Tag Archives: Graeber

What is Enlightenment? Reflections on Foucault, Critique, and Freedom

Foucault5Foucault often spoke of critique in vague terms. A truth that “functions as a weapon,” on the one hand, but which can “light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it,” on the other. Statements like these appear to us as riddles. But what is critique for Foucault, really? One fascinating answer to this question can be found in his short piece, “What is Enlightenment?”

Now, I confess, when I was in graduate school I used to think this was one of the toughest bits of Foucault reading out there. I suppose I still do. Where I really struggle is later in the piece, when he gets into the opposition between two ideal types, the man of the modern world and the flâneur. Here, he paraphrases Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur as one who adopts “the spectator’s posture.” It seems to me that the flâneur is kind of a drop out, or somehow self-involved – a cynical figure who  refuses to engage with the world around him. Either way, against this passive figure (which Foucault does not praise), the modern man has an active stance in the world. His being in the world somehow changes it, but not fundamentally. Foucault observes that the modern man’s attitude towards the world, and himself, involves both ambition and acceptance of certain limits to that ambition. That is, it “does not entail an annulling of reality, but a difficult interplay between the truth of what is real and the exercise of freedom.” In this sense, modern man is he who strives to take what is natural in the world, including his own self, and make it somehow more than it was. And the emblematic figure of the modern subject here is the dandy, the ultimate entrepreneur of himself, who is compelled constantly to “invent himself” in relation to those limits. Perfect, or at least moving towards some sort of optimal state.

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Failure Mode?

How comfortable are people with the idea that recent events bespeak a sort of collective overreaching on the part of capitalism? I’m sure its a truism at this stage to suggest that the financial elites exhibited a form of economic stupidity in putting us in this predicament in the first place. But are they politically stupid, too? Today’s commentary from Jacobin seems to suggest as much. The piece starts by stating the protests seem to be exceeding the systems ability to manage them. Here, once again, the crisis is framed in Graeber’s terms:

What’s going on here? A clue, I think, is to be found in a remark that comes near the end of David Graeber’s recent magnum opus on debt: ‘The last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world . . . with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win’.

In this, Graeber is echoing one of my favorite, often-quoted lines from Fredric Jameson: “The mass of people . . . do not themselves have to believe in any hegemonic ideology of the system, but only to be convinced of its permanence.”

But, as the piece continues, a certain fragility has crept into the system, as is no evident from recent global events. Perhaps it is because capitalism has so perfected its ability to perform efficiently? It is incredibly vulnerable now to asymmetrical shocks. There are ways of mitigating this, of course, but only expensive, Keynesian ones.

Thus neoliberalism has systematically dismantled the supports and failsafe systems that kept dissent in check, and has relied instead on preventing dissent from arising in the first place. The 99% have been cut off from institutional channels for influencing policy or voicing their grievances, and thus have been left with no choice but to take it to the streets. And now that we have done so, we are seeing the chaotic and unpredictable failure mode of neoliberal governance.

via Failure Mode.

Hmm, failure mode? I guess we’ll have to see. But certainly asserting something doesn’t make it so, as Kautsky reminded Lenin. And while it took some time for Kautsky to be proved right, in our own time its not clear that we’re even close to seeing a replay of that debate in the offing. Which raises the sort of question a Mick Cox might be willing to ask: at what point WOULD we want to start asking that question? What sort of things would we have to see going on around us before we started to talk about the demise of (the current mode of) capitalism? The main players in the EU are obviously hoping to bid for time and eject Greece gently from the Euro. Papandreou’s hand grenade notwithstanding, that probably remains the plan. In the meantime, the Greeks have been given what Zizek would no doubt call an “unfree” choice. As economic theorist Yanis Varoufakis puts it:

In short, rather than an exercise in participatory democracy, the referendum is a shoddy, strategically ill-fated, morally corrupt and politically damaging ploy. Contrary to what is implied by the Greek PM’s  minders, the referendum was never meant as a means of strengthening Mr Papandreou’s bargaining power over his European colleagues and the IMF. Had he cared to oppose the October Agreement, he ought to have done so in Brussels. No, the referendum is a means of extracting, first, a vote of confidence from his party’s battered MPs and, secondly, to impose upon the Greek people a hideous dilemma which identifies consent to the terrible October Agreement with a continued commitment to remaining in Europe. Rather than a gesture of granting Greeks a voice, this referendum is an attempt to gag the electorate.

Via Yanis Varoufakis


Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto

Thanks to Kole Kilibarda for referring us to this excellent manifesto from the world of Anthropology scholarship. The list of demands towards the end are particularly important, as are the parting words: “Let the deep modification of the human sciences begin. Anthropologists have nothing to lose but our irrelevance.” Might not scholars of IR and IPE say the same for themselves?

It is high time that the Anthropologists openly set forth before the whole world their perspective, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this fairy tale about Capitalism with a Four-Field Manifesto. To this end, Anthropologists of the most diverse nationalities and subfields assemble on open threads like Academia and #OWS, informing the following Manifesto. Please read, share, and comment, joining our contentious anthropological tradition.

via Anthropology, Moral Optimism, and Capitalism: A Four-Field Manifesto.

Unemployed Negativity: I Owe You an Explanation: Graeber and Marx on Origin Stories

Jason Read takes a light jab at David Graeber’s book, Debt, The First 5000 Years. Indeed, it would seem Graeber has a kind of Nietzschean/Deleuzian reading of debt as originating in a moral or normative field of equivalences, itself underwritten by the state.

Graeber gives more credit (I actually don’t know if I intended that pun or not) to a different account of money, primordial debt theory, which argues that money emerged from the taxes, from the state’s need to generate money. This theory begins with a fundamental asymmetry, not an equivalence, an asymmetry that is often founded on religion, on the sense of debt owed to the world.

What this habituated mentality of debt as having some sort of special sovereignty over other human relations ignores, however, is the “communism of everyday life”. Kind of like Hardt and Negri’s argument in Commonwealth, the point here is to draw attention to an ontology that denies the highly distributed (and social) nature of the way real value production takes place. What is interesting about Read’s argument though is the way he sets up Graeber’s narrative about the foundational fiction nature of debt as one that runs in parallel with another foundational fiction, that of primitive accumulation. Not that these narratives should be seen as competing strains (Read explicitly disavows a desire to counterpose anarchism and communism here), but rather that the simultaneous plausibility of both is in itself insufficient in our efforts to grasp what it is specifically about capitalism that inflects this particular moment in the historical drama of man’s relation with debt.

Capitalism is not a matter of thrift, waste, or greed, it is a matter of surplus value, labor power, and other real abstractions. Thus, communism may be the foundation of all sociability, but capitalism is often indifferent to the sociability, or, worse still, exploits it … As a topic of inquiry debt crosses back and forth from the economic to the moral, and thus it is tempting to locate its history in attitudes and ideas, but a true history of debt needs to also examine the structure that are indifferent to those ideas.


via Unemployed Negativity: I Owe You an Explanation: Graeber and Marx on Origin Stories.