Endgame Strategies

The Machinery of Hopelessness

Capitalism is crumbling and we are in urgent need of a paradigm shift, but are we prepared to imagine an alternative?
The Machinery of Hopelessness

This article is available in:

We have reached an impasse. Capitalism as we know it is coming apart at the seams. But as financial institutions stagger and crumble, there is no obvious alternative. Organized resistance is scattered and incoherent. The global justice movement is a shadow of its former self. For the simple reason that it's impossible to maintain perpetual growth on a finite planet, it's possible that in a generation or so capitalism will no longer exist. Faced with this prospect, people's knee-jerk reaction is often fear. They cling to capitalism because they can't imagine a better alternative.

How did this happen? Is it normal for human beings to be unable to imagine a better world?

Hopelessness isn't natural. It needs to be produced. To understand this situation, we have to realize that the last 30 years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus that creates and maintains hopelessness. At the root of this machine is global leaders' obsession with ensuring that social movements do not appear to grow or flourish, that those who challenge existing power arrangements are never perceived to win. Maintaining this illusion requires armies, prisons, police and private security firms to create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity and despair. All these guns, surveillance cameras and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and produce nothing – they're economic deadweights that are dragging the entire capitalist system down.

This hopelessness-generating apparatus is responsible for our recent financial freefalls and endless strings of bursting economic bubbles. It exists to shred and pulverize the human imagination, to destroy our ability to envision an alternative future. As a result, the only thing left to imagine is money, and debt spirals out of control. What is debt? It's imaginary money whose value can only be realized in the future. Finance capital is, in turn, the buying and selling of these imaginary future profits. Once one assumes that capitalism will be around for all eternity, the only kind of economic democracy left to imagine is one in which everyone is equally free to invest in the market. Freedom has become the right to share in the proceeds of one's own permanent enslavement.

Since the economic bubble was built on the future, its collapse made it seem like there was nothing left.

This effect, however, is clearly temporary. If the story of the global justice movement tells us anything, it is that the moment there appears to be any sort of opening the imagination springs forth. This is what effectively happened in the late '90s when it looked for a moment like we might be moving toward a world at peace. The same thing has happened for the last 50 years in the US whenever it seems like peace might break out: a radical social movement dedicated to principles of direct action and participatory democracy emerges. In the late '50s it was the civil rights movement. In the late '70s it was the anti-nuclear movement. More recently it happened on a planetary scale and challenged capitalism head-on. But when we were organizing the protests in Seattle in 1999 or at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings in DC in 2000, none of us dreamed that within a mere three or four years the World Trade Organization (WTO) process would collapse, "free trade" ideologies would be almost entirely discredited and new trade pacts like the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) would be defeated. The World Bank was hobbled and the power of the IMF over most of the world's population was effectively destroyed.

But of course there's another reason for all this. Nothing terrifies leaders, especially American leaders, as much as grassroots democracy. Whenever a genuinely democratic movement begins to emerge, particularly one based on principles of civil disobedience and direct action, the reaction is the same: the government makes immediate concessions (fine, you can have voting rights) and then starts revving up military tensions abroad. The movement is then forced to transform itself into an anti-war movement, which is often far less democratically organized. The civil rights movement was followed by Vietnam, the anti-nuclear movement by proxy wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and the global justice movement by the War on Terror. We can now see the latter "war" for what it was: a declining power's doomed effort to make its peculiar combination of bureaucratic war machines and speculative financial capitalism into a permanent global condition.

We are clearly on the verge of another mass resurgence of the popular imagination. It shouldn't be that difficult. Most of the elements are already there. The problem is that our perceptions have been twisted into knots by decades of relentless propaganda and we are no longer able to see them. Consider the term "communism." Rarely has a term come to be so utterly reviled. The standard line, which we accept more or less unthinkingly, is that communism means state control of the economy. History has shown us that this impossible utopian dream simply "doesn't work." Thus capitalism, however unpleasant, is the only remaining option.

If two people are fixing a pipe and one says "hand me the wrench," the other doesn't say "and what do I get for it?"

In fact, communism really just means any situation where people act according to this principle: from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. This is, in fact, the way pretty much everyone acts if they are working together. If, for example, two people are fixing a pipe and one says "hand me the wrench," the other doesn't say "and what do I get for it?" This is true even if they happen to be employed by Bechtel or Citigroup. They apply the principles of communism because they're the only ones that really work. This is also the reason entire cities and countries revert to some form of rough-and-ready communism in the wake of natural disasters or economic collapse – markets and hierarchical chains of command become luxuries they can't afford. The more creativity is required and the more people have to improvise at a given task, the more egalitarian the resulting form of communism is likely to be. That's why even Republican computer engineers trying to develop new software ideas tend to form small democratic collectives. It's only when work becomes standardized and boring (think production lines) that becomes possible to impose more authoritarian, even fascistic forms of communism. But the fact is that even private companies are internally organized according to communist principles.

Communism is already here. The question is how to further democratize it. Capitalism, in turn, is just one possible way of managing communism. It has become increasingly clear that it's a rather disastrous one. Clearly we need to be thinking about a better alternative, preferably one that does not systematically set us all at each others' throats.

Capitalism is not just a poor system for managing communism, it also periodically falls apart.

All this makes it much easier to understand why capitalists are willing to pour such extraordinary resources into the machinery of hopelessness. Capitalism is not just a poor system for managing communism, it also periodically falls apart. Each time it does, those who profit from it have to convince everyone that there is really no choice but to dutifully paste it all back together again.

Those wishing to subvert the system have learned from bitter experience that we cannot place our faith in states. Instead, the last decade has seen the development of thousands of forms of mutual aid associations. They range from tiny cooperatives to vast anti-capitalist experiments, from occupied factories in Paraguay and Argentina to self-organized tea plantations and fisheries in India, from autonomous institutes in Korea to insurgent communities in Chiapas and Bolivia. These associations of landless peasants, urban squatters and neighborhood alliances spring up pretty much anywhere where state power and global capital seem to be temporarily looking the other way. They might have almost no ideological unity, many are not even aware of the others' existence, but they are all marked by a common desire to break with the logic of capital. "Economies of solidarity" exist on every continent, in at least 80 different countries. We are at the point where we can begin to conceive of these cooperatives knitting together on a global level and creating a genuine insurgent civilization.

Visible alternatives shatter the sense of inevitability that the system must be patched together in its pre-collapse form – this is why it became such an imperative on behalf of global governance to stamp them out (or at least ensure that no one knows about them). Becoming aware of alternatives allows us to see everything we are already doing in a new light. We realize we're already communists when working on common projects, already anarchists when we solve problems without recourse to lawyers or police, already revolutionaries when we make something genuinely new.

One might object: a revolution cannot confine itself to this. That's true. In this respect, the great strategic debates are really just beginning. I'll offer one suggestion though. For at least 5,000 years, before capitalism even existed, popular movements have tended to center on struggles over debt. There is a reason for this. Debt is the most efficient means ever created to make relations fundamentally based on violence and inequality seem morally upright. When this trick no longer works everything explodes, as it is now. Debt has revealed itself as the greatest weakness of the system, the point where it spirals out of control. But debt also allows endless opportunities for organizing. Some speak of a debtors' strike or debtors' cartel. Perhaps so, but at the very least we can start with a pledge against evictions. Neighborhood by neighborhood we can pledge to support each other if we are driven from our homes. This power does not solely challenge regimes of debt, it challenges the moral foundation of capitalism. This power creates a new regime. After all, a debt is only a promise and the world abounds in broken promises. Think of the promise made to us by the state: if we abandon any right to collectively manage our own affairs we will be provided with basic life security. Think of the promise made by capitalism: we can live like kings if we are willing to buy stock in our own collective subordination. All of this has come crashing down. What remains is what we are able to promise one another directly, without the mediation of economic and political bureaucracies. The revolution begins by asking what sorts of promises do free men and women make one another and how, by making them, do we begin to make another world?

David Graeber is the author of Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion and Desire and Direct Action: An Ethnography.

189 comments on the article “The Machinery of Hopelessness”

Displaying 171 - 180 of 189

Page 18 of 19

ForStudentPower.org

Good lord, did you read the paragraph which preceded that sentence? Or did you get that line from some Freeper post and decide to post a comment straightaway? If you did read Graeber's article, you'd be saying that passing someone a wrench is "all about lowest common denominator and keeping masses poor". I'm feeling charitable, so I'll conclude you're just blinded by your preconceptions and unwillingness to read an essay on this topic - and you're not actually that dim. And I'm curious why you're ascribing the criminalization of dissent and curtailing of free speech as "Communism" (which I assume you mean the Soviet/Cuba/North Korea type), when "Fascism" fits the bill so much better (and is in line with the trends of the past ~10 years, especially the recent immense bailout of the banking industry with no strings attached).

An Earthling

Hey man we are fighting the same demons but just can not agree on a couple of definitions. The enemy is whithin our own self and it has been internalised by the system. Of course we want to be living in a society without thought-police. It is just mostly people have been programmed to police on themselves through media indoctrination. Ultimately each has there own path to tread.

An Earthling

Hey man we are fighting the same demons but just can not agree on a couple of definitions. The enemy is whithin our own self and it has been internalised by the system. Of course we want to be living in a society without thought-police. It is just mostly people have been programmed to police on themselves through media indoctrination. Ultimately each has there own path to tread.

Darvish

O my fellow adbuster friend! it rather annoys and saddens me to see you accusing someone else for not being informed about the principles and values of communism when u yourself are having a hard time defending your stance! 'communism is all about the lowest denominator and keeping masses poor, dependent and brainwashed' > o how hard it must have been for you to pick up these rather american pop-culture stereotypical labels for an ideology as big as communism! the crucial fact for you here is not to look at the dark and rather gruesome history that has entailed failed communist states and its various adoptions but rather you should look at the very roots and founding principles that give marxism/communism its meaning....and since we are talking about a fresh start from the dark times that we are in, it is essential for you to see the teachings of marx/engels as a response and a reaction against the industrial shift that took place at their time carrying onwards to foster the very ideas of capitalism! that is what we seek here! a response, a reactions, a solution, alternatives to the current modes and factors of productions, alternative to modern banking and the market system! it seems that the more you think about it, the more the teachings of marx come to mind...

Darvish

O my fellow adbuster friend! it rather annoys and saddens me to see you accusing someone else for not being informed about the principles and values of communism when u yourself are having a hard time defending your stance! 'communism is all about the lowest denominator and keeping masses poor, dependent and brainwashed' > o how hard it must have been for you to pick up these rather american pop-culture stereotypical labels for an ideology as big as communism! the crucial fact for you here is not to look at the dark and rather gruesome history that has entailed failed communist states and its various adoptions but rather you should look at the very roots and founding principles that give marxism/communism its meaning....and since we are talking about a fresh start from the dark times that we are in, it is essential for you to see the teachings of marx/engels as a response and a reaction against the industrial shift that took place at their time carrying onwards to foster the very ideas of capitalism! that is what we seek here! a response, a reactions, a solution, alternatives to the current modes and factors of productions, alternative to modern banking and the market system! it seems that the more you think about it, the more the teachings of marx come to mind...

Anonymous

Some people really need to review the definition of communism. Stop listening to the media. The media has people scared that the United States of America is going to "turn socialist." Oh no! WHAT A HORRIBLE THING! PUUHHLEEASSE. Maybe that would be the only thing to wake everyone up! People who listen to the media and do not read any legitimate sources need to stop giving their opinions on what is the best system. Your opinion is worthless when its based off of corporate and gov't propaganda. Thanks for regurgitating, heard it a billion times(not going to point directly at the post i'm referring to, lets just say...give me a break, yourself.) Anyway, Americans have been experiencing a paradigm shift in worldview for quite some time. We've been moving from the Newtonian Paradigm worldview, which believes there is a knowable truth, positivism is correct, we are always "progressing," Christianity dominates moral cultural background and ideas of right and wrong, and the universe works like a strict machine. This way of thinking has seriously led us down the wrong path...change to the Einsteinian worldview will help just by people changing their views. The Einsteinian worldview says that perhaps nothing is completely knowable and we shouldn't be afraid of that, the universe works in a flowing, changing way not like a machine that we can someday completely "figure out," perhaps we should accept we don't know everything about the universe and concentrate on what we do know: we are destroying our future when we harm the balance on Earth, Christianity is a patriarchal system that works by oppressing various aspects of HUMAN NATURE in the name of "god"--in the past that has been women, minorities, anyone in the way of making money or in the way of conquering-- a god that was formed in the harsh desert by a people who revolted against their rulers, wondered the desert, and committed genocide on the pagans to take over their land. They set up their moral system as opposite to the Pagans in order to creat zeolots who would agree with wiping them out. Pagans were people who embraced the Earth, human nature, and felt there was no original sin and everyone had the ability to choose to act accordingly to nature's laws or against them (which would eventually cause harm anyway). Christianity then supported the rise of more capitalism, with the protestant revolutions. Now, old boundaries have fallen away, but the meat of moral ideas and philosophy here and in many countries dominated by the christian-judeo belief system, this still supports what Christians gave the world during colonialism (genocide much?) but to a lessened degree: racism, sexism, original sin, and a heaven that is not on Earth, the fear of death and hell...therefore NOW and the EARTH don't matter, animals have no soul...The least America could do was accept SOCIAL DEMOCRACY and quit believing in such ridiculous ideas that you are ABOVE THE LAWS OF NATURE. Capitalism and christianity mixed with the undying belief in positivism, and unending progress has dragged humanity into a hole. It's time for people to realize that these philosophies are supporting our way of life, and a reason for the vast inequalities, injustices, and raping of the earth. Rightwingers have sufficiently used corporate media to brainwash people to believing in philosophies and moral ideas that have been created for the purpose of A) territorial expansion and B) free market imperialism--anyone who believes the fat cats are on our side are completely deluded. And any Christians who vote right wing---I suggest you take a look at the passage about the false prophet and forked tongue. Jesus was rebelling against the corrupt, greedy Hebrew rulers of his time--if Christians really want to "do what jesus did" they certainly wouldn't be teaming up with the oppressors to force their hateful views on others.

Anonymous

Some people really need to review the definition of communism. Stop listening to the media. The media has people scared that the United States of America is going to "turn socialist." Oh no! WHAT A HORRIBLE THING! PUUHHLEEASSE. Maybe that would be the only thing to wake everyone up! People who listen to the media and do not read any legitimate sources need to stop giving their opinions on what is the best system. Your opinion is worthless when its based off of corporate and gov't propaganda. Thanks for regurgitating, heard it a billion times(not going to point directly at the post i'm referring to, lets just say...give me a break, yourself.) Anyway, Americans have been experiencing a paradigm shift in worldview for quite some time. We've been moving from the Newtonian Paradigm worldview, which believes there is a knowable truth, positivism is correct, we are always "progressing," Christianity dominates moral cultural background and ideas of right and wrong, and the universe works like a strict machine. This way of thinking has seriously led us down the wrong path...change to the Einsteinian worldview will help just by people changing their views. The Einsteinian worldview says that perhaps nothing is completely knowable and we shouldn't be afraid of that, the universe works in a flowing, changing way not like a machine that we can someday completely "figure out," perhaps we should accept we don't know everything about the universe and concentrate on what we do know: we are destroying our future when we harm the balance on Earth, Christianity is a patriarchal system that works by oppressing various aspects of HUMAN NATURE in the name of "god"--in the past that has been women, minorities, anyone in the way of making money or in the way of conquering-- a god that was formed in the harsh desert by a people who revolted against their rulers, wondered the desert, and committed genocide on the pagans to take over their land. They set up their moral system as opposite to the Pagans in order to creat zeolots who would agree with wiping them out. Pagans were people who embraced the Earth, human nature, and felt there was no original sin and everyone had the ability to choose to act accordingly to nature's laws or against them (which would eventually cause harm anyway). Christianity then supported the rise of more capitalism, with the protestant revolutions. Now, old boundaries have fallen away, but the meat of moral ideas and philosophy here and in many countries dominated by the christian-judeo belief system, this still supports what Christians gave the world during colonialism (genocide much?) but to a lessened degree: racism, sexism, original sin, and a heaven that is not on Earth, the fear of death and hell...therefore NOW and the EARTH don't matter, animals have no soul...The least America could do was accept SOCIAL DEMOCRACY and quit believing in such ridiculous ideas that you are ABOVE THE LAWS OF NATURE. Capitalism and christianity mixed with the undying belief in positivism, and unending progress has dragged humanity into a hole. It's time for people to realize that these philosophies are supporting our way of life, and a reason for the vast inequalities, injustices, and raping of the earth. Rightwingers have sufficiently used corporate media to brainwash people to believing in philosophies and moral ideas that have been created for the purpose of A) territorial expansion and B) free market imperialism--anyone who believes the fat cats are on our side are completely deluded. And any Christians who vote right wing---I suggest you take a look at the passage about the false prophet and forked tongue. Jesus was rebelling against the corrupt, greedy Hebrew rulers of his time--if Christians really want to "do what jesus did" they certainly wouldn't be teaming up with the oppressors to force their hateful views on others.

Pages

Add a new comment

Comments are closed.