Monday, July 20, 2015


Timothy Kennett has an interesting article in 3AM Magazine: the utopia of rules. He reviews The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber (of Debt: The First 5000 Years fame).

I haven't read Graeber's book, but share Kennett's skepticism of Graeber's thesis.

I do not believe that individuals can sustain a complex society without social institutions that are, in some sense, coercive. Coercion goes far beyond pointing a gun at someone's head and making them obey: controlling access to the means of production, in terms of both production and consumption, is inherently coercive. Even with completely automated production, someone will have to build and maintain the machines, and until energy is unlimited, someone will have to decide what the machines build and who gets them.

We have to propagate and reproduce some sort of culture. Who gets to decide what does and does not get reproduced? In other words, who controls the schools? (This is the weakness, I think, of the utopian society in And Then There Were None: who maintains the anarchism of the population? How do they do so?)

I also do not entirely share Marx's absolute contempt for the division of labor. Maybe I can be a farmer in the morning and a critic in the afternoon, but I don't think I can be a physician in the morning and a computer systems engineer in the afternoon. As our technology grows more advanced, the sheer scale of just the technical knowledge necessary to maintain our civilization argues for more specialization.

One problem that I see on the left is a confusion between means and ends. We have all of these social and ideological tools, and the capitalist ruling class operates these tools for its own ends. But is the fault in the tool or the wielder? Sometimes the former is true: one tool, the democratic republic with its trustee representatives, seems fit directly to reproduce capitalist power. But others I am not so sure about. An independent judiciary, for example, seems to have potential to help a socialist society legitimize socialism just as it legitimized the Roman slave state, feudalism, and monarchism.

Indeed, I find the call to smash every institution that capitalism has ever employed to be egregious utopianism. Any socialist society will inherit capitalist institutions, and to smash them all and start at year zero seems a hubristic belief that we can transcend the dialectical development of society. By all means, examine the each institution carefully and critically. Subject every institution to a revolutionary dialectic. We must avoid simply replacing the name of the capitalist class while preserving its fundamental nature. But throw everything out, and start with the fantasies of an "ideal" society held by a handful of authorities? I think not. Such a fantasy is not only undesirable, but impossible.

Bureaucracy is unfortunately named, because it includes the "-cracy" suffix, meaning "rule of". Certainly, I think a bureaucracy should not rule. But can a democratic working class use a bureaucracy to rule more effectively? I see no reason why not. Bureaucracy is the tool that the capitalist class has used to subordinate the professional-managerial class to its will, and employ them effectively. There seems no particular reason why the working class cannot similarly employ the professional class, even as the professional class is proletarianized (in a good way).

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