In Support of Slack

There’s a brilliant essay up on The Baffler by David Graeber. (Nullius will love it!) It’s called “A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse”, an excerpt from The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement, copyright © 2013 by David Graeber (Random House). Available on Kindle, bringing to mind something that Karl Marx once said about rope.

The key argument of the essay is that everything about the post-Reagan post-Thatcher world is intended to limit choices, to foreclose options, to abandon freedom in favor of a shabby substitute. Indeed, Graeber argues, given the choice between advancing their own goals and denying the legitimacy of any options, the status quo will unfailingly choose the latter.

The thought first occurred to me when participating in the IMF actions in Washington, D.C., in 2002. Coming on the heels of 9/11, we were relatively few and ineffective, the number of police overwhelming. There was no sense that we could succeed in shutting down the meetings. Most of us left feeling vaguely depressed. It was only a few days later, when I talked to someone who had friends attending the meetings, that I learned we had in fact shut them down: the police had introduced such stringent security measures, canceling half the events, that most of the actual meetings had been carried out online. In other words, the government had decided it was more important for protesters to walk away feeling like failures than for the IMF meetings to take place. If you think about it, they afforded protesters extraordinary importance.

Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense?

It would explain a lot. 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.

But I was particularly taken by his pro-slack position:

At the moment, probably the most pressing need is simply to slow down the engines of productivity. This might seem a strange thing to say — our knee-jerk reaction to every crisis is to assume the solution is for everyone to work even more, though of course, this kind of reaction is really precisely the problem—but if you consider the overall state of the world, the conclusion becomes obvious. We seem to be facing two insoluble problems. On the one hand, we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies, to the point where the overall burden of debt—sovereign, municipal, corporate, personal—is obviously unsustainable. On the other, we have an ecological crisis, a galloping process of climate change that is threatening to throw the entire planet into drought, floods, chaos, starvation, and war. The two might seem unrelated. But ultimately they are the same. What is debt, after all, but the promise of future productivity? Saying that global debt levels keep rising is simply another way of saying that, as a collectivity, human beings are promising each other to produce an even greater volume of goods and services in the future than they are creating now. But even current levels are clearly unsustainable. They are precisely what’s destroying the planet, at an ever-increasing pace.

Workers of the world, relax!

Comments:

  1. Brilliant? I think its ridiculously, obviously, broken. Though I can see you'd like the conclusion, I find some of that appealling too. I'd rip it to shreds, if it was worthwhile - do you really defend it as sane and correct?

    • I think the point (that the system is more interested in shutting down the possibility of serious alternatives than in its own success) is interesting and it feels plausible.

      Would love to see some intelligent shred-rippping, though. This is not an echo chamber.

      Did you mean appealing or appalling?

      I do not know how to rescue our financial system in a no growth scenario. A no-growth scenario will eventually stop exponential growth in a finite domain. The planet is finite. There are several reasons to suspect the Malthusian crunch has started. So what do we do? Obviously, we have to find alternatives.

      • I meant appealling. The idea that if we all slow down a bit the world would be better. But on to the shredding:

        The articles first para, suggesting that the French Rev ushered in universal schooling, just seems silly. Continuing, the praise of Mao's Cultural Rev is creepy and wrong. In sum, I think he is attributing many things he likes to things that didn't cause them. The bit about the Vietnam war is utterly weird: he claims that the anti war protests weren't a failure (although they appeared to be so at the time), because they lead to the US having to utterly f*ck up the war in Iraq.

        Similarly, for the IMF stuff, the protests were (he thinks) a success, because (he thinks) "most of the actual meetings had been carried out online". Why is that a success? Because you've managed some minor inconvenience to the people holding the meetings, but have influenced the content not at all?

        > Is it possible that... the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle? What if those currently running the system [are] obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense? It would explain a lot... By its own standards, then, the project was already a colossal failure even before the 2008 collapse.

        I'm having a great deal of trouble parsing his words there. Taken literally, he appears to be implying that the "great failure" that he sees is caused by the system reacting to protest. In other words, that either the system should ignore protest, or that the world itself would have been much better off had the protest never occurred. But I doubt he means that. What sense can you make from his "It would explain a lot..." paragraph? What do you think he has explained by that?

        "is intended to limit choices, to foreclose options, to abandon freedom in favor of a shabby substitute". I don't think that's true at all. Admittedly that's your paraphrase, not their words, but I'm sure I'm allowed to attack that too. I think what you're reacting to is them making choices you don't like.

        > free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing

        I think this is the usual left-wing strawman stuff, and its about as useful as the usual right-wing "climate change = communism" stuff.

        > we have witnessed an endless series of global debt crises, which have grown only more and more severe since the seventies

        I think this is wrong. We're witnessed an endless series of debt crises, and the conclusion to draw from this is *that they are expected and survivable*. Of course those with rose-tinted spectacles will tell us that the era of boom and bust is over, but they're wrong. But its similarly wrong to mistake just the latest in a long series of non-fatal crises for something fatal.

      • >>The bit about the Vietnam war is utterly weird: he claims that the anti war protests weren’t a failure (although they appeared to be so at the time), because they lead to the US having to utterly f*ck up the war in Iraq.

        He spends a lot more words than necessary to say things that are not at all controversial. He says the protests weren't a failure because it changed the politics of ground war up until 9/11. Then...he also says, and a point where I disagree with Greaber's example, this led to the mass casualties in Iraq. In truth, the US has never cared about civilian casualties on the 'other' side, so I don't know how he can make that correlation. And the US only cares about US soldier's live when the casualty numbers make the war unpopular and difficult to fight politically.

        >>suggesting that the French Rev ushered in universal schooling, just seems silly

        No, its pretty accurate in France.

        >>“most of the actual meetings had been carried out online”. Why is that a success?

        He didn't say that it was a success. He said the group had influenced the proceeding more than they had thought. This is merely an example of what the article is about, and that is asking the question, "Is it possible that this preemptive attitude toward social movements, the designing of wars and trade summits in such a way that preventing effective opposition is considered more of a priority than the success of the war or summit itself, really reflects a more general principle?"

        which leads to...

        >>I’m having a great deal of trouble parsing his words there.

        He is saying that it has been more important for the elite to convince people that there is no alternative to the current system than to actually improve the system to make people's lives better. This is what he calls 'a remarkable accomplishment' for them (elites), not for people in general.

        > free markets and human freedom in general were ultimately the same thing

        >>I think this is the usual left-wing strawman stuff

        Normally, I would agree with you, but Greaber goes on to describe the conditions which created the business nannystate. It is important to his point, expressed poorly. He is a social anarchist so he sees the free market as paradoxical, only in the way it is practiced, not theoretically.

        >>We’re witnessed an endless series of debt crises, and the conclusion to draw from this is *that they are expected and survivable*.

        I'm not sure why this should be the conclusion people drawn from an escalating crisis. What is survivable? How could you say it is expected? Who gets to declare that? Why should any of it be acceptable? Those are the questions being asked that pertain to the main point of the article, not whether or not one person's opinion on debt sustainability matters.

      • There's only one 'l' in appealing, and since you agree with me that the extant system demands more work than is necessary we needn't discuss that as part of the argument.

        As for preventing opposition, see the robotic repetitions of market-fatalist orthodoxy promulgated by "Nullius" here and elsewhere. The presumption of a property ethic is always defended in a cursory way on utilitarian grounds and then treated not just as a proven moral standard, but as the dominant one, trumping all else, including utilitarian arguments to the contrary! Any attempt to reconsider is met with high dudgeon at the least, and often at least an eyebrow-raised implication of subversion (if not an explicit accusation of Stalinism, though Nullius him/herself is too polite to go that far).

        And then taking it further, consider this story.

        And here is Roger Jr., arguing that because wealth predicts social well-being today, wealth is social well-being.

        The key point of the essay is that brooking no opposition, demoralizing and marginalizing any alternative to explore alternatives, dominates over actual success of the system. (In the pure form, the system is utterly unmanaged, so in fact they may agree with that.)

        So when you say " I think what you’re reacting to is them making choices you don’t like." I disagree. Rather, I think the implicitly dominant ideology that Nullius advances doesn't believe in any choices but the one - once you set things up correctly in their view, the need for regulation goes away. This position, though clever, is monumentally ignorant of actual history. And yet at every turn any alternative to it is squelched by any means necessary.

        We now see oligarchies suppressing free speech in various ways.

        The control by Exxon of the site of their own possibly negligent disaster in Arkansas, following on BP's control of the Louisiana disaster, increasingly seems consistent with behavior of oil companies in general.

        See also Elsevier's purchase of Mendeley, defanging the opposition to its contemptible monopolist posture.

        The question is whether we are even allowed to consider alternatives to our present, obviously dangerous course. The more entrenched one is in the system, the more powerful one is the current context and the more threatened one is by its disruption. The convenient ideology that what exists now is in some way natural rather than a complex artifact discourages examination of the components of the artifact and development of new abstractions that might eventually improve the situation.

        At some point that discouragement becomes proscription. We are free, free, free, but only so long as we question nothing of consequence.

        I see your complaints with the quoted text as mostly stylistic rather than substantive.

        The question at hand is whether alternatives to a whole cluster of ideas: property, real estate, capital, intellectual property, banking, growth, a sharp distinction between public and private while shrinking and demoralizing the public sector, etc. etc., whether anything in this whole cluster may be questioned at all.

        " I think what you’re reacting to is them making choices you don’t like." Well, that too. But the point at present is that instead of considering alternatives the impulse is to make alternatives go away, unobtrusively if possible, punitively if necessary.

        The capitalist system encourages certain kinds of creativity very well. The argument is that other kinds of creativity are ruthlessly squelched. And that is what I think is meant by "it explains a lot".

        Do you disagree that alternatives to the present arrangement are not seriously discussed?

  2. Reactions to leftist thought are always interesting to me, so I wish more people would comment on it. Anyone attempting to rip it to shreds should understand the perspective used here tho. This is not just your normal anti-neoliberal angst.

  3. Had to look it up, having seen it twice today:

    "Neoliberalism is a political philosophy whose advocates support economic liberalization, free trade and open markets, privatization, deregulation, and decreasing the size of the public sector while increasing the role of the private sector in modern society." (Wikipedia)

    Sounds more like what we now call libertarianism, nothing to do with what I associate with liberals.

    One of the many elephants in the room is population growth: we are now an expanding population exceeding the carrying capacity of a finite planet. Our model of exploitation and trickle-down does not work. Climate disasters make it so much worse, as costs mount, infrastructure rots, and solutions are set aside in favor of appeasing the greedy at the top.

    I had to go to the article itself to figure out the reference to universal schooling, and am still digesting, but thought I'd go ahead with the definition. I am seeing here and elsewhere that we have made a god of the "free market" which as far as I can see is only free to those who have more than enough to begin with. The people who have to work for a living to get ahead are handicapped from the beginning, and have to make an extraordinary effort to get off the treadmill of living hand to mouth. When they have children, this is tragedy, but they have to soldier on and pretend they believe in fairy dust. Hence infotainment, sports heroes, reality TV, and the whole Roman Circus provided by our unseen masters, the marketing apparatus of modern life.

    OK, I've gone off the rails. But it is not nice, what we have made here.

    • Actually it is the the American (and more recently Canadian) usage that is garbled. In the UK and western Europe, "liberalism" refers to laissez-faire capitalism, i.e., minimal government intervention in the marketplace. It was opposed to conservatism which amounted to unquestioning respect for tradition and authority. So in this original sense there are no significant pockets of conservatism in America, outside, perhaps, Catholicism and militarism.

      Republicanism was originally based in respect for individual rights (abolitionism) and was as such the exact opposite of Toryism. In my lifetime the Canadian Tories were still anti-American and the Liberals very pro-American. But nowadays there are no real Tories in Canada either.

      The dalliance of Monckton with the Republicans and vice versa completes the deterioration of these distinctions into utter muddiness. We now have monarchist Republicans and statist Liberals and a libertarian peerage. Nothing makes any damned sense at all.

      But Nullius's position, foolish though it is, has the real benefit of simplicity.

      Irene was talking to me the other night about student loans for grade schoolers. It makes perfect sense - the ultimate expression of freedom is not just insolvency but coerced penury. How else can we be free other than if we pay for everything? Debt is liberty, a concept that slipped by Orwell, perhaps. Or maybe we should leave it to the child to decide whether to take on that educational debt.

      "No, I'd rather have some bubble gum, thanks. Put it on my tab."

    • not "nice" - can't believe I used that word. Sputter! and all too true ...

      btw, my concerns about real working poverty are enhanced by living in close quarters with a rota of four caregivers etc. whose children's school bills are excess to requirements (and yes, they should have fewer children, but free birth control and education doesn't fit the ruling class self image). In the old days, you could have a phone bill, but now you have to have internet access. Everything is more expensive, but wages have not gone up, except for the guys (and a few gals) at the top.

      ps. Irene sounds like a cracker - lucky you!

      • "Cracker" is no compliment in these parts, but I'll vouch for Irenie any day of the week!

  4. > No, its pretty accurate in France.

    {{cn}}

    But that doesn't get you out of the hole, because its not what he said. He said "institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably, universal systems of primary education". Do you defend that?

    • Well, if you are asking whether I defend the word "inspired" with outright confidence, no, nor do I want to waste time to dig up 200 year old quotes from reformers around the world paying homage to the French school system (although I'm sure there is a connection with Thomas Paine worth looking into). But the chronology is correct, so I find it unlikely that reformers in early 1800's England or Scotland didn't take inspiration from 1790's France. I'd rather defend that stance then one that calls the idea 'silly'.

      • > But the chronology is correct

        Is that really all you have? Universal primary school happened after the Fr Rev, and therefore must have been inspired by it? That is so unconvincing I really don't know what else to say.

      • No I did not say it MUST have been inspired by it and it is made pretty clear to anyone taking a second to read it that I find it unlikely the French system wasn't used by other reformers during the time period. I said I'd rather defend that position, if I cared enough to look into it, then simply dismiss it as silly, as you have done. Do you have something more than an offhand dismissal that I should consider your opinion well informed enough to counter?

  5. > I’m not sure why this should be the conclusion people drawn from an escalating crisis.

    Who says its escalating - is that supposed to be a given? If it was clear that we're in some wildly unstable oscillating system whose swings are clearly getting wilder over time, then I'd certainly agree with you. But that is far from clear. Indeed, I think its wrong.

    > What is survivable?

    The current "crisis" that started with the 2007 mess.

    > How could you say it is expected? Who gets to declare that?

    Reality, and experience. See "This time is different" (http://www.amazon.co.uk/This-Time-Different-Centuries-Financial/dp/0691152640). People always think their boom is going to last for ever. And (although I don't think the same point is made so strongly) people always think their crash is the end of the world.

    > Why should any of it be acceptable?

    If by "it" you mean something like "semi-regulated free market capitalism" and if by "acceptable" you mean "the voters will support it" then the conventional answer is "because its delivered increasing prosperity".

    But perhaps you meant something else.

    • I think voters will and ought to support “semi-regulated free market capitalism”! I gather you do as well; in which case I totally unreservedly agree with you.

      Onward to the greater glories of our well-crafted semi-regulated free market! Yes, indeed and without sarcasm or uncertainty, I agree! Couldn't have put it better myself.

      Shall we spell it srfmc and pronounce it Srf-Mc? Yes indeed, our home and native land.

      But semi-regulated and minimally regulated are very different beasts, the latter being woefully unstable. Yet advocates for an utterly fatalistic surrender to minimalism like Nullius are amazingly influential in some parts of the world. It is against them, and not against “semi-regulated free market capitalism", nor you, that I am and Graeber is arguing here.

      To read our conversation of late you'd think we totally disagree, but when I sit down with you over coffee it seems to come down to hair-splitting pretty quickly.

      Well, shave my beard and call me a Srfmcist then.

    • >> Who says its escalating
      >> The current “crisis” that started with the 2007 mess.

      This is regards to the different busts happening over the past 30 years from S&L, to dotcom to Argentina to housing. I'm not sure using 'escalating' as an adjective would be considered too controversial here.

      If we need to wait until there is a "some wildly unstable oscillating system whose swings are clearly getting wilder over time" before using a word like 'escalating' it would be a shame. Bringing up the past in this context doesn't help your argument as the current escalation has happened all within the same period. What it can do is help us not commit some of the same 'folly' that has happened over the past 8 centuries. This makes me unsure what your stance on the matter is. In fact this only serves Greaber's point that major change is necessary to avoid it, not expect it's arrival.

      • > I’m not sure using ‘escalating’ as an adjective would be considered too controversial here

        I've already said I don't believe this, so yes it is too controversial to take as an established point absent any evidence. So if you want "escalating", you need evidence.

        I've put in too many comments here; if I feel the need to comment more I'll blog it myself. I touch on this at http://scienceblogs.com/stoat/2013/04/12/the-ets-is-stupid-part-n/

  6. Sorry, I'm posting enough comments that I really should just write a posting of my own instead. But to continue for the moment:

    > The key point of the essay is that brooking no opposition, demoralizing and marginalizing any alternative

    Here we disagree: I think "brooking no opposition" is far far too strong. We have, as you know, a free press, an even freer internet and plenty of dissent. That dissent may not get taken seriously, or may not win, but its there, and its available to anyone (outside, say, China) who cars to read it.

    > demoralizing

    Well, its up to you whether you feel demoralised or not.

    > and marginalizing

    Hey, I don't like the MSM either. But... this is part of freedom. You can say what you like. But you can't oblige the people that own the papers / TV / radio to publish what you want.

    > The question is whether we are even allowed to consider alternatives to our present, obviously dangerous course...

    Errm, well, you just wrote that. And David Graeber wrote his original essay and you got to read it. So obviously the answer is Yes, you are allowed. And you know that. I could try guessing what you really meant, but it would be better to write without hyperbole so I don't need to guess.

    > alternatives to a whole cluster of ideas: property, real estate, capital, intellectual property, banking, growth... Do you disagree that alternatives to the present arrangement are not seriously discussed?

    Certainly not. I'm sure that if I cared to, I could easily find, online, serious people seriously discussing these ideas. And I could join in if I wanted to. However, I haven't looked, because... well, OK: "property". If you say it just like that, what do you mean? To anyone vaguely right-wing, that's code for "I'm a nutty far-left no-private-property back-to-communism or primitive-socialism type person". I doubt you mean that, but I don't know what you do mean. For myself, "property" is a simple concept that makes sense.

  7. >> Do you disagree that alternatives to the present arrangement are not seriously discussed?

    > Certainly not.

    Aiee, triple negative. I mean, of course, that I believe that alternatives are seriously discussed.

  8. Pingback: The ETS is stupid, part n – Stoat

  9. "A few years ago, Schindler decided it was time to test claims that the oilsands industry is benign. He joined toxicologist Peter Hodson of Queen’s University and Jeff Short, a pollution chemist with experience from the massive Exxon Valdez oil spill.

    They took snow samples up and down the Athabasca River valley to see what airborne pollutants were falling, in an echo of old acid rain research. Melted down, the snow showed more toxins near the oilsands and downstream than in clean snow upstream. They published results in the journals Nature and PNAS.

    “The (samples) near the oilsands actually had an oil scum floating on top of the melted snow,” said Schindler, showing a photo of oily droplets on water. Also, “when it starts to melt in the spring the snow turns black.”

    Yet federal and Alberta politicians branded opposition the work of “radicals,” he said.

    http://www.ottawacitizen.com/business/Believing+clean+oilsands+like+believing+magic+fairies+scientist+says/8234297/story.html#ixzz2QOWQ6N7Y

    • > institutions inspired by the French Revolution—notably,
      > universal systems of primary education

      And that part of the French Revolution was inspired by Tom Paine.
      http://www.ushistory.org/Paine/rights/c2-03.htm

      " As it is to the advantage of society that the whole of its faculties should be employed, the construction of government ought to be such as to bring forward, by a quiet and regular operation, all that extent of capacity which never fails to appear in revolutions."

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