Tuesday, May 15th, 2012

On of the better points from David Graeber:

Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by exactly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches. The latter seems most likely in aristocratic societies that add another element: war and plunder. After all, just about anyone who comes into a very large amount of wealth will ultimately give at least part of it away – often in grandiose and spectacular ways to large numbers of people. The more one’s wealth is obtained by plunder or extortion, the more spectacular and self-aggrandizing will be the forms in which it is given away. And what is true of warrior aristocracies is all the more true of ancient states, where rulers almost invariably represented themselves as protectors of the helpless, supporters of widows and orphans, and champions of the poor. The genealogy of the modern redistributive state – with its notorious tendency to foster identity politics – can be traced back not to any sort of “primitive communism” but ultimately to violence and war (Debt, p. 113).


This is as common as it’s problematic. A child owes a debt to society (and its parents, who are part of this society) for having raised it, educated, fed and kept it healthy. A prisoner must pay his or her debt to society for something a society has deemed wrong. An activist may become involved in, say, removing graffitti as a civic duty, a debt partially paid to one’s society. In the end this debt can never be repaid fully, so we keep on paying it – in taxes, volunteer work, voting, doing one’s bit for the good of society, or even making it better.

But what is this ‘society’? As Graeber points out in a good point in an otherwise increasingly problematic work, I certainly don’t think of what I do as part of my responsibility to Sweden or North Korea. What I really mean is the nation of Australia, a neatly contained and artificial demarcation. And that nation is maintained by a problematic ideology, odious rituals, border controls, indigenous sublimation, passports, patterns of inclusion and exclusion (only those with permission may avail themselves of medicare and so on).

Actually, I’d rather overthrow such a society. In that light, I’m all for social breakdown.