Saturday, April 27, 2013

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

In most of the world, the last thirty years has come to be known as the age of neoliberalism—one dominated by a revival of the long-since-abandoned nineteenth-century creed that held that free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing. Neoliberalism has always been wracked by a central paradox. It declares that economic imperatives are to take priority over all others. Politics itself is just a matter of creating the conditions for growing the economy by allowing the magic of the marketplace to do its work. All other hopes and dreams—of equality, of security—are to be sacrificed for the primary goal of economic productivity. But global economic performance over the last thirty years has been decidedly mediocre. With one or two spectacular exceptions (notably China, which significantly ignored most neoliberal prescriptions), growth rates have been far below what they were in the days of the old-fashioned, state-directed, welfare-state-oriented capitalism of the fifties, sixties, and even seventies. By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse.

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.

How did they pull it off? The preemptive attitude toward social movements is clearly a part of it; under no conditions can alternatives, or anyone proposing alternatives, be seen to experience success. This helps explain the almost unimaginable investment in “security systems” of one sort or another: the fact that the United States, which lacks any major rival, spends more on its military and intelligence than it did during the Cold War, along with the almost dazzling accumulation of private security agencies, intelligence agencies, militarized police, guards, and mercenaries. Then there are the propaganda organs, including a massive media industry that did not even exist before the sixties, celebrating police. Mostly these systems do not so much attack dissidents directly as contribute to a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, life insecurity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Yet these security systems are also extremely expensive. Some economists estimate that a quarter of the American population is now engaged in “guard labor” of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line. Economically, most of this disciplinary apparatus is pure deadweight.

In fact, most of the economic innovations of the last thirty years make more sense politically than economically.....
It does often seem that, whenever there is a choice between one option that makes capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and another that would actually make capitalism a more viable economic system, neoliberalism means always choosing the former. The combined result is a relentless campaign against the human imagination. Or, to be more precise: imagination, desire, individual creativity, all those things that were to be liberated in the last great world revolution, were to be contained strictly in the domain of consumerism, or perhaps in the virtual realities of the Internet. In all other realms they were to be strictly banished. We are talking about the murdering of dreams, the imposition of an apparatus of hopelessness, designed to squelch any sense of an alternative future. Yet as a result of putting virtually all their efforts in one political basket, we are left in the bizarre situation of watching the capitalist system crumbling before our very eyes, at just the moment everyone had finally concluded no other system would be possible. 
The Baffler
A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse
David Graeber


Kristjan said...

"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.

How did they pull it off?"

How did they pull It off? The same way Nazies convinced a well educated, technologically advanced and well developed nation that Jews were the problem.
This is the problem with MMT also. It is too naive. Opponents use propaganda that works. It is done deliberately. Cato Institute and Peterson Foundation pay millions to propagandists and It doesn't matter how right you are, "they are always right".

THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.
They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons—a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million—who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.

Dan Kervick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Kervick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Kervick said...

Capitalism succeeds because it continuously provides people with means for escaping from life and escaping from society that substitute psychologically for the project of working with others to fight to control it.

You can always get high, get laid, watch TV, plug into something with your ear buds, rant and rave on the blogosphere, or even have a "Second Life".

The American comedy is a farcical hunt for happiness via dreams of personal freedom and apolitical alienation. Americans respond to every perversion of social existence by demanding ever more personal "freedom" which capitalists are always willing to commodify and provide. Americans continuously recreate capitalist domination with every step into antisocial pseudo-freedom, as they indulge the laissez faire impulse which is the spiritual root of capitalism.

Some Americans might imagine they can go "off the grid". But all they step off into is another grid that the capitalists own or are in the process of buying, and where they have run a new marketing pitch labelled "freedom". Every freedom-loving entrepreneur-rebel with a big idea is just a budding plutocrat.

Matt Franko said...

"Some Americans might imagine they can go "off the grid". But all they step off into is another grid that the capitalists own or are in the process of buying,..."

Ha good point Dan, even the 'prepper' movement I believe has a reality show now and if you go to the Daily Paul the place is loaded with ads to sell "off grid" stuff to preppers...

that said I still think there is just a small cohort that seems to get alienated like this and goes "off grid" so to speak, but they somehow get more than their fair share of media attention/representation and are over-represented in Congress...


paul meli said...

We live under a system…"going off the grid" just means becoming sort of invisible…but the same rules re wealth accumulation will apply regardless.

If the size of the pie is fixed every transaction becomes zero-sum. Velocity doesn't increase to adjust for growth it's directly related to the size of the pie…in reality velocity likely declines.

Saving makes the pie smaller for those that rely on the transaction medium for income. If one has a lot of savings income becomes less if not at all necessary.

The article I linked to yesterday re MaconBucks…

Seems like somewhat of a departure from other schemes…it is an alternative currency system that discourages accumulation…encourages flow.

The problem to me seems to be that we have to provide for the future…for the unknown…which requires saving of some sort…and capitalism pits us one against the other for survival.

I thought (hoped) society was how we differentiated ourselves from the laws of the jungle.

Tom Hickey said...

There is a difference between being off the grid and going into the frontier. Many people today confuse them. There is no longer much of a viable frontier anymore.

The value of off-the-grid living now is decentralization of production of vital resources like food and energy. But it is hardly possible to be completely self-sufficient in living off the grid and few off-the-gridders are interested in this anyway.

Where off-the-grid living is particularly appropriate is where there is no grid. There is plenty of great land like this in the US, and there are off-the-gridder's living on it and living pretty well, too. This, combined with the boating industry, which also uses off-the-grid equipment, is becoming a large industry worldwide. In fact, at the entry level, it often makes sense to purchased used stuff since the field is innovating so fast, people are upgrading and selling the stuff they are replacing.

Underdeveloped countries are very big in the spread of off-the grid living, since a lot of people have been living without a grid forever and they are now beginning to demand equipment so they can upgrade their living standard.

paul meli said...

We could say the Amish live off the grid...but their lifestyle is still being "subsidized" by the system around them.

Unknown said...


Capitalism does not require a government backed/enforced money cartel but many of you think it does! What is "free-market" about a government backed usury for stolen purchasing power cartel? Nothing? Exactly.