Extract from a recent exchange with David Graeber about an “anti-capitalist” conference on money.
KH: Just in case I never made it explicit, my resistance to the term anti-capitalist is as follows. First, it seems to me that capitalism has not yet fulfilled its historic task of bringing cheap commodities to the masses and undermining the insularity of traditional communities (when a third of humanity work with their hands in the fields and have never made a phone call in their lives). Second, when the grip of America and Europe over world economy is being loosened by a genuine globalization of capital accumulation in places like India, China, Brazil and Russia for the first time, anti-capitalism could be just the defense of white privilege in drag. Third, If Locke and Marx envisaged capitalism as a transitional phase between landed reaction and a future just society, we have to figure out where we are in that process and I think not all that far. Premature anti-capitalism leads to some nasty versions of social control. Fourth, for many parts of the world, such as Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, people languish under varieties of the Old Regime and are ripe for a liberal revolution. This to my mind usually involves some fractions of capital as well as progressive popular movements. Fifth, I never yet heard of a popular social movement with the capacity to launch communications satellites or to run a modern health service. So sixth, I would not wish to be against all capitalist firms. Some could be useful to a progressive movement (Red Hat Linux, HP’s 4 billion poorest initiative), while others are only concerned with developing neo-feudal monopoly (Microsoft, Halliburton). A lot of it has to do with timing. It's just that, after living through the last 60-odd years, I don’t get on particularly well with a bunch of rich white boys sounding off about being anti-capitalist. Individuals are a different case.
DG: As for capitalism – you've expressed some of these concerns before. My position is that many of the things lumped as capitalism aren't. We have this way of thinking where if you have a system where you can call the totality "capitalist" (ie, the US, Europe, etc) absolutely anything that happens within that totality is supposed to be brought to you by capitalism, but that, at the same time, when the total system isn't so capitalist (say in China) you refuse to apply the same logic and see any element of the system that looks capitalist as capitalist and therefore give that all the credit too. Basically both capitalism's friends and enemies have a tendency to make it far more effective and all-encompassing than it really is. As for social movements – well, most welfare state institutions were created by social movements and then effectively nationalized, and yeah, I think non-corporate entities can have and do organize most anything. I mean right now in many parts of the world most of those services are supplied by NGOs which are not exactly social movements but hardly capitalist firms either. As I say, capitalism strikes me as increasingly parasitical.
KH: Of course I don't like corporate capitalism either. The Hit Man's Dilemma makes that clear. Marx taught us that much capitalism is feudalism in drag (hence 'surplus value'). But I think I like the nation state even less. You are right too to point out that 'capitalism' as an ideal type is often used to gloss over a tremendous variety of institutions in modern societies. That was really my point about 'anti-capitalism', that the type contains too much economic variety to be dismissed en bloc. I am very interested in researching and developing non-capitalist alternatives to contemporary economic forms. And this is what attracts me to you and your work (not just that). This is why I spend time on community currencies and have a yen for the kind of anthropology that seeks out the self-organized activities of people everywhere. But I think that political strategy and tactics depend a lot on figuring out how much hope we can place in such initiatives. This is why I sometimes retreat into a position of claiming to be just an intellectual writing stuff that people in a better position than us will one day make use of – or maybe now but somewhere I am not familiar with. More than anything, I resist the move from anti-capitalism to anti-liberalism. This is easy given the neo-liberal moment we live in, but I think it misses a lot of what the struggle for human emancipation is all about and can descend into the sort of Spinozist theology that is currently fashionable on the left. I believe that the principle of enlightened self-interest was independently invented twice — by Gautama and Locke. By this I mean the discovery that the pursuit of personal happiness entails concern for the general human interest, the idea that Locke gave to the European enlightenment. I am intrigued by how California acts as a crucible for a possible synthesis, with the Bay Area pushing for a hi-tech Zen liberalism and the LA region giving us things like the motorway system and Disneyland that at one level are a parody of the better society, but do deliver something a lot of people want and most human beings alive today could only dream of.