Grappling with Graeber - Alternatives to Kamikaze Capitalism
Anthropologist and activist, David Graeber wrote 6 essays between 2004 and 2010 and they are now compiled under the title “Revolutions in Reverse”. We here in the United States have been told there is no alternative to markets and capitalism, but in these essays he comes up with some observations about how to go about re-imagining lives that have meaning and purpose. His idea of freedom lies somewhere in the region between Somalia and Pandora. He was there at the beginning of Occupy Wall Street and his ideas have taken root in many Occupies. What follows are some of those ideas that beat new neural paths in my brain and repaved some old ones.
In the UK, Thatcher embraced the Milton Friedman version of neo-liberalism (basically remodeled feudalism) as the only viable social governing system. She declared “there is no alternative” (TINA). Here American presidents from Carter to Obama declared that there was no alternative to Friedman -Rubinomics.
There are alternatives but Graeber says we have been trained not to see them. So we have to retrain our minds; free ourselves from the boxes of the mind into which we have been shoved by the authoritarian right’s “war on the imagination”. Quite literally, of course, most Americans actually work in small boxes called cubicles and aspire to larger boxes with a door and windows called offices. (Other boxes include “voting booths, television screens, and hospitals.” “They are the very machinery of alienation”). It always boils down to freedom here in the U.S. And not the freedom of choice that neo-liberalism has foisted on us. Too many choices “in the absence of any larger moral structures through which to make them meaningful” just makes us nuts. These choices are meaningless. Our lives then seem meaningless. And that makes us angry and drives us literally crazy.
Much has been written and continues to be written about this alienation- the splintered self of the American office worker. Recently Laura Dern has produced and is starring in “Enlightened” on HBO. Her character, Amy, having been reassigned after having a nervous breakdown, is now sitting in a basement with other misfits staring at computer screens. She says to a colleague that she wants to find a “job that has impact and meaning.” But when she goes for a job interview to run a homeless shelter, she discovers that she can’t afford to take the job because it only pays $25,000 a year. So she’s stuck back in box in the basement.
Graeber theorizes that a good part of the resentment that conservative working Americans have toward the liberals is that these people are seen as elite. Their children get to worry about meaningful work and find jobs that offer nobility (well, at least until recently as Amy and the Occupiers have discovered) while lower middle class working people’s children can only find nobility in serving in the Armed Forces risking literally life and limb. Graeber attended a lecture by Catherine Lutz who had done a study of U.S. military bases. Building schools and giving free dental check ups “were supposed to improve local relations, but they often proved remarkably ineffective.” But its effect on the troops participating in them was enormous. It gave them a sense of making an impact and meaning. For one soldier his service was “really about helping people.” Not so coincidentally it also serves as a very powerful reenlistment tool rather than returning to “mind-numbing, boring, mechanical jobs” and the cages called cubicles.
The American ideal of wage labor being temporary- “a way station” on the “road to something better has been ingrained in us since birth. We come as immigrants to toil in fields and factories and then advance to entrepreneurship or farming. And it worked as long as we had homestead land.
“Every time the road is perceived to be clogged, profound unrest ensues. The closing of the frontier led to bitter labor struggles, and over the course of the twentieth century, the steady and rapid expansion of the American university system could be seen as a kind of substitute.”
But working class entry into the world of fulfillment started to decline in the 1970s. As tuitions skyrocketed and the evilness of unforgivable student loans came to be, social mobility staggered and fell and along with it the opportunity to lead a life in the pursuit of things like beauty, truth, saving the world through art, or investigative journalism.
So most are stuck. Our work not only belongs to somebody else, but only a few elites get to do creative mind work while the rest of us toil at boring jobs rather than engaging in meaningful work.
On the other hand, “The world needs less work”, he says. But we are sold the idea that people need to work more in order for our economy to revive and thrive. And, in fact, we vilify others in those terms.
“There’s someone out there working less than you, a handicapped woman who isn’t really as handicapped she’s letting on to be, French workers who get to retire before their souls and bodies have been entirely destroyed, lazy porters, art students, benefit cheats, and this must, somehow, be what’s really ruining things for everyone.”
Anarchists have always put a higher value on leisure than work. While socialist union leaders fought for higher wages, anarchist workers unions fought for more free time. It is in their “free” time that workers came up with all kinds of inventions from “shish kebobs to Rock ‘n Roll to Public libraries.” It is in free time that people can imagine something else; something better. Which again is the reason that capitalists want less of that free time for workers. Keeps them out of trouble. Keeps them from thinking.
The big idea I took away from all the essays in total was that it was time we got our priorities straight. That means redefining work and what gives our lives meaning. For Graeber the inspiration comes in feminism. It is the production of human beings and their nurturing that should be given top priority; while making socks, shoes, and computers for these humans is secondary.
“…in most societies that are not capitalist, it’s taken for granted that the manufacture of material goods is a subordinate moment in a larger process of fashioning people. In fact, I would argue that one of the most alienating aspects of capitalism is the fact that it forces us to pretend that it is the other way around, and that societies exist primarily to increase their output of things.”
This reminds me of the Latin American prophecy of the Condor and Eagle People that John Perkins (“Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”) tells in his book “Hoodwinked”.
Legend has it that about two thousand years ago human society separated into two tribes.
“The Condor People represented the people of the heart adhering to the ideals of the deep feminine, opting for lifestyles that create peaceful, sustainable environments favorable for giving birth, raising families, and passing knowledge about the natural world to their children. The Eagle People followed ‘the path of the mind’, advocating values we associate with masculine traits, creating societies that develop technologies for conquering other tribes and dominating nature. According to this prophecy, the two paths would converge during the Fourth Pachacuti (500 year period)… beginning in the 1490s. There would be wars, terrible violence, and the Eagle would drive the Condor to the verge of extinction…. In the Fifth Pachacuti – in the 1990s, …the opportunity exists for the Eagle and Condor –mind and heart—to soar together in the same sky, dancing, mating, restoring balance.”
It is what is happening with the restoration of deforested areas of Panama where Perkins first heard about this prophecy. So there is some hope and it is happening in the global South.
But first steps first here up north. Create spaces that are free. And create direct actions that are “festivals of resistance.” As Matt Taibbi recently wrote in his apology for not getting Occupy Wall Street right away:
"But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it's at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned "democracy," tyrannical commerce and the bottom line."
Graeber echoes the idea of the freedom to dream instead of what is happening now – “the murder of dreams”. Yes, we humans have a need to dream, to imagine another world, “to create a new language, a new common sense, about what people basically are and what it is reasonable for them to expect from the world, and from each other.”
In his final essay of the series written only last year, he writes that “a coin is just a promise”. So what promises should be kept? The ones to the banksters or the ones to workers that they could retire early before their backs and their minds were broken? The promises to investors or the promises to the next generation not to destroy the planet?
Graeber has written these essays “to start such a conversation, and most of all, to suggest that the task might not be nearly so daunting as we’d be given to imagine.”
Occupy Wall Street and the Occupies around the world have provided free meals to thousands. They have free health clinics and free libraries. They have cared for each other. And it worked. They have disconnected from the old system and shown that another way is possible. The powers-that-be have viciously once again tried to end this conversation, but the imaginations of millions are being freed and they are igniting the world with real liberty and justice for all.