Graeber again (updated)

David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist famously booted from Yale, has been discussed at length in blog land before. Everyone should definitely look over link no. 2 in my little triplet, where his analysis of how and why liberals constantly get played by the right in the U.S. is summarized in a few easy points — essentially that ‘value’ in Republican rhetoric takes two forms: economic (self-interested) and moral (altruistic), and that by promoting ‘values’ in general they are able to present themselves as both serving the interests of the rich and meeting the symbolic needs of the poor. He also suggests work that is broadly ‘altruistic’ — i.e. in it for something other than the money — is itself a hot commodity, one that is protected for the children of the rich (trust-funders, etc.) by a number of educational and class barriers, such as expensive degrees and unpaid internships, such that it is easier for the working class to imagine themselves as CEOs than as members of the liberal elite.

This part is pretty brilliant, from the same link that you should already have clicked on:

Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.

These sell-out hippies are placed to generate changes in the atmosphere if not exactly the politics of the U.S. Pessimistic (by which I mean ex-liberal) conservative David Brooks proposed back in 2000 the name for this type is ‘BoBo‘ or bourgeois bohemian, a curious hybrid of ’60s attitudes with ’80s behavior patterns. Basically he’s describing a slightly hipper version of himself. Here’s some good lines:

These people have different aspirations than the old ‘country club and martini’ suburban crowd, and naturally enough, want their ideals reflected in the sort of things they buy, and the images they project. Shopping may not be the most intellectual exercise on earth, but it is one of the more culturally revealing. Indeed, one of the upshots of this new era is that Karl Marx may have had it exactly backwards. He argued that classes are defined by their means of production, but it could be true that in the information age at least, classes are defined by their means of consumption.GWEN IFILL: The people doing all this consumption are the new educated elite. Are these educated elite a force for good or a force for evil?

DAVID BROOKS: I think in general they’re a force for good. Places like Wayne were pretty boring when I went to high school there. Now they’ve got all these interesting stores, great bookstores, you know. You can get your all-natural hair coloring, and your, you know, vegetarian dog biscuits, so that’s interesting. The other thing, the bohemian mindset has gone into corporations, which was the center of the bourgeoisie, and transformed them. So now, you know, in their advertising slogans, you know, Burger King uses the phrase, “you’ve got to break the rules.” Lucent Technology says, “born to be wild.”

And the whole management structure is not formal and boring, but it’s sort of counter-cultural. Everybody’s dressing in ripped T-shirts and glacier glasses, you know, as if a wall of ice is going to come down through the parking lot in the middle of the day. And it’s had this great influence on American productivity. Daniel Bell wrote a book in the early 1970’s, where he said “we had this productive economy, but then we have this hippie culture, which is all about pleasure for the moment, and hippie culture is going to undermine the productive economy.” But he had it exactly backwards. When you had these counter- cultural ideas infusing corporations, suddenly they’re much more creative, and much more productive.

GWEN IFILL: But bobos are by definition people who are compromisers, they’re looking for middle ground. They shop at Pottery Barn so they can get things that look safe, and they shop at REI, where they can act like if they’re having an adventure vacation, but in the end, they’re people who are trying to find a way to conform. But that doesn’t skew with things as fundamental as, say, religious faith does.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, no. I have chapters about consumption and business, where I’m mostly positive. But then I have chapters about the effect on our intellectual life, our religious life and our political life, and there, there are real problems. Religious life, for example. I ran across a rabbi in Montana who describes his faith as “flexidoxy,” which is a great phrase for bobo morality, because it starts with the bohemian urge to be flexible, freedom, be autonomous. But then it says, “well, I don’t want too much autonomy, I want ritual, I want order in my life, I want roots.” And so there’s also orthodoxy mixed in. And so he’s trying to… many bobos are trying to build a foundation of obligation, build a structure of obligation, on a foundation of choice. And they sort of mush things together. Politically, also– you get Bill Clinton, who’s an ultimate bobo, mixing the left and the right, anti-ideological turning. They’re all into such an ideological mush, and it’s an unsatisfying style of politics.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence of class resentment springing up to this new class of educated, moneyed elite?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I thought there would be when I wrote the proposal for this book. The final chapter was going to be “The Revolt Against the Bobo- ouisie” or something. Because on the one hand, they’re getting richer than most of the country. On the other hand, they’ve got elevated sensibilities. You walk into a restoration hardware. If you don’t have the cultural references to get all the jokes and the puns, you know, it’s no sensibility, no service. But when I traveled around the country, I found, actually, relatively little social resentment. Instead, I found every attitude that the bobos were adopting, went down the society and were adopted by other groups.

For example, I was driving through Montana, really in the middle of nowhere, pulled off into a truck stop, and there was a cappuccino stand there. But not only was there a cappuccino stand, it was six feet off the ground so the truckers didn’t have to get out of their cabs. They could just reach their arm out, and get their espressos, and I found that again and again and again — not only in consumption, but in attitudes about religion and about politics, this sort of mushy reconciliation between the two different ethoses the bobos make, lots of people are making.

GWEN IFILL: Final, briefly, will the children of the bobos rebel against this, or will they embrace it?

DAVID BROOKS: I haven’t found them rebelling. I’ve found them going to the max for it. I found them going to software firms– you know, they’ve got the pierced noses and the red hair and the ripped T-shirts that are ripped just exactly right– and they’re just adopting the manners of their parents and doing it to the max.

GWEN IFILL: David Brooks, thank you very much.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

He’s dead on in terms of himself, at least. All the familiar devices are here: the reiteration of bourgeois economics 101 to ‘refute’ the specter of Marx, the coy suggestion that new branding strategies and new modes of consumption mean something more than good marketing (a cultural revolution, perhaps?), the assumption that the consumption habits of the lower middle and poor are as much a matter of free choice as those of the rich, all of this can be deduced by driving around in a car, etc. Zizek was getting at the same thing with ‘liberal communists,’ albeit on the ‘against’ side.

According to liberal communist ethics, the ruthless pursuit of profit is counteracted by charity: charity is part of the game, a humanitarian mask hiding the underlying economic exploitation. Developed countries are constantly ‘helping’ undeveloped ones (with aid, credits etc), and so avoiding the key issue: their complicity in and responsibility for the miserable situation of the Third World. As for the opposition between ‘smart’ and ‘non-smart’, outsourcing is the key notion. You export the (necessary) dark side of production – disciplined, hierarchical labour, ecological pollution – to ‘non-smart’ Third World locations (or invisible ones in the First World). The ultimate liberal communist dream is to export the entire working class to invisible Third World sweat shops.

We should have no illusions: liberal communists are the enemy of every true progressive struggle today. All other enemies – religious fundamentalists, terrorists, corrupt and inefficient state bureaucracies – depend on contingent local circumstances. Precisely because they want to resolve all these secondary malfunctions of the global system, liberal communists are the direct embodiment of what is wrong with the system. It may be necessary to enter into tactical alliances with liberal communists in order to fight racism, sexism and religious obscurantism, but it’s important to remember exactly what they are up to.

What these sorts of analyses project is the same type of dualism, no less misleading for being ‘dialectical’: that choices in the real world present themselves in the form ‘on the one hand…’ and ‘on the other hand…’ Zizek’s apparent escape, ‘on the one hand there is the myth of free choice, on the other there is the reality of structure’ is no less of an armchair projection. As chabert pointed out a while ago, this is scapegoating based entirely on rhetorical button-pushing (pushing buttons that were devised for just this purpose), precisely the tools of the Right. ‘Look here,’ the junior Stalinist says, ‘with my right hand I strip away your illusions, while with my left I comfort you with the sweet balm of ressentiment.’

Graeber argues in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value that insofar as Marxist theory follows a ‘mode of production’ approach (via Althusser) to understanding human society, wherein surplus is extracted from a class of producers by a class of expropriators, it relies on the threat of force, and thus, the State (he also makes the interesting claim, via James Scott, that ideology is largely ineffective, even among the ruling classes, if it cannot fall back on force). In this regard it is self-limiting and cannot understand societies that do not rely on this structure, such as the gift economies discussed by Marcel Mauss. Graeber connects the idea of the state to the necessity in thought of having a totalizing conception of the world. The ‘anti-postmodern’ move he makes is to reject the postmodern rejection of totality, drawing his argument from a less well-known anthropologist named Terence Turner. For Graeber, the common factor of the dominant Western studies of meaning — hermeneutics, dialectics, and structuralism — is that “meaning is a matter of comparison. Parts take on meaning in relation to each other, and that process always involves reference to some sort of whole.” In terms of Hegelian and post-Hegelian thought (Marx included), this ‘whole’ is the process of differentiation itself, the process of mediation. The edifice of structuralist semiotics is the systematization of Hegelian mediation, identified as symbolic language. Though devised as a counter to the general totalizing systems of representation proposed by logical positivism, statistics, and some interpretations of natural science, structuralism generated its own anti-systemic movements, gathered under the umbrella term post-structuralism. Graeber’s argument is as follows:

“Any notion of freedom, whether it’s the more individualistic vision of creative consumption, or the notion of free cultural creativity and decentering (Turner 1996) I have been trying to develop here, demands both resistance against the imposition of any totalizing view of what society or value must be like, but also recognition that some kind of regulating mechanism will have to exist, and therefore, calls for serious thought about what sort will best ensure people are, in fact, free to conceive of value in whatever form they wish. If one does not, at least in the present day and age, one is simply going to end up reproducing the logic of the market without acknowledging it.”

Although Graeber does point out that “there is a difference between totalities the analyst is claiming in some kind of empirical sense — i.e. a pristine text, a clearly bounded ‘society,’ a mythological ‘system’ — and totalities that exist in the actors’ imaginations,” the former being a rationalist fiction disprovable within formal logical terms (see Goedel), and he says of the latter that “there are likely to be any number of such imaginary totalities in play, organized around different conceptions of value” that “cannot be predicted in advance” — an extremely important distinction that is all too often glossed over — his argument here is somewhat self-contradictory. If we accept that dominant environmental conditions have at the very least a powerful effect on individual desires, then the idea that unconstrained, contradictory desires could coexist in some sort of neutral space created in the interests of those desires alone doesn’t make any sense. This is basically the definition of liberal politics, with all its inconsistencies and hidden violence. Graeber’s argument uses the standard critique of intellectuals — that their abstract intellectual activity is socially irresponsible — to insist that they ‘get their act together’ and come up with a better plan, as if this was how social change occurred, and not through real interests motivating real action, without being directed by a grand systematic theory. It strikes me as a prejudice that holds up particularly well in the U.S., considering the origins of our government, though it is also one that neglects the magnitude of what was inherited from England and Europe, and what was necessitated by the unique situation of the revolutionaries. I find myself convinced by Marx’s claim that reflection is always ‘post festum‘ (after the feast) and can only, at best, reveal the impermanence of things and the truth of their consequences by a tenuous analogy to the past.


It occurred to me just now that Graeber’s critique and proposed shift in direction imply two essentially separate functions: a) the ‘regulating mechanism’ within which free, parallel desires are cultivated, and b) the ‘inevitable’ universalizing, imaginary totalities. It does not seem to me that in his logic b) is necessarily useful for a), or that b) is at all a prerequisite for a). If the ‘regulating mechanism’ is to be under human control, I don’t see how it would not fall under one of or a compromise between many competing imaginary totalities, satisfying some and excluding others. That is, it cannot be thought of as pure neutral regulation of individual desires; there is always a particular direction being imposed in any social formation, which, as he notes, often has no relation to what is actually going on in the material ‘base.’ This suggests that our theories never have ‘direct access’ to how our social organizations materially function in either present or future tense, and that the effects of planning can at best only resemble what was planned. This in turn would suggest that a plan is more important for stimulating action than in its accurate depiction of a present or future reality.


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