David Graeber v. Nicholas Taleb on Political Economy

Here is anarchist anthropologist David Graeber on hierarchy in capitalism and how anthropological value theory can demystify its operations (from his essay, “TURNING MODES OF PRODUCTION INSIDE OUT: OR, WHY CAPITALISM IS A TRANSFORMATION OF SLAVERY”):

What I especially want to stress here though is that, 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 to disappear.

Why? It seems to happen, at least in part, because of the very mechanics of value realization. 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 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. Most anthropological value analyses end up tracing out something of the sort: so Kayapo value tokens end up embodying the abstract value of “beauty”, a profound higher unity and completion especially embodied in perfect performances and communal ritual (Turner 1987 etc.); people practicing kula exchange seek “fame” (Munn 1986); Berbers of the Morroccan Rif, with their complex exchanges of gifts and blood-feud, pursue the values of honor and baraka, or divine grace (Jamous 1981) and so on. All of these are principles which, even when they are not identified with superhuman powers like gods or ancestors, even when they are not seen as literally transcendental principles, are seen as standing above and symbolically opposed to the messiness of ordinary human life and transformation. The same is usually true of the most valued objects, whose power to enchant and attract usually comes from the fact that they are represent frozen processes; if one conducts a sufficiently subtle analysis, one tends to discover that the objects that are the ultimate stakes of some field of human endeavor are, in fact, symbolic templates which compress into themselves those patterns of human action which create them.

It seems to me that even beyond the labor that constantly creating and reshaping human beings, a key unacknowledged, form of labor in human societies is precisely that which creates and maintains that illusion of transcendence. In most, both are performed overwhelmingly by women. A nice way to illustrate what I’m talking about here might be to consider the phenomenon of mourning. Rarely do the political careers of important individuals ends in death. Often political figure, as ancestors, martyrs, founders of institutions, can be far more important after their death than when they were alive. Mourning, and other acts of memorialization, could then be seen as an essential part of the labor of people-making—with the fact that the dead person is no longer himself playing an active role simply underlining how much of the work of making and maintaining a career is always done by others. Even the most cursory glance at the literature shows that the burden of such labor, here, tends to be very unevenly distributed. This is in fact especially true of the most dramatic forms—cutting off one’s hair, self-mutilation, fasting, wearing drab clothes, or sackcloth and ashes, or whatever is considered the culturally appropriate way to make oneself an embodiment of grief, as, essentially, negating oneself to express anguish over the loss of another. Social subordinates mourn their superiors and not the other way around. And pretty much everywhere, the burden of mourning falls disproportionately, and usually overwhelmingly, on women. In many parts of the world, women of a certain age are expected to exist largely as living memorials to some dead male: whether it be Hindu widows who must renounce all the tastiest foods, or Catholic women in the rural Mediterranean who are likely to spend at least half their lives wearing black. Needless to say these women almost never receive the same recognition when they die, and least of all from men.

The point though is that symbolic distinctions between high and low do not come from some pre-existing “symbolic system”, they are continually constructed in action, and the work of doing so is done disproportionally by those who are effectively defining themselves as lower. So with mourning. As Bloch and Parry (1982) have emphasized, mourning is also about creating dramatic contrasts between what is considered truly permanent, and everything that is corporeal, transitory, afflicted with the possibility of grief and pain, subject to corruption and decay. Mourners when they cover themselves in dirt or ashes, or engage in other practices of the negation of the self which seem surprisingly similar across cultures, are also making themselves the embodiment of the transitory, bodily sphere as against another, transcendental one which is in fact created in large part through their doing so. The dead themselves have become spirits, they are ethereal beings or bodiless abstractions, or perhaps they are embodied in permanent monuments like tombs or beautiful heirlooms, or buildings left in their memory—usually, in fact, it’s a bit of both—but it’s the actions of the mourners, mainly by the dramatic negation of their own bodies and pleasures, that constantly recreate that extremely hierarchical contrast between pure and impure, higher and lower, heaven and earth.

It is sometimes said that the central notion of modernism is that human beings are projects of self-creation. What I am arguing here is that we are indeed processes of creation, but that most of the creation is normally carried out by others. I am also arguing that almost all the most intense desires, passions, commitments, and experiences in most people’s lives—family dramas, sexual intrigue, educational accomplishment, honor and public recognition, one’s hope for one’s children and grandchildren, one’s dreams of posterity after one is dead—have revolved precisely around these processes of the mutual creation of human beings, but that the mechanics of value creation tend to disguise this by positing some higher sphere, where of economic values, or idealist abstractions. This is essential to the nature of hierarchy (Graeber 1997) and the more hierarchical the society, the more this tends to happen. Finally, I am suggesting that it is precisely these mechanisms that make it possible for historians and social scientists to create such odd simplifications of human life and human motivations. 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.”

And here is statistician Nicholas Taleb (from this excerpt of Skin in the Game) offering what he calls a “more rigorous” definition of inequality, which when applied to the contemporary US population, shows relatively high “dynamic” equality:

There is a class often called the Mandarins, after the fictional memoirs of the French author Simone de Beauvoir, named after the scholars of the Ming dynasty that gave their name to the high Chinese language. I have always been aware of its existence, but its salient —and pernicious –attribute came to me while observing the reactions to the works by the French economist Thomas Pikkety.

Pikkety followed Karl Marx by writing an ambitious book on Capital. I received the book as a gift when it was still in French (and unknown outside France) because I found it commendable that people publish their original, nonmathematical work in social science in book format. The book, Capital in the 21st Century, made aggressive claims about the alarming rise of inequality, added to a theory of why capital tended to command too much return in relation to labor and how absence of redistribution and dispossession would make the world collapse. The theory about the increase in the return of capital in relation to labor was patently wrong, as anyone who has witnessed the rise of what is called the “knowledge economy” (or anyone who has had investments in general) knows. But there was something far, far more severe than a scholar being wrong.

Soon, I discovered that the methods he used were flawed: Picketty’s tools did not show what he purported about the rise in inequality. I soon wrote two articles, one in collaboration with Raphael Douady that we published in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Applications, about the measure of inequality that consists in taking the ownership of, say the top 1% and monitoring its variations. The flaw is that if you take the inequality thus measured in Europe as a whole, you will find it is higher than the average inequality across component countries; the bias increases in severity with extreme processes. The same defect applied to the way inequality researchers used a measure called Gini coefficient, and I wrote another paper on that. All in all, the papers had enough theorems and proofs, to make them about as ironclad a piece of work one can have in science; I insisted on putting the results in theorem form because someone cannot contest a formally proved theorem without putting in question his own understanding of mathematics.

The reason these errors were not known was because economists who worked with inequality were not familiar with… inequality. Inequality is the disproportion of the role of the tail—rich people were in the tails of the distribution.[2] The more inequality in the system, the more the winner-take-all effect, the more we depart from the methods of tin-tailed Mediocristan in which economists were trained. Recall that the wealth process is dominated by winner-take-all effects, the type described in The Black Swan. Any form of control of the wealth process—typically instigated by bureaucrats—tended to lock people with privileges in their state of entitlement. So the solution was to allow the system to destroy the strong, something that worked best in the United States.

The problem is never the problem; it is how people handle it. What was worse than the Piketty flaws was the discovery of how that Mandarin class operates. They got so excited by the rise of inequality that their actions were like fake news. Economists completely ignored my results—and when they didn’t, it was to declare that I was “arrogant” (recall that the strategy of using theorems is that they can’t say I was wrong, so they resorted to “arrogant” which is a form of scientific compliment). Even Paul Krugman who had written “if you think you’ve found an obvious hole, empirical or logical, in Piketty, you’re very probably wrong. He’s done his homework!”[iv], when I pointed out the flaw to him, when I met him in person, evaded it –not necessarily by meanness but most likely because probability and combinatorics eluded him, by his own admission.

Now consider that the likes of Krugman and Piketty have no downside in their existence—lowering inequality brings them up in the ladder of life. Unless the university system or the French state go bust, they will continue receiving their paycheck. Donald Trump is exposed to the risk of ending having his meals in a soup kitchen; not them.

Further, the envy-driven feelings that usually—as we saw in the works of Williams and Lamont—do not originate from the impoverished classes, concerned with the betterment of their condition, but with that of the clerical class. Simply, it looks like it is the university professors (who have arrived) and people who have permanent stability of income, in the form of tenure, governmental or academic, who bought heavily in the argument. From the conversations, I became convinced that these people who counterfactual upwards (i.e. compare themselves to those richer) wanted to actively dispossess the rich. As will all communist movements, it is often the bourgeois or clerical classes that buy first into the argument.

I doubt Piketty asked blue-collar Frenchmen what they want, as Lamont did. I am certain that they would ask for a new dishwasher, or faster train for their commute, not to bring down some rich businessman invisible to them. Envy does not work long distance, or across so many social classes. But, again, people can frame questions and portray enrichment as theft, as it was before the French Revolution, in which case the blue-collar class would ask, once again, for heads to roll.

I offer them for side-by-side comparison to highlight their divergence on the most pressing problem of political economy today (=inequality). [These two once had it out on Twitter.]

To define inequality one has to first offer, implicitly or explicitly, a metaphysics of value. Both Graeber and Taleb are passing metaphysical value judgments on the present state of our global economy in the above excerpts. Graeber foregrounds the values of anthropoiesis (human-making; i.e., values manifesting through child-rearing, housekeeping, cooking, educating, mourning, etc.), while Taleb foregrounds the values of chrematistics (money-making; i.e., value as symbolic wealth accumulation). Taleb tries to out-resent the “intellectual yet idiot” professional class (a class he includes Graeber, professor at the London School of Economics, in) for its communistic resentment of the capitalist values apparently shared by blue-collar workers and “self-made” millionaires like him.

Graeber tries to articulate an axiology rooted in social bonds and kin relations, while Taleb seems to champion a Nietzschean version of the myth of individual self-creation. Both approaches are anthropocentric (though Graeber has elsewhere shown signs of accepting a more panpsychist origin of value), but still, each should be part of a more inclusive cosmological scheme. I think Whitehead’s scheme brings together the best of both socialist-relationalist and individualist-atomist ontologies.

If we continue to let chrematistics rule the world, if we continue to believe in the “free-market” God of capitalism, not only will the value of anthropoiesis continue to be exploited and externalized, the entire biosphere will be eradicated. “Communism” isn’t the answer. But our cultural and natural ecologies of value cannot continue to be monopolized by capital, either. Money is not the measure of all things. Value originates closer to home. Perhaps it is time for the Left to reclaim “family values” just as boldly as it has claimed environmentalism.

One Reply to “David Graeber v. Nicholas Taleb on Political Economy”

  1. …And I am not citing this as a nod towards identity politics, rather an archetypal transparency. Feminist theory I find invaluable to the emerging ontology that sees Whitehead as intrinsic to the integral wholeness of a home planet like ours… the proverbial boat that one crosses the river waters in, but does not continue to lug around after one reaches the sands of an opposite shore. …
    “Whiteheadian feminist Catherine Keller has applied the doctrine of internal relations to the patriarchal problem of separate and soluble selves. The separate self is the illusion that persons are discrete, disconnected, autonomous selves (for example, the “self-made man”). The soluble self is the stereotypical role of women in patriarchy which binds and dissolves women into the role of relationship makers and keepers. Whitehead’ s doctrine of internal relations provides a conceptuality for relational selfhood which arises from a multitude of relationships (indeed, the person herself is a society). Keller has argued that this conceptuality affirms both relationality and selfhood while eliminating the dualistic choice between soluble selfhood and separate selfhood.2″ http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2743

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