Possibilities — Part 3, Chapter 10 : Social Theory As Science and Utopia: Or, Does The Prosect of a General Sociological Theory Still Mean Anything in an Age of Globalization?

By David Graeber

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Untitled Anarchism Possibilities Part 3, Chapter 10

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(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)

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Part 3, Chapter 10

10 — Social Theory As Science and Utopia: or, Does The Prosect of a General Sociological Theory Still Mean Anything in an Age of Globalization?

I can address the organizers’ questions from two possible vantages: as an anthropologist, or as a political activist who has been working for some years with the globalization movement (the so-called “anti-globalization movement”), which has been reformulating the whole idea of revolution in accord with changing global conditions. In what follows, I will try to do a little bit of both, by offering some reflections on the history of social theory in general and its changing relation to the prospects of social revolution.[210]

I’m taking this approach not just because it provides a useful point of entry, but because I believe there is an integral relation between the two—or, more specifically, between the revolutionary imagination and the idea that there is something I will call “social reality” that bears empirical investigation, and that, therefore, makes a scholarly discipline like sociology possible. This I think seems abundantly clear as soon as we seriously consider the historical beginnings of social science. Let me begin, then, with some brief notes on the history of comparative ethnography, before moving on to the origins of sociology itself.


Some Notes on the History of Comparative Ethnography

It has become fashionable in recent years to see anthropology basically as a product of imperialism, and certainly, it was the creation of vast European empires that made it possible. However, there have been plenty of multicultural empires in human history, and none, as far as we know, had ever before produced a project for the systematic comparison of cultural difference. Even if we confine ourselves to the Western tradition itself, what evidence there is points, if anything, in the opposite direction. In the ancient world, one could make a case that something like anthropology was emerging in fifth-century Greece, where geographers like Hecataeus and historians like Herodotus were developing ideas about how customs and mores might be systematically compared. This was during a period in which the Greek world was not even politically unified, let alone the center of a vast multicultural empire. When such empires did arise shortly afterwards, this sort of literature disappeared: neither the Hellenistic empires nor Rome produced anything resembling anthropology. The reasonable explanation would seem to be that fifth-century Greece was a period of political possibility: full of social experiments, revolutions, and utopian schemes. Comparing social orders was one way to discuss the potential range for political (that is, human) society. This clearly was not the case during the centuries of Roman rule. In fact, it would seem it was the very political fragmentation of fifth-century Greece which encouraged this kind of thought. Since the basic political unit was the city-state, a relatively small community, the space for political experiments was in fact wide open: new Greek colonies, and hence political units, were in fact being founded all the time, new constitutions being mulled and created, old regimes overthrown.

Similarly, I suspect that it would be possible to document at least a loose connection between ethnographic curiosity and a sense of political possibility over the last five hundred years of European history. One could start in the sixteenth century, which saw both the first statements of what was to become modern relativism in authors like Montaigne, and a sudden burst of utopian speculation and revolutionary movements. During the century that followed both the curiosity and the sense of possibility fell somewhat into retreat in most places, only to be suddenly revived together in the years leading up to the French Revolution. This was followed by another retreat during the reactionary years following Napoleon’s defeat, and another, even stronger revival after the revolutions of 1848. It was the last period that saw the emergence of anthropology as a professional discipline.

I have elsewhere pointed to a cluster of ideas that tend to appear together: the very idea that one might “give power to the imagination,” as the famous 1968 slogan had it, to imagine different social orders and try to bring them into being, itself leads to a need to recognize a substratum of resistant “reality” of some sort (which must then be investigated), along with sparking curiosity about just how different actually existing societies have been known to be. Imagination and reality are reverse sides of the same process; a conception in part inspired by Critical Realism’s definition of “reality” as precisely that which can never be completely known and, hence, never entirely encompassed by imaginary models. It would at least make it easier to understand why so many of the most idealistic people in recent history have insisted on calling themselves “materialists,” or why a commitment to some sort of materialism has so often accompanied the most daring utopian projects. Also, why it was that all three principles (revolution, reality, ethnography) came under attack simultaneously during the 1980s.

On Sociology and Wreckage

Turning to sociology, all this becomes, if anything, more clear because sociology is widely seen to have emerged, as a discipline, from the wreckage of the French Revolution. As Robert Nisbet pointed out half a century ago, almost all the great themes on which the discipline was established—community, authority, status, the sacred—were issues first singled out by reactionary critics of the Revolution like Bonald, Burke, or de Maistre, who argued these were precisely the social realities which Enlightenment thinkers had treated as so many bad ideas that could be simply brushed away, with catastrophic results. The themes were then developed more systematically by figures like Saint-Simon and Comte, who were grappling quite explicitly with the question of what went wrong, and trying to find some substitute for the principles of order and integration assumed to have existed in the Middle Ages. They have remained at the center of the discipline ever since.

The Revolution’s troubles, the failure to transform basic institutions simply by changing the laws, were perceived to have revealed the existence of something that, while it was no longer seen as having been simply ordained by God or some similar external principle of authority, could no longer be seen as a simple creation or embodiment of individual or collective will. It seemed to resist attempts to reshape it, or at least throw them in unpredictable directions. In other words, this “something” had a consistency and logic of its own that had to be understood in its own right, and could be scientifically investigated. That object—something which could be said not to have really existed, as an object, or at least as quite that sort of object, before it became the resistant object of projects rooted in some kind of utopian imaginary—has remained the object of sociology ever since.

Owing to the peculiar history of the formation of disciplines, however, it was also seen as an object whose integrity, whose consistency and logic, had been at least to some degree shattered.

Here the key role was played by political economy (later economics) which split off from moral philosophy before sociology established its own, somewhat subordinate, domain. This allowed for the development of a very particular division of intellectual labor. Economics concerned itself with the functioning of markets and market behavior. Markets were assumed to be self-regulating. The object of economic science might have been constituted, as Polanyi so well documented, largely by state planning, by the imposition of an apparatus of laws and policies meant to create a create the field for certain sorts of interaction, but (as Polanyi also noted) almost as soon as the apparatus was in any sense up and running economic theorists appeared, employing all sorts of naturalistic metaphors to argue that this was indeed a functioning equilibrium system and a direct product of human nature that should be left largely to its own devices. Critically, too, economics staked out for itself the study of rationality, by identifying the term primarily with certain forms of calculating greed. Sociology, in contrast, could almost be said to be based on the study of precisely those “externalities” that have to pushed away from the purview of economics in order to be able to define the latter field in equilibrium terms to begin with. The first sociology departments were recruited largely from the staffs of social reform societies; by men who by definition believed the existing state of things to be inadequate (or if not generally, then at least among the popular classes); it has maintained itself largely because of a concern with “social problems”: crime, divorce, poverty, religious conflict, etc. The assumption was always that something was most definitively not in equilibrium; something wasn’t working that could have or should have been. Solidarity, consensus, authority, collective spirit, community, however defined, were incomplete or absent. And this was usually seen as part and parcel with some kind of crisis of rationality. Again, this is all very explicit in the works of most of the founding figures and has continued, if often more tacitly, to frame subsequent debate.

Now, the actual political positions of social theorists varied enormously. Revolutionaries like Marx were exceptional; liberal reformers like Durkheim or nationalists like Weber more the rule. But I would argue that the world that revolution ushered in—one in which it was assumed to be possible, on some level, to act on society as an object, to bring it more in accord with some utopian imaginary—ended up becoming permanent. Not only was the possibility of outright, battles-in-the-streets revolution seen as ever-present during most of this time, its dynamic became institutionalized in the structure of governments and related organizations, all of which saw society basically as a problem to be solved. This was the situation that allowed what I have been calling “social reality”(or what they were more likely to call “social realities”) to continue to seem like something that obviously did exist and that they should care about—a self-evident object of study. Some might argue that all this is ultimately irrelevant, since whatever might have ultimately inspired social theorists to examine such matters, the point is what they came up with, and what they came up with was a relatively objective science of social explanation. But it’s hard to find any significant social theorists, even in the nineteenth century, who actually believed that. What made Marx and Weber the most profound social thinkers of their age is precisely that they grappled most directly with the question of how to deal with the fact that an objective social science really wasn’t possible—that the idea that it was was itself profoundly utopian. The solutions they came up with were very different (Marx arguing that theorizing about the world was itself a form of political action that could only contribute to either maintaining or transforming the object it was theorizing; Weber arguing that, while the questions we ask about the world can never be objective, our means of answering them can—but that before we will ever be able to accumulate objective knowledge, the questions will have changed), but they directly address the problem. One might even argue that it was the failure of sociologists like Durkheim to face up to their own ambivalent situation as researchers, closely tied to administrative circles, which drove them to effectively naturalize the problem by taking it down to the individual level—where individual, would-be economic actors (presumably motivated mainly by some form of self-interest) ended up facing “social facts” precisely as external, constraining realities. But this is a long argument.

There are two interesting corollaries to all this:

Curiously, the most powerful analyzes of systems that do, effectively, what they are supposed to do have emerged from collapsed radical hopes: especially former Marxists, or others working in that critical tradition, who gradually gave up their faith that the system’s internal contradictions would someday destroy it. Hence, figures like Baudrillard or Foucault provide models (if very different ones) of systems of power and domination that are, ultimately, ineluctable and all-encompassing—that is, which do in fact work.

It’s also interesting to note that anthropology proved the great exception here—understandably, if my argument about the sources of ethnographic curiosity is substantially correct. At least, for most of the twentieth century, it did largely adopt equilibrium models and saw its object, whether social or cultural, as a series of small, self-contained systems which did, in fact, “function.” And, as if to make the inversion perfect, this was complemented by a special branch of economics—development economics—to study economic systems that did not work.


If social reality only becomes an object (indeed, only becomes a reality) in the face of some imaginary which tries to shape it—of which the paradigm, I have argued, is revolution—then it makes it easier to understand why globalization has left sociology with such an “identity crisis.” It is not just because the immediate onset of globalization saw what appeared to be strange and unprecedented realignments, with free-market economists suddenly posing as wild-eyed revolutionaries (by around 2000, New York Times op-ed writers were fervently insisting that Che Guevara, were he alive today, would certainly be a free-market reformer, just for the sheer joy of radical transformation). All that was the product of one giddy moment that faded almost immediately. It is because the theater for potential revolution, just like that of more modest projects of social reform, had always been the state. If utopian dreams were brought to bear on some stubborn social reality, it was always assumed—usually without even having to state it, so much was it the very basis of Left, Right, liberal, radical, and conservative thought—that this could only be accomplished through the coercive mechanisms of government. As Immanuel Wallerstein has been arguing for some years now, we seem to be witnessing the death of a kind of tacit agreement about the nature of politics that has existed since roughly the French Revolution. This has rested, he says, on three assumptions. The first is that social change is inevitable and, at least if properly managed, good. The second is that the appropriate mechanism to manage social change is the state. The third is that the state apparatus derives its legitimacy, its right to do so, from an entity referred to as “the people.” In 1720, very few educated Europeans would have agreed with any of these statements. By 1820, just about everyone had to at least pay lip service. What’s more, social theory as we know it developed almost entirely within this framework. It’s only in recent decades, he notes, that we have seen significant portions of the global educated classes moving away from these positions. But as they do so, now that the state is not assumed as one’s implicit point of reference from which to gaze down at stubborn realities, it is no longer clear what that “resistant object” is even supposed to be.

In this section, then, I will make two arguments. The first has to do with the inadequacy of our existing theoretical tools, particularly, the need for a renewal of historical sociology. Without this, we can’t seriously begin to think about what is even happening in the world. Second, I want to suggest that rather than disappearing as a political horizon, revolutionary projects are being renewed and reconstituted along new lines (or, more accurately, perhaps, through the maturation of some previously subordinate revolutionary strands). This fact might itself point us toward a possible resolution, not only of the problem of how to constitute one’s object under new conditions, but of how social theory might be organized itself.

Conceptualizing the Moment

The most striking thing revealed by sociology’s identity crisis in the face of globalization is the remarkably weak state of historical sociology, whose major strands (Marxist and Weberian) seem to have largely disintegrated at exactly the moment we most need them.

Let me take one vivid example: the question of global citizenship.

This is an issue that comes up quite a lot nowadays: sometimes within the neoliberal framework and, even more, because it is a very common demand among new social movements calling for global freedom of movement. But what exactly would global citizenship mean? The most common objection to the idea is that any such notion would imply some kind of global state, and this is the last thing most of those calling for it would want to see. So, then, the question becomes how to theorize a citizenship apart from the state? This is often treated as a profound, perhaps insuperable problem. But, if one considers the matter historically, it is a bit odd that it should. Modern Western notions of citizenship and political freedoms are usually seen to derive from two traditions, one originating in ancient Athens, the other primarily stemming from Medieval England (where it tends to be traced back to the assertion of aristocratic privilege against the Crown in the Magna Carta, Petition of Right, etc., and then the gradual extension of these same rights to the rest of the population). In fact, there is no consensus among historians that either classical Athens or Medieval England were states at all—and, moreover, precisely for the reason that citizens’ rights (in the first) and aristocratic privilege (in the second) were so strong.

In other words, our very ability to think about the present is hobbled by our lack of categories with which to talk about the past. If these were not states, or states in the classic sense, what were they? A theory of complex political entities that are not states is almost completely lacking. How could one talk about rights and responsibilities in the absence of a state? Again, it’s hard to know where to start.

Such questions seem all the more pressing at a moment when many of these older forms—city-states, for example, or complex overlapping forms of sovereignty reminiscent of feudalism—seem to be reemerging. Here, it might be useful to consider the notion of the territorial nation-state, which so excited Europeans of the seventeenth century: a single state embracing a single people who spoke the same colloquial language, which was also the language of high culture and a national literature; an efficient bureaucracy chosen by merit and educated in that literature, administering a uniform system of laws. It seems to me this could best be seen as an attempt by European states to model themselves on China. The Chinese empire was, certainly, the only state that existed in the seventeenth century that in any way resembled this model; surely it did far more than anything that existed in Europe at the time. There was good reason for Leibniz to write that the Middle Kingdom should be sending missionaries to Europe rather than the other way around. One might argue that, until fairly recently, insofar as those national bourgeoisies who were creating modern capitalism had a political project, it was to transform their states into something resembling China, minus the emperor and claims to universality. They envisioned, instead, a series of small, equal states organized on essentially Chinese lines. Of course, through colonialism, this European version of the Chinese model ended up being imposed on pretty much every other country in the world, including—belatedly—China itself, providing the pretext for the creation of the interstate system of border controls which is perhaps colonialism’s most lasting political legacy. This system of border controls, in turn, is hardly dissolving with globalization.

It has become popular, of course, to say that it is, to talk as if the growth of trade and migration are making national borders increasingly irrelevant. Look at the same situation in terms of the last five hundred years. It’s easy to see that, while world trade has increased somewhat, overall migration rates are nothing like what they were one (let alone two or three) hundred years ago, and the only element that’s entirely new here is the presence of the borders themselves. The modern “interstate system,” which carves up the earth through thousands of highly patrolled and regulated borders, was only fully completed quite recently; and far from being eaten away by globalization, institutions like the IMF or WTO are entirely premised on it. The number of armed men patrolling the US border with Mexico has tripled or even quadrupled since the signing of NAFTA; before it, no one was even considering the idea of reinforcing the border with a giant wall.

On the other hand, the decline of the “Chinese model” has allowed phenomena to reemerge which would have looked, just fifty years ago, bizarrely antiquated: e.g., new zones of permanent low-intensity warfare, such as were typical of part of Renaissance Europe; the rise of mercantile city-states; the reemergence of essentially feudal relations starting in much of the former Communist world; the parcelization of sovereignty, whereby the elements we have come to think of as naturally combined in the state are instead broken up and distributed to different institutions on totally different geographical scales. A merchant in medieval Antwerp for example had to deal with the local government, criminal law, property law, and religious (what we’d now call “social”) law all invested in radically different entities: a local feudal lord, the Pope, the Emperor. A merchant in contemporary Antwerp finds himself increasingly in much the same situation, even if the entities are now local government, the EU, and the WTO. Some even speak of “neo-Medievalism.” Admittedly, this is a somewhat eccentric view, and it might well turn out to be completely misconceived. I am throwing it out mainly to illustrate the sort of theorizing that is currently both very much called for and largely absent.

Even the emphasis on those things which genuinely are new about the present moment—the emergence of a virtual sphere, as it’s sometimes called—is difficult to theorize outside a larger historical context, which we probably won’t really have until generations in the future. Industrial civilization has been around for such a brief moment of historical time that it’s very difficult to perceive patterns in its development. Let me throw in one last question here, one that strikes me as very significant, though for some reason, it is almost never actually discussed. Is the current character of “globalization” the product of an unprecedented technological moment, or is it the result of a temporary slowing and involution of technological development? We seem to assume as a matter of course that technology is always leaping ahead in fundamental ways. It’s not clear, of course, whether there can be said to be an objective measure in such matters. But I think it is possible at least to talk about the realization of popular expectations. In terms of cultural attitudes at least, it seems to me that the real difference between the first and second halves of the twentieth century is that, while almost all the technologies children in 1900 imagined would exist by 1950, but were the stuff of science fiction at the time—radios, airplanes, organ transplants, space rockets, skyscrapers, moving pictures, etc.—did in fact come into being more or less on schedule, pretty much none of the ones children born in 1950 or 1960 imagined would exist by 2000 (anti-gravity sleds, teleportation, force fields, cloning, death-rays, interplanetary travel, personal robot attendants) ever came about. It would be easy to imagine, when observing the crude special effects of 1950s science fiction movies, that their makers would be quite impressed by the remarkable effects of their contemporary equivalents. But, in reality, they almost certainly would not. Science fiction movies of the 1950s were often set in the year 2000. They assumed we’d be doing these things by now—actually exploring distant galaxies, not just developing ever more impressive ways to simulate it. Where, in earlier generations, science fiction projections seemed to regularly become reality a generation later, now they remain trapped on the screen—even if the screen images look increasingly realistic.

In the late 1960s, Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock in which he pointed out that in every recent decade, the fastest speed at which it was possible for human beings to travel had at least doubled, and that, taken over a longer time span, it appeared to be rising geometrically. Could conquest of the stars be far away? He proved an atrocious prophet. In fact, the top speed at which it was possible for human beings to travel stopped increasing almost the moment the book came out and has not changed since. True, we can now communicate instantly on the internet. Computer, imaging, and communications technology—along with medical technology—have been about the only kind that have been advancing at anything like the pace people once expected. But, even here, we have to remember how high those expectations have traditionally been. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was assumed by now we would have computers with whom we could carry on a conversation, or robots who could put away the dishes or walk the dog. It seems for the moment at least we have reached a point where disappointment with childhood dreams has become institutionalized. If they are realized, they are realized in a virtual realm, as simulations. Is it any wonder, then, that we are surrounded by philosophers telling us that everything is simulation and that nothing is really new?

Autonomy and Revolutionary Consensus

Clearly, national revolutions can no longer make the same difference they once did; and, on a global scale, it’s entirely unclear what the equivalent of storming the Bastille or Winter Palace would even be. But there are those who argue that revolutions were never really national affairs. Immanuel Wallerstein has pointed out that even the French Revolution wasn’t really a national revolution in its ultimate effects (it might well have had just as much transformative effect on Denmark as on France); the revolutions of 1848 occurred in numerous capitals, took power in none of them, and nonetheless managed to transform the world in profound ways; and this, he says, was even more true of the anti-state revolutions of 1968, which, he argued, reached Eastern Europe in 1989. These were all, he argues, world revolutions. If so, matters appear to have transformed even more radically over the last decade, in which a revolutionary strategy of permanent, open-ended global uprising (from Chiapas to Seattle, Genoa, and Argentina) has been so successful that it’s now being answered with a doctrine of permanent, open-ended global war.

The revolutionary imaginary being adopted within the globalization movement finds its roots less in the Marxist tradition than the anarchist, which was always dedicated to starting to build a new world “within the shell of the old,” and on prioritizing an ethics of organization and practice over a focus on strategies for seizing power. The aim is simultaneously to expose, delegitimize, and undermine mechanisms of global rule, while simultaneously creating spaces of autonomy which are, as Cindy Millstein puts it, “prefigurative,” which themselves embody the viability of radical alternatives. It is a way of permanently invoking what Negri calls “constituent power.” Mass direct actions like Seattle, Washington, Prague, or Genoa, aimed to do all this simultaneously, since their own directly democratic, leaderless organization was itself a vast social experiment, and for most participants, a dazzlingly successful one. At the same time, permanent enclaves can be established: from the autonomous municipalities of Chiapas to the occupied factories of Argentina. In such a strategy, one of the most constantly invoked words is “process.” Unlike Marxist parties, which have always tended to demand ideological conformity combined with top-down, usually highly authoritarian, decision-making structures, anarchist-inspired revolutionary “networks” and “convergences” employ decision-making processes which assume that no ideological uniformity can or should be possible. Rather, these forms become ways of managing a diversity, even incommensurability, which is seen as a value in itself. The assumption is that this can be managed through a spirit of reasonableness and mutual compromise that emerges from commitment to shared projects of action. That is, anarchist-inspired groups tend to studiously avoid political arguments about the definition of reality, and assume that decision-making structures should concentrate instead on immediate questions of action in the present, on maintaining egalitarian process in doing so, and making those forms of process the main model of (or, better perhaps, elementary, germ-like template for) their vision for a just society. This is, in effect, a way of preserving diversity as a resource and a value at the same time: since, if one sees one’s work essentially as practical problem-solving, then it is pretty obvious that ten people with diverse (even formally incommensurable) perspectives are more likely to be able to come up with a workable solution than ten people who all share exactly the same experience and point of view. What I am saying, then, is that it is precisely what most outside observers take to be the foolishness and naiveté of the movement (their apparent lack of a coherent ideology) has turned out to be a token of their most sophisticated accomplishment and contribution to revolutionary theory. It was not that the new movements lack ideology. As I have argued in the past, these new forms of organization, which presume and are ways of articulating a diversity of perspectives, are its ideology.

It seems to me this pragmatic model might have implications for social theory, and in particular, the problem of theoretical diversity. In the next and final section, I will try to illustrate what I think is at stake here.


At the moment, social theory is even more fragmented than it has usually been and there’s a good deal of debate as to whether this is a good or bad thing. Some degree of theoretical fragmentation seems inevitable, given the way the object (social reality) has been constituted, as a somewhat battered residual set off from economics. As a theoretically unified neoclassical economics has become increasingly dominant, to the point of becoming the effective ideology of rule for just about all the emerging institutions of global governance, and as economic versions of “rationality” have increasingly begun to colonize other disciplines, it is understandable that this diversity might seem like a strategic weakness by those who resist the current status quo.

Still, there’s no particular reason to imagine that an intellectual united front against economism would demand any sort of ideological uniformity, any more than a political one would. Or even that it demands complete commensurability. For example: many have recognized that the most profound way to challenge the economistic world-view theoretically is through the development of alternative theories of action, which expose the inherently alienating version of reality promulgated by economism by instead focusing on creativity, and, specifically, on trying to locate the capacity to create new social forms. There have been a number of attempts in this direction, ranging from Hans Joas’ work in the tradition of American pragmatism, to Alain Caillé’s, which begins from the creation of new social relations in the gift, to my own attempt to rework some Marxian ideas of production as a value theory of action. It is not entirely clear, however, if all of these can be completely reconciled. It is also not entirely clear if this is a problem. Certainly, there are approaches out there that are utterly irreconcilable even in ontological terms, and these include some of the more interesting and productive ones. For instance, Actor Network Theory, which looks at “society” as an effect rather than a cause, cannot be squared with Critical Realism, which sees it as an emergent reality which cannot be entirely reduced to anything else. And my own argument earlier in this paper, about the mutual constitution of imagination and reality, probably can’t be reconciled with either. But I don’t think there is any reason this incommensurability cannot be seen as itself a value that allows pragmatic integration through a common project of action (the pursuit of some kind of truth, of certain values inextricable from that pursuit, etc.), which can be agreed on as what one might call a regulatory principle. What does seem certain is that, without something along these lines, we are likely to see even further dominance by the logic of the market.

In the Absence of Regulatory Principles

Let me explain precisely what I mean by this. The colonization of other fields by the logic of the market does not just occur on the overt level (i.e., with the promulgation of “rational choice” models, or other blatant forms of economism), but also on a level which seems entirely unconscious. In a surprising variety of ways, the most ostensibly radical critical theory has been known to anticipate later neoliberal arguments. Take, for example, the concept of “postmodernism.” This is a tricky term, of course, because there were never many scholars willing to actually call themselves “postmodernists.” But, in a way, this was precisely what made the term so powerful: “postmodernism” was not something anyone was proposing but a fait accompli that everyone simply had to accept. From the 1980s on, it has become common to be presented with a series of arguments which might be summarized, in caricature form, as something like this:

  1. We now live in a Postmodern Age. The world has changed. No one is responsible, it simply happened as a result of inexorable processes. Neither can we do anything about it, but must simply adapt ourselves to new conditions.

  2. One result of our postmodern condition is that schemes to change the world or human society through collective political action are no longer viable. Everything is broken up and fragmented. Anyway, such schemes will inevitably prove either impossible, or produce totalitarian nightmares.

  3. While this might seem to leave little room for human agency in history, one need not despair completely. Legitimate political action can take place, provided it is on a personal level: through the fashioning of subversive identities, forms of creative consumption, and the like. Such action is itself political and potentially liberatory. This is, as I say, a caricature: the actual arguments made in any particular theoretical tract are usually infinitely more complex. Still, they almost invariably share some version of these three themes. Compare them, then, to the arguments that began to be promulgated in the 1990s, in the popular media, about a phenomena referred to as “globalization”:

  1. We now live in the age of the Global Market. The world has changed. No one is responsible, it simply happened as the result of inexorable processes. Neither can we do anything about it, but must simply adapt ourselves to new conditions.

  2. One result is that schemes aiming to change society through collective political action are no longer viable. Dreams of revolution have been proven impossible or, worse, bound to produce totalitarian nightmares. Even any idea of changing society through electoral politics must now be abandoned in the name of “competitiveness.”

  3. If this might seem to leave little room for democracy, one need not despair: market behavior, and particularly individual consumption decisions, are democracy; indeed, all the democracy we’ll ever really need.

There is, of course, one enormous difference between the two arguments. The central claim of those who celebrated postmodernism is that we have entered a world in which all totalizing systems—science, humanity, nation, truth, and so forth—have all been shattered; where there are no longer any grand mechanisms for stitching together a world now broken into incommensurable fragments. One can no longer even imagine that there could be a single standard of value by which to measure everything. The neoliberals, on the other hand, are singing the praises of a global market which is, in fact, the single greatest and most monolithic system of measurement ever created, a totalizing system which would subordinate everything—every object, every piece of land, every human capacity or relationship—on the planet to a single standard of value.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that what those who celebrated postmodernism were describing was in large part simply the effects of this universal market system: which, like any totalizing system of value, tends to throw all others into doubt and disarray. The critical thing for present purposes is not so much to ask how they could fail to notice this, but to establish one simple truth: that it is absurd to pretend that one could really have an intellectual universe in which there is no principle of articulation between different perspectives whatsoever. Anyone who pretends to have eliminated such principles entirely will simply be opening the way to reintroducing the dominant ideology of the day in covert form. And this is precisely what much of the most epistemologically radical approaches have ended up doing: reintroducing the logic and spirit of the market (with its ethos of endless flux, choice, reinvention, etc.) in a different register. To do otherwise would require establishing some alternate principle of articulation.

Prefigurative Social Theory?

In the above, I have sketched out some very preliminary thoughts on what such a principle might be like. Rather than develop a detailed argument (this is hardly the place), let me end, then, by suggesting that there’s no reason why social theory itself might not take on a certain “prefigurative” role: that is, embody, in its own organization, as an articulation of extremely diverse philosophies, a vision of what a more reasonable political order could possibly be like. I think it is possible. However, certain habits of thought would definitely have to change. In everyday practice, the way that different schools of thought interact does not even resemble market relations so much as the style of argument preferred by contending Marxist sects. We see all the same sectarian habits: of reducing other positions into hostile caricatures so as to be able to plug them into some prefab set of categories, each representing a type of ideological error; of treating minor differences as if they were moral chasms. There are profound historical reasons why this happened. The organization of intellectual schools or tendencies has always rather resembled that of vanguardist political parties (and also, in a way, avant-garde artistic movements); but this is, in part, because all three had their origins in the same place, in Saint-Simon and Comte, who differed merely on whether an artistic “avant-garde” or social scientists should form the priesthood of their new religions. In order to begin to unify the diverse strands of social thought in opposition to the hegemony of economism, it would be necessary, first of all, to overcome this pernicious history and formulate instead something like what I suggested at the end of the previous section: a collection of approaches to social reality which, while necessarily constituting that reality in relation to a certain utopian social imaginary, are united not in their aspiration to impose themselves as the only legitimate approach, as if they were so many sects trying to seize power, but rather, by their shared commitment to a project and ethics which begins with the refusal to do so. It is a daunting prospect. Sectarian habits are very deeply ingrained. But it is hardly impossible. Most of the best social research already adopts something like this attitude, at least implicitly. It is, again, more than anything else a matter of giving serious reflective thought to what we are already starting to do in practice.

From : TheAnarchistLibrary.org

(1961 - 2020)

Anarchist, Anthropologist, Occupy Movement Organizer, and Anti-Bullshit Jobs Activist

David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist activist. His influential work in economic anthropology, particularly his books Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Bullshit Jobs , and his leading role in the Occupy movement, earned him recognition as one of the foremost anthropologists and left-wing thinkers of his time. Born in New York to a working-class Jewish family, Graeber studied at Purchase College and the University of Chicago, where he conducted ethnographic research in Madagascar under Marshall Sahlins and obtained his doctorate in 1996. He was an assistant professor at Yale University from 1998 to 2005, when the university controversially decided not to renew his contract before he was eligible for tenure. Unable to secure another position in the United States, he entered an "academic exile" in England, where he was a lecturer and reader at Goldsmiths' College from 2008 to 2013, and a professor at the London School of Economic... (From: Wikipedia.org / TheGuardian.com.)


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