Graeber’s Response to his Critical Review.

David Graeber responded on twitter to the critical review I posted yesterday. From his responses it seems that not only is he hostile to criticism, but he is annoyingly self righteous about it. He combines these appealing qualities with a skewed view of Marxism.

Take for instance the following self righteous statement to one of his followers about his noble attempt to engage with Marxism:

Honestly I’m v sad. I really wanted to engage with Marxist thought & threw out ideas to do so. Reviewers ignore them & just repeat orthodoxy

What a noble champ.

But then let us compare Graeber’s view of Marxism with what he terms the ‘orthodox’ views held by Ingo Stützle. In Graeber’s view:

class consists of REAL social rels not ideologicl fantasies-no matter how important those are on social reproduction.

in short what you call “forms” I think largely = ideological illusion, obscuring the empirical reality of class.”

Whereas for Stützle:

the forms (!), that domitate a society – this is my most important point – and it’s obious the moot point, too.

Thus Graeber seems to have an inverted notion of Marxist orthodoxy. In his view Stützle is guilty of Marxist ‘orthodoxy.’ While Graeber’s vulgar and orthodox notions of what constitutes Marxism–class and false consciousness– consist in some sort of cutting edge incisiveness the orthodoxy don’t dare touch. The problem is that Graeber’s conception of Marxism can be easily transhistoricized to any sort of class society, while Stützle’s Marxism aims to engage with what is socially specific about capitalism. It is surely the later, not the former, that can provide us with an understand of how debt is constituted and functions in capitalist reproduction.


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Graeber’s Response to his Critical Review.

  1. David Graeber says:

    Well, gee, thanks for the personal insults.

    Look, I will write quite simply what I wrote in the book, and what Stultze’s response was, so perhaps you can understand why a certain sense of frustration might result.

    In the book I wrote what I thought was a friendly challenge to Marxist theory – I said, basically, that we are used to writing as if

    a) capitalism is based on the relation of production between free wage laborer and the owner of capital
    b) the form and meaning of capitalist money emerges from this relation
    c) therefore it is inappropriate to assume any important continuity with earlier, pre-capitalist (that is pre-wage labor) forms of money

    In response I threw out an historical observation: that, surprisingly, almost all the key financial innovations which became typical of capitalism, from stock exchanges to national deficit financing through semi-private central banking systems, to various forms of commercial credit, developed not only before the factory system, but before wage labor was in any way dominant, or really all that significant, as a factor in production for the market. I also observed that free wage labor was never as commonplace as many seem to assume even in Victorian England, let alone in the world system as a whole at that time, and cited Yann Moulier-Boutang’s arguments that there has never been a time when it was the predominant global form. Finally I pointed out this didn’t really contradict Marx’s analysis since he was writing not a work of political economy but a critique of political economy, that is, assuming the somewhat utopian assumptions of the political economists were true and showing that even if they were, the capitalist mode of production would still destroy itself based on fundamental contradictions.

    I expected this might spark a certain debate.

    I didn’t expect agreement . But I did expect some engagement. There are lots of potential explanations one can offer, after all. One could argue (a la Brenner) that wage labor was more common in the 16th and 17th centuries than we usually think. Or maybe one could argue as does Jairus Banaji that wage labor is not primarily a matter of free contract at all but of paying the means for workers’ reproduction out of a firm’s income, in such a way that even slaves could be wage labor in a sense. Or one could conclude as I do that free wage labor simply isn’t as central to capitalism as we’d previously assumed. But I did expect some engagement.

    In this I was apparently naive. Not a single Marxist critic on the book has so much as ACKNOWLEDGED this challenge. They uniformly just pretend it isn’t there.

    Imagine for a moment you had made these arguments. Imagine that you were then confronted by a review that not only ignores everything you have to say on the subject, but then goes on to simply reassert that capitalist money is fundamentally different owing to the fact that it is based on free wage labor and that I have somehow not figured this out. That is, a review that simply restates (a), (b), and (c), acts as if I had not offered an empirical challenge to such assumptions, but instead treats them as self-evident truths that I was simply unaware of. Wouldn’t that cause a tiny bit of frustration?

    As for your own criticism, that I am falling back on simple ideas of ideological superstructure – no, that’s just another hostile reading. What I said in the book is that Marx was taking the assumptions of political economy – for instance, that in the capitalist MoP labor normally takes the form of free labor contracts between jurally equal individuals that involved the regular payment of physical currency in the form of wages – and saying that even if they were true, the capitalist MoP would still be based on fundamental contradictions that would destroy it. That doesn’t mean that those assumptions were really true, or for that matter Marx really thought they were. It is completely absurd to act as Stutzle does and take such an abstract, as-if analysis, and say that’s the true timeless reality of a system called “capitalism”, and that anyone who, like me, tries to describe the actual forms that labor relations took at that time is somehow “ignoring” class! It’s even more absurd to, as you do, pretend that anyone who makes a distinction between (a) the way economists and their critics described capitalism in theoretical books, and (b) the way actual factories and other institutions creating commodities for the market tended to work in practice, is guilty of a theory of “false consciousness.” That is, unless, perhaps, you think it’s impossible for someone to write a book with a description that is factually wrong!

    • HR says:

      My comment about self-rightousness was meant to describe your style of argumentation in your debate on twitter. I thought your comments criticizing orthodoxy relied on portraying yourself in the opposite light: as open to dialog etc. Therefore it was not meant to personal.

      Many of the points I would remake in response have already been made in the libcom thread.

      But I would also add that it seems to me that you are getting an engagement from Marxists. I think the problem is that your conception of Marx’s theory and Marxist theory pertains to political Marxists. In these instances you are replying to the criticisms of value-form marxists. These value-form Marxists have a more complex conception of Marx’s theory of value as a monetary theory of value then what you seem to present as your interpretation of Marx’s theory of money. (on this point it should be noted that you don’t actually cite Marx in Debt or have an extended discussion of how you conceive of his theory of money so this gives them plenty of grounds for criticism) In contrast to your characterization of Capital they also conceive of Capital portraying the capitalist system at its ideal average.
      Therefore they are not going to be persuaded by some empirical examples you give. Especially since they think your theoretical grasp of Marx’s theory is flawed. But since you write these critical engagements off as absurd scholasticism and rely on empirical examples as irrefutable you don’t acknowledge their criticisms of your work or engage with their arguments.

      My description of your theory of false consciousness was based on your definition of forms as ideological illusions in your twitter exchange:

      class consists of REAL social rels not ideologicl fantasies-no matter how important those are on social reproduction.

      in short what you call “forms” I think largely = ideological illusion, obscuring the empirical reality of class.”

      To me this seems like a theory of false consciousness.

      • David Graeber says:

        well again if you think any theory which says that the way that economists tend to represent economies is inaccurate is a “theory of false consciousness”, then you’ve created a category so broad that criticizing it is ridiculous.

        As for dialectics, that may be about the most pathetic version of a form/content dialectic I’ve ever seen. Actually it strikes me as more resembling a Weberian ideal type, except without the proviso of then going and constantly adjusting it against reality. To put it briefly: what Stultze did was take “capitalism” as a model based on a relation of capital and free wage labor, and then said that money in such a system must work in certain ways, and then assumed that rather than an initial abstraction, this was a description of an historical stage and anything before the stage of “capitalism” must necessarily be fundamentally different. The result was a series of statements that were just patently false: for instance, that “pre-capitalist” economies only knew predatory consumer lending and “capitalist” economies then introduced “credit,” which is commercial lending for profit, which suggests. that the first profit-seeking commercial loans only occurred in 1750 or at best 1500, when in fact, the first evidence for profit-seeking investment loans to merchants date from four or five THOUSAND years earlier. This has nothing to do with dialectics. It’s just imposing abstract models in the most mechanical and thoughtless way.

        As for the matter of style – I did not engage in personal attacks or insults in my twitter response. You did.

  2. Ogion says:

    Does Graeber use Google Alert or something? Every single time anyone even makes a mention of his name on the Internet, he’s always there before you know it to trash the criticism. I remember reading a four-star review of one of his books on Amazon where the reviewer mostly praised the book and just thought some parts of the book might not be of as much interest, and here comes David Graeber making a comment and going off about the reviewer alone destroyed the circulation of the book and guaranteed hundreds of people wouldn’t buy it now! Pretty “anarchist” of him to care more about the sales of his books than even slight criticisms — the guy clearly has a chip on his shoulder.

    Whatever there might be of interest in his Debt book, I agree it would be nice if he was a little less hostile and self-righteous to those who critique his work.

  3. HR says:

    Thanks for your reply.

    You seem to have taken offense at what you perceive as a personal insult. I apologize. But let me stress again it was meant to be a description of how you respond to your criticisms. In my experience, which Ogion seems to share, you don’t really engage with them. Instead you dismiss them on the grounds of what seems to be some preconceived notion of what Marx’s work Capital and dialectics consist in. However, this preconceived notion is not laid out and you do not engage with other interpretations of Marx. As a consequence you are bound thwart your own stated intention to engage with Marxists, unless you also have a preconceived notion of what Marxists are and think people who subscribe to the value-form reading have such an absurd reading of Marx they deserve contempt instead of engagement.

    This is apparent on the issue of false consciousness where you do not consider: (a) there is a widespread interpretation that Marx was propounding a theory of false consciousness in Capital (b) that your comments resemble these characterizations. Instead you revert to your preconceived notion of what Marx is doing in Capital to dismiss this interpretation without explaining it. I agree that the theory of false consciousness is absurd. But there are reasons why your twitter comments can be seen as advocating this theory.

    The same strategy is employed in your conception of dialectics and your criticisms of Elbe which are again premised on an interpretation of Marx that isn’t spelled out.

    Should your rejoinder be that you spell it out in Debt, i’m afraid this isn’t the case. The closest you seem to provide is the following paragraph:

    Karl Marx, who knew quite a bit about the human tendency to fall down and worship our own creations, wrote Das Capital in an attempt to demonstrate that, even if we do start from the economists’ utopian vision, so long as we also allow some people to control pro­ ductive capital, and, again, leave others with nothing to sell but their brains and bodies, the results will be in many ways barely distinguish­ able from slavery, and the whole system will eventually destroy itself. What everyone seems to forget is the “as if” nature of his analysis.106 Marx was well aware that there were far more bootblacks, prostitutes, butlers, soldiers, pedlars, chimneysweeps, flower girls, street musicians, convicts, nannies, and cab drivers in the London of his day than there were factory workers. He was never suggesting that that’s what the world was actually like. 354

    From this it seems that you interpret Capital purely as a critique of political economists that Marx intended to have little or no relation to reality. However, this goes against some of Marx’s stated purposes in Capital such as the preface to the first edition where he indicates that he views capital as the underlying economic form that encompasses pre or non capitalist forms of work:

    The physicist either observes physical phenomena where they occur in their most typical form and most free from disturbing influence, or, wherever possible, he makes experiments under conditions that assure the occurrence of the phenomenon in its normality. In this work I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Up to the present time, their classic ground is England. That is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas. If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural labourers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!” [It is of you that the story is told. – Horace]

    Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.

    But apart from this. Where capitalist production is fully naturalised among the Germans (for instance, in the factories proper) the condition of things is much worse than in England, because the counterpoise of the Factory Acts is wanting. In all other spheres, we, like all the rest of Continental Western Europe, suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead. Le mort saisit le vif! [The dead holds the living in his grasp. – formula of French common law]

    The social statistics of Germany and the rest of Continental Western Europe are, in comparison with those of England, wretchedly compiled. But they raise the veil just enough to let us catch a glimpse of the Medusa head behind

    By not addressing this you do not address the other strand of critique in the double character of Marx’s critique of political economy which is lucidly summarize in Reichelt’s Jurgen Habermas’s Reconstruction of Historical Materialism:

    “Marx pursued a pro- gramme of deciphering society as an ‘organic’ [naturwüchsige] form of increasing individualization. Marx’s focus is on forms, at first on forms of consciousness (i.e., religion, philosophy, morality, law), then later on the forms or categories of political economy. For Marx, the focus on forms was identical with the critique of the inverted forms of social existence, an existence constituted by the life-practice of human beings. All these forms obtain as inverted form of a ‘community’ that is external to the individuals, and from which they must emancipate themselves in order ever to be able to interact with one another ‘as individuals’ (Marx and Engels, 1962, pp. 70f).1 This central idea is presented in its most pregnant form in The German Ideology: ‘The reality [das Bestehende], that communism creates, is precisely the real [wirkliche] basis for rendering it impossible that any reality should exist independently of individu- als, in so far as this reality is only a product of the preceding inter- course of the individuals themselves’ (ibid., p. 70). It is thus a matter of deciphering theoretically the appearance [Schein] of independence that this ‘surrogate of community’ posits (ibid., p. 74), and then of expelling it practically from the world so that human beings will be able to enter into relationship with one another, not as character-masks, but as real individuals.”

    Subsequently, you do not address what we seem to agree is an important issue: how this conception of Marx’s critique of political economy relates to empirical reality. This is because you have dismissed this strand before even considering it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s