Grappling with Graeber Pt 1- The War on Imagination

Occupy MontanaNote:  I don’t feel particularly qualified to comment on David Graeber.  Reading him is like having the good fortune of getting into a graduate class with the most popular professor on campus and then realizing you might be a tad in over your head.   And reading all 6 essays and trying to wrap your head around them is like cramming a whole semester of aesthetics and philosophy into one week.  But I’ll give it a shot.

Between 2004 and 2010, David Graeber wrote a series of essays that were compiled under the title “Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination”.  Graeber grapples with the seeming implosion of capitalism in the first decade of the 21st Century in these essays and the confusion that many in the anti-globalization movement felt after 9/11. “Revolutions in Reverse”.

A lot of the energy of the movement got sidetracked into yet another anti-war movement  (similar to the Vietnam era) after the fluke terrorist attack on 9/11 by a “rag tag band of Islamists who had, effectively, got extraordinarily lucky, pulling off one of the first mad terrorist schemes in history that actually worked.”   Graeber and many in the anti-Globalist movement saw that it was a fluke but watched in dismay as the American public bought the whole “war on terror” hook, line and sinker.

Graeber cuts through this gloom by making the wonderful observation  in the first essay “The Shock of Victory” that the anti-globalization movement of the late 1990s foundered not because of its failure, but because of its success.  It succeeded  not in its long term goal of establishing an alternative system to capitalism, but in its mid level objective of dealing serious blows to the IMF and WTO and halting large-scale trade agreements.  But the people within the movement couldn’t quite see it happening and were busily engaged in debates with each other on what they had done wrong. They engaged in endless discussions on tactics, discussions about non-violence, summit hopping, privilege, and racism, he says.  But much had been achieved and revolutionaries needed to recognize the elements that worked.   And then they needed to ask the bigger question, “What does it mean to win?”

The theme of the 2nd essay “Hope in Common” starts getting to the crux of what I see as the overarching theme of his essays. It is the war on the imagination by the neo liberals.  It is about how the elites subverted hope in the population at large.

 “Neoliberal capitalism is that form that is utterly obsessed with ensuring

that it seems that, as Margaret Thatcher so famously declared

in the 1980s, “there is no alternative.” In other words, it has

largely given up on any serious effort to argue that the current

economic order is actually a good order, just, reasonable, that it

will ever prove capable of creating a world in which most human

beings feel prosperous, safe, and free to spend any significant portion

of their life pursuing those things they consider genuinely

important. Rather, it is a terrible system, in which even the very

richest countries cannot guarantee access to such basic needs as

health and education to the majority of their citizens, it works

badly, but no other system could possibly work at all.”

Graeber makes a similar point to the one that Naomi Klein makes in her book “The Shock Doctrine”.  Klein quotes the “godfather of the modern market” Milton Friedman as saying “Only a crisis-actual or perceived-produces real change.  When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

Graeber concurs that Friedman’s flim flam free market ideas were the only ideas allowed to be left lying around when crisis after crisis happened in the last third of the 20th century and then oozed like sludge into the 21st.   The financial elites tried to keep any alternative ideas of how to organize society other than capitalism out of sight and out of mind.  TINA or There is No Alternative is a way of demoralizing people; keeping them sedated and filled with doom.  It is a war on imagination.

But there are alternatives.  (To Be Continued).

For more on TINA, read Adam Curtis “The Curse of TINA”.