Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Traffic Rules For Egoists

I'm not the only one who has been reading David Graeber's Debt. Here, in a generally sympathetic discussion, Chris Bertram notes that problems with Graeber's conceptual apparatus makes it difficult for him to see what might be appealing about various forms of social democracy. Like the interviewer here (and here: via Chris), and as I did, he also points out the similarity of parts of that apparatus to parts of G. A. Cohen's critique of what he saw as the organising moral principles of capitalism. That interviewer also draws a comparison between Bernard Williams' worries about the "peculiar institution" of morality and Graeber's worries about his own peculiar institution, debt. Williams was once, as a member of John Smith's Commision on Social Justice, criticized by Cohen for failing to see the allegedly enduring theoretical and rhetorical power of exactly the sort of norm in whose terms Graeber also decries capitalism. Williams' response then was, as so often when confronted by what he saw as moralising cant, to pose, in particularly cutting terms, the question of exactly who this sanctimoniousness was supposed to be for. Drawing on Cohen's background as a Marxist to summarise his obvious disdain for Cohen's Marxian-inspired view, he said:

“Marxists, as opposed to the Utopian socialists whom they tended to despise, notably believed in two things: the political importance of a sound historical analysis, and a firmly unsentimental picture of what made people act. It is a remarkable dialectical turn by which… it seems the Commission rather than Cohen who are in touch with the traditions of Marxist socialism”


Chris Bertram said...

Incidentally Rob, as I re-read Debt for the CT seminar, I did so with your comments in mind. I was surprised to see both (a) that Graeber is completely explicit that (as a matter of fact) property is NOT a relation between people and things but one among people concerning things (198-9) and (b) that the claim you made about the supposed identification of the philosophical anthropologies of Smith, Locke and Hobbes has a rather thin textual basis, shall we say: i.e. essentially one passage of a slightly throwaway nature.

In the passages in question, in fact, Graeber seems to be committed only to the views (a) that the idea of social relations as the voluntarist creation of individuals is a characteristic trope of capitalistic modernity (b) that something like the self-ownership thesis is a prevalent feature of such ideologies (and that it derives from Roman ideas concerning slavery) [hardly an outrageous supposition when you consider GAC's independent characterization of the SOT] (c) that people in capitalist modernity characteristically think of (what as in fact social relations) as relations between people and things.[cf Marx, K.]

All questions over which legitimate argument might be had, but hardly outrageous or stupid.

There's a lot that's flawed in Graeber's book, but you complain that he is not "a competent reader of the texts" and lacks "some skill in conceptual analysis". These interpretative shortcomings seem to me to mar your own appreciation of his writing. Too quick, and too parti pris.

Rob Jubb said...


Thanks for this. You're right, looking at the text, that Graeber does explicitly say that property is not a relation between people and things there. What I said, though, was that he relies on a contrast between relations between people and relations between people and things to structure his discussion, and not just there. Going back to the book, which I haven't looked at since I wrote the original post, when explaining what he has done thus far on pp. 207-8, for example, he says that he has contrasted a world in which debt or voluntary exchange is central with one based around "concept of human economies: ones in which what is considered really important about human beings is the fact that they are each a unique nexus of relations with others". That seems to me rely on a contrast between a set of relations with others and debt, debt which is at the root of an understanding of freedom as a set of powers. Maybe I was a bit quick, but I don't think it's an unreasonable claim to have made.

The quote about Hobbes, Locke and Smith again seems, if not charitable, not a gratuitous misreading either. It also occurs in a summary of what he has so far done, and links that to the self-ownership idea of freedom found in the Romans. Even if it is not fair, it is not as unfair as saying that Locke was concerned with men sprung from the earth fully formed swapping beaver pelts. It would of course be a different matter if he'd said this about Locke's interpreters or followers, but that's not what he said.

On the broader picture, yes, that seems right to me, both as an account of Graeber's view and as common and far from stupid account, one indeed that I have some sympathy with. If that's what we're getting out of Graeber, though, precisely because it's a common account, I wonder if it's worth it. I have to say, I stopped at the end of the chapter I've been quoting from because of my annoyance with what seemed to me the lack of care with his material. And that's not because I didn't start with good intentions, or get anything out the book. The stuff about the myth of money as a medium of exchange is great, and, for me, new and illuminating. Nor is it because I don't like this kind of thing - or at least, I didn't use to. I am glad I quoted Arendt approvingly in my doctoral thesis, and from On the Human Condition, which is exactly a Debt-esque kind of endeavour. I read that when I was a masters student, and perhaps I'd find it annoying in the ways I found Graeber annoying now. I don't think so though. Arendt's weird, over-ambitious and I'm sure wrong, but interestingly, fruitfully so. I don't think that's (as) true of Graeber.

There is a political outlook that I don't like underlying it. I'm not an anarchist, and I think they're a bit juvenile - hence and probably thanks to Bernard Willliams. That may be doing more of the work than it should. On the other hand, just looking at the Locke thing again, I do think that's pretty bad.

farm land investment said...

Let's remember two other things Marxism believed in: gulags and firing squads.