Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 8, 2020

Assessing David Graeber’s legacy

Filed under: anarchism,Kurd,Occupy Wall Street — louisproyect @ 4:07 pm

David Graeber, 1961-2020

I was as shocked by David Graeber’s death as everybody else. As was the case with Michael Brooks, this was a case of dying much too young. Both men were beloved by their respective constituencies. Brooks, a Sandernista, was mourned most deeply by his colleagues in and around Jacobin Magazine after he died of a blood clot at the age of 36 on July 20th. Like Brooks, Graeber also died unexpectedly from a blood-related illness—internal bleeding from an unspecified cause. An autopsy will likely provide the exact nature of his untimely death.

Graeber, who was 59 when he died, was far better known than Brooks as obituaries in the leading newspapers would indicate. He was primarily known as an anarchist bien pensant but also as an author of best-selling books such as “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” that like Thomas Piketty’s “Capital” broke through to a larger audience. In addition, Graeber was considered an innovative thinker by his peers in the academy even though (or, maybe, because) his articles were far removed from the minutiae typical of JSTOR articles.

After seeing numerous tributes to him on Facebook, I thought twice about writing anything critical since it might be regarded as a gratuitous Marxist attack on a revered figure. I suppose I was waiting for someone to write such an article but could only find the same kind of tribute in Marxist magazines that he received from his anarchist and academic comrades and colleagues. For example, Left Voice—a rock-ribbed Trotskyist journal—spoke of him as “more than just a visionary academic.” Perhaps the author’s past encounters (or lack of encounters) helped shaped her article: “When I was a student at the London School of Economics, I tried to get into his public lectures and was unsuccessful. The lines stretched across courtyards and snaked through lobbies as students lined up far in advance to see him in action.”

Seeing nobody else willing to write a balance sheet on his career as an activist, I guess I’ll have to fill the bill until someone more qualified comes along. Maybe with my bad reputation in certain places on the left, I have nothing to lose. Those who hate me for criticizing Graeber will have to stand on line behind the people who hate me for a thousand other offenses. (Not having read his best-sellers, I will of course have nothing to to say about them.)

I hadn’t paid much attention to David Graeber after his well-known political firing from Yale University in 2007. But it was difficult not to miss his meteoric rise as the chief ideologist of Occupy Wall Street in 2011. At the time, I was very impressed with the role of anarchists in the struggle as was my friend Pham Binh, who had a Marxist background like me but could understand anarchism’s importance in this struggle. In a guest post on my blog, he wrote, “Occupy Wall Street (OWS) mobilized more workers and oppressed people in four weeks than the entire socialist left combined has in four decades. We would benefit by coming to grips with how and why other forces (namely anarchists) accomplished this historic feat.”

Graeber’s role was not to help organize the occupation, which admittedly eschewed any kind of organization except providing mutual aid, but to both theorize and popularize it. As for popularization, his description of Occupy as fighting for “the ninety-nine percent” was brilliant and helped shape the thinking of the Sanders campaign that battled conversely against the one-percent.

Unfortunately, Graeber’s narrowly constrained anarchist concepts helped to derail the movement in the long run. To start with, Graeber was opposed to the movement adopting demands. When he learned that there were plans to march on Wall Street with predetermined demands, Graeber and his small group created their own general assembly, which eventually developed into the New York General Assembly. This was a pyrrhic victory since the General Assembly forestalled the possibility of a mass movement fighting for structural changes that could have truly benefited the 99 percent, such as nationalizing the banks.

He was also wrong to fetishize the physical occupation of public spaces such as Zuccotti Park in New York, which were supposed to “prefigure” the future anarchist world. By not being more flexible, the movement could not project a future plan of action after the cops systematically removed activists everywhere from parks, plazas, etc. This is not to speak of the exclusion of people from the ostensible heart of the movement because jobs, family responsibilities, age and infirmity made sleeping out in the cold in a sleeping bag impossible. As is so often the case with anarchist activism, the masses are supposed to function as if observers at a sporting event, cheering on the participants.

I haven’t paid much attention to the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in Seattle, but this strikes me as the latest example of the “prefigurative” dead-end. The NY Times reported on the experience of coffee shop owner Faizel Khan:

Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Mr. Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected.

“They barricaded us all in here,” Mr. Khan said. “And they were sitting in lawn chairs with guns.”

Finally, Graeber defended the idea of consensus rather than taking a vote. This might have been the worst idea of all since it paralyzed the movement. In an interview with Platypus, Graeber tried to defend the practice:

…you’ll only get broad and tepid solutions if you bring everything to the General Assembly. That’s why we have working groups, empower them to perform actions, and encourage them to form spontaneously. This is another of the key principles in dealing with consensus and decentralization. In an ideal world, the very unwieldiness of finding consensus in a large group should convince people not to bring decisions before this large group unless they absolutely have to. That’s actually the way it’s supposed to work out.

This strikes me as muddle-headed nonsense.

I’ve often considered the possibility that anarchism is as dogmatic in its own ways as “Leninism”. Even though it does not operate under democratic centralism, you get a cult-like devotion to some of its core ideas, especially the “propaganda of the deed” that included bombings in Czarist Russia and, more recently, the black bloc.

On February 6, 2012, Chris Hedges wrote an article for Truthdig titled “The Cancer in Occupy” that began:

The Black Bloc anarchists, who have been active on the streets in Oakland and other cities, are the cancer of the Occupy movement. The presence of Black Bloc anarchists — so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property — is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Hedge’s article pissed Graeber off enough to make him write a reply titled “Concerning the Violent Peace-Police: An Open Letter to Chris Hedges” in New Inquiry. Graeber’s defense was one I heard a thousand times. The Black Bloc was not a group but a tactic, as if the people carrying it out weren’t part of the same affinity group.

For Graeber, the black bloc is a form of horizontalist direct democracy that is based on consensus rather than majority vote. Yeah, who needs a cumbersome and verticalist procedure such as voting that would only get in the way of a determined horizontalist bunch of people wearing bandannas over their faces intent on raising Cain.

Essentially, the black bloc is as elitist and verticalist in its own way as the self-declared vanguard groups of the Leninist left that aspire to control mass organizations. Groups like the American SWP that I belonged to for 11 years used to caucus before a meeting to make sure that the membership followed a predetermined line before a critical vote even if in the course of discussion they decided that the SWP was wrong. Meanwhile, the black bloc does not bother with votes at all. This is a Hobson’s Choice, if there ever was one.

Finally, there was Graeber’s efforts to persuade the left that Rojova was the ultimate “prefigurative” experiment. He never bothered to write about the relations between the PYD and the Syrian rebels who in their own way created “prefigurative” liberated territories all across the country until aerial bombardment, chemical warfare and starvation sieges preempted the possibility of them becoming as ideal as Rojova. Trying to apply Murray Bookchin’s theories to a place like Homs was dead on arrival.

For Graeber, Rojova’s reliance on co-ops made it superior to Marxist-style central planning. You can find an interview with Graeber on Co-Operative Economy, a website that describes itself as follows:

The co-operative movement in North Syria, known colloquially as Rojava (meaning “West” in Kurdish) is thriving.

In Rojava, a revolution is taking place, based on the political model of Democratic Confederalism, and within this system, co-operatives play an integral part in reshaping the economy. People here are taking collective control of their lives and workplaces.

In Bakur, (the predominantly Kurdish region which lies within Turkey’s border) co-operatives have been set up within a similar model of democratic autonomy, despite the ongoing military repression by the state of Turkey.

Anticipating his 2018 best-seller, Graeber said, “And in fact, my father was in Barcelona when it was run by an anarchist principle. They just got rid of white collar workers, and sure enough they discovered these were basically bullshit jobs, that they didn’t make any difference if they weren’t there.”

Well, I was in Nicaragua in the late 80s—a country trying to implement socialist policies under very difficult conditions—and can assure you that engineers, programmers, economists and other white-collar professionals were desperately needed. If they were doing “bullshit jobs”, that was not what we heard from Daniel Ortega. One supposes that Nicaragua would have been better off it had tried to implement Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism rather than state ownership and planning but then again Somoza would have thrown the practitioners out of helicopters before they got very far.

Graeber has a rather quaint way of expressing the difference between Marxism and anarchism. People like Somoza or Assad don’t mind if Marxists say things like “I hate you, I want to overthrow you” nearly as much as what the anarchists say: “You guys are ridiculous and unnecessary.” Gosh, where did I go wrong? Instead of joining the SWP in the (vain) hope of making a revolution in the USA, I should have gone up to Vermont and started a maple syrup co-operative. That would have saved me the trouble of reading all that stuff about revolutionary struggles in Cuba or Vietnam and eventually figuring out that the SWP was right in its ultimate goal but totally fucked-up in the way it went about it.

Showing that he has read his Bakunin, Graeber puts it this way: “When those Marxists come, the police will still be there. There are probably going to be more of them, right? Anarchists come, the whole structure will be changed. People will be told that it’s completely unnecessary.” Oh, I see. With Rojava chugging along, the police will disappear. What a relief to everybody except the families of the 13,000 men who were secretly hanged in Syrian prisons without even a trial.

Here’s Graeber summing up the Rojava experiment:

They run the cities. It’s a country of a real economy; it’s a poor one and they’re under embargo. But there are people driving cars, there is traffic rules, there’s workshops and factories producing things, there’s farms. It does all the things you have in a normal society. Roads have to be maintained.

But essentially, what they have done is created … it’s very interesting. I’ve said, I’ve described it as a dual power situation, but this is the first time in human history, I think, where you have a dual power situation where the same guy set up both sides. So they have a thing that looks like a government; it’s got a parliament, it’s got ministers. They pass legislation.

For me, “dual power” refers to what takes place under revolutionary conditions. For example, in the country Graeber’s father fought in, there really was a dual-power situation. Vast portions of the country were producing food and manufactured goods on farms and factories after ousting the bosses. Were those bosses the white-collar people Graeber was referring to? A computer programmer working for Michael Bloomberg is not a member of the same class as his boss. Been there, done that.

In order to regain control of the country, Franco used his air force and powerful military to destroy the militias and regular troops who defended worker and farmer owned and controlled property. Any resemblance between what took place in Spain and now in Rojava is purely coincidental.

17 Comments »

  1. Right on, Louis. However, with all due respect, I think that Pham Binh was … an arrogant jerk.

    Comment by davidberger6799 — September 8, 2020 @ 11:23 pm

  2. His problems were more psychological than anything. Sad case, really.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 8, 2020 @ 11:26 pm

  3. Never was a fan of Graeber but still sad to hear he died. I just learned now.

    He was probably right about the “white collar” middle class. They are definitely tied to the rise of capitalism. They might be necessary to run capitalism; especially late capitalism with outsourcing of real work to poor countries.

    Don’t think they’re needed for humanity. We can clearly get on without them.

    There have been tens of thousands of years without managers, engineers, programmers,

    But there has been no human history lacking builders, farmers, cooks and childcare.

    White collar people are also inactive and more likely to be obese. It’s against our nature. Humans are both thinkers and workers. Head and body together. Marx was open against the division of labor into thinkers and doers in capitalism.

    One advantage the anarchists have always had is an ability to think for themselves. Right or wrong they could come up with their own ideas. That’s why there is no “bakununist” but Marx had to actively disown “Marxists.”

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — September 9, 2020 @ 11:22 am

  4. I am sorry. My first post went automatically. I did not press “enter.” So I will try again.

    I never was a fan of Graeber but still sad to hear he died. I just learned now.

    He was probably right about the “white collar” middle class. They are definitely tied to the rise of capitalism. They might be necessary to run capitalism; especially late capitalism with outsourcing of real work to poor countries.

    I don’t think they’re needed for humanity. We can clearly get on without them.

    There have been tens of thousands of years without managers, secretaries, consultants, engineers, programmers, marketers, public relations persons, finance persons, mortgage brokers, and all this.

    But there has been no human history lacking builders, laborers, farmers, cooks and childcare.

    Even now in modern times an electrician and a maintenance man is infinity more vital than an attorney or “customer service representative.”

    White collar people are also inactive and more likely to be obese and sick. It’s against our nature. Humans are both thinkers and workers. Head and body together. Marx was open against the division of labor into thinkers and doers in capitalism. We should be too.

    I don’t think Daniel Ortega is an authoritative source. Now he is running the most neoliberal capitalist country in the Americas. We can’t claim anarchism is failed but marxism is not. Leninist regimes the world over have been nightmarish. I am sorry but it is true. Ortega is a prime example.

    One advantage the anarchists have always had is an ability to think for themselves. Right or wrong they could come up with their own ideas. That’s why there is no “bakununist” but Marx had to actively disown “Marxists.”

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — September 9, 2020 @ 11:26 am

  5. There is a post on this blog from April 25, 2012 titled David Graeber on Capitalism and Unfree Labor. There are 70 comments, including some from Graeber himself. These make for interesting reading, and I encourage people to check them out. It is clear from them that Graeber is a very sharp thinker and willing to argue his ideas with those who disagree. Yet, his conception of is flawed, as is his understanding of capitalism. For anarchist, a hierarchy is a hierarchy. Of course, it is critical that we take an anthropological view of life on Earth, and Graeber’s work helps us to do this. But recently, on the Marxmail list, Louis posted an essay by the great anthropologist, Richard B. Lee. It is must reading. It is interesting that Graeber collaborated with Marshall Sahlins on a book about kingship. That Sahlins worked with him shows the respect that other anthropologists have for Graeber. In the end, like any thinker, his work must be examined critically. May David rest in peace. Let me add that his enthusiasm for certain efforts to run societies in an anarchic manner should not be judged overly harshly. We Marxists sometimes wax enthusiastic about every strike, every protest, as if these mark the beginning of the end of capitalism. What is the difference, really?

    Comment by Michael D Yates — September 9, 2020 @ 1:41 pm

  6. I too mourn Graeber’s passing. Nevertheless, the idea that all white collar jobs are all “bullshit,” commonly attributed to Graeber–whatever he actually meant by that or even actually said it in any unqualified sense–is as nonsensical and pernicious as the radical Trump ideology that regards all non-political functions of governance as a parasitic infringement on the rights of strong men.

    They are two sides of the same coin.

    The reality is that all labor under capitalism is alienated labor, first because the worker as the seller of commoditized labor, has no real interest or share in the products of her labor; and second because the worker likewise has no real interest in the processes of production, which can only ever aim at profit rather than use. This is the fundamental reason why jobs are “bullshit.”

    All jobs of any collar color are to some extent bullshit in this sense, and this–allowing for intersection with the various entity-isms that capitalism finds ready-made and recruits in the service of dividing the 99% (thank you Graeber)–is the fundamental source of all the bullshit. It goes together with the bullshit that is inherent in production for profit rather than use. The problem can no more be addressed by eliminating white collar jobs (by which of course the naive Graeberites actually mean, but fear to say, eliminating white-collar workers personally) than it can by killing everyone over thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, or whatever age you consider to be the terminus of worthwhile humanity.

    Are the blue-collar workers who run the machines and stock the warehouses for the production of bullshit styrofoam cups more virtuous than the programmers, systems analysts, business analysts and line managers without whom their virtuous production could not take place?

    Oh–I get it–All we need to do is build little bullshit bullyragging autonomist encampments with standup meetings twice a day and all material problems will solve themselves automatically. So STFU–or else.

    This is a dialectic that improves on Hegel by having no head and no feet and thus becoming irreversible.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 10, 2020 @ 4:21 pm

  7. Hello, With regard to your criticism of Graeber;s position that the worst thing for politicians, despots, etc. to hear is that they are not necessary has some historical basis. For example, if you were to do some research on Prince Kropotkin, the author of “Mutual Aid,” you would find that Russian agents were after him for making that very same claim.

    On another note, does anyone happen to know what the cause of death was?

    Comment by Waji — September 10, 2020 @ 4:29 pm

  8. I repeat: the cause of the bullshit factor in jobs both blue-and-white collar jobs is the alienation of labor as defined by Marx, period. Identifying some scapegoat group of the wicked as the moral root of all evil and calling for their extermination is infantile. The only group that is categorically unnecessary to social reproduction is the bourgeoisie itself–and even they perform valuable tasks that will have to be handed off to other actors or replaced under socialism. Lenin once spoke favorably of “bourgeois experts who understand their bourgeois jobs,”

    Anyone who has participated in the work of an international standards body as I have (though in a vanishingly minor role) will understand the importance of the functions of governance that are carried out by many so-called “white collar professionals.” No decentralized accretion of little autonomist occupations, gangs, cells, and cliques can ever grow to encompass the full range of functionality required for the successful continuation and reproduction of an advanced industrial society, which is what we will have to manage under any conceivable socialist scenario.

    Some anarchist formations may have transcended this limitation briefly–for example in the Spanish Republic (not sure about this) but if they did they were not naive Occupy-type formations or wild-eyed autonomist gangs of assassins and arsonists. And where workers’ cooperatives have taken over–or indeed created–major business entities, those have inveriably transformed themselves into old-fashioned capitalist corporations (Mondragon).

    Perhaps they order these things better in Rojava, but I doubt that they are throwing all their researchers, technical, personnel, process analysts, line managers, and so forth under the bus in the way in which our American Luddites apparently are interested in doing. And what Allen Ginsberg called the “tanked-up . . . fairies of advertising” are now represented by earnest propagandists and professional communicators of various kinds. If they are not carrying out these functions themselves. they are borrowing expertise from other countries or deferring vital development tasks for a postwar interval of economic normality that may never come.

    One of the most powerful indictments of late capitalism is its abandonment of necessary governance tasks–its increasing lack of interest in investing in necessary production as opposed to financial schemes of one kind or another. It’s insane to suppose that vital resources will simply allocate themselves after the Golden Day. Donald Trump represents the vanguard of what you could call this Incompetentism.

    Governance is boring–inconceivably boring. Even under ideal socialist conditions it is going to be dull. Great sobriety and steadiness of purpose are required to deal with it. This IMO–and I am as much in love with excitement as any Junior Rocket Man arsonist–is unfortunately AFAIK a prerequisite of revolution. It isn’t iMO going to be fun most of the time, even when it isn’t terrifying.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 10, 2020 @ 9:32 pm

  9. Farans I wonder if you did read the same Marx as me.

    “That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, and thus works for the valorisation of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of production of material objects, a schoolmaster is a productive labourer when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his scholars, he works like a horse to enrich the school proprietor. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of in a sausage factory, does not alter the relation. Hence the notion of a productive labourer implies not merely a relation between work and useful effect, between labourer and product of labour, but also a specific, social relation of production, a relation that has sprung up historically and stamps the labourer as the direct means of creating surplus-value. To be a productive labourer is, therefore, not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.”

    There are 20 million unproductive workers in the US alone. In a socialist society they’d be more usefully transferred to production, infrastructure, healthcare or something else useful. In capitalism they’re useful for the expansion of capital, and they’re paid out of the surplus labor stolen from productive workers.

    Most of arguments in favor of white collar being necessary come from either capitalists or white collar people. No one wants to admit their life was a waste. But it very well might have been.

    Blame capitalism.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — September 11, 2020 @ 5:47 am

  10. “Blame Capitalism”

    Read what I wrote. This isn’t a particularly useful exchange, so I won’t dwell on it, but I can’t refrain from pointing out that your case for the extermination of white-collar workers seems to rest somehow on Marx’s critique of alienated labor as exemplified in the discussion of surplus value. Now, according to that theory, all labor under capitalism contains a powerful element of bullshit, for the reasons I’ve laid our previously. You can’t oppose productive labor 100% to bullshit labor if you accept that rationale–in such a view, all work under capitalism is more or less bullshit, including productive labor properly so called–it’s productive because it creates surplus value for the capitalist and is performed for his profit and not for use.

    Graeber’s commentary on “bullshit jobs”–weak by his standards if compared with his work on debt for example–revolves around a moral critique based on the unverified assertion that people under capitalism are being employed in completely unnecessary work because they have to be prevented from enjoying leisure, for reasons that Graeber specifically characterizes as not economic:

    The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ’60s).

    The evidence Graeber presents for this is BTW purely anecdotal–assertions that all these “unnecessary” workers are miserable because they think their jobs are meaningless, presented as apodictic truths that do not require solid data to be verified. Of course, this position is completely incompatible with any version of Marxism.

    Thoreau once described what he considered the futility of wage labor by posing the Socratic question of whether, for a day’s pay, any self-respecting person would consent to move a pile of rocks from one side of a wall to the other and then move them back again. He felt no need to indicate that this had actually occurred to anyone in particular, or that anything in the real working world corresponded very closely to the supposedly self-evident moral of his fable. This is essentially the same argument Graeber makes. Marx even as early as the 1840s had moved far beyond this naive outlook.

    My point is that you cannot equate the Graeberite critique of useless jobs with Marxism because Graeber is making a kind of argument that Marxists reject in principle. Graeber airily insists that productive labor consists in making things period. This is incompatible with Marx’s assertion, which you quote, that ‘That labourer alone is productive, who produces surplus-value for the capitalist.” Ultimately Marx envisions production for use rather than profit as a solution to the problem of alienated labor but he does not proceed directly to that conclusion on the basis of the convenient 19th-century idealism that underlies Graeber’s critique of “useless jobs.”

    Your bland implication that all white collar workers have wasted their lives, and know it, and are simply refusing to come to Jesus is a nonsense on any terms, even the sloppy and self-indulgent ones Graeber resorts to in Bullshit Jobs

    The resident expert on the working class here is Michael Yates, and I will very likely defer to him if he is interested, but I stand behind what I said about the “administrative” work that is necessary to capitalist production–as well, IMO, as work on the capitalist supply chain and on the distribution and circulation end of the spectrum. Your assertion that everybody knows that all white collar workers have wasted their lives and they are simply refusing to confess their obvious guilt is neither Graeberite nor Marxist. The fact that you reject the work of standards bodies as bullshit is an index of the depths of your ignorance.

    It is simply the arrogant presumption of an authority that you–and all the simplistic leftoids who understand even less than you–do not possess because you do not understand the realities of complex industrial societies and instead wish without admitting it to put forward an anemic Thoreauvian fairy tale that is as obsolete as it is irrelevant. Make up your mind before you start crying out for the executioner–your idealist moralism cannot AFAIK be Marxist.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 12, 2020 @ 12:24 am

  11. You’re right. It’s not useful. You’re having strange fantasies about Pol Pot executions. I guess you are probably a white collar workers. No one else would be so odd about it.

    I am talking about the wasted labor of white collar work that is totally unnecessary for any society interested in meeting human needs instead of producing profit for capitalists. In a socialist society the white collar workers would be relocated to produce use value in things like manufacturing, transportation, constructions, and medicine.

    If every manager, secretary, consultant, engineer, programmer, marketer, public relations person, finance person, mortgage brokers resigned tomorrow, life would go on. If every truck driver and power plant worker resigned tomorrow, society would collapse.

    Here is a good litmus test for any society: if there are money, classes, or white collar “head workers”, if some guy is digging ditches full time while another guy is organizing numbers on a piece of paper as a job, then it is not a communist society.

    Comment by Tanaka Ueno — September 12, 2020 @ 1:47 pm

  12. Here is a good litmus test for any society: if there are money, classes, or white collar “head workers”, if some guy is digging ditches full time while another guy is organizing numbers on a piece of paper as a job, then it is not a communist society.

    —-

    You are really stupid. You can’t have communism without planning. Statisticians, programmers, economists, and even managers will be essential. I was president of the board of Tecnica that sent such people to Nicaragua in the 1980s. We worked closely with Paul Oquist, Daniel Ortega’s chief economic adviser. Nicaragua was never going to become “communist” given the class relationship of forces but if they took your bombastic advice, the contras would have won much earlier.

    Comment by louisproyect — September 12, 2020 @ 1:57 pm

  13. I was trying to not engage with, but must take issue with Mr. Ueno.

    I have been both a “blue collar” worker and a “white collar” worker throughout my working life (42 years of working, and counting).

    I have worked in lumber yards, I’ve painted houses, worked in numerous kitchens and restuarants (from dishwasher, to busboy, to prep cook to line cook, to bartending), been a printer (only got up to 2-and-4-color Ryobi printers), worked in bookstores of Harvard Sq, as well as in the iconic Out of Town News (people from Boston/Cambridge area know the news stand).

    Take my printing job. It was very productive; in a good day, I would print out a thousand stationary letter heads and envelopes, just for one of the orders I had to fill. But, who was I printing those for? Bankers, lawyers, insurance companies, etc.

    So, what was I? Productive “blue collar” worker or useless “Shit-job” holder?

    I was also an instructor for 25 years, a supposedly “unproductive” worker. But, in my jobs as an instructor, I was actually producing surplus value for my employers. For the hourly wages I was given (along with other teachers and instructors), I would teach a group of students, whose combined paid fees exceeded the wages the institution was paying me, the support staff, the admin people, the overhead, etc. Otherwise the school would not stay open. So, was I productive or non-productive? I (and other instructors) definitely produced surplus value.

    So, this very mechanical way of posing “mental v. physical” or “productive v. unproductive” debate raises a false dichotomy, and in general is a very (ahem) unproductive debate.

    But, the thing that bothers me the most is Ueno’s assertions that actually border on a Pol Pot type of mentality. Easily drawn from his line of logic: labor camps for “head workers” to go into farms and learn the “virtues” of physical labor.

    I mean, he has a beef with ENGINEERS? Are you kidding me? He wants to have a socialist society with all the complexities it will entail without the most fundamental of (actually very) productive workers? That right there is the definitional characteristic of Pol Pot type of mentality, or a milder version of it as practiced during the so-called Cultural Revolution of Mao. Ueno displays some reactionary romanticism of the nineteenth century type.

    If anything, we want *lots* of engineers so we can automate more menial (physical, productive) tasks in a socialist society, so that Marx’s vision can actually come true; i.e., to have a society where individuals can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

    Comment by Reza — September 12, 2020 @ 5:34 pm

  14. A rather juvenile dismissal of engineers by Mr. Ueno!
    Engineers existed since antiquity
    Irrigation systems in ancient rural communities; the building of the Pyramids; the construction of cites,ships..
    I could go on but we don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a peanut

    Comment by NollaigO — September 13, 2020 @ 6:44 am

  15. Not a Marxist, nor an anarchist, but long time Left activist, Palestinian solidarity, antiwar, and Occupy. Retired sociologist. I agree with Louis’s critique of Graeber and Occupy tactics. I also agree with Louis on the Syrian Revolution.

    Rich Wood

    Comment by Rich Wood — September 13, 2020 @ 7:36 pm

  16. “[W]e don’t need a sledgehammer to crack a peanut …”

    Well said. This certainly doesn’t deserve engaging on the merits of one predictable ranting crackpot (or polpot). But the underlying perhaps decadent revision of romantic individualism reveals AFAIK a new consolidation of a conceptual framework common to both Trumpism and left “neoprimitivism” or whatever some junior professor or failed graduate student decides to call it this minute. This IMO wants examining.

    I’m disturbed by the immense prevalence of the autonomism roiling along in the wake of BLM, because it seems to eschew writing and coherent speechmaking altogether in favor of mute deed propaganda and physical occupations that assert no demands apart from support of whatever BLM wants and their own disputable prefiguration of post-revolutionary society. Screw your fucking governance!

    “Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Groovy, baby! Only like engineers and like fucking computer programmers have to like fuckingask!

    We sure IMO could use an anthropology–or at least an informal functional taxonomy–of this great stirring in all its complexity.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — September 13, 2020 @ 8:05 pm

  17. @Tanako Ueno, I feel like comparing your remark (“If every manager, secretary, consultant, engineer, programmer, marketer, public relations person, finance person, mortgage brokers resigned tomorrow, life would go on. If every truck driver and power plant worker resigned tomorrow, society would collapse”) with a similar one by Henri Saint-Simon, one of the representatives of utopian socialism who influenced Marx and Engels.

    Saint-Simon wrote as follows (quoted in his Selected Writings edited by Keith Taylor, pp. 194-195):
    —–
    Let us suppose that all of a sudden France loses fifty each of its best physicists, chemists, physiologists, mathematicians, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, authors, mechanics, civil and military engineers, artillerymen, architects, doctors, surgeons, pharmicists, sailors, clockmakers, bankers; its two hundred best merchants and six hundred best farmers; fifty each of its best iron-masters, arms manufacturers, tanners, dyers, miners, manufacturers of cloth, cotton, silk, linen, ironmongery, earthenware and porcelain, crystal- and glass-ware; shipowners, carriers, printers, engravers, goldsmiths, and other metalworkers; masons, carpenters, joiners, blacksmiths, locksmiths, cutlers, foundrymen, and one hundred other persons in various unspecified posts, eminent in the sciences, fine arts, and arts and crafts, making in all the three thousand best scientists, artists, and artisans in France. . . .

    Let us proceed to another supposition. Let us say that France retains all its men of genius in the sciences, fine arts, and arts and crafts, but has the misfortune to lose on the same day Monsieur the King’s brother, Monseigneur the duc d’Angoulême, Monseigneur the duc de Berry, Monseigneur the duc d’Orléans, Monseigneur the duc de Bourbon, Madame the duchesse d’Angoulême, Madame the duchesse de Berry, Madame the duchesse d’Orléans, Madame the duchesse de Bourbon, and Mademoiselle de Condé. Let us suppose that at the same time it loses all the great officers of the Crown, all Ministers of State (with or without portfolio), all Councillors of State, all chief magistrates, all its marshals, all its cardinals, archbishops, bishops, vicars-general, and canons, all prefects and sub-prefects, all ministerial employees, all judges, and, on top of all that, the ten thousand richest property owners who live in the style of nobles. . . .
    —–
    Needless to say, Saint-Simon concludes that one can easily replace the aforementioned aristocrats, army marshals, bishops, judges, etc. with no real harm done, whereas the loss of mechanics, engineers and whatnot would be a very different matter. Two things stand out to me:

    1. Even though Saint-Simon’s argument is appealing, it’s ultimately a simplistic analysis, one which it’s rather silly to see a leftist essentially repeating 200 years later. After all, as “unnecessary” as certain classes or strata may seem, one needs to explain *why* they exist and at what stage the productive forces of society render them superfluous due to changes in the production process and in the superstructure (laws, organized religion, etc.) You could presumably dispense with the entire aristocracy of France in 1819, but clergy, judges, and ministerial employees not so much.
    2. The examples Saint-Simon gives of “unnecessary” occupations are generally far more sensible than yours. Not a good sign.

    Comment by Ismail — September 22, 2020 @ 12:02 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: