The American Bear



"This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other side is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today."

-David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 71

If, on the other hand, we stop taking world leaders at their word and instead think of neoliberalism as a political project, it suddenly looks spectacularly effective. The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants (let alone produces hope, happiness, security, or meaning), but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.

David Graeber, “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse” in the latest issue of The Baffler (via youthisastateofmind)

On the same topic (the political triumph of neoliberalism), read Philip Mader’s Buying Time and Running Out

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A quarter of the American population is now engaged in ‘guard labor’—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. David Graeber

At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say—our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.

David Graeber, A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse

(via bostonreview)

What’s the difference between a gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you give him a thousand-dollars of ‘protection money,’ and that same gangster pulling out a gun demanding you provide him with a thousand-dollar ‘loan’? In most ways, obviously, there is no difference. But in certain ways there is, as in the case of the U.S. debt to Korea or Japan, were the balance of power at any point to shift, were America to lose its military supremacy, were the gangster to lose his henchmen, that ‘loan’ might start being treated very differently. It might become a genuine liability. But the crucial element would still seem to be the gun. David Graeber (via theconquestofbed)

(via solitarysocialist-deactivated20)

The conclusion is so obvious even the people on the top are increasingly beginning to recognize it — at least, that minor- ity of them who actually do care about the long-term viability of the system (rather than simply being concerned their own personal short-term enrichment). There will have to be some kind of mass debt cancellation. And not just the debts of the rich, which can always be erased in one way or another if they become inconvenient, but the debts of ordinary citizens as well. In Europe, even professional economists are beginning to talk of ‘jubilees,’ and the Fed itself recently issued a white paper recommending mass cancellation of mortgage debt. The very fact that such people are contemplating this shows they know the system is in trouble. Up till now, the very idea of debt cancellation was the ultimate taboo. Again: not for those on top themselves. Donald Trump, for instance, has walked away from billions of debt and none of his friends find this at all a problem, but all of them absolutely insist that for the little people, the rules must be different. David Graeber (via azspot)

(via azspot)

The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story. That is, creditors and governments saying you’re having a financial crisis, you owe money, obviously you must pay your debts. There’s no question of forgiving debts. Therefore, people are going to have to stop eating so much. The money has to be extracted from the most vulnerable members of society. Lives are destroyed; millions of people die. People would never dream of supporting such a policy until you say, ‘Well, they have to pay their debts.’ David Graeber (via fuckyeahanthrotheory)

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Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit | David Graeber

The Internet is a remarkable innovation, but all we are talking about is a super-fast and globally accessible combination of library, post office, and mail-order catalogue. Had the Internet been described to a science fiction aficionado in the fifties and sixties and touted as the most dramatic technological achievement since his time, his reaction would have been disappointment. Fifty years and this is the best our scientists managed to come up with? We expected computers that would think!

Overall, levels of research funding have increased dramatically since the seventies. Admittedly, the proportion of that funding that comes from the corporate sector has increased most dramatically, to the point that private enterprise is now funding twice as much research as the government, but the increase is so large that the total amount of government research funding, in real-dollar terms, is much higher than it was in the sixties. “Basic,” “curiosity-driven,” or “blue skies” research—the kind that is not driven by the prospect of any immediate practical application, and that is most likely to lead to unexpected breakthroughs—occupies an ever smaller proportion of the total, though so much money is being thrown around nowadays that overall levels of basic research funding have increased.

Yet most observers agree that the results have been paltry. Certainly we no longer see anything like the continual stream of conceptual revolutions—genetic inheritance, relativity, psychoanalysis, quantum mechanics—that people had grown used to, and even expected, a hundred years before. Why?

Part of the answer has to do with the concentration of resources on a handful of gigantic projects: “big science,” as it has come to be called. The Human Genome Project is often held out as an example. After spending almost three billion dollars and employing thousands of scientists and staff in five different countries, it has mainly served to establish that there isn’t very much to be learned from sequencing genes that’s of much use to anyone else. Even more, the hype and political investment surrounding such projects demonstrate the degree to which even basic research now seems to be driven by political, administrative, and marketing imperatives that make it unlikely anything revolutionary will happen.

Here, our fascination with the mythic origins of Silicon Valley and the Internet have blinded us to what’s really going on. It has allowed us to imagine that research and development is now driven, primarily, by small teams of plucky entrepreneurs, or the sort of decentralized cooperation that creates open-source software. This is not so, even though such research teams are most likely to produce results. Research and development is still driven by giant bureaucratic projects.

What has changed is the bureaucratic culture. The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.

My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.

The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on.

As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure.

There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

(Source: azspot)

Forgive us our debts | Benjamin Kunkel: LRB

The theoretical core of [David Graeber’s book,] Debt [The First 5000 Years,] is a loose schema of three types of human economic relationship. Communism (Graeber admits his use of the word ‘is a bit provocative’), exchange and hierarchy don’t describe distinct types of society but different ‘modalities’ of behaviour that operate to a greater or lesser degree in all societies, monetised or not. Graeber’s communism, which bears a resemblance to Kropotkin’s ‘mutual aid’, covers relationships answering to Marx’s dictum: to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities. People act as communists not only towards friends and family but often towards guests, neighbours and strangers: ‘What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the other person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will.’ Relationships of exchange, by contrast, entail that each party gets from the other a more or less exact equivalent to whatever it’s given. Because exchange ‘gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship’, it takes place mostly among strangers. Hierarchy is, like communism, a mode of ongoing relationship, but between unequals. Enforced by custom, hierarchy requires that social inferiors make repeated material tribute to their betters in caste or status.

With this tripartite scheme in place, and illustrated with examples from Sudan to Greenland to medieval Europe, Graeber is ready to define the peculiarity of monetary debts. Like other market transactions, a loan is agreed to by formal equals, neither of them legally required to lend or borrow. But so long as a debt is outstanding – and any debt, being ‘an exchange that has not been brought to completion’, extends across time – ‘the logic of hierarchy takes hold.’ Equality is restored only when repayment is made in full. The servicing of debt can meanwhile become a way practically to dominate the formally free, to exact a stream of tribute in societies that recognise no official hierarchies. The implication is that orthodox economics, by presuming exchange to be the source and circumference of economic life, misses something about both the socio-historical environment and the political essence of debt, for relationships of hierarchy and communism historically precede and socially encompass all apparently uncoerced and spontaneous transactions, while monetary debts often smuggle gradations of power into what look like horizontal exchanges. [++]

The response of Western officials to the economic crisis, with its proximate cause in unsustainable consumer debt, has been to ensure that banks suffer as few losses as possible, while relying on the same indebted consumers – in their role as taxpayers – to keep the bankers whole. The Fed and now the ECB have loaned banks money at virtually no cost, encouraging those same banks to purchase government bonds paying much higher rates of interest: a direct subsidy of finance by the public, while millions sink into unemployment and bankruptcy. A far simpler and more effective monetary policy would have been for the government to print a new batch of money, distribute an equal amount to everyone, then sit back and watch as stagnant economies were stirred to life by the spending and debts were paid down and eroded by temporarily higher inflation. The inconceivability of such a policy is a mark not of any impracticability, but of the capture of governments by a financial oligarchy. Benjamin Kunkel, “Forgive us our debts” (LRB, May 10, 2012)

(Source: bostonreview)

Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years | Crooked Timber

One of the many fascinating pieces of information that David Graeber tosses off like shrapnel in Debt is that the first recorded appearance of the word “freedom” in a political document is in a Sumerian proclamation of a debt amnesty or jubilee.

What interested me, however, from the point of view of a professional banker, is that the document in question provided only for the discharge of personal debts of the Sumerians; commercial debts of merchants were not discharged. Clearly (and I suppose there is an interesting anthropological history to be written of the extent to which the appropriate level of cynicism about these things as changed from pre-Christian Mesopotamia to modern London), anyone who could have convinced the Babylonian legal system that his liabilities were all personal debts covered by the jubilee, while his assets were all mercantile trade credits, would have made out like a bandit. The point I am trying to make here is that as well as being the first mention of the word “freedom”, this proclamation marks the first recorded instance of a regulator-sanctioned selective default. Then a lot of things happened including the Fall of Rome and the Beatles, and then we had the FDIC’s decision in 2009 to transfer the assets and deposits of Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase over a weekend, leaving holding company creditors exposed to an extravagantly bankrupt shell. So from the start to the beginning of the story of debt, it has always mattered whether or not you were on the right side of what the relevant regulator wanted to accomplish.

Debt is a great book – I don’t think I agree with it at all, but it’s that rare thing – a book that you can have an argument with and more so, the kind of book that you can see is intelligently arguing back. The argument I found myself having again and again related to this particular point – on more than one occasion during the history of debt, it was noted almost parenthetically that a particular debt reform was carried out on the basis “except commercial debts”, and I found myself saying “No! Hang on! Tell me more about these exceptions!”.

And I think this because commercial debts between merchants are a really important part of the story here. Not only are they, in simple numeric terms, a much bigger part of the picture than debts between individuals in social groups, or even tax obligations between subjects and rulers, the fact that trade credits between merchants have generally, even in conditions when other kinds of debt relation were being repudiated, tended to be preserved and honoured, gives us a few clues toward an alternative story of debt over the last 5000 years.

The Babylonian merchants weren’t included in the debt amnesty, of course, because to have upset their trading accounts would have done serious damage to the commercial basis of Babylonian society – to put it frankly, they were too big to fail. [++]

What We Owe to Each Other (Interview with David Graeber) | Boston Review

David Graeber: So many times you’re talking to people about the depredations of the International Monetary Fund in the third world, telling these horrible stories about the thousands of babies dying of preventable diseases because people aren’t allowed to maintain malaria-eradication campaigns or basic health services due to austerity measures and debt servicing, and people respond, “Well, yeah, but you can’t say they don’t owe the money. People have got to pay their debts, come on!” That common-sensical notion not only that it’s moral to pay one’s debt, but also that morality essentially is a matter of paying one’s debts can bring people to justify things that they would never think to justify in any other circumstance. For the most part, decent people tend not to think killing lots of babies is justifiable under any circumstances. But debt somehow changes all that. Why is that?


David Johnson: In thinking about the relationship between the moral “ought”—“You ought to fulfill your promise,” for example—and this notion of debt—“You ought to pay your debt”—I’m wondering whether they speak in the same voice.

DG: However you want to take that, it comes out the same way, except supercharged. In the same way that the “ought” trumps all other values, debt trumps all other “oughts.” And I argue in the book that one reason why medieval theologians, whether Christian or Muslim, seemed so inherently suspicious about usury is because it creates a moral imperative that tends to trump all others. They recognized a potentially dangerous rival when they saw one, a moral system that would completely overwhelm their own if it was allowed full rein.

Concerning the Violent Peace-Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges | David Graeber

Graeber’s post is a response to Chris Hedges’ recent article “The Cancer in Occupy’ (which I originally posted here).

I was initially in full agreement with Mr. Hedges and I still think everyone should read his piece (although this post from Graeber raises some doubts about his reportage).

While my personal choice of tactics will always be non-violent, after reading this piece by Graeber, I have to admit that I was reacting out of ignorance (and yes, stereotype) of what Black Bloc tactics are actually about.

In addition to providing some clarification on the recent history of Black bloc tactics, David Graeber raises several important issues about activism in general and I highly recommend reading the piece in full.

Here’s a snip:

I am writing this on the premise that you are a well-meaning person who wishes Occupy Wall Street to succeed. I am also writing as someone who was deeply involved in the early stages of planning Occupy in New York.

I am also an anarchist who has participated in many Black Blocs. While I have never personally engaged in acts of property destruction, I have on more than one occasion taken part in Blocs where property damage has occurred. (I have taken part in even more Blocs that did not engage in such tactics. It is a common fallacy that this is what Black Blocs are all about. It isn’t.)

I was hardly the only Black Bloc veteran who took part in planning the initial strategy for Occupy Wall Street. In fact, anarchists like myself were the real core of the group that came up with the idea of occupying Zuccotti Park, the “99%” slogan, the General Assembly process, and, in fact, who collectively decided that we would adopt a strategy of Gandhian non-violence and eschew acts of property damage. Many of us had taken part in Black Blocs. We just didn’t feel that was an appropriate tactic for the situation we were in.

This is why I feel compelled to respond to your statement “The Cancer in Occupy.” This statement is not only factually inaccurate, it is quite literally dangerous. This is the sort of misinformation that really can get people killed. In fact, it is far more likely to do so, in my estimation, than anything done by any black-clad teenager throwing rocks.

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Interview with David Graeber | The White Review

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.