Posted by: Doug Henwood | November 15, 2012

Responding to Mike Konczal’s response

Mike Konczal responds to my criticisms of the Rolling Jubilee by rejecting arguments I don’t really make, though he runs some of them through a caricature machine, and then brings up other “more important” worries that bear no small resemblance to mine.

I can’t even make sense of some of the things he says. For example, I’m not sure what this even means, much less how it fairly represents anything I said:

Doug Henwood, for instance, believes that this is generated by activists’ uncritical populism, or the anarchist anthrology of David Graeber’s Debt, or the reification of Bowles-Simpson’s debt talk. But this is putting the carriage before the horse.

Just what is the carriage, and what is the horse?

The first part of this passage is a tendentious summary of my argument that the StrikeDebt! people have inherited from American populism an obsession with money and finance as the root of all our economic problems, while not paying much attention to the things they connect to in the real world. So, debt is a symptom of crappy wages, unemployment, expensive health care and tuition, and a cheesy welfare state. It’s fine to organize and propagandize around debt as long as you use it as a point of entry into that larger conversation—but the StrikeDebt! people have so far done that more in passing, while fixating instead on a so-called “debt system.” They say they’ll move on to that, and I hope that’s true.

Apparently Konczal actually agrees with me, because he says about 600 words later that it would be wrong to focus too much on debt itself, and declares himself happy that “the Strike Debt coalition has worked to link its concerns back to larger ones of public health care, free education, and a more robust safety net. Weaving these concerns with broader ones is precisely the work that needs to be done.” I’m not sure that the coalition is actually doing those things very prominently; almost everyone who’s commented on the scheme is talking about the buybacks, and not those larger issues.

Moving along, I assume the reference to “anarchist anthrology” is a typo, and not an invocation of Anthrax’s 2005 greatest hits compilation. Konczal is ignoring what I think is an important point: that the movement is influenced by Graeber’s analysis of debt, an analysis that really has little to say about how debt works in capitalist societies. It fixates on debt as a transhistorical category, encouraging an obsession with it to the exclusion of other economic categories.

Konczal is also skeptical about my proselytizing for bankruptcy. I hardly think it’s a “universal solvent” (solution?) and never said it was. But it could be used by a lot more people than are using it now. And, while it can be expensive, as I pointed out in the bankruptcy chapter of the Debt Resistors’ manual—a passage that thankfully survived the collective editing process—you can get free representation by contacting your local bar association. It’s a lot more promising way out of debt for more people than this debt buyback scheme. And here’s some testimony from someone who went through the process a bit over a decade ago—a passage that did not survive the manual’s editing process:

At the mere suggestion by a friend who claimed to know of a lawyer who could help me by declaring bankruptcy, I immediately felt a sense of relief. It made no sense that I was in this situation. I did not buy one thing that I didn’t need. It was extremely demoralizing. So I borrowed the amount for the small fee this lawyer asked for and was soon set free of that godawful ball and chain. And now my credit record is impeccable, and delivered from all that worry.

And another of Konczal’s “more important” worries is “whether or not this will build a community of people committed to the cause going forward.” Uncanny, since I said something very much like this myself:

It’s also difficult to imagine an organized political movement emerging from it. One of the beauties of the various Occupy encampments around the country is that it created deep bonds among participants that last to this day. These ties were the reason that Occupy Sandy emerged so quickly in New York in the wake of the hurricane. But the Rolling Jubilee operates largely through murky, near-anonymous secondary debt markets and through the media. It’s difficult to explain in itself, and it doesn’t lead easily into a discussion of larger issues of political economy. And it doesn’t create organization or social ties: even if the relieved debtors knew about their liberation, which they well might not, it would be viewed more as a deus ex machina than a political act.

Finally, I resent the hell out of the implication that I don’t care about people’s suffering, assuming that’s what it is, since it’s often hard to parse the prose in this post (though the Marx-baiting sneer is clear enough):

It’s fun to imagine people writing hostile comments on that 99% tumblr saying that all these people’s misery is not useful to the cause because it focuses on the sphere of circulation instead of the sphere of production. But this is what is behind young people’s suffering and it is an important project to address it as such.

Really, Mike, if I didn’t care, I could have chosen a more lucrative and/or less aggravating line of work. I’ve tried to be very comradely in my criticisms; you could too.

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  1. Thanks for the response. Ha on “anarchist anthrology.” Re-reading my post after yours, my “not caring” line was written too aggressively, is uncharitable and jerk-ish, and was meant more as snark than outright insult. I hope you don’t take it that way.

  2. Yo, Doug:

    I’m interested that your reading of Graeber seems here, and elsewhere, to be pretty different from my own. I don’t think he’s encouraging a fixation on debt to the exclusion of other categories: I think that fixation is precisely what he’s responding to. Like it or not, we’ve been bombarded in recent years with claims that we simply can’t afford to think about anything politically or economically except The Deficit, and that the primary reason for the crash was our own profligacy (which, it goes without saying, we have to pay for – such is the nature of debt).

    I read Graeber as saying: it’s simply not true historically that what we think of as debt always has to be repaid. And, it is not true that the form that debt takes, and the “morality” that comes along with it, is inherent in the concept of debt. It’s not. In other words, debt doesn’t have to be the only thing we’re thinking about (as the right wing, and actually many on the “left” seem to think), we’re free to get on with politics. As for where Rolling Jubilee fits in, to me it’s: hey, if people don’t pay this bullshit back precisely NOTHING BAD will happen. And Graeber among others does seem to recognize that it’s mainly for PR (I think he’s said so on twitter). It’s: look, this supposedly immutable social arrangement is, in fact, mutable. That may be obvious to you (or anyone that wants serious political or social change) but it’s a good thing to see for a lot of people. And to me, the whole thing implies that it’s not, in fact, finance ITSELF that oppresses us, or debt ITSELF. The problem is the system that makes these appear to have some kind of irresistible, independent power. Showing that canceling debt is at least potentially possible helps to break the illusion that these things have power on their own.


  3. fuck mike konczal!
    Occupy is now going to pursue the quixotic Pacifica Radio model and solicit donations to pursue its ‘politics of means’?
    Who has money to give to charity?
    Oh right, bourgeois liberals of course…a class who wants things
    to stay the way they are…with a few minor changes here or there…
    Simone Weil is the model for the Occupier;
    an ethical, spiritualized penitent who rejects class struggle.

  4. “Just what is the carriage, and what is the horse?”

    I think David Graeber should definitely be the carriage. Just my vote. Tally it.

  5. “Anthrology” dig had me pissing my pants, Doug. Nice.

  6. hey, doug. i’ve been reading you for quite a while (whenever i have time). where can i read your sort of most comprehensive “What is to be done” work? i’m also interested to know your vision for the future. or how you propose the future system or state of things should be. (mixed economy? parecon? permanent grassroots movement within a market economy?) cheers :)

    [i can answer questions if you have any.]

  7. hey, doug. i’ve been reading you for quite a while (whenever i have time). where can i read your sort of most comprehensive “What is to be done” work? i’m also interested to know your vision for the future. or how you propose the future system or state of things should be. (mixed economy? parecon? permanent grassroots movement within a market economy?) cheers :)

    [i can answer questions if you have any.]

  8. If we are going to talk about rejecting arguments that no one is really making, no one is saying that the Rolling Jubilee, or organizing around debt in general, is the *only* thing we should be doing, so I’m not sure why people keep feeling the need to attack the idea that it is.

  9. Doug,

    I know I shouldn’t reply but just a couple points.

    1) I’m sorry people edited your text but this does happen in collective projects. If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t take part in them.

    2) Saying we’re going to forgive credit card debt instead of medical debt, and publicly attacking us for this, is either extraordinarily sloppy, or downright abusive, journalism. You know at least a dozen people you called have called to check in ten seconds to find out what we were really up to. Either you couldn’t be bothered to do the most minimal research before making public attacks on political allies, or you wanted to say something critical so badly you intentionally didn’t check.

    (I actually suspect the former, because I’ve been the victim of Doug’s dubious journalistic standards in the past, when no vindictive element was present. Once someone who worked at the NY Fed invited me to lunch with him there. I received a brief email from Doug asking if it was true I had been at the Fed. I said yes. The next day I see a public announcement that the Board of Directors at the Fed (or some similarly grandiose thing, I can’t remember the exact wording) had invited me for consultations! I have no idea where he got that from, but of course a minimally responsible journalist would have written, “is it true you were invited to consult with the Directors (or whatever) and is it okay if I put that in my column.” His approach not only misinformed his readers but caused extreme embarrassment to inviter and invitee, indeed, might even have endangered the man’s job.

    3) The reason we are organizing a campaign about debt is because we are a democratic movement and that’s what, over and over, people kept saying is the most important issue to them and what they want us to work on. Saying that we’re not connecting this to larger issues of the structure of capitalism is absurd. Of course we are. Maybe we’re not doing it in precisely the way you might, but well, if you don’t like that, you should have come to some meetings and made a case rather than sitting off and trying to undercut what we’re doing because we didn’t come to exactly the conclusions you would have had you bothered to participate. Myself, I could make an elaborate argument as to why this popular emphasis on debt, and the sudden class realignments it seems to betoken – for instance the fact that so many unionized workers are suddenly sympathetic and not hostile to the plight of unemployed indebted college graduates – reflects changes in the structure of US capitalism – that “financialization” involves a return to a much stronger reliance on militarized and coercive forms of extraction – but that this is connection with greater wage exploitation – as I noted at the Jubilee itself where I emphasized that policies designed to ensure working class people held mortgages and were otherwise in debt were partly designed to destroy the labor movement and lower wages by making it financially impossible for workers to strike. But this is not the place. The point is no social movement is going to ignore the issues that matter to people and while we will surely give our analysis on how these struggles are connected the days where everything is going to be subordinated to a “correct” party line are over.

    4) Doug has a weird habit of simply ignoring, or at best bizarrely caricaturing, the strongest arguments of those he disagrees with and instead insisting on only doing battle with straw men. So here. My book actually relies on an explicitly Marxist analysis of two cycles of postwar capitalism inspired mainly by the Midnight Notes Collective, and combines it with an equally explicit challenge to mainstream Marxist theory by noting that the money forms (including central banking system, stock markets, etc) typical of capitalism, which are indeed new, emerged prior to factories or even the widespread use of wage labor but rather as a way of handling the profits of militaristic colonial ventures which involved extraction of labor value largely through slavery, debt peonage, and other coercive means. I then point out that both unfree labor, and the connection between military power and forms of money creation, have never disappeared and in some ways been coming back stronger than ever in the current neoliberal form of capitalism. There have been thinkers in the Marxian tradition who have responded to this argument – some critically, some with interest – and the result has been interesting conversations. Doug alas falls in the other camp, the group that simply refuses to acknowledge I’m making these arguments at all, even when repeatedly reminded, and instead prefers to claim I’m denying any historical change at all. No, Doug. I’ve told you before. I’ll tell you again. The entire book is based on the premise that the meaning of money, debt and credit is constantly shifting, and mapping out the different things it means in different historical periods, and I explicitly say that all these things mean something very different after 1500 than they do before. However, not the thing one would immediately assume if one simply replies on a very literal (dare I say, non-dialectical) reading of the first half of Capital volume I. Sure, we can disagree on what the historical changes were. But simply claiming that I don’t take history into account at all is bizarre. You know perfectly well I don’t make an ahistorical analysis of debt, Doug. We just disagree on what the most important historical changes are.

    I hesitated to write this because when I have in the past the responses from Doug have been so utterly weird – basically attributing positions to me I wouldn’t even imagine anyone actually thinking – that I suspect there’s some kind of blind spot or mental block here about even trying to understand another person’s position. Lord only knows what he’ll say in response. And it never looks good to indulge in endless clarifications of my actual position because you seem petty and irritable. So maybe I’d better just leave it at this.

    But honestly, Doug. You are a brilliant economic thinker. You have contributed great things to those doing battle with capitalism. But you really do have to put more work into trying to understand what people you don’t agree with are actually getting at.

  10. Really appreciate Graeber’s response. Am very much over how much airtime the Henwood critique has gotten–it’s far too easy to dismiss projects from a high and mighty position. Dialogue with the effort is one thing. Snarky dismissal (and really, insisting that the whole thing is about credit card debt *is* sloppy) just reads like sour grapes because your contribution got edited.

  11. Gad, I had disagreed with the review of David Graeber’s really interesting book by Mike Begg’s over at the Jacobin, but liked, if that’s appropriate to say, JW Mason’s response to the review – – and I thought that the Crooked Timber mob had tried to do a number on Graeber but now after reading his response to Doug I’m thinking he maybe just too precious as my nana would say. Is there a variant of that marvellous new harmonic illusion PTSD specific to academia? Hope not.

  12. A lot of good came out of the rural populist movements that originated in the 19th century. I sit not far from a farmer’s cooperative dating from 1930′s that is still strong today. We should be so lucky.

  13. “involved extraction of labor value largely through slavery, debt peonage, and other coercive means. ”

    In a Marxian sense, “labor value” does not exist independent from the mediation of the money form. For a guy who likes to kick around “traditional Marxism” a lot, you actually agree with the traditional Marxists on their most egregious error: the existence of some pre-monetary “value substance.”

    Which is fine, you don’t have to assign the same meanings to words and concepts that Marx does, but if that’s the case then you need to get off this defensive kick of claiming that you’re actually using these concepts in a Marxian sense.

    Your personal attacks on Doug as a journalist are slimy. I’ve held off so far in mixing into your little Internet disputes, but somebody has to say it: you’re an asshole.

  14. [...] lot has been written and debated about Rolling Jubilee, but one perspective I haven’t seen is a specifically Jewish one. [...]

  15. Doug, you wouldn’t happen to have an unedited copy of that chapter on Debt your wrote in the Debt Resisters Operations Manual (aka, before collective editing?).

  16. Doug, you wouldn’t happen to have a copy of the unedited version of your chapter on Debt in the Debt Resister’s handbook you did for StrikeDebt!, would you?

  17. [...] Henwood has articulated the most persuasive objections debt-based organizing (see here, here, and here), but bracket that for a second. If we grant that debt is a good thing to organize around, the [...]

  18. I think it is sad that David Graeber uses his space to make personal attacks against Doug. Why not just address Doug’s points and move on. You’re both valuable participants in left discourse. It’s only a conversation. Graeber’s defensiveness and ad hominem attacks are discouraging and lead me to trust my distrusting suspicions about the Occupy crowd. No, Doug Henwood is not perfect. Yes, there are all times when I disagree with him, but I have never known him to embody the libelous characteristics put forward by Mr. Graeber. Doug, like Alexander Cockburn or Adolph Reed or Ishmel Reed or Joann Wypijewski, brings an occasional, refreshing contrarianism to the left, and I have only known him to be generous and welcoming to his critics. I have not found my experiences with Occupy to be welcoming and have found myself silenced repeatedly for not going along with the group. Anyone attempting to suggest another path or another consideration is either patronized or suffers a passive aggressiveness that neither Gandhi or Jesus could withstand.

    Sometimes, I think this movement is more for symbolism than action, and it is this complete disregard for any address to practicality that is unsettling. To me, RJ looks more like a symbolic debt forgiveness lottery than an action that will result in reform or change. RJ must know that they will not come near to helping alleviate real debt or make even a small dent. We need real reform. I can no longer put so much of my energy into symbols–protests, art shows, protest concerts, stickers, etc. Doug was right to point to the need to consider a state role in making our lives better–debt relief, public education, single payer medical system. How can we worry so much about corporations when we can’t even get more than a few token slight progressives elected?

    Although, I think bibi’s comparing Occupy to Pacifica is a powerful and true metaphor–and sad as well.

    My social activist life has shown me the cliche to be true–when the left wants to create a firing squad, it gets in a circle.

  19. OK, I’ll bite.

    How many PATCO workers had mortgages?

    How about Teamsters in the UPS strike?

    What about Verizon workers this year?

    Senso Comune Alert.

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