Book Review: David Graeber’s Possibilities

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a100_dg.JPG I’ve been promising/threatening to provide a review of David Graeber’s new book, Possibilities, for a few weeks, but a number of factors intervened to postpone it. First, a bunch of books arrived on my doorstep that demanded attention, not least because they touched on some of the issues dealt with in the Graeber book.

Second, Stuart over at From Despair to Where? informed me that he was also working on a review of the book for Radical Anthropology, news that made me wonder if there would be any need for me to review it, given that I knew I could trust Stuart to give an accurate and progressive interpretation and probably reach more people in the process. Third, the more I reflected on the book’s contents, the more I found it difficult to say something useful.

It isn’t that Possibilities has nothing new to say; it was more that I felt such a proximity to Graeber that it was less a case of him preaching to the converted than him speaking my mind, albeit, lest that sounds self-congratulatory, in a far more erudite and engaging manner. For instance, how could I not love a book that within its first few pages has already name-checked Pierre Bourdieu, Norbert Elias, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Cornelius Castoriadis (go have a look at my pretentious profile)? Here is a book that covers all the subjects dear to my heart, but for that very reason the book felt too familiar too me. It said what I wanted to hear said, but I knew straightaway that I couldn’t bore readers of Counago & Spaves with it precisely because they’d have seen it over and over and over again already, and so they’d just treat it with exactly the same indulgent contempt as they always have in the past. 😉

However, there was one take-home message that resonated with me and about which I was unqualified to speak. In his introduction, Graeber talks about his involvement with the anti-globalization/altermondist/global justice movement. In spite of much of the negative media coverage the movement has received down the years, I’ve always strongly believed that this was the only place where a genuinely new revolutionary movement was being created, in tandem with the Sin Terra organizations in Brazil, the Zapatistas, and so on, in the face of the outdated “revolutionary” leftist parties so many of us were once close to but now justifiably revile. Graeber tells us

For the first two years or so I was working with the Direct Action Network, I didn’t really write anything about it-unless you want to count press releases, calls to action, and reports for In These Times. When I first got involved, I never intended to make my involvement part of a research project. Nonetheless, the experience of working in consensus-based groups sparked a kind of intellectual crisis. I should explain here that the fashion at the time was to dismiss the movement, if not as a bunch of stupid kids who did not understand the complexities of modern economics then as defenders of an incoherent welter of causes in desperate need of a unifying ideology. I quickly realized that such observers simply didn’t know, or didn’t care to know, what they were looking at.

In fact, these groups were rooted, above all, in a commitment to reinventing forms of democratic process; that this was not an abstract ideology, but rooted primarily in developing new forms of practice; that insofar as DAN and other anarchist-inspired groups had an ideology, these new forms of democratic organization and democratic practice were its ideology. In this, they were based on a conscious rejection of the older model of Maoist or Leninist or Trotskyist sects that sought first to define the strategic moment, usually according to the teachings of some Great Intellectual Leader, and then to quibble over finer points of doctrine, while leaving the actual fashioning of democratic practice to some hypothetical point far in the future.

The intellectual shock was the result of two near-simultaneous realizations. The first was that the consensus process I was learning in anarchist circles was really an extremely formal, self-conscious version of the very form of decision-making I had witnessed on a day-to-day basis in Madagascar. It had to be formal and self-conscious, of course, because everything was being reinvented-patched together from bits and pieces learned from Quakers and Native Americans, read about in books, or simply invented by trial and error from thirty years of activist experience of trying to organize networks and collectives on anti-authoritarian lines, a tradition that harkened back to the days of early feminism. None of it came at all naturally to us. None of us were very good at it, at least at first. But it was obvious that, if we were going to invent a decision-making process that would actually work for a community in which no one had the power to force anyone else to do anything, it was going to have to look like something like the techniques employed by communities that had been living that way for thousands of years. I was trying, then, to actually do what I had observed everyone do in rural Madagascar, and finding it extremely difficult. The second shock, though, was the realization that one reason I found it so difficult was that my intellectual training had inculcated in me habits of thought and argument far more similar to the idiotic sectarian squabbling of Marxist sects than to anything consistent with these new (to us) forms of democracy.

The disappointment (for me) was that Graeber doesn’t give us any more than that in this book. I would have loved to have read detailed and in-depth descriptions of the forms of democracy being tried out, the difficulties that the groups faced organisationally and how they overcame them. Graeber has promised us another book, Direct Action: An Ethnography, in which he grapples further with the problems accompanying attempts to construct democratic organizations, and I’ll be one of the first to grab hold of a copy, I’m certain. One effect this book did have on me already, though, was to motivate me to pull off the shelves my old copy of Blackwell’s Castoriadis Reader and start reading it again. If you want a succinct summation of Castoriadis’s intellectual journey and at the same time a powerful argument in favour of the forms of organization Graeber is talking about, not to mention an avant la lettre description of the necessary form of any future revolutionary movement, look no further than the interview which opens the Blackwell book. It could provide a manifesto for the global justice movement all on its own.

The books that turned up on my doorstep that tangentially relate to Graeber’s collection of essays belong to what could be regarded as a loosely connected trilogy of works by the economist Mancur Olson: The Logic of Collective Action, The Rise and Decline of Nations, and Power and Prosperity. I don’t propose to go into any great detail here concerning his arguments, you’ll be pleased to read. I originally ordered the Logic of Collective Action because it deals with subjects now well-known to activists: The book was first published in 1965 and has generated all manner of conferences, ripostes, reviews, and so on. The easiest thing for me to do is to give you the blurb off the back of it from The Economist:

The existence of a large group with a common interest does not automatically give rise to collective action. There must be an individual incentive to join in or there must be compulsion. This proposition, together with the notion that small groups are qualitatively different from large ones, forms the core of this extremely stimulating book . . . The range of phenomena it helps to explain and the number of existing ideas it overthrows are very considerable. Having set out his theory of groups and organizations . . . the author demonstrates its explanatory power by examining the growth of trade unionism, the concept of economic freedom, Marx’s class theory, orthodox theories of pressure groups and, lastly the unorganized groups. Economic analysis is blended with political theory and sociology with great success. The result is an important contribution to social science.

So there you go. It also manages to account for the organizational attractiveness of a Leninist party structure for revolutionaries, consisting of a tight-knit, highly disciplined “insider group” supported by a more heterogeneous mass of “outsiders” while warning of the inevitable consequences of relying on such a structure: atrophy, absence of accountability, lack of democracy, persistence of hierarchy, the development of separate interests, and so on. If you’re familiar with Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, and who isn’t, Olson’s book covers similar ground but using more traditional economic terminology: “free riders,” “Pareto-optimal distributions,” and, albeit implicitly, Homo economicus, a rational self-interested individual pursuing his own ends.

He extends this analysis in the Rise and Decline of Nations, subtitled Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities. His argument, essentially, is that countries that experience a long period of stability inevitably undergo a decline in growth rates economically because the longer a country remains politically stable, the greater the opportunities it affords for special interests to coalesce and make a grab for part of the social pie. Countries such as Japan and West Germany enjoyed such rapid growth after the war, for example, because a huge social space had been opened up by the rise of dictatorships, essentially corrupt, closed societies in which success depended on patronage. The wholesale removal of monolithic totalitarianism, which had, itself, previously destroyed smaller special interest groups, made possible a blossoming, a rebirth, in which a thousand flowers found space to bloom because there were so few palms to grease.

Well, I simplify. And one of Olson’s irritating traits, when writing, is to argue his case, then go looking for evidence to confirm it, and then say, “of course, this isn’t the whole story.” No shit, Sherlock. Nonetheless, his attempt at constructing a model to explain macroeconomic history, from the ground up, starting from the situation of the individual attempting to organize to defend their interests, is both an ambitious one and not entirely fruitless.

Sadly, Power and Prosperity is an unfinished book: Olson died in 1998. And although it carries on where Rise and Decline leaves off, it frustrates because it ends at precisely the point you least want it to: It lacks the prescriptive element laying out what needs to be done in order to guarantee social prosperity, other than, that is, to make the observation that democracies function much better than other political forms in encouraging growth over the long term. Whether growth as it used to be understood is necessarily something to be encouraged is, of course, a moot point and something outside of Olson’s interests in these books. It’s also clear that Olson is enamored of Hernando de Soto’s arguments, which had been doing the rounds just before Olson’s death, regarding the importance of secure property rights in lifting populations out of poverty. In addition, Olson is very much taken with Milton Friedman’s arguments for free market capitalism, and I confess that the more I read of Olson’s oeuvre, the less I felt I could learn from it. Nonetheless, in one of his concluding remarks, he notes that many of the fortunes made today are the result of nothing more than luck and that, likewise, poverty is the result not of fecklessness but chance; how else to explain the stereotypes thrust on various nationalities down the ages but to recognize how the rules that apply to collective action and group behaviour prevent economies from thriving. Here we have come full circle, back not just to Olson’s first work, but also to Castoriadis’s observation that capitalism is nothing today other than a vast casino in which no commodity exchanges at its real value and apparent social worth bears no relation whatsoever to actual utility.

In passing, I’ll also confess that before even attempting a review of any of these books, I deferred and deferred to such an extent that I ended up reading other books to distract me: Lynn Margulis’s The Symbiotic Planet and Gwendolyn Wright’s Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America. But since I can’t really shoehorn them into this review-at least, not without dubious interpretations and deliberate misunderstandings of their contents-I’ll leave them for another time.

Aren’t you lucky?

Photo by Thomas Altfather Good and Left Next Notes.

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