On the one hand, this identifies something real. There is a narrow consensus, which sharply defines the things that can or cannot be spoken of by Serious People. Coercion is of course, an important element of how the system survives. But the language here suggests a seamlessness, and a level of shared intention and planning on the part of the “rulers of the world” who have “constructed” and “designed” this system that seems to me implausible. Many of the most important features of modern capitalism have less to do with conscious coordination than with unconscious synchrony. Graeber, it seems to me, radically overestimates the extent to which monetary systems and debt arrangements are the product of conscious design. Furthermore, his apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people like monetized relations, and that sometimes they have good reason to prefer them over the more embedded forms of interaction that Graeber thinks are preferable.
Henry Farrell, as part of a symposium reviewing David Graeber’s new book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Bertram is right, and his analysis flies in the face of another participant in the symposium, Malcolm Harris, a smart young anarchist who believes The Revolution will come in the next 2 to 10 years. I think Harris is not alone in his optimism, but this strand of the left faces a simple problem – what does it mean to overthrow capitalism? Did capitalism “overthrow” feudalism? How can we smash and replace wholesale a web of uncoordinated social relationships that now span the globe?
To be aware that capitalism is largely uncoordinated and highly complex, with supporters up and down the chain of the hierarchy, is not to surrender to its inevitability or even suggest that gradual reform is the only answer. Sometimes capitalism did smash feudalism: nouveau riche mercantile interests jockeyed with landed aristocrats for power in politics and in bloody civil wars, and early modern European states “opened markets” in the Third World at gunpoint. But this isn’t the whole story: the rise of finance, joint-stock corporations, wage labor, and an exchange-dominant economy is also a story about changes in social and economic relationships growing in the interstices of the old order. Cities increasingly became sites of long-distance trade, and the finance institutions that necessarily accompanied them; manufacture emerged first in the home, and then in factories; laws and political formations changed to accomodate atomized citizen-workers rather than class-bound peasants, artisans and gentry.
All this is simply to state that leftists who envision the possibility of a better world must do more than agitate for the overthrow of the state. We must build, as well.