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Acting as if one is Already Free: David Graeber’s Political Economy and the Strategic Impasse of the Left
The following piece first appeared in print in Salvage #9: That Hideous Strength, our Autumn/Winter 2020 issue. Our back issues are available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and begin with the next print issue, and give instant access to all subscriber-exclusive content, including PDFs of all of our issues.
David Graeber’s death, far too young, produced an outpouring of grief across the global Left. Approaching the last quarter of a long, bleak year, with few prospects of dramatic improvements ahead, the loss of Graeber’s optimism not only of the will, but of the intellect, was a body blow, particularly perhaps for those politically shaped by the last decade in Britain: from the student movement of late 2010 to the crashing defeat of the 2019 election. Long-time activist Seth Wheeler recently made the case for the impact of the student movement, and autonomist thinking within it, on Corbynism. But, he explains, the fundamental tensions between being ‘in’ and ‘against’ the state were never resolved therein – or even, I would add, addressed, beyond acknowledging that they must exist.
It is here that I think Graeber’s work is most valuable. I want to explore those parts of his thinking critically important to developing a Left that is post-Corbyn, post-Sanders, post-populism in general – but still in the first phase of an epochal pandemic. Particularly in the wake of Joe Biden’s electoral success in the US, in the wake of electoral defeat for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and selectoral defeat for Bernie Sanders, a new argument about strategy and tactics is beginning to play out in the English-speaking Left. This debate has only just begun to grapple with what capitalism portends in a world of environmental decay. But the questions Graeber foregrounded, most notably on political economy, can provide important signposts. I don’t claim that this is the only reading possible of Graeber’s work. But I do argue that the questions therein, and at least some of his answers, should be more central to the Left.
The peculiarity is this. Graeber’s work – as an activist, in his writing and his lectures – has been highly prized on the Left. But in recent years, at least in Britain, it could feel detached from the main currents of left intellectual influence. David was not aloof: quite the opposite. But he and the Left often seemed to be speaking different languages. Probably his most celebrated work – Debt: The First 5,000 Years – remains widely read and discussed, but neither its account of human history, nor its analytical techniques, nor conclusions have had much immediate impact on what the Left – certainly the majority current around Corbynism in Britain – thinks or does. His call for a ‘jubilee’, a wiping out of debts, never found favour with the leader’s office under Jeremy Corbyn, and played no part in the 2017 or 2019 Labour Party manifestos, despite Jeremy himself occasionally hinting at a sympathetic view. Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs was a best-seller, but its critique of modern work has only just begun to impact conventional leftist politics. The same goes for his major ‘theoretical’ work, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value – a more academic, but richly insightful, work. His insights should offer critical guidance to the Left, in today’s bleak political context. Beyond simple intellectual provocation, or even Graeber’s engaging style, there is a consistency to his thinking and engagement which deserves more than dismissal as, in the words of one reviewer, ‘5,000 years of anecdotes’. They create a standpoint on which to rethink the Left’s political economy in the light of environmental decay and the end of actually existing neoliberalism.
Unity of theory and practice
The fundamental unity between Graeber’s politics and his academic research was obvious. He was an anarchist, opposed to the ‘reigning institutions like capital and state’, as he explained in New Left Review in 2002, and he rejected liberalism on that basis. This guided his method as an anthropologist: he approached human societies with what could be called a deep universalism. All humans, in all societies, had the capacity to understand what a good society might be. The societies they built could organise and reorganise themselves in radically different ways, as the evidence of history shows. This was both a moral and a methodological claim, and this belief in the fundamental plasticity of human organisation, around a moral core of human desire for collectivity, runs through all his work. Most of his political commitments clearly ran in the same direction – as in Rojava, where Graeber saw an on-the-ground attempt to found a new kind of egalitarian society, or with Occupy.
But Graeber also threw himself wholeheartedly into supporting Jeremy Corbyn and the movement around him – which prioritised occupying state power through elections, while operating in the British Labour Party, a party with, to put it mildly, limited traditions of freewheeling anarchist spontaneity. Graeber came out to bat for Jeremy when he and the movement were at its lowest ebb. Here was an anarchist intellectual urging full-throated support for a social-democratic, electoral party, while taking some of the hardest positions available, directly addressing (for example) the antisemitism crisis in Labour, in a crucial article for Open Democracy.
To chart a route between the twin dangers of exaggerating the novelty of the moment on one hand, and its continuity with some implied and implicitly understood ‘business as usual’, means to invite deep reflection about a very real global crisis, and a crisis on and of the Left, without reassuring ourselves of our rectitude, that without betrayals and sell-outs things would certainly have turned out exactly as we planned. If we are to honour Marx’s call for the ‘ruthless criticism of all that is’, which includes our own long-held shibboleths, who better to guide us – in examining treasured fetish-objects – than a radical anthropologist?
Extending our horizons
To start, we have to look further back into history than we are used to. The Left’s shared historical horizon stretches back forty years: ‘neoliberalism’, the set of ideas and practices for government held to have taken power at the end of the 1970s, is today a curse word. The implication that the world irrevocably changed somewhere between roughly 1975 and 1989, is clear. Its obverse, for the British Left, is the 1945 election, which by now takes on a near-legendary status – a hazy, somewhat inexplicable event from which almost anything good in the modern world resulted. Further back, only the minority currents claiming fidelity to the Russian Revolution generally dare to venture for historical references. Even for them, the limits of what is possible, and the demands made, are usually defined by the standard of 1945. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was to create a ‘National Education Service’, deliberately referencing the NHS; austerity was opposed, restoring previous levels of provision with some slightly hazier ideas about what would be done beyond it; those parts of the public sector privatised under Thatcher were to be renationalised, returning them to the pre-neoliberal status quo ante. Where discussion of policy looked beyond the boundaries of 1945 – around the adoption of Universal Basic Income, for example – arguments within the Left became significantly sharper.
But if we confine our thinking to the post-1945 experience of increased state expenditures, a period of increased economic intervention, and the stabilisation of parliamentary democracy, we crowd out the prior history of capitalist development and working class organisation. This is damaging when the curve of capitalist development appears to be trending downwards, and when traditional working class organisation looks so seriously weakened. By ignoring this prior history, we risk overstating the historical novelty of neoliberalism, and understating the novelty of the social democratic decades. A broader historical vision is necessary – and Graeber’s thinking is an invitation to adopt one.
Stretching the historical imagination back further allows us to understand how the postwar settlement arose from development of both capitalism and the labour and socialist movements within it. And that it, and therefore the beliefs we take for granted, could have gone differently. Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, in Novara Media’s tribute to Graeber, raised the point directly: Graeber ‘embodied that coming back together of progressive movements that divided over a century ago, between anarchism and … state socialism … He was a reminder that that division should never have occurred.’
The history of Left strategy
The split between anarchists and socialists was formalised after Marx’s death, by the foundation of the Second International, in 1889. The vision of socialism as freedom – as something organised in practice, from below, with or without the state – was squeezed by a vision of socialism as freedom dependent on the state; which is to say, increasingly a form of freedom in which the state came first. The socialist Left resisted this model even at the time – Karl Kautsky, for example, denounced ‘state socialism’ as ‘socialism by the state and for the state … socialism by the ruling classes and for the ruling classes’ as early as 1881 – and statism never completely dominated the socialists’ side, as the political career of Rosa Luxemburg, and of minoritarian traditions demanding workers’ control of industry, demonstrate. But the majority current in worldwide socialism tended to view the state as a unique guarantor of justice, whether in the overt reformism of Fabian and social democratic traditions, or in the ostensibly ‘revolutionary’ horizons of various Communist Parties after the First World War.
The focus on the state as guarantor of justice meant replacing the conception of democracy as an expression of human freedom with one of democracy as expressing the ‘general will’: that individual and collective desires could be boiled down to a single expression of intent, for which the unitary state would be the best possible platform. The extraordinary flourishing of debate and dissent that defined the early years of the socialist movement was pushed aside in the creation of the bureaucratic mass parties that, by the end of nineteenth century, were the paradigmatic political form of the socialist movement, with the German SPD at its head. At its peak, the SPD famously exercised an extraordinary sway over the working-class portion of newly-unified German civil society, creating a virtual society-within-a-society for its millions of members and supporters: from bicycle clubs to philosophy reading groups to daily newspapers.
The creation of the mass socialist parties, in turn, came to define a strategy for the socialist movement: first, take the state; second, get the state to do the right things. Whether ‘take the state’ was to be done through the existing state, as per the majority reformist tendency, or through building a new state, as per the Communist International until its dissolution in 1943, was of secondary importance relative to the primary task. But that left the socialist movement with a Clausewitzian view of how the battle for the state would be won – that we would triumph by applying, per Clausewitz, overwhelming force at our opponent’s weakest point. The steady accumulation of forces on the socialist side would, eventually, overwhelm resistance on the capitalist side. Winner-takes-all electoral systems, as in Britain and the US, tend to seriously reinforce this bias, to the detriment of plurality: divisions in parties seeking election, especially under first-past-the-post systems, directly damage their chances of electoral success.
Mass parties were increasingly bureaucratised, as was the wider labour movement. Parties were dominated on a day-to-day basis by distinct cadres of full-time professionals. The formal institutions of democracy – Parliaments, legal systems, and (increasingly) a ‘free’ press and media – reinforced the tendency towards this version of mass politics. Nor was mass politics something that appeared only on the Left: mass conservative parties, supported by the relative stabilisation of capitalism from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, were strikingly successful. The expansion of the franchise did not, despite reactionary fears, endanger property rights. Political arguments, in the liberal democracies, at least, increasingly centred on the size and functional domain of the state – a change from earlier squabbles between different ruling class factions over who got to control the state as it existed, but pointedly omitting any challenge to the existence of capitalism as such. Under pressure of the workers’ movement across the globe, states grew steadily in size and function beyond the classical-liberal ‘nightwatchmen’ state of the early nineteenth century into the welfare states of the twentieth. This expansion, by the time it had stabilised in the West in mid-century, engaged the state in formerly private processes of social reproduction – the ‘life-making’ activities of childcare, health care and education – as well as redistribution via taxation and welfare spending.
The later neoliberal turn, from the 1970s onwards, tended to leave the social reach and functions of the state substantially as before. The quality of that provision, and the method of its delivery changed, and it became less universal, but the belief that it should be provided largely did not. Instead, the roll back came in the more obvious forms of redistribution, as Thomas Piketty and his collaborators show, with taxes cut and the generosity of welfare provision (including, notably, public pensions) significantly reduced. Direct government intervention in the economy, through industrial strategy and, in some cases, public ownership, tended to be abandoned. But the state remained a very large portion of GDP across the developed world. Expanded state bureaucracies remained largely intact (Thatcher added a million jobs to those paid by government during her tenure) matching the expanded bureaucracies of private capital – although, as Graeber’s case against bureaucratism, The Utopia of Rules, points out, neoliberalism tends to ignore the latter.
Bureaucratisation on all sides – labour, capital, and the state – was not a smooth process: it accelerated markedly through two world wars, with demands of total warfare imposing themselves on all combatants. Union officialdom was rapidly incorporated into states’ efforts in World War One, matching the expansion of the state’s reach into the economy. This was subject to direct contestation between the wars, as conflicting demands for redistribution and control made themselves felt. The anti-bureaucratic current continued to assert itself, in the Paris Commune of 1871, in the early years of the Russian Revolution, and in Spain in 1936. Arguably, repeated workers’ revolts during this period, East and West, adopted anti-bureaucratic forms of organisation and counter-power. But it was very much a minority current no later than the end of the Second World War, even (or perhaps especially) where Communist Parties were strong.
The reformist rejoinder to all this is, of course, that it worked. Socialist movements were built and, by the height of the post-war boom, had helped secure in the West the longest sustained rise in living standards for working people in history. Welfare states were built. Mass education was provided. Housing radically improved. In what we now call the global South, socialists were integral to the movements to liberate nations from colonialism. For all the many and varied failings of the socialist movement, centred on the major social-democratic parties and their associated unions, the record looks like a significant success. Even the turn to neoliberalism in the West from the 1970s onwards, whilst it shifted the relationship of states to capital, against labour, did not fundamentally alter the co-ordinates of the post-war consensus. State expenditures remained far higher than in the pre-war period, providing a similar, if more pinched, set of social services and welfare benefits to citizens. That, in turn, provides a major justification for the record of the ‘Third Way’ in office: that New Labour delivered Sure Start, that Clinton Democrats oversaw rising wages, that Lionel Jospin did introduce the thirty-five-hour week, and so on.
All of which is true, and doesn’t count for nothing, but must now be set against two critical factors: first, the evident decline of the traditional labour movement across the developed world – now stretching, in some cases, into its fourth decade – has meant also the removal of a critical conditioning factor on the development of capitalism. With strike days in Britain at their lowest point since records began, pre-pandemic capital did not need to worry unduly about labour. Second, the stable growth of the post-war period has evaporated, and with it the comparative ease with which reforms could be delivered. Worse, the ecological sweet spot that post-war growth hit – with cheap fossil fuels and natural resources abundant, just ahead of the point where their use begins to impose huge costs – is now over, threatening instability of a more existential kind. These stable conditions were extended for the developed world, during the 1990s and into the 2000s, via the greatest credit bubble in human history, but 2008 brought that juddering to a halt. The material conditions, in other words, in which a social-democratic bargain could plausibly deliver – swapping direct democracy and control over the economy for indirect control of a bureaucracy tasked with caring functions – are crumbling.
The strategic error
Where the social democratic tradition erred most fundamentally is in abandoning the insight that democracy is necessarily pluralist, and requires the dispersion of power, for the belief that the centralised power of capital can only be confronted with a centralised state. As Paul Foot’s underrated final book, The Vote, makes clear, debates over democracy were central to the development of the working-class movement in Britain. His central chapter, however, focuses on how the radical promise of democracy was corralled so that the promise of returning power to the majority was superseded by the promise of indirect and partial power in the state bureaucracy.
It is not just traditional social democracy that thinks like this: the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe were profoundly centralised, both politically and in their management of the economy. For social democrats in the West, the issue was presented in softer form, and codified in the (still-influential) Anthony Crosland classic, The Future of Socialism. Direct intrusions on the power of capital to command and control, Crosland argued in 1953, were no longer necessary in a ‘mixed economy’ of public and private ownership in which a powerful labour movement could strike an effective bargain with capital. Instead, a strong state could redistribute the output produced by this newly productive society to ensure fairer outcomes. Nor did the more radical currents seriously diverge from this line of thinking: the Communist Party’s major postwar programmatic statement, The British Road to Socialism, first published in 1951, argues the case for greater nationalisation and stronger unions but does not seriously diverge from the programme for a mixed economy – it just wanted more state in the mix. And the much-heralded ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’, at the centre of the Labour Left’s thinking from the mid-1970s onwards, makes a similarly state-centred case.
Something very like Crosland’s argument has held sway in social-democratic and most socialist thinking ever since, even when the ‘bargain’ swung back in favour of capital and the ‘mixed economy’ became decidedly less mixed. Both the previous and the current Labour Party leaders, Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, went to the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry conference to put the case for exactly this sort of bargain with capital. At its core is the use of a centralised and redistributive state, the capture of which is a primary social-democratic or socialist objective, balanced against the private core of the capitalist economy.
But the belief in the centralisation of the state as a step on the road to either social democracy or socialism creates a critical problem: under the conditions of the centralised economic power, the concentration of political power in a unitary state risks leading not to a central power that challenges capital in any meaningful sense, but one that reinforces capital. Graeber himself, in common with anarchist and autonomist currents of radical thinking, returned repeatedly to this point. His arguments for the critical importance of Rojava centred precisely on the critique of centralisation as a strategic objective for the socialist movement.
This insight – that centralised political power may simply reinforce centralised economic power – implies how best we might respond to the material changes in capitalism today. We are, today, reaching the end of a 150-year period in which, broadly, progressives could hold the power of the state to be the best possible counterweight to the power of capital, defining a strategy for the Left in general. Grace Blakeley and Laurie Macfarlane are amongst those who have written recently on the growing fusion of the powers of state and capital. This is most obvious in China, where an authoritarian version of capitalism is increasingly embedded, but is visible across the world in different guises. The ‘state-bank nexus’ – in which governments propped up failed banks, which in turn propped up states – is familiar from the Eurozone, but it also appears in the extraordinary impact of quantitative easing and other ‘unconventional’ monetary policies, or the rise of ‘macroprudential’ – in reality, heavily state-led – regulation for financial systems across the globe. State-owned enterprises, the most visible form of state capitalism, are on the rise – dominated, of course, by China, but with rising state intervention across the globe. These interventions are taking on increasingly competitive form: at the centre of the apparent trade dispute between the US and China is a dispute over technology and the kinds of state intervention needed to secure and hold a lead at the technological frontier. The response to Covid-19 has simply accelerated the trend, as government spending is ratcheted up and governments intervene in economies on a scale unprecedented in the West outside of wartime. It is clearly not possible to simply put a tick next to all of this additional intervention: increased health expenditure may be desirable and necessary; mercantilist disputes over the use of digital technology are clearly not.
This growth in state entanglement with the wider economy is, as Blakeley argues, the direct result of pressures on profits appearing elsewhere. To secure market positions in a tightly-competitive global environment, and carry the burdens of rising costs across product lines, units of capital have increasingly turned to state support. Successive crises on an epic scale – first the Great Financial Crash of 2008-9, today the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic – have accelerated the tendency markedly. But the effect across the system as a whole is not necessarily to restore earlier dynamism: it is simply to bind each capital more and more closely to its local state. The re-emergence of industrial policy in the West, notably (for the European Union) stressing the need to compete with China and the US, is symptomatic of the tendency. The more that state power can be used to gain an advantage in a tightly competitive world, the greater the dependency on the state becomes. Above all, where environmental conditions now exert serious and rising costs on the operation of every capital – whether appearing as more frequent floods, food shortages, or, in overwhelming style, catastrophically disruptive pandemics – the progress of the system as a whole looks markedly less rosy than it might have done, not only pre-pandemic but pre-2008.
Economists typically see the state either as a necessary support for capital (the Mazzucato, neo-Keynesian position) or an unnecessary hindrance to capital (the pure ‘neoliberal’ position). They do not tend to see growth as both conditioned and constrained by the state in a historically-determined relationship, tending instead to stress the state’s role as either a necessary support or unnecessary hindrance as a permanent feature. Mainstream economists have, however, identified current weaknesses in accumulation, but again in similarly either/or terms. The debate around ‘secular stagnation’ typically blames the confluence of low growth and low interest rates on demographic pressures or ‘excess savings’. Alternatively, the slowdown is explained in terms of the technological peak identified by Robert Gordon.
In truth, neither the demand-side (secular stagnation) nor the supply-side (technological slowdown) explanations hold over the longer term. The major result of the increasing statification of the process of economic development is increasing levels of indeterminacy over the rate of growth for any given unit of capital (or a whole national economy, or indeed the entire global economy). The world’s largest economy, the US, can exploit its dominant position, and particularly the status of the dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency, to reflate its economy through massive tax cuts, ultra-loose monetary policy, and an astronomical deficit. This was the basis for the Trump boom over the last few years, following a pattern established by Republican Presidents since Reagan. But this is growth dependent on a political intervention, and a specific constellation of political institutions that can make it occur.
In a similar style, albeit with a higher degree of political co-ordination, the world’s second largest economy, China, can mobilise state resources on a grand scale – even in the midst of a pandemic – to drive a return to growth inside of six months of the Covid-19 outbreak. China remains unlikely to break the barriers to further accumulation, in the form of rising costs, both internal – the difficulties of securing and managing labour over the near-future – and external to the system, principally in the form of environmental disruption. Nor does the form of technological advance currently pursued, centred on data accumulation and processing, translate easily into profits in a competitive environment: rather, such business models now crucially depend on winning monopoly power.
Short-term boosts to growth can be won through state action; for the system as a whole, beset by rising costs and competition, the ratchet of state intervention turns the system towards a slowdown. Rent-seeking, through private monopoly or by capturing the state (or both) can be good for an individual unit of capital; if it generalises, it is bad for capitalism in general. And whilst control of the labour process is fundamental to the operation of capital, forming the basic condition to generate profits, if the costs of achieving that control are rising – in, for example, conditions of rising environmental instability – they can come at the expense of gains in productivity.
This long-range perspective creates two challenges for the Left. First, to recognise that the state is increasingly entangled with private capital in a way that might benefit capital-in-general, but is more likely to benefit specific types of capital or even specific firms. This is ‘state capture’ in action. As we are seeing in Britain, conventional politics, in these conditions, can degenerate into squabbles between (at best) different fractions of a ruling elite – as in the continual bickering inside the Tory Party, with the winners and their hangers-on getting their noses in the trough. Ideological disputes about the best course for capital-in-general are present, but somewhat secondary to the court politics.
The second challenge is that the difficulties in sustaining accumulation that pushed states and capital closer together also reduces the ability of labour and labour movements to capture any part of that surplus for its own purposes. Lower growth means less space to win the sorts of advances most associated with the rise of modern labour movements: public healthcare, education, welfare states. At the same time, the growing entanglement of the state with capital, without reference to labour movements, means that states increasingly become creatures of capital – of narrow business interests – far more than arbiters of the social good and keepers of some social peace. This is crony capitalism, and a rentier state.
Productivity and work
There are wider ideological consequences to all this – which brings us back to Graeber. The primary argument for capitalism remains the immense gains it generates in productivity. Work performed today is, on average, more productive than that before the Industrial Revolution. That additional productivity – in terms of reducing resources required to produce a given good or service, and also in inventing entirely new forms thereof to be consumed – is key to the material gains capitalism has produced over the last two centuries or so. The generalisation of those gains – meaning significant increases in the standard of living typical for most – is a large part of the reason the system continues to function. If the measurable productivity of capitalism is failing to grow as in the past, this creates the potential for a serous ideological challenge to the system. What’s more, the ideological claim that work would be necessarily productive under capitalism – that if you are getting paid for it, a job must, in some sense, be worthwhile (and the more you are paid, the more your job must actually be worth) is one that Graeber challenged directly.
His most widely-read book on the modern economy, Bullshit Jobs, began as a punchy essay in the short-lived Strike! magazine (an outgrowth from Occupy London Stock Exchange) in autumn 2013. Graeber developed the thought that an extraordinarily large number of jobs under modern capitalism seem to have no obvious purpose. Even more strikingly, this was widely accepted by all, but no-one had a solution. At essay length, it was an intriguing idea. It caught a mood amongst wide layers of the new proletariat confined to precisely such futile activities. Stretched to book-length, with Graeber attempting an anthropological survey of the nature and types of ‘bullshit jobs’ in the wild, the material feels a little thin, lacking the quantification that would potentially turn micro-level observations into a story about the decay and sheer waste of capitalism, relative to society’s potential. His estimate that around half of developed economies’ work-effort is wasted is a figure that, at least in theory, is open to precise calculation.
Nonetheless, the insight is key. Not only has the material promise of work broken down for many – the ‘decoupling’ between measured productivity and real wages across the developed world since the 1970s – but, with that, the immaterial ideology of work has been reinforced. Steve Jobs is a key figure in both trends. The shift of manufacturing production eastwards made mass consumption of advanced electronics a reality, driving down prices. It also, however, destroyed well-paid, secure jobs, and falling manufacturing prices left other essentials, notably housing, relatively and absolutely more expensive. At the same time, Jobs’ assertion that work should be performed for ‘love’ was of a piece with an ideological reassertion of a toxic work ethic linking psychological wellbeing to the value of work being performed – at precisely the moment, in Graeber’s telling, that such work grew increasingly valueless.
The political challenge, when confronted with evidently non-productive work, is to both explain it and offer an alternative. Graeber offers a psychology of the corporate bureaucrat, in which those creeping up modern bureaucracies desire more underlings in order to demonstrate their own status and worth – leaving the underlings themselves without either. Although bearing something of a family resemblance to older bureaucratic-power theories – say, James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution, or C. Wright Mills’ The New Power Elite – this isn’t quite satisfactory. The accumulation of organisational power demands a material basis, beyond the motivations of those doing the accumulating: to exercise power is to use both the technique, and the technology, of power. The sketch of the development of capitalism above, in which real productivity gains become harder to achieve, at least suggests why more and more jobs become unproductive: the squeeze on the production of surplus-value creates increasingly large incentives to try and grab shares of what value exists through legal ruses, the employment of those in basically pointless work, and then the employment of those overseeing the employed in pointless work, and so on. The inflation of credit bubbles tends to reinforce this, since the existence of credit grants something of what the economist Janos Kornai calls a ‘soft budget constraint’ to all concerned. Increasingly pointless activities can be indulged for as long as the overdraft is extended or the loan is not called in.
On the question of what to do about it, Graeber is sharper, and offers the most significant counterposition to a widespread (if usually implicit) social-democratic theory of work. Work was once seen as, at best, morally questionable – in the classical, aristocratic tradition of philosophy, a burden suitable only for beasts of the field, slaves, peasants, foreigners, and so on. The inversion, with the rise of capitalism, is the presentation of the moral claim that work is valuable, and that the performance of work is the key to understanding self-worth. And the visible evidence of that worth is the reward of work itself: the material wealth it can secure, in theory. The early labour movement internalised this morality: ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ encodes the idea of a just reward for work, which is itself ‘fair’. But to justify the reward, different forms of work had to be differentiated: the stabilisation of capitalism, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, appears as both the expansion of material rewards from work to a larger section of the population, stretching deep into the working class, and the tighter definition of valuable work as that which is performed in ‘commercial society’, as a public and measurable activity, unlike the private effort of housework. The gender division of labour was sharply reinforced by the ideology of work – meaning wage-work – as a good for itself, as Kathy Weeks, among others, has argued, in The Problem with Work. This meant some forms of activity were quantified against an ‘objective’ standard – that set by money – whilst others were hidden and left unrewarded. If the pay was ‘fair’ then the act of measurement and quantification must also, presumably, be fair: but as the relationship between productivity and remunerated effort broke down from the 1970s onwards (productivity growth rising far above real-wage growth across the Western world), this became harder to sustain.
Yet the ideological hangover of this ‘productivism’ – of the value of activities being a matter of their quantification and accumulation – is still with us. It is visible when the Left justifies its economic policies by reference to the growth they will produce, or stresses the fundamental worth of an activity by reference to the number of jobs it will create. This ideology reaches its most extreme form in some versions of a Jobs Guarantee, in which work is first generated by government and then the activities are found to justify it. Graeber’s solution to the bullshit-jobs crisis, close to others in the emerging post-work tradition, is to break with productivism entirely: a Universal Basic Income, paid equally to all, would allow activities to be performed by all of us without reference to any supposedly ‘objective’ standard of their worth. In a society whose social productivity is immense – the result of the collaborative activity of millions of us – there is no necessity to try to apply a privatised definition of productivity, and seek the rewards to match.
Productivism and social democracy
If the ideology of productivism could be seen most sharply in the former Eastern bloc, where the echo of Alexei Stakhanhov’s hammer rang long after his prodigious (and artfully exaggerated) efforts ceased, it also made an appearance in the non- or anti-Stalinist Left of the West, particularly once the measurement of Gross Domestic Product, an invention of the 1930s, became possible on a widespread, accurate, and regular basis following the Second World War. GDP gave seemingly scientific rigour to the measurement of economic activity, allowing the application of new techniques of macroeconomic management – another invention of the 1930s – with apparent accuracy. That GDP itself fixed in place the gender division of labour – bracketing out essential labour such as care work performed outside the market, usually by women – simply reinforced the broader ideology of work as such.
Meanwhile, it seemed as if the economic problem could be reduced to the simple selection of a point on the fabled ‘Philips Curve’ of the supposed trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Governments of the Left could pick more inflation to buy less unemployment; governments of the right could do the opposite; and voters could alternate serenely between the two. The reduction of the complex relationships that actually make up the economy to a comparatively simple engineering challenge perfectly matched the bureaucratic bias of both the expanded state sector and its trade-union analogues. The reduction of the economy to a mechanical device then dovetailed perfectly with a wider political commitment to work as a source of meaning, because work, in turn, could deliver the material goods. So it was that the entire chaotic process of capital accumulation – previously subject to conflicts both at the point of production and in general – in the form, by the interwar period, of catastrophic periods of slump and decay, could now seemingly be regulated: rapid government intervention smoothing the ‘business cycle’, technological innovation apparently ensuring rising productivity, and rising living standards for most seemingly guaranteed by broadly consensual labour-market institutions.
For a while this seemed to function. The ‘Golden Age’ of the two to three decades after the end of the Second World War saw, in the developed West, living standards improve for most people as never before or since, on the basis of rapid economic growth, expanded state provision of public services, and, across a spread of economies and sectors therein, powerful and institutionalised trade unions. That this was a tenuous settlement, based on the one-time-only coincidence of dollar-surplus, technological ‘catch-up’ in the developed world, and ecological stability, was not immediately obvious at the time. It was possible for a Conservative Party to not only fight, but win, an election on the slogan ‘You Have Never Had It So Good’. For enough people, it was true.
It isn’t any longer. This is also key to Graeber’s argument in his The Utopia of Rules. The turn, from the 1960s onwards, was from a path of technological development that expanded the reach of technology over material life into a form of progress based on expanding the reach of technology over human beings. Technologies moved from those that would deliver more material throughput, to those enabling greater control over the people expected to produce such output.
This tension, between material productivity and control over the people responsible for it, has been a feature of industrial capitalism since its inception; Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital, brilliantly describes how fossil fuels triumphed over renewable alternatives precisely because they offered a more reliable form of control over the production process. Pure technological control over nature, as a source of value and therefore productivity, is not prima facie desirable. The consequences of extending that control through, for example, the mass consumption of fossil fuels are now well-known. Nonetheless, the central insight is crucial. Productivity is fine, but without meaningful freedom it is valueless and, worse, can be deployed against us. Graeber’s stress on, not the ‘productive’ and valuable use of time, but the role and purpose of non-productive activity, is distinctive, and too rare: whether considered for bad (in those bullshit jobs) or good (in the potential for ‘unproductive’ feasts and collective activity), the presence of the non-productive is never far away in Graeber’s work. In this, he reminds me of another, more obscure but similarly iconoclastic and brilliant economist, Michael Kidron, whose pathbreaking work on growing ‘waste production’ (in, for example, his book Capital and Theory) under capitalism in the 1970s set a standard for judging work on the subject today. Both Graeber and Kidron, tellingly, tended towards a rejection of that technocratic part of the Left that would want to see rising GDP as a good in itself, in favour of a Left politics that stressed human freedom and creative potential over bureaucratic target-mongering. This leads to profound conclusions about the orientation of socialist strategy. As a US interviewer put it of Kidron in 1964:
[Kidron’s] solution is based, he says, on a re-examination of Trotsky’s analysis that private ownership is a fundamental characteristic of capitalism. Kidron claims that, on the contrary, capitalism is only the unplanned accumulation of wealth and that Trotsky’s stress on nationalisation as a means to material abundance must be replaced by stress on workers’ control as a means to human freedom.
Trotsky himself tended towards a productivist and state-centred view of economic development. In 1924, he wrote
[t]he present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final… [T]echnology, which takes nothing “on faith”, is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan.
It is hard today, in conditions of worsening environmental disintegration, to be so blasé about such proposed rearrangements. These features are being rearranged, disastrously, in front of us, as a direct result of the application of particular technologies on a planet-wide scale.
Nor is it possible to have the faith in rapid industrialisation of Trotsky and the Left Opposition in Russia in the mid-1920s, after the horrors of Stalinism and state-led development across the globe. Allowing a state such authority – even one purporting to be under the control of the workers – contains the risk that the force it can marshal will be used alongside the power of capital, rather than against it. It is always necessary to create a barrier to the power and authority of the state, both acting by itself and in cahoots with other major forces in society, of which capital will be the most concerning. An independent trade union movement is the classic institutional form of this barrier; but, on occasion, parts of local government capable of exercising real autonomy have been able to act in a similar fashion.
In socialist ideology, there is too often a direct association between the expansion of the resources available for society to command and an increase in the capacity of society to command them – in the form of the state. What the ecosocialist Michael Löwy has called ‘productivist socialism’ leans toward the assumption that the more a state controls society’s resources, the more they must be used for socially desirable ends.
The error has long roots: Marx was excoriating about those attempting to found Germany’s first unified socialist party who, in their first manifesto of 1875, argued that ‘labour is the source of all wealth and all culture’. In the marginal notes now collected as Critique of the Gotha Programme, he insisted ‘Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power.’ Making labour the source of all wealth radically downplays the contribution of nature as such to human wealth and culture, and glosses over the existence of humanity as itself the product of labour. But if you start to think otherwise – if, in Marx’s words, you adopt the ‘petite bourgeois’ way of thinking, you can start to valorise pure human effort without reference to its origins or noticing its impact. You are not, thence, too far from a purely productivist utopia: on one side, work as the expression of this unbounded productive potential; and, on the other, consumption as the unbounded realisation of human desires.
But we are living through precisely the point, Graeber says, at which this union of the two terms falls apart. Work has been detached from productivity, and the two are unlikely to be brought back together – not, at least, in the relatively sustained symbiosis of the Golden Age. Technological advance and environmental decline make the link increasingly hard to assert. We therefore, he stresses in Bullshit Jobs, need to think of ways in which work – in the broadest sense of ‘human activity’ – can be separated from reward.
Productivity and refusal
Yet, even if the underlying relationship has broken down, we still suffer from what Baudrillard, in The Mirror of Production, described as an ‘unbridled romanticism of productivity’. Ideally, we might well believe that work should produce commensurate rewards – ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’. But we often settle for the inverse notion – that rewards must be the product of work. The ideology of the ‘entrepreneur’ is the flipside of the ideology of the productive worker. Perversely, the more the relationship between work and rewards breaks down – as measured productivity growth falls in the advanced world, as real wages and salaries decline – the more the idea that rewards are necessarily the product of work comes to take hold. As Graeber notes, it is exactly the moment where work seems so unrewarding that its virtues are stressed – and the virtues of those who actually reap rewards underlined, through the same manouevre.
Covid-19 has revealed the scale of the disconnect between valued work and valuable rewards very sharply. The public health emergency it creates reveals a completely different scale of value, expressed in both popular and governmental terms as the concern with ‘key workers’. The very high real, social value of care work in various forms – reinforced, during the first wave of the lockdown, by public concern for the NHS and the weekly ‘clap for carers’ – was starkly set alongside the low pay and miserable conditions that those performing socially invaluable work are expected to undergo.
Correcting that disparity could lie well inside the boundaries of social democracy – a fair day’s pay, once again. But this wouldn’t, by itself, address the wider issue that the standard of fair measurement for the whole capitalist economy – usually expressed as Gross Domestic Problem – has major problems in assessing the contribution made not only by care work outside of the market, but in assessing care work that is paid for within a labour market. Illustrating the point, Mike Haynes has drawn attention to how national differences in the measurement of healthcare and education contributions to a country’s GDP have resulted in very large differences in measured GDP during the pandemic that may not reflect economic reality.
Graeber’s work on work invites us to invert the usual system of values by which capitalist society assesses the worth of any activity. We should be looking not for what is deemed productive, or, worse, at what is obviously unproductive but nonetheless rewarded: we should seek out, instead, unproductive activity. We should be working freely and independently and without regard to any notion of reward; and, conversely, we should be looking to refuse work where its reward is inadequate. We could be seeking to do work that is socially rewarding, without also expecting that a market allocation of this work would produce reward. And we should anticipate that much of the socially rewarding work will be less about the power of command – over resources or people – but instead involve the power of care.
The slide in measured productivity, the decay of the rewards, and the evident breakdown of the work/reward relationship makes this all the more urgent. It is because work is increasingly unproductive and irrelevant for increasingly large numbers of people that the refusal of the labour market bargain becomes a pressing requirement. The creation of a barrier to demands for labour – the power, ultimately, to say no to authority, and to do so in organised and collective form – has been at the centre of working-class organisation for as long as such organisation has existed. The very first trade unions were formed on this basis – and the first modern anti-trade union legislation, the Combination Acts of 1799, written directly to prevent it. It is fundamental to the existence of democracy as such that it is possible to create organisations outside of the state and of capital, that can exert some power. This is the power of refusal: the power to strike.
This power to refuse becomes more, not less, crucial in a period where technology is used to dominate, rather than produce, and where the ideological claims about the rewards from work are increasingly distant from the reality of work. It becomes more necessary to refuse specific forms of control particularly where these are designed not to improve productivity – whether considered as material output, or quality of work, or even an improvement in service provision – but to strengthen control over the work process itself. The right to refuse is a barrier against growing authoritarianism.
Debt as the founding institution
On the side of capital, the major mediating factor against a simple lurch into the authoritarian state-capitalist future horribly described by Macfarlane remains, ironically, the global financial system and, within that, the role of the dollar. The expansion of credit, during the 1990s and into the 2000s, made Third Way-type politics possible: credit eased the immediate distributional conflicts that might occur over real wages – growth remained comparatively weaker across much of the developed world – whilst resolving the problem of ‘realisation’ of profits and selling the goods being produced by sustaining vast consumer markets. Coupled with the coming-to-fruition of globalisation – the huge shift of production eastwards, enabled by innovations in transport and political organisation (the ‘Special Economic Zones’; the fall of the Berlin Wall; the entrance of China into the World Trade Organisation) – a period of consistent growth was sustained until the Great Financial Crisis of 2008–9 forcibly closed the gap between credit and underlying economies. But it is still credit, on the other side of the crisis, that is sustaining production – now heavily dependent on the credit-money creation of QE in the West, rising debts across the Global South, and, as we have seen under Covid-19, extraordinary feats of borrowing from the major powers to sustain themselves during the first phase of the pandemic.
This capacity to borrow hinges on one power continuing to act as guarantor of financial values within the whole system. And the capacity of the US to both maintain the value of the dollar, through its role as the ‘world currency’, and at the same time run the most colossal debts ever seen is the point at which Graeber ends Debt: The First 5,000 Years. He sees the US as performing a unique role in human history – although one that his book (perhaps understandably) underplays. It turns the 1971 decision by Richard Nixon to abandon the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates – and thus abandon the relationship between the dollar and gold – as a weirdly dramatic turning point in history: the switch of a great military power from the commodity form of money previous military powers had relied on to a credit form of money more commonly associated with more peaceful times. The US’ unique capacity has been to act as a massive creditor and, at the same time, to function as the mightiest power on the planet – not despite, but because of, that status.
To understand the centrality of this point to our current predicament means describing Graeber’s fundamental theories of debt and money, and their relationship to the course of human history. Debt presented an ambitious, distinctive, account of that history, centred on the role of debt as something close to an organising principle for society – or, at least, hierarchical societies. Humans, in Graeber’s telling, would generally establish essentially harmonious relations with each other, or at least would not systematically enforce hierarchy. Most of human history has looked at least a little like this; far from Adam Smith’s model of an inherent tendency to ‘truck, barter, and trade’, trade, for much of our time on the planet, was confined to the fringes of activity, perhaps between different groups of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers, and generally conducted in a ritualised form. Marcel Mauss, a major influence on Graeber, stressed this point in his classic 1925 essay ‘The Gift’, whose description of non-market trading relationships Graeber returned to throughout his own work. Money need not come into a world of such non-market trade, and – in one of Graeber’s more startling, but, on reflection, obvious, claims – the notion of debt clearly predated the notion of money.
What makes debt unique as a social institution is, for Graeber, not only its very significant age and spread as a concept across human societies. It is that it both creates a hierarchy – that of creditor versus debtor – and, at the same time, creates the means to justify the hierarchy. In this, he follows Nietzsche, rather than Rousseau: it is the institutions of debt and credit, not private property, that mark the foundation of human servitude. But the notion of obligation that exists in the debt relationship is what grants it its particular power. As Graeber notes, much of our language of moral obligation and ethics is shaped by notions of debt: in German the word for ‘debt’ is the same as the word for ‘guilt’, and ‘reckoning’ and ‘redemption’ in English have their roots in the Latin ‘redimere’ – to pay back. The first written representation of the word for freedom, the two ancient Sumerian syllables ama-gi, appears on clay tablets from the city of Lagash, dating from 2,300 BC: it refers to the practice of wiping out interest-bearing debt, ordered by the monarch, under threat of rising disorder and tumult as conventional society becomes overwhelmed by the rise in interest-bearing loans that debtors cannot pay. This jubilee, as we might now call it, using the Biblical word, was a moment of radical freedom – and, critically, one the state itself had to intervene to create.
This points to the double-sidedness of Graeber’s fundamental analytical point about human societies: that, broadly speaking, we construct relationships of what he (tongue slightly in cheek) calls ‘communism’, in which relations between people are broadly equal and everyone approaches everyone else with sufficient degree of recognition and solidarity that human society can carry on functioning. Communism, in Graeber’s sense here, is, he says, ‘something that exists right now – that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organised in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be.’
This is the direct analytical inverse of the claim in mainstream economics that human beings are entirely self-interested and that, if collaboration occurs, it occurs because we self-interestedly identify the need to collaborate, and then do so. Graeber’s claim matters analytically because it allows him to consider how oppressive institutions have had to be constructed. The close correspondence with Karl Polanyi and the constructivist tradition in general should be obvious, but Graeber pulls this construction of institutions far further back into the past than did Polanyi. This is a moral claim, in two senses: with regard to the morality of human society and of human beings; and, more importantly, it stresses that attempts to construct oppressive institutions must themselves refer to some form of morality. Violence alone cannot secure domination, given the natural propensity of human beings to collaborate, ‘communist’ style.
This is what gives debt its unique, foundational power in the construction of hierarchy and oppression in human society. Whilst we all might, in our primitive communist way, construct relationships of reciprocity – I do something for you, you do something for me – it is when the moral form of an obligation is abstracted from this original human relationship that this can begin to take on the specific character of a debt: a task or a contribution, in some form, that must be made in the future because it is owed today. (Graeber stresses that the great world religions tend to circle around the same crucial moral points of obligation, guilt, and service.) And once this notion of an abstract obligation comes into existence, it is open to becoming an exploitative relationship. Notably, if a debt is quantified – and removed, out of ritualised forms in which it first emerges, into a separate institution – then it can take the form we would now recognise as money.
Graeber, then, flips the economic-textbook account of money’s origins on its head. In the standard story, at least since Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations, money emerges as means to make barter more efficient. Instead of hoping to find a ‘coincidence of wants’ in exchange – someone who has eggs, but wants cheese, must look for someone who wants cheese, but has eggs, and so on – money, initially in the form of coins or similar tokens, allows every side to use a common standard in exchange, and therefore provides them more freedom to exchange as they see fit. This is a cute story, and one learned by generations of economics students. Unfortunately, it is entirely untrue. Barter has existed as the primary form of exchange for most of human history, with no compelling need for money to exist. Where trade has occurred – between unrelated groups, separate from kinship relations – it has been on the fringes of societies, not something related to day-to-day living, and often conducted in ritualised form. More than this, the archaeological evidence is increasingly clear: whilst records of quantified debt stretch back about as far as writing can be found, the evidence for the use of coinage or tokens to represent money is significantly more recent. Money was invented, in other words, before coins. This is a somewhat mind-blowing idea for those of us raised as economists on the barter myth, and probably fairly weird for everyone else. Money existed in the form of credit money, before it existed as anything else.
More than this: the quantification allows and is associated with the introduction of violence into the relationship. It allows the reduction of both material things and human beings to an objective standard. It is possible to construct a debt, and very rapidly this does become a recognisable form of debt, in which the performance of a service by an individual becomes the form of the obligation to be delivered – by the individual or their children, as in ancient Sumer and for a significant part of recorded history. Debt establishes relationships of slavery because it allows the quantification of human beings – or indeed, much later, ‘wage-slavery’, in which the obligation of a certain amount of time is demanded. (Wanting to stress the transhistorical continuities, Graeber notes the continuing central importance of ‘debt peonage’ in labour-recruitment even now, in various forms.)
What turned debt decisively from being solely an instrument for use between individuals of relatively equal social standing into an instrument of oppression was the creation of the state. This new form of authority in hierarchical society deployed the concept of debt to assert both its own authority – in the form of demands for taxes – and the authority of those closest to its structures of power, the new ruling classes of early human history, who could insist that their own debts were now enforceable by the violent action of the state. One version of this process is the ‘primordial debt’ theory, in which the debt to the state existed because of the state’s intermediary role as the source of our very existence: the universe in general, mediated first through religion, then through the state drawing its authority from religion and, finally, through modern states that as a rule derive no specific legitimacy via religion, but whose provision of services in return for taxes functioned as a justification for taxes themselves.
Graeber describes this account as a ‘myth’ – a state-theory version of the origins of money to counter the barter-theory account of money’s origins. More than this, he suggests that by tying the emergence of debt so closely to the state, the primordial debt theories have created ‘the ultimate nationalist myth’, since under it we owe our lives to the Nation. This is central to Graeber’s point of departure with standard ‘chartalist’ accounts of money, recently popularised by Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Chartalism traces its modern origins back to Georg Knapp’s 1905 The Origins of Money, in which he argued that money came into existence as a result of the need of states to levy taxes. By imposing demands for taxation on their citizenry, and then insisting these can be met only by one standard payment, states create both money and the demand for it. It follows from this that states are the foundation of any value we attribute to money. Graeber argues something else: that money emerges prior to the state, and his analytical method – seeing money, and debt, emerging in the material practices of relationships between people, rather than in the relationship of the state to people, guides him past the pitfalls of chartalism.
It also allows him to account more fully for the development of a new form of state-certified debt-payment, in coinage. This ‘commodity money’ entered into circulation first amongst the most aggressive states, meeting the need for a reliably accepted form of value that could circulate beyond the immediate boundaries of the state – as used, for example, by soldiers from invading armies – and act as a store of value for the state’s own claims to taxation. The ‘Axial Age’ civilisations of approximately 800 BC to AD 600 (Graeber borrows the term from Karl Jaspers, but the periodisation is his) established what Graeber calls the ‘military-coinage-slave’ complex, in which the violence of the Greek, Persian and Chinese Empires was funded by the minting of coins and sustained by the capture of slave populations. Ancient credit-money systems were destroyed and replaced by the new commodity-money form.
For Graeber, the collapse of the Axial Age Empires saw the retreat of gold and silver from circulation as money – back into temples and places of worship – and the re-emergence of credit money, in sophisticated forms including promissory notes and early kinds of futures contracts. Such credit money and credit instruments were operated by civil society, as opposed to the states, which had, notably in Western Europe, disintegrated into far smaller, weaker kingdoms and statelets in the wake of the Western Roman Empire’s fall. This period ends with the discovery of the New World and its vast reserves of precious metals. The European economy was remonetised, clearing the path for military expansion and creating the Atlantic slave trade. The European empires expanded globally on the back of money as a commodity form, organised at its peak through dependence on the Gold Standard, which provided ‘the only check’ on the multiplication of new forms of credit money via a rapidly expanding banking system.
What is missing from Graeber’s history, in the broadest overview, is the relationship with another fundamental of human society: the accumulation of knowledge about the world, and the refinement of its application in technology. It is almost possible to read Debt and believe that no meaningful technological change has occurred between the Sumerian civilisation and the Presidency of Donald Trump. Technology sometimes emerges at critical junctures in his history – in the development of navigation and improved shipping that allowed the crossing of the Atlantic, for example – but otherwise it is a passive auxiliary of a process happening elsewhere. The problem of technology in economics emerges as the parallel to the problems of wealth and accumulation. The distinctive modern form of wealth, capital, is wealth in a productive form – productive, in the first instance, of more capital; in the second instance, as the power of command over productive resources, which ultimately means labour and nature.
In the case of capital in the form of finance, this power of command is real, but hugely abstracted from the actual process of production. It can be used to initiate a productive process, but does not have to: the great virtue of finance is its extreme flexibility, as Costas Lapavitsas has argued. This allows great separation in the global economy between where production occurs and where profits eventually appear. Prior to 2008, the imbalance between centres of rising production and those of rising consumption could be sustained by the growth of financial flows in a dollar-centred system – and even celebrated as ‘Bretton Woods II’, with China–US trade and financial flows supposedly stabilising the whole economy. The appearance and spread of state-capital fusions across the globe, notably around the command and use of technologies at or close to the edge of current possibilities, is intensifying the contradiction between a globally organised and dollar-centred financial system on the one hand and increasingly state-centred versions of capitalism on the other. If money was, as the MMTers allege, simply a creature of the state, this could be resolved with comparative ease: just as capital is being brought closer to its nation-states at the level of production, so, too, could monetary systems be driving international forms of money (primarily the dollar) out of national banking systems and insisting that central banks create sufficient national money to sustain a new round of nationally-organised accumulation (as per Keynes’s 1933 nationalist prescription: ‘Let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national.’).
Unfortunately, because money is not primarily a creature of the state, particularly in its most internationalised forms, this readjustment will not be a smooth or easy process. To the extent that it is internationalised, finance remains a barrier to the completion of national state-capitals. More likely is the formation of regionally organised blocs, sharing common tariffs and ‘behind-the-border’ regulations on trade in goods and services and, potentially, organised around different, competing internationalised currencies. The creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is a step on this path. But this, too, is likely to involve dislocations in the functioning of the global monetary system, with the transition accelerated by the outbreak of Covid-19.
Back to the Neolithic Revolution
In part because Graeber has an anarchist’s cynicism about the state, he avoids a collapse into the nationalism and state-centricity that lurks behind more purely chartalist theories of money. But this cynicism is not, primarily, a moral claim about the world: it is an analytical necessity.
Some of Graeber’s recent work with archaeologist David Wengrow explored this theme, a recurring motif in his own work: that the forms of social organisation we tend towards are basically pretty egalitarian and based on the principles of reciprocity and gift-giving. This is the basis for his anarchist politics. What intrudes in this are the broader structures of oppression and hierarchy that, as in his account of debt, have extraordinarily deep origins but which are no more constitutive of our existence as zoon politikon than attachment to knives and forks versus chopsticks, or supporting Liverpool instead of Everton. These differences matter, but they are not fundamental. Graeber’s claim that human beings live in social situations of ‘communism’, or what Karl Polanyi called ‘reciprocity’, is transhistorical in an even vaster sense than is implied by the 5,000 year stretch of Debt.
There is an obvious objection: however we may have lived in the distant past – the world of hunter-gatherer societies, sometimes depicted as an Edenic time of primitive egalitarianism – the rise of civilisation and the state, connected to the Agricultural Revolution and the growth of cities, means we can never return to this ‘state of nature’. That, and the inequality and oppression it gives rise to, is the price of civilisation. Big-picture histories like Jared Diamond’s best-selling Guns, Germs and Steel argue this case, as, more weakly, does Yuval Hariri’s Sapiens. But the image of a pre-civilisation time of equality and harmony between people has been an influence on political thinking in the West since at least Rousseau in the late eighteenth century. Rousseau himself didn’t intend for his own picture of the ‘state of nature’ to be a representation of the historical truth; it was more an ideal type, a way to aid thinking about how states (and the ‘social contract’) developed. But the development of anthropology as a discipline – its expansion and systematisation from the nineteenth century onwards, as fieldwork techniques grew alongside explanatory methods – had seemed to provide actual historical evidence for something like this. Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family: Private Property and the State, published shortly after Karl Marx’s death in 1885, builds on the best available anthropological research at the time to extend a recognisably materialist account of history back into the distant past. In Engels’ telling, this produces a stage-by-stage account of human development, in which primitive communism is replaced by ‘barbarism’ (what archaeology now calls the Neolithic Period) and then, with the appearance of the state, ‘civilisation’. This allows Engels to give a materialist account of the appearance of women’s oppression in human history. But it comes at the cost of hammering human history into a series of neat boxes that more recent archaeology calls into question.
Against this version of materialism, Graeber and Wengrow counterpose another, rooted in the fundamental necessity of reciprocity to establish any form of human existence beyond the most basic. It allows them to account for the multiplicity of different human societies in which the rules governing reciprocity (in order to secure material outcomes) are given more weight than the types of technology used. The critical insight here is twofold. First, it improves our understanding of the origins of human societies as we experience them: whilst today almost all of us live in polities characterised by a centralised state, a system of law, an economy based around production and trade for and with money, this relative similarity emerged only comparatively recently. It may, in fact, be the result of contingent conditions rather than the inevitable consequence of attempting to organise human societies at any scale larger than a small, egalitarian band of hunter-gatherers. And freed of the putative need to organise hierarchies for complex societies, the sheer range and diversity of prehistoric human formations could act as a spur to reimagine the possibilities that might, perhaps, be available to us today.
The archaeological evidence of alternatives to familiar central state-hierarchical societies organisation is patchy. But as Graeber and Wengrow suggest, in ‘How to change the course of human history (at least, the part that has already happened)’, that very patchiness is indicative. It points to neither a lost time of inequality, nor hierarchy and oppression as permanent features of human existence. Instead, they suggest that much of the archaeological evidence – hierarchy in some places, egalitarianism in others – is explicable in terms of seasonality. Bound by the ebb and flow of seasons, early humans would spend much of their time in smaller groups, then band together at critical moments in the year to feast ‘on a super-abundance of wild resources, engaging in complex rituals, ambitious artistic enterprises, and trading minerals, marine shells, and animal pelts over striking distances.’ New evidence suggests that the builders of Stonehenge abandoned Neolithic farming of grains to return to collecting hazelnuts as a staple food, interspersed with occasional feasts on their herds of cattle. They would gather at festive times of the year, making use of ritual structures – often temporary, and constructed in wood – before dispersing back into the countryside. The extreme seasonality of the last Ice Age, with severe winters followed by near-tropical summers across Northern Europe, would encourage such behaviour. And this seasonality would affect more social behaviour than just that directly dependent on the environment, like acquiring food. Rather, entire social structures (‘entirely different forms of economic relations, family structure, and political life’) might organise the same group at different times of the year.
We might raise a question mark over the implications here. Whilst the estimated peak population of self-organising Teotihuacan in modern-day Mexico was an impressive 150,000 in AD 250, the evidence for larger such cities is, as yet, non-existent. We may find there was no urban formation of any greater size that did not also need the hierarchical features we today associate with urbanisation and states. Peter Turchin and his collaborators, in ‘Evolutionary Pathways to Statehood: Old Theories and New Data’, have attempted to suggest, on the basis of a statistical analysis, that this limit on non-hierarchichal society sits just above Teutotochian at around 200,000 people. But there is a question of causality: we do not know if it is scale that brings about the need for hierarchy, or whether we are seeing evidence that hierarchy is usually associated with scale in the societies of which we know.
There is also the pressing concern that forms of oppression appearing outside of the state, and seemingly pre-dating its formation – crucially, based on gender – are underweighted in Graeber and Wengrow’s account. Anthropologist Camilla Power, responding, has argued that the evidence suggests that women’s oppression is associated with the move towards more sedentary forms of human existence, centred on agriculture, as in more common accounts of humanity’s early history. Pushing the historical narrative back even further, however, she argues that the very capacity for reciprocity developed as we evolved the capacity for more complex language. Considering the very obviously inegalitarian societies of our nearest biological relatives, great apes, she considers that the key question is not ‘How did we get to be unequal?’, but ‘How did we first become equal?’ These are grounds for historical optimism: in ‘Gender Egalitarianism Made Us Human’, Power argues that we are ‘lingering in the dying days of a clapped-out Neolithic gender system. The more that women all over the world achieve true equality, the more they regain the Palaeolithic birthright of all humans … Against the lifespan of our species, Neolithic patriarchy is a historic blip in time.’ The broader perspective creates both the space for a fuller account of women’s oppression, and illuminates the possibility that it can be ended.
Planning as a moral problem
However egalitarianism emerges, its appearance and maintenance in larger-scale societies has rich political implications. It is these towards which Graeber’s work was pointing. If it is possible to organise egalitarian societies without a central authority creating conditions under which that egalitarianism can flourish, standard arguments for socialist planning may no longer apply. Indeed, the standard arguments for the kind of centralised redistribution we associate with social democracy need no longer apply. Genuine equality and freedom in human societies may not depend on a central authority capable of redistributing fairly across a population.
The case for democratic planning has recently been restated by Leigh Philips and Michal Rozworski in their very readable The People’s Republic of Walmart. Their argument hinges on the presence of ‘islands of planning’ in a sea of market competition in the form of the vast operations of corporations. The possibilities of using the technologies and organisation mobilised by the likes of Walmart for more obviously human ends, then, is the animating thread of their book – just as was observing the prodigious efforts of capitalist states planning production for total war for earlier generations of socialists.
In particular, fast computers and cheap digital sensors open up the prospect of continuous, real-time planning of the economy in ways that have never been feasible before. The ‘socialist calculation problem’ of old – that society was too complex to plan everything – appears solved. Yet this may not be an entirely desirable solution. In the World Review of Political Economy, Bibin Yang and Xiaoyan Li have recently proposed the implementation of a planned economy using real-time Big Data to allow immediate adjustments to plans, creating a hybrid ‘market-based, plan-driven’ system. Like Philips and Rozworksi, they suggest that major corporations – particularly the platform companies like Alibaba and Amazon – already operate on such a model. All that is needed, they suggest, is for the state to replicate such functions and expand its sphere of planning. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, has suggested that his company is a stepping stone to a planned economy: ‘with access to all kinds of data, we may be able to find the invisible hand of the market.’
There are two important points here. The first is that ‘finding the invisible hand’, whilst a striking metaphor, is very much in line with conventional economics thinking on the relationship between planning and the market. The ‘ideal’, welfare-maximising distribution of societies’ resources, as selected by a perfectly benevolent planner, is identical to the ‘ideal’, welfare-maximising distribution of societies’ resources as selected by an entirely free market, in the standard proof of the desirability of a market society. The presence of Big Data turns this hypothetical social planner into a real possibility, overcoming the standard free market criticism of planning, exemplified in the work of Von Hayek – that the information needed to perform the task, in any reasonably complex society, is too great for it to be performed. We have not stepped outside the boundaries that neoclassical economics usually establishes for the problems it seeks to address.
Second, if we do look beyond those boundaries, we are back in the world of a state-capital fusion. ‘All kinds of data’ has deep implications: it could include, for instance, social credit scoring, as applied in China (and of which the recently-departed Dominic Cummings was something of an enthusiast). It is not obvious that this should be acceptable. Francis Spufford’s semi-fictional account of the development of Soviet planning, Red Plenty, makes exactly this point: that even with faster computers and more data, the demands of a (presumed) benevolent planner might well be rejected by those expected to follow its edicts. (In the book, changes in the prices of food, intended to produce a fairer distribution according to the plan, provoke riots.) We would have to exhibit a very high degree of trust in the planner to simply allow for its diktat to set the course of our lives.
Arguably, via the mass data-collection empires of Big Tech, we do display that sort of trust, happily handing over to them unimaginable volumes of information about ourselves and our relationships. We might read this as a challenge to Graeber’s vision of reciprocity: that a version of free exchange – even a gift relationship – can be established with an entirely faceless bureaucracy subject to no obvious legal or democratic or even, if we are not careful, human restraints. The latter point is particularly important with AI that can teach itself and devise new rules for us, as is already occurring. We are implicitly offering our consent to a process that is running ahead of us – and one which, under Covid-19, has accelerated markedly.
There are two profound side-effects to the presence of mass data that the Left has not yet got its collective head around. The first is the gradual disappearance of consumer-facing markets from our lives. Facebook is, as it says on the homepage, ‘Free, and it always will be.’ No exchange of money takes place between the Facebook consumer and the Facebook company, as in a more conventional market operation. Instead, Facebook monetises the data it gathers and sells it elsewhere. But this is a challenge to how we conventionally think about capitalism, and certainly how we conventionally try to register its activities. Constructing GDP becomes harder when there is less being obviously traded, and the location of where ‘value’ is realised becomes harder to pin down. This is a process of capital-led decommodification, at least for its end-products; but the corollary recommodification of data is also still poorly understood. Katharine Pistor has recently explored some of the implications. In ‘Rule by Data: The End of Markets?’, she speculates persuasively that the data will likely displace markets and law as the dominant organising principle of human societies. We are already seeing the displacement of markets; law is further down the line. This process runs counter to the neoclassical expectation that the improvement of markets would lessen the dependence on law and reduce the role of firms in the economy. In fact, Pistor suggests, we have seen the reduction of transaction costs to bare minima via digitisation, but, alongside and as a direct consequence of this, the massive growth of ‘corporate behemoths’ in the form of the data giants. Law is being bent towards their will, directly in the sense that they are very powerful lobbyists for specific legal structures, and indirectly (and ultimately more consequential) in that their actions create new structures enjoying a form of legality in advance of any formal lawmaking.
There are three sets of responses to this. One is to attempt to reassert market rule, as with the various anti-trust efforts against Big Data. A second is to reassert law, as in the various attempts to regulate and control data. Both of these look doomed to fail, at least on their initial terms: the former looks set to, at best, reproduce multiple versions of problematic institutions; the second merely hands over more control to a central authority. Both ‘market sovereignty’ and ‘state sovereignty’ fail when set against the need to bring data under human control. This will not stop their political protagonists arguing for either: a reassertion of neoliberal politics lies in one direction, and potentially ugly nationalism in the other. An anti-egalitarian political right can exist on the basis of either (or, quite possibly, some combination of both at once).
Pistor favours a third option: a reassertion of the fundamental reciprocity – the ‘primitive communism’ – in allowing smaller collectivities of data users and producers to form, then seeking their protection through the use of ‘data trusts’. These would be a mixed form of institution – potentially (if the trustees wished it) operating in a market, enjoying a legal protection, but constituted on the basis of a collective interest. (I have recently discussed such trusts in Creating a Digital Commons.)
The pandemic has shown us how a collective interest can run far ahead of the state: judging by transport usage statistics, the ‘lockdown from below’ was beginning well ahead of the laggardly government response. The range of new governmental powers have not in general been directly used, because the wider social determination of a shared interest in maintaining social distancing, wearing a mask, and so on, has been very solid. The moves towards authoritarian control under Covid-19 – despite the hysterics from the pro-virus right – have occurred out of sight, in the collection, management and analysis of data.
Conclusions, which are political
This species of mixed polity as the basis for an egalitarian society has implications. It is critically important that the self-identified Left, including at its most radical end, shakes off its attachment to the state and to productivism. And a refoundation of liberalism is also needed. It, too, must shake off such attachments – or at least its better half should try. Katrina Forrester’s recent history of liberal political philosophy in the wake of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice makes clear that the formalisation of liberal thinking around the Rawlsian scheme was itself attached to a specific version of the post-war settlement. His seemingly universal claims were particularly located, a product of their time. But as the conditions that made those claims viable decay – with the turn towards neoliberalism, and more fundamentally, as capital accumulation runs into its ecological consequences – a more sustained critique of capitalism than Rawls’ is imperative.
There was (and is) a species of this in liberalism. John Stuart Mill, better-known today for his political philosophy than his economics, was one of the earliest figures in the marginalist revolution. But though he broke with the labour theory of value, he also conjectured that a world in which growth had ceased but equality was widespread would be an ideal final state for humanity. John Maynard Keynes, another towering liberal figure, is today better known for his economics than his political philosophy, but his 1930 speculation as to the end point of economic growth, with everyone enjoying lives of comfortable leisure and minimum work, is today becoming more widely-read. A return to the anti-productivist standards of Mills and Keynes (and Schumacher and Jacobs and the rest of the radical liberal-left) may offer a route beyond the blockage. Similarly, any political realignment of the Left and the liberal-left – however necessary such a coalition may become – will have to confront its bureaucratic attachments and productivist hangovers. If the coalition is built with both sides implicitly agreeing that a redistributive bureaucracy is the ultimate goal of politics, as for much of the twentieth century, it will not hold against the counter-claims of the anti-egalitarian right.
Clearly a balance must be sought. Markets considered as a social institution, rather than (as usually presented) an efficient way to manage resources clearly retain a role – even a strong appeal, as spaces for interaction and non-essential consumption. There is at least a strong case for suggesting that their role as an arena for forms of reciprocity, rather than efficient production, can also be retained. Similarly, the delivery of the essentials of ‘life-making’ activities can be effected on a more egalitarian and efficient basis by the state: healthcare, education, other forms of care can and should be secured via state action. The borderline case here is Universal Basic Income, but this can best be thought of as blow against the fundamental institution of the labour market itself. It breaks the link between work and reward in an egalitarian and potentially reciprocal direction, against the commodification of labour and activity itself.
Concern with ‘commodification’ and ‘decommodification’ on the contemporary Left has emerged in discussions around ‘Universal Basic Services’. This is a decidedly Polanyian take on the issue, in the sense that solving it – removing essential services from the commodity form – is generally deemed to require the intervention of the state to repair a civil society shattered by the market form. But we can push for a more radical version of a similar idea, in which the commodity form is resolved not by the operation of the state, or (as with the data giants) the operation of institutions emerging from the market, but where decommodification occurs because people are enabled to determine how the products of their own activity are distributed. This is the prospect Graeber holds out at the end of Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, discussing the clash between Karl Marx and Marcel Mauss in their alternative conceptions of the commodity and of value.
Indeed it is the tension between Marx and Mauss that Graeber sees as constitutive of the terrain of political possibility for radicals. On one side is Marx’s critique of the commodity form itself, and its domination of society under ‘generalised commodity production’. On the other is Mauss’ stress on the constitutive role of exchange in human relations, and the possibility that mutual gift giving and reciprocity can become the basis for genuinely egalitarian human relationships. The two thinkers were not as far apart, politically, as Graeber implies. It is not quite true that Marx left no clues as to what a future society might be like. Marx’s opening address to the First International in 1864 stresses what we would now call the ‘prefigurative’ role of workers’ co-operatives in shaping a new society. Mauss’ own political engagement was primarily through the co-operative movement.
The political strategy for the Left, faced with the monumental prospect that its brief period of coexistence with the state might be unwinding, takes us back to Graeber the activist, to prefiguration, in the sense of seeking to create immediate alternatives that themselves act as synecdoche for the future society to be created: ‘direct action is ultimately the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.’ The strategies of community wealth building, of platform co-operatives, of the occupation of disused office spaces must fit into this plan. Graeber sees the taking of state power as a final, small step towards socialism, not the first, grand step on the way.
James Meadway is an economist and former advisor to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.