David Graeber throws down

David Graeber’s response to the Crooked Timber event on Debt: The First 5000 Years is one of the most invigorating polemics I’ve read in a long time. There’s a lot in here, including some insightful reflections on strategies used to “delegitimate” work outside the mainstream, but as a public service, I think it’s important to highlight one particular part:

The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.) The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong. I should have caught it at the proofreading stage but I didn’t. I did catch it when the book first came out, tried to get the publisher to take it out, and have been continually trying since July. All to no avail. I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July. Allow me to reassure the reader: You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is, especially as the stupid line has been held out, reproduced, sent around in every conceivable way to suggest that nothing else in the book is likely to be factually accurate To which all I can reply is: well, notice how this is the only quote in the book that happens with. That one sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that. In fact, I’ve communicated with, or read reviews by, scholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists, etc, etc, and none have noticed any glaring errors—in fact, the most frequent reaction is that it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.) The book is pretty meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review. The problem is I haven’t been able to get the one idiotic garbled sentence out despite my utmost endeavors. But it will be. They promise. Soon.

13 thoughts on “David Graeber throws down

  1. The Crooked TImber crew is an incredibly self-satisfied bunch at times–it was nice to see Graeber come out with guns blazing, knowing full well he’d also be taking on half the comment section.

  2. Yeah, Crooked Timber often causes me a lot of pain when I bother to read anything over there; the comments are the worst. I knew Graeber would hand them their lunch, and equally that the commenters would whine.

  3. My instincts are to side with Graeber, and God knows I’ll never wade through all of this, but as one of his Twitter followers, he does seem to go nuclear pretty easily. I am reading Debt now.

  4. Much as I would like to side with Graeber, I thought his reply was pretty unconvincing, and really not well proportioned to Henry’s initial post. I basically thought that the 340–370s in this thread were pretty fair.

  5. As, naturally, is Tim. The fact that I was pulling for Graeber is one of the things that made (what seemed to me to be) the weird over-the-topness of his reply disappointing.

  6. Re: Graeber’s claim that what he wrote was true of a “whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths”. Nobody has been able to find such.

    My current belief is that Graeber’s ideas about startup business organization in Silicon Valley is a combination of (a) Kevin Lacey’s (largely wrong) dissertation, picked up (apparently without attribution) by his advisor Richard Wolff (who got more things wrong), and then picked up (again, without attribution) by David Graeber (who got even more things wrong). The basic picture of Silicon Valley is thus (a) 1/10 the Homebrew Computer Club and the phone phreakers of the 1970s, (b) 4/10 George Orwell’s and others’ pictures of what Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War ought to have been, and (c) 5/10 Karl Marx’s “1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts”.

    Graeber’s claim to the Crooked Timber audience that he wrote something correct that was then garbled in copyediting and published is inconsistent with his earlier claim that he had picked up the argument from “Richard Wolff actually and I think he led me astray…”

  7. Brad,

    I think there are many ways to reconcile what I quoted above and your unsourced quote at the end of your comment, none of which require your speculative and uncharitable approach. For instance, being attacked so frequently about the Apple error may have made Graeber question Wolff’s thesis in general for a time, but now he’s returned to his original position. In any case, there’s no reason to assume that his account of the copyediting error that resulted in the specific error with regard to Apple is untrue — your comment here simply moves the goalposts, it seems to me.

  8. As a working programmer (and certified scrum master), I find Graeber’s description of how computer programmers work not at all implausible, while it might be historically suspect (as he has admitted) on the history of Apple. For example, the even contemporary startup culture is imbued with ideas of cooperation over competition and fluid affinity group style setups over hierarchy and bureaucracy that he describes that do bear a resemblance to some (but not all) leftist and even anarchist ideas. To give just a few examples, see extreme programming methodology and the various forms of agile software development that emphasise team self-organisation and collective code management as well as open process and games like “planning poker” that operate on similar lines to consensus decision making. So while you might attempt to “do Graeber” on this point, he is actually not at all far off the truth.

    Here is another description from another working programmer/philosopher Dominic Fox describing his experiences.

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