Wednesday, May 2, 2012

BOOK NOTE: Occupy’s David Graeber on “Debt”! Todd on CNBC! Dionysium!

Catch me on CNBC’s Google+ stream as I do a video chat with John Carney and Occupy Wall Street supporters tomorrow (Thur.) at 4pm Eastern! 

And after yesterday’s historic May Day protests, it is time I examined a few books tied to the Occupy Wall Street movement. 

Taking the place of my old “Books of the Month,” entries like this one will henceforth focus on books that may relate to or help enrich the discussion at that month’s Dionysium, the Dionysium being the new series of bar events (a varying mix of debates, entertainment, and more) I’ll be hosting (and moderating!) in Williamsburg – and this being a “Month of Political Crisis” on this blog and at the Dionysium itself (followed by a June month of Revolution and Revolutionaries at our sister Dionysium in Austin, TX).

(The Williamsburg action all starts at 8pm on Thursday, May 17, on the residential second floor of 2 Havemeyer St., the building that will soon house the bar Muchmore’s, three blocks east of the Bedford Ave. subway stop – first stop into Brooklyn on the L; enter through the N. 9th St. side door just before you reach Havemeyer.  First up is BRIAN DOHERTY discussing his new book on Ron Paul – but today let us examine how the left’s most interesting insurgent movement thinks.)


The Nietzschean skepticism inherent in the Dionysium demands the questioning of clichés (as does the new Jonah Goldberg book out yesterday, by the way).  Let us then question the assumption that Occupy and the Tea Party must be opposites. 

I’ve leaned toward the more free-market Tea Party, obviously, but then, some of my fellow libertarians have lately been arguing that I should think more in terms of “social justice,” the way the left and Occupy do (though I was pleased to see Jacob Levy break ranks with the other liberal-tarians for the interesting reason that he sees thinkers like Rawls as inviting people to think in closed, nationalistic, non-cosmopolitan terms – of a single, self-contained society like an idealized Greek city-state, not coincidentally – and thus to downplay the plight of immigrants and outsiders). 

I readily concede both that the basic concern for the poor emphasized by the “social justice” crowd is admirable and that Occupy makes some very good points about unfair corporate bailouts and government-banking collusion.  I will even concede that radically-skewed wealth distribution can be a warning sign (though not necessarily a sign of excessively free-market rules).

On the other hand, having a few good points doesn’t entirely absolve Occupy of the (admittedly shallow) charges made by their critics that they’re a bunch of scruffy, trespassing, Marxist loonies.  Many are.  Check out Gerard Perry’s tweets from May 1 for a bit of Zuccotti flavor.  A related photo essay (one in a series Gerard’s done about Occupy) is forthcoming on his site American-Rattlesnake.

Somewhere between the mundane, true points the movement makes and the scruffy schizophrenics sleeping in the street in the name of that movement lie the intelligent – but still sometimes bizarre – intellectuals who guide the movement, and it’s mostly them I want to talk about today (and perhaps tomorrow on Google+’s CNBC stream at 4pm Eastern, of course!). 

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

I don’t know how many of the protesters at Occupy rallies have read Debt by left-anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, but he was purportedly instrumental in guiding them toward their quasi-leaderless, General Assembly-forming, amorphously-collective, ambiguously-agendaed system. 

(Since he is a contributor to the staunchly anti-capitalist Canadian magazine Adbusters – run by a vaguely anti-Semitic-seeming Eastern European immigrant – I should probably write an article about the Occupy movement called “Occupy the World, but Blame Canada.”  One great irony of Adbusters’ involvement is that they hate advertising and commercialism, in that college Continental-theory way, but they probably did wonders to boost the Occupy movement by launching it with that truly beautiful poster of a fragile-looking ballerina atop the Wall Street Bull, with teargas and riot police looming in the background.  Who wouldn’t want to rescue the ballerina and stop the riot police?)

Graeber is full of interesting tidbits about how the accounting of debts and the use of currency arose in real history instead of the imagined/deduced scenarios of economists (as with most of history, the real story seems to have been strange, messy, brutal, and not altogether rational).  But that doesn’t make his political program wise – and if it’s shared by Occupiers in general, civilization is in big trouble. 

Graeber seems to want not just loan cancellation or
tax hikes but the abolition of money.  Long story short: fully human friendships do not involve miserly keeping track of who owes what to whom – so we should literally stop doing that (you can imagine the chaos without too much help from me, I hope).  It’s funny how the left can keep finding new ways to repackage communism and (so to speak) sell it back to itself.

Graeber basically thinks that since barter was never really common in any society but collective resource decisions were – and coinage usually arose through some sort of chicanery, ritualism, or conquest – then (by what seems to me about 400 pages worth of the genetic fallacy) all money-based debt claims are morally invalid and dehumanizing.  (But then, Napoleon’s conquests were crucial in spreading the metric system, and I’d say that doesn’t make the number 10 oppressive.)

If you’re ever at University of London and meet up for drinks with Graeber after an anarchism colloquium or something, my thinking is that you shouldn’t let him exit without paying for his portion of dinner.

Graeber seems to want a rejection of money, accounting, and debt altogether in favor of a “gift economy” (as he describes here, sounding pretty Aspy), pointing to family-like village life as proof that currency and accounting were foisted on us in a scam.  Good luck with that, as they say.  I predict the more likely result of the whole Occupy effort will just be: higher taxes.  (I’m amazed, really, that the Democrats haven’t tried harder to co-opt the movement for that timely purpose.)

Graeber is also literally a Wobbly – that is, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World socialist organization/union.  That means that after a hundred years of Soviets, Nazis, welfare state expansion, and the American global military presence, we’re still back to: the Wobblies and anarchists fighting against the corporations, down on Wall Street, while the Progressives think central government can fix things.  Should we have just skipped the past hundred years to save time, fer chrissakes?  (Sidenote: Even the Wobblies themselves do not know the origin of the term “Wobbly.”)

I kept thinking, as I read Debt, that if Graeber were logically consistent (or just very Aspy, which I increasingly think amounts to about the same thing) he ought to go all the way and denounce math by the end of the book, and with his final rant about the dehumanizing effects of calculation, he basically does – and for a capper asks why we place so much emphasis on individuals avoiding laziness and unproductive activity anyway.  This book is basically the opposite of Aaron Sorkin’s Moneyball, in which being the young Yale-educated math whiz trumps being a stodgy, traditionalistic, intuitive thinker (good thing I didn’t realize Jonah Hill, the guy playing the math whiz role in that movie, was the same guy who created the annoying animated series Allen Gregory or I would have enjoyed it less).

Say what you will about the Tea Party, at least it can do math (and can see, for instance, that $15 trillion in debt doesn’t add up to anything good).  We need calculation for utility – but I’ll make another concession: As recent psychological tests suggest and Graeber no doubt concurs, the natural calculators are often sociopathic (the UK documentarian Adam Curtis, a man after Graeber’s heart, goes so far as to suggest that game theory is basically a scam, turning us all – especially political thinkers and businessmen – into paranoid schizophrenics by teaching us to calculate self-interest, as if we wouldn’t have done that anyway, but more sloppily).  The trick is to get the calculators to want to calculate their way to general happiness, and get the emoters to think a bit more numerically and rationally.

Graeber’s right, though, that there are situations in which calculation seems inappropriate.  It would be odd and alienating if your mother offered you a dish of candy and then handed you a bill for the two pieces you took.  And Graeber is halfway to the truth, I think, when he observes that we use different modes of thought – calculation, communal ties, political power – in different spheres.  My conclusion is that different modes of thought may be appropriate to different spheres of life, and that to try turning all political and economic transactions into cozy conversations with the members of your household will not work. 

You can’t switch willy-nilly between modes, but in intimate enough, trusting enough settings, where all local conditions are known well enough to all those involved, you can get away with ditching the numerical record-keeping.  Or, as an economics professor friend of mine said when I told her about Graeber’s vision: “Yes, we’d all live like friends in an ancient village – and be very poor.”

I know how cruelly dismissive it sounds, but given the resentment against numbers and rational calculation at the heart of Occupy, it’s not surprising that their encampments devote a significant portion of their energy to “mental health counseling.”  I don’t say that as an insult.  They report it themselves. 

Perhaps Graeber would even agree with one left-wing friend of mine who says that there are no laws of economics. Well, in some sense, that’s right, if you mean laws in the sense of physics – but the laws of economics are highly-probabilistic (much like laws of gas behavior, or at least, not coincidentally, like zoologists’ descriptions of animal behavior).  That is to say, for example, that everyone could in theory get up tomorrow morning and seek self-punishing, high-priced goods instead of lower-priced goods of the same quality – but what are the odds of that happening absent some extraneous factor that market-oriented analysts would as happily factor in as would the anti-market advocates?

Economics tells you, like nothing else, the likely after-effects of human action.

Do you think something becoming rarer – but still being as beloved as before – will tend to make its price go up or not?  That’s about all free-market economists are saying, not that humans must unquestioningly submit to any particular legal regime – though it’s easier to recognize most proposed non-property legal regimes as socially-destructive once you take the insights of basic econ into account.  (And rule-utilitarians are more likely to be comfortable with this probabilistic view of life than deontologists and metaphysicians whether left or right, I suspect.)

In any case, I sympathize with Graeber wanting to live in a world characterized by friendship and trust, but trust usually means not altering deals without warning – at least not unilaterally.  And one party to a contract declaring debts null and void is surely the unilateral changing of an agreement.  Have Graeber et al seriously considered the possibility that the “sociality” he so highly values entails, in part, being able to make binding contracts – and that the more universal and open-ended the system of trust, the more it requires simple, consistent, abstract rules?  Friendship works with friends, but contracts, miraculous things that they are, work even with distant strangers. 

Graeber’s quite the conservative if he really wants to avoid reliance on general abstract principles and go back to village life when we all knew everything about each other and all the resources at hand.  Whatever happened to the days when the left liked rational things like the metric system?  Are we all supposed to be some combo of Dadaists, Frankfurt School students, and Amazonian tribesmen now?  That’s a tall order.

No comments: