Thursday, May 27, 2010

Always Interesting

David Graeber, that is, being interviewed here by Yiannis Aktimon of the Void network. Some highlights:

Void Network: what are the major challenges of antiauthoritarian movement of today? Is there really a revolution to be waited for, or in truth, the radical procedure of present, has to do with the ideas and forces of a general daily reformation of life?

D.G.: Globally, I think we are at a turning point, but that turning point has been, as it were, endlessly suspended. One reason the alter-globalization movement slowed down so in the second half of the '00s was not just the lingering effects of the war on terror and resultant stepping up of repression, but the fact that the other side simply couldn't get their act together. They were faced with enormous structural crises, really, the effects of the same broad diffuse popular resistance of which are movements were perhaps the most self-conscious, explicit, and articulate form. Yet all they did was bicker with each other at their summits - they didn't really seem to have a strategy, and thus, it was very hard to come up with a strategy of opposition. This might be changing now. As for the grand strategic question: well, I don't think the transformation of daily life, and the larger question of revolution, can any longer be clearly separated. How might radical transformation happen? We can't know. We're really flying blind. But I also think we've been working with a very limited set of historical analogies: the history of revolutionary movements first in Europe in the 18th and 19th century, then globally in the 20th, but that's it. It's a tiny tiny slice of human history. There have been hundreds of successful revolutions in world history we don't even know how to see. It's quite likely that many of the "primitive communists" in say, the Eastern Woodlands of North America that so inspired Engels, or in Amazonia, weren't primitive at all, but the descendants of revolutionaries, of people who had overthrown earlier centralized states. The world is much more complicated, and the history of resistance much deeper than we have been taught to imagine. Or another way of making the same point: we have come to accept, over the last couple hundred years, since the Enlightenment basically, that there is only one paradigm for fundamental social change, "the transition from feudalism to capitalism" - which must then be the model for the next one, "the transition from capitalism to socialism" (or whatever). It's becoming screamingly obvious that the transition to whatever comes next is not going to look like that. So people think no revolutionary change is possible at all. Nonsense. Capitalism is unsustainable. Something will replace it. For me, I think a more useful paradigm right now is the transition from slavery to feudalism, at least in Europe. Remember, under Rome, huge percentages of the population of the empire were outright chattel slaves (maybe a third, even, and much more if you count the coloni and debt-peons and so on who were effectively slaves). A few hundreds years later, the number of slaves in Europe was almost none. This was one of the greatest liberations in human history (and similar things did happen in India and China around the same time.) How did it happen? How were all the slaves freed? Well, since we're only used to seeing it from an elite perspective as "the decline and fall of the Roman empire" and can't see any explicit anti-slavery movements, we're unable to write the history at all, but it happened. Will wage-slavery be eliminated in a similar apparently catastrophic and confused moment? It's possible. But it could only happen the first because of pressure from below, based on certain egalitarian values that were always there, all operating below the historical radar screen. Obviously, there were also horrific thugs taking advantage of the chaos, as there will be now too. But we need to think about how to mobilize similar bottom-up alliances when things start breaking down.

Void Network: Is there really a national and international debt? What would you like to put as a small analysis of what it seems to be the Greek paradigm in the great saga of domino financial collapse of many countries economies after the 2008 broke of international crisis?

D.G.: Money nowadays is a purely political instrument. Some people - central bankers, to some degree ordinary banks and even the financial divisions of large firms - have the right to generate it, to make up money, relatively as they wish. Banks after all don't mostly lend money they actually have, they lend money they just made up - if under certain constraints. So the rhetoric people use, that "there's only so much money" is nonsense. Money isn't like oil, it's not even like bananas, you can't actually run out of it. So the scam is to allow some people to just whisk it into existence and then, even more importantly, to say that other people can't. In a way banks' ability to make money is not so outrageous since money is basically debt, it's an IOU, a promise, and in a free society everyone should have the right to make promises. In a way that's what being "free" means. The problem is in our society, the only really important promises are financial, and some people are granted the political right to make as many of these as they like, with no little or responsibility for keeping them, and others (the politically powerless) are not, and everyone acts as if the most important moral responsibility everyone has is to pay back money that others were allowed to simply make up. This is particularly ridiculous in the case of governments, who grant the banks the right to make up the money, and then act as if they have no choice but to honor their commitments to these same people. It's all nonsense. But it's just a new variant of an age-old pattern. Conquerors, tyrants, powerful lords throughout human history have always tried to convince their subjects or those they conquer that they owe them something, at the very least, that they owe them their life, for not having massacred them all. It's basically the logic of slavery (I could have killed you, I didn't, now you owe me everything) but it's also the foundation of what we like to call "sovereignty." The unusual thing about the present day is just that this sovereignty has been transferred from states to this semi-independent financial establishment as a way of undercutting any notion that sovereignty any longer belongs with what they used to call "the people."

. . .

Void Network: Are there any values that have to be defended against the formulated extremity of extreme nihilism and elitism?

D.G.: Someone once said that the ultimate stakes of any political struggle is the ability to define what value is. Autonomy does not just mean making up one's own rules, as Castoriadis says, though that's important - it also means being free to collective establish what you think value is. In that way, any enclave that preserves a system of value even relatively autonomous from capital is a form of freedom that should be defended. One of the terrible mistakes of old-fashioned socialism was to subordinate everything to the revolution in the same way that capitalists subordinate everything to profit. It's funny because I'm often accused of criticizing anthropologists and academics for not helping radical social movements. That's not true at all. I think it's a scandal that many seem actively opposed, or pretend to be leaders when they're not, or refuse to engage with people who want their help. But I also think that it's absolutely great that there are people who get to spend their lives thinking about, I don't know, Medieval Provencal musical instruments as an end in themselves. I call this the utopian moment in academia. Don't we want people to be able to do this? Anyway, for me, a free society is one where there are endless varieties of forms of value, and people can decide for themselves which they wish to pursue. Therefore the key social question is "how do we provide people with sufficient life security, in a free society, that they are able to be as free as possible to pursue those forms of value (moral, artistic, spiritual, hedonistic, communal, etc, etc etc) they feel to be the most important - whatever these may be."

. . .

Void Network: what is your present attitude about the end of traditional labour? Would you like to give us some more analysis of your current approach?

D.G. : Well, our horizon has to be the abolition of work in its conventional form. For me, I again find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with the Italians who say the production of value is now dispersed through all forms of social life, so we need to think about a social wage. My objection is they seem to think there's something new here, that "immaterial labor" or the dominance of such is a new development. I find this racist and sexist. They seem to think that in the 19th century, value was produced exclusively by factory work, or anyway paid employment, but that now, especially since the '70s, the real cutting-edge is the production of the informational and stylistic content, and context, or commodities - "immaterial labor" (a stupid phrase, it's not immaterial in any sense). Why? Well, when looking at such analysis, the way to understand it, I always say, is to follow a simple principle: "follow the white guys." Was there no one working outside the factory on the informational or stylistic or cultural aspects of the commodity, etc.? Of course. But they were mostly women, so they say, well, who cares, that's not part of the production of value, it's all in the factories where the white guys are. Now, most factory work is being done by women and/or people of color so suddenly, factory work is unimportant and it's the white guys working on computers, etc., who are really producing value. Nonsense. What we need to start thinking about is how all these new forms of labor, and some very old ones, draw on one another. For every person who can push a button and instantaneously do a transaction with Japan that would have taken weeks in the past, there's some guy in Brazil or Pakistan who has to work twice as many hours or spend hours more on the bus just getting to work so he can do it. We need to look at the world as a whole. We also need to understand that war and imperial extraction still operate and how, which brings us back to the money system again (modern credit money is basically war debt created by governments who borrow the money to create the means of coercion, then allow the bankers to lend that debt to everyone else - and use the means of coercion to enforce the debts. This is the regime under which all labor now operates.)

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