Technology, Fantasy, and Reality: On Graeber’s piece in the Baffler

Published 23 April 2012.

I don’t know if you caught this, but David Graeber has a piece out in Baffler #19 (this is a literary magazine — it’s the brainchild of Thomas Frank, who ought to be familiar to some of you).  Graeber is famous for doing an ethnography of protesters titled “Direct Action: An Ethnography.”  His piece in the Baffler is titled “Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,” and it’s got some really interesting observations about the future, and about why the science fiction futures we once imagined did not come, and are not coming, to pass.

Graeber starts out with the question of why the future imagined in the cartoon series “The Jetsons” did not come to pass.  Those of you who are old enough to remember “The Jetsons” will know to what I refer — for the rest of you, I humbly leave this YouTube video:

So why no flying cars and all that?  Back in the era of the original Star Trek series we were to imagine that the dizzying upward spiral of technological progress would lead us to a co-operative, interstellar society in which people transported instantaneously from place to place?

But none of these futures looks anything like anything more than an idle fantasy today.  Instead of a future in which machines did everything, what developed as the last century ended was outsourcing and cheap labor.  Star Trek was shifted to some sort of alternate universe in which people could go back in time to change infinitely-malleable plots.  (Yeah, I saw the last movie.)  Technology progressed toward a future of “surveillance, work discipline, and social control” (75).  So what happened?  Graeber concluded that the answer lies in our current system of political economy, neoliberalism:

With results like these, what will the epitaph for neoliberalism look like?  I think historians will conclude it was a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones.  Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would trasform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time. (75)

Neoliberalism, then, channeled the direction of technological progress in a way which was economically conservative.  Many of my more recent diaries here at DKos (the one about Obama, certainly, but also the piece about the JOBS Act and the one about saving capitalism and about an old Anthony Giddens book), are speculations about why our politics has grown so conservative.  American politics is of course conservative: Republicans vote to revive an imagined past, and Democrats vote for the lesser of two evils.  But I would argue that conservatism has gotten all the way down to our collective imagination.  From my last diary:

I will conclude this review with my critique of conservatism.  The problem with conservatism is that it’s intellectually easy.  See status quo, defend status quo.  Reactionary politics is only slightly more difficult: imagine past, defend past.  Progressivism demands that we imagine a positive future toward which we’re progressing; radicalism demands that we get at the roots of the current dilemma to imagine how radical change could succeed.  Either of those are much more demanding as intellectual tasks than conservative thought, and perhaps too daunting for the politics of the current era.

Graeber, in line with this speculative thread, suggests that American society has (under the influence of neoliberalism) become a society of bureaucrats:

If we do not notice that we live in a bureaucratic society, that is because bureaucratic norms and practices have become so all-pervasive that we cannot see them or, worse, cannot imagine doing things any other way. (81)

Technology, he argues, no longer gives life to our wildest fantasies — instead, wild fantasies go nowhere because nobody regards them as leading to profit.  Rather, the corporate bottom line travels hand-in-hand with the proliferation of bureaucracy.  Graeber concludes that the future imagined in “The Jetsons” will “not happen within the framework of contemporary corporate capitalism — or any form of capitalism.”  (84)  A far more egalitarian distribution of wealth and power will be necessary, he argues, if we are to colonize Mars or perform any such feat of collective imagination.There really isn’t much in this piece about the “declining rate of profit,” so it’s curious Graeber choose to include that phrase in his title.  There are two recently-published books, however, which argue that the current era of capitalism is defined by the decline of the rate of profit.  Andrew Kliman’s The Failure of Capitalist Production suggests that neoliberalism itself is a political trend imposed upon the world in light of the failure of the rate of profit to achieve the high standard of the golden age of capitalism (1948-1971).  Business As Usual, written by the younger Paul Mattick, is easier to read although it contains fewer economic tables.  More about those later.  At any rate, it’s easy to see why government in the current era devotes itself to propping up corporate rates of profit if corporate profit is what suffers in this era, rather than pursuing fantasies of space travel (“we’ll put a man on the Moon!”) or utopian social engineering based on technological fantasy.  Certainly political favors are the best investment around.  Right?

I got my copy of the Baffler #19 at my local Barnes and Noble — go get yours!

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