0spinboson's Reviews > Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination

Revolutions in Reverse by David Graeber
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Dec 04, 11

Read from November 26 to 28, 2011

In Revolutions in Reverse, David Graeber explores the relationship between state violence, ideology, the apparent worldwide failure to imagine alternatives to the way in which capitalism is currently developing, the crises of representation that are affecting most 'mature' democracies (or should I say economies?), and the debt crisis we currently find ourselves in. In other words, he explores the relationship between the above-mentioned crises and our mental conceptions of the world. But, differing from most theorists, he he thinks sharing goals far more important than sharing a theoretical background and assessment of what the world is like. And, interestingly, he explores this question not as a largely detached observer (me), but as a member of some of the movements I mentioned above. And because of this, the essays have a very fresh and accessible feel to them.

The collection revolves around the question "What does revolution mean once one no longer expects a single, cataclysmic break with past structures of oppression?" As Graeber points out, revolutions have never happened 'magically', and neither were the revolutions themselves (which have almost always failed) ever instrumental in producing the kind of wide-scale social change that we tend to associate with the word 'revolution.' But this is not to say that those 'failed' revolutions were ineffective, because they often did bring about important changes. As such, he suggests that if we want to bring about change, we need to stop focusing on the question how to bring about some kind of "revolutionary moment," and rather, focus on the question how we might create the broader social movements that those revolutions might (or might not) emerge out of, but which at least stand a chance of changing public discourse.

In his exploration of these issues, what he shows more than anything is how useful it can be to (for a time) try to forget how you would normally think about a situation, and to simply take seriously what it is that you see happening around you. (And, conversely, how strongly misguided beliefs about how we should understand the world can keep us from understanding it better.) Because many of the things he describes are of the 'hiding in plain sight' variety, hidden from view thanks to their utter banality, rather than because of their extreme 'theoretical subtlety.'

What I personally found most interesting about the book, are the following two things. First, the way in which it further confirms a point that has been made repeatedly by Bruno Latour: namely, that theory and abstraction are useful only insofar as they can be related to practice, and to events in the world, and that ignoring reality because your theory tells you it is acceptable to do so is dangerous. This does not mean that practice trumps theory, but rather that theory ignores the intricacies of actual practices only at its own peril, since it is only in practice that theory can prove its usefulness. And secondly, the story it tells about the interaction between violence and the imagination.
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Quotes 0spinboson Liked

David Graeber
“Political economy tends to see work in capitalist societies as divided between two spheres: wage labor, for which the paradigm is always factories, and domestic labor – housework, childcare – relegated mainly to women. The first is seen primarily as a matter of creating and maintaining physical objects. The second is probably best seen as a matter of creating and maintaining people and social relations.
[...] This makes it easier to see the two as fundamentally different sorts of activity, making it hard for us to recognize interpretive labor, for example, or most of what we usually think of as women’s work, as labor at all. To my mind it would probably be better to recognize it as the primary form of labor. Insofar as a clear distinction can be made here, it’s the care, energy, and labor directed at human beings that should be considered fundamental. The things we care most about – our loves, passions, rivalries, obsessions – are always other people; and in most societies that are not capitalist, it’s taken for granted that the manufacture of material goods is a subordinate moment in a larger process of fashioning people. In fact, I would argue that one of the most alienating aspects of capitalism is the fact that it forces us to pretend that it is the other way around, and that societies exist primarily to increase their output of things.”
David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination

David Graeber
“But in the years since the neoliberal project really has been stripped down to what was always its essence: not an economic project at all, but a political project, designed to devastate the imagination, and willing – with it’s cumbersome securitization and insane military projects – to destroy the capitalist order itself if that’s what it took to make it seem inevitable.”
David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination
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David Graeber
“What it mainly revealed was that one of the most insidious of the “hidden injuries of class” in North American society was the denial of the right to do good, to be noble, to pursue any form of value other than money – or, at least, to do it and to gain any financial security or rewards for having done. The passionate hatred of the “liberal elite” among right-wing populists came down, in practice, to the utterly justified resentment towards a class that had sequestered, for its own children, every opportunity to pursue love, truth, beauty, honor, decency, and to be afforded the means to exist while doing so. The endless identification with soldiers (“support our troops!) – that is, with individuals who have, over the years, been reduced to little more than high tech mercenaries enforcing of a global regime of financial capital – lay in the fact that these are almost the only individuals of working class origin in the US who have figured out a way to get paid for pursuing some kind of higher ideal, or at least being able to imagine that’s what they’re doing. Obviously most would prefer to pursue higher ideals in way that did not involve the risk of having their legs blown off. The sense of rage, in fact, stems above all from the knowledge that all such jobs are taken by children of the rich.”
David Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination


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