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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.

Meta-Contrariness (dialectics), liberal contradictions, and mere anti-capitalism

Two posts on the interwebs came together to produce this:  Less Wrong, which while being meta-analytic rationalists to a point of almost obsession is still one of the best websites on logic out there, posted a piece on signaling, counter-signaling, and intelligence and the triadic moves of logic: 

A person who is somewhat upper-class will conspicuously signal eir wealth by buying difficult-to-obtain goods. A person who is very upper-class will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir wealth, by deliberately not buying difficult-to-obtain goods.

A person who is somewhat intelligent will conspicuously signal eir intelligence by holding difficult-to-understand opinions. A person who is very intelligent will conspicuously signal that ey feels no need to conspicuously signal eir intelligence, by deliberately not holding difficult-to-understand opinions.

According to the survey, the average IQ on this site is around 1452. People on this site differ from the mainstream in that they are more willing to say death is bad, more willing to say that science, capitalism, and the like are good, and less willing to say that there’s some deep philosophical sense in which 1+1 = 3. That suggests people around that level of intelligence have reached the point where they no longer feel it necessary to differentiate themselves from the sort of people who aren’t smart enough to understand that there might be side benefits to death. Instead, they are at the level where they want to differentiate themselves from the somewhat smarter people who think the side benefits to death are great. They are, basically, meta-contrarians, who counter-signal by holding opinions contrary to those of the contrarians’ signals. And in the case of death, this cannot but be a good thing.

But just as contrarians risk becoming too contrary, moving from “actually, death has a few side benefits” to “DEATH IS GREAT!”, meta-contrarians are at risk of becoming too meta-contrary.

All the possible examples here are controversial, so I will just take the least controversial one I can think of and beg forgiveness. A naive person might think that industrial production is an absolute good thing. Someone smarter than that naive person might realize that global warming is a strong negative to industrial production and desperately needs to be stopped. Someone even smarter than that, to differentiate emself from the second person, might decide global warming wasn’t such a big deal after all, or doesn’t exist, or isn’t man-made.

In this case, the contrarian position happened to be right (well, maybe), and the third person’s meta-contrariness took em further from the truth. I do feel like there are more global warming skeptics among what Eliezer called “the atheist/libertarian/technophile/sf-fan/early-adopter/programmer empirical cluster in personspace” than among, say, college professors.

In fact, very often, the uneducated position of the five year old child may be deeply flawed and the contrarian position a necessary correction to those flaws. This makes meta-contrarianism a very dangerous business.

Remember, most everyone hates hipsters.

Without meaning to imply anything about whether or not any of these positions are correct or not3, the following triads come to mind as connected to an uneducated/contrarian/meta-contrarian divide:

- KKK-style racist / politically correct liberal / “but there are scientifically proven genetic differences”
– misogyny / women’s rights movement / men’s rights movement
– conservative / liberal / libertarian4
– herbal-spiritual-alternative medicine / conventional medicine / Robin Hanson
– don’t care about Africa / give aid to Africa / don’t give aid to Africa
– Obama is Muslim / Obama is obviously not Muslim, you idiot / PatriFriedman5

Now, anyone half-versed in Hegel will notice this looks like a dialectical sublation move, albeit a move that is based more on social signaling than logic.  As the author states in a footnote, often a person can be on different points in the triadic structure at different times, and no point generally has a hard frame of being right. Although the assumptions of the logic are interesting in another way, they out of hand discount a lot of socialist, communist, and anarchist politics as being anticapitalism, but between the move between conservative and liberal, the author sees the sublation as libertarian (or the meta-contrary position).   This is interesting because in the dialectical position in America this does seem to be case:  Libertarians take freedom/equality tension and favor freedom even do conservative ends.

Furthermore, it points out that there is often a lot of signaling going on in left positions that are complicated.  For example, many would accuse our author of be meta-contrary even in his title of the blog (the loyal opposition to modernity), but it important to notice that the signaling here is different.  I am indicating a opposition to the dominant zeitgeists (or if you prefer paradigms) for failing to meet up to any possible potential not on the basis that they are simply wrong and the old way is better, but they for structural reasons that these will fail to live up to their promises.

This is the critique of capitalism that I hold: It is not just that capitalism is unfair or exploitative, and therefore we should go back to some pre-capitalist social formation: it is just that the contradictions in the capitalist production will lead to depletion of resources, an inability to steady-state in growth, and to massive impoverishments of the majority that it had enriched prior as their are no new markets for which capitalism to expand.   Globalism delivers the promise of markets to relative enrichment of prior social formations, but generally through the accumulation of resources into the hands of a few and thus leading to extractive economies.  Even conservatives are beginning to see this trend.

When libertarians and conservative talk about the knowledge problems markets fix, they are not wrong.  This lead to a logic of defending the early liberal revolutions from Marx and later Marxists are necessary steps.  This is also what justifies and justified  Chinese and Soviet State capitalism as necessary development since no liberal society produced a revolution that was not betrayed by liberal/social democratic forces.  Red Rosa was killed by shock troops–proto-fascists–who were invited into the briefly existing revolutionary states by Social Democrats.

So this means that while a leftists like myself must be careful of mere anti-capitalism, she must also be careful of mere meta-contrariness trying ideological decisions.  This is both actionism of the mind (in Adorno’s sense) and selfish social signaling of the Velbenian capricious consumption variety. But the last point led me  that leads me to look at is that while “liberalism” as an orientation opposed to conservatism does seem to rely both on abstract reason and orientation, but in power, liberalism almost immediately becomes illiberal. Ben at Marmalade blog has been discussing this:

This is where the real problems begin for liberals, beyond the basic challenges of organizing. Liberals are so flexible and so willing to change that they end up being prone to undermine their own liberal nature. On the opposite end, conservatives are so much less flexible and less willing to change that they are more effective in resisting what liberalism offers. This liberal weakness and conservative strength makes liberalism an easy target of anti-liberal tactics such as emotional manipulation and propaganda, especially in terms of fear and disgust which are the foundations of the conservative predisposition and moralistic ideology. Basically, when liberals are overly stressed to the point of feeling overwhelmed, they turn into conservatives.

This particular bias and typical move is interesting: the power of maintaining a moderate liberal vision and an openness to ideas actually leads to a conservatism that undermines itself. I have called liberalism the “current traditionalism” from a phrase we used in composition pedagogy about the beliefs of “standard grammar” that people believe are transhistorical but aren’t actually traditional.  Liberalism, even more than conservatism, has had massive influence on European and American society since the 1800s, and the orientation here is interesting:  liberalism as a ideology and liberalism as an orientation would have a tendency to shift into conservative modes of thinking to maintain itself, and thus would be hostile more to the left pushing it forward “too fast” and “risking everything” and thus would tend right overtime.   This would also go far to explaining how  things more.

Indeed, the liberal capitalism as the dominant intellectual category is the default position in almost every “average intelligent” contrary opinion to which meta-contrariness arises.  Hegel seems to be vindicated on structure more and more analytically, no?  This could be my own confirmation bias, but the social signaling mirroring Hegelian dialectics IS telling.  Then the way liberal position represents the “Current traditionalism” of the educated is also pretty clear.

What is clear is something is going to give because the stress of liberal positions will lead to profoundly illiberal politics.  Some of my friends who are Hegelian Marxists would call this regression in history, but I think this is regression to the mean and a conservatism to maintain it, which of course, actually undoes the attitude that enabled it.

On the things we like to call “sexuality”

Finally, after a day of travel all of the North end of South Korea, I am back at dorm room apartment.  Oh, the life of an expatriate lecturer, one gets to live in a “dormitory” well into their early 30s.  Anyway, after vowing to move this blog anyway from abstractions, and mix things up a bit.

I am getting married to a wonderful woman: I was hesitant in some ways for a variety of reason, and I am hesitant to talk about my views on the contradictions within our concept of marriage.  With a caveat, I opposed the idea of marriage for most of my early 20s and did, again, after my first divorce.  My ex-wife and I are actually still great friends and both did and didn’t divorce for the common reasons:  it was not infidelity, it was lifestyle incompatibility and money issues that stem from said incompatibility. I used to joke that I being a “Married male of any orientation should be a different gender category from an unmarried one.”   I still, actually, feel that way in a sense.

Now, I am also a believer that no marriage arrangement is entirely natural: both polygamy and monogamy come with some strain and tension with most individuals inclinations and thus cannot be said to be or not be natural unless the social and environmental constraints are accounted for in a realistic fashion.   I also a believer that very little avoidances of marriage are entirely without their aleinations even in a particular context, in Northern Europe where divorce and marriage are no longer common, the unmarried relationships often assume a form resembling in almost all domestic aspects a marriage.   Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá document pretty convincingly that most narratives on sexuality have had a present bias and a pretty moralistically bleak view of libidinal economy, even in good works by Darwin and so forth.  The book “Sex at Dawn” which is often taken as a defensive of polyamory can be properly be read as a defense of contextual relationships.

That said, both the abstracted notions of sex on sees in liberal-radicals like Judith Butler (who would never use that phrase) as well as hyper-conservative notions on sees in most people who defend traditional values as “biological” is highly problematic.   Traditional values may have been biological in a specific context, but it takes more than will-power for a traditional context to make sense.  In this sense, it is not without problems to see our current openness about sex and hook-up culture as a form of liberation.  It seems to me that it makes the real objects of sex taboo and also allows us to turn people into objects in lieu of taking about the real objects of sex.

I use “objects” and not object because I think both “radical” and “conservative” discourse about sexuality is entirely reductive to a stupid degree: if sex were about merely procreation then we would have “heat” cycles to ensure pregnancy like, well, most other males, and if it were merely about pleasure then  the female orgasm would not be so elusive.  Evolution is a harsh mattress and not a teleologically consistent one:  it’s an ad hoc universe  in the biological sphere. (This, of course, makes speaking about “nature” coherently almost in possible? Even nature has a context).

This is not to deny that there are real limits to human sexuality and real battles fought over it.  But in a way, our dialogue on what the “meaning” of sex is may be incoherent to the point of schizotypal because a decoupling of social context and biologic context, but a severing into a dialectical tension that which is not in fundamental contradiction in its unalienated state.

Wait, here I revere to tendencies I dislike about philosophy writing, the tendency to over-abstract:  people love and people fuck for a variety of different reasons in  a variety of different contexts.   Almost none of us are comfortable with that because some form of “other” enjoyment indicates a lack created by our ability to articulate.

What is it Lacan says?  Lack is created by language.  Before we speak, we cannot postulate that which is not?

So I’ll try to avoid name dropping, with the caveat that Foucault’s basic premise that sexuality is a socially situated, seems to be more or less right.  The problem is, as always, that our conceptions of biological and social are falsely separated:   while I am critical of the metaphor as “nature” as a “machine,” I  do fundamentally think that social structures and biological structures are in a feedback loop.  I desire someone both because I have a genetic impulse to desire them, but how I desire them and what forms that relationship takes are, in no small part, socially shaped.   The real dialectical conflicts come when social notions no longer fit biological reality, even if biological reality has changed for essentially social reasons.

Technology changes who you are.  How can you not think it changes your relationships to people?

This leads to all sorts of issues:  I am gay or straight or bisexual?  How is that it appears that while sexuality is definitely determined by social pressures and yet we cannot castigate certain practices out of existence?   Does it make sense to get married?

In my personal life this plays out in a lot of strange ways:  I am getting married to a woman because I love her.  Now, I realize in the grand scheme of things, even from personal experience, love is a weak reason for marriage. In fact, it’s not even a good predictor of martial happiness.  The information on arranged marriages startlingly conflicts with the notion that peer-love marriage is a good means for contentment for most people who are belong a certain social class and income range.  Even the sexual revolution, interestingly, has been more positive for upper middle class women and men who seem to benefit from promiscuity  then still get into relatively stable marriages (of varying degrees of openness) whereas the poor who often value marriage more as a social good see fewer marriages and fewer of its benefits?    I love a few women quite deeply, and yet I choose one of them because I love her and it seems conductive to that kind of social relationship.

In a way, just talking about fucking is avoiding the a lot of the larger issues here isn’t it.

Nothing in modernity seems to be without its contradictions.  Particularly in sex where anything viewed long enough and believed in general in mass culture seems to be fraught with outright contradictions. I, as I stated, am no exception: the polyamorous man entering into a relationship that is rooted in monogamy. Doing so willingly and knowing from personal failure the dangers involved, and yet when I am honest with myself even in my most polyamorous moments my relationships have been based on fundamental rules and commitments that are both from my partners and the larger social milieu. Sometimes, I find it more than a little ironic that liberals for all their emphasis on social importance  and social contextualization, take a completely individualistic view on love and sex.

Funny how so many refuse to look honestly at the contradictions in their lives: dialectics, as I understand it, is a way to look at one’s contradictions honestly and try to move past them.  Most people, however, from the pain of cognitive dissonance cannot do this: doing this in one’s most intimate relationship is even more traumatic.

But it is spring time, after all, and thus we like to think we should talk about love.

On the non-violence/violence dialectic:

“To abjure violence it is necessary to have no experience of it.”-George Orwell

Strictly speaking, as a Nationalist, he was an enemy, but since in every crisis he would exert himself to prevent violence — which, from the British point of view, meant preventing any effective action whatever — he could be regarded as “our man.” In private this was sometimes cynically admitted. The attitude of the Indian millionaires was similar. Gandhi called upon them to repent, and naturally they preferred him to the Socialists and Communists who, given the chance, would actually have taken their money away. How reliable such calculations are in the long run is doubtful; as Gandhi himself says, “in the end deceivers deceive only themselves”; but at any rate the gentleness with which he was nearly always handled was due partly to the feeling that he was useful.” – Orwell on Gandhi

“I believe it’s a crime for anyone being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself.”- Malcolm X

I personally deplore violence:  I have mild post-traumatic issue from watching a girlfriend die when I was young. I won’t go into detail, but I have seen more people die from drug addiction, car wrecks, and violence that someone from my relatively privileged background should be able to say, but such is the luck of life. Yet I find absolute statements of non-violence to be irresponsible if others are condemned for being willing to engage in defensive violence. Furthermore, I find that this tactic often is used in ways that defend and legitimatize power when non-violence is moved from a preferred tactic to a strategy.

The problem with the way we talk about non-violent social justice movements is we speak as if violence wasn’t a necessity in them in two ways. In almost dialectical ways, actually.  Let us look at the Satyagraha movement of Gandhi and the actually existing struggle for Indian Independence, not the stories we in America and Europe like to tell ourselves about it.  First of all, the struggle for Indian independence had Satyagraha at its face, but as Orwell noted this was actually used by the British as a means to an end.  It is important to remember that Gandhi was not the only face of the Indian independence movement: first there was the revolutionary Jugantar, then All India Forward Bloc, Communist Party of India, the Radical Democratic Party, and the various radical wings of INA.   There was several conspiracies, two mutinies, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose appealing to the Axis powers, as well as the non-violent actions and self-sufficiency. Gandhi worked because there were Indian nationalists, socialists, and communist forces ready to rip throats out if he didn’t. Furthermore, the success of his non-violence was predicated on violent acts by the other side. Subtle violent actions and non-lethal means are also not likely to draw sympathy from non-violent protestors.

This, for all we like to deny it, was also true of the rather moderate successes of Martin Luther King Jr.

Kasama republished an article from Common Dreams , but the Kasama debates were telling in the extreme:

All of the arguments that Black Bloc instigations have been stupid and counter-productive are valid. But that is largely there hasn’t really begun a true battle that one can speak of winning. The Black Bloc tries to create battles artificially, and that’s either dumb or deliberate police infiltration. But the Occupy Movement has at most been shaping a terrain for future battles. We’re still a long way from there though. As long as it’s understood that the battle hasn’t really yet begun, then it is valid to counsel tactics of peaceful protest. That does not mean that peaceful protest will actually win a battle when the time comes. – PatrickSMcNally

I think their model fit the real conditions of mass consciousness and military capacity at the time. The Panthers took up their example, but gave it a politico-military party of combat, and then degenerated into adventurist ultra-leftism – including offensive operations against the State before mass consciousness and military capacity was present. This led them into a focoist mind-set, which like Che learned in Bolivia, doesn’t work.

A problem I see in all communists, anarchist, and socialist writing is the quiet acceptance of the false dichotomy between violence and non-violence pursued by liberals and reactionaries.

These a tactical questions, and for those who pursue non-violence as a strategy, we should tell them they are wrong not in the non-violent part, but the strategy part: it is a political error to take any tactic off the table.-SKS

No one is arguing for turning the Occupy movement into an armed insurrection against the bourgeoisie state. No one is arguing that all protests must include a suicidal direct assault on the forces of repression. It is true that wanna be street fighters are committed to breaking windows, throwing bottles, and setting fire to trash cans as a strategy, and that is a problem.

A bigger problem is to advocate absolute pacifism as the only acceptable means of resistance. A bigger problem is to distort the history of every popular uprising in the last hundred years in support of moralistic liberalism. This is what Gene Sharp does in his work and for his admirers here I suggest you try his cool tactic of dis-robbing in front of riot cops. It is supposed to confuse the forces of the state and for anyone stupid enough to take his advice, you will quickly find out what concentrated pepper spray does to all that exposed skin (in particular to those sensitive areas of the genitalia.)

I understand why people become pacifists, especially those with a strong religious background. I believe it is a luxury that we can not afford and this has nothing to do with a desire for violence.-Stiofan

As a tactic, I prefer non-violence and people advocating for armed insurrections of a small minority like the Weathermen are likely to find themselves dead or in imprison without doing a damn thing for the people they are trying to help.  As a strategy, this is foolish as it gives the opponents a clear line they can cross.  As a moral imperative, it’s incoherent because of the dialectical relationship I described between the success of non-violent reform/autonomy movements and the violence employed.   What pascifism asks of people can be somewhat inhuman. Again, look at Gandhi:

If I were a Jew and were born in Germany and earned my livelihood there, I would claim Germany as my home even as the tallest Gentile German might, and challenge him to shoot me or cast me in the dungeon; I would refuse to be expelled or to submit to discriminating treatment. And for doing this I should not wait for the fellow Jews to join me in civil resistance, but would have confidence that in the end the rest were bound to follow my example. If one Jew or all the Jews were to accept the prescription here offered, he or they cannot be worse off than now. And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring them an inner strength and joy [...] the calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the God-fearing, death has no terror.


Even Karl Kautsky would not ask that of anyone. While Orwell has his flaws and is indeed no real dialectical thinker, he was dead on in encapsulating the unresolved dialectics:

If one harbours anywhere in one’s mind a nationalistic loyalty or hatred, certain facts, although in a sense known to be true, are inadmissible. Here are just a few examples. I list below five types of nationalist, and against each I append a fact which it is impossible for that type of nationalist to accept, even in his secret thoughts:

BRITISH TORY. Britian will come out of this war with reduced power and prestige.

COMMUNIST. If she had not been aided by Britain and America, Russia would have been defeated by Germany.

IRISH NATIONALIST. Eire can only remain independent because of British protection.

TROTSKYIST. The Stalin regime is accepted by the Russian masses.

PACIFIST. Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.


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