James Meadway: Acting as if one is Already Free: David Graeber’s Political Economy and the Strategic Impasse of the Left

Salvage, February 12, 2021

David Graeber’s death, far too young, produced an outpouring of grief across the global Left. Approaching the last quarter of a long, bleak year, with few prospects of dramatic improvements ahead, the loss of Graeber’s optimism not only of the will, but of the intellect, was a body blow, particularly perhaps for those politically shaped by the last decade in Britain, from the student movement of late 2010, to the crashing defeat of the 2019 election. Long-time activist Seth Wheeler recently made the case for the impact of the student movement, and autonomist thinking within it, on Corbynism. But, he explains, the fundamental tensions between being ‘in’ and ‘against’ the state were never resolved therein – or even, I would add, addressed, beyond acknowledging that they must exist.

It is here that I think Graeber’s work is most valuable. I want to explore those parts of his thinking critically important to developing a Left that is post-Corbyn, post-Sanders, post-populism in general – but still in the first phase of an epochal pandemic. Particularly in the wake of Joe Biden’s electoral success in the US, in the wake of electoral defeat for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and selectoral defeat for Bernie Sanders, a new argument about strategy and tactics is beginning to play out in the English-speaking Left. This debate has only just begun to grapple with what capitalism portends in a world of environmental decay. But the questions Graeber foregrounded, most notably on political economy, can provide important signposts. I don’t claim that this is the only reading possible of Graeber’s work. But I do argue that the questions therein, and at least some of his answers, should be more central to the Left.

The peculiarity is this. Graeber’s work – as an activist, in his writing and his lectures – has been highly prized on the left. But in recent years, at least in Britain, it could feel detached from the main currents of left intellectual influence. David was not aloof: quite the opposite. But he and the Left often seemed to be speaking different languages. Probably his most celebrated work – Debt: The First 5,000 Years – remains widely read and discussed, but neither its account of human history, nor its analytical techniques, nor conclusions have had much immediate impact on what the Left – certainly the majority current around Corbynism in Britain – thinks or does. His call for a ‘jubilee’, a wiping out of debts, never found favour with the leader’s office under Jeremy Corbyn, and played no part in the 2017 or 2019 Labour Party manifestos, despite Jeremy himself occasionally hinting at a sympathetic view. Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs was a best-seller, but its critique of modern work has only just begun to impact conventional leftist politics. The same goes for his major ‘theoretical’ work, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value – a more academic, but richly insightful, work. His insights should offer critical guidance to the Left, in today’s bleak political context. Beyond simple intellectual provocation, or even Graeber’s engaging style, there is a consistency to his thinking and engagement which deserves more than dismissal as, in the words of one reviewer, ‘5,000 years of anecdotes’. They create a standpoint on which to rethink the Left’s political economy in the light of environmental decay and the end of actually existing neoliberalism.

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