In this collection of essays David Graeber explores a wide ranging set of topics including politilcal strategy, global trade, debt, imagination. violence, aesthetics, alienation, and creativity. Written in the wake of the anti·globalisation movement and rise of the war on terror, these essays survey the political landscape for signs of hope in unexpected places.

At a moment when the old assumption about politics and power have been irrefutably broken the only real choice is to begin again: 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.

Graeber draws from the realms or politics, art and the imagination to start this conversation and to suggest that the task might not be nearly so daunting as we’d imagined.

The essence of neoliberalism, Graeber suggests, is its systematisation of depression, its exclusion of all alternatives to an obviously catastrophic system.

David Graeber is an anarchist, an anthropologist. and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths. This collection first came out in Greek, with the title Κίνημα, βία,τέχνη και επανάσταση (Movement, Violence, Art and Revolution. Athens: Black Pepper Press, 2009).

So what is the unifying theme?

It’s helpful, perhaps, to consider the context in which these essays were originally written. All of these essays were composed between 2004 and 2010. Between roughly 1998 and 2002, the advent of the global justice movement had given all of us a sudden sense of almost endless possibility.
The wake of 9/11 threw everything into disarray. For many it was impossible to maintain the sense of enthusiasm that had kept us so alive in the years before; many burned out, gave up, emigrated, bickered, killed themselves, applied to graduate school, or withdrew into various other sorts of morbid desperation.

At first, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, it seemed that we were looking at a repeat of something rather like World War I: the period from roughly 1880 to 1914 was after all quite similar to the decade and a piece that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall: a time where wars between major powers seemed to be a thing of the past, where the dominant powers embraced an ethos of free trade and free markets, of frenetic capital accumulation, but at the same time, an age of the rapid rise of global anticapitalist movements, accompanied by an ethos of revolutionary internationalism in which the anarchist movement seemed to define the vital center of the radical left. The rulers of the world ultimately panicked, and reacted by initiating a near-century of world war, allowing appeals to nationalism, state security, racism and jingoism of every kind of tear those (to it) terrifying alliances apart.

It struck me, after 9/11, that they were trying the same trick again; it was as if, faced with even the prospect of an effective anti capitalist movement emerging globally, they immediately pulled out the biggest gun they had – a declaration of permanent global war mobilization – despite the fact that the enemy they had chosen, rag-tag band of Islamists who had, effectively, got extraordinarily lucky, pulling off one of the first mad terrorist schemes in history that had actually worked, and were clearly never going to repeat the performance – could not possibly provide an adequate long-term excuse. It was never going to work. Yet somehow, the American public had passed a referendum on the project. What’s more, I watched in dismay how every attempt to revive an international spirit resistance – around the G8, then G20, the Climate Conferences – seemed to flounder, or at least, reach a series of limited tactic victories that always seemed to hold out the promise of translating into a new burst of energy and of longer-term movement building (“finally,” we kept telling each other, “we’re over the hump!”), but which, in reality, never really did.  In part, it was  because the level of repression – or more precisely, what the police and other security forces felt they could get away with in dealing with us – had dramatically increased. But that was by no means all of it. To the contrary, it was the enemy’s very disorganisation that was our worst foil…

…in retrospect, it’s easier to see what was happening. Those bigwigs assembling at their various summits were probably more aware than we were that the entire system – based on a very old-fashioned alliance of military and financial power typical of the latter days of capitalist empires – was being held together with tape and string. They were less concerned to save the system, than to ensure that there remained no plausible alternative in anyone’s mind so that, when the moment of collapse did come, they would be the only one’s offering solutions…

These essays then are the product of a confused interregnum. It was a time when it was very difficult to find signs of hope.

If there is a single theme in this collection of essays, then, it is that they all start out from some aspect of the period that seems particularly bleak, depressing, what appeared to be some failure, stumbling block, countervailing force, foolishness of the global anti capitalist movement, and to try to recuperate something, some hidden aspect we usually don’t notice, some angle from which the same apparently desolate landscape might look entirely different.  This is most obvious perhaps in the first three essays, all of which concern the lessons to be learned from the global justice movement.

The essay, The Shock of Victory, ends by posing a much a larger question, as Turbulence magazine was to phrase it in a special issue a year or two later, “What would it mean to win?

Largely it is a comment on the extraordinary historical effectiveness of movements based on direct action and direct democracy, and the curious fact that our enemies (as their panic reactions seem to indicate) seem to recognise the potential effectiveness of such movements, the threat they pose to global power relations, much more than those active in the movements themselves do.

Neoliberal capitalism is that form that is utterly obsessed with ensuring that it seems that, as Margaret Thatcher so famously declared in the 1980s, “there is no alternative.” In other words, it has largely given up on any serious effort to argue that the current economic order is actually a good order, just, reasonable, that it will ever prove capable of creating a world in which most human beings feel prosperous, safe, and free to spend any significant portion of their life pursuing those things they consider genuinely important. Rather, it is a terrible system, in which even the very richest countries cannot guarantee access to such basic needs as health and education to the majority of their citizens, it works badly, but no other system could possibly work at all.

The great mobilisations of Seattle, Prague, Genoa, or the constant direct actions in places like Greece, Chiapas or South Korea, have effectively operated bytaking all the familiar stages of revolution and simply turning the traditional order on its head. Understanding the full implications of this shift, in turn, demands some major work in re-imagination what terms like violence, alienation, “realism” itself actually mean.


* “why do so many working class people vote in a manner that seems diametrically opposed to their own class interests, that ordinary common sense might afford?” – David Graeber, Army of Altruists.

I think this is the question Robert Tressell was trying to figure out 101 years ago in The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists? Graeber identifies the Neo-Con constant identification with “soldiers” (Support Our Troops) – individuals who have, over the years, been reduced to  high tech mercenaries enforcing of a global regime of financial capital – as a method of subverting class boundaries. A mixture of propaganda and simulacra.

Graeber says:

Well, I managed to answer the question to my own satisfaction anyway. The application of theory was indeed able to reveal things that would not otherwise have been obvious. What it mainly revealed was that one of the most insidious of the “hidden injuries of class” in North American society was the denial of the right to do good, to be noble, to pursue any form of value other than money – or, at least, to do it and to gain any financial security or rewards for having done. The passionate hatred of the “liberal elite” among right-wing populists came down, in practice, to the utterly justified resentment towards a class that had sequestered, for its own children, every opportunity to pursue love, truth, beauty, honour, decency, and to be afforded the means to exist while doing so. The endless identification with soldiers (“support our troops!) – that is, with individuals who have, over the years, been reduced to little more than high tech mercenaries enforcing of a global regime of financial capital – lay in the fact that these are almost the only individuals of working class origin in the US who have figured out a way to get paid for pursuing some kind of higher ideal, or at least being able to imagine that’s what they’re doing. Obviously most would prefer to pursue higher ideals in way that did not involve the risk of having their legs blown off.

The sense of rage, in fact, stems above all from the knowledge that all such jobs are taken by children of the rich. It’s a strangely ambivalent picture, and one that, at this moment of revival of right-wing populism, we might do well to consider once again.


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