anarchy in manner of speaking

(2020) by david graeber on anarch\ism via kindle version from anarchist library [] for m of care – sept 7

(then read freedom and anarchy – interviewing david on anarchy in manner of speaking)

notes/quotes from 98 pg:

Authors: Assia Turquier-Zauberman, David Graeber, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky

mehdi belhaj kacem

Conversations with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman



Since we are engaged in a dialogue, here, I thought it might be interesting to take *dialogue itself as a theme. A lot of anarchist practice—at least the kind I think of as quintessentially anarchist—revolves around a certain principle of dialogue; there’s a lot of attention paid to learning how to make pragmatic, **cooperative decisions with people who have fundamentally different understandings of the world, without actually trying to ***convert them to your particular point of view.

*2 conversations .. as infra .. via tech w/o judgment to detox us .. and for that detox.. need the non hierarchical listening.. from listening to the itch-in-the-soul first.. everyday

also so we can have **curiosity over decision making.. because decision making is unmooring us

***brown belonging law.. maté trump law et al


For me, that’s the most important break Descartes introduces. Christian thought had already been moving away from dialogue. But Descartes completely turns things around by *starting with the self-conscious individual, and only then asking how that individual can have any kind of communicative relation with anyone else. It’s the basis of all subsequent European philosophy but it’s also absurd, as **neuroscience has shown that the ancients were right: real thought is almost entirely dialogic. Not that cognitive scientists usually say it explicitly, because for some reason they too have a strange mental block on conversation, but they do make clear that what’s called the ***“window of consciousness”—that time during which most of us actually are full self-aware, self-reflective beings—is rare and brief; it averages around maybe seven seconds. Otherwise you’re generally operating on autopilot.

*that’s what i mean by itch-in-the-soul first thing.. not sure if thats what he means..

**not sure i agree.. sounds like whalespeak to me.. unless you call self-talk dialogue

***yeah.. i think this is what whales.. we have no idea what legit free people are like

Unless, of course, you’re talking to someone else. You can have conversations on autopilot too of course, but if you’re really interested and engaged with someone else you can maintain it for hours. The implications of this are profound, even though we rarely seem to acknowledge it: most self-aware thought takes place at exactly the moment when the boundaries of the self are least clear.

1\ convo? or whalespeak? i don’t think we know.. i’m betting on whalespeak

ASSIA TURQUIER-ZAUBERMAN: … when it isn’t clear whose mind is which.

beyond the monastic self.. i’m never just me et al

DG: Precisely.

When people ask me why I became an anarchist, I always say that most people don’t think anarchism is a bad idea; they think it’s crazy. “So you’re saying everyone should just cooperate for the common good without chains of command or prisons or police? That’s lovely. Dream on. It would never work.” But I was never brought up to think anarchism was crazy. . t My father fought with the International Brigades in Spain. He was in the ambulance corps based in Benacasim just outside Barcelona so he got to observe for himself how a city organized on anarchist principles could work. And it worked just fine. He himself never quite got to the point of calling himself an anarchist—largely because it was only towards the end of his life that he really fully rejected Marxism. But by then he was no longer politically active, so calling himself an anarchist seemed a bit pretentious—but I grew up in a household where anarchism was definitely not seen as crazy. It was treated as a legitimate political position. And if so, what reason is there not to be one?

david on anarchism ness


1 – intro to anarchy – all the things it is not


Myself, the closest I’ve come to a definition was to say that anarchy isn’t an attitude, isn’t a vision, isn’t even a set of practices; it’s a process of moving back and forth between the three. When members of a group of people object to *some form of domination, and that causes them to imagine a world without it, and that in turn causes them to reexamine and change their relations with each other … that’s anarchy, whether or not you decide to pin a name on it and whatever that name may be.. t


rather sans *any form.. so sans any form of m\a\p


You get a very intimate sense of the pulse of revolutionary practice, which then as now was very much anarchist in spirit; if you try to put it into words, it usually ends up sounding crude and naive. But ultimately it’s grounded in a very sophisticated understanding.. t

huge.. unjustifiable strategy ness.. and not yet scrambled ness and grokking ness et al

and language as control/enclosure.. and naming the colour ness.. and lanier beyond words law.. et al

I remember being very impressed as a teenager when I read somewhere that if you look at the very early 20th century in countries like Spain or Italy, where half of the labor unions were anarchists and half were socialist, the biggest difference was that the socialist demands always focused on more wages and the anarchist, on less hours.. One was saying “We want a consumer society for everyone, but we want a bigger share (oh yes and we also want it to be self managed)”; the other wanted out of the system entirely.. t

huge huge huge.. need a legit global re\set.. hari rat park law et al..


DG: Okay, so anarchy. I think it’s easy to confuse different meanings of anarchism. Malatesta has this famous complaint. He says, since people are so insistent that a lack of a coercive legal system can only lead to violent chaos, and that therefore anarchists must be advocates of violent chaos, people who actually are advocates of violent chaos start calling themselves “anarchists,” which tends to create confusion.

It’s probably not true, but people say that the famous symbol of the A and the O is from Proudhon. It would be the letter O, not a circle, and refers to a quote from Proudhon: “Anarchy is order, government is civil war.


ATZ: Right, and David you’ve defined reality as that which continually evades us. Mehdi, you say we control everything we don’t create, but I don’t think that’s true at all. When we do, it’s because we have exerted some form of violence over it, and even then we must uphold the violence to remain in control. On a macro view, ecological failure is the result of that. A big reason we were able to control the environment the way we did was by conceiving of it as dead, so in the end it does die. A large part of the mystery for me has to do with this: our ability to violently make the world comply with our conceptions of it, against our inability to sustain micro utopia.. t

DG: Well, if Assia is right, then the reason we can’t apply science to human relations in the same way we can to everything else.

ATZ: Although a large part of economics is about trying to do just that.

DG: … would have to be that there’s a limit to the degree of violence we can apply to other human beings, compared with what we can do to rocks or mice or barley. Granted often there’s not much of a limit. Still, even if you set up a concentration camp, you usually need collaborators, which you don’t in the case of mice. It also makes sense that “scientific” management of human behavior, from Taylorism to Amazon, ultimately traces back to navy ships and slave plantations, closed spaces where some people really did have absolute command of violence over others. It’s all born of the whip. I’ve often said, social theory generally consists of stripping away 97% of what’s going on in any given situation to expose a 3% that forms of a meaningful pattern, a pattern that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. How else are you ever going to say anything new? The trouble starts the moment such simplified models of reality acquire weapons. When I defined debts as promises that have been perverted by a confluence of math and violence, I was thinking along the same lines. But—and this is one thing I get from your work, Mehdi—it all follows from the original rift between philosophy and tragedy; in order to constitute a world of scientific laws, where the abstractions seem to generate the realities, all that violence has to be denied, but of course it can’t really be, it endlessly returns in what seem perverse and terrifying forms..t

structural violence = any form of m\a\p


2 – Reins on the imagination—the illusion of impossibility

ATZ: I wish what I’m about to say helped me see more clearly into that, into this race between abstractions and “the real which manifests itself”.

There is a relationship between the organicity of anarchy that you outline and a certain notion of health. In a political sense, this health manifests itself in the energy it takes to demand what you are owed, and having that energy depends on feeling entitled to it. It seems that our ability to make demands has to do with our sense of entitlement.

I was concerned about the sort of entitlements my “generation” was raised into, ones in which objects and laws mediate our relationship to the world.

There was this magazine from Occupy Wall Street called Tidal, and the communiqué moved me to tears. It read: “We don’t even know why we are here, we know neither what to expect nor what to demand because *we don’t know how the world is really supposed to feel, all we know is that we have this spiritual nausea that we haven’t been able to speak about with anyone since no one has much time to speak about the soul,”.. t and that “If the phantoms of wall street are disturbed by our presence, so much the better, it is time the unreal be exposed for what it is.” I was so moved that people spontaneously came together in 2011 just to check “Are you real too? Ok, so I’m real. You are real. Debt isn’t. I’m dying because of this concept..t Ideas are powerful, but only some of them, so that if I chose to believe and engage with magic for example it’ll be denied. Well, fuck you, I’m a witch.”

*spiritual violence et al

**structural violence et al

DG: Your own particular generation, in my estimation, has experienced an unparalleled offensive against any sort of sense of being entitled to anything—more or less what you’d expect from older generations that are busy stripping away all the entitlements they themselves took for granted when they were young. But I’ve noticed they’ve created a really toxic culture where young people are encouraged to do it to each other. I call it “rights scolding.” There’s a right-wing and a left-wing version. The first is more direct: “Who do you think you are that you deserve health care? Or a pension? Or equal protection under the law?” But the left version is in a way more insidious; it consists of lecturing people on how they need to “check their privilege” if they feel they deserve anything that some more oppressed person can’t have. You’re complaining the cops beat you up? In Indonesia they would have killed you! You’re complaining you got evicted? You know some people don’t have homes to begin with! It’s the influence of Puritanism I think. People are slightly surprised when you point out obvious things like “But isn’t the problem not that a straight white man has a sense of entitlement, but that a queer black woman doesn’t?”


Then there’s question of what you’re taught to think is even possible.

So rural people in that part of Madagascar, being extraordinarily commonsensical, realized that as long as you pretend the state is there, you could get away with almost entirely ignoring it. They would even come into town periodically to fill out forms and pretend to register things, and the officials in the offices understood they’d be treated with great respect as long as they stayed in their offices, but if they tried to actually exercise their authority, they’d be made utterly miserable with every conceivable sort of passive resistance. And generally speaking they did, indeed, play along.

So by sheer coincidence I am one of the few anarchists I know who actually *had an opportunity to witness self-organized communities that existed largely outside of any top-down coordinating authority. They could do it in part just because they didn’t put it in such terms. **Non-violent resistance, conflict resolution, consensus decision-making, all that was just life; it was the way people had conducted themselves since they were children.

(to me) **this is not *this.. (to me) **this (resistance, resolution, decision making) is seemingly closer to free ness.. but still (and maybe because of) a cancerous distraction

Then some years later, I was back in America and I got involved in direct action groups who were attempting to rebuild these kinds of processes and sensibilities. It took me a while to figure out we were trying to create exactly the same thing. But we had no idea what we were doing, so everything had to be made explicit. Americans pride themselves on being a democratic society, but if you ask the average American “When was the last time you were part of a group of more than five people who made a *collective decision on a more or less equal basis?” most will just scratch their heads. Maybe when ordering a pizza. Or deciding what movie to go to. But otherwise basically never.

(to me) *cancerous distraction

When I got involved in the Direct Action Network and other anarchist groups, *we had regular trainings on how to make decisions by consensus process, and they helped me finally understand a lot of what I’d observed in Madagascar. “Oh, that was a block!” Because in Madagascar all this was so fully integrated in everyday existence, which I guess is the sense you are talking about, Assia. It was a **social capacity everyone has that had come to seem entirely unreal to Americans.

*yeah see.. (to me) that’s (training ness) a red flag we’re (including malagasy) are still doing it/life wrong

**just shows how intoxicated we are.. that we see any form of democratic admin as unreal et al.. when it’s just a lower degree of what we’re doing.. same song


So here I am back in the US, taking part in anarchist groups that operate on consensus process, taking part in spokescouncils where a thousand people organized into affinity groups, with some basic training in direct democracy—hand-signals and the like—all sit in a room and come to collective decisions without a leadership structure.

Then you walk out of the room and you realize, wait a minute, I’ve been taught my entire life, in a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that something like what I just witnessed could never happen. So you start to wonder how many other impossible things are not really impossible after all?. t I know the authors of that Tidal article experienced that. I think it might be what they had in the backs of their minds.

oi.. we have no idea what legit free people are like .. (to me) legit free people wouldn’t waste time/energy on decision making et al

virus noticings et al


3 – Revolutions in common sense

ATZ: This brings us back to Clastres’ counter-power, which David writes about in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology: the idea that acephalous societies are not passively stateless but actively and voluntarily so. You write that counter-power not only opposes existing structures of power but also latent possibilities of it. This is important in revealing the voluntarism of non-coercive social organization, that everyone is aware of the possibility of domination but that some have taken measures to prevent it. You give examples of the Tiv or the Piaroa, who live a pacifist life balanced by a cosmos of invisible wars with spirits and such. I wonder whether we couldn’t draw a parallel between this agitated cosmos/peaceful life and the “libérté egalité fraternité” rhetoric/“ugly-mirror” experience we have.

fragments of an anarchist anthropology

DG: Ah, so you’re saying, while they are constantly reminding themselves of the dangers of authoritarianism, we’re constantly reminding ourselves of the dangers of freedom?

ATZ: Yes, something like that. They consciously create arenas for aggression in the invisible world so as to seclude the antagonism in the collective sphere. There, it can be worked out by ritual means. Whereas we construct an invisible world of peaceful coexistence—our rituals assert our unity—but our material structures are conducive to competition and individual strife.

begs.. hari rat park law et al

MBK: There is an American anarchist, I don’t remember his name, who said “Equality without freedom, is prison; freedom without equality, is the jungle.” It’s my central question in politics: what is the best regime for a livable equilibrium between equality and freedom? In my work the path to an answer is through games, which we will talk about later.


We have to talk about the Gilets Jaunes, because although formally there is no reference to anarchy it seems to be in their DNA, like the realization of a lot of anarchist situationist principles. Gilets Jaunes frequently use the expression of “collective brain,” and they refuse vertical power.

DG: Excellent! That was my intuition, I know some people on the ZAD, and there was originally a statement made about creating popular assemblies and horizontalism. I wrote something essentially saying that this would emerge and I hoped it was true. I wasn’t using the terminology of the event when I was formulating this but more of Immanuel Wallerstein’s idea of world revolutions. I actually knew Wallerstein. He was at Yale when I was; we became friends, and I was quite impressed by his thinking in this area. Apparently it all traces back to an argument he had with someone about the impact of the French Revolution. The other fellow argued that revolutions don’t make as much difference as we think. Certainly France changed a great deal between 1750 and 1850, but so did Denmark, and they never had a revolution of any kind. Wallerstein made the obvious point that Denmark did have a revolution: the French Revolution. All real revolutions are global in their impact. Starting with 1789 there have been a series of world revolutions, 1848, 1917, 1968 … some involved seizing power in one country and some did not, but just involved a series of uprisings across the world, from Germany to Mexico, but in either case the effects were global. The most important of these effects was to change political common sense. Wallerstein made the very simple point that if in 1750 you told the average educated European that “social change is inevitable and good” or that states derive their legitimacy from something called “the people,” they’d have probably written you off as some kind of oddball who spends too much time hanging around in cafés. By 1850 everybody, even the stodgiest headmaster, had to at least pretend they agreed with you.


DG: So of course when 2011 happened I emailed Wallerstein and asked him whether he was talking about a world revolution of 2011, and he said “absolutely.” So the question is, what was the transformation of common sense that was affected by these particular events—the Arab Spring, the squares movements, Occupy? I think it changed our fundamental assumptions of what a democratic movement would have to be like. Democracy is now seen to be largely incompatible with the state. This is precisely why it makes sense for the Gilets Jaunes to be anarchists! And there is also a generational change, which I find extraordinary. If I am not mistaken, a majority of Americans under the age of 30 now consider themselves anti-capitalist. When has that ever happened before? Not in the 30s, not in the 60s. This is a genuinely profound transformation!

MBK: And for you that was Occupy Wall Street?

occupy wall street.. occupy movement..

DG: Yeah, I guess it worked.


4 – Feminist ethics in anarchy—working with incommensurable perspectives

MBK: Historically, feminism is very important in anarchy, whereas in communism—if you scratch beneath the surface—you find good old-fashioned machismo. There’s a contradiction between political idealism and the hypostasis of the worker, and the vision of the mores. Some of the greatest anarchist thinkers were women.


DG: So in a consensus-based process, you’re not attempting to bring people around to a common definition of reality. You start with the assumption that everyone’s perspective is to some degree incommensurable. And that’s good; that kind of difference is a value in itself. Your unity instead lies in a common commitment to action. Thus if there are formal principles of unity, they won’t start, as they do in so many Marxist groups, by laying down definitions—“We define ourselves as friends, or comrades, or the vanguard of the proletariat”—but rather, with purposes, “We want to do this.” This is what I find so refreshing about the anarchist sensibility. You don’t even want to achieve ideological uniformity. Now, you might object, how can you act with common purpose if you can’t even agree on who or what you are? But in practice it’s actually not so paradoxical, provided you do agree on what the problem is, what you’re trying to do. If you think democracy is problem-solving, well, who’s going to be better able to solve a problem? Eight people who are so similar they might as well be clones, or eight people with different experiences and perspectives? Clearly you’re going to have more creativity and insight with the latter.

oi.. (to me).. any form of democratic admin.. consensus et al.. cancerous distraction

DG: Well put! I guess you could say that parliamentary politics is the precise opposite of democracy (at least democracy in the anarchist sense). In mainstream politics, consensus doesn’t really have to be achieved, because really the political class are in almost complete agreement on everything from economic theory to the nature of reality to the possibility and desirability of social change. So politicians can spend their time creating artificial divisions over precisely calibrated “wedge issues,” setting fires and putting them out, because ultimately it hardly matters. Anarchists start with groups of people who already live in radically different realities and try to create pragmatic unities, over particular courses of action.

(to me) that’s fine.. as long as start with itch-in-the-soul first.. so that it’s curiosity over decision making.. sans consensus.. and as long as ‘seemingly doing nothing’ is still action.. et al

It’s only if you see reality as generated from the categories that the issue of incommensurability becomes such a terrible problem. If you think about it, what real politics is, what consensus process is trying to do, is precisely to figure out how to reconcile incommensurable perspectives in a practical situation of action. That’s what anarchism is for me: a community of purpose without a community of definition. Politics as currently conceived is the exact opposite of this. We’re all supposed to agree on what reality is, and then we fight it out because we lack a common purpose, or have contradictory identities and interests.

(to me) that’s close to imagine if we ness.. no definitions.. but also no real purpose.. rather a daily changing community of curiosity

ND: Coming from a Soviet experience that was not exactly communism, but really more a version of monopolistic capitalism. It was very funny, what we studied in school. We were trained to memorize the definition of communism, but it was something poetic and abstract that didn’t mean anything. In practical matters, we were of course expected not to discuss anything deemed too complicated; political theory should only be discussed by people with technical training. It was a contradiction where we weren’t allowed to have common action, but had to agree on something that it wasn’t possible to agree on since we didn’t know exactly what it was.

DG: I sometimes call that “mythic communism” or “epic communism.” Once upon a time we used to share all things in common. Now everything has gone wrong, but someday we shall attain true communism once again. It’s all very messianic, as endless critics have pointed out, but it also makes it very difficult to connect everyday practice to one’s ideals. That’s why I insist we define communism only as a practice, when people actually interact on the basis of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” In that sense, we’re communist all the time. All societies actually are founded on a certain level of baseline communism (Can you give me a light? the time? In many societies, food …) or they wouldn’t be “societies” at all. And of course if people are working on a common project, they automatically behave communistically because it’s obviously the most efficient way to proceed. If I’m fixing a pipe, even if it’s for the office of Monsanto, or Goldman Sachs, and I say “Hand me the wrench,” the other guy doesn’t say “Yeah, and what do I get for that?” He has an ability, I have a need. We even justify the market on that basis—“supply and demand” are transpositions of “ability and need”—to justify capitalist markets we claim (falsely) that they’re really forms of communism. But forms of cooperation really are communism. Which means that in a practical sense capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism. We don’t need to create communism. We just need to find a better way of coordinating it.. t

ie: org around legit needs (maté basic needs)


ATZ: I’d like to make a note on how we’re using the terms and how we’re circling them. You just redefined the Soviet Union as “monopolistic capitalism,” and spoke of capitalism as “badly organized communism.” Maybe that’s something to unwind …

DG: You’re suggesting, perhaps, that state socialism is a bad way of organizing capitalism in the same way as capitalism is a bad way of organizing grassroots communism!

ATZ: Yes! And maybe this is where we hit the walls of that particular architecture of imagination. Since we are on the track of exposing which enclosures and impossibilities are fabricated by a social structure that feeds off of this gaslighting, I would be tempted to say that the state is ultimately the problem. Yet I get the impression that you have been moving away from that position, David.


5 – The three characteristics of statehood and their independence (two for us, one for the cosmos)

DG: Yes, I have.

It may seem odd, because anarchism is traditionally conceived as opposition to the state, but I’m becoming increasingly convinced that when we imagine a state, we’re thinking about three different things with entirely separate historical origins that just happen to have come together, and which we have been trying to convince ourselves ever since have some kind of necessary relation to each other even though in fact they don’t. On the one hand you have the principle of sovereignty, which is the ability to exercise coercive power over a territory, basically to be as violent as you like with impunity. Then you have the principle of administrative organization, which is about the control of knowledge. And finally you have the existence of a competitive political field. If you look at it historically, it’s very easy to find examples in which these things did not come together.


Similarly, political fields where larger-than-life figures compete over glory and followers … that’s not Sumerian either. If anything it’s anti-Sumerian. My friend the archaeologist David Wengrow pointed this out. If you look at all the great epic traditions, whether the Rig Veda or the Homeric epics, later the Nordic or Celtic or Balkan epic cycles, they are never about the great civilizations. They’re about the barbarians in the hills that warred and traded with the great civilizations. Both the urbanites and the barbarians came to define themselves in opposition to each other. Schismogenetically. So if the Sumerians create a commercial and bureaucratic society, then the barbarians refuse to use money, refuse writing (instead they have priests and poets who extemporize heroic verse or memorize cosmological epics). Where the city people pile up wealth and keep careful count, they have festivals where they dump it in the ocean or set fire to it. But above all the barbarians develop a politics that centers on heroic figures who are constantly competing in games and sacrifices and contests of one sort or another. You could say they were the first politicians. And now we assume that’s what democracy is all about, but for most of human history it was considered the very opposite: democracy was collective problem-solving; dramatic public contests between heroic figures was aristocracy.


6 – America 1—not a democracy, never meant to be

DG: I think it has to do with the contradiction of the idea of democracy in America. On the one hand, Americans are always being told they are the world’s greatest democracy, and I think most do have a certain democratic spirit, at least in the sense that they don’t like being governed very much, and feel that people should govern themselves, however much they might not know what that means. Still, they’re also taught to idealize the legal order and the constitution, which creates an enormous contradiction. If you want to annoy a conventional American political thinker, it’s quite easy: just point out that there’s no place in the US Declaration of Independence or constitution that says anything about American being a democracy. The people who wrote these documents were steadfastly opposed to democracy, and said so all the time. In fact, the very first speech during the Constitutional Convention explicitly said we have a problem; there is a danger of democracy breaking out in this country. So the constitution was explicitly anti-democratic. Mind you, at that time the words “democracy” and “anarchy” were used almost interchangeably. They were both terms of abuse for people who believed in “mob rule,” or “mobility,” as they sometimes called it.

alch.. any form of democratic admin


DG: Popular assemblies did emerge during the revolution, but they were ultimately suppressed just like the Soviets. Still, there is a kind of popular ideal, or aspiration, very rarely realized in practice, that lingers in America. This is why even though “democracy” was largely used as a term of abuse, the term had an appeal. But the Founding Fathers, as they’re called, were very explicit that they wanted Rome, not Athens, as their model. That’s why there’s a Senate in America.

MBK: I didn’t know that.

DG: The ideal was for a “mixed constitution,” like Polybius claimed Rome and Carthage had: the executive would represent the monarchical principle, the Senate, which is the oligarchical principle, and the Congress the democratic principle—though the latter was largely limited to raising and disposing of public funds.

However, even though America is set up as a republic and not as a democracy, by the 1830s Andrew Jackson ran as a democrat and won, and everybody just relabeled republics as democracy. So these institutions that were designed to suppress democracy were relabeled “democracy” and people have been living with this contradiction ever since: that democracy is both the ideal that people should be participating in decisions affecting their own lives and a set of institutions which were designed to make that as difficult as possible. *All American social movements work themselves out through that tension.

*which (to me) is total cancerous distraction because that’s not even a relevant tension to legit free people

ND: The Soviet Union was called “Soviet” because it literally means “council,” as in general assembly. And a year after the revolution they dismantled it and left nothing but the name, which is exactly the same. These countries are so similar.

DG: Absolutely. Then the question that I always find interesting is why people like the idea of democracy so much despite the fact that no one said anything good about it! What was it they saw?

ATZ: And so?

DG: I think that’s what we’re here to try to figure out.


7 – America 2—the indigenous critique & freedom works fine but it’s a terrible idea & Lewis Henry Morgan invents anthropology because he’s nostalgic & Americans are legal fanatics because of their broken relationship to the land, which they stole

DG: It wasn’t just settlers. Enlightenment thinkers back in Europe were often quite explicit about where their ideas were coming from as well. When David Wengrow and I started work on our project together, we started intending to write a book on the origins of social inequality. We soon realized this was a foolish question. Better to be asking why we thought there was something called inequality and why we thought it had an origin. So I started researching the origins of the question of the origins of social inequality.

Rousseau wrote his essay for a contest, put forward by the Académie de Dijon, on the question of “What is the origin of inequality among men and is it in accord with natural law?” So this is 1752 in France, Ancien Régime: no one has so much as walked into a room where they didn’t know who outranked who. So why did they assume that inequality had an origin? In the Middle Ages they certainly didn’t: everyone assumed Adam outranked Eve, right? I found one survey of medieval literature that found that words like “aequalis” or “inaequalis” simply weren’t used in social contexts at all, it just never occurred to anyone to frame things in such terms. “Inequality” only really became a concept in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with arguments of the New World and ideas of natural law.


DG: The obvious place to look was at the very simplest societies, humanity in the raw as it were, to see if there were any universally recognized rights one could say humans always grant one another, or at least think they should.

A lot of what followed was pure fantasy, but by no means all of it. What eventually transpired was a prolonged conversation in which indigenous perspectives were often taken extremely seriously. If you read the Jesuit Relations of New France, and similar accounts—which were very widely read by middle-class families back in Europe—you find is a fairly consistent indigenous critique of French, and by extension European, civilization; but the Miqmac, Algonkians, Wendat Huron don’t originally talk about equality at all. Actually neither do the Jesuits. It all starts with an argument about freedom, and also mutual aid, and only gradually turns to questions of equality.

The reason why is that it never occurs to indigenous people at first that having more wealth than someone else would mean that you would have power over them.

ATZ: And so how come?

DG: How come what?

ATZ: How come it didn’t occur to them?

DG: Mainly I think because it was so far removed from their own experience. The women of one Wendat longhouse might have more maize and beans stockpiled, a man might have more wampum and be considered rich, and that might allow them to feel more important than others in certain contexts, but it wouldn’t put them in a situation where he could compel anyone to work for them. The entire society was set up in such a way that no one could tell anybody to do something they didn’t want to do. So this was the original critique: “What’s wrong with you people? You live in constant fear of your superiors! We just laugh at ours if they get too big for their britches. Also you don’t take care of each other, you’re hyper-competitive and all talk over each other in conversation, you let people starve.” But these were largely seen in terms of individual autonomy as well, since a beggar isn’t free in any meaningful sense.

any form of m\a\p

Reading the Jesuit Relations causes a certain intellectual confusion because we’re trained to see European observers as representing “the West” and therefore “us” and indigenous Americans as alien and perhaps unknowable Others, but when you read the Jesuits’ accounts, it’s the indigenous people that are making all the arguments we’d be making today—why shouldn’t a woman be able to decide what she wants to do with her own body? Or expounding what was essentially Freudian dream theory to confused Jesuits who believed in angels and devils and messages from God. But it’s especially striking as soon as the Jesuits start talking about freedom. Nowadays, of course, no one can say anything bad about freedom—at least in principle. But most people say, well, absolute freedom, anarchism, that would never really work in practice. The Jesuits held exactly the opposite position. They keep writing “These are truly free people, they don’t believe in taking orders and are constantly making fun of us because we follow orders … and you’d think it wouldn’t work, but actually it works very well. They have no punitive laws, just compensation, but actually, there’s a lot less crime here than back at home …”

*So in fact it works just fine in practice. But they also insist that freedom is terrible in principle. How are people going to learn the Ten Commandments if they don’t even have a concept of command?

*except no one (to date) has yet practiced legit freedom.. that’s why we keep perpetuating the myth of tragedy and lord


DG: So the idea of Native American societies as societies of equals emerges from the dialogic encounter, as a point of contrast. They key figure is a certain Kondiaronk, who is essentially the Wendat statesman put in charge of dealing with the French. He came to speak fluent French along with seven other languages, and all accounts treat him as the most brilliant debater anybody had ever met. Even his enemies would come from miles around to watch him speak, and apparently the governor created a little salon in Montreal where he would argue with him about Christianity, law, and sexual morality. They’d go back and forth for hours, with Kondiaronk taking the position of skeptical rationalist and almost invariably carrying the day. Lahontan apparently took notes. Later Lahontan got himself in some sort of trouble and ended up exiled in Amsterdam, so he wrote up these dialogues in a book that came out, if I remember, in 1704. It became a huge bestseller across Europe. There was a play based on it that ran for almost twenty years in Paris. And every single Enlightenment thinker wrote an imitation, some foreign skeptical rationalist making fun of French society: Voltaire had a half-Huron, Diderot had a Polynesian, so forth and so on.

So Kondiaronk was the first to make a systematic argument for social equality, from a rationalist perspective. He took the position that institutions of repressive law, both religious and legal punitive justice, are only made necessary by the existence of other institutions, like money, which encourage us to engage in the exact sort of behavior those laws are ostensibly designed to suppress. If you eliminated the former you wouldn’t need the latter.


DG: It’s significant that the kids who were trying to reconstruct the League of the Iroquois were all lawyers. They talked about a loss of connection with the land, but they must also have been aware that America itself was born of a great crime, perhaps history’s greatest crime—the genocidal destruction of countless human societies, the theft of an entire continent. But at the same time Americans also came to identify with the very people they destroyed, to become more like them in significant ways. “Indians” were always a symbol of liberty: the very first act of the American Revolution, the Boston Tea Party where they threw the British tea into the harbor, refusing the pay taxes on it, they are all dressed up as “Indians.” You dress up as Indians when you break the law. But at the same time you desperately insist that it’s only law that knits you together as a free people.


DG: A few years later, right around the time the Académie de Dijon is announcing its contest for the best essay on the origins social inequality, she’s working on a second edition, and sends a copy to her friend Turgot, saying the editors want me to change it around a little, what are your thoughts? We have his response. Basically he says “Well I don’t know, all this stuff about freedom and equality is very appealing, but I think you should have your character realize that there are stages of civilization. Freedom and equality might be appropriate for a society with a relatively undeveloped division of labor, such as hunters or even your Andean farmers, but in our own sophisticated commercial civilization (note this is the 1750s so he doesn’t say “industrial”), our prosperity is dependent on giving most of that up.”. t

So Turgot proposes the idea of stages of civilization, which Adam Smith takes up a year or two later! For me this is the smoking gun, as it were. The idea of social evolution is a direct response to the indigenous critique of European society. And Rousseau is quite ingenious here, because what he does is come up with a synthesis of the two. He accepts the indigenous critique and fuses it together with the notion of stages of development. And in doing so, one might say, he effectively invents what we have come to think of as leftist thought.

So we start with the indigenous critique of the lack of freedom in European society, which eventually becomes an argument about equality, which in turn inspires a debate between proto-leftists like Diderot and proto-rightists like Turgot, who basically invent the idea of evolution, that you can categorize people as hunters, pastoralists, farmers, etc, and this determines the broader contours of their society … largely as a way of putting the cat back in the bag. Rousseau is trying to shock everyone but really he’s coming up with a clever compromise. So far so good. Rousseau has earned himself a lot of abuse, particularly in right-wing circles, and most of it is undeserved, but I think he did leave us one particularly toxic legacy. Not the idea of the noble savage, since Rousseau didn’t in fact argue that savages were noble. More the idea of the stupid savage, that people in free societies were blissful because they were dumb, and, he insisted, almost completely lacking in imagination. It’s really remarkable to contrast this with early Jesuit accounts, let alone descriptions of people like Kondiaronk, where the French observers are complaining at how all these people who had never even heard of Varro or Quintilian can wipe the floor with them in a debate.

david & david on stupid savage et al

This idea of the stupid savage is the really disastrous legacy of Rousseau, and it has haunted us ever since.. t It gets to the point where you have people writing books like The Origins and History of Consciousness arguing that “primitive” peoples, or Homeric characters, weren’t even fully awake, they existed in a sort of semi-conscious haze, incapable of reflection. Well of course, everyone still wanders around most of the time in a semi-conscious haze, as I was pointing out earlier; we always have and presumably always will. *But at least most people in history were aware that humans are mainly conscious when they are talking to others, which is why they developed all these explicitly dialogic modes of thought.

*well.. whalespeaking to each other

It’s ultimately because of Rousseau, I think, that we’ve moved from self-consciousness being an individual achievement, to seeing it as a historical achievement, if an ambivalent one.

Similarly, we have the idea that collective selfconsciousness only became possible around the time of Rousseau himself. This is something even I had largely taken for granted all my life: that it was only in the eighteenth century people began to propose revolutionary visions as legitimate in their own right. Before that I’d always assumed—and the history I had read seemed to bear me out—if you wanted to revolt against some oppressor and propose a new model for society, you had to either claim you were really trying to restore the “ancient ways” that had been corrupted, or else that you had a vision from God. What the Enlightenment supposedly introduced was the idea that you could simply propose a more reasonable way to arrange things, and then try to bring it about, for no reason other than that it was more reasonable. Now this is not true at all, as my earlier remarks about the Osage and Lycurgus already make clear. The idea of giving power to the imagination, as it were, was hardly invented by Rousseau! Rather, what he really did was convince us that “non-Western peoples,” as they came to be called, were incapable of imagining anything.


TZ: That makes me think of the piece you wrote: “Culture as Creative Refusal.”

david on creative refusal

DG: Ah so you see where I was going with this. Yes. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that what we call “cultures” could just as easily be seen as social movements that were actually successful. In other words, no, we don’t have to spend our time arguing about Kronstadt for the rest of history, there are innumerable examples of *successful revolutions right before our eyes.

*(to me) none have been successful to date

mufleh humanity lawwe have seen advances in every aspect of our lives except our humanity– Luma Mufleh


8 – With great responsibility comes precarious tongue-tied intellectuals

MBK: Reiner Schürmann says there are two forms of philosophers, those that make visible the invisible, like Plato saying that there are ideas behind things, and those that allow us to see the visible differently.


DG: It might seem odd that American anthropology comes to adopt this tradition, considering that the US middle class is positioned a lot more like the French one, but of course US anthropology is not about middle-class folk. It’s mainly about understanding indigenous genocide survivors. So in many cases texts are all you’ve got. After World War II there’s a kind of second wave of Germany theory that hits the US academy: Schleiermacher, Dilthey, Weber. Weber is being promoted as the Free World’s answer to Marx. In anthropology the great impresario in all this is this character named Clifford Geertz, a archetypal Cold War liberal—his original fieldwork in Java and Bali was literally funded by the CIA—who coins the notion of “culture as text.” It’s enormously influential. But it’s never exactly clear what it means. Since the moment you propose that a Balinese cockfight or gamelan performance or inheritance dispute should be considered a “text,” a “story they tell about themselves” as Geertz put it, the obvious question is who’s exactly is the “they” being referred to? The Balinese? Balinese culture? In the hermeneutic tradition the author is always something of an abstraction created by the reader, so that’s not a problem, but when you create “Shakespeare” in your mind while reading Hamlet, it’s as an authorial intention, the meaning of a text is the author’s project that unites all the pieces. Fine, but you can’t treat “Balinese culture” as an author in that sense. Balinese culture doesn’t have a single project; it doesn’t mean anything—for Balinese people, at least, it means every possible thing. So the easiest solution is to say that Balinese culture doesn’t exist at all; it’s just something the ethnographer made up. There is no “author,” or rather it’s the ethnographer who is taking a pencil, drawing a circle around some imagined totality, and then claiming the hypostasized entity they’ve just invented is somehow writing the text.

Now in the 60s and 70s there was just beginning to be an internal critique of anthropology, starting from the historical entanglement of the discipline with colonialism, racism, empire—much of it framed in Marxist and feminist terms. But in the 80s, as campus unrest died down, it all settled into an obsession with unmasking the power relation that lay behind the creation of the authority of ethnographic texts. This is of course an entirely legitimate project, but it was sharply limited. Literary criticism was deployed as an ostensibly radical deconstructive tool, but then somehow it was only applied to one stage of the construction of ethnographic texts—the moment when the anthropologist is in the field, and he has all the power. So if I’m in Madagascar, as a rich white guy, well, we analyze what happens there. But what happens when I go back to the US and I’m an impoverished grad student with my teeth falling out because since I’m not from the bourgeois background I’m assumed to be from, I’m working two jobs but still can’t afford dental care, and I’m terrified I’ll say something wrong and my advisors won’t write me a good letter of recommendation and I’ll be a starving adjunct for the rest of my life, that is, the time I’m actually writing the text? That’s never discussed. There’s no extended critique of the structure of academia.. t

huge.. oi..

I think this has had incredibly perverse effects. When they teach anthropology now, they make it sound like we were all a bunch of evil racist imperialists, and then maybe in the 70s or 80s we all just suddenly woke up. In fact, if you look at matters institutionally, it would be just as easy to argue exactly the opposite is the case. Back in the 1960s, there was a huge scandal, Project Camelot, when they discovered anthropologists were being used by the CIA and Pentagon in places like Chile and Vietnam. After a year or two of debate, the AAA (American Anthropological Association) banned such collaboration. After 2001 there was a similar scandal when they discovered the US military was using anthropologists as part of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq—a pure colonial venture in every sense of the term. And you know, it took years for anyone to do anything about it. This despite all the endless selfcriticism about the colonial legacy of anthropology. In effect, the discipline ended up less willing to act against colonialism than they had in the 60s! Why? Well, in the 60s, it was easy to get people to take moral stands because there were lots of jobs and job security. By the 00s, you have this army of marginalized, casualized adjunct professors desperately trying to hang on, being paid maybe a couple thousand a course with no benefits, so if the Army shows up and says “Hey I’ll give you $100,000 a year to sell your soul. Anyway you’ll save lives, because we’re idiots, and if you give us commonsense advice it will almost certainly lead to us killing less innocent people!” well, some of them are going to take the offer..t But these were exactly the issues the post-modern turn critics didn’t address—the application of corporate management techniques and extreme forms of exploitation on campuses in the 80s, for example.


DG: Politically I think this was disastrous. The ultimate effect was to limit radicals to random sniping within the so-called “Western tradition,” while at the same time undermining any sense of social possibility beyond it. The real radical potential of anthropology, for me at least, has always been that it compels us to see humans as much more than we have been encouraged to imagine..t So I find that the attack on anthropology is in many ways reactionary politics dressed up as radicalism. It’s also entirely consistent with the Puritanism that pervades so much of American intellectual life, one where politics is a frantic struggle for dominance by trying to prove one despises oneself more than anybody else. If you imagine the compendium of social possibilities that anthropology has put together over the years, not as a resource that belongs to all humankind but as a kind of guilty secret—well, my dirty little secret is still my dirty little secret, and it’s still secret, isn’t it? It’s a way of keeping possession by self-abnegation.


DG: Fifteen years ago I wrote in Fragments that anthropology has built up a compendium of human possibility, one which carries in it a certain responsibility. I still think that. Activists involved in social movements, who are interested in transforming society, tend to be fascinated with anthropology. For the most part they couldn’t care less about what passes for politicized anthropology—at least, they aren’t interested in “post-modern” reflections on the anthropologists’ own power, which is largely just bourgeois narcissism—*but they are very interested in getting a sense of alternative political, social, economic arrangements. So if nothing else I think that we should make this information available. I’ve also suggested we can use the tools of ethnography to tease out some of the tacit principles, the deep logic underlying certain forms of action—political action, in this case—and offer them back again, as a kind of gift. This is what anthropologists are best at, after all. For instance, to say **“If one were to create an economic system based on what you seem to be doing politically, perhaps it might look like this …”

fragments of an anarchist anthropology

*but what if we haven’t modeled anything legit diff yet.. what if all our data to date is non legit.. like from whales in sea world.. true.. better.. but if we can do more.. go deeper than that.. and now we can.. we can’t not..

**quote scott used here:

I suppose one of the functions of a non-vanguardist revolutionary artistic practice for David might be to make this already existing communism more visible using a form of auto-ethnography, so that people can see what it is they’re already doing and coordinate it better?

replying to my tweet:

in a practical sense capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism. We don’t need to create communism. We just need to find a better way of coordinating it.’ @davidgraeber anarchy in manner of speaking ie: org around legit needs (maté basic needs)

and i replied back:

i think we need to coord/org around something deeper.. i think what the world needs most is the energy of 8b alive people.. as david would say.. ‘and the rest will take care of itself’


9 – Anthropology as art

ATZ: I see a link between “anthropology as a compendium of possibility” and Mehdi’s idea that “contemporary art is a compendium of demonstrations of evil.” There’s an attempt, and quite a successful one, to frame academic discourse as science rather than as art right? But in this sense, as anthropology and art tend towards the same exposition of the possibility, we may be able to approach questions of violence and authorship from a different angle.

ND: Well art and anthropology are similar projects They both claim to approach the absolute particular, to understand its unique integrity, and by doing so, to speak to the universal—since both are all about defining what is ultimately human.

art (by day/light) and sleep (by night/dark) as global re\set.. to fittingness (undisturbed ecosystem)

DG: That’s interesting. You know Franz Boas defined anthropology as a science, but he defined it as a science of the particular, akin to geography. A geologist, or physicist, he said, is only interested in a particular river or rock because it might tell him something about rivers or rocks in general, and that about universal natural laws. A geographer actually cares about that river, or that rock, she wanted to understand a particular landscape and how it came about, and insofar as she brought in the laws of geology or physics, it was to help her do so. So once again, the general is only valuable as the servant of the particular. Anthropology, he said, was like geography; it wasn’t so much interested in establishing universal laws of human nature as it’s in understanding a particular culture, or ritual, or custom.

Was he right? I’m not sure. But the argument sticks in my head because there’s such a resonance with what happens in consensus decision-making: that is, with the feminist ideal of a care ethic, where instead of starting out from abstract universal principles of justice, you start because you care deeply about some unique, singular human being (or relationship, or situation) and bring universality to bear in doing so. Nel Noddings even argues that caring relations are themselves a bit like art, in that they are founded on a kind of playfully creative interaction with the singularity of the person you are caring for.

ND: Well, aesthetics isn’t just about the particular. The beauty of an equation is just as much an aesthetic phenomenon. It’s obviously got to be a dialectic.

DG: Yes, I guess it would have to be.

ND: Think of all the modernists who read anthropology, archaeology, who spent years studying art from Africa, Asia, trying to find the universal principles underlying art creation. That was the very opposite of looking at each cultural tradition as a unique value in itself. But that’s also because they were mostly revolutionaries who were aware that we’re in a world of violent inequalities where cultures are not, presently, on the same footing. You can’t just declare them all equal and make the problem go away. So they were trying to construct a universal humanity out of the shattered fragments. It’s the same with how they treat individual artists nowadays. Each is treated as if he were a cultural universe unto himself—or artists are expected to be universes, and if they can’t, they are failed artists. This is extraordinarily cruel.

DG: Sounds like we’re back to the same problem we were talking about culture as text; if anthropology is art, who’s the artist, and what are the political implications?


ATZ: Yes and no. Yes, the same questions apply, without which it wouldn’t be a worthwhile parallel, but their repercussions aren’t quite the same. Who the artist is and what political implications their work contains are integral parts of the way we view a work of art, as we should an anthropological text, but no one has ever thought to cancel art altogether because art is often racist or its production is exploitative. Rather than letting the “professionals” be the sole repositories of these responsibilities, the content and production of art is problematized by a much wider community. The flaws of art are taken into consideration as symptomatic of the ills of the entire social sphere, and that of course has to do with the distribution of art within that social sphere. Perhaps it should be so with anthropology as well, made available to all as a compendium of possibility.

DG: I couldn’t agree more. German Romantics argued that everyone was an artist, effectively, until it was beaten out of them in school. Certainly in this day and age everyone is an anthropologist, since life is an endless moving back and forth between cultural universes. The question is one of which arts, which forms of anthropological insight, receive institutional recognition..t

ND: But I think Assia is overstating the degree to which art nowadays breaks out of “professional” circles. Really the art world is a kind of miniature replica of the three principles David was just laying out as coming together in our idea of the state: violence, administration, and charisma. It’s set up in such a way that it can simulate complete freedom, but carefully organized in such a way that nothing you say or do could possibly have any real democratizing effect.

another art world et al

We’re so used to the idea that art is and necessarily has to be an elitist institution, it’s hard for us to even imagine what a democratic art world would even be like. One that actually took seriously the old German Romantic ideal that we’re all naturally artists, and didn’t beat it out of us.. t The irony is there actually was an attempt to do this during the Russian Revolution. Everyone remembers the suppression of the Soviets. Almost no one seems aware there was a massive—and at first very successful—parallel art movement called Proletkult that involved hundreds of thousands of people. You could say the aim was to eliminate all three aspects of the state: the charismatic hero worship (cult of the artist), the topdown violence (censorship), and the bureaucracy (degrees, licensing) all at once. It was insanely popular..t The organizer, Alexander Bogdanov, became the most popular political figure in the country—well, second only to Lenin. But in the end it was shut down in exactly the same way as the Soviets. Lenin removed Bogdanov and just absorbed them it the Ministry of Culture and turned it into a mere propaganda machine. Instead of workers being allowed to become artists, artists were turned into workers under bureaucratic control..t

DG: And now no one even remembers it happened at all. I mean I had no idea until you started telling me about it.. t

ND: When it was happening, it was enormous. By the early 1920s,there were twice as many people involved in Proletkult than there were in the Communist Party. I remember reading that in Tula, which is not at all a big city, there were something like fifty different self-organized theatre groups. Communism was to be enacted immediately, as equal access to knowledge and the means not just of production but of creativity. This was the real promise of the revolution in my opinion. After all the USSR was never defeated militarily; it was defeated culturally. I’m convinced if initiatives like Proletkult hadn’t been suppressed we’d have won the Cold War..t


10 – Anthropology and economics

DG: In a way anthropology and economics are opposite poles in the relation of theory and practice. Economics is the discipline that has the least trouble with the idea that people will take a descriptive text and use it as a prescriptive text—sometimes it’s not even clear if they make the distinction. Whereas nothing would disturb an anthropologist more than writing a book about Trobriand ritual, then coming back twenty years later to discover that Trobrianders were using it as a how-to book.. t

graeber as a guide law ness

Economics sees itself a positive, predictive science, and while they’re actually pretty bad at predicting anything, they have been consummate geniuses at academic politics—you’d genuinely have to go back to the Middle Ages to see any scholars that institutionally successful—with the result that, since the 80s, pretty much anybody running anything is expected to be at least familiar with economic concepts, and preferably some formal training. This even goes for charities, or left-wing magazines, anything that might seem most opposed to the spirit of Homo economicus. In order to give money away, you need to be trained in the philosophy that all people are selfish and greedy..t

It’s probably no coincidence that I was trained at the University of Chicago and now I’m at the London School of Economics. Both are known as the home of famous free-market ideologues (Hayek, Friedman …) and are now largely in the business of indoctrination. Each also has a world-famous anthropology department, which performs a role almost like a court jester, there to make fun of all the premises underlying economic theory. My advisor Marshall Sahlins fully embraced that role. Sahlins took the position that economics was not just ultimately theological; it emerges directly from Christian theology and shares the same basic premise of a fallen world where the human condition is one of infinite desires. Economic assumptions about scarce resources and maximizing individuals are really straight out of Augustine.

ATZ: Yes, “The Sadness of Sweetness.”

DG: Exactly. But Sahlins is most famous for “The Original Affluent Society.” In a way all his work continues that same basic insight that relative to what hunter-gatherers feel they need, they have plenty. They don’t live in a society of scarcity because their desires are within parameters that can easily be fulfilled by their environment, with the technology they have available. In a way he’s just flipping that around when he talks about theology: what is it that makes us feel that the environment is not adequate? It’s really about what Mehdi calls pleonexia: the endless multiplication and expansion of desires.

multiplication/expansion of whales desires.. in sea world

need to get back/to listening to itch-in-the-soul.. in order to get back/to enough ness – graeber stop at enough law et al

khan filling the gaps law et al

Sahlins likes to point out that in much Greek philosophy, and then definitely in Christian theology, all this was premised on a fundamentally bleak view of the human condition. Why do we seek pleasure? Why are we never satisfied? Because our natural state is miserable. As Epicurus put it, pleasure is our way of forgetting about pain. But there is also an assumption that humans’ essential default state is pain and suffering. Babies come into the world screaming. Because it’s kind of awful here. So we seek pleasure, but it’s always ultimately a temporary respite. It’s a remarkably depressing view of the world.


11 – Freedom 1—which finite resources?

MBK: In the discussion of feminism we talked about incommensurability. This question of incommensurability is the same problem as the problem of capitalism: unlimited appropriation. We all know—except Donald Trump, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Alain Badiou—we all know that the possibilities of the planet are finite. So the question of private property is no longer only a question of justice, but a question of survival. The fact, like Occupy Wall Street said, that 1% of people possess 99% of the earth resources, is not only a question of distributive justice, but now as a simple question of living, of breathing.

ATZ: And again, we can take that and look at it differently considering that these finite resources are only finite because of our way of selecting “resources”, the decisions we have made as to what will fuel our system.. t I think that is to the image of a lot of things.

need 1st/most: means to undo our hierarchical listening to self/others/nature so we can get back/to legit needs..

ND: Yes, because care is a limitless resource..t Or philosophy.

legit needs as form of care

ATZ: Yes, or knowledge! The more you “spend” it by sharing it the more of it there is!

oi to know\ledge ness.. esp since to date.. all our supposed knowledge is non legit.. (from whales in sea world et al)

DG: The same is true for freedom as well if you define it right.

ATZ: Exactly. So we are finding ourselves in this crisis because of the way we’ve framed our reality is dependent on resources, which are the finite ones.. t

huge huge huge – need to org around legit needs

DG: Two thoughts ahead here. The first is exactly that. What I’d really like would be to get rid of the terms production and consumption as a basis for political economy entirely, and substitute care and freedom. . t As feminist economists like Nancy Folbre often point out, any economic action can be seen as a form of caring labor. After all, you only build a bridge because you care that people can get across the river. You only drill for oil because you care that people can get around in cars. But there are subtleties here. Everyone would agree hospitals provide care. But what about prisons? Prison feed and clothe prisoners after all, provide them with at least some minimal level of medical care. But it seems just intuitively wrong to treat prisons as caring institutions.

graeber care/free law

Why? This is why I felt the element of freedom was essential. It’s not care insofar as it imprisons you. (In fact, the more I examine the historical origins of relations of domination and the state, the more I come to believe that these things came about through the perversion of caring relations.) But in terms of definitions this allows a rather Spinozist formulation—not exactly Spinozist, but in that spirit—where “care” is any action meant to maintain or increase another person’s freedom.. t

steiner care to oppression law.. et al

ATZ: And freedom as?

DG: I conceive freedom primarily in terms of play, or maybe better to say I conceive play is the highest expression of freedom, since it’s self-directed activity that isn’t aimed towards anything outside it, but is a value to itself.. t

graeber care/free law.. graeber fear of play law.. gray play deprived law.. gray play law..

ND: It’s part of a game that you have to obligate everyone to accept in the moment, but tomorrow it could be another play.

DG: Yes, exactly, you’re free to put it on or off.

gray play law

MBK: Very interesting! I didn’t know that. And that’s what I’m looking for through the “utopia” of the game. In your books there are all kinds of descriptions of how societies solve their problems through ritual games. For me, the philosophical, artistic, political idea of ​the game, in its universal scope, is that in every game the rules are the same for everyone. We always say “all are equal before the law,” but we know that’s not true. The social game under the law of the market is fixed. Only when we’re all effectively equal before the law, the rules—as in all effective games—freedom will be possible. This is what Adorno meant by this enigmatic sentence: “As long as the universal and the particular diverge, there is no freedom.”


DG: Yes, that’s why I speak of the “utopia of rules.”

What I find fascinating about play—say children’s play—is that it always generates rules. If you’re just engaged in purely free, unconstrained behavior, well, it gets boring fast. Imagine you want to speak in a *mock language that’s entirely random, just any sound at all in no sort of order. Most of us have tried this as children. It’s actually quite difficult to keep it random for any length of time. Usually what really happens is you start making up some sort of nonsense language with its own phonemic code, rhythms, patterns. To try to avoid doing so soon becomes exhausting. **Sure pure play generates rules. But then rules threaten to stifle it. This is a constant tension. So freedom, for me, is precisely this, the constant play of the play principle against the rules it has created.. t

*idiosyncratic jargon ness et al.. nika on idio jargon ness

**utopia of rules backwards et al.. find the bravery to change your mind.. and the need to listen to the itch-in-8b-souls 1st thing everyday & used that data to connect us

This is why some early twentieth-century poets felt free verse wasn’t really free: “You can play tennis without a net, but it’s not much of a game, is it?”—that was Robert Frost. But of course most poets would now reply that a good poem generates its own rules, its own prosody, and then of course strains against them. It’s as if the poet has to create a legal universe each time, so as to be able to carry out petty or not-so-petty crimes against it.

So let’s return for a moment to the opposition of care and freedom. When you thinking of a care-giving relationship, usually the first thing you think of is the relation between mother and child. Mothers take care of children so they’ll grow and thrive, obviously, but in a more immediate sense, they take care of children so they can play. That’s what children actually do most of the time. And play is the ultimate expression of freedom for its own sake. So why not make that the paradigm for an economy too, which is after all just the means whereby human beings provide for one another. Not least because care and freedom are infinitely expandable without destroying the planet, while production and consumption are not.

graeber care/free law


12 – Freedom 2—property and Kant’s chiasmic structure of freedom

immanuel kant ness

DG: You were starting to ask whether I conceived of freedom as purely derived from the inversion of slavery. The particular legal definition from the tradition that comes from Roman law really has to do with property. Property is a right which is your absolute freedom to do anything you want with your things, except those things prevented by law or force.

MBK: Yes but that’s not true.

DG: Exactly. It’s not true at all. Even insofar as you can make it true, it’s an idiotic way to define a property relationship. Okay, so here I have a gun—or even just a car. I can do anything I want with my car except what is forbidden by law and force. What does that even mean? That I’m free to attach sequins to it or break it up for scrap metal? Pretty much anything else I can do with my car, how and where I can drive it, park it, is strictly regulated. The only absolute right I have is my right to stop anyone else from using it. You can only imagine property rights as a relationship between a person and an object because in effect it’s a right you have “against all the world” concerning the disposition of that object. A relation between you and everyone in the entire world is hard to get your head around; one with an object is not. But in another sense you can’t have a “relation” with an object; that’s just as absurd. As medieval jurists quickly pointed out when they revived Roman law in the twelfth century: if you’re on a desert island, you might have a deeply personal relationship with a tree; who knows you might have long talks with it every day, in fact, but it’s not a property relation. If there are two people on the island, however, then you might have to work out some arrangement about who gets to sit under the tree.

MBK: With Kant freedom is defined as the way you interiorize the law. So it was the first time perhaps in the history of thought that freedom becomes subjective and becomes the point of view of the slave. That’s what’s very interesting with Kant. Usually freedom is the point of view of the master or the point of view of the bourgeois.

DG: You need to tell me more about this. I have to be honest and say Kant’s conception of freedom never made a lot of sense to me. Yes, in order to have morality you have to say people have free will. Fair enough, but in order to justify saying human action is not determined, and therefore free, Kant feels he has to attribute it to a noumenal self outside of time which is autonomous in the sense of making its own law. Okay. Both existing outside time and the freedom to create law were statuses previously attributed only to God (well, the second maybe a little also to kings, but only insofar as kings were, effectively, gods), so at this point you almost feel you’re in the presence of something genuinely radical. But the moment you do, he brings in universal rationality—which of course in medieval theology would have been yet another aspect of God—which dictates that unless you are slave to your passions, that is, if you exercise genuine freedom, you always freely choose to do the rational thing, which he says is to act morally. So you are the absolute sovereign who then discovers he’s really just the slave.


Does something like this have to happen if you try to create a world based on such extreme radical individualism, that the promises or commitments we make to each other, or even just our interactions with each other, aren’t seen as in any sense producing us, making us what we are, but are always some kind of secondary phenomenon, since the only really important moral relation we have isn’t to anyone else (our neighbors, for that matter, our mothers …) but to some kind of total abstraction, God, Reason, the Law, the Cosmos, whatever it may be? Some kind of hypostasized absolute? I guess it must be. But I still can’t understand how a being outside time does anything!

MBK: You think against Kant, I think with Kant against Kant. One must think Kant in spite of himself, despite his aporia or his excesses. I maintain that what Kant achieved was the discovery of a paradoxical identity between freedom and constraint. The inner noumenal freedom. Hegel will see very well that it is the interiorized freedom, that is to say the relation of master to slave.

DG: Agreed, I think that was more or less what I was trying to get at too when I talked about property. Our conceptions of freedom are derived from Roman law, ultimately, I’d say, from Roman slave law. We can imagine property as a relation of person and thing, despite the obvious absurdities, because it traces back to a legal relation in which the thing actually is a person, just a person who by force and law is rendered a thing, a “speaking implement,” as the Romans put it. Freedom is just the arbitrary will of the master. So far so good.

MBK: Yes, the freedom of constraint that Kant attributes to pure noumenal spontaneity outside of time goes back to the existence, in the only anthropological enclosure, of the master-servitude relation. The example that I always give to illustrate this fact is the simple fact of getting dressed: if I decide not to dress to go out, I certainly have a “free” act, but that will lead me either to prison or to the asylum. A fine example of a purely internalized law, or it’s an abstract Other who connects me to dress me, and therefore has a very concrete effect on me. My “spontaneous” freedom, as a human noumenon, is absolute constraint.

DG: Yes that’s also a nice way to frame the paradox of possessive individualism, as with the car which is the symbol of absolute freedom, where in fact every aspect of what you can do behind the wheel is meticulously regulated. But it does help me clarify something: that the noumenal self is just a fantasy created by legal relations of domination. But if we speak of “freedom” this way, how is it different from what an economist or “rational choice theorist” would say, which is that everyone is free. The slave is free too, because he has the choice of obeying orders or being whipped to death?

MBK: Because for Kant—and this is what’s really powerful in Kant—human freedom (what I call pleonasm) is born of constraint. This is because we are forced to bend to rules other than those of mere animal survival, such as getting dressed, cleaning up, working, etc. In short, it’s because we voluntarily put ourselves in prison (and observe how there’s no example of the phenomenon of imprisonment in any species other than our own) that we then become susceptible to positive freedom, such as creating art works, livable political regimes, scientific discoveries, etc.

DG: So you’re saying a sacrifice of negative freedom is the necessary condition for any meaningful exercise of positive freedom?

MBK: There’s a real and painful paradox there, but it can’t just be brushed away. It’s because we humans are animals of gratuitous constraint that we’re also animals of positive freedom. And indeed the idea of God in Kant would be that of a pure noumenon who would finally be free from all constraint, which is a brilliant way to summarize all theology: here below, the chains; up there, pure freedom.


DG: Well, I know that in theological terms the great chain of being was defined in terms of rationality, with God being absolute reason, and the next highest beings, the thrones, powers, denominations, angelic beings, merely extensions of His will. So you’re saying Kant democratizes the cosmos, as it were? But ultimately then he takes it back, doesn’t he, by saying that rationality is universal and external and timeless?

MBK: There’s a chiasmatic structure: the positive phenomenon of the law in the human is the negative constraint; the negative noumenon is positive freedom. It’s is to Kant that we owe the discovery of this structure. Even if my reading of Kant has nothing to do with the Kantian letter, and even if I agree with your initial objections—which are of the same type as Adorno’s—Kantian liberty as a freedom to submit is a hypostasis of petit-bourgeois submission, which is true. Still, among these petit-bourgeois you will also have artists, revolutionaries, scientific geniuses, that’s to say people who will transform the prison that is all of human existence into the possibility of creating incredible things, which would not have been possible under any regime of pure animality whatsoever.

DG: That’s a very beautiful formulation.

You know I’m not exactly channeling Adorno—at least I don’t think I am. To be honest, I’m still thinking about that anonymous Roman magistrate. It’s funny: when we speak of the classical origins of our civilization (and I’m referring at this point to a world civilization, which everyone now participates in to some degree or another), the figures that naturally come to mind are men like Pericles or Euripides or Plato, but never that guy—he doesn’t even have a name—even though one could well say that he’s shaped our lives in much deeper ways. The man I’m imagining is a senatorial official of the late republic or early empire, who sponsors games, renders prudent judgment on questions of property law, and then goes home to have his most intimate needs attended to by slaves who are in legal terms conquered people with no rights, and with whom he can and does do whatever he likes—rape, torture, kill, with total impunity. He’s a monster. Yet his perspective on the world, his judgments, lie at the basis of all our liberal ideas about freedom, and I suspect a lot more besides.

The situation creates a series of conceptual traps. I see Kant as struggling with them as well, hence the antinomies. I think you’re right that in doing so he came on a deeply human truth: that any meaningful freedom is born of submission to (but I would add, simultaneous rebellion against) arbitrary rules of our own creation. What I worry is that the brilliance of his discovery might unwittingly seduce us into accepting that peculiarly Roman view of the human condition, where instead of being dialogic creatures who create ourselves through some sort of deliberative process, we are assumed to be absolute individuals whose freedom is rooted in some sort of atrocity, who imagine ourselves not as brought into being by our relations with each other, but by our relations with some abstract totality (law, reason …).

The question though is can you have both at the same time? Can we see the free subject as something created by its relations with others, by non-atrocious ones, and also at the same time as the creator of the constraints that are as you (and Kant) would have it, the very possibility of its freedom? It’s a real puzzle. And it might sound abstract (well, okay, it is pretty abstract if you put it that way), but it has real practical implications.

graeber and wengrow freedom law et al.. free\dom ness..


13 – Freedom 3—friendship, play and quantification

DG: In Germanic languages, including English, the word “free” derives from “friend,” because the idea is that a slave can’t have friends.

MBK: It’s interesting since we also say that rich men don’t have friends.

because.. all slaves.. has to be all of us free or none of us are free (the dance won’t dance)

DG: Or kings. When I was studying divine kingship, one common theme is that there is a hidden affinity, even kinship, between kings and slaves, because they are the only kinds of people who have no social relations other than relations of domination.

I guess I’m struggling with two ideas of freedom. On the one hand we have the idea inspired by the notion of the “ability to have friends.” If you assume that people are the sum of relations they have or have had with others, this is self-determination. On the other, if you have the purely individualistic definition of freedom, well perhaps its inevitable you end up getting boxed in with these Roman-law property definitions I was just talking about.

MBK: It’s a real question, because you can say that there’s a far-right anarchism that is libertarian.

DG: Yes exactly, that right-wing version is the logical extension of that same silly dualism that produces the possessive individual: the idea that “you” are a spirit that owns your body and possessions, and therefore the freedom to do whatever you like with your arms, legs, cows, slaves, etc. Your relations with property, are somehow prior to relations with anyone else.

The alternative is to say that a free person is one who has the ability to make friends, to make commitments to others—which, from a purely liberal sense, are restraints on your freedom. This would take us back to Kant, or anyway, to Mehdi’s chiasmatic structure in Kant, but perhaps (I hope) with the shadow of the Roman magistrate now finally in retreat. This non-liberal notion of freedom is defined by your ability to voluntarily enter into relations of constraint and get out of them again. Freedom is the ability to make promises, which is precisely what slaves can’t do.

i see promise ness as irrelevant s to legit free people

The question is how to square that conception with the sense of freedom as play—as autopoiesis (maintain self by reproducing own parts), if you like, the self-generation or self-organization of systems (though that might not be the best term to use, since it’s been taken up in very specific ways by biology and systems theory.)

My own way of framing it has been through the opposition of play and games. Now, in English this is especially easy to express because there are distinct words for play and games, a distinction which for some odd reason doesn’t seem to exist in any other human language—at least, none I’m aware of.

MBK: And what is the distinction?

ATZ: Play is immanent; it’s something you do and its purpose is itself. Children in a sandbox play. Games have a design, a delineated space and time, rules, stakes—and somebody wins.

DG: Precisely. You can “play” a game—which means following an explicit set of rules—or you can just play around, which is pure improvisation. So when I was describing freedom as the tension between play and the rules it generates, another way to say that would be the relationship between play and games. On the one hand, pure self-directed activity for its own sake is also the exercise of freedom for its own sake, as a form of pleasure in itself. But just as (as I was saying earlier) if you try to speak pure nonsense, you quickly start creating something that sounds like a language, exercising freedom for its own sake will inevitably generate rules. Why? I think it’s partly because we play for pleasure, and *being entirely random isn’t a lot of fun. If you try to make noises in an entirely random fashion that sounds nothing like a language, it might be enjoyable for a very short period of time, but **if you keep it up for more than a minute or two, it quickly starts to feel like work. What’s fun is setting up a pattern and playing around with it. So play generates games. Freedom by this logic—at least it seems to me that this is the best way to think of it—is the tension between the play and the rules it generates. But that tension is also one of our major forms of pleasure.

*maybe.. but i don’t know.. is it? (we have no idea what legit free people are like)

**see (to me) the part you’re describing as no fun ‘feel like work’ is no longer random.. ‘keeping it up’ ness has now become the rule..


So this might be one way to synthesize the two conceptions of freedom. Play also turns into games the moment there is more than one person playing. What’s more, both freedom as the capacity to create games and freedom as the capacity to make promises are expressions of pure creativity, but ones which create something to which one is bound—but not absolutely.

not sure.. but am thinking that’s just whalespeak

ATZ: Unless they are quantified, in which case it becomes absolute and that is the issue! So the other difference between play and game is that in one nobody keeps count, or does so without record. When we “play for nothing” we don’t keep track of scores, whereas in games you do. *It is quantification and record-keeping that corrupts the relation between play and game. **Our ability to move between them is corrupted when the winners of a game suddenly refuse to start from scratch again once the game is over.. t Which I guess is why people like the Nuer or Dinka didn’t understand why having lost a war with the British meant prolonged subservience. As far as they could tell, they’d just lost a game. Similarly, our ability to make promises is corrupted when we lose the ability to break them, which happens when the promise is quantified and recorded as a debt.

And so it’s our ability to actively consent to rules but also our ability to renegotiate them which is corrupted under the reign of supreme quantification, where mathematics is considered the only transcendental truth. So if the winners are always the same, and all promises are to be kept no matter the consequences, you end up in a class society based on a debt economy.

*freedom/play begs to be sans any form of m\a\p

**huge to new everyday ness.. to imagine if we ness

can’t find much on Assia Turquier-Zauberman (wanted to add page)

DG: Oh very nice! Yes it’s not a promise if you can’t break it: this was one of my great realizations when I was writing Debt.

yes that.. no promises if legit free

You realize though, by this particular gambit, Assia, you’re effectively doing the same thing: challenging me to make my own rather playful formulation into something at least potentially more enduring.

Ok. I’ll give it a shot.

Well, first of all I guess you could say there are two levels here (maybe three?). Quantifying, by turning play into game, introduces the possibility of enduring effects. But just the possibility. We can play poker for chips and wipe the slate clean every evening. But we can also insist on cashing the chips in for real money—or the chips themselves can become money, which apparently did sometimes happen in some towns in Southeast Asia, where you could use mahjong chips to buy things in the marketplace.

Ritual—according to many anthropological versions of ritual theory, anyway—is about the annihilation of history. It means subsuming historical events (a marriage, a death, the dedication of a monument, the granting of a license to practice medicine, conquest …) that might seem to make a permanent difference, into a larger cosmic order where they don’t really matter, because nothing can ever change. That’s why Levi-Strauss claimed that when games do appear in ritual, they always end in a tie. (I don’t think that’s really true by the way.) But there are some games that threaten to break out of that ritual framework. War is like that. *Elaine Scarry once asked a very interesting question about war. She said it’s easy to see why enemies might wish to resolve their differences through some sort of contest. But why does it have to be a contest of injuring? Why not just shame and humiliate each other in some sort of way? Why do they have to physically hurt each other?

marriage\ing.. nika & silvia on divorce.. et al.. soul mate ness et al

*(to me) same song.. perhaps shame et al.. even worse..


The traditional answer is Clausewitz’s: that a contest of violence carries in it the means of its own enforcement, the loser can’t just declare they don’t accept the outcome and stomp off, because then the winner can just shoot him. But that explanation doesn’t really work for a whole series of reasons. Scarry proposes we think instead of the very permanence of what war does to human bodies: death and disfigurement, maiming, scars … Violence doesn’t create the means of its own enforcement so much as it creates the means of its own memorialization. It carves monuments in ruined flesh you are unable to forget. Or in our terms here, you can’t simply reshuffle the cards and start again. You’re almost obliged to come up with a reason why all those permanent injuries had some kind of permanent meaning.

(to me) .. that has more to do with visibility trauma vs invisible trauma.. both permanent.. invisible even moreso because don’t do anything about the invisible.. unless we find a legit way out.. aka: hari rat park law et al

This is why it might seem, on the surface, why in the early Middle Ages, for instance, you have so many law codes that mainly consist of specifying what monetary compensation is due not just for people killed in feuds, wars, and the like, but also often very detailed schedules of injury: this much for each severed finger, this much for an eye that’s been destroyed, etc. It occurs to me, now that I think about it, that these are all permanent injuries. Nobody seeks compensation for a broken leg, even if—as a modern lawyer would undoubtedly point out—it renders the victim unable to work or do much of anything for a considerable period of time. You pay for injuries that never go away. Despite the fact that money—whatever they’re using as money, whether it’s cows, or silver, or marten pelts—is by definition the form of wealth that’s most ephemeral, that wipes away history with each transaction. It’s an attempt to deny history. To pretend things can be reshuffled that everyone knows really can’t be. It’s almost as if you are acknowledging the permanence of the wound by the very inadequacy of the compensation.. t You can’t really shove it back into ritual again, but everyone agrees to pretend you can.


14 – Freedom 4—critical realism, emergent levels of freedom

MBK: I once wrote that the role of language is to change things by missing them. Words always miss the thing. Language is always a simplification of things, but a powerful one. It’s a simplification that creates a complexification beyond language. It’s a constant race between language and the way we have influence on it.

MBK: I’m on the side of those who believe that it’s our measuring instruments that create the intention.


ATZ: Sure, but as per our earlier points it could be true, because by attempting to measure it we allow the electron to have freedom (intentionality) because we give them a rule to play with? The electrons are asked by us to make a choice, like in that simple experiment of electrons shooting through a piece of paper, and so they do.

oi.. to me.. that’s not freedom.. that’s spinach or rock ness.. bound by finite set of choices.. we need curiosity over decision making


DG: Yes. The problem with Peirce’s principle standing alone is that if you assume anything that happens, any random conjuncture, is more likely to happen again … well, you can start with an entirely random cosmos and eventually end up with what looks like what we have now, a cosmos governed by what look to us like laws. But there’s no reason it should stop; eventually, everything should become entirely fixed. The universe would become more organized over time, which, at least if you believe in the Big Bang, does seem to be the case. But it would eventually become absolutely uniform and predictable. You’d end up with that Spinozist cosmos, or Pythagorean music of the spheres. But that doesn’t seem to be what is happening.

ATZ: But then again, most things have opposing forces. You’re essentially describing chaos and order. Maybe it’s entropy

DG: This might sound silly, but I’ve always been a little suspicious of the second law of thermodynamics. I’m not denying that the principle of entropy applies within a closed system. Obviously it does. But it certainly doesn’t apply to any of the systems we care about the most. . t Neither the earth, since we have the sun feeding us energy continually, nor the universe as a whole, which has obviously become more complex and organized since the Big Bang. Okay, so self-contained chemical systems tend to become disorganized over time. So? What are we to make of a law where everything important that happens is an exception?.t

huge.. yeah that.. carhart-harris entropy law et al

need: organism as fractal ness

ATZ: We should really invite a physicist …

DG: I’ve always felt the law of entropy was invented by depressed Victorians anticipating the inevitable decline of their empire. It’s the sigh of the notparticularly-oppressed creature, indignant that his power won’t last forever, since nothing does. You put your bird in a cage, then complain it’s going to die. Get over it!

But to get back to Bhaskar, since I didn’t quite finish my summary. What he’s saying is that you have these different emerging levels of complexity, and not only does each one have a greater degree of freedom (or arbitrariness, from the perspective of determination) but how they interact in an open system is inherently unpredictable, because you have causative mechanisms from different emergent levels interacting. That’s why you need to have a scientific experiment, therefore eliminating mechanisms from all but one emergent level, to understand how any one mechanism works. Closed systems are always human creations and they typically require an enormous amount of work..t

again on entropy ness and takes a lot of work ness


15 – Freedom 5—negotiating the rules of the game

DG: The point I made in The Utopia of Rules which is related to this is that the other pleasure of games is not just that you voluntarily submit to the rules, but also that you know exactly what they are. In everyday life you’re constantly playing games whose rules … well, sometimes they’re a total mystery, but more often you kind of have a sense of what they are, but you’re never quite sure. *And yes, some people who are consummate performers, they have a real sense of artistry about these things. And they don’t need to know the rules; they just have an intuitive sense of what a right move is. **But most of us are stumbling around like bad amateur sociologists trying to figure it all out. In a proper game, you know exactly who the players are, what the rules are, how you know when you won … In real life all of that is at least a little up for grabs and it’s annoying.

to me.. whalespeak.. ie: *this (to me) is what we’re all like if detoxed.. and **this is what whales in sea world are like


ND: Most revolutions happen not because people are starving but because somebody is breaking the rules to a degree that people won’t stand for it anymore.

DG: ..They operate by an alien logic, inimical to our own. And maybe you try to play them, but if you’re smart, you try to stay under their radar like you would any figure of authority, because if they notice you at all, it’ll probably mean trouble.

In fact I think it was that observation which led me to conclude that middle classness isn’t an economic category but a moral one. If you see a cop and feel more safe, not less, you’re probably middle class. Middle-class people are people who feel the institutional structure (the schools, the banks, the government …) should be there to serve them, and get indignant if it they don’t.


all o.o

Well, in that sense most people in the Third World don’t feel especially middle class. But when enough of them begin to feel the government are at least moral persons, whose actions could be judged by criterium of right and wrong, that’s when rebellions happen.

In Madagascar in the 1940s there was an emerging middle class. Enough people were educated and drawn into the world of the French civil service and larger colonial universe that they saw French people as moral beings who they could judge by right or wrong. The result was the revolt of 1947.

My friend Lauren Leve found something very similar in Nepal. She had been doing a project on a rural women’s literacy and empowerment campaign done by an international NGO, trying to expose all the liberal assumptions underlying the program—that it was really preparing people for microcredit and bourgeois aspirations. A few years later she came back and half the women who’d been through the program were Maoist guerillas.

So that’s a real danger. If you draw people into your game, they might decide you’re cheating.

ND: It’s very interesting that in Russian friend is друг [drook], which means the Other. So the friend is the other that you negotiate with always.

MBK: It is a central question in love affairs: do we play the same game or is it different?

DG: Well love as a game is the very definition of a situation in which the rules aren’t clear.

MBK: Sometimes they are. In my work I’m interested in BDSM because of this.

DG: Oh true. In that case the rules may even be specified in writing.

ND: So fair games are only ones where all rules are clear.

MBK: Life is a series of unclear games, so in that it’s fascist.

DG: That’s the thing about love though … Let’s talk two poles of this. A BDSM couple, that’s the extreme of total clarity, whereas romantic love is the exact opposite. There are so many things you can and can’t do and can and can’t say but it’s entirely unclear. And if you tried to map out the rules, you’d be breaking the most important one!

MBK: So I would say that romantic love at its pinnacle is the moment when you’re playing a perfect game of unformulated rules. That’s what’s magical about it, but it often doesn’t work long-term.

DG: It’s happy fascism, then? But yes, often it needs to be rationalized eventually.

ND: [laughs mischievously]

ATZ: I feel that!

MBK: And to be an anarchist is to be creating the rules with the others at every moment, not just being against the system of rules.

DG: Yeah otherwise you’re just rebellious.

MBK: I would say that politics in the generic sense of term is a game that’s is looking for its own rules, and that’s why anarchism is perhaps the essence of politics.


16 – Play fascism


17 – Leave, disobey, reshuffle

ATZ: We’ve talked about slippage a lot, between different value systems, different distributions of power and social organizations and the play necessary to the turnover process between them.

DG: Yes, for most of human history, these terms were unstable, and in flux, and in a way that instability was precisely what freedom consisted of. Or at least a case can be made that it was.

As I think I mentioned, when David Wengrow and I started writing our book, we rapidly concluded that “the origins of inequality” is rather a foolish problem. In fact, speaking of “inequality” as a uniform factor in human society, one you can measure by the same Gini coefficient from the Ice Age to the present, is downright bizarre.

There are so many better ways to frame what’s wrong with the world: capitalism, patriarchy, class power, exploitation, domination … Focusing instead on “inequality” pretty much assumes a liberal technocratic approach to solving global problems—well, we’ll just tinker a bit with income rates; .. t halfmeasures are obviously required since we wouldn’t want everyone to have exactly the same thing. That would be crazy and totalitarian. The problem, we concluded, was not that some people have more stuff, but that they can turn wealth into power, to make people to do things they would otherwise not wish to do, or create a world where some people are told their needs and perspectives don’t matter.. t

One reason “origins of inequality” fables make sense to us is because the image we have caught in our heads of what hunter-gatherers—and by implication all primordial humans—are like are the Mbuti, the pygmies of Central Africa, the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, or maybe the East African Hadza. They all live in tiny egalitarian bands. But such people are not really typical of hunter-gatherers historically. It’s just that in 1901—when Franz Boas was carrying out his research on the Northwest Coast or Baldwin Spencer in Australia, where people lived very differently—anthropologists weren’t yet in the habit of following people around with stopwatches, timing their daily calorie intake, and documenting everything on film. By the time “modern scientific methods” came in, the only hunter-gatherers left were tiny populations, often refugee populations, living in places no one else wanted—deserts, tundra, etc. And there were movies, celebrity informants like Nai and Nisa, all this made a huge impression. Everyone decided this must be what 95% of human history was really like. This is the period a lot of anarchists began insisting that “civilization” was a terrible mistake and we should all go back to being hunter-gatherers, usually side-stepping or finessing the point (which they’d acknowledge among themselves) that 99.9% of the current population of the planet would have to die—which of course raised certain questions about who the “we” was supposed to be. It was basically a politics of hopelessness—let’s just throw everything away; it’s all going to come crashing down anyway …

So we started asking, what were arrangements—particularly political arrangements—really like for most of human history? We can’t really know much about what was happening, say, two hundred thousand years ago—that period is basically a kind of shadow screen on which people throw their mythological fantasies—but if you start with, say, the Ice Age, then compare with the ethnographic record … Well, one remarkable thing is that people would completely change their social structures over the course of the year.


There’s is a wonderful little book by Marcel Mauss, Seasonal Variations of the Eskimo, which describes this kind of “dual morphology,” as he calls it. In the summer the Inuit would disperse into little patriarchal bands, and had strict rules of private property and were sexually puritan. But in the winter they gathered together in micro-cities. There’d be communal property arrangements; they’d have great wife-swapping orgies under the aegis of Sedna, Mistress of the Seals … There was a completely different social structure in different times of year. This was extremely common. The people Boas studied, to their immediate south, literally had different names in different times of the year. They’d literally become someone else (one role of the clown police was to punish people for using their summer names in winter).

graeber/wengrow back & forth law et al

All this meant that people were keenly aware that social structure wasn’t something immutable. You can change it around—which meant people were actually far more politically self-aware than we are.

Stonehenge is another example! The people who built Stonehenge were former cereal farmers who gave up raising cereal and went back to gathering nuts (though they kept the domestic animals). This appears to have happened across the entirety of what is now the British Isles, and I always wondered, how did people back then coordinate this sort of thing? The British Isles aren’t a small place. But apparently around 3000 bc there was some mechanism by which everyone made a collective decision to stop growing grain. Well, one thing we do know is that the people who lived near Stonehenge only lived there three months a year. People—some of whom normally lived quite far away—would stay there, perform midwinter rituals around their giant monument, during which time they apparently had a king. Then they scattered back into tiny bands for the rest of the year with their animals, living literally on nuts and berries. Presumably during that time the royals lived pretty much like anyone else. The kingdom was assembled and dismantled yearly. Which is presumably how you have all these Frazerian myths about kings who are killed or sacrificed on an annual basis. It seems to me the very ability to shift back and forth between social structures like that was what made it seem plausible to people that you could just rearrange everything—adopt farming, give up farming—on a level it would never occur to us to be able to do today.. t

graeber/wengrow back & forth law

If this is true, the question we needed to ask was not “Where did social inequality come from?” but “How did we get stuck in a situation where we can’t disassemble this when it no longer suits our purposes?”.. t

There’s a little bit of that left over in festivals. Mayday, which was the British equivalent of carnival, when you would try on alternative social structures, was the starting point of most British peasant revolts. But it’s just a shadow of earlier arrangements.

dawn of everything (book)


DG: I would list three primordial freedoms of this sort, just provisionally (it’s possible the list can be expanded and refined.) First: freedom to leave. Which is also freedom to travel. Often a significant proportion of the people living in, say, a huntergatherer band, come from someplace far away. We have this odd idea that in “primitive times,” any stranger would be assumed to be an enemy and probably killed. In fact, in most times and places there were elaborate rules of hospitality, so anywhere you went in North America you could find fellow members of the bear clan, and anywhere you went in Australia people of the same moiety, who would be obliged to put you up. At first, at least, there was no mechanism for excluding people who wished to simply move (though much later, in many places, this changes—another example of the double-sidedness of care, and as we all know “host,” “hostage,” and “hostile” are all etymologically related). So if everyone has the freedom to leave, there are acute limits on creating abusive social relations.

graeber and wengrow freedom law.. steiner care to oppression law.. graeber care/free law.. et al

The second freedom is the freedom to ignore orders. This is perhaps the most important.. t

any form of people telling other people what to do.. so any form of m\a\p

Interestingly, they saw a certain “baseline communism,” as I’d call it, a certain expectation of mutual aid, as one element of that insistence on absolute personal autonomy, since you aren’t free to do much of anything if you’re a beggar on the street..t In fact, you could easily end up in a situation where you can’t refuse orders.

need to try/code money (any form of measuring/accounting) as the planned obsolescence w/ubi as temp placebo.. where legit needs are met w/o money.. till people forget about measuring


DG: So we have the freedom to go elsewhere and the freedom to ignore commands. I would say the third freedom is the freedom to reshuffle the social order entirely, seasonally or otherwise.. t But as I say, seasonal shifts make it much easier to imagine this. This is why the Osage could so impress Montesquieu.

hari rat park law et al.. this is not ridiculous ness

They had a conception of what it would take to achieve the “good life,” and if they got it, they’d stop working and “maximize leisure time,” as an economist would put it, so as to actually enjoy that good life.

graeber stop at enough law et al

(This is the reason it’s so hard to get a taxi in the rain, incidentally. Cab drivers tend to work with target incomes, and when they make enough money, which they do very quickly if it’s raining, they tend to just go home.)


18 – Great man theory and historical necessity

ATZ: On my way here I was reading a special issue of a newspaper that proposed to span history’s great thinkers. The way these people—well, men—are discussed is an important part of the way “revolutions in common sense” are memorialized. I couldn’t really get through any section past the thinkers that were remembered as one person but may very well have been many. After that you get this messianic tone that, say, Heidegger had this one completely original thought that we’d all ignorantly been waiting for.

DG: Well one of the great mysteries of human life to me is the fact that once a historical event happens you can’t say whether it had to happen or what would have been different had it not happened. Would the same thing have happened in a different place two weeks later?

DG: So philosophy has been able to create a series of global revolutions in Wallerstein’s sense of transformations of common sense. The obvious question then is: was the person the event, or did the event produce the person? We can’t know. Marx is a wonderful example because many Marxists will insist his work disproved the “great men theory of history,” but with one exception … [chuckles]

MBK: Which is?

DG: Marx! “One man single-handedly showed us that one man can’t change the course of history?” How does that make any sense? So I always wonder whether from a Marxist point of view the birth of Marx was a historical necessity.

MBK: That’s the vertiginous question about what an event is.

DG: That’s very relevant to the question of Marx. I was saying that the Nuer have this sort of penumbra of potential prophets, people who are *considered mad or at least very strange. They spend their days arranging shells and talking to themselves, and mostly people just ignore them, but the moment there’s a great catastrophe, a plague, the danger of generalized warfare, an alien invasion, these are the people they turn to to resolve problems larger than the local community. So you wonder was Marx—and people like him—the equivalent? **Had history gone in a different direction, would he have been some eccentric journalist who took part in some crazy political group which had eight members? Or maybe an author of children’s books? Or alternatively, had Marx gotten hit by a carriage or died of scarlet fever at age three, would some person that we remember as a children’s book writer have risen to the occasion? How different would his theories have been? Would he have to have been German, or could he have been an Indian postman or a schoolteacher in Nigeria? That’s the great unknown. Social theorists aren’t allowed to ask such questions. It’s almost a kind of taboo, so it’s relegated to speculative fiction. To be considered professional, social scientists must speak of events that have already happened in a way that suggests they were entirely inevitable, and by implication predictable—despite the fact that of course when we do try to predict events we almost invariably get it wrong.

*turn to crazywise ness in times of need

**all sea world so doesn’t matter.. if legit free one wouldn’t change all.. all ongoingly changing.. no maté trump ness


DG: Well, one reason I spend so much time re-writing the past is because I am convinced it’s currently being written the way it is so as to make it almost impossible for us to imagine a viable future. That’s why I annoy everyone by insisting that communism already exists. One thing we learnt in Zuccotti Park during Occupy is that Americans are actually quite good at communism. They’re just not very good at democracy. That, they have to be taught. 

need training as big red flag.. any form of people telling other people what to do.. any form of m\a\p


DG: I’ve thought about this as well, the way people talk about the “direction of history.” While it’s silly to look at most of history as if it’s going in one direction, reason really wasn’t that cunning. One thing globalization means is that it’s now possible to create a history that goes in one direction, which was not the case before. So we brought about a situation where that which we had previously projected incorrectly onto the past now becomes possibly true in the future.


back to **on p 64.. and the possibilities today of all being able to dance

humanity needs a leap.. to get back/to simultaneous spontaneity .. simultaneous fittingness.. everyone in sync..


19 – Theories of desire

DG: Well, if you like. I always worry mine were crude. I was trying to understand the differences between two broad conceptions: Plato’s hunger model of desire—“desire as lack,” or the negation of a negation, which one might say opens the way to the theological view of the human condition as one of incorrigible beings in a universe of scarcity—and the more optimistic conception of “life which desires itself,” the Spinozan vitalist tradition, which you could say ultimately sees desire as freedom and play, the expression of life’s full capacities for their own sake. It’s obvious why the latter seems more appealing, but it strikes me that either can lead to some Hobbesian war of all against all, one more economistic, the other perhaps more fascistic.

graeber care/free law et al

Where do you want to go from that?

ATZ: To follow the intuition that re-tracing a history of desire would mean re-considering theories of value?

DG: Aha! That’s ambitious. But worthwhile.

Okay, let’s give it a whirl.

The essay was specifically about the notion of “consumption,” how advocates of theories of what came to be known as “creative consumption” show up in the 80s and basically bully their way into dominance. It’s quite subtle, as it arrives claiming to be a critique, but a very insidious one that in reality institutes the thing it is ostensibly criticizing.

This corresponds to a certain moment in capitalism of “market segmentation.” Basically, advertisers and marketers stop trying to create a homogeneous consumer public and start breaking down the public into identity groups (strivers, makers, survivors … they had endless categories) and coming up with specific strategies to target them. All these people are getting rich selling each other “bibles” breaking down postal codes or telephone area codes by supposed consumer orientation. Partly as a result, marketers stop just hiring psychologists (and it was already the case in the US that most psychologists were working for advertisers and not in universities) and start hiring more people with anthropological training. And lo and behold, within the discipline itself, there’s this curious moral transformation: all cultures are defined as subcultures, and all subcultures, as countercultures, as forms of resistance. Endless articles come out chiding anthropologists for downplaying consumption.


Marshall always insisted the trouble with what we have come to call Western civilization is that it was founded on a false idea of human nature that traces back to the Sophists perhaps, through the Christian fathers’ conception of original sin, to liberal economists’ conception of utility..t

huge.. black science of people/whales law.. traces back to always .. we have no idea what legit free people are like


20 – Graeber reads MBK and proposes a three-way dialectic that ends in care


21 – Art and atrocity

The punishment seems entirely disproportionate. Do they really deserve this? But the message seems to be: well, of course they deserve it. They’re guilty. Everybody’s sinful. Everyone’s guilty. Look at yourself. You aren’t? If you weren’t sinful, why would you be sitting here getting off on this sadistic crap?

Someone once wrote about rollercoasters (which, by the way, I hate and have always hated—I would like the world to know this) that what they’re really about is trust in technology. If you’re sitting in a vehicle that’s hurdling downwards at an extremely rapid speed, well obviously your natural instinct is to do something. But rollercoasters create an artificial situation where you’re aware that the only safe thing you can do is absolutely nothing, and the enjoyment lies in completely surrendering your will to the competence of the engineer who designed the ride. The only way you can survive this experience is to not do anything. Perhaps there’s something similar in the artistic representations of terrible situations. They also evoke a desire to intervene, but in a situation where it’s obviously impossible. Perhaps they’re modeling the experience of passivity and teaching it to you.


MBK: In the case of tragedy, it’s the question of participation. In the examples that David gives in his work, the catharsis is always collective. You always participate, like in tragedy for the Greeks. So when does a form of art like football begin? You’ve already spoken of the Roman circus.

DG: Another ugly mirror! The same Roman magistrates—the same senatorial elite who calculatingly turned citizens into lynch mobs at gladiatorial games as their most vivid experience of voting—also seem to have invented fanatic team sports with their chariot teams (and “fan,” I always remind myself, is just short for “fanatic”). Roman chariot-team fans were famous for regularly rioting, but that was second-order participation. And the “evils of factionalism” were duly added to the list of why democracy would be a terrible system of government—and now, of course, what we call “democracy” is entirely based on the principle of factionalism, which of course it hadn’t been before.

super bowl ness et al

MBK: The circus isn’t really participative.

DG: No, it isn’t. It’s precisely how one starts to step away.

MBK: The hooligans think they participate but it’s an ugly form of virulent spectatorship. If I can recapitulate it simply, for me civil life is based on limiting something that is no longer a predator instinct but a murder drive. Art represents and gives catharsis to this.


22 – Vampires, cults, hippies


23 – Utopia


I actually find it quite ironic that a standard accusation against anarchism is that it has a naïve trust in human nature. But starting at least with Kropotkin, anarchists have always replied “No you are the ones who have a naïve trust in human nature. You think you can make someone a magistrate with the power of life and death over other human beings and he’ll always be fair and impartial! That’s absurd. . tYou can’t just give people arbitrary power over others and expect them not to abuse it.”

That’s another point I always say about anarchism and human nature. People will insist, “But some people will always be selfish assholes who just care about themselves.” Undoubtedly there will still be people who are selfish assholes in the world, even in a stateless society, but at least they won’t be in command of armies, which I for one feel is an improvement.

ND: So in this way anarchism is if anything antiutopian?

DG: Yes. It is deeply accepting of people as they are.

*You could also define anarchy as the absolute rejection of all forms of bullying..t One of the most difficult things I ever had to write was a piece on bullying for The Baffler—I guess it just struck on very fundamental childhood traumas that I’d largely taught myself not to think about. The ultimate conclusion was that when we look for the critical flaw in human nature, we’re probably looking in the wrong places. You’ll find a million essays asking why people are mean—why do they have a drive to dominate and humiliate others, why they are bullies—but rarely do you see anyone ask why people who are not bullies or sadists make excuses for those who are. Because if you think about it, how many of us are genuine sadists? But even if it’s only 1% of the population that even has the potential to be genuinely malicious bullies, it sometimes seems like 97% of the remainder are unwilling to admit it—at least publicly.

*any form of m\a\p

bully\ing.. david on bullying


I spent some time going through psychological studies of schoolyard bullying, and what I discovered is that most of us are laboring under a whole series of misconceptions on the subject. First, everyone assumes that if you stand up to a bully, you’ll just get attacked yourself. Actually that’s not true. Bullies tend to rely on the complicity of the audience, but if just a few kids say “Hey, why are you picking on that kid?” or otherwise disapprove, they usually cut it out. Second, bullies don’t suffer from low self-esteem. They typically see themselves as totally within their rights enforcing social norms against weakness, effeminacy, incompetence, etc. (and the fact that teachers let them get away with it, that the school prevents the victims from running away, since you can’t flee school, implies to them that they are). If they act like self-satisfied little pricks, it’s not because they torn by self-doubt but because they actually are self-satisfied little pricks. Finally, what guarantees that someone will be picked on is not necessarily that they’re a nerd or a fat girl—or at least, that only comes later—at first it’s because they resist ineffectively. If they don’t resist at all, bullies will usually leave off; if they hit back effectively, obviously too. But if they make an initial show of resisting then run away, or cry and threaten to call their parents, then they’re marked as perfect victim material.

That latter is crucial I think. I still remember in grade school one nasty kid who’d just continually, endlessly jab and attack me every day in ways always calculated to fall just under the radar of the authorities. One day I just couldn’t take it any more and knocked him across the hall, and of course, as a result, I was the one who got in trouble.

The same pattern though recurs on every level of systematic oppression: class, race, gender. Constant tiny jabs, put-downs, indignities, always calculated to be just at a level where if someone objects, you can pretend it’s their indignation that’s the issue..t

gaslighting ness et al

It only works though because the overwhelming majority of onlookers let it happen. The psychological studies show that children who are onlookers tend to dislike both the bully and victim equally. That sounds exactly right. The instinct, on witnessing such things, always seems to be to equate the bully and the victim and try to isolate them in a bubble of reciprocated conflict. You see this on social media all the time; I call it the “you-two-cut-it-out phenomenon.” Somebody attacks you, you ignore them. They attack again, you ignore them again. They escalate. You try to rise above. Maybe you even point out what’s happening. It doesn’t matter. This can happens 25, 35 times and nobody else says a word. Finally, round 36 and you answer back, and instantly half a dozen onlookers jump in to say “Look at those two idiots fighting!” or “Why can’t you two just calm down and try to understand the other’s point of view” or even insist that your overly exasperated response is far more objectionable than the original 36 unprovoked attacks.

Obviously this is the whole point of trolling, to play on this sort of response. But it’s essential to bullying.

You can see the mechanism very clearly in the case of wartime atrocities. If some group starts massacring another, there are so many people whose first reaction will be to search for evidence, any evidence, that will allow them to claim the victims are responsible for some kind of atrocity as well. And if you search hard enough you’ll almost invariably turn up something..t When I was growing up, we had this friend Harold who had a chicken farm in New Jersey. Harold had been a Jewish partisan in the woods in Poland during the war. At one point, my mother later told me, they’d tried to make contact with the local Polish partisans, but it turns out they were anti-Semites and turned the envoys over to the Nazis. So a week later a few of the Jewish partisans showed up at their town hall during a polka dance and tossed a grenade into the window. Harold didn’t know the details of what happened, but innocent people were surely maimed or killed. Was it an atrocity? Sure. Sometimes people in desperate circumstances do atrocious things. Can we then conclude of World War II that “all sides committed atrocities” and leave it at that? That would be insane. But it’s exactly the approach most people would be taking if these same events were happening today.


For me the essence of bullying is that it’s a form of aggression calculated to provoke a reaction that can then be used as retrospective justification for the initial aggression itself. That’s the real core of the thing. I imagine an anarchist social order above all as one where everyone learns to identify this dynamic from childhood, and is inoculated against it.


24 – Rules of engagement

DG: There’s a military theorist called Martin Van Creveld who made the same point as Scarry, that Clausewitz’s position—that the reason why war is a contest specifically of violence is because a contest of violence is the only one that carries within itself the means of its own enforcement—can’t really be true.

Creveld makes the trenchant point that if you look at history, war is anything but an unlimited contest of power; there are always rules..t Often very elaborate and intricate ones. There are rules about who is a combatant and who isn’t, what you can and can’t do with prisoners, messengers, medics, what kinds of weapons and tactics are permissible and what aren’t. Even Hitler and Stalin, for instance, agreed never to use poison gas against each other’s troops. Part of this is just an extension of the principle of discipline—an army that fights without rules is just a rampaging mob, and when a rampaging mob meets a real army, they always lose. But even more there have to rules because otherwise you don’t know who won..t Often these rules are very specific: in ancient Greece the battle wasn’t over until one side has to ask the other for their dead; in medieval Europe apparently, an army had to stay on the field for three days after the battle so the other side could come back and try again. So the victor was in no sense simply determined by de facto preponderance of force. In fact the only people who systematically broke the rules—Attila the Hun, or Hernán Cortés—tended to be remembered as monsters for centuries after for that very reason.

At the time I read Van Creveld I was involved in the alter-globalization movement and taking part in lots of large-scale direct actions, in Quebec City, Genoa, Washington, New York … It made sense: what I’d been seeing on the streets in many cases exactly resembled ancient warfare, with feints, charges, flanking maneuvers, even helmets and shields. It was just that the rules of engagement were far more limiting. And it suddenly occurred to me, wait a minute, cops break almost all those rules all the time..t If you try to negotiate with them, half the time they arrest the go-between. They attack medics all the time. If you declare a “green zone,” where no one will do anything illegal, so as to make a safe space for old people or children, the cops will almost invariably teargas or attack it. They act like totally dishonorable opponents.

It’s not just that all cops are bastards though. There’s a logic. After all, if police were to treat you honorably, that would be recognizing you as an equal party to a conflict. But they represent the state. They’re not going to recognize you as the equivalent to the state. That would be recognizing a legitimate dual power situation. That’s the last thing cops are going to do. But they can’t just kill you, either—especially if you’re white.

So the solution: systematically break all the other rules.

One corollary of this is that all the most brutal, the most truly vicious wars that have been fought in recent memory are ones which aren’t wars at all in the eye of those commanding the largest forces, but police actions. Like Vietnam, or Algeria, or Angola, Syria, Iraq. Not only are they called “police actions,” they actually do follow the logic of police, which is to fight a permanent war—the “war on crime”—between the state and an intrinsically dishonorable enemy, one that can never be fully defeated..t In part it can’t because the “war on crime” itself is a transposition of the underlying war that constitutes the nation to begin with, the permanent war between sovereign and people, which I would argue is prior even to Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction. One could even say the cosmic war that marks the imagination of free societies is brought down to earth. In a way the modern nation-state is just a truce, a “social peace” established between two warring parties, sovereign and people. It’s transposed onto a “war on crime,” and then of course the “war on drugs” (the first to go international) and “war on terror.”..t All of them are permanent wars against an inherently dishonorable opponent that cannot, however, be defeated. Because it’s not like crime, or drugs, or terror, are going to surrender and cease hostilities.

war.. david on war.. nika on war.. war on drugs.. war on kids.. war on normal people.. et al


Something most people don’t remember is that at the very beginning of the guerrilla war in Iraq, one of the rebel groups captured an American soldier. They announced “Okay, we got one of your guys. We will observe the Geneva conventions on prisoners of war; we will treat them according to the law and expect you to treat our prisoners the same. We would be interested in organizing some kind of exchange.” And the Americans immediately responded “What? No! We don’t negotiate with terrorists.” So the Iraqi guerrillas said “Okay fine. Have it your way. We’ll kill him.”

jeremy scahill – dirty wars et al

And people wonder how Daesh happened. The first impulse of the Iraqi resistance was to say “Let us engage in honorable combat.” And the response was “Absolutely not. This isn’t a war, it’s a police action. You’re inherently dishonorable in our eyes and therefore we have no intention of observing anything like the Geneva convention. Negotiations and law are for people we respect, like the crazed Salafi Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Things like this kept happening. Eventually those resisting imperial power figure out that they’re only taken seriously if they cast themselves in a certain role, as the villain in a Christian drama—so they start playing along. If you look at the early videos of ISIS, with their parades of black flags, sinister hooded figures, beheadings and crucifixions and burnings at the stake, it’s as if they’d gone through every movie they could find to get a sense of what the ultimate Middle Eastern Bond villain would be like and tried to see if they could do it one better.

I think the War on Terror was an attempt to solve a problem. It didn’t work. But the problem was the same one I described briefly before: the pieces of the nation-state, which we’re used to thinking just somehow naturally go together, are in the process of drifting apart. So we have the emergence of a global administrative bureaucracy, but without the other two components: neither a principle of sovereignty, nor a heroic field of political contention. Since World War II the US has been constructing the world’s first planetary administrative system. Starting with the Bretton Woods institutions (the IMF, World Bank, World Trade Organization—which incidentally are all formally part of the UN), but including private and public elements ranging from treaty organizations like the EU or NAFTA, to transnationals NGOs, even credit rating institutions. The alter-globalization movement was an attempt to expose and challenge that system—until Seattle or A16, most people in the US didn’t even know the WTO or IMF even existed. It was remarkably effective. Within a very short period of time, the IMF had effectively been kicked out of the vast majority of the world’s countries; social movements were coordinating everywhere; after Seattle every single attempt to negotiate a trade treaty collapsed and failed.

Obviously this is not the way they teach us history, because in official histories social movements are insignificant. But all of us who were there at the time were aware the ruling class was in a minor panic. Then 911 happens and they declare war. But of course the War on Terror wasn’t a war at all; it was an attempt to create a logic of police on a planetary level, the kind of war you know you’ll never win. The “forever wars,” some people started calling them. In other words, to create a single principle of sovereignty to back up the global administrative structure. But that clearly didn’t work.


zinn obedience lawhoward zinn – a people’s history


It surprises me how weak most of the theorizing on such matters is. Perhaps it’s yet another example of people insisting on using very pure, rarified versions of reality in abstract discussion, however complicated and messy the reality—like the way everyone pretended there were states in the Middle Ages, even though no one actually lived in one. Every time we talk about “war” in the abstract, we imagine two states—they each have an army, they declare war on each other, and they fight it out until one side surrenders, or there’s some kind of peace treaty… Since World War II has there been a single war that actually took that form? The Arab-Israeli conflict?

ND: No!

ATZ: Neither side even recognizes the enemy’s sovereignty.

ND: Yes, from the Arab side too in the beginning it was a police operation. And at this point no one even seems to want to end it, there are too many interests invested in its prolongation.

DG: So I guess it really was World War II!

Even when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait he has to make up an imaginary Kuwaiti rebel organization that he’s coming to assist. We all operate with an abstract idea of what a war is like, even though we’re keenly aware that virtually no war actually takes that form.

ND: That’s why there are no rules, no victory, and no catharsis.

ATZ: I think we can find something by thinking about the bullying you-two-cut-it-out phenomenon and the we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists phenomenon.

DG: Ah, very interesting. Please do go on.

ATZ: One is to negate the enemy, saying that they’re beyond reasoning (“We don’t negotiate with terrorists”), and the other to insist on enmity, equating the victim and the bully just by virtue of them being put in dialectic by the attack.

And I think it has to do with the idea of dignity, and the moral attribution by a third party, which is the spectator … let’s see where my mind wants to go…

I think there’s a parallel between the spectator with the power to decide who is an honorable opponent and the relativistic cop from earlier.

DG: Yes, that makes a lot of sense.

Let’s figure this out.

Okay, I definitely agree the spectator in the bullying scenario is crucial. One of the points I made in the original piece was that psychologists find that in schoolyard bullying other kids don’t like the bully very much, but they feel that they shouldn’t intervene because it would just make things worst, or alternately because they’d get bullied too. They also find that that isn’t true: if one or two kids object, they’ll usually stop. So why is that everybody has this idea in their head about what would happen if you stepped up? Where does it come from?

Part of the reason is popular culture (that’s what the superhero genre is about, to tell you that if you say “Hey why are you beating up on that kid?” then you’d better be prepared to take on a creature from outer space that can shoot death-rays from its eyes). But even more because in adult life that does happen—in the workplace, bullies tend to be scrupulously protected, as I discovered to my chagrin at Yale. And if you tell a cop “Hey why are you beating up on that kid? He didn’t do anything,” you may well end up in serious trouble. In fact the civilians most likely to end up seriously injured by police turn out to be precisely such good Samaritans.


It struck me that this is the real primordial scene of power. Not the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, which for some reason has gotten lodged in the literature as the deep structure of power—because seriously, how often do we really witness two people engaged in a life- and-death struggle for recognition? Basically never. On the other hand, all of us have witnessed, and played one or another role in, scenes where one person is pummeling another and both of them are appealing to some third party or parties for recognition. The victim calls out for sympathy; the aggressor tries to represent the victim’s reaction as retrospective pretext for their initial aggression. That trinary bullying scene is the real structure of power. That’s the real thing.

ATZ: So the onlooker is simultaneously the most powerful actor and the most passive one? On the one hand they hold the power of representation, siding with the one or the other narrative. This agency is only increased by their position of “once removed” from the scene. Yet that is also what condemns them to a form of passivity in assessment.

DG: You’re basically challenging me to put all these pieces together, aren’t you? It’s true that sometimes I resist doing that; I’m not sure why. I guess I’m afraid of creating anything that might be turned into a totalizing system. But if I were to give it a shot …

You plug these various scenarios into this trinary structure, so what do you get? Officer Mindfuck, the relativist cop, is basically the same as the cop who’s beating up the good Samaritan for trying to intervene. Because he insists there are no higher criteria which could possibly justify intervention. I once read a former policeman turned sociologist make the point that cops almost never beat up burglars, because burglars are playing the same game as the cops are: law and order. Real violence only comes in when someone “talks back,” that is, challenges their “right to define the situation” by insisting there’s another game;..t who says “Wait a minute, this isn’t a possible crime situation, it’s a citizen-who-pays-your-salary-walking-his-dog situation,” or “This isn’t a disorderly crowd, it’s an expression of freedom of assembly,” etc. That’s when the stick comes out.

This is incidentally where the giant puppets come in. A mass direct action like at the 1999 WTO meetings at Seattle or the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City was an attempt to create an “event,” or a moment of revolutionary creativity. That both meant taking what seemed absolute, permanent, and monumental and making them seem brittle and ephemeral and vulnerable, and it also meant taking things that seemed brittle and ephemeral, and showing that they could quite easily become absolute and monumental. One of the things that fascinated me about the symbolism of the global-justice movement—which real established the mythological language that was then taken up in Occupy and subsequent movements—was that … well, if you asked the average American about Seattle, or later summit mobilizations, the two things they were likely to know were, first, that there were masked anarchists dressed in black smashing Starbucks’ windows, and second, that there colorful giant puppets. The thing that fascinated me was why was it the cops always seemed to hate the puppets more?

Well, the symbolism was easy enough to read. The Black Bloc collective at Seattle was quite explicit about what they were doing. They even issued a manifesto saying “We are surrounded by neon and glass, this glittering fantasy world of consumer capitalism, and we think of it as permanent and monumental, but all you have to do is get a hammer and the whole thing dissolves away.” As Bakunin put it, “The urge to destroy is also a creative urge.” We need to remind people that these things aren’t really ineffable. But the puppets, the carnival bloc surrounding them with the clowns and belly dancers and klezmer bands and fairies with feather dusters tickling the police and whatnot … that was the other side of the same equation. Puppets were gigantic papier-mâché gods and dragons and demons and effigies but they were also obvious ridiculous, a mockery of the very idea of a monument. They are monuments one can improvise overnight in a big party and then set on fire afterwards. They allude to the permanent potential to create new verities, new social forms, and then toss them away again if necessary. So in that sense they have to be kept ridiculous, because otherwise they’d be utterly terrifying.


Another way to put this of course is that they represented the play principle in its purest form. And of course gods at play are by definition terrifying. Not only was it what they represented; it’s also how they were actually deployed—the puppets and surrounding carnival bloc were, typically, sent in to defuse situations of potential conflict, particularly where the police seemed likely to attack. They were an attempt to change the rules of the game when those rules seemed like they were likely to lead to violence. But from the perspective of the cops, I think, that was totally cheating. You’re supposed to negotiate the rules of engagement indirectly, through the law and media. Anarchists were trying to renegotiate the rules on the field of battle itself. So of course the cops would just go completely berserk and try to destroy the puppets.. t It got so that we had to start making the puppets in secret, because if the police got wind of where the warehouses were, they’d sweep in and try to take them out in a preemptive strike.

giant puppets et al

ATZ: Now, what about the War on Terror?

DG: I guess it makes sense that the War on Terror was the response. It was an attempt to permanently redefine the rules of engagement. The alter-globalization movement had been astonishingly successful—people forget that now—but of course wiping out such feelings of possibility, making them seem unreal, foolish, is precisely what the game of power is ultimately all about. But it’s true: within just a few years we destroyed an almost total ideological hegemony, kicked the IMF out of most of the world and brought it to the brink of bankruptcy, put the question of global democracy on the table (as in: what would that even mean?). We were all startled how quickly it happened. So the response was a direct attack on the political imagination.

In practice, you could say it’s all about who gets to negotiate the rules of engagement and who is equal parties to it. “Terrorists” by definition don’t, and aren’t. The you-two-cut-it-out fallacy is basically a refusal, on the part of the audience, to relegate the aggressor to the status of terrorist (or bully—here it’s essentially the same thing). You’re saying “No, as far as I’m concerned you’re both moral equivalents here.”

ATZ: Oh! Okay. I think I get it. Well, I get something. So the argument is just about having the means to always insist that you are David and the other person is Goliath no matter what. In the same way that we say “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” we tell kids who are bullied to not try and reason with the bullies. By refusing to negotiate with Al Qaeda or whoever else, you keep the victimhood pure.

DG: Do we tell them that? Well, I guess if we recognize it as true bullying.

This is where the weird insistence you see all the time in the literature in the 60s—for example, that school bullies must have been victimized themselves, they must be cowering insecure victims deep inside—is really telling. Let me make a confession here. I’m hesitant to tell the story, because it’s about my father…

Now, my dad was a leftist hero of a sort. He’d volunteered to fight in the International Brigades; in many ways he was really an anarchist. But towards the end of his life he was very bitter, and one way it manifested itself was he developed a few odd rightwing attitudes: he’d get drunk and rant at the TV, mainly, about “liberal judges” who let off violent criminals on technicalities or gave them slap-on-the-wrist sentences because of their disadvantaged backgrounds. I could never figure out why. Sure it was New York in the 70s. It was a rough town, but he was never a crime victim and never lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Only much later I realized it was all about me and my brother. We’d been bullied in school, mainly by other working class kids for being bookish, and I later learned he’d tried to intervene with the school authorities repeatedly, and they’d lectured him about how the bullies came from disadvantaged backgrounds and were just acting out (he also knew how I had been punished for fighting back). So of course he felt entirely emasculated; he couldn’t protect his own children. But now that I think of it, he took exactly the same attitude to terrorists, another of his pet peeves. When I would ask “Well, what do you think the terrorists are thinking, what are they trying to achieve?” he became furious and basically told me it was wrong to even speculate.

khan filling the gaps law et al.. huge

missing pieces


But of course as it turns out bullies mostly aren’t insecure victims themselves. In fact some of the ones I still remember were from much wealthier families—I think one now is a TV news executive or somesuch.

ooh.. i don’t think that..stronger looking from outside maybe but just as (more?) insecure..

If you think about it—I mean, I haven’t really, but I am now—terrorism is just the bullying of the weak, just as bullying is the terrorism of the strong. In each case it’s an attempt to provoke a response that you can then blame the target for. This is true even in the most subtle, conversational forms:

“You’re a decent chap, Jeeves, but your mother really failed to teach you manners.”

“Wait, why are you bringing my mother into this? Stop being an asshole.”

“See what I mean? He called me an asshole! You heard that didn’t you, everyone? Asshole! He called me an asshole!”

Terrorism is actually an attempt to do the same. Usually you’re trying to provoke a government to repress a certain group of people—precisely those whom you claim to represent—so as to mobilize them politically. Say I’m a Ruthenian separatist in some imaginary country. So what’s my biggest problem? Likely as not that members of the Ruthenian minority either don’t want their own separate state, or don’t care enough to do much about it. But if I put a few bombs in marketplaces and loudly declare it was the Ruthenian liberation movement that did it, well, chances are the government, and particularly the security forces, will start making the lives of Ruthenians very unpleasant. It’s an attempt to provoke what you believe to be a repressive state to act even more repressively.

But isn’t that just ultimately the same logic of bullying? An unprovoked attack designed to provoke a response that can become its own retrospective justification. Only in this case it becomes a way of reversing the logic of bullying back on those in the dominant position.

ATZ: Absolutely. Something is there. And it goes back and forth because the terrorists are the product of bullying in the first place.

DG: Yes! Maybe not in the case of schoolchildren, but definitely in the case of terrorists. Well, there have been one or two extremely cynical exceptions: South African intelligence once created an insurgency in Mozambique basically by finding a few kids from ethnic minorities, paying them large amounts of money to put bombs in marketplaces in the name of imaginary separatist groups, and essentially creating real separatist groups by so doing. But that’s obviously unusual.

When it comes to Israeli policy on the West Bank, for example, well the thing that really struck me when I went there was the Israeli occupations was clearly designed to make everyone’s life unliveable in a thousand different ways, but any given one of them was so minor it wouldn’t seem to justify a violent response. So it was just like that kid in gym class constantly kicking and jabbing you. Or like the North Korean tactic of interrogating foreign prisoners by making them sit on the edge of a chair for eight hours, or lean against a wall in an uncomfortable way—after a while, it’s just impossible, but try going to the International Tribunal on Torture and telling them you’ve been made to sit on the edge of a chair for a really long time.


So when some Palestinian actually does finally lash out it seems entirely disproportionate, and the Israelis can say “Aha! Look at them, they’re just a bunch of terrorists.” But then the logic on the other side becomes “Well as long as some people are going to be lashing out anyway, let’s do it in a systematic way.”

But in that case the Israeli side has managed to almost entirely win the battle over the terms of engagement. They can open fire on twelve-year-olds with rocks or even just kids standing nearby one with total impunity.

ATZ: So how could you actually change that?

DG: Well, first of all, I think Palestinians and their supporters have to reengage on the level of myth. There was an action some years ago where Palestinian activists resisting a farm eviction painted themselves blue and dressed up like the Na’vi in Avatar and hugged trees. And of course the IDF opened fire on them anyway. I thought that was absolutely brilliant. But it’ll take enormous amounts of work to start replacing existing images in the heads of, say, Americans with ones like that.

takes a lot of work ness as red flag


25 – Dual sovereignty


26 – Against the politics of opinion


DG:  But then I realized, wait, that’s not true. Because children do that all the time. In fact it sometimes seems that’s all kids do. “Okay, but if you are saying that, why don’t you also say this or that.” “But if that’s true,” and so on interminably sometimes. So the real truth of the education system is that at first we beat that instinct out of them, and then, only later, put it halfway back in for a select elite..t

supposed to’s of school/work et al.. any form of m\a\p does that.. happens before formal ed ness.. maté parenting law et al

So what would education be like if it didn’t do that?..t

any form of m\a\p does that.. so question rather what are conditions so we can all live sans any form of m\a\p

DG: I guess the question would be how to begin with some form of deliberation rather than opinion-making as a model for how to think.

need: curiosity over decision making


27 – The world upside down (and the mind always upward)

DG: In this sense, Marx’s fetishism is just a social version of Piagetian egocentrism. I assume you’re familiar with the basic concept: *children literally see themselves as the center of the universe; they mistake their own perspective on things with the objective nature of reality, which is why, for instance, you can’t play hide-and-go-seek with a very small child, because as soon as you vanish, they forget that you ever existed. And it **takes a surprisingly long time before children understand the reversibility of relations. For instance, the fact that if I have a brother named Jacques, then Jacques also has a brother, who is me.

*this thinking vs not yet scrambled.. maybe hide and go seek isn’t the point.. **perhaps red flag we’re already ‘beating instinct out of them.. takes a lot of work ness et al


Now it’s obvious why this sort of thing would be of interest to anthropologists: this is what we do, to tease out the underlying logic of forms of action that the actors themselves can’t fully articulate or even understand. But Turner’s real breakthrough—well, he thought it was a breakthrough, and I’m inclined to agree—was to say “Aha! This is why you have myth and ritual.”

lanier beyond words law ness et al.. language as control/enclosure et al


28 – God as transgression and anarchy as God


I often say that in terms of organizing direct actions, well, there’s endless literature on the mob or “the madness of crowds”, and most people do assume that any kind of crowd is necessarily going to be, collectively, stupider than any one of the individuals that make it up. That’s why most people accept the legitimacy of authoritarian leadership. If this were really true, it stands to reason that if you took even any one random person out of the crowd and made that person dictator, the crowd would make better decisions than it would as as a collectivity. Anarchism is about the possibility of a crowd becoming smarter—not just than any randomly selected member of it—but of any individual member of it. It’s about creating those modes of communication and deliberation which would allow that to happen. Hence the emphasis on practice..t

need 1st/most: means to undo our hierarchical listening to self/others/nature so we can org around legit needs

ie: tech as it could be

So in that sense, *dialogue is your primary building-block. It’s a form of emergence of thoughts that no individual would have been able to have by themselves, .. t which is ultimately what anarchy too is about—which is why I don’t think it so crazy for this conversation to take the four-way form that it did. No?

*to me.. as long as it’s 1\ convo w self 2\ convo w others.. as infra otherwise same song (aka: whalespeak)

Well, I was hoping it might.