Here’s an excerpt from David Graeber‘s latest book which is annoying since I haven’t even started his last one. I mention this excerpt, however, because it contains a couple of really interesting ideas I’m still trying to work through.
He talks about revolutions and the standards by which they are deemed a success or failure. He moves past military revolutions pretty quickly and focuses on social/cultural revolutions instead.
Before the French Revolution, the ideas that change is good, that government policy is the proper way to manage it, and that governments derive their authority from an entity called “the people” were considered the sorts of things one might hear from crackpots and demagogues, or at best a handful of freethinking intellectuals who spend their time debating in cafés. A generation later, even the stuffiest magistrates, priests, and headmasters had to at least pay lip service to these ideas.
What I find really interesting is how he uses this perspective to talk about our current era.
It’s fashionable nowadays to view the social movements of the late sixties as an embarrassing failure…It’s certainly true that in the political sphere, the immediate beneficiary of any widespread change in political common sense—a prioritizing of ideals of individual liberty, imagination, and desire; a hatred of bureaucracy; and suspicions about the role of government—was the political Right…It’s no coincidence that the same generation who, as teenagers, made the Cultural Revolution in China was the one who, as forty-year-olds, presided over the introduction of capitalism.
You know there’s a ‘but’ coming, right? He disagrees and provides one example of just how much real influence those movements from the 60s still have today:
One often hears that antiwar protests in the late sixties and early seventies were ultimately failures, since they did not appreciably speed up the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina. But afterward, those controlling U.S. foreign policy were so anxious about being met with similar popular unrest…that they refused to commit U.S. forces to any major ground conflict for almost thirty years. It took 9/11, an attack that led to thousands of civilian deaths on U.S. soil, to fully overcome the notorious “Vietnam syndrome”—and even then, the war planners made an almost obsessive effort to ensure the wars were effectively protest-proof. Propaganda was incessant, the media was brought on board, experts provided exact calculations on body bag counts (how many U.S. casualties it would take to stir mass opposition), and the rules of engagement were carefully written to keep the count below that.
In other words, the propagation of the idea that the protest movements of the 60s failed became a more important goal that those of ‘winning’ in places like Iraq or Afghanistan. That, according to Graeber, explains why those responsible for planning the wars either weren’t able to see how inept their planning was or regarded it not as important as making sure domestic opposition didn’t bubble up.
I have to admit, I’m not sure I buy it (I just think there was more than enough incompetence to go around) but there does seem something worth considering there. I’ve often been confused with the almost hysterical reaction to protest movements in the U.S. over the past 15 or so years. Not only have we come to expect heavy handed law enforcement presence (with occasional charges of infiltration and false flag operations) and more subtle measures like the Orwellian ‘free speech zones‘ where protesters are ‘allowed’ to exercise their right of free speech, usually far away from the event they wish to protest. Certainly, there have been riots at some events that would seem to justify a powerful response but not in all cases. And the cry: ‘But look what happened in Seattle!’ wears a little thin almost 15 years on even if we were to assume that similar protests were just as likely to happen all over they country (and do we really think the political climate in the Pacific Northwest is the same as, let’s say, Kentucky?).
So, is Graeber right in wondering:
What if those currently running the system, most of whom witnessed the unrest of the sixties firsthand as impressionable youngsters, are—consciously or unconsciously (and I suspect it’s more conscious than not)—obsessed by the prospect of revolutionary social movements once again challenging prevailing common sense?
Perhaps…It does have a ring of truth to it even if it’s not the whole story.
He then goes further in hypothesizing that we not judge the current global system (and those who perpetuate it) on their rhetoric but rather on an almost manic attempt to prop up and reinforce the existing structure. Those ‘in charge’ (whether the head of the Chinese communist party, the United States or your friendly neighborhood multinational or hedge fund owner) are likely to have learned some lessons from the 60s and, now they are on top of the pyramid, their primary concern is not falling off.
The politicians, CEOs, trade bureaucrats, and so forth who regularly meet at summits like Davos or the G20 may have done a miserable job in creating a world capitalist economy that meets the needs of a majority of the world’s inhabitants…but they have succeeded magnificently in convincing the world that capitalism—and not just capitalism, but exactly the financialized, semifeudal capitalism we happen to have right now—is the only viable economic system. If you think about it, this is a remarkable accomplishment.
I do have some nagging doubts about this, however. Graeber is someone with an inherent interest in attacking the existing system, both as an academic and an activist and his answers here have a whiff of rationalization. Has he just come up with a very convenient argument for ‘true believers’ to hang tough because in the end the world will see who was right all along? I’m just not sure.
On the other hand, as a Dane once said…”Somethin’ stinks’.
The current system clearly seems to be dysfunctional and the only answers we seem to get are ‘We need people and businesses to spend more. Consume! Consume!’ But that doesn’t seem sustainable, even theoretically.
Perhaps it is time to consider other alternatives…