On Real Conversations

One of the wonderful things about East Bay Booksellers is that the books they put on display by the cash register tend to be small press gems rather than those books you buy as a gift because they’re “cute” that no one ever reads.

Case in point: a book called Anarchy—In a Manner of Speaking, which is a set of conversations by the late (and great) David Graeber with Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Nika Dubrovsky, and Assia Turquier-Zauberman.

I was in the store picking up something else, saw it for the third time, and decided I needed to have it. I came home and started reading and bam! There on the second page was something that I needed to know, even though I hadn’t realized it: the importance of dialogue — real dialogue — among people in both understanding the world and creating better systems.

Graeber ties anarchist practice to dialogue, in particular “a certain principle of dialogue.” He explains:

[T]here’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.

That alone connected two discrete parts of my life: developing co-ops and training in Aikido. In both of those activities, it is vital to have that kind of dialogue to accomplish anything.

In Aikido, of course, we have that dialogue physically, but it is the same thing. Your partner attacks and you have an exchange that will resolve the situation. If you handle it well, the situation shifts without harm to either party.

I’ve found over the years that bullying people until they agree to your point of view never works. Even if you get agreement in the short term, there’s a good chance of losing it. In Aikido, if you try to force a solution, you’re not going to get anywhere.

Continue reading “On Real Conversations”

Another Take on Eden

In 1968, I took a seminar in political science from Professor Elliot Zashin, who held a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley and was considered something of a firebrand on the University of Texas campus.

He announced at the beginning of the term that this class was to be student-run. In practice, that meant that each of us put together a project or presentation for class.

There was the one where we all decamped for the day to someone’s house in Blanco and ended up divided into several cabals. (I no longer recall what we intended to accomplish.) My cabal decided that we needed to stay overnight and, since we had a mechanically inclined member, tried to enforce our position by removing the rotor cap from cars belonging to other members.

This led to someone storming out and then storming back in to demand that their car be returned to operating order, a demand we complied with, given the level of rage. It was still funny.

But I digress. The story from that class I want to tell is the one about our final exam.

A few days before finals, Elliot announced that we had been goofing off too much and that therefore we would have a final exam. We were, to put it mildly, outraged.

For one thing, we really hadn’t been goofing off. For another, this idea contradicted the entire spirit of the class. Some of us got together to rant and, eventually, to organize a protest. (Remember, this was 1968.)

We showed up on the appointed day, ready to declare our opposition to the exam. I’m sure I said something about the unfairness of the situation. My friend John Logue said something that I’m sure was very rational. (John was always very rational.)

But the only argument I remember from that day was from a guy whose name was, I think, Steve Shankman. He waxed quite eloquent, eventually excoriating Elliot for the failure of his “Harvard-Berkeley ideas.”

Elliot remained unmoved. He passed out the exam paper. It was one sheet of paper on which, in the middle of the page, had been mimeographed this quote:

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau

There were no instructions. Continue reading “Another Take on Eden”

Making Things Different

The ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it is something that we make and could just as easily make differently.

— David Graeber

This is important. This is why I’ve been reading economics. I’m trying to understand the difference between our assumptions of how things work and what the actual constraints are. There are some limits on how we can make the world, but they’re rooted in the basic laws of physics and biology — neither of which we completely understand.

From my study, I’ve begun to understand that most of the rules of economics that are currently in use are built on faulty assumptions. If we toss out those assumptions and build on ideas that are much closer to actual reality, we can, as Graeber said, make a different and better world.

Living things die. Even if we discover more and better ways to extend life, living things will still die. I don’t think we’re going to get around that one. I’m not even sure we should, despite the fact that I would still like to live forever because I want to know what happens next.

But there are environments that are good for living things, ones that are bad, and some that are toxic. To apply Graeber’s thinking here: we have allowed systems that put people in bad and toxic environments for the financial benefit of a few. We do not have to do that. If all living things die, we can’t prevent that, but we can prevent them from dying prematurely of illnesses brought on by toxic environments.

A recent study points out that four million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution brought on by making things for the consumption-oriented wealthy countries.

Many of those people are elderly and have health conditions aggravated by particle pollution, but that doesn’t mean their lives weren’t valuable. Also, while the study doesn’t mention it, I suspect many of the health conditions were caused by the air pollution in the first place.

We can build a world in which healthy lives for all is more important than profit and the assumption that those with money can do whatever they want. That, of course, means a potent environmental protection program. Continue reading “Making Things Different”

Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars

Editor’s Note: I decided to update another post I wrote several years back about the work of David Graeber.

The Utopia of RulesDavid Graeber has a different – and delightful – explanation for why we don’t have flying cars, not to mention Moon colonies and the other futuristic advances we were promised in the 1950s and 60s.

In a word: bureaucracy. Not just the usual kind that we all suffer with on a regular basis, though that’s part of it, but a more intentional kind. Graeber’s theory, set out in his delightful book The Utopia of Rules, is:

There appears to have been a profound shift, beginning in the 1970s, from investment in technologies associated with the possibility of alternative futures to investment [in] technologies that furthered labor discipline and social control.

He rejects the argument that the future we were expecting was unrealistic in favor of one finding an intentional effort to derail the imaginative futures thought up by creative types ranging from Gene Roddenberry to Larry Niven.

And he concludes that one of the results of this shift has been to move science fiction more fully into a “pure fantasy” niche:

Science fiction has now become just another set of costumes in which one can dress up a Western, a war movie, a horror flick, a spy thriller, or just a fairy tale.

Continue reading “Why We Don’t Have Flying Cars”

David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution

David GraeberThe anthropologist and anarchist activist David Graeber died September 2 at the age of 59. For those  of us who loved the way his books and essays opened up our minds and made us look at the world in a different way, his death was a terrible loss.

Fortunately, he had recently finished a book co-written with David Wengrew, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, which will be out next year.

A few years back, I wrote an appreciation of his book Bullshit Jobs, so I’m sharing a slightly revised version of that here.

My favorite passage from Bullshit Jobs comes in Graeber’s description of normal human work patterns:

[M]ost people who have ever existed have assumed that normal human work patterns take the form of periodic intense bursts of energy, followed by relaxation, followed by slowly picking up again toward another intense bout.

Graeber, who was a professor, goes on to note that this is the “traditional student’s pattern of lackadaisical study leading up to intense cramming before exams and then slacking off again” — a pattern he calls “punctuated hysteria” – and argues that this is what humans do if allowed to follow their own devices. Continue reading “David Graeber: May His Memory Be a Revolution”