Monday, March 19, 2012

On De-Legitimizing and Building Within the Hollow Shell

[NOTE: Yesterday's post was intended to be about the continuing propaganda regarding the saga and struggle of the soldier in custody for the latest Afghanistan Massacre. But the events in New York took precedence. I spent most of the day going through written reports and videos of what was going on. As for yesterday's intended post, a digest:

The soldier in custody is being tried and acquitted in the media based on a continual feed of "information" about him and the difficulties he's faced -- basically building a defense case in public -- that is almost all coming directly from the Pentagon. Fascinating, isn't it? Though he is being held for murder most foul, those holding him are at pains to defend him because of his multiple deployments and his wounds and in yesterday's propaganda, because he and his family have been facing severe financial difficulties as well. In other words, the facts that might lead to justice are of no interest at all; the dead and wounded aren't even mentionable any more. This situation oddly mirrors -- or maybe not so oddly, come to think about it -- the lack of any concept of rational justice when it comes to matters involving the financial and economic destruction wrought by our Overclass. To the extent their victims exist at all (we're all their victims in one way or another) it is only as objects and foils to their depredations; the idea of "justice" under the circumstances is a cruel joke.]

Alcuin in comments links to a 2004 essay by David Graeber called "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology" that I cannot recommend highly enough. It's almost 10 years old now, but it is in nearly every way apropos to right now -- on top of which, it is an utter delight to read. Sometimes academics -- and Graeber himself -- come off a ponderous blow-hards (I should talk!) but in this case, Graeber explores his topic with a light and vigorous approach that really makes it almost magical.

In the broadest sense, "Fragments" is Anarchist apologetics which some people will reject out of hand. I tend not to be a political dogmatist, nor am I all that wedded to a particular political ideology (though my leftist bent is clear enough, but that comes from something deeper, not strictly speaking politics.)

Until the Occupy Movement got under way, I had never given much thought to anarchism or anarchist theory. Like most Americans, indeed like most people around the world, I had been conditioned to disregard anarchists and anarchism as a serious political philosophy because anarchists blew up the Los Angeles Times building in 1910, an anarchist shot William McKinley in 1900 and so forth. Furthermore, like most Americans and others around the world, I had been conditioned to believe certain "facts" about anarchism, such as the "fact" that it was a theory of political chaos, the "fact" that without a state, there could be no civilization, and the "fact" that anarchism could ultimately be reduced to Social Darwinism run amok. So. Like most everyone else, I dismissed anarchism and those who professed to be anarchists as essentially irrelevant to serious political consideration. When it came to notions of "Revolution," anarchists were simply out of the picture altogether. They might trigger destruction, but they had no capability of construction, let alone re-construction after destruction.

Occupy has changed my thinking, maybe not as much as some would like, but it's a substantial change from my previous perspective. I have not got any piercings or tattoos, nor is my attire all black; I'm not much into primitivism, though I have long had a strong regard for individualism and some forms of tribalism, and throughout my life, I have tried to live lightly on the land. I don't much care for the hair-trigger temper that seems to infuse some anarchists as they go about their daily lives (though I admit to having something of a temper myself '-D ). And I'm not particularly fond of endless -- circular -- debates over inconsequentials that somehow seem to loom as insurmountable during practically every discussion that involves anarchists.

For years, though, I've had an kind of arm-length association with anarchists in real life and online, and I've often suggested that if they wanted to form a New Society of Voluntary Association -- or what have you -- go ahead and do it; there is plenty of opportunity to do so in this country. In fact, these efforts at building New Societies are fundamental aspects of the American experience; they're built in to the national consciousness -- so go, do, prosper!

The point being The Demonstration. Show us how it works. Well? Where's The Demonstration? We're waiting. Show us! Nothing happens... Back to the circular argument that seems to require the destruction of the present system before any New Society can emerge.

Well, Graeber seems to reject that notion in "Fragments." In fact, he seems to be saying, based to a great extent on his field experience in Madagascar, that the (anarchist) New Society can emerge spontaneously within the rotting shell of the old, and that it can persist side-by-side with more rigid and structured political frameworks without necessarily causing more than a minor disturbance. In other words, accommodation and replacement are both possible outcomes; the proof is all around us. He saw it in operation in Madagascar when he was doing anthropological field research. Obviously, what he saw made a profound impression on him and continues to inform his thinking and writing to this day.

When "Teh Revolution" comes, it doesn't have to be -- probably won't be -- anything like we expect a Revolution to be, and it certainly doesn't require a violent framework to take place or to succeed. Successful Revolution -- of which there have been a few - is more a matter of social affinities, alignments and timing, not necessarily force of arms or even uprisings. It just... IS.

Well. What a concept.

And here we are, in the midst of what is arguably the first Global People's Revolution, one that has been spontaneously generated at the root level -- if not actually at the soil level in which the roots reside (but I won't expand on that thought too much here). The spontaneity of Occupy is one of its iconic features; it just arrives and "is," it isn't directed or emplaced, it just... "is." Without an obvious structure or even necessarily a declared purpose, let alone stated goals and objectives, it just... "is".

Graeber wrote "Fragments" long before the appearance of Occupy, of course, but not before some of its precursors, such as the anti-globalization movement, the Zapatistas, the Situationists and the Insurrectionists, and so forth. Occupy did not come out of nothing after all; this ground has been prepped, plowed and planted for quite some time. Direct precursors are the North African uprisings, the European uprisings that interconnected with them, and in the United States, the uprising in Wisconsin.

Two strategic factors of Occupy help to clarify what's happening, what the Revolution This Time looks like: 1) de-legitimizing present authority; 2) demonstrating how a Better Future can, does, and will work.

This is not taking place on a theoretical plane, it is going on day by day in somewhat fanciful but ultimately practical ways in the real world -- in sequence, alternately and simultaneously.

These entwined strategic factors seem to be taken directly from Gene Sharp's manuals for revolution, manuals which actually propose something very different is necessary for a successful revolution than what Occupy has been doing for the last few months.

A problem I have had with Sharp's theories and recipes for Revolution is that they don't work anymore. We've seen the results of following Sharp's revolutionary models in the catastrophic and blood-soaked situations in Libya and Syria, Bahrain and the Yemen, among many other places where rebels have studied Sharp and adopted his program. A deeper criticism of Sharp is that the Revolution he proposes is not a People's Revolution at all, it's a marketing campaign on behalf of Neo-Liberalism and all that goes with it.

In other words, what you get from a Sharp-style Revolution may not be anything like what you signed up for, and it could well turn out to be worse for the People than what you were rebelling against.

I've often said that no one should engage in Revolution mindlessly or take a Revolutionary path without considering the consequences as fully as possible. But human nature often doesn't provide for that kind of in depth consideration of actions especially under the circumstances we face today.

What happens instead is that most people hold back from a Revolutionary course by force of conditioning and habit, while the few who can do so take the risk to see what can be accomplished, if anything, on a rebel path. Most often, they are simply crushed like a bug. But if the situation is ripe for change, or if alternatives and change are somehow integral to the current social framework and situation, something else, something unexpected, may take place.

I think that's where we are in this country. The concepts of change and alternatives to established institutions and power centers are built in to our conception of a national identity. Questioning/challenging authority while developing and demonstrating alternative models of social, political, and economic organization has been going on in America since before there was an "America."

The simultaneous de-legitimizing of present authority while demonstrating alternatives to it are the key factors of Occupy, and Graeber's "Fragments" helps to show how this approach to Revolution is both more radical and perhaps more natural than we may think.

This interview with Graeber expands somewhat on his thoughts on the nature of things....


  1. This situation oddly mirrors -- or maybe not so oddly, come to think about it -- the lack of any concept of rational justice when it comes to matters involving the financial and economic destruction wrought by our Overclass.

    Glorificus in BTVS was a letter-perfect depiction of the mindset.

  2. I finished Graeber's book on Debt a coupla days ago. It's stunningly good. Not from an aesthetic POV, necessarily. If I were his editor, I would have changed a great deal about the structure of the book. But the content itself is stunning. Thought-provoking is a gross understatement, and there are almost too many "wow" moments to summarize. I will need to reread it, etc. etc.

    Basically, what we get from the book is that human societies went radically wrong when they changed from human economies to commercial economies. Not that things were always wonderful in the former. It's just that the latter exacerbates every potential for abuse imaginable . . . because just about the only way to limit the harm humans do to one another is to keep things on a "personal" level, one in which the consequences are socialized and transparently obvious to everyone. Once we make things impersonal and distant, and hide the consequences from everyone involved, all hell breaks lose. Humans are at their worst when they can't see the consequences of their actions.

    It also reconfirmed my take that business is just war by other means, and often war itself. Throughout history, it's been directly or indirectly linked with slavery, empire, genocide, rape, theft, etc. etc. Business, in fact, has been little more than piracy for thousands of years, and anyone who glorifies it in the present knows no history. Anyone who links it with "freedom and liberty" is either tragically ignorant, duped or cynically exploiting the ignorance of others.

    . . . .

    In short, "revolution" is basically a waste of blood and human treasure if it results in a continuation of commercial, as opposed to human economies. Rather, any revolution that does not replace our *MCM system with at least a CMC system can not accurately be called "revolution." At best, we should call it "reform."

    *Money/commodity/more money . . . versus commodity/money/commodity

  3. Another takeaway/question from Graeber and the Occupy Movement. He's 50. The Occupy movement seems to be made up mostly of people in their 20s. Who are they reading? Who are they drawing their inspiration from? Who are the intellectual lights for this new generation?

    Are they being exposed to left-populist thought and history in universities (and beyond) today? Or is the concerted effort by right-wing billionaires to take over American universities having its toll? With all the money flying around, in exchange for Ayn Rand chairs and the like, all across America . . . is this new generation able to see through new forms of capitalist indoctrination?

    I continuously fear for the future, and simultaneously realize that my fear is exactly what the powers that be encourage. A trap for all of us . . . and a trap for the youth of America.

    By deed and action, the kids of Occupy are showing that they aren't afraid.

  4. Cu-hool,

    Thanks for your excellent review and summary of Graeber's "Debt." I confess, I haven't read it yet, but everything I have read about it tells me why so many people think it is so important. Your perspective on it really helps fill out the overall picture. Thank you.

    As for you question about the 20-somethings, I don't think they are looking at this struggle the way older people (like me!) do or have done. I'm still struggling with my own conditioning and belief systems about the way this sort of thing is supposed to be done. The younger people, for the most part, don't have that problem (!) They just do it. There are some dogmatists, yes, but they seem to be a distinct and rather sad minority.

    Graeber does point out that there are a lot of Marxists in the academy (I would question that, but OK, if he says so, for the sake of argument) and it's obvious that a lot of Marxist thought has been absorbed by The Young Revolutionaries, but their revolt doesn't look or feel much like those of the past. Older revolutionaries in many cases are having a really tough time wrapping their minds around this one, though others find it "just about right," even if it isn't happening the way they would prefer.

    Even if the young folks have been exposed to Randian bullcrap, they recognize it for what it is. If they are being indoctrinated in that stuff, it isn't working, at least not so's you'd notice, partly because even those who are sympathetic with the Randian world view are saddled with enormous debts that they can't pay off. Everyone's in the same boat. All facing the same crisis.

    When that's the case, they've got to put their differences aside, at least temporarily.

    And yes, they are braver than I think I could be.

  5. Goethe said, know all philosophy, but keep it out of your writings. The same could be said about pretty much any endeavor, when it comes to its intellectual roots. It's almost a Zen thing. "Second nature", etc. Don't dwell on the words, stripped of context, flesh and blood, just do it.

    From what you're saying, that's the way of the young of OWS. More immediate and spontaneous than us Baby Boomers. More in the moment, filled with fire, etc. They'll need it for this long march.

    We can learn much from them.

    . . . .

    If Graeber is correct about Marxists in the Academy, that, too, gives me hope. Not doctrinaire Marxists, preferably. We don't need doctrinaire anything, really. But, now, more than ever, his voice, his analysis of capitalism, should be front and center. He got it right, and his followers, especially in recent decades, have expanded his insights dramatically.

    . . . .

    I'm still doing the Zen thing, and currently reading The Dhammapada. But, today, I picked up three books on order about politics. I don't think Buddha would be happy!!

    The S Word, by John Nichols. A short history of Socialism in America.

    The Reactionary Mind, by Corey Robin. Another short history.

    (He's a part of the group over at Jacobin Magazine.)

    and . . .

    The New Hate, by Arthur Goldwag. It's a history of the populist right.

    Why do I do this to myself!!


  6. Quick note:

    pardon the digressions. I think you've been nailing OWS and related issues for several months now, so I think commenting on the margins makes more sense for me. Good thing you don't run a tight, "stay on topic" site!


    Hope all is well . . .

  7. The Goldwag book is unfamiliar to me, but the other ones I've run across some mentions of '-)

    The Dhammapada, eh? Good for you. A challenge, yes, but a worthy one.

    As for Marxists in the academy, I suppose they are in the arts and literary fields, maybe some in the social sciences, and I know there were some in physics and math, but how many Marxists are there in economics and related fields? One, maybe two? As you say -- and many others do too, now -- Marx was right.

    Graeber himself is an anthropologist.

    As for why... it's a Mystery. Or as I said to someone the other day, "42" -- and he laughed and laughed. I think he's still laughing.

    (Note: for those who aren't familiar with "A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" "42" is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything according to Douglas Adams.)

    As far as I'm concerned most everything is related to everything else, so "off topic" comments and discussions are fine with me!

  8. Good point about Marxists in the Academy. They do appear to be mostly in the Humanities. Still. This fits a pattern going back a few decades now. Even in the more "tolerant of the left" universities in Europe, most Marxists were in sociology, anthro, literature. Rarely were they in the thick of things in economics departments. They were probably considered "harmless" in colleges of the arts. No threat to the established order, etc. Put them right in there with Saltwater and Freshwater schools, and they might cause too many waves . . .


    As for the Dhammapada. I'm reading a translation by Eknath Easwaran. Very well done so far, with quite a good intro. It provoked a few insights of my own, which I now see as obvious. Like, the whole reincarnation thing, past-lives, etc. . . . is a poeticization of what we all carry within:

    Billions of years of evolution, millions of beings and their consciousness reside within each one of us. Those are our "past lives." No-self makes sense, because we're a multitude to the Nth power. How could there be one self?

    And with that multitude all under one roof, doesn't it makes sense that we would have a natural capacity for universal empathy? Doesn't it make sense that we could be truly "selfless" when an entire world resides in our DNA?

    Will be riffing off of that on my website this week.

  9. "Will be riffing off of that on my website this week."

    I'd be happy to post a link... with your permission of course!


  10. I stumbled across the work of Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan some time ago and started reading their book, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder. But I never finished - it's pretty dense. But there is a summary of the authors' ideas in the essay Capital as Power: Toward a New Cosmology of Capitalism, which originally appeared in the magazine Dissident Voice in 2010.

    Another glimpse into the ideas of Bichler and Nitzan is in the essay Differential Accumulation. I recommend both - they will upset Marxists of all stripes, but a new approach to the problem of capitalism is crucial and I think Bichler and Nitzan are on to something when they write about capital as power. Their framework strikes me as quite explanatory. I like Graeber because of his anthropological approach (did I mention that my BA is in anthropology? ) and I like Bichler and Nitzan because they approach capitalism from a rather anthropological viewpoint.

    Read both - you might be surprised at what the authors have to say.

  11. More on Marxism from B&N:

    "Marx tried to trace the intricacies of human history, to map its progressive breakthroughs, and to understand its regressive setbacks. He focused on the critical aspects
    of the capitalist regime, searching for weak points in the fortified walls that protected the capitalist rulers. He tried to anticipate the development of capitalism, to identify the inner contradictions that would pave the way for a revolution.

    "But Marx’s work mirrored his own epoch. And as capitalism continued to develop and mutate, his theories, research and conclusions have become less and less congruent with the ever- changing reality. As a result, radicals have come to face two mutually exclusive options. In the words of Cornelius Castoriadis, they have had to decide whether to remain revolutionaries or 'Marxists’. To choose the former meant to take from Marx what seemed true, insightful and useful – and to let go of the rest. To choose the latter meant to sanctify all of Marx’s writings and then constantly ‘reinterpret’ them to fit the shifting reality.

    "Some radicals chose the former path, but many more took the latter. After Marx’s death, there emerged numerous congregations and sects, each with its own theological interpretation. Until the 1960s and 1970s, the fault lines were largely geopolitical. The main debate was between Moscow and Beijing, with subsidiary interpretations emerging later on in lesser communist capitals, such Belgrade, Havana and Pyongyang.

    The unravelling of Stalinism and Maoism and the winding down of the Cold War shifted the centre of gravity to the universities of Europe and North America. But that shift hasn’t liberated the Marxists from Marx. Instead of an open-ended scientific debate on the changing nature of capitalism, there developed a closed theological debate about the eternal nature of Marx’s writings (what did Marx really mean?). There are exceptions – some of which are ingenious – but for many Marxists the key questions have become those of how to appropriate the prophet’s writing; and of what might be done to fortify the faith."

    From an exchange between Andrew Kilman and B&N. I like B&N for these very reasons - they are speaking truth to power, it seems to me.

  12. Alcuin,


    From what you've posted here, I don't think the authors actually grasp the Marxian critique at all, but I haven't had a chance to read your cites, so I'll withhold judgement.

    I would say, however, that it really isn't as Manichean a situation as saying you're either "this" or "that."

    Occupy has shattered a lot of those premises, which has caused a lot of discomfort among the more dogmatic. I see the discomfort especially among those of a certain age, who were radicalized in the '60's, did their revolutionizing back then, and can't seem to grasp how there could be another revolutionary movement in their lifetimes, especially if it isn't the way they think it is "supposed to be."

    I think Graeber, in part because he is an anthropologist, has a highly developed and holistic viewpoint about these things, despite his self-identification as an Anarchist. He strikes me as almost the least dogmatic of thinkers on these topics of any I've read.

    As for Bichler's and Nitzan's criticism of Marx as being a product of his era, yes, I agree. So was Darwin. So was Nietzsche. Freud. So is Graeber. Etc. Yes, even Bichler and Nitzan. This is not a bad thing as long as one's study isn't focused solely on the thinker in question but takes in as much of the temporal context of their thinking as possible.

    In many cases, it's harder to do that with contemporary thinkers.

    At any rate, thanks for the links; I will check them out!


  13. Alcuin,

    Having now read "Capital is Power," I'm not quite as reserved about it as I was. I don't necessarily agree with the authors about their "cosmology" premise, but they seem to like it, so...

    Ultimately, in my view, economics is not a science and trying to reduce it to a scientific schema is futile. On the other hand, there's something appealing about their approach to understanding "what is capital" by proposing that it is purely "power."

    In a sense, it is obvious -- which I like! And understanding capital in that very simple/straightforward manner can help the struggle against it.

    I'm not sure how yet. But I'm sure there are creative minds even now thinking that problem through.


  14. Che,

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about thinkers being the product of their times and also that economics is not a science. Certainly Graeber would agree that economics is not a science and I my take on B&N is that they don't much care for the scientific approach, either. At least in the sense of reducing economic transactions to mathematical formulas that can be statistically analyzed. I haven't read enough of either Graeber (I have his book on debt on order) or B&N to draw any conclusions, but I am intrigued. We really do have to move beyond being stuck in the early 20th century mode of analysis. Capital as power fits in nicely with anarchist thoughts on hierarchy and dominance, I think.