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David Graeber

Transformation is Not a Metaphor

By Jevgeniy Bluwstein - Political Georgraphy Institute, June 17, 2021

In this intervention I highlight an element that has been overlooked in this important debate about “progressive environmental futures” (Robbins, 2019, p. 1) – the dismantling of fossil capitalism. More still, I argue that some perspectives in this forum may even distract our attention from a more direct engagement with this – in my view – most urgent question of our time. Ultimately, I suggest that by not engaging this question head on, debates about “transformation” risk rendering it a metaphor.

Here, I am inspired by the influential critique of decolonial scholarship by Tuck and Yang (2012), who insist that “decolonization is not a metaphor.” Tuck and Yang (2012) maintain that while the decolonization of academic and educational institutions through the recognition and integration of alternative knowledges is important, this is not the central objective of decolonization. Writing from a settler-colonial context, the authors suggest that “[u]ntil stolen land is relinquished, critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 19). In a settler-colonial context, decolonization thus must go beyond the usual critique of epistemology and beyond calls for decolonizing knowledge and methodologies. Above all, land has to be given back and colonial property relations dismantled.

Although Tuck and Yang's intervention is specific to a settler-colonial context, and thus should not be generalized, it resonates with broader critiques raised against recent trends in decolonial and ontopolitical scholarship. For instance, Chandler and Reid (2020, p. 494) are frustrated with the exuberant attention to the “coloniality of knowledge” at the expense of paying due attention to “the coloniality of real inequalities and injustices in the world.” Relatedly, the late David Graeber sees a lack of engagement with material questions of slavery, class, patriarchy, war, police, poverty, hunger and inequality in scholarship that privileges multiple ontologies of being and epistemologies of knowing (Graeber, 2015).

Drawing on these perspectives about the limits of critique, here, I draw a parallel between decolonization that requires land repatriation and not just the decolonization of knowledge production, and a vision of transformation that requires the rapid, ruptural dismantling of fossil capitalism and not just the transformation of our understanding of socio-ecological limits. In this vein, a vision of transformation that is not a metaphor needs to go beyond questions and critiques of limits, technology, labor and growth (however illuminating they may be), and to engage more directly with political strategy, organization and praxis in the here and now. After all, what matters is “which strategies can actually work to address the environmental and social crises the world faces” (Bliss, 2021, p. 1).

But isn't addressing environmental and social crises exactly what the debate in this forum is ultimately about? Yes and no. Yes, because a post-capitalist future is central to both, a degrowth and a socialist modernist vision, although in different ways. No, because this forum has not touched upon questions of political strategy, organization, and praxis for short-term dismantling of fossil capitalism, even though both camps agree that capitalism is the single biggest obstacle towards progressive environmental futures. Hoping that a future world of degrowth or socialist modernism will get us beyond fossil capitalism by, say 2050, is akin to placing our hopes in not-yet-available negative-emission technologies. Put differently, if net-zero emissions discourses risk leading to mitigation deterrence and becoming a spatiotemporal fix for fossil capitalism (Carton, 2019), can some visions of degrowth or socialist modernism similarly risk leading to transformation deterrence? If these visions do not build on political strategizing for actively dismantling fossil capitalism, I do not see why fossil capitalism cannot continue to fix its crises, to overcome its internal contradictions, and even to appropriate some degrowth or socialist demands.

Luddism for the age of robotics

By Simon Pirani - The Ecologist, May 7, 2021

Climate breakdown is driven by industrial production, production by machines controlled by people. But can those very people demand a new, low carbon production?

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller in his latest book, Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job (Verso, 2021).

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry”.

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.

Fully Decelerated Carbon-Neutral Luddism

By Dr James Muldoon - Verso Books, April 26, 2021

Gavin Mueller wants us to hit the brakes. Tech companies have amassed enormous financial and ideological power and are driving society towards a future of surveillance and algorithmic management. We are enthralled by a vision of technological progress that has blinded us to the reality that new technology in the workplace is often implemented to control workers, rather than to make our lives easier. In his new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Mueller revives the misunderstood legacy of the Luddites in the service of a new decelerationist politics, one which calls bullshit on the promises of automation. Inspired by the history of workers’ struggles against scientific management and factory discipline, the book offers a vision of how we could develop a militant opposition to new technological interventions in the workplace that threaten workers’ autonomy.

The book is part of a growing movement on the Left that is critical of the idea that the ideas and practices of Silicon Valley could simply be adopted for progressive ends. Read alongside Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work and Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work, we can see the tide turning on a techno-optimist tendency which sees the glimmers of a communist future in the “sharing” economy and Amazon’s capacity for central planning. Mueller “wants to make Marxists into Luddites” and has this segment of the pro-tech Left squarely in his sights.

Before we invent the future, Mueller calls on us to rethink the past. Marxists, he claims, “have not been critical of technology, even when that technology is deployed in the workplace in ways that seem detrimental for workers.” Technology is too often seen by the Left as a neutral force that could be reclaimed and used for emancipatory purposes. For Mueller, many Marxists – from Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin and the Bolsheviks – fall prey to an economic determinism and fatalism that views the development of capitalist production and organisation as leading inevitably to a socialist society. This view of technology carries on into the twentieth-century’s organised labour movements, and from there to contemporary post-work theorists. In light of these failings, the book turns to previous workers’ struggles and “heretical strains of Marxism” for a profound reconceptualistion of the role of technology in a post-capitalist future.

Beyond the Growth Imperative

By Olaf Bruns - Green European Journal, April 13, 2021

For 30 years, environmental economist Tim Jackson has been at the fore of international debates on sustainability. Over a decade since his hugely influential Prosperity Without Growth, the world is both much changed – reeling from a pandemic and with unprecedented prominence for environmental issues – and maddeningly the same, still locked in a growth-driven destructive spiral. What does Jackson’s latest contribution, Post Growth, have to say about the way out of the dilemma?

Tim Jackson’s new book, Post Growth: Life after Capitalism (Polity Press, 2021), follows his ground-breaking Prosperity without Growth (2009, updated in 2017). Whilst the previous work reflected, partly, the austerity-driven answers to the Great Recession, Post Growth falls into a different world. It is a world where the recognition of climate change as the greatest challenge facing humankind is moving towards consensus. In the United States, even the Republican Party’s younger members are looking for ways out of the corner into which the party has manoeuvred itself.

It is also a world where the Covid-19 pandemic has not only taken many lives and destroyed many livelihoods, but – via the need for state intervention – has also dealt a blow to the gung-ho neoliberalism that is one of the main culprits of financial chaos and the looming breakdown of planetary life-support systems.

US President Joe Biden’s rescue plan as well as the EU’s Next Generation pandemic recovery fund are questioning the free-market paradigm that has held sway the since the Reagan-Thatcher area, and that had trickled down into centre-left politics as well. In parallel, from the Paris Agreement to the European Commission’s European Green Deal, environmental concerns that were condescendingly smiled upon until recently have now moved centre stage. The newly discovered role for the state and the emerging environmental consciousness might not be discussed at length in Jackson’s new book, but they are the backdrop against which it is to be read.

Living As If Another World Were Possible: Goodbye, David Graeber!

By Daniel Fischer - New Politics, September 9, 2020

Having grown up hearing his father recount experiences in Anarchist-run Barcelona as a Lincoln Brigade volunteer, David Graeber, a renowned anthropologist and organizer, lived according to a lifelong belief that a far fairer world was possible. His father and his mother, a garment worker who was briefly the lead singer in the union-produced Broadway musical Pins and Needles, were Jewish working-class bookworms who filled their shelves with books about radical possibilities. Graeber, born in 1961, recalled:

“There were a lot of books around the house when I was growing up, but almost no books of critique. I mean I’m sure my parents had Capital, at least volume one, but very few books about how awful the world was. They had lots of science fiction, lots of history, and lots of anthropology. I think their attitude was ‘I spent my nine to five working, experiencing how this system sucks for myself; I don’t need to read about that; I want to read about what other ways of existing might be like.’”

This is interesting, because as a public intellectual (who taught at Yale and London School of Economics), Graeber was probably most well known for his social critiques. Heavily influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, Graeber viewed neoliberalism as primarily a political project masquerading as an economic one, and he exposed the system’s convoluted methods of keeping people demoralized, resentful, and hopeless about building a better world. These instruments of hopelessness included debt (Debt: The First 5,000 Years), corporate bureaucracy (The Utopia of Rules) and pointless work (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Graeber aptly described that last book as “an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization.” It argued that most of our working hours are not producing anything useful, and that the workweek could easily be reduced to fifteen or even twelve hours if it weren’t for capitalists’ drive to keep us perpetually busy. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger,” he wrote, “Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.”

To me, however, Graeber’s more inspiring works focused on discovering and building alternatives. He had a keen eye for spotting utopia in seemingly unlikely places. During field work in highland Madagascar in 1989 to 1991, he found that the IMF-weakened state performed only nominal functions, and communities actually governed themselves with consensus decision-making on most matters. His study of the Iroquois League’s Constitution challenged notions that democracy, feminism, and anarchism are of exclusively European origin. And in contrast to the mass media’s dismissal of “incoherent” U.S. protesters, Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography and The Democracy Project explained how the horizontal structure of the alter-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements prefigured the world they sought to build. Over the last few years, Graeber championed the direct democracy experiments in Northen Syria (Rojava). And, with co-author David Wengrow, he dismantled the widespread assumption that early civilizations were uniformly hierarchal. To the contrary, “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace.”

You can read in other obituaries how much of an intellectual giant he was. Within his field, Maurice Bloch called him “the best anthropologist of his generation” and his advisor Marshall Sahlins called him “the most creative student I ever had.” When Yale decided to end his contract in 2004, it was clearly due to his involvement in radical direct action, not the quality of his scholarship and teaching.

Take This Bullshit Job and Pretend to Love It

By Shaun Richman - American Prospect, June 11, 2018

The British economist Joan Robinson once remarked, “The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” What kind of misery is it, then, if your particular form of exploitation is being asked to do nothing particularly useful?

David Graeber explores this question in his thought-provoking and hilarious new book, Bullshit Jobs. Five years ago, he wrote an essay for the radical magazine Strike!, asking why people in the United States and England are not working the 15-hour weeks that John Maynard Keynes had predicted would be the result of technological advancement? In our post-scarcity society, he argued, only a tiny fraction of the population actually has to labor in order to provide for the material needs of all. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working,” he wrote.

The essay went viral. Millions of people read it and thousands wrote him to vent about their own pointless jobs. Those first-person accounts enliven and flesh out Graeber’s book.

He breaks down these jobs into five major categories: Box-tickers, Duct tapers, Taskmasters, Flunkies, and Goons. While humorous, it’s also a well thought-out system of categorizing pointless work by the dynamics that create them. A Duct-taper, for instance, is hired because an existing employee (very likely a full-of-it supervisor) either skips or botches one essential part of his assignment and so an entire extra employee is hired to make sure that that one small task gets carried out. That task may be essential, but it hardly amounts to a full-time assignment. 

A Box-ticker, on the other hand, exists mainly so an organization can claim it is doing something that it doesn’t actually take seriously. Much of this involves researching and compiling reports no one will read to comply with a regulation or to document progress on a mission or goal.

Flunkies, meanwhile, are employees hired purely to make their supervisor appear more important. A receptionist whose main function is to place phone calls for a middle manager just to say to the party on the other line, “Please hold for Mr. ____,” is a perfect example.  

These bullshit jobs make up an astonishingly large portion of the global economy. Inspired by his initial essay, one U.K. poll found that 37 percent of respondents did not believe their job made “a meaningful contribution to the world.” A similar poll of Dutch workers found that 40 percent of workers didn’t think their jobs served a useful purpose.  

How to change the course of human history

By David Graeber and David Wengrow - Eurozine, March 2, 2018

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

Why Is The World Ignoring The Revolutionary Kurds in Syria?

By David Graeber - Boston IWW, October 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

In 1937, my father volunteered to fight in the International Brigades in defence of the Spanish Republic. A would-be fascist coup had been temporarily halted by a worker’s uprising, spearheaded by anarchists and socialists, and in much of Spain a genuine social revolution ensued, leading to whole cities under directly democratic management, industries under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women.

Spanish revolutionaries hoped to create a vision of a free society that the entire world might follow. Instead, world powers declared a policy of “non-intervention” and maintained a rigorous blockade on the republic, even after Hitler and Mussolini, ostensible signatories, began pouring in troops and weapons to reinforce the fascist side. The result was years of civil war that ended with the suppression of the revolution and some of a bloody century’s bloodiest massacres.

I never thought I would, in my own lifetime, see the same thing happen again. Obviously, no historical event ever really happens twice. There are a thousand differences between what happened in Spain in 1936 and what is happening in Rojava, the three largely Kurdish provinces of northern Syria, today. But some of the similarities are so striking, and so distressing, that I feel it’s incumbent on me, as someone who grew up in a family whose politics were in many ways defined by the Spanish revolution, to say: we cannot let it end the same way again.

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