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.

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(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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Battlescarred
May 21 2012 12:52

Could you name these artists, please? Were Albert Meltzer, Mat Kavanagh, Albert Grace, Ken Hawkes etc artists? No.
The only artists remotely involved with the movement I can think of were Augustus John and Jankl Adler.

Nate
May 21 2012 14:06

Andrew's written a reply, in case anyone's interested. I've not read it all the way through yet.
http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/a-reply-to-critics-of-“the-make-believe-world-of-david-graeber”.html

ocelot
May 21 2012 14:22
Battlescarred wrote:
Could you name these artists, please? Were Albert Meltzer, Mat Kavanagh, Albert Grace, Ken Hawkes etc artists? No.
The only artists remotely involved with the movement I can think of were Augustus John and Jankl Adler.

I was thinking of Herbert Read and the like, the kind of people that the Vernon Richards & Colin Ward Freedom sucked up to. Exactly the kind of people that considered Albert Meltzer an "oik" or "thug". Albert does mention in his memoirs (iirc) that when he hooked up with the anarchists in the aftermath of the war, he was about the only one active not from an older generation.

Battlescarred
May 21 2012 16:56

But Herbert Read was not an artist, he was an art historian, you need to get your facts straight. And Meltzer did not hook up with the anarchists in the aftermath of the war, he was active before the war, as a correct reading of his memoirs reveals.
And whilst I have many criticisms of Vernon Richards, "sucking up " to Herbert Read was not one of them as the heated correspondence between them over Read accepting a knighthood (1952-1953) reveals.

Red Marriott
May 21 2012 23:02
ocelot wrote:
For the record, neither Stirner, Tolstoy or Thoreau would be included in the history of the anarchist movement.

In the case of Stirner at least, this seems far too simplistic (even if the sometimes historically unreliable Black Flame book claims such things) - see for example the Glasgow Stirnerite anarcho-syndicalists, probably the UK's largest working class anarchist movement (with the possible exception of London's East End Jewish anarchists);

Quote:
In a certain sense the Glasgow Anarchists of that period made a unique contribution to the broad Anarchist movement in Britain. Most of the comrades could accept the philosophy of Egoism and dovetail it into the Syndicalist tendency within the movement. http://libcom.org/history/not-life-story-just-leaf-it-robert-lynn

Stuart Christie cites Lynn as an influence in his development towards anarchism. Stirner is also said to have had some influence on Spanish anarchism;

Quote:
Recently historian Xavier Diez wrote on the subject in El anarquismo individualista en España: 1923-1938[1] y Utopia sexual a la premsa anarquista de Catalunya. La revista Ética-Iniciales(1927–1937) deals with free love thought in Iniciales.[5] Diez reports that the Spanish individualist anarchist press was widely read by members of anarcho-communist groups and by members of the anarcho-syndicalist trade union CNT. There were also the cases of prominent individualist anarchists such as Federico Urales and Miguel Gimenez Igualada who were members of the CNT and J. Elizalde who was a founding member and first secretary of the Iberian Anarchist Federation.[6]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarchism_in_Spain
D. Caffey
May 22 2012 04:19

First, I promise a response to Nate and others tomorrow.

For now, re: Ocelot:

Regarding your responses to my first line of thought: I think the exclusion of theoretical works is illegitimate. Theory can indeed be part of “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things,” (which is your only standard for inclusion) although theory does so indirectly. Saying that such an inclusion “substitutes ideas for movements” ignores the role ideas play in the development and unfolding of movements. I don’t intend to substitute ideas for movements, but rather to suggest that ideas (and those developing them) are intimately connected to any and all movements even when those developing them aren’t directly participating. It is necessary that people with ideas participate both mediately and directly in movements. This is why your analogy to philosophical homosexuality fails – it is impossible to have a movement without (even if implicit) guiding thoughts, but it is entirely possible to have homosexuality without philosophy. At any rate, history that only lists organizations, activities, and achievements/failings is bad history (even of anarchism). Good history develops a relation of objective conditions to internal decision-making and motivations (both of which require some analysis of the force and direction of theoretical positions held). In short, I beleive theory ought not be radically separate from practice, but it also ought not be confused with direct practice. Your insistence that philosophical anarchism is undeserving of the name ignores the possibility that ideas can grip the masses. When it does so theory (and mediately its developers) are indirectly active.

Further, you have not responded to my second line of argumentation. You cite the first line where I make my claim, accuse me of merely making it, and then ignore the reasons I develop defending it. Here are the reasons again: “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).”

So perhaps I’m mistaken, but I think of anarchism as running a gamut as wide as the difference from the organizational activities of the IWW to juvenile versions of insurrectionism (and I don’t mean to say there aren’t juvenile members or activities of the IWW or that there aren’t more organized or mature versions of insurrectionism). While both may have some relation to action, it would be fair to say that one is way more and exclusively “direct” than the other and it would be missing a possibility for tracking phenomena more closely to be satisfied with "direct-action" for all versions and call it a day. Anyway, we may simply be having a linguistic debate about labels. If you wish to directly equate anarchism with direct action, that’s fine, but doing so, at least to my mind, misses the opportunity for more fine grained analysis. It also misses Kliman’s point.

In the end, I think even at the level of definition you’re wrong, for you've never responded to this other bit: “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.” So unless you forgot about it, or wish to respond now that I’ve reminded you, it seems like even an expansive understanding of direct-action won’t cover all anarchists.

Also, I wanted to thank you for being less insulting.

ocelot
May 22 2012 10:45
Nate wrote:
Andrew's written a reply, in case anyone's interested. I've not read it all the way through yet.
http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/a-reply-to-critics-of-“the-make-believe-world-of-david-graeber”.html

This is actually a much better piece than the original. Mainly because he's beat a hasty retreat on a number of fronts and reduced the scope from a generalised critique of OWS, the influence of anarchist ideas on the Occupy movement and Graeber's politics and influence on both, to a more narrow focus, not even on Graeber's politics and beliefs*, but on the problems of his formulations.

As well as having narrowed the scope away from an implied critique of movements, tendencies and processes that are clearly unfamiliar to him, he has also brought the discussion back onto terrain with which he is more familiar - i.e. the parallels he sees between implications in the quoted formulations and the politics of "Johnsonism" (i.e. C.L.R. James, the other side of the Johnson-Forest Tendency split that produced N&L and ultimately, the MHI) and past arguments with some post-autonomists over notions like "the communism of capital" etc (albeit not mentioned by name).

This is a more interesting discussion.

As a parenthesis - whether it's a fair critique of the kind of political activity that Graeber actually advocates, that's not really for me to say, I'm not familiar enough with his activism or writings to judge, best left to himself to respond on that, if he considers it worthwhile.

But the question of whether a rejection of "capitalism as totality" is directly and inextricably linked to the kind of non-revolutionary gradualism that Kliman accuses both Graeber and the autonomists of, is of more general interest.

Quote:
Does the new world already exist within the existing one, or, on the contrary, is “[c]apital … the all-dominating economic power of bourgeois society,” as Marx put it?[1] I’ve begun with this, although it is Nate’s final point, because what strikes him as semantic hairsplitting is actually the key issue. The other aspects of Graeber’s ideology that I criticized flow naturally from his answer to this question.

further

Quote:
And again, in the same interview, Graeber says
Quote:
I think the “capitalist totality” only exists in our imagination. I don’t think there is a capitalist totality. I think there’s capital, which is extraordinarily powerful, and represents a certain logic that is actually parasitic upon a million other social relations, without which it couldn’t exist. …

I think that the real problem is Marx’s Hegelianism. The totalizing aspect of Hegel’s legacy is rather pernicious. …

It’s much more sensible to argue that all social and political possibilities exist simultaneously. Just because certain forms of cooperation are only made possible through the operation of capitalism, that consumer goods are capitalist, or that techniques of production are capitalist, no more makes them parasitical upon capitalism than the fact that factories can operate without governments. Some cooperation and consumer goods makes them socialist. There are multiple, contradictory logics of exchange, logics of action, and cooperative logics existing at all times. They are embedded in one another, in mutual contradiction, constantly in tension.

Most of this is just elaborates on the denial that capital is the all-dominating power in society and the claim that communism already exists. But it also makes another crucial empirical claim, which again seems to have originated with C. L. R. James, namely that capital is “parasitic” on non-capitalist relations.[5] In fact, this claim is the foundation of the denial that capital is the all-dominating power in society. Its political implication is that we just have to get the parasite off our back in order to be free. There is no need to do away with a social formation governed by a very specific set of economic laws and establish a wholly new communal society that operates according to completely different principles.

So for Kliman the identification of capitalism as a totality in which "there is no outside" (to quote Negri), and to which all social relations are dominated, subsumed, is inseperable from a revolutionary perspective - anything else is gradualist reformism. To the extent that:

Quote:
I’ll never forget a converation I had with a well-known autonomist. He told me that “less than half” of our lives is subsumed under the logic of capitalism. I was floored, because he had always stressed the totalizing nature of capital. But he asked me if my relationship with my wife was dominated by capital. I guess he expected a “no, but …” answer. My actual answer was “of course.”

However, this (pretty hardcore) equation between belief in the totality and the "real subsumption", is qualified somewhat...

Quote:
As an aside that I can’t develop here, I’ll point out that not all conceptions of totality are alike. For instance, Dunayevskaya profoundly disagreed with Lukacs’ conception. Some conceptions have the harmful effects that Graeber mentions elsewhere in this interview––but not all.

And this is the thing. The vision of totality or "real subsumption" that is the "strange attractor" around which much of contemporary neo-ultra politics has been refracted, is that of Jacques Camatte. From Dauvé and the Communisation tendency, through the Negrian post-autonomists, to peculiar offshoots such as the primmos and post-civs or the Ni-Coms, Camatte's descent into the black hole of a capitalist totality from which there really is "no outside" or no possibility of autonomy in social relations, has left it's mark, in one way or another.

Negri and his fellow travellers (Marazzi, Lazzarato, et al) respond to Camatte's challenge by embracing the "real subsumption" and the "no outside" slogan, but smuggle communism back into the equation, by claiming it is already here, present within capitalist relations.

Post-autonomists who do not follow the Negri line, e.g. de Angelis, reject the idea that there is no outside, and follow a much more "Johnsonian" line, that although capitalism is the dominant social relation, it necessarily has to have something to dominate - and those social relations, be they a parent's love for their child, love between lovers, friends, family and comrades, etc, etc, however over-determined or distorted by capital, still originate outside of its process, pre-exist it and will survive its destruction. That is capitalism dominates, but it does consist everything that is, and that which is dominated, still retains autonomy, even if only as potential.

But this position is not equivalent to the claim that communism is already here and capitalism is a mere parasitic externality, that we can simply shake off in a gradual and voluntarist fashion. It is possible to hold a pro-autonomist (rejecting "total subsumption") and a pro-rupture position (rejecting capitals as "pure parasitism").

What would be more interesting is that if Kliman wants to apply his critical faculties in a direction that would have more impact on current libertarian and ultra-left political tendencies, he'd be better off going to the source and targeting Camatte, imho. It'd be interesting to see how such a critique could be squared with the Hegelian totality.

* At least, this is what he says at one point, but in other parts of the text, it does sound very like he is critiquing yer man's actual politics and practice.

For myself, I prefer to proceed down the non-Hegelian and heterodox Marxist route...

ocelot
May 22 2012 10:49

Oh yeah. And this bit made me chuckle:

Quote:
Incidently, I should point out that the joke was about one specific conception of direct action,“[t]he notion that effective action can be based on pretending that things are different than they actually are.” It wasn’t a joke about direct action as such or anarchists as such or direct-action anarchists as such.

Translation: When I said "direct action anarchists" I didn't actually mean "direct action anarchists".

So there you go. black bloc

D. Caffey
May 23 2012 05:00

I think the recent response piece Kliman wrote does better than I could in responding to Nate, and I'm pleasantly surprised with how an initially counter-productive series of comments is developing into a valuable theoretical exchange. Anyway, I know I'm learning a lot, and I agree with ocelot that the discussion has improved. I'm looking forward to what's to come.

Since I think Nate's received a high quality and very detailed response that also responds to some of tastybrain's concerns I'll just add a bit:

I agree that there's benefit to aiming high, but I don't think OWS, at least in NY, ever did that (incidentally OWS hit a deplorable low today in their reformist posting (on FB) of what they are and are not against). In fact, I actually don't think one can say there was ever a unified aim at all other than, in NY, preserving the space. Parts of OWS aimed high, parts aimed low, and parts refused to articulate aims external to the act of occupation itself.

It's in part due to this that a prominent version direct action was reflexively oriented. I mean, it was direct action to be engaging in direct action, rather than as steps towards an external goal. I heard a lot (too much) about how action itself was the goal in my time there. In this way and for this reason I think it is an accurate and valid critique that much of Zucotti adopted the thought that acting as if they were already free was the way to go. This was surely in reference to a (set of) problem(s), but freely acting was taken as both possible and itself progressive or even as constructing, in miniature, the world desired.

The idea that direct action means acting autonomously to further the change desired without mediation/representation is, to me, a potentially useful tactic, but direct-action solely as a vacating of problematic structures is both consonant with major strands of Graeber's thought, and can indeed be acting as if one were already free. In that light I can accept direct-action as possibly useful, but still accept Kliman's critique of a significant part of Zuccotti. There's a way to actively refuse the structures of mediation and authority by accepting that we do not have the state/social/productive relations capable of making us free, and there's a way to do so while seeing the world as permitting freedom despite those structures. To the extent that we act "as-if" the latter obtained when we know its the former, we will be problematically close to Graeber, as I think at least a good deal of NY's occupation was (as Kliman was arguing).

At any rate, acting autonomously can be acting in some sense freely, as in when one's choices stem from one's will and not external coercion (assuming we can bracket the questions of will formation and the manner in which the options to choose from are created), but this is very different from acting "as if" one were free, and it's this "as if" that I think Kliman really nails. In this sense, acting as if one were free is a possible autonomous choice, but it lends itself to articulating political forms and actions that are counter-factual. This might be briefly interesting and galvanizing, but it lacks the reference to reality to be long-term developmental or successful in its own right. Kliman, I take it, was pointing some like this out, and not arguing for any of his own ideas.

So, tangentially, the notion that there's some battle for "leadership of ideas" isn't right. The tone of Kliman's piece is strident, but it's my understanding that M.H.I. and its precursors take pretty seriously the critique of political and intellectual vanguardism. Provocation, criticism, questioning: all yes, but the imposition of theoretical positions: not at all.

[Again, I didn't try to respond to Nate or the parts of tastybrain that are shared, since Nate received a line by line response by Kliman in the link posted in an earlier comment].

andcetera
May 23 2012 14:54
Quote:
I agree that there's benefit to aiming high, but I don't think OWS, at least in NY, ever did that (incidentally OWS hit a deplorable low today in their reformist posting (on FB) of what they are and are not against). In fact, I actually don't think one can say there was ever a unified aim at all other than, in NY, preserving the space. Parts of OWS aimed high, parts aimed low, and parts refused to articulate aims external to the act of occupation itself.

Caffey, how would you describe the march last night in NYC in solidarity with Quebec students? Do you see OWS evolving in its anti-capitalism and militancy?

I guess it all depends on how you define the boundaries of OWS, or how homogeneous of a movement you see it as being. It's easy to take pot shots at its weaker elements. But I don't think such a solidarity march as happened last night would have happened a year ago.

Nate
May 23 2012 15:55
D. Caffey wrote:
I heard a lot (too much) about how action itself was the goal (...) for this reason I think it is an accurate and valid critique that much of Zucotti adopted the thought that acting as if they were already free was the way to go (...) freely acting was taken as both possible and itself progressive or even as constructing, in miniature, the world desired. The idea that direct action means acting autonomously to further the change desired without mediation/representation is, to me, a potentially useful tactic, but direct-action solely as a vacating of problematic structures is both consonant with major strands of Graeber's thought, and can indeed be acting as if one were already free. (...) There's a way to actively refuse the structures of mediation and authority (...) while seeing the world as permitting freedom despite those structures.

(...) acting "as if" one were free (...) it's this "as if" that I think Kliman really nails. In this sense, acting as if one were free is a possible autonomous choice, but it lends itself to articulating political forms and actions that are counter-factual. This might be briefly interesting and galvanizing, but it lacks the reference to reality to be long-term developmental or successful in its own right.

D, like I said I don't like Graeber's "act as if free" formulation and I wouldn't recommend it. I think this conversation is a good argument against using it, but not because you and Kliman make good points. Rather, the formulation is murky and invites confusion. I think you and Kliman are dwelling in that murk rather than dispelling it. Such that your responses are an object lesson in why that formulation is bad one (as opposed to a compelling counter-argument against that formulation).

That aside, it's not at all clear
1) that your and Kliman's understanding of the meaning of "acting as if free" is actually Graeber's understanding.

I don't have the time to chase up the bit right now but there's something by Kliman (not sure if it's in his original piece or the comments or his subsequent piece) where he says something like "I'm responding to the concept underlying Graeber's remarks, he may not hold this concept consistently and I can't read his mind so I don't know that he fully believes this, he should clarify if not." (If I've got that wrong I apologize and if you or others feel it's necessary I can chase up the bit(s) by Kliman that say this, when I get the time and energy to re-read everything.) That suggests to me that what he is doing, and what you're doing, is presenting a sort of reconstruction of what you both take to be an implied concept. That's fine, there's nothing wrong with that and it can sometimes be a clarificatory exercise to do that. (It's not in this case, though.) But again it's not clear that Graeber believes this concept. Kliman suggesting that the concept is absurd is a good reason to think Graeber doesn't hold that view, unless y'all would rate Graeber so low as think he'd hold a view that is absurd on the face of it.

2) it's also not clear that anyone else actually bolds the view your attacking.

All of which is to say, again two thing, that I think the two of you are primarily tilting at a windmill of your own construction. Certainly you're doing this in response to the jumble of not-fully-worked-out ideas in the mix of a new social movement. I recognize you're doing so in attempt to clarify that jumble and aid that social movement, but I don't think that attempt is likely to succeed via things like "direct action in Graeber sense means pretending" etc. And, lastly, I think you should either abandon the whole "acting as if", "pretending", "make believe" line of criticism. Barring that, you should slow it down and attempt to actually clarify the concepts you're attacking in such a way that you present the strongest possible version of them that you can imagine, show how they're genuinely present in OWS in thought and action (if they are), then attack that strong version of the concept. None of that's happened thus far. Rather, Kliman picked some short and kind of shallow quotes from a rather dull interview instead of engaging with more developed formulations by Graeber. (Perhaps because he and you are mostly disinterested in Graeber, in which case, fair enough, I've not read much of his stuff either, but then, don't write about him.) And then he and you have, umm, acted as if (sorry) the meaning of his remarks was obvious such that you don't need justify your interpretations of those remarks nor do you need to do any argumentive work along the lines of what I said a minute ago (presenting the strongest version etc).

I'd also be keen to hear your response to Andcetera, since the on the ground politics and movement practices are more interesting; I can't speak about that as I'm not in NYC and not an OWS participant but that seems to me the most important bit of all this, by far.

Edit:
I don't know that anyone other than D. Caffey will care but I've replied to Kliman here -
http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/a-reply-to-critics-of-“the-make-believe-world-of-david-graeber”.html

and written a critical response to MHI's FAQ on OWS (so far their response is MIA, not to suggest their trying to keep this on the DL. ha.)
http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophy-organization/faqs-about-the-occupy-movement-and-marxist-humanism.html

As a suggestion for the MHI people, your site has a section that displays recent comments but that section is very small and only displays the three more recent comments, and it's in the sidebar amid a lot of longer bits. That makes it easy to miss, which I think inhibits discussion. Making the comment thing display more then 3 recent comments and moving that section somewhere more prominent would make it clearer that you want discussion and perhaps invite more comment.

david graeber
May 29 2012 10:18

Incidentally, sorry about the "breezy insouciance" but I made a decision that Kliman shouldn't get away with trying to get others to do his work for him. According to normal standards of intellectual labor, one writing a critique is responsible for doing a certain amount of work: locating and at least skimming the relevant passages in the author's work, trying to figure out what he's actually arguing, etc. Kliman doesn't feel he should have to be bothered. Instead he's written a broadside attacking me, published it as a pamphlet, distributed said pamphlet at events where I appear, even held seminars on it, all without reading a single word of my published writings! And on every possible occasion, in public and in personal communication, he makes clear the response he's trying to provoke: to make me write long detailed clarifications of my position so he can launch further attacks. In other words, rather than doing even minimal academic labor himself (you know, like, if he wanted to really know my views on direct action, looking up my book suggestively entitled "Direct Action" and flipping to the chapter with the equally suggestive title "direct action and anarchism"...), he essentially feels I should write essays meant for him personally mapping out those positions instead.

In other word, he is trying to use sheer aggression to place himself in the position of the exploitative bourgeois who does no actual labor, except for some minimal managerial work such as he has performed, but by doing so compels the degraded proletarian to do all his work for him.

I won't be your proletarian, Kliman. Do your own work or stop pretending to be a scholar.

david graeber
May 30 2012 20:16

I didn't say he was motivated by animus, I said he didn't feel he should have to do any genuine intellectual labor, but effectively demanded I do it for him. I won't.

Spikymike
Sep 4 2012 11:29

I thought ocelot's earlier post pinpointing the critical analytical diferences around the issue of 'capitalist totality/real subsumption' and 'communism in the here and now' etc really hit the nail on the head for me not only in the later part of this discussion thread but in so much else underlying discussions on this site and in particular a number of those I have chosen to engage in most often in the past.

I suppose I have been more influenced laterly by the 'totality' side of the arguments (as some of my 'favourite thinkers' list might suggest) but certainly don't think that all such theories are alike and would certainly welcome more critical analysis around those themes whether by Kliman or others.

It might be of course that my tendency to intelectual analysis one way or the other is just a reflection of my emotional mood from time to time towards opitimism or pessimism!!

Nate
Sep 5 2012 21:52
iexist wrote:
You know your on a left wing site when the debate is longer than the article

In case you're still not sure, libcom is in fact an left wing site. Happy to help.

Spikymike
Sep 6 2012 09:20

Nate,

Please don't start off that debate about what is 'left wing' and 'leftist' again or I will have to join in arguing on the other side to you!

But as to 'iexist' comment I would say that we could do with a lot more extensive, considered and thought out discussion, especially on some of the many library texts that appear on this site - though the volume of these later postings is increasing usually without much reason given by the posters.

Nate
Sep 6 2012 14:05

Spikymike, I bet if we put our minds to it we could figure out how to have an argument about whether or not we would in fact have to argue about leftism...

I agree about me debate and discussion though. In a lot of respects I think a piece of writing succeeds more if it generates a lot of responses than if it gets a lot of head nodding and little said.