Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Graeber: Occupy Wall Street's anarchist roots

David Graeber, who has been publishing a lot about the OWS situation, has a post out on Al Jeerzera (short) on how the OWS movement is based on classical anarchist principles.  Graeber is an anthropologist scholar and has a tremendous knowledge of the history of human political movements.  This is an interesting excerpt:
The easiest way to explain anarchism is to say that it is a political movement that aims to bring about a genuinely free society - that is, one where humans only enter those kinds of relations with one another that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence. History has shown that vast inequalities of wealth, institutions like slavery, debt peonage or wage labour, can only exist if backed up by armies, prisons, and police. Anarchists wish to see human relations that would not have to be backed up by armies, prisons and police. Anarchism envisions a society based on equality and solidarity, which could exist solely on the free consent of participants.
I would never have thought about it that way, I perhaps have thought that anarchism was a "technique" of sorts to bring about a political change, not necessarily already possessing a singular specific political system as an outcome.

I believe MMT shows how "modern" free-floating, non-convertible state currency systems rely on the coercive force of taxes to ultimately impart value on the currency, perhaps violating Graeber's definition of a "free society" here: "...that would not have to be enforced by the constant threat of violence...... prisons..."

I would like to see how Graeber would address this fact with a view towards what he believes is the OWS anarchists desire for a "free society" with no human relations that rely on a constant threat of prison.

Is the fact that "modern" monetary systems are ultimately very authoritarian in nature, as the value of the currency is imparted ultimately by the threat of incarceration due to non-payment of taxes, incompatible with the OWS movement?


Tom Hickey said...

The fact is that states are the outcome of class structure that emerged in cities after humanity began to exit the tribal stage (which it is still in the process of doing). Then priesthoods (technocrati, specialists, knowledge workers) and warrior classes became ascendant. A primary characteristic of a strong state is a monopoly on violence, not only for defense, legal and cultural enforcement, but also to maintain the status quo, i.e., to protect those in power and their property.

A central question of political philosophy since urbanization began has been how to harness the state's monopoly on violence. The best answer devised so far is democracy and the rule of law. However, these are features of a state, and the state must still maintain its monopoly on violence.

Historically, the power of the state has generally been devoted only to defense and domestic enforcement but also to the protection of the ruling class and its property, even under the best political arrangements. The challenge remains to do better.

"Political anarchism" as libertarianism of the left has emphasized that liberty must be balanced with equality of persons and solidarity of citizens within a society "of the people, by the people, and for the people," in which all are for one and one is for all.

In the view of libertarians of the left, which I prefer to "anarchists," this can only be accomplished by "consciousness raising" and consensus-building, never by force. This was the philosophy underlying the countercultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, and it is reemerging.

Joe C said...

An anarchist's vision of Shangri-La sounds terrific, and when it's founded I'll consider moving. In the meantime, we have 7 billion people elbowing and kicking for survival on our little spaceship earth. Without a political system capable of limiting exploitation of resources, including human, we'll continue on this path of doom. The human condition being what it is, force is probably (I'm open to a well-reasoned alternative here) necessary to maintain the system.

Tom Hickey said...

Joe C, I don't think that most anarchists are so naive as to think that some forces in not necessary to deter aggression and inhibit crime. The challenging issue is controlling force politically and preventing a ruling class from using the state's monopoly on violence to its advantage at the expense of others. So far, humanity has been unsuccessful to establishing this control. and the present times are arguably more violent than any in the past, given technological advances in the use of violence and control, including total surveillance.

Matt Franko said...


As usual, you exhibit more true knowledge and perspective than those that perhaps can be seen as "getting all of the publicity"...


Joe C said...

Tom, I have a lot to learn about anarchy, no doubt. And, to be honest, I have both a contrarian streak that is open to "Stick it to the man" ideas and an empathic sensitivity that wants to see a better world. MMT, while not perfect, satisfies both of those sometimes conflicting positions.

And then, I read something like this over at Naked Capitalism.

Like watching a NASCAR accident unfold, I'm waiting in horrific anticipation for the next parts.

geerussell said...

Short of reading his book (which I found to be an extremely worthwhile read), a good deal of expansion on where Graeber stands on economics can be found here:



To my eye, he overlaps a great deal with MMT and functional finance. I read him as Bill Mitchell recast as an anthropologist.

Matt Franko said...


I'm in the middle of Graebers '5,000 Years' book.

From Graeber at NC: "For instance, Sumerians, though they had the technological means to do so, never produced scales accurate enough to weigh out the tiny amounts of silver that would have been required to buy a single cask of beer, or a woolen tunic, or a hammer—the clearest indication that even once money did exist, it was not used as a medium of exchange for minor transactions, but rather as a means of keeping track of transactions made on credit."

To Graeber here it could be perceived that he thinks "money is money". I dont think that Bill Mitchell would look at it that way. Graeber is PhD Anthro, Mitchell is PhD Econ, so this would be like Bill saying that Australian aboriginals are the same thing as Amazon aboriginals (dont think Bill would do that)

So nuance matters. Tom has blogged about how the academe has to start looking at issues via some sort of inter-disciplinary process.

Here for Graeber, he should seek out experts in the academe of economics and get with them and go over the field of monetary systems with them (Bill Mitchell comes to mind or Randy Wray) and then proceed to write a book about it from the anthropological viewpoint. Graeber's book is about "debt" but he ends up writing a lot about "money".

Wrays book is in Graebers biblio. I may do some sort of post when I finish Graebers book from a view of MMT...


Matt Franko said...


I dont think that was a serious article, ie "tongue in cheek" or sarcasm or whatever....


Anonymous said...


geerussell said...


I look forward to that post when it happens. I have no doubt that looking at it with a layman's eye I'm missing nuance by the ton.

Matt Franko said...


Looks like many of the Tea Party/Ayn Randers are Anarcho-Capitalists???



Dan Kervick said...

The anarchists I have encountered have a very romantic and crazily optimistic theory of human nature. They believe that the drives toward aggression, domination and oppression are reactive pathologies that are responses to the traumatic injuries inflicted by coercive state power, and that if we got rid of states, the rule of law, and the organized coercive powers of government then the apparent need for the coercive protection of the law would vanish. They believe in the possibility of a successful human society in which each and every exercise of organized human effort toward some goal is voluntary.

PG said...

MMT and a stateless or anarchist society are not incompatible.

The concept of state and the concept of government are distinct.

States exist to maintain class structure. Governments to make effective the management of public goods. Nowadays these two concepts are quite confused both in theory and practice as states appear necessary to government.

A post-capitalist stateless society will need government - as the Internet needs an Internet authority to keep people duly coordinated on which communication protocols to use.

If such society keeps money as a social coordination process, MMT (or an enlarged version to develop) will be useful to its government.

Matt Franko said...

Interesting distinction, the "state" and "government" to be thought of as separate entities....

I've been referring to "state currency" lately... perhaps this should be "government currency" this requires some more thought....


Tom Hickey said...

Matt, the government is the administrative institutional structure of the state. The state is the entity that enjoys sovereignty.

Tom Hickey said...

David contacted Randy asking him to read the manuscript of Debt: The First 5000 Years. No reply. Randy doesn't recall receiving the request but IIRC he said that he gets a raft of requests like that. Anyway, they plan to meet up.

Matt Franko said...


If you agree with (I guess) MMT when it implies that 'coercion' of taxes (I guess the threat of incarceration)(Warren's 9mm pistol analogy) is what imputes 'value' to a currency; what entity is doing the coercion is it 'the state' or 'the government'?

The Pledge: "I pledge allegiance to... the republic for which it stands,...."

Seems to me it would be "the state" based on your delineation above, with "the government" collecting the taxes and prosecuting the violators of the tax laws.

From what I see of the MMT folks who have made it to LIBERTY Park (I'm going to stop using the new name the new rentier owners have given to the former Liberty Square Park in So. Manhattan) they go there to basically show some solidarity but I am lead to believe they also hope to happen upon teaching opportunities with these courageous young people.

Do you see any true 'Anarchists' in the group you have been interfacing with at Iowa?


Tom Hickey said...

Matt, the state operates through the government. The government gets its authority from the state (sovereignty). The agents of the government carry out government policy. In the US, the government is divided into the legislative, executive and judicial branches. Congress levies taxes, the executive collects the taxes levied, and the judiciary imposes penalties for non-compliance, and the executive enforces the law.

I have encountered very few pure anarchists in my travels and most of them have been a bit, shall we say, "unrealistic" and "impractical." But I have also meet some that have been extremely intelligent and quite successful base on their criteria.

There are a lot of flavors of anarchists and libertarians. They agree that government should be limited in the sense of not imposing on individual freedom without justification and due process. It's only the fringes of the right and left that think that the state and government can be dispensed with altogether in humanity's present state.

There are anarchist groups that live tribally, however, and they govern themselves by consensus. I have participated in such groups and studied this phenomenon. Very few groups can manage this successfully for long for a variety of reasons, and I know of almost none that have been able to scale up much.

Lots of interesting experiments go on in such environments, though, and I believe that this has contributed to the culture. The people that participate in the Occupy movement are involved in this process and they will learn a lot that will influence them throughout their lives.

peterc said...

Matt, I agree that there is a compulsion and threat of state violence underpinning a modern monetary system. My view is that fiat money operated under a floating exchange rate nonetheless offers a path to greater liberty and freedom over time compared with alternative monetary systems.

My thinking on this issue is still in only an embryonic form. I tried to consider the problem here (especially in the second half of the post):


The post may raise more questions than it answers.

The topic is never far from my mind. Like Tom, I consider myself a libertarian of the left, although my notion of what that means is undoubtedly less rigorous than Tom's conception.

Anonymous said...

Looks like many of the Tea Party/Ayn Randers are Anarcho-Capitalists???
Right-Libertarian would be a more accurate term.

Anarchists are opposed to hierarchy. This is the criteria by which they view society. When are hierarchies necessary? What kinds of hierarchies are necessary?

Our system of government and the rise of nation states are the product of our socioeconomic system, namely capitalism. It is capitalism that requires the state and the arm of government in order to protect private property. It is capitalism that requires various authoritarian hierarchies, including the one between employer and workers.

Anarchism is not opposed to the rule of law, or government, or the state - these are just symptoms. Anarchism is opposed to capitalism.

Anarchist theory is extensive, yet most people believe it's about advocating lawlessness and smashing shop windows.

PG said...

Tom, you wrote:

"Matt, the government is the administrative institutional structure of the state."

Any organization has form and function - or functions.

The word "government" may mean the institutional arrangements (form). But it can also mean function: management or control of a system.

States are the outcome of class structure and maintain class structure (causality is circular). One of the government functions of the government (institution) is to do this precisely. But the government (institution) must also have to some amount a government function of managing public goods - otherwise the state will become completely useless even for maintaining class structure.

Government as a function of managing public goods is always necessary for any society. But the institutional arrangements that can implement such function are conceivably many and not necessarily limited to the present ones in state form.

Anarchists and left libertarians fail to understand this distinction. They are so concerned about the oppressive character of the state that they deny that in the present conditions the state fulfils an useful (if not very efficient) role of government of the public goods. And in proposing the dismissal of the state, they also propose the dismissal of any conceivable form of centralized government. This makes them seem a bit weird to the majority of people. Some government problems can best be solved through a distributed institutional arrangement. Others can best be solved through a centralized institutional arrangement. I think the majority of people recognizes this. The government of a society or nation will have always a centralized (therefore, unique) component.

"The state is the entity that enjoys sovereignty."

I think it depends on the criterion. If it is de facto power... that is a fact. But if it is legitimacy, then "the people" is sovereign.

Matt Franko said...

From the Lincoln Gettysburg address: "Govt of the people, by the people, for the people" (This needs to be re-emphasized to many GOPers today imo)

Then here is some more info from Wiki:


"The phrase "People of the United States" has sometimes been understood to mean "citizens." This approach reasons that, if the political community speaking for itself in the Preamble ("We the People") includes only citizens, by negative implication it specifically excludes non-citizens in some fashion.[46] It has also been construed to mean something like "all under the sovereign jurisdiction and authority of the United States."[47] The phrase has been construed as affirming that the national government created by the Constitution derives its sovereignty from the people,"

So if you believe this, I guess we are supposed to believe that we are first "our own sovereign" and we then "surrender" some of that sovereignty over to a 'national govt'. If true, then you could look at it as in the US we "have no true state". In any case, it is not clear to me, at least here in the US, that there is a large distinction between the concept of "state" and "govt"...

We just have ourselves as our own sovereigns, and I guess a "government" that we turn some of our own sovereignty over to....??

And this would be different for our brothers and sisters in the west who still have some sort of sovereign relationship with the Monarchy, that is also not clear to me how that works wrt sovereignty.

To flip this over to "the right", from talking to a lot of people here in the US on the political right, and how some of them as I view it truly "recoil" from the topic of "government". I see them on a collision course with some really significant internal personal conflicts about these issues of "sovereignty", especially when I view them as supposedly "Christian" in their religious views.

When you explain MMT to them they recoil and say something like: "Big government" or "that's socialism", etc...

My view of this truly, at core, I view their actions as truly "insubjection", and "lawlessness". In a truly biblical sense, so I dont see how they can personally reconcile this between their faith and their "politics". hard to understand.

So MMT may face some challenges both from "the left" wrt sovereignty (Anarchists, etc) and for sure also on "the right" (Tea Party, Ayn Randers, etc) wrt sovereignty.

If people from either side just dig in and stubbornly refuse to see themselves as "subject" to anything, ie they primarily want to live their lives in a perpetual state of max "insubjection", MMT is going to be a 'hard sell' to these folks for sure no matter which side they are coming from.

FD: I test out as an "Authoritarian of the Center" on the compass test that is linked up at Bill Mitchell's.


Tom Hickey said...

PG, extreme Libertarians deny there are public goods, so no government administration is required. Extreme left Anarchists deny the legitimacy of private property and hold that consensus is the government principle of a social group.

"Sovereignty" means supremacy of rule or authority. The concept of sovereignty grew out of the rise of city states, most of which were ruled by monarchies. Louis XIV of France reputedly declared, "L'Etat, c'est moi." The concept of popular sovereignty arose later, in the Enlightenment.