliman makes similar points, as does this document at the MHI web site - http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophy-organization/faqs-about-the-occupy-movement-and-marxist-humanism.html

That is, you, Kliman, and the MHI document suggest that what you take to be Graeber's views are widely held or held by influential people within Occupy such that they form 'the basis' for something. That means your criticisms aren't just about Graeber but about movement activities. After all, the biggest point Kliman tries to make is about the failures of OWS, which he sees as tied to Graeber (even though Kliman writes way more about Graeber and spends less time actually talking about OWS and its supposed failings etc). So this criticism of Graeber is meant to be a criticism of people well beyond Graeber. I think that'd be more effective without using Graeber as a proxy.

Second, it's not clear to me and none of you (you, Kliman, or MHI) present any evidence that Graeber is actually the basis for anything or has the kind of influence you suggest. I doubt very much that this is the case, personally, though I am of course willing to have my mind changed by evidence and argument.

ocelot
May 21 2012 10:21

from

D. Caffey wrote:
The joke about "direct action anarchists" quite explicitly narrows the object of critique from anarchists tout-court (which was my point) to a smaller subset.

to

D. Caffey wrote:
I am [now] willing to acknowledge that even a majority of anarchists are committed to direct-action

Progress. (Of sorts). Now then.

Quote:
Anyway, your claim as I understand it is false for two reasons.

First, it is false because not all anarchists are committed to praxis. Just think of Tolstoy, or maybe even Stirner. There are surely rich heritages of theoretical and cultural developments that are fully committed to anarchism, but not by way of insistent praxis. Unless you consider literary, poetic works and theoretical developments "praxis" in the same way as other forms of acting, then you're eliding an important difference. There are even some religious, aesthetic, or reclusive (think Thoreau at moments) anarchists whose interventions are far from what I imagine you mean by "praxis". There are actions, productions, works or what have you that are anarchists, but not "praxis" as I think you intend.

For the record, neither Stirner, Tolstoy or Thoreau would be included in the history of the anarchist movement. That is, unless you accept the "Seven Sages" thesis of the German judge Paul Eltzbacher made back in 1900 and regurgitated by academics (and Woodcock*) ever since. The "Great Men/Thinkers/Beards of History" approach, which substitutes ideas for movements, ends up in the devising of completely inane categories of idealist taxonomy such as "philosophical anarchism". Such a category makes as much sense as one of "philosophical homosexuality". If by the latter we understand, not the category of philosophers who have been LGBT, but the hypothetical concept of straight philosophers who have speculated idly on the possible philosophical ontology of homosexuality, without ever engaging with actual LGBT folk, or their struggles against oppression. As Marx said:

Quote:
Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established , an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. 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.

Anarchism is a specific tendency within that real movement, whose history, from the First International onwards, is recorded in terms of mass organisations, strikes and uprisings, not isolated literary figures. Lao Tse and Winnie the Pooh need not apply...

Quote:
Second, it is false because not all anarchists committed to praxis do so by way of the category direct-action.

Simply repeating an assertion that has been challenged, is not an effective way of establishing your point. My challenge is that you cannot identify actually existing anarchist tendencies that do not identify themselves as "direct action anarchists", your most effective rejoinder is to identify some that prove me wrong. Name the tendencies you are aware of, particularly in relation to the Occupy movement, that are not "direct action" anarchists.

---
* although you could argue that the relative devastation of post-war English anarchism, populated more or less solely by a small clique of bourgeois "artists" could count as attenuating circumstances, in his particular case. But a more global picture, outside the anglosphere, would make that position unjustifiable even at that time.