Academic observers, exposed to a perspective that rejects any notion of transcendent truth and celebrates diversity, tend to see the phenomenon as a form of ‘postmodernism.’ Most activists who are not themselves academics dislike such terms—if only because it seems silly to attach an ideological label to an anti-ideological attitude. They are more likely to see what they are doing as returning to principles of simple decency and common sense—of returning, if one must use the term, to a world in which much of what we refer to as ‘modernity’ never happened. (Graeber, Direct Action, 329-330)
In his first post on Graeber’s Debt, Schliesser notes that Graeber has “maddeningly” little to say about the sense of justice which he (Graeber) take as fundamentally invariant across communities. This sense of justice seems to ground what Schliesser labels Graeber’s “anti-theoretical situationism” alternative to modern moral philosophy:+ even in the absence of a balance-sheet, our sense of justice can guide us in matters of moral and political urgency as those matters present themselves to us.
A comparison with Graeber’s picture of anarchist (consensus) political practice in Direct Action: An Ethnography might be instructive here.* Indeed, one might think that Graeber’s critique of modern moral philosophy is driven by his commitment to this form of political practice, insofar as the shape of a ‘situationist’ moral philosophy grounded in our (fundamentally invariant) sense of justice replicates the shape of a political practice grounded in, and aimed at the recovery of, moral common sense.
Graeber takes anarchism to be centrally “an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice,” rather than “a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy”—its is “a moral project” (211). Participants in this discourse “did not really see themselves as creating some great new theory. They were more likely to see themselves as giving a name and voice to a certain kind of insurgent common sense, one they assumed to be as old as history” (213). ‘Insurgent common sense,’ like ‘a sense of justice,’ seems to gesture to something that (1) persists across time, communities, and historical conditions, but (2) is something that one can fail to consult in spite of its presence.
That this common sense is insurgent sets up our estranged engagement with it as a matter of recovery, or, as Graeber puts it in the passage above, “of returning principles of simple decency.” Here, I think, the salient contrast with recovery is discovery. What one discovers need not have been previously accessible, and in discovery one acquires “knowledge-about.” Drawing on John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, Graeber contrasts ‘knowledge-about’ acquired through discovery with “knowledge immanent in practice:” whereas the former provides an inquirer with “power-over” the subject of inquiry, the latter yields “power-to” go on in a certain way (say, in ways in which reflect basic principles of decency and reciprocity).
Consensus politics, for Graeber, is a means by which people can recover insurgent common sense through the cultivation of powers of decency and reciprocity. Consensus offers this possibility because it “is an approach that replaces ideology, ‘knowledge-about,’ with forms of knowledge immanent in practice… its practice is its ideology” (328, emphasis his). You needn’t have deep sympathy for the concrete procedures of consensus politics to take this point on. For purposes of comparison with ‘anti-theoretical situationism,’ what is important here is that one acquires the sense of justice/insurgent common sense, on which the alternative to modern moral philosophy depends, through participation in practices which themselves embody fundamental invariances of moral life.** The work that ‘consensus politics’ does for Graeber here is not in reliably getting us to the right resolution (‘Condemn the IMF!’), but in the restoration of relations of decency between participants in a particular political space:
“Large areas are always left moot, i.e., is the main problem capitalism, or lack of democracy?.... If you ask one of the [Direct Action Network] core group what kind of economic institutions they envision for a future society, they are likely to tell you that’s not for them to decide: they’re trying to create the democratic institutions which will allow people to figure out such questions for themselves. Even when it comes to anarchism—while most participants seem to be anarchists, there are a smattering of Marxists, liberal reformists, even NGO types. None of this is considered a problem, as far as I can make out, unless they seem to be speaking not for themselves but for an organization. The slogan might be ‘as long as you’re willing to act like an anarchist in the present, your long-term vision is pretty much up to you.’” (330).
One may think that other forms of political practice can more reliably restore relations of decency—that there isn’t an obvious connection between consensus and decency. But Graeber doesn’t seem to think that consensus politics offers the ‘obvious’ (or necessary) procedure for restoring these relations; Graeber seems to think that this is a procedure that does in fact, at least on occasion, work. Surely the natural response is to ask where consensus politics seem to successfully restore relations of decency (or not) and why. But it might seem suspicious to ask for explanations that take on the cast of ‘theory’ rather than ‘know-how’ of a politics that takes ‘practice’ as its ideology. Manuals for facilitators in assemblies are not of the same genre as tracts of social theory— it is apparent that there are substantial (admittedly, this philosopher is tempted to say ‘theoretical’) commitments in emphasizing the primacy of the former. Or, to return to anthropology’s role in all this, consider Graber’s remarks on ethnography in this connection:i
"If anarchism is not an attempt to put a certain sort of theoretical vision into practice, but is instead a constant mutual exchange between inspirational visions, anti-authoritarian attitudes, and egalitarian practices, it’s easy to see how ethnography could become such an appropriate tool for its analysis. This is precisely what ethnography is supposed to do: tease out the implicit logic in a way of life, along with its related myths and rituals, to grasp the sense of a set of practices." (221-22)
Graeber’s picture of anarchist politics seems to suggest that one way of pursuing the radical break with “incoherent and self-contradictory” standards, while addressing (if not necessarily decisively) worries of falling into something worse than moral incoherence, is through a political & ethical orientation that privileges cultivation of our insurgent sense of justice. While this orientation diverges from the shape of modern moral philosophy, it might be taken as an orientation “to be found within modern moral philosophy,” insofar as our sense of justice has been, to this point, cultivated through practices themselves shaped by modern moral philosophy. (While our sense of justice persists across various dimensions, it doesn’t follow that it is unmalleable.)
- Common sense can seem like a fairly stifling ground for a moral project, if one thinks of moral common sense on the model of common sense realism: ‘you interact with medium-sized dry goods and you had best go on in this way.’ But one need not assume that common sense realism is the only model of common sense. William James contrasts the common sense realism of the philosopher with the “gumption” of “practical talk,” which can be as flexible as the problems which confront it. Graeber, in this connection, takes “contemporary anarchist ‘theory’” to be “a kind of inspirational, creative play” (221).
- One might suspect that there is a tension between the role of recovery and the demand for a radical break. Recall the anecdote with which Graeber opens Debt: a “perfectly decent” attorney with progressive politics takes it as “self-evident” that one must pay one’s debts, even in the case of ‘Third World’ countries strong-armed by the IMF (4). One could easily imagine her insisting that this is a matter of common sense, and that it is Graeber’s moral sensibilities which are in need of recovery. Here there seems to be a tension between (1) common sense as that which persists in spite of our theoretical gymnastics and (2) common sense as that which is shaped by our practices. Graeber’s critique of modern moral philosophy may be informed by “a political movement in which the practice comes first and theory is essentially, secondary [sic].” (Direct Action, 214), but this doesn’t mean that the theoretical gymnastics don’t shape the practices when the former are in fact understood as primary. (That is, for the folks who are reading the social theory tracts instead of the facilitation manuals.) If the right practices can give shape to the right sense of justice, one might worry that the wrong practices can bend our sense of justice beyond recovery.
+ Recall, too, that ‘modern’ in ‘modern moral philosophy’ goes back to Socrates
*Certainly, not everyone who engages in/endorses consensus politics identifies as an anarchist. Nor can “the basic principles of anarchism” (Graeber: “self-organization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the opposition to all forms of coercive authority” (212)) only be realized through consensus procedures. But Graeber, and others, do think that the two tend to make good partners in crime.
**‘Invariance’ is compatible here with ‘disruptive.’ A jail support crew that offers food, hugs, and cigarettes to anyone who walks out of the jail disrupts the alienating ‘business as usual,’ but is often described by those who encounter such a crew for the first time as ‘just how people should treat one another.’