Thoughts on David Graeber’s ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’

Thoughts on David Graeber’s ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’

I finally finished this book after reading it on and off for months. First, I'll say this is a very unsettling book. By this, I mean it makes you think again about things you thought you knew already, and can't be easily assimilated into an existing worldview. For that reason alone, it's worth reading.

What follows isn't really a review, but some thoughts on some of the concepts put forward and ideas raised in the book. Nor am I going to summarise the arc of the book's main arguments. If you've no idea what the book is about, there's a summary by Graeber here, an interview about it here, and a smack-down on some free-market critics here which give a pretty good idea.

This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today. - David Graeber, Debt

Communism, exchange and hierarchy

The first thing I'd like to pick up on is Graeber's claim that all societies are a configuration of three fundamental organisational/moral principles: communism, exchange and hierarchy. What Graeber calls 'baseline communism', the giving according to abilities and receiving according to needs, is he claims, the "the foundation of all human sociability", the very condition of possibility of society itself. He writes that "The surest way to know that one is in the presence of communistic relations is that not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so." I like this formulation, and it echoes a line a line of argument I made in the libcom vs parecon debate. But there's a sting in the tail. By the same token, Graeber argues that this is rarely the whole story, and there's a tendency for communism to slide into other forms of society.

These involve exchange and hierarchy. Exchange, for Graeber, implies equality between the parties. But it doesn't necessarily mean commodity exchange, i.e. the obligation isn't necessarily quantified. So in many stateless, non-commercial societies, you simply admire the thing you want ('What a lovely pig!') and the possessor makes a gift of it. You don't owe a pig in return, but an obligation of roughly equivalent status (Graeber says there are broad categories of object, e.g. everyday objects and sacred objects, which aren't commensurable with each other). So for example, Marcel Mauss' work on 'The Gift' explores this kind of exchange. Commercial, market exchange, is of course something we're familiar with. The difference between the two is the difference between 'cheers mate, I owe you one' and 'thank you shopkeeper I owe you £1'. Furthermore, the temporal disjunction in gift exchange creates 'debts'1 and therefore social bonds and solidarity, whereas the immediacy of commercial exchange creates no ongoing obligations, and is therefore the form of exchange appropriate for strangers - or enemies. So for example, stateless societies have often been communistic internally, but practised forms of gift exchange in their relations with other groups. Graeber explores this in some detail, which I won't repeat here.

Finally, hierarchy. Hierarchy is not necessarily the formal hierarchy of organised violence of the state, but may also be informal and based on status. Graeber, following Mauss, argues that gift exchange is often a competitive contest for status, with the party who gives the most attaining the highest status. It is in this sense that purely communistic societies are always prone to these alternative moral logics, which could transform a communistic society into something else if not kept in check (this is part of the role of ritual in 'primitive' societies, which it turns out, are in fact rather complex). So for example, communistic relations apply to the in-group, but that has never (yet!) been all humanity. Between in-groups, exchange arises, and this carries with it the tendency to hierarchy. There are other permutations, but this is the kind of analysis these concepts give rise to. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but I do think it's highly thought-provoking. I also suspect Graeber is playing a double-move given the US context: first establishing that communism is the ever-present basis of society, then playing down the idea of a communist society. In the context of 'communism' being a dirty word, this may well be a tactical move to provoke US readers (and others) into rethinking what communism is, and perhaps warming to it, without having to admit to being 'commies'.

The distinction between ‘human economies’ and ‘commercial economies’

The second thing I want to pick up on is Graeber's conceptual distinction between 'human economies' and 'commercial economies'.

Graeber wrote:
Often, these currencies [yams, shovels, pigs, jewellery] were extremely important, so much so that social life itself might be said to revolve around getting and disposing of the stuff. Clearly, though, they mark a totally different conception of what money, or indeed an economy, is actually about. I’ve decided therefore to refer to them as “social currencies,” and the economies that employ them as “human economies.” By this I mean not that these societies are necessarily in any way more humane (some are quite humane; others extraordinarily brutal), but only that they are economic systems primarily concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings.

By contrast, "historically, commercial economies — market economies, as we now like to call them — are a relative newcomer." I think this distinction is quite an interesting one, and in many ways parallels Marx's notion of 'commodity fetishism', with commercial economies being those where "the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things." (Karl Marx). In other words, commercial societies, specifically capitalism, pose a fundamental ontological inversion, where "capital subjectivizes itself through the subordination of human ends and purposes to its own self-expansion. Like a vampire, it is dead labour preying on the living." This inhuman force then governs and restructures social life (though not without resistance). Communism then, from a libertarian communist perspective, would be something like seizing back control of society from this inhuman force, and instantiating social relations based on human beings and our needs. In Graeber's terminology, libertarian communism would be a form of human economy (as well as perhaps the movement that prefigures it).

However, Graeber also makes what I imagine will be a controversial argument about Medieval Islam and free markets. Throughout the book, Graeber points out that the common sense view of 'market' and 'state' as diametrically opposing forces is false, and that "historical reality reveals (...) they were born together and have always been intertwined." Consequently, he is dismissive of the economists' idea of the free market, since markets are underpinned by state force, and historically were created by state action (typically taxation to raise armies to wage war). However, in Medieval Islam, Graeber does identify something like a true free market, that is, a market without any state involvement. But here, without the force of the state, the only guarantee for commercial activity is honour and trust. In the absence of coercion, market relations tend to be reabsorbed in the web of social relations, a 'moral economy', regulated by custom and reputation, and thus based more on co-operation than competition. Thus, paraphrasing the work of the Islamic scholar Tusi (1201-1274 AD), he writes that:

Graeber wrote:
The market is simply one manifestation of this more general principle of mutual aid, of the matching of abilities (supply) and needs (demand) - or to translate it into my earlier terms, it is not only founded on, but is itself an extension of the kind of baseline communism on which any society must ultimately rest.

This is certainly a provocative argument: markets are communist! To be clear, this is not Graeber's argument, so much as his summary of Tusi's. However, it isn't as paradoxical as it sounds. Graeber's argument is that without state power, commercial economies tend to revert to more human ones, with honour, trust, mutual aid and co-operation replacing coercion and competition (more on this below). I also suspect there's a hint of provocation here to the US right: finding the only example of functioning 'free markets' in the writings of Islamic scribes. There's also a hint of Karl Polanyi's 'double movement', where the 'self-regulating market' comes up against a counter-movement to subordinate it to social needs (Karl Polanyi, from page 88 of the pdf). I'll pick up on some of the implications of this below.

Marx, critique and utopia

David Graeber wrote:
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 productive capital, and, again, leave others with nothing to sell but their brains and bodies, the results will be in many ways barely distinguishable from slavery, and the whole system will eventually destroy itself. What everyone seems to forget is the “as if” nature of his analysis. 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.

The final point I want to pick up on is Graeber’s reading of Marx. Graeber is at pains to point out that Marx's Capital is not a critique of actually-existing capitalism, but a critique of the capitalist utopia imagined by the political economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo and so on). He even goes as far as to claim capitalism is not in fact based on wage labour. Now, few if any posters on libcom would have a closed, economistic reading of Marx. After all, we all know that Marx was writing a critique of political economy and not 'economics': he was critiquing the claims made by capitalism's ideological supporters, not claiming to describe how capitalism actually works. Implicit in Graeber's argument seems to be the idea that Marx's immanent critique needs to be supplemented by an external critique in order to properly situate and understand actually-existing capitalism and its relationship to other social formations. An anthropological perspective, and some of the conceptual distinctions discussed above, are a way of doing that.

What does this mean for our understanding of capitalism? I contend that plenty of us on libcom, and I've certainly been guilty of this, do tend to take Marx as describing actually-existing capitalism even when we know otherwise. Now in a sense, I think this is in part because Capital does do this (e.g. Marx's lengthy quotes from newspapers and parliamentary reports into working conditions are describing real-world capitalism, not the utopia of the political economists). But to the extent we take Marx as criticising actually existing capitalism, we also implicitly accept the political economists reductive, bourgeois assumptions about human beings and society, assumptions which Marx only provisionally adopts in order to explode political economy from within. Why, for example, would we think 'the tendency of the rate of profit to fall' could explain the current crisis, unless we thought Marx's Capital described actually-existing capitalism? I think there's several implications to this, though I've yet to fully work through them all.

First, in taking Marx's Capital as a critique of actually-existing capitalism, we could well be overstating the power of capital (and thus understating our own power). For example, the arc of Marx's Capital begins with commodities and shows how commodification implies class society. There's a tendency to deduce therefore, that any time anything exchanges for a price, capitalism will be reproduced, rising vampire-like from the dead to once more suck the blood of the living. Graeber sees it very differently. In the absence of state power, market exchanges tend not to give rise to the inhuman monster of capital (markets, and even wage labour, after all, have existed far longer than capitalism), but rather tend to be re-absorbed into a moral economy of a human society, a society to which Marx's account doesn't apply (e.g. Graeber's example of Islamic 'free markets' discussed above).

The consequence is significant. Rather than seeing every exchange for a price as the seed of a resurgent capitalism, Graeber sees exchange as tending towards being embedded in social relations and a moral economy unless this is actively prevented from happening by state power. So in this sense, something like a 'free market' anarchism wouldn't resemble a commercial market at all, but something closer to a gift economy, with everyone taking what they need on trust then settling up in periodic 'reckonings', with account taken for inability to pay.

To be clear, Graeber does not advance this as his favoured society, and my description is drawn from his discussion of the village economies of Medieval England (which he cautions not to idealise). But nonetheless, the implication is that by ignoring the tendency of human society to reabsorb commercial relations into social ones, to ignore "religious ideas, ethical concepts, customs, habits, traditions, legal opinions" as well as the more familiar "political organisations, institutions of property, forms of production, and so on" (Rudolf Rocker), we overstate the resilience and durability of capitalism. In other words, without an anthropological perspective, we tend to over-state the power of 'the market' and the naturalness of capitalism, even while we think we're critiquing it (a form of capitalist realism, perhaps?). An unsettling thought.

If we accept this line of argument, it would suggest we could be worrying too much about things that look too much like commodity exchange leading to the restoration of capitalism (e.g. the various alternative currencies during Argentina's economic crisis of 2001, or the voucher systems used in parts of revolutionary Catalonia in 1936). Rather, it is state power which is pivotal in reconstituting these exchange systems into commercial, commodity markets rather than them being reabsorbed into webs of social relations based on needs, mutual aid and so on. I'm not sure what I make of this, but it's an intriguing reversal of conventional libcom wisdom. Rather than capital being the all-powerful hydra that regenerates from the smallest stumps of market behaviour, rather all societies are based on a basic communism which threatens to assert itself whenever state power recedes, re-embedding markets into webs of mutual aid which could render the commodity form obsolete, superseded by direct social relations and bonds of honour and trust.2

Second, Graeber provocatively picks up on this to explain the current crisis. He argues that only while we could imagine capitalism as a historic system that had a beginning and must have an end was it possible for the cycle of boom and bust, and particularly for speculative bubbles of credit and debt, to function. Now that capitalist realism rules, the whole economy breaks down because the idea of endless expansion of debt makes everything go nuts:

Graeber wrote:
In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons lest speculation, predictably, go haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.

This is very closely bound up with Graeber's claim that "there is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist". The triumph of capitalism has rendered it dysfunctional. The expansion of debt is only tenable if it is considered to be finite. As soon as we think capitalism will last forever, it necessarily goes into crisis. And at the same time, we're running up against ecological limits... It takes an anthropologist to draw attention to the importance of beliefs, norms, customs and so on in understanding what economists claim is the hard science world of 'the markets'. I can't say I'm convinced by Graeber's specific diagnosis of a belief in eternal capitalism causing the global economic crisis. But again, it's a provocative thesis, and forces us to think about the role of culture and beliefs in determining economic processes, in addition to the more familiar approach of doing the opposite (either approach, alone, would be reductionist).

Finally then, Graeber offers one concrete proposal, in a book which is meant more to change paradigms than set out blueprints: a debt jubilee, i.e. a mass cancellation of debts to allow the system to start up again. This is inspired by the ancient Babylonian practice, which periodically saw debts wiped clean and debt-slaves released. Graeber even points out that the first recorded word for 'freedom' means literally 'return to mother', referring to the liberation of debt slaves during periodic jubilees. Frankly, it's quite a disappointing conclusion. For one thing, Graeber proposes debt cancellation (a policy to be implemented by those in power) and not a debt strike (a tactic to be employed by the powerless). I suspect this comes from academic habit. Even when I was at university, there was a pressure on students to frame arguments in 'policy relevant' terms, i.e. aimed at making suggestions to the ruling class. I suspect this pressure is even stronger on academics. All that said, the book does not aim at concrete tactical proposals and should not be judged on this basis. 'Debt' is a wide-ranging and provocative read which manages to be both accessibly written and intellectually challenging, and is certain to make all but the most hardened dogmatists re-examine things they thought they already knew.

  • 1. The problems caused by quantifying and moneterising these debts is one of the main themes of the book.
  • 2. The caveat here is the human society and moral economy wouldn’t necessarily be one libertarian communists would find desirable. As I’ve said, Graeber’s at pains to point out human societies are not necessarily humane societies. I guess this is where the importance of prefigurative struggles comes in: establishing the norms which will rule with the supersession of the state-market complex.


Jan 3 2012 23:47
Graeber is at pains to point out that Marx's Capital is not a critique of actually-existing capitalism, but a critique of the capitalist utopia imagined by the political economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo and so on).

I was always wondering if there was some consensus that Marx accidentally critiqued the real thing when he himself believed he was critiquing only the theories, of Smith etc.

Theoretical constructions like human organisations seem to have a will to lead independent lives according to their own logic.

Joseph Kay
Jan 3 2012 23:56

I'm no Marx expert, but it does seem to me Capital does both: critiques the categories of political economy, exploding them from within, whilst also using empirical evidence from actually existing capitalism to do so.

I guess that's only internally consistent if Marx believed political economy was in some sense correct (the same sense that commodity fetishism sees things as they really are). I think this probably is the case. Marx had a lot of respect for Ricardo iirc, and spent 12 years reading and researching political economy, which suggests he thought it was a serious body of literature with some explanatory power, rather than just bourgeois ideology.

However, 'orthodox' economistic Marxism then sees Marx as 'completing' the work of Ricardo et al. I think where an anthropological perspective is probably useful, and the concepts Graeber sets out may help here, is in reminding ourselves that Homo sapiens are not Homo economicus. While nobody on libcom explicitly thinks that, it's easy to lose sight of the breadth of human social possibilities and end up producing utopias which owe rather to much to capitalism (I argued Parecon is something of this type in the aforementioned debate).

In short, I want to read more anthropology.

Jan 4 2012 00:09

If you want to read up on gift economy, I recommend Marurice Godelier's The Enigma of the Gift, in which he (briefly) critiques Marx belief in the possibility of dispelling the fetish. While the commodity's fetish might be dispelled, Godelier argues that what governs social relations and exchange is just as mystified in "primitive" societies.

Joseph Kay
Jan 4 2012 00:14

Cheers, I'll check that out. I'm also planning to finish reading Mauss' 'The Gift', and I want to re-read Bookchin's 'Ecology of Freedom' which goes into this kind of thing (and, iirc, critiques gift exchange as something done between strangers, from a communist perspective). After finishing this, I've also added Graeber's 'toward an anthropological theory of value' to my list... My ever-growing list.

Edit: Holy crap. I guess I'll be going for the second-hand paperback then. A seller with a sense of irony?

Jan 4 2012 00:30

If you want to explore that stuff there's just loads. I recommend reading the classics. In addition to Mauss, there is Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Sahlin's Stone Age Economics, Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and Gregory's Gifts and Commodities. And there's tons of ethnographies as well.

Graber's Anthro Theory of Value is interesting, well worth a read because he makes a very good overview and critique of theories of gift exchange.

I'll check Bookchin. Didn't remember he wrote about gift exchange.

Jan 4 2012 01:43

maybe start an anthropology reading guide?
I don't read much anthropology, but if I ever did it'd be a nice starting point wink

david graeber
Jan 4 2012 06:50

That's a really thoughtful and wonderful discussion and above all else, I'd like to thank you for it.

About the Jubilee - for what it's worth, I am, even now, working on promoting a debt strike - that is, as an activist. I thought I was being vague, in proposing a Jubilee, on who would promulgate it or how it would be effected, but I guess you have a point that it ends up sounding like something that would be imposed by state power. I guess the scenario in the back of my mind was some sort of combination: either a debt strike, or a broad Argentina-style campaign of delegitimizing existing structures of political authority, would cause them to declare a debt cancellation to reestablish their legitimacy, in much the same way as Sumerian kings felt they had to do in the face of mass flight or passive resistance in order to prevent the collapse of their regimes. But really I wasn't thinking practically so much as conceptually, I wanted to introduce the notion of hitting the reset button, as it were, on all levels of society, not just revolutionaries but anyone willing to listen, as a way of reacting to economic crisis, since it struck me that doing so would open the door to far more radical challenges to capitalism further down the line.

By the way, in several of his other comments concerning my sense of audience, the reviewer is remarkably astute so I thought it might be nice to let him know it. Yes, I certainly did take a certain wicked pleasure in pointing out to the American Right that free market ideology - including many of the specific ideas and arguments of Adam Smith - not only traces back to Islam, but even, specifically, to sharia, which was after all in part civil commercial law not enforced by the state. I also was quite intentionally challenging popular conceptions of the term "communism" in just the way you describe. Well spotted!

Thanks again for the review.

Joseph Kay
Jan 4 2012 18:20

Ha, a lucky guess about the sense of audience I suppose. By complete coincidence, I came across this last night in a textbook of international relations key concepts...

IR: key concepts wrote:
When we examine different social formations and look for the method that each has used to orchestrate its material life, a pattern emerges. There are three basic methods of organisation: tradition, command and the market. In the modern world, every actual social formation is to some degree a mixture of all three organisational principles. Modern capitalism is a market-based social formation because the market is the primary organising principle, yet we can find plenty of examples of command and some examples of tradition even here. For example, you may select an occupation based on family traditions. Most farmers also have farmers for parents. And there are certainly elements of command in modern capitalism. Government commandeers, through taxation, the resources to provide for defence, a system of courts, education, and much of our infrastructure (such as roads and harbours). In extreme cases, such as major wars, government may commandeer labour directly through the military draft.

There's quite a long way between 'baseline communism' and 'tradition', but with 'command' (hierarchy) and 'the market' (exchange), an interesting and unexpected similarity. Fwiw, I think the triad set out in 'Debt' is much more useful, as 'tradition' could seemingly just as easily apply to traditional hierarchies (i.e command) or relations to the market (they use the example of trades within wage labour). 'Exchange' is also broader than 'the market', which is important in terms of not unduly naturalising capitalist relations. Being an IR textbook, it also doesn't see these organising principles as at the same time moral principles... but yeah, just a random coincidence I was reading this textbook just after writing this blog.

I'm still thinking through the uses of this kind of conceptual framework, but it does seem to have potential in exploring things like the emergence of informal hierarchies from egalitarian groups (tyranny of structurelessness etc), as well as looking at how alternative exchange systems/currencies can either be a trajectory away from commodity/market exchange or back towards it, depending on the context, use of state power, moral norms and so on. As a libertarian communist, these are pretty important questions, since they relate not just to the kind of society i'd like to live in but also the kind movement required to create it, and the pitfalls that might arise along the way.

Jan 4 2012 19:24

Thanks for another solid blog post J. I've not got around to reading this book yet but after this I'm going to bump it up on my list. Just wanted to comment now on the jubilee stuff. here's Peter Linebaugh on that - - and here's a thing where the jubilee call has been circulating within Occupy in the US - a google search with terms occupy debt jubilee turns up a lot of hits as well.

Joseph Kay
Jan 5 2012 19:35
david graeber wrote:
I guess the scenario in the back of my mind was some sort of combination: either a debt strike, or a broad Argentina-style campaign of delegitimizing existing structures of political authority, would cause them to declare a debt cancellation to reestablish their legitimacy, in much the same way as Sumerian kings felt they had to do in the face of mass flight or passive resistance in order to prevent the collapse of their regimes. But really I wasn't thinking practically so much as conceptually

I think it's fine to think conceptually. Not everything has to be immediate tactics, and because of the book, we're now discussing tactics that might not have occurred to us before. Obviously it also may not be appropriate to discuss tactics in an open forum in any detail, so by all means let's not talk beyond concepts and generalities.

That said, having suggested a debt strike, I guess I should flesh it out. I mean something like that would be seemingly very difficult to organise: debtors are even more atomised from one another than tennants or workers, so it would seem, from an organisational point of view, harder than pulling off a rent strike or a stop-work strike.

But the example of Argentina is an interesting one. As i understand it, what happened there was more the banks telling the middle class their savings no longer existed, and everyone kicking off and smashing up banks, defaulting on payments and setting up alternative currency schemes and/or mutual aid bakeries etc. So a strong part of it was necessity: the banks more or less collapsed, and people then stopped paying them. For us though, it's the other way around. The state has bailed out the banks, and all our obligations to them are still due. But, increasingly, people are being unable to pay and defaulting. The #occupyhomes stuff is really promising in this respect.

I think perhaps the nearest successful thing I can think of in a modern context would be the anti-Poll Tax movement in the UK, which at its peak saw 17 million people refusing to pay. There, things started with a mixture of those who simply couldn't pay and those politically opposed to the tax, but as they refused and clogged up the courts (and resisted evictions), more and more people joined in until it more-or-less brought down Thatcher. Now, it was far from a total victory (the council tax introduced in its stead was only a bit less regressive), but it is an example of a mass campaign of non-payment having a significant impact.

I'm pretty remote from occupy in the US, and i'm told the dynamics are quite different to in the UK, but the stuff around occupy homes could maybe be comparable to the start of the anti-Poll Tax unions in Scotland... at least the optimist in me can imagine that kind of trajectory. Any mass default on mortgages would be a pretty full-on challenge to private property in a way tax refusal isn't though. Literally saying i need housing, I have a roof over my head, i'm not paying you for it and you can't take it from me. It's that ever-present communism again.

Jan 14 2012 03:16

Interview with David Graeber on this week's Thinking Allowed.

Jan 16 2012 15:25

Interesting discussion.

I think I'm broadly in agreement with Joseph's 'qualified Graeber' reading of Marx (and the benefits of a sympathetic and complimentary anthropology) but when Joseph says ''Why, for example, would we think 'the tendency of the rate of profit to fall' could explain the current crisis, unless we thought Marx's Capital described actually existing capitalism?'' can I presume he is simply rejecting the idea that abstract 'laws' can somehow operate independently of human action or is there an implication here that this tendency isn't actually anything with real substance at all? As I see it there is a real such tendency in capitalism which is a fundamental factor in the current crisis, but it results from the actions of real people as representatives of capital in competition with each other and in struggle with the working class. The rise in the organic composition of capital and the displacement of labour and the historic shift from the formal to the real domination of capital/subsumption of labour is an observable fact but one which tends to absorb the whole of society beyond it's narrowly 'economic' base. It is precisely in the repetitive everyday class struggle through which the representatives of capital and labour reproduce capitalist social relationships and continually modernise and revitalise the system (including through the cancelation of debt/ devaluation of capital). This is the 'viscious circle' to which we have been and are condemned until a rupture is brought about through a combination of objective (economic 'laws') and subjective (class struggle beyond the everyday) factors. We make history but not in conditions of our own choosing. A 'base communism' or inclination in our 'species being' towards human community may well be an ever-present reality but it has been repeatedly constrained/prevented from fully emmerging by isolation, defeat and re-absorbtion into one class society after another so I don't think we can underestimate the power of capital as the beneficiary of all past class society/civilisation.

Although we can in theory (drawing on our experience of previous non commercial societies) give quite different meanings to words such as 'exchange', 'money', 'wages' 'markets' etc than their meaning in highly commercialised societies such as capitalism, such attempts by proclaimed revolutionaries, living in and influenced by capitalist society, to put flesh on the bones of socialism/communism or more often describe some supposed transitional society, have a sorry history of providing accomodation with capitalism rather than a fundamental break with it.
A new world human community ie 'communism' is a world beyond the divisions of economics and politics not a reversion to some earlier form of 'moral economy'

Jan 16 2012 15:47
A new world human community ie 'communism' is a world beyond the divisions of economics and politics not a reversion to some earlier form of 'moral economy'


Joseph Kay
Jan 16 2012 16:57
Malva wrote:
A new world human community ie 'communism' is a world beyond the divisions of economics and politics not a reversion to some earlier form of 'moral economy'


Right, i'm for the abolition of the economy as much as the next communist, but as I understand it (and I think as Graeber uses it) the term 'moral economy' has little or nothing to do with the discipline of economics or the separate autonomous sphere of 'the economy', but rather describing the way in which social life is subordinated to social norms, customs, values etc (I think it comes from EP Thompson, or at least that's where I've encountered it). So axiomatic statements of communism as the overcoming of capitalist separations don't really engage with the concept as it's being used here imho. Sure, you could use the term 'moral economy' to describe attempts to make the economy more moral ('ethical capitalism' and all that). But neither I (nor Graeber as far as I know, with his criticism of markets and states) are doing that.

Rather, it's a way of putting back human beings where political economy posits only Homo economicus. The former's relations tend to be governed by norms and customs whereas the latter construction is basically sociopathic. That both changes our understanding of the relation of political economy (and the critique thereof) to actually existing capitalism, and supplements the immanent critique of political economy with an external critique which challenges its foundational assumptions. Thus, for example, the class struggle could be understood not just as a struggle between classes but a struggle between the inhuman logic of capital which reduces everyone to mere objects and resources, and the tendency of human societies to generate their own norms and customs based on human needs (iirc Beverly Silver in 'Forces of Labour' calls the former 'Marx-type' struggles and the latter 'Polanyi-type' struggles over (de)commodification).

Spikymike wrote:
an I presume he is simply rejecting the idea that abstract 'laws' can somehow operate independently of human action or is there an implication here that this tendency isn't actually anything with real substance at all?

I'm saying Marx's immanent critique of political economy necessarily adopts its fundamental assumptions1 and thus only explains actually existing-capitalism to the extent those assumptions are sound. They can certainly be questioned, and therefore the extent to which Capital explains real-world capitalism needs to be demonstrated in each instance rather than taken for granted. If falling rates of profit are observed (i've seen data either way, and have no particular opinion on it), Marx would certainly be one of my first points of call to explain that.

So really what's at stake is: (1) an immanent critique (like Marx's) has to take on the assumptions of its target (political economy in this case). (2) therefore it will only describe the real world to the extent political economy does and (3) any problems with the assumptions of political economy will likely create theoretical blindspots where the immanent critique doesn't match up to reality. Does that make sense?

To try and give some examples, my point's not really anything to do with abstract laws vs human action, but rather the pitfalls of treating immanent critique as a description of actually existing capitalism, with all that's excluded. For example Graeber points out that rarely if ever has free wage labour been the majority condition. Even now, when the majority of the world's population has been proletarianised, there's millions in bonded labour, virtual debt peonage, paid in company scrip and living in company housing, eeking out a living in the grey economy, working in prostitution and so on, who are by no means the free and equal citizens of political economy (and thus Marx's critique). Marx's critique is radical because it shows that even if everyone was a free and equal citizen with equal rights, there would be exploitation and a class society. But the 'even if' is crucial in understanding how this relates to the real world (the point Graeber makes explicitly).

For example feminists like Maria Mies have pointed out that overwhelmingly women have never had such status, but have in fact been treated as the property of men. This has changed somewhat de jure in places like the UK, where marital rape was finally abolished in 1991, and subsequently equal rights have been legislated for e.g. via the recent equalities act. But in many ways the de facto situation still lags behind the de jure. Treating Marx's Capital as a description of actually-existing capitalism would therefore create a massive blind spot for all those proletarians who've been dispossessed but never been proprietors of their own bodies. Similarly, Capital contains very little discussion of the margins, those dispossessed but excluded from wage labour; landless peasants, urban street hawkers etc, who rather than being swept into the reserve army seem in fact to be continually reproduced by capitalist development, particularly outside of the MDCs. Some Marxists have set about trying to rectify this theoretical gap e.g. Kevin Anderson's 'Marx at the Margins' which I've yet to read.

  • 1. e.g. about human nature/psychology/behaviour, about the universalisation of free wage labour/rights-bearing citizens able to make contracts and so on.
Jan 16 2012 19:51


For now.

I take your point about my rather lazy concluding remark.

I don't think I have misunderstood Graeber's explanation of what he is referring to by the term 'moral economy' though, but in my preceding paragraph I was merely trying to suggest that some might take comfort in the fact of preceding societies based on such to extend this into a flirting with something short of communism in the form of say 'labour time vouchers' or other forms of equivalent exchange between say mutual enterprises.

I don't think we can rely on Marx's theory of 'the falling rate of profit' to fully explain crisis in the capitalist economy but I do think it is a critical factor.

The shift from the formal to the real domination of capital is also I suppose a tendency as well - there is a sense in which capitalism is developing towards an approximation of Marx's analysis of it in it's pure form but it hasn't, and of course cannot ever, be the same for all the reasons you mention, (though the domination of the commodity form over society does not require every one to be formally a wage labourer - and are not your 'dispossed' the 'displaced' labour I was treferring to?).

I will have another read of all this and any other comments that might come forward when I have a bit more time.

Jan 16 2012 20:13

Sort of at a tangent to this discussion but I think not so far as to be inappropriate, I think Immanuel Wallerstein's shot book/long essay Historical Capitalism would really interest folk here in terms of the differences between Marx's presentation of capitalism in v1 of Capital and the actual history of really existing capitalism. Dale Tomich's book Through the Prism of Slavery might interest folk as well though it's annoyingly badly edited. Tomich spends a lot of time on what the relationship should be between marxist theory and the realities of the history of slavery as a system of property, trade, and labor.

Also, I think these two E.P. Thompson quotes are relevant to what Joseph said about political economy defining humanity in a reductive and economistic way.

“The injury which advanced industrial capitalism did, and which the market society did, was to define human relations as being primarily economic. Marx engaged with orthodox political economy, and proposed revolutionary economic man as the answer to exploited economic man. But it is also implicit, particularly in the early Marx, that the injury is in defining man as “economic” at all.” (From an interview in Radical History Review from 1976)

"While one form which opposition to capitalism takes is in direct economic antagonism – resistance to exploitation whether as producer or consumer – another form is, exactly, resistance to capitalism’s innate tendency to reduce all human relationships to economic definitions. The two are inter-related, of course; but it is by no means certain which may prove to be, in the end, more revolutionary. (…) [People] desire, fitfully, not only direct economic satisfactions, but also to throw off this grotesque “economic” disguise which capitalism imposes upon them, and to resume a human shape.” (

Joseph Kay
Jan 16 2012 23:07

Apologies in advance for the long post. Like I say, this book got me thinking...

Spikymike wrote:
I was merely trying to suggest that some might take comfort in the fact of preceding societies based on such to extend this into a flirting with something short of communism in the form of say 'labour time vouchers' or other forms of equivalent exchange between say mutual enterprises.

Ok, I see what you're saying. I don't want to put words in your mouth, but I think the argument goes something like this: 'if we soften our attitude to exchange, we'll inevitably fall short of communism and end up with some form of self-managed capitalism.'

I guess what I'm getting at, or rather, the question Graeber's text opens up, is why, or under what conditions, is that the case? What is it about exchange as a generic principle which leads to capitalism? Graeber's argument is that there's a massive range of forms of exchange from communistic potlach to atomised commodity exchange, and these can't be understood simply from their form but also the content of the social relations which they are part of.

So far, so good. But he also argues that exchange cannot become market exchange (commodity exchange as described by Marx) without the constant exercise of state power. In other words, that human sociality is a strong force which tends to subordinate exchange to social norms (which may be humane and egalitarian or brutal and hierarchic, the content of the 'moral economy' is up for grabs), meaning commodity exchange isn't the totalising force Marx seems to describe from the beginning of Capital without the constant exercise of state power and violence (not just as primitive accumulation to kick things off).

So look at say Argentina in 2001. The economy collapsed, and people needed to eat. Various exchange schemes were set up, some approximating barter, others described as 'alternative currencies' and the like. But Graeber's text suggests to me it's a mistake to dismiss these as merely the preservation of the commodity form, because even when they were formally buying and selling things for a price, the actual content of the exchanges were an expression of mutual aid rather than ruthless competition, with plenty of allowances made for need. For example:

I wrote:
Brukman proposed to cover the textile requirements of public hospitals, Panificadora Cinco provision of bread’, while Chilavert opened a clinic (Aufheben 2003; Sitrin 2006: 72). However, workers are aware of the limits to this. Candido, a worker at the occupied Chilavert firm says ‘our primary commitment is to make sure we’re paid and paying our bills. After that, we have our commitments to other recuperated businesses, society, and to the neighbourhood assemblies that defended us’ (quoted in Sitrin 2006: 72)

They had to keep paying their bills because the utility companies were still functioning as capitalist enterprises who'd cut them off, but they wanted and indeed did orient to social need as much as was possible under the prevailing conditions. They also didn't see themselves as competing separate enterprises but different nodes in a network of occupied workplaces operating according to a different logic of social needs and mutual aid (again, as much as was possible). This wasn't really an ideological predisposition: neither communist, pareconist, mutualist etc ideas drove the movement - material necessities did. The mutual aid was a product of the conditions and the struggle, as occupied workplaces identified with one another and sought to support one another contrary to market logic.

Their exchanges were partly market exchange (exports to raise cash to pay bills etc), but also other forms perhaps inaccurately labelled barter, gifts, via 'alternative currencies' etc. So it wasn't really the retention of exchange per se that was the problem, but the isolation of these expropriations and the absence of a wider movement of communisation sweeping away private property and the state. 'Normal' commodity exchange was only re-established when the state re-established itself, either violently evicting the occupations or normalising their legal status, reintegrating them into the normal capitalist economy essentially as workers' co-ops operating in a competitive market (with all the problems that entails).

But Graeber's analysis suggests that in the context of a spreading, expanding movement the various alternative exchange schemes which sprung up to meet immediate needs in the context of collapsing capitalism wouldn't have been the seeds of a capitalism's phoenix-like rise. But rather the mutual aid element would have been generalised and the communistic logic of needs could have asserted itself over the quaint and obsolete logic of exchanging priced goods between discrete enterprises. So I think what Graeber does (or at least how I read him), is refocus us away from looking at forms of exchange towards looking at social relations and the trajectories of struggle.

Perhaps we don't need to worry too much if people in some Buenos Aries barrio or Shanghai slum are swapping bread for roof tiles using some newly invented voucher scheme. this could just as easily be an expression of mutual aid as an expression of residual/embryonic capitalism (probably a contradictory mix of the two). Rather, the operative factor is whether the struggle is expanding and extending, because if more and more workplaces are being occupied and the state is being weakened and forced back the logic of mutual aid immanent to such a struggle is likely exert itself, rather than capitalism rising from the ashes. Without state power, market exchange is quickly reabsorbed into the prevailing social relations and becomes something else (in the context of struggles, likely mutual aid and communism), even if on the surface it looks similar in some ways.

So I don't think this is about a transitional phase, or aiming short of communism ('not an ideal to be established but the real movement'), but rather not worrying too much about the forms of exchange people improvise to meet their needs in the context of a collapsing capitalist economy, since without the coercion and violence of state power there's no way they can reconstitute themselves into a revived capitalism (according to Graeber's account). And with the reassertion of state power, any revolution is on the retreat anyway and local exchange schemes would be the least of our worries! On the other hand, too literal (and linear) a reading of Capital would suggest the opposite: that the commodity form is the seed that contains the whole of capitalist social relations, and anything resembling it will spawn the monster anew.

I think this is important because it gives us a richer palette from which to theorise the various breaks and ruptures with the logic of capital (such as Argentina 2001) than can be drawn from Marx's Capital alone. And it also refocusses our attention on social relations and the spreading of struggles against state power (e.g. expropriating private property and fighting off evictions, like at Zanon), rather than worrying that various improvised forms of exchange carry the seeds of counter-revolution. It wasn't the various forms of exchange which re-integrated the Argentinian movement into capitalism, it was the failure of the movement to generalise across borders to such a point the more market-like forms of exchange (including wage labour) were rendered obsolete.

In any global revolution scenario, things are certain to develop unevenly and state power is likely to be 'spread thin' (e.g. through deploying its limited coercive forces to some places and not others). it's also more-or-less inevitable there will be various local mutual aid initiatives, some more resembling market exchange (but operating according to a different logic), like Argentina perhaps, while others are more straightforwardly communist. Again, this isn't about aiming at a transitional phase of mutualism or whatever, but recognising things are likely to be messy. And that in the absence of state power, competitive markets (and thus the dangers of the commodity form) are more or less impossible and likely to be subsumed into more communistic social relations.

Joseph Kay
Jan 16 2012 23:15

Nate: yeah those EP Thompson quotes are mint. In terms of what I just posted above, I think they are relevant. If we accept the 'economic man' of political economy (and thus to an extent, of Marx's critique), it follows that so many Robinson Crusoes trucking, bartering and exchanging with one another will reproduce capitalist society via the arc Capital describes (the commodity form, use/exchange value, money, wage labour, class society etc). But if we remind ourselves we're human beings (what I called an anthropological perspective in the OP), the picture looks rather different: rather than a totalising capital ready to reassert itself from the smallest seeds, we see a powerful human tendency to organise social life according to collective norms which is only kept at bay by constant state violence. Rather than capitalism being an inevitable expression of human society at a certain historical juncture, it requires constant reimposition by violence and is thus more vulnerable than we might think. An interesting and provocative reversal of common readings of Marx (including my own).

Jan 17 2012 08:04


I was actually agreeing with you.

Joseph Kay
Jan 17 2012 10:18
revol68 wrote:
it was also the major issue I had with the endnotes discussion between Theorie Communiste and Gilles Dauve, in that both treat the failure of revolutions as being down to a failure to remove all traces of the commodity form in one swoop and so those seeds you talk about inevitably producing monstrous weeds that will choke any revolution, a position communisation takes to rather absurd not to mention tautological lengths, hence it never says nothing more than communism will only happen through communism.

Like I say, I've previously argued something like this myself in criticising co-ops and parecon. Now I more or less stand by those criticisms (parecon aim at 'fair' wage labour, co-ops in a competitive market do have to impose capitalist imperatives on themselves...). But I think the focus is wrong. It's not imperfect forms of organisation/alternative social models that are really the problem, but the lack of a wide enough international movement which can allow a logic of mutual aid to assert itself without the mediation of markets, the separation of discrete enterprises and so on.

So take Spain say: the use of various voucher schemes (e.g. in Barcelona) wasn't a case of the dastardly CNT preserving capitalism and the commodity form, but an expression of the isolation of the communist movement which limited the extent to which a communist logic could assert itself (so wages of sorts were retained, although they were equalised and paid according to size of family i.e. needs, while separate competing firms sought to merge into industrial federations and so on). But these schemes weren't the reason the revolution failed, but an expression of it's isolation and failure, including the failure to smash the state apparatus, which was ultimately crucial in restoring capitalism.

I'm extrapolating quite a lot from Graeber's text here. He doesn't really talk about revolution/communisation at all in the future tense. But this is the kind of thing his anthropological approach has got me thinking about. After all, plenty of societies weren't capitalist without being communist. If the struggle against capitalist conditions depends on high levels of solidarity and mutual aid, it strikes me that these will shape and future social formations that emerge in ruptures with the logic of capital, even if they superfically resemble familiar things (like currencies, prices...). Like I said in the OP, I found it a very thought-provoking book and one which unsettles assumptions.

Jan 17 2012 17:24

Well I can see that anarchists will be attracted to an idea which suggests that the absense of the state, or at least it's substantial weakening, is the primary barrier to 'natural' communistc tendencies asserting themselves, and indeed who here could argue against the critical importance of defeating the state as being essential to any possibillity of succesful revolutionary change. It has after all been one of the main criticisms of the tradional anarchist movement in 1936 Spain made by marxist left communists amongst others.

I can agree that in the context of a social and economic collapse of capitalism (for reasons we can still argue about) workers attempts, in a move outside of traditional representative forms of the everyday class struggle, at various forms of mutual organisation short of full communisation, should not be written off by communists and would still have the potential to move outside and beyond their initial framework provided they do not become isolated. But the state is not the only barrier. (see additional note below).

I think we are in danger here of underestimating the depth to which the rule of the commodity form has sunk it's roots into our everyday behavior and our very pschological make-up, such that we often end up reproducing capitalist social relations through the very forms of our attempted opposition to it. It's what I meant by saying that the 'real domination of capital' was not simply a matter of the economy (something I think Sander and Internationalist Perspectives explain quite well).

In any potentially revolutionary situation there will be plenty of people arguing for their left wing and mutualist 'solutions' and plenty of situations where fear and tiredness weigh heavily on even the most active participants in struggle such that more, almost unconscious, conservative ways of doing things start to reassert themselves. In these situations the minority pro-revolutionary communists surely need to be pressing for a simultaneous assault on all remants of state power and the rapid implementation of communising measures.

It is not an either or matter.

(Aditional Note: I agree that it is the real social content behind words like 'exchange', 'money', 'prices', wages' etc is what is important in a situation like this, but we should remember that peoples understanding of those words, and their continuing reality for much of the remaining world around them, would have been largely preformed by their experience in capitalism rather than the new provisional conditions. When erstwhile revolutionaries like Castoriadis and his followers could so easily claim quite falsely to be using such words differently it is wise to be at least critical when they reappear in situations of social revolt).

Joseph Kay
Jan 17 2012 18:05

Edit: another looong post. Sorry!

Yeah, we should definitely be critical (always, about everything, in the sense of 'not taking at face value' rather than 'being against'). And no, the state isn't the only problem (I don't think I've said this: rather, without state power, commodity exchange is impossible. The two are 'co-constitutive').

The point i'm making is that in many ways the mutual aid schemes in Argentina were communising measures. Their trajectory was away from capitalist logic and towards communism (self-organised activity to meet social needs: bread, health clinics etc). Only the movement wasn't wide enough to escape the re-imposition of normal capitalist relations.

So let's imagine a revolutionary situation. Conceived on a world scale, even a more-or-less instantaneous revolution is a matter of months and years rather than overnight. Let's say there's major, worldwide industrial unrest and international sympathetic action. There's been waves of factory occupations across the world, and while some have been evicted, others are springing up at a faster rate. Some governments are toppled. In some places this has lead to weak populist regimes, in others a succession of powerless governments lasting only weeks, in others, armed workers organised in councils hold de facto power and have disbanded the government apparatus with the army mutinying in support, or are in an uneasy situation of dual power with neither side able to strike the decisive blow - for now.

This process is developing unevenly across the globe, with some places racing ahead only to face repression, while others leapfrog them and others atill lag behind. This is a movement of communisation. 'The revolution' is not a glorious day (not saying you see it this way), but the very process of open antagonism by which the logic of human needs supersedes the logic of capital. Neither is this a transitional phase: it's a messy series of overlapping and escalating conflicts which expropriate private property, stretch and smash state power and abolish mercantile relations.

Let's return to the various occupied workplaces. They find themselves in an odd position. They've occupied and resumed production under workers control, transforming processes to reduce boredom and improve safety, perhaps reducing working hours with lower output or by taking on unemployed/locked out workers. But much of the world is still capitalist. To the extent workers still need to purchase their necessities, they've retained wages. But perhaps voted to equalise them and provide allowances based on dependants. In this uncertain environment, banks are collapsing and credit is drying up. Suppliers want cash up front, or refuse to deal with occupied workplaces full stop. So the various occupied workplaces of the world network with one another to support each other.

This may include 'normal' commodity relations: buying stuff to provide cash to buy raw materials. It might involve mutual aid schemes in their local areas: converting the old management office space to health clinics for the local community, who in turn provide bread to the workers (since just-in-time global food supply chains are disrupted). These schemes may or may not involve some form of accounting ('alternative currencies'), or some kind of rationing (access conditional on say, a union card or something stamped by the local assembly). To the extent workers can meet their needs via these self-managed mutual aid schemes, rather than the market, wages become obsolete and occupied workplaces stop paying them, using scarce cash to procure raw materials or pay utility bills as circumstances dictate.

What I'm saying is it would be a mistake to see these things as 'not communist' because they are part of an (imperfect and uneven) movement of communisation, as opposed to communism being an ideal against which to measure them. The trajectory matters. Even if there's superficial resemblance to some of the utopian schemes of mutualists or Castoriaidis or whatever, the social relations are dramatically different to atomised, market exchange as a result of the solidarity forged through struggle. And because of that struggle which necessitates mutual aid, and because of the weakness or absence of state power, forms of exchange tend to be subsumed into once-latent now resurgent communistic social norms. At least so long as the movement is ascendant. It's not self-managed capitalism (though it may become that if the movement fails to generalise).

Now of course, if things continue on this route, states are toppled and the world expropriated, then the movement needs to continue to broaden and deepen, and some of these things may become barriers to be overcome (rationing bread may make sense in immediate shortages caused by supply chain disruptions, but is needless once needs-based food production and distribution under workers' control takes hold). But it's not the forms of exchange in themselves that's of primary importance, but their relation to a real movement attacking the prevailing capitalist conditions. Does that make sense?

(this is a long way from anything in the book, btw!)

Jan 17 2012 18:56


OK we are not entirely at odds here but as I see it...

1.Communisation measures in your scenario would need to involve NOT paying the utility bills - refusal to pay more generally would itself be part of the further breakdown and collapse of the capitalist economy and the spread of the revolutionary process.

2. Communisation includes the breaking down of separate enterprises not the federation of mutual, worker controlled production units.

3. Communisation includes the abandonment or destruction of socially harmful production and distribution units and the abandoning of the production of items purely for the purposes of equivalent exchange.

4. Rationing is not a form of equivalent exchange as long as it remains divorced from hours worked etc. Wages, equal or otherwise are.

Communisation needs to be distinguished from mutualisation even if the later may in some circumstances precede the former.

Joseph Kay
Jan 17 2012 19:16

1. I'm not saying paying your bills is revolutionary, no. But refusal to pay in isolation is impossible, so refusal is dependent of a wider movement.

2. Federation under worker control is the breaking down of separate enterprises.

3. Yeah. Though this process may be patchy and uneven as it develops.

4. Yeah. I disagree on wages. I'm for the abolition of wage labour. But if I was occupying my workplace and waiting for the rest of you feckless bastards to catch up, equalisation of wages/paying a dependants' wage would be a move in the direction of 'according to needs' as much as the conditions (relative isolation) allowed. Odds are in such a situation there would be no money anyway (look at the unpaid wage arrears in Greece at the moment), so we'd be talking about something other than money as we know it too (vouchers, ration card stamped by an assembly, whatever).

My main point is that this isn't really about mutualisation at all imho. Mutualism is a more or less utopian philosophy that proposes worker-enterprises trading with one another, it simply could not exist in conditions of open class conflict since the social relations of such a struggle coupled with the forcing back of state power makes such mercantile relations impossible. There would be no guarantees of credit, contracts etc apart from trust and solidarity, which would necessitate a shift towards a needs-based logic (forgoing payment in case of hardship, not pricing according to market forces but popular consensus etc) even if for some reason workers wanted their occupied firms to be separate, competing entities selling commodities on the market (which I think is unlikely, looking at Argentina or anywhere else there's been mass workplace expropriations... they've generally seen themselves as at the very least allies not rivals, and sought to support one another as well as the communities which defended them from eviction).

I think mutualism is far more likely under a Tory government now than it is in a revolutionary situation. That is to say, I can far sooner envisage worker-shareholder schemes and some kind of worker-representation on the board (perhaps even an elected board) under capitalism, but simply can't see competing private self-managed enterprises existing under conditions of economic crisis, open class conflict and social revolution.

Jan 19 2012 12:40


Not to row back from our previous measure of agreement in this discussion but....

Your logic in support of 'equal wages' is poor.Some things that happen within capitalism , wether driven by class struggle or the needs of particular sectional capitalist interests, approximate more towards needs than a straight market determined share (since as we agreed there is no pure 'free' market capitalism in reality) but that doesn't make them a contributing factor towards a rupture with capitalism and a movement towards communism, even if they are desirable in themselves, unless you believe in a reformist 'building socialism within the shell of capitalism' which I don't think you do.

Federation as an organisational measure does not guarantee the breaking down of separate 'enterprises' - to put it another way it is not a 'dissolution' into the emmerging community.

'Mutualism' has more than one face it seems to me.

Still we would both probably like to see a situation in which our theoretical differences were tested in practice I suppose and we are some way off that as yet!

Joseph Kay
Jan 19 2012 15:18

See, I don't think it's about our theoretical positions being tested in practice. That's precisely what I'm getting at...

Spikymike wrote:
Your logic in support of 'equal wages'

Let me stop you there. I'm not sure how you've managed to conclude I'm in favour of wage labour, so let's run through this again.

Wage labour exists.

You and I don't want wage labour to exist.

Ergo, there needs to be some kind of movement from A to B, wherein wage labour is abolished. All pretty straightforward so far.

The questions then arise, what are the conditions for such a movement? What is its content? How does it develop? There seem to me to be two basic frameworks to answer these: communism as a movement and communism as an ideal to be established.

Now me or you or anyone can take a magic communist measuring stick and hold it up to all social forms extant to imagined, and return a verdict of communist or not communist. By such a standard, obviously anything involving forms such as wages, the state, commodities and so on are 'not communist', because the definition of communism is 'not those forms'. But we're dealing in axioms: essentially reciting a definition of communism, as if that tells us anything. This seems to fall into the trap revol highlighted above, i.e. such an approach seems tautological. If communism is the absence of wage labour (amongst other things), the presence of wage labour is not communism. We can recite this til we're blue in the face without actually saying anything.

The other approach seems far more productive. If communism is the movement that abolishes the present conditions, then it is not a question of assigning social forms to the categories 'communist' and 'not communist', but the content of a real movement. Thus, the same social form could be both part of such a movement, or a moment in a counter-movement restoring capitalism, depending on the movement of which it's a part. So say the factory occupations in Argentina had sparked off a global wave of strikes and occupations the world over, states crumbled and communism emerged. We'd be sat here looking back at those mutual aid/alternative exchange schemes as the start of a movement which supplanted the logic of capital with a logic of human needs. That this didn't happen is not a consequence of inadequate forms of exchange. Rather the forms of exchange were an expression of the isolation and limitations of the movement.

I don't "support" wage labour. It exists. In the course of its abolition, it is likely to be stretched, twisted and finally broken rather than disappearing at the flick of a switch. Think about why we need wages. We need them to meet our needs, because everything is commodified, because everything else is produced by wage labour too. Everything we know about social revolutions suggests they are messy, contradictory processes, an open clash of opposing forces that sees advances and retreats, consolidations and capitulations. They proceed unevenly in fits and starts, ebbs and flows, and all the more so when we're not talking about the overthrow of one state but 200-odd! There are Februaries and Octobers, Zanons and Asturian risings.

However a global revolutionary wave starts, somewhere goes first. Some factory or office or infrastructure is the first to be taken over. The drive for this (looking at Zanon, and the Seattle General Strike), is likely to be material necessity. Those workers can't just abolish the wage form on their own before mercantile relations break down, but they can do things like equalise wages and make allowances for need (family size, medical conditions...). History shows they're likely to do so. Whether you or I approve is neither here nor there. The point I'm making is that such moves are part of a real movement that abolishes wage labour. If that movement is isolated, it will fail and fall back, and normal capitalist relations will be restored (perhaps with a bloodbath for the workers concerned). If it spreads, wages will be rendered obsolete as the relations of mutual aid between worker-controlled firms or industries allow us to meet our needs without them (perhaps via rationing, perhaps free access, perhaps some combination or something we've yet to imagine).

But this is a process. It's a movement. It will likely develop over a period of years. This isn't a 'transitional phase', it is what a revolution is. The idea of revolution as a glorious day was born on the threshold of the Bastille and embellished with the mythologising of the storming of the Winter Palace. Any global revolution will have its dramatic days, but the idea of revolution as an instantaneous transition belongs to those who wish to seize power in a single state. It's utterly inadequate for the overthrow of an entire mode of production.

In terms of the separate firms thing, this is another of those Dauvé rhetorical flourishes which kinda crumbles on closer examination. Firms, ultimately, are not delimited by any of the things which spring to mind. Multiple firms operate out of the same physical premises, surrounded by the same fence. Multiple firms employ the staff for a single production unit. Multiple firms jointly own other firms. The only thing that reliably delimits one firm from all the others is its balance sheet, which delimits what it owns. It would be impossible to delineate firms, even under capitalism, without such a mechanism. So unless insurrectionary workers restarting production under self-management are endeavouring to produce reliable financial returns while they battle the forces of reaction and federate together to better reorient production to meet social needs, then it's not really a problem.

Jan 19 2012 17:48

I just wanted to say I've enjoyed the discussion happening in the comments as much as I did the original post. Very thought provoking.

Joseph Kay
Jan 19 2012 21:45
Joseph Kay wrote:
I think mutualism is far more likely under a Tory government now than it is in a revolutionary situation. That is to say, I can far sooner envisage worker-shareholder schemes and some kind of worker-representation on the board (perhaps even an elected board) under capitalism

I'm going full nostradamus! (or i secretly write Cameron's speeches black bloc )

BBC wrote:
He said "popular capitalism" should allow "everyone to share in the success of the market" and criticised an "out of control" bonus culture in the City. A Co-operatives Bill will be introduced to help employees take a greater stake in their companies, he said.

Obv, I don't expect full-blown Proudhonism complete with a Peoples' Bank, but still.

Jan 20 2012 13:53


Perhaps re-read my earlier posts to see that we do largely agree about process and about the social content of words, since you persist in trying to paint me into the cormer of positing an abstract ideal.

The difference between us I think rather lies in the fact that I perceive a depth in the totalitarian nature of modern capitalism such that breaking free from a practical everyday reproduction of the social relationships that sustain it, even as we seek to oppose the effects of that system and create alternatives, is significantly harder than you seem to think, even with the comfort of knowing that there exists some basic underlying human inclination towards 'human community' (to put it no more exactly than that for now). So that I weigh more heavily in the balance of probabillities the fact that most aspects of the class struggle, even in their, so far, most radical expressions have resulted in the regeneration and extension of capitalism rather than it's demise.

Despite the influence which 'Council Communism' has had on my thinking I seem to be placing more weight than you on the need for a conscious communist intervention in the scenarios you have outlined, at least to the extent that such an intervention guards against false paths which only return us back to capitalism.

You will doubtless want to respond to this and I'm inclined to let you have the last say this time!

Joseph Kay
Jan 20 2012 18:21

I'm not trying to paint you into a corner, perhaps i've misunderstood you. I'm happy to leave it at that rather than having the last word!