The Political Metaphysics of Stupidity


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There’s a stimulating essay by David Graeber that passed me by in the spring/summer 2005 issue of The Commoner. You can download the pdf file here. If you can ignore all the typos, you’ll find some original thoughts and arguments about the theory of value. Much of the work here echoes that found in Graeber’sTowards an Anthropological Theory of Value, but there are several digressions along the way on such diverse topics as the works of Heraclitus and Parmenides, Roy Bhaskar and Critical Realism, the role of the intelligentsia in America, the significance of Gödel’s theorem for social theory, and Piaget’s theories of childhood development, all of which make for an interesting read. One section that drew my attention in particular concerned the “Production of Human Beings and Social Relations.” A snippet:

The formal distinction between “the economy” and domestic sphere is also represented, in political-economy terms, as the domain of production, and that of consumption. Obviously, this is only true if one thinks what is really significant in the world is the history of manufactured objects, but this has become, over the last two hundred years, the favored way of looking at societies. We are, in other words, in that strange fetishized world Marx described where we continually forget that the point of life is actually the creation of certain sorts of people, and that the same system-even if we look at it in the starkest, Dickensian terms mainly as an opposition of factories (and shops and offices) and private households (and schools and poorhouses)-can be seen as consisting of a sphere for the making of human beings, that are then in effect consumed again in the workplace. One can hardly underestimate how deep this fetishism runs.

In Africa and Asia, for example, it’s perfectly unexceptional to hear government officials remarking that HIV infection rates are a serious crisis in their country, because the fact that in certain regions half the population is dying of AIDS is going to have devastating consequences for the economy. Not long ago, “the economy” was recognized mainly as the means by which people are provided with their material needs so that they stay alive. Now the best reason to object to their all dying is that it might interfere with economic growth rates. The thing to ask, it seems to me, is what it takes to put us in a place where public officials can make statements like this without being immediately put away as psychotics.

Ultimately life is about the production of people-and not just in the physical sense of “reproduction”, especially if that’s reduced to pregnancy and childbirth (though, of course, pregnancy and childbirth often end up becoming concrete symbols for the process as a whole)-but in the sense that human beings are constantly shaping and fashioning one another, training and socializing one another for new roles, educating and healing and befriending and rivaling and courting one another. This is what life is actually about, and it can never, by definition, be reduced to a simple utilitarian calculus. In most human societies, the forms of labor entailed in all this are recognized to be the most important ones. The production of material necessities, or material wealth, is usually seen as at best a subordinate moment in the overall process of creating the right sort of human beings.

Hence the most important value forms in most societies are those that emerge from the process. Certainly, this might involve all sorts of fetishism in their own right, as tokens of honor not only inspire, but come to seem the source of, honorable behavior; tokens of piety inspire religious devotion; tokens of wisdom inspire learning, and so on. But it seems to me these forms of fetishism are relatively minor-at least, in comparison with the kind of grandiose, ultimate fetishism of capitalism, which places the world of objects as a whole above that of human beings and social relations.

Much of Graeber’s paper is devoted to exploring and improving on the idea of false consciousness, examining how it could be that members of a society don’t actually know what it is they are doing-in anthropological or sociological terms-yet managing to do it nevertheless, a problem that he attempts to resolve using the concept, here taken from Bhaskar (but which must, I think, owe some influence to Russell), of higher-order theories. What struck me about this quotation was Graeber’s comment that in most societies, the production material wealth is usually seen as at best a subordinate moment in the overall process of creating the right sort of human beings. It brought to mind something that Cornelius Castoriadis said at the end of an interview with Radical Philosophy magazine in 1990 (available here as part of the pdf A Society Adrift) when asked if he saw any reasons for hope in the present situation:

I don’t much like to talk about “grounds of hope.” I think that you have to do what you have to do-and hope for the best. If you take the rich, ripe capitalist countries, we certainly should not renew the discourse about insurmountable internal contradictions. Yet there are at least two facts that make it extremely difficult to believe in an indefinite reproduction of the present state of affairs. The first is the ecological limit, which we are nearer and nearer to. The second concerns the present state of capitalist society but is somewhat analogous to the ecological question. Everybody is lauding the extraordinary efficiency of capitalism in the field of economic production. This is true. But up till now this has been achieved through the irreversible destruction of a capital of natural resources that had been accumulating for three billion years (or at least 700 million years).

This has been thrown away, destroyed, over fifty years or a hundred years. There were sediments of forests, land, oxygen, ozone, a variety of living species, etc. But the same is true on the anthropological level. Capitalism can function-could function-because there was a capitalist entrepreneur who was fascinated and impassioned by producing things and setting up new machines. Very often he was, if not an inventor, at least a quite clever design engineer-Edison and Ford, for example. This type is disappearing. More and more, you make money by playing in the (financial) casino, not by setting up production facilities. Capitalism also presupposes anthropological types-the bureaucrat, the judge, the educator-which are precapitalist products. If the prevailing philosophy and system of values (say) that you try to earn as much money as you can, and to hell with the rest-one doesn’t see why you should have judges, or university professors, or even schoolteachers.

You will have them, but they will do their job in the worst possible way: trying to get away with as much as they can; being corrupt, if corruption is materially feasible, and so on. In this respect, capitalism is living by exhausting sediments of previous norms and values, which become meaningless in the present system. Absolutely meaningless. But this is not a “ground” for hope. An ecological catastrophe, for instance, could very well lead to a series of quasi-fascist dictatorships-“The holiday is over. This is your ration for the coming month: ten liters of oxygen, two gallons of petrol, etc. That’s all.”

Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was single-minded about what it was I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer. By the age of 15, such a romantic notion seemed silly even to me, to the extent that when I met the careers adviser, I told him instead that I wanted to be a journalist, which is to writing as dog-walking is to dogging but which had the redeeming quality of mundanity. Even the careers master looked at me contemptuously. Fortunately, I discovered my true passion a couple of years later when I changed school and discovered sociology. Today’s kids, supposedly, and by this analysis, don’t concern themselves with career ambitions. Their one desire is to be famous. Whether that’s marginally better or worse than wanting to be rich, as Castoriadis imagines, if he’s right about the collapse of capitalist archetypes and the end of capitalism’s ecological sustainability, there are a lot of kids out there who are going to be disappointed.

The upshot, of course, is that, as both Graeber and Castoriadis argue, we have lost sight of any sense of proper value, not just as a society but also as sociologists and social theorists. It’s imperative that we recognise the role of imagination and self-creation in re-inventing the social, thereby re-establishing our ownership over value.

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2 Responses

  1. John Green

    February 24, 2012 6:59 pm

    Thanks, William. I find Graeber’s work endlessly stimulating. He’s a great advertisement for anthropology, which in my previous (very superficial) encounters had always struck me as a dry, pseudo-scientific colonialist undertaking. His work also exposes the limitations of much contemporary sociological and political thought, which seems to be almost exclusively devoted to “western” postindustrial societies and laden with a distinct economistic bias. Such a narrative extends beyond sociology, of course, right across society, a complaint that Castoriadis made a couple of decades ago and which is receiving a hearing once again, thanks to people like Graeber and F.S. Michaels, whose book Monoculture I’m currently reading.