Graeber and Dialectics

Professor Boer over at Stalin’s Moustache has been charitably pointing out the bright spots in Graeber’s Debt, although he indicates that he has some damning criticism to follow:

Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by exactly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches. The latter seems most likely in aristocratic societies that add another element: war and plunder. After all, just about anyone who comes into a very large amount of wealth will ultimately give at least part of it away – often in grandiose and spectacular ways to large numbers of people. The more one’s wealth is obtained by plunder or extortion, the more spectacular and self-aggrandizing will be the forms in which it is given away. And what is true of warrior aristocracies is all the more true of ancient states, where rulers almost invariably represented themselves as protectors of the helpless, supporters of widows and orphans, and champions of the poor. The genealogy of the modern redistributive state – with its notorious tendency to foster identity politics – can be traced back not to any sort of “primitive communism” but ultimatelyto violence and war (Debt, p. 113).

So I noticed that Graeber points out what Bataille pointed out in the Accursed Share, it is often largess that redistributes, but often for achieve or maintain that largess, not out of primitive communism or a non-consumptive capacity.   So unproductive wealth is shared more readily as it is gained more readily though primitive accumulation of capital.  But I fail to see, as I suspect Dr. Boer fails to see as well, how this would be a particularly new insight?   The genealogy of the welfare state is not a means to give into democratic impulses (or corruptions if one takes Nietszche at his word), but is part of the design of maintance. Identity politics means this easier to naturalize as an organic whole which is fundamentally a fetish. A physically real unreality.  But this is already implied in Marx’s terminology, which is not to say that Marx articulated this as well, but does not  contradict the general thrust of Das Kapital.

Yet it is easy to be, the Marxist watch-word, undialectical about this structure, as if the liberal revolutions did not have some element of truly liberatory mechanism:  so Graeber sees the structure trans-historically and thus prefigurative to the form, but the management of the nation-state through the welfare state does have roots in the tension between a truly egalitarian notion of “the people” as a universal and “the people ” as a nation. In other words, Graeber tries to make this a fundamental characteristic of attempts at violence and war against “primitive communism” and which thus manifests in tact in the welfare state, bu this misses that both impulses existed within the liberal revolution, otherwise it would have never been seen as break with the past, which it must have been to unleash and accelerate both productive and consumptive capacities. 

 Graeber is often interesting despite his naturalizing of proto-capitalist production and thus his transhistoricizing of prefigurative politics. In fact, his is instructive because his misreadings because even his  valid points, of which their are many, are often limited by trying make structures transhistorical.

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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on May 15, 2012, in Marxism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Spot on. It is a particular curse of anthropologists, who feel that the secret to human behaviour lies in some ‘primitive’/ancient practice. In the end, he has much common ground with Adam Smith, for they assume human nature is basically the same wherever you go. Among many other points, he simply has no theory of class. It’s implicit at some points, but never articulated, which it all feel hollow.

  2. David Graeber

    Why do you assume that saying “the genealogy of X traces back to Y” can be read as “X is simply another, identical transhistorical juxtaposition of universal principle Y with no other principles mixed in”? It seems a very bizarre way to read a sentence.

  3. It’s more hasty writing than anything else.

  4. It seems like you are saying that relationships in the welfare state mirror a principle of potlach and war that a manifestation of Y. I hastily wrote the critique, but that how I read that in the context of the book.

  5. Although I am completely open to the possibility that I am misreading you. Wouldn’t be the first time.

  6. David Graeber

    Well, it does seem to me rather a case of reading through biases. ‘Anthropologists believe in transhistorical essences. DG is an anthropologist. Therefore, even though the sentence merely says “A traces more to B than it does to C”, I shall read it as referring to a transposition of transhistorical essences, despite the fact nothing of remotely like a transhistorical essence is referred to, and the actual word used (“genealogy”) is one normally employed to indicate the author is consciously rejecting any such notion.

    Not to mention the odd idea that saying “A traces more to B than it does to C” means that A is simply an instance of B with no other element mixed in. Where on earth did that come from? If I had wanted to say “A is simply an instance of B” why wouldn’t I have just said that?

  7. Well, actually, my issue isn’t that you are an anthropologist, but I do have biases. The issue with the transhistorical was, for example, the way you talked about the relationship of Capital in East Asia in Debt, which I thought read a lot of our notions of capital into tension in China between Buddhists, who supported a market, and Confucians who were distrustful of it. Now I am paraphrasing, but this seemed to be linking elements of capitalism to capitalism as a whole.

    The transhistorical essence issue was seeing how relationships that definitely led up to something like capital were talked about in a way that could easily lead one to conclude that was the same thing.

    This is a bias on my part, but its not based on some vulgar condemnation of your discipline. My first academic love after poetry was anthropology, and I have studied quite a bit of it. It is useful, but I don’t know that I can base my politics off it.

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