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An Anarchist on Stagnation

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David Graeber, the anarchist, anthropologist, author, academic and architect (well, one of them) of Occupy Wall Street, has written a long and wandering essay in The Baffler on a subject closer to the right than to the left: technological stagnation. Remarkably, Graeber's take on this subject begins at the same emotional place as libertarian Peter Thiel and economist and amateur foodie Tyler Cowen, who started the debate off with his e-book, The Great Stagnation. All three men harken nostalgically back to the '60s and the sense of technological optimism fueled by the Space Race and the flowering of science fiction. For Cowen and Thiel, that age embodies a time when engineers and inventors were celebrated and where technological possibilities were rife. Both men believe that we have somehow fallen since then, that the low-hanging fruit has been plucked and that we have lost the interest and zeal in pushing the technological envelope. Either that, or we're in some technological slump; that is, it's not us, it's the technologies.

Graeber shares that sense of loss, though his thesis of what happened and why is far more convoluted, not to say confused, than their speculations. (Let it be said, by the way, that the stagnation thesis is just that -- a thesis. As we live the history, it's next to impossible to prove. And given the mysteries of innovation, invention, creativity and technological advance, we have no idea what tomorrow will bring, or whether this thesis will seem in the future like some symptom of post-millennial anxiety, like the Sputnik hysteria of the '50s.) Graeber, who wears his heart on his sleeve, seems personally affronted that the world he imagined -- that he believes was foisted upon him by "an adult world" -- never came fully true. He begins the essay in a characteristically qualifying way: "A secret question hovers above us, a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like." This wasn't the kind of promise, he says, most children get about adulthood, but a set of assumptions." And since it was never quite promised, now that it has failed to come true, we're left confused: indignant, but at the same time, embarrassed at our own indignation, ashamed we were ever so silly to believe our elders to begin with.

"Where, in short, are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars?"

Let's pause for a second. First, who are "we"? I lived through this same period. I watched Star Trek, The Jetsons and Walter Cronkite's moon shots, and I read a lot of science fiction. I never expected to see most of those technologies in my lifetime. They were fictions, and in some cases, like Star Trek, cast far into the future. (I also haven't spent a lot of time blaming grownups from my youth for my adult life, but whatever.) Second, is Graeber kidding? At first reading, I thought so. But like a toothache, he keeps returning to these fantasy technologies from the '60s as if to indict someone -- the neoliberal system? -- for failing to deliver them. He also drags in everything but the kitchen sink, going so far as to argue that "the postmodern moment," that passing fancy of academics that suggests, as he says, that we live in an "historical period in which we understood that nothing is new ... that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation and pastiche" was "a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and dress it up as something epochal, exciting and new." Really? This still fails to answer the question: Does Graeber think teleportation, Mars trips or robot-run factories were ever right around the corner? (Time travel, it's true, has been a personal disappointment, despite "Back to the Future.")

Graeber takes that vague sense of loss and erects a theory. Not surprising, it resembles most of his other political thinking, some of which informs his recent book Debt: The First 2,000 Years, particularly his controversial Chapter 12 when he leaves anthropology and explains what all this means for us now. Mostly this involves a critique of neoliberal economics and politics. Just try to follow his argument here, which wanders back and forth in time, which regularly changes terms and which offers a steady flow of statements that are both debatable and lacking in evidence or proof (the Soviet Union in the '80s had big plans to solve world hunger; by the '70s, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities; "there isn't much to be learned from sequencing genes that's of much use to any of us"; and "there was a last spate [of real technological innovation] in the fifties when microwave ovens (1954), the Pill (1957) and lasers (1958) all appeared"). This goes on and on. He mostly ignores the single most important technological innovation, the semiconductor and its progeny; he also passes on molecular biology. Even as he sees the failure of men "to move faster" as a real break with history, he says nothing about the exponential advances of Moore's law. (He dismisses the Internet as "a combination library, post office and mail-order catalogue.") In short, he seems not only to feel personally crushed that "his" innovation doesn't happen more easily -- what happened to curing cancer? -- but he is convinced that the failure lies not within us, but within the neoliberal system. In short (and nothing here is brief or mentioned just once), it's a scheme of subjugation through bureaucracy.

Much of this is confusing. One would think that Graeber would reject replacing workers with robots or pouring funds into weaponry. You would think this advocate for restoring the ancestral lands of exploited peoples would fear technology and the gospel of progress. But he keeps returning to our failure to develop death rays and phasers; he also seems not to realize how much the Space Race and the technologies of the '50s and '60s rose from the military: Microwave ovens were a direct product of the World War II radar project. Again, perhaps he is joking. But his robot fixation isn't a joke. He can't understand why we don't have factories run by robots, thus freeing American workers -- for what? -- and not exploiting workers in emerging markets, who could do whatever they would do otherwise. Instead, he veers into semi-Marxist economics, with a brief visit with that great mind of the '70s, Alvin Toffler, and his hyperventilating successor, George Gilder, and finally comes to a momentary rest with a single statement: "Mechanization's effect is to drive down the general rate of profit." He then quickly follows with a qualification -- "For 150 years economists have debated whether this is true" -- which he then brushes aside to explain everything as a function of the "declining rate of profit." A number of paragraphs later, he admits: "Of course this doesn't explain everything." What does?

It's quite evident, certainly from Debt: The First 2,000 Years, that Graeber is very bright and very facile. It's also evident that he's sloppy, self-involved and deeply tendentious. He is happiest in the world of great abstractions, upon which he then hangs his "facts" like Christmas balls. In Debt, he seems most comfortable speculating about the early days of money and barter; as he approaches the present, he grows overheated and mechanistically (even robotically) doctrinaire. Recall the ubiquitous "we." His experience is our experience -- for an anarchist, he's a kind of intellectual bully. The stagnation thesis is interesting; at the very least it forces us to revisit and question how we attempt to further exploit nature and how this process, innovation, really occurs. But to base it all on a feeling of disappointment, based on childhood fantasies, is a bit rich.

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