A reader pointed me to a fascinating article by David Graeber in a 2006 issue of Critique of Anthropology(available on the web). He examines the “naturalization” of capitalism that has developed even within Marxist theory, partly under the pressure from world-system analysis. Capitalism is seen by many not as a contingent organization of production and distribution but as the secret reality of economic life from time immemorial. Graeber notes, “Wallerstein argued that almost all our familiar categories of analysis – class, state, household and so on – are really only meaningful within the existing capitalist world-system, then presumably entirely new terms would have to be invented to look at other ones. If so, then what did different world systems have in common? What was the basis for comparison?”
From this it was a “short hop to arguing that we are not dealing with terms of comparison at all, but different functions that one would expect to find in any complex social order. This was the move taken by the ‘Continuationists’ . . . who argue that, just as any complex society will still have families (‘kinship’), they will also tend to have some sort of government, which means taxes (‘tribute’) and some sort of market system (‘capitalism’). Having done this, it’s easy enough to argue that the very project of comparison is pointless. In fact, there is only one world system.”
Graeber wants to rehabilitate and transform previous notions of “modes of production” and, necessarily, typical notions of “materialism.”
His first thesis, thus, is: “The key mistake of the mode of production model was to define ‘production’ simply as the production of material objects; any adequate theory of ‘production’ would have to give at least equal place to the production of people and social relations.” Theories of modes of production are weak because “they begin from a very naive sort of materialism. ‘Material production’ is assumed to be the production of valuable material objects like food, clothing or gold bullion; all the important business of life is assumed to be moving such objects around and transferring them from one person or class to another.” What is missing in this sort of analysis is the formation of social relations that always accompanies production of things. In addition to goods, mode of production analysis should be “examining relations of service, domestic arrangements, educational practices” just as much as “wheat harvests and the flow of trade.”
Production of people, he argues, is what we ultimately care about. The production of more wealth “has no meaning except as a medium for the growth and self-realization of human beings.” He expands the point this way: ”when value is about the production of people, it is always entirely implicated in processes of transformation: families are created, grow and break apart; people are born, mature, reproduce, grow old and die. They are constantly being socialized, trained, educated, mentored towards new roles – a process which is not limited to childhood but lasts until death; they are constantly being attended to and cared for. This is what human life is mainly about; what most people have always spent most of their time worrying about; what our passions, obsessions, loves and intrigues tend to center on; what great novelists and playwrights become famous for describing; what poetry and myth struggle to come to terms with; but which most economic and political theory essentially makes disappear.”
Why do these factors disappear in economic and political anlaysis? Graeber suggests that “Value tends to be realized in a more public, or anyway political, and hence universalized domain than the domestic one in which it is (largely) created; that sphere is usually treated as if it is to some degree transcendent, that is, as floating above and unaffected by the mundane details of human life (the special domain of women), having to do with timeless verities, eternal principles, absolute power – in a word, of something very like idealist abstractions.” A more genuine materialism, he argues “would not simply privilege a ‘material’ sphere over an ideal one,” as many Marxists analyses do with their talk of sub- and super-structure. Rather, a thoroughgoing materialism “would begin by acknowledging that no such ideal sphere actually exists.” Ideas and physical actions are involved not only in the production of objects and goods but in all the “superstructural” activities of art, scholarship, and intellectual life.
Graeber implies that many Marxist analysis remain too dependent on modern social structures, especially the structural separation of the domestic sphere of people-production and the economic sphere of goods-production. The idealism inherent in some versions of Marxist materialism is also dependent on social formations: “The point though is that symbolic distinctions between high and low [material and ideal] do not come from some pre-existing ‘symbolic system’; they are continually constructed in action, and the work of doing so is done disproportionately by those who are effectively defining themselves as lower.”
He describes the dehumanizing effects of this system this way: “The labor of creating and maintaining people and social relations (and people are, in large measure, simply the internalized accretion of their relations with others) ends up being relegated, at least tacitly, to the domain of nature – it becomes a matter of demographics or ‘reproduction’– and the creation of valuable physical objects becomes the be-all and end all of human existence.”
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 3:02 pm
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