Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Noted: David Graeber

Also from "Turning Modes of Production Inside-Out":
What has passed for "materialism" in traditional Marxism—the division between material "infrastructure" and ideal "superstructure," is itself a perverse form of idealism. Granted, those who practice law, or music, or religion, or finance, or social theory, always do tend to claim that they are dealing with something higher and more abstract than those who plant onions, blow glass, or operate sewing machines. But it's not really true. The actions involved in the production of law, poetry, etc., are just as material as any other. Once you acknowledge the simple dialectical point that what we take to be self-identical objects are really processes of action, then it becomes pretty obvious that such actions are (a) always motivated by meanings (ideas); and (b) always proceed through a concrete medium (material). Further, that while all systems of domination seem to propose that "no, this is not true, really there is some pure domain of law, or truth, or grace, or theory, or finance capital, that floats above it all," such claims are, to use an appropriately earthy metaphor, bullshit. As John Holloway (2003) has recently reminded us, it is in the nature of systems of domination to take what are really complex interwoven process of action and chop them up and redefine them as discrete, self-identical objects—a song, a school, a meal, etc. There's a simple reason for it. It's only by chopping and freezing them in this way that one can reduce them to property and be able to say one owns them.

A genuine materialism then would not simply privilege a "material" sphere over an ideal one. It would begin by acknowledging that no such ideal sphere actually exists. This, in turn, would make it possible to stop focusing so obsessively on the production of material objects—discrete, self-identical things that one can own—and start the more difficult work of trying to understand the (equally material) processes by which people create and shape one another.

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8 Comments:

Blogger Andrew Seal said...

Judging from this, I don't think Graeber really gets Marx. Engels, maybe, but not Marx, and not Western Marxism.

"Once you acknowledge the simple dialectical point that what we take to be self-identical objects are really processes of action, then it becomes pretty obvious that such actions are (a) always motivated by meanings (ideas); and (b) always proceed through a concrete medium (material)."
First of all, when is dialectics simple? I'm not being flippant--to describe something as both "simple" and "dialectical" is a ground-level misunderstanding of the term.
Secondly, what he describes is one of the reasons Marx proceeds from a labor theory of value. He seems to be implying that Marxism has a commodity theory of value, which is just bizarre.

"it is in the nature of systems of domination to take what are really complex interwoven process of action and chop them up and redefine them as discrete, self-identical objects—a song, a school, a meal, etc. There's a simple reason for it. It's only by chopping and freezing them in this way that one can reduce them to property and be able to say one owns them."
Yep, Marxists even have two words that describe this process really well, words we discuss a lot. They're called "ideology" and "reification."

January 28, 2010 12:08 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, Andrew, you are being flippant.

It seems clear to me--but then I've read the rest of the essay, and others--that he does understand these things. Meanwhile, I think you're reading way to much into his use of the word "simple". (Except that one might argue that what is called "dialectics" has been way over-mystified; that what it describes is much more simple than we might like.)

'Yep, Marxists even have two words that describe this process really well, words we discuss a lot. They're called "ideology" and "reification."'

Dude, this is really snotty. Obviously one of his points is that Marxists have "reified" many of their own categories, and are often ignorant how their own "ideology" comes into play. Which seems obvious enough to me.

January 28, 2010 8:54 AM  
Blogger Andrew Seal said...

Dialectics may be way over-mystified, but that doesn't mean that it's ever simple. Calling it such isn't problematic semantics, it's problematic conceptualization.

But you're right, I don't know his work more than what you've provided, but if you are correct in asserting that he does understand Marx's labor theory of value and the concepts of ideology and reification, then I have to take this as a purposeful misreading (and misleading), which I don't think really merits much more than a "snotty" response. Making a critique of an entity that actually doesn't resemble Marx and then reprimanding Marx for failing to understand the "simple" points he actually made--that's pretty shoddy, intellectually.

January 28, 2010 9:27 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I think you're missing the point of the word simple. But I'm not going to say anything more about it.

And note that there is a difference between "Marx" and "Marxists" or "traditional Marxism". That is all.

January 28, 2010 9:41 AM  
Blogger Andrew Seal said...

Yeah, there is a difference, which he doesn't acknowledge, and which most responsible critiques of Marx do. Looking at some of his other work, I'm not sure he cares--he's after the big enchilada--Marxism as a whole tradition, not as a field of many often conflicting formations. (He even admits this, but only in an endnote.)

I started reading his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (which is at least partially available as a pdf from the Wikipedia page) and what does he begin with? Why Marxism's had it better in the academy than anarchism. I understand that his professional history might have made him a little sensitive to the question "Why are there so few anarchists in the academy?" but the numerous invidious comparisons he draws between Marxism and anarchism are pointless and insulting.

January 28, 2010 9:58 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Naturally I disagree.

And he's not "after" Marxism, as such. What he's "after" is something quite different, and is related to why I would find the passage appealing. Which I won't elaborate in this comment, since the whole blog points to it.

January 28, 2010 10:06 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

"Possibilities" is a wonderful book, one in which Graeber challenges our bias in support of Eurocentric culture, society and politics as a means of ordering society.

Graeber, along with his brief colleague at Yale, James Scott, has worked to show that there are alternatives to the hierarchies of neoliberal capitalism, and they can frequently be found in societies considered "primitive" and "undeveloped" by both Marxists and liberals.

As an anarchist, Graeber acknowledges the enormous intellectual and political accomplishments of Marxism, while declining to accept the necessity of revolutionary vanguard as advocated by Marxist-Leninists. If anything, one could say that he suggests a synthesis between the practice of anarchism and the economics of Marxism as a way forward for the revolutionary left.

--Richard from American Leftist

January 28, 2010 9:15 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Thank you, Richard. Based on my limited reading, so far, of both authors, I agree that they are enormously valuable.

January 28, 2010 9:30 PM  

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