How the World Works

by Venkat on December 1, 2011

If you want to seriously level-up your thinking about how the world works, you might want to try reading 3 very ambitious books together: Francis Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order, Pankaj Ghemawat’s World 3.0 and David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5000 years. All three are from the reading list that I posted in August, so I am hoping at least some of you have been attacking them.

It’s worth reading them together because they attempt to tell the same story, towards the same purpose — explaining how the world works in some sense — drawing on roughly the same body of raw material. It is illuminating to see the surprising ways in which the stories agree and disagree. All three books are also particularly valuable for me personally, since I hope to take a stab at telling the same story some day.

My version will of course be the definitive one when I write it, but let’s take a look at the versions of the story on the market today.

An Academic Celebrity Death-Match

After finally finishing all three books last week, it struck me that you’d get very entertaining Jerry Springerish outcomes if you put the authors together on a conference panel. Going by their books, I’d say that Fukuyama and Ghemawat would mostly agree but eye each other very warily, given their drastically different methodologies. Fukuyama is the ultimate metaphysical conceptualizer and Grand Narrative weaver, while Ghemawat is a data-driven empiricist and narrative debunker par excellence.

Graeber is a sort of micro-narrative ethnographer-storyteller with a visceral suspicion of both numbers and abstractions. In a way the title of Graeber’s book is misleading. Debt is not one big story spanning 5000 years, but more like a collection of 5000 little stories and arguments thrown together, with a bigger narrative almost slapped on as an afterthought. And for a book about debt, money and finance, it manages the astounding feat of filling up several hundred pages with almost no numbers, equations, graphs or mathematical arguments.

On our hypothetical conference panel, Graeber would probably start out politely but end up trying to bludgeon the other two to death within a few minutes. Ghemawat would probably fight back impatiently, with barely-concealed annoyance, held back only by a sense of scholarly dignity. Fukuyama would probably walk off the stage with the tired, resigned and martyred look of a misunderstood senior academic statesman.

Moving on from these idle fantasies of academic-celebrity death-matches, let’s talk about the books.

Where they are Coming From

Jerry Springer jokes aside, the books are interesting to read together because of the sharp differences in politics, maturity of thought and individual personalities that inform the book.

It’s interesting to note that Fukuyama was born in 1952, Ghemawat in 1959 and Graeber in 1961. Personality-wise — and perhaps this is a function of age — they come across as gentle, impatient and angry, respectively.

Along another dimension, Fukuyama is mostly descriptive (though his politician-fans often mangle his ideas into prescriptions), Ghemawat is weakly prescriptive in a tentative and technocratish way, and Graeber is strongly normative.

And along a third dimension, Fukuyama is mildly reactionary (taking on classical man-in-the-state-of-nature models, but reconstructing rather than destroying them), Ghemawat is moderately reactionary (simultaneously taking aim at what he labels “globaloney” arguments on the anti-globalization side and Thomas Friedman on the pro-globalization side) and Graeber is almost entirely reactionary (devoting the entire book to attacking the foundations of mainstream economics rather than constructing an alternative framework).

I am deeply tempted to read the three as a sort of Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trinity. Fukuyama’s project is ultimately a creationist account of the world in a sort of “more perfect union” sense. Ghemawat’s is a preservationist account, deeply absorbed in the actual complexity and constraints of the world as it exists, and the problem of defending against threats and preventing things from unraveling. Graeber’s is destructive-nihilist, focused on fundamental inequities, social justice and a revolutionary agenda. You get the sense that he wouldn’t be too upset if everything unraveled.

Taken together, the three accounts constitute a fascinating creative-destructive reading of contemporary world affairs situated within a broader historical context.

But I won’t belabor this rather overwrought trinity metaphor, just leave it as a framing suggestion for you.

For Fukuyama, this book represents a sort of swan song in a long career in the public eye that began with The End of History and the Last Man (1993). He gained notoriety via an association with the neocon coterie around George W. Bush (a movement he later disavowed) and with this book, he is clearly wrapping up a lifetime of scholarship devoted to a single question. There is a certain sadness and poignancy in his approach to the subject matter as a result.

Ghemawat is best understood as an anti-Thomas-Friedman and anti-anti-globalists. In fact, World 3.0 is best viewed as a systematic attempt to tear down the anti-intellectual Friedman-Globalization-complex, which he clearly views as having done immense damage to the pro-globalization movement through its sloppy “flat” metaphors, shoddy arguments, and wild and ungrounded swings between alarmist and exuberant rhetoric. The most entertaining (though not most useful) parts of his book are the stories of his encounters with Friedman-influenced types. The project of countering anti-globalization types does not get as much attention, mainly because Ghemawat clearly does not take them very seriously.

As an ex-McKinsey consultant, ex-HBS professor (where he worked for 25 years), and current professor at IESE, Barcelona in the heart of the Eurozone and its present crisis, he is everything Friedman is not: an extremely careful, data-driven advocate of globalization: relentlessly pragmatic, skeptical of just-so stories, and studiously averse to grand-standing. Where Friedman is the ultimate uncomprehending journalist-outsider, going “Oh Wow!” at everything, Ghemawat is the ultimate insider-technocrat of globalization, the sort of immensely influential person who normally stays out of public conversations and sticks to persuasion in backrooms, cabinets and boardrooms.

And finally, Graeber is the (relatively) young hothead demagogue of the bunch. He appears to have been blooded in political combat during the anti-globalization movement of the eighties and nineties (he seems to have been involved in the resistance to the IMF/World Bank  approach to managing the world economy in particular). Of the three, he is clearly the Man of the Hour, given his association with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

As scholars, all three are complex people with careful and nuanced views on their subject matter. These are not the sorts of people you could reduce to simplistic political stances.

To the extent that they have actually been involved in world affairs, however, they cannot really avoid being politically pigeonholed: Fukuyama is a social and political conservative, Ghemawat is a classic business conservative/social liberal and Graeber is a cross between an anarchist and a neo-socialist.

With Fukuyama, you get a separation of scholarship and personal political history that is almost surreal. There is absolutely no acknowledgment that his involvement in Bush-era world affairs might be a relevant backstory (I was hoping to find some personal commentary in the preface, but was disappointed). The professor and the political influencer might as well be different people.

With Ghemawat, the separation is maintained, but there is open acknowledgment of how his involvements in world affairs have shaped his scholarly views (there are plenty of ideas substantiated by references to his role as a consultant to various world bodies and national governments for example).

With Graeber, there is a weak attempt to maintain some sort of scholar-activist separation early in the book, but by the end, the effort is completely abandoned and the scholarly endeavor is openly and clearly subordinated to the activist agenda. Debt starts out as a disinterested scholarly book, but ends as an openly political polemic.

The Raw Material

Each book tackles the question of how the world works, and each takes a historical approach to the question.  The time-span under consideration ranges, for all three, from roughly 5000 BC to modern times.

Ghemawat, after a quick tour of the first few thousand years, settles on the last century and the modern era of globalization (Zakaria’s Post-American World is a good companion read, since it fill in more detail around the parts that Ghemawat skips over a little too quickly, with the same data-driven approach).

Fukuyama ranges over the first few thousand years at a leisurely pace and stops just sort of the industrial revolution. His account of modernity is to be published in a second volume in 2012, which I am now impatient to read.

Graeber ranges all over the entire time-span, mainly to the detriment of his treatment of post-1800 modernity, since the 300-odd years between 1800 AD-2011 AD probably contain about the same quantity of relevant raw material as the 6800 years between 5000 BC and 1800 AD (that’s exponential trajectories for you). Where Fukuyama and Ghemawat modestly limit themselves, Graeber ambitiously tries to do it all in one book. In some ways he succeeds, and in other ways, he over-reaches.

(An unrelated reason for the weakness of the post-1800 parts of Graeber’s book is probably the difficulty of providing a purely qualitative-ethnographic account of the modern era. I cannot see any way to truly understand things like the subprime crisis without mathematics for instance).

The result is that Fukuyama and Ghemawat end up telling their stories in steady and measured ways, taking care to substantiate their arguments. Both are also somewhat predictable: the surprises they have to offer are relatively minor, but rigorously argued.

Graeber is more original than either Fukuyama or Ghemawat; there are startling insights, ideas and examples at practically every turn. But every argument seems suspect due to the hurried nature of the development.

It doesn’t help that the overarching narrative is shaky to the point of being incoherent, and unravels completely towards the end. At various points, I found myself reflecting that Debt would have worked better as a compendium of ethnographic anecdotes and short essays debunking of economic myths.

I’ve been discussing Debt with a few people over the last week and Daniel Lemire observed that the whole thing reads like somebody’s research notebook hastily published, without much editing. Justin Pickard (an alum of Goldsmith’s University, where Graeber teaches) rather evocatively called it “a mountain of intellectual rubble and tiny anecdotes that I can start playing with.” It’s an apt description: the book provides a lot of astounding value, but you definitely have to excavate the book rather than read it, and work hard to separate the politics from the scholarship.

Let’s take a brief look at each of the books in turn, in descending order of author age.

The Origins of Political Order

You cannot really understand Fukuyama’s book without reading it in the context of The End of History and the Last Man, the book that made him famous almost 20 years ago. If you just read The Origins of Political Order (which you can do, since it is written in a stand-alone way), you are likely to find the arguments less substantial than they actually are.

That’s because he dealt with the harder foundational questions to his own satisfaction (and to the satisfaction of about half the people who think about this sort of stuff) back in 1993. This book can be understood as a reading of history, assuming the conceptual framework of The End of History as a starting point, where he drew upon Hegelian philosophy to argue in favor of a strongly historicist understanding of political evolution, and came to the conclusion that the natural and necessary end point of political evolution is liberal democracy. It was an abstract and metaphysical argument rather than a historical one.

At the time, the problem of conceptually explaining the so-called “democratic peace” (the observation that liberal democracy has been spreading rapidly, and that liberal democracies normally don’t go to war with each other) was a much-debated question in political science, and Fukuyama provided one compelling answer. His former mentor, Samuel Huntington, and later Huntington’s student, Fareed Zakaria, fought back with counterarguments in books like The Clash of Civilizations and Illiberal Democracy. These reactions (in my opinion) conspired to miss the point: attempting to counter a purely conceptual argument intended to illuminate philosophical questions, sort of like the idea of general equilibrium in economics, with  empirical and historical counter-arguments. To be fair to Fukuyama’s critics, they were responding more to the co-option of his ideas by politicians seeking a post-Cold-War moral justification for “spreading democracy” than to Fukuyama himself. But in the process, they ended up resorting to thinly-disguised cultural essentialism (later, Huntington attracted a lot of criticism for his stridently cultural-essentialist treatment of the question of the rise of Latino culture in the US).

I read these books in the late 90s, during a period when I was myself rather enamored of complexity theory (I worked briefly with Robert Axelrod who was also working on computational models of the “democratic peace” at the time), so my own history of thinking about such questions has mostly been in computational-modeling terms. I fell in love with Fukuyama’s ideas mainly because they lend themselves very well to computational modeling perspectives.

In fact, The End of History served as my introduction to advanced political science debates.

I didn’t quite buy his liberal-democracy-is-natural-and-necessary conclusion, but I convinced myself that in a weaker form (contingent upon the specific conditions prevailing on planet earth, and given the peculiar psychology of homo sapiens, but not contingent upon cultural differences within humanity, which is what his critics argue), his idea of liberal democracy as the evolutionary end-state made complete sense to me.

The point of going into this extensive backstory is that without it, there is a good chance you might miss the point of Origins.

Origins is an analysis of history. Avoid the temptation to think of it as some sort of empirical “proof” of End of History. In a sense the End of History arguments are metaphysical and unfalsifiable. It is best to read Origins as a reading of history through the lens of End of History.

So what is the book about?

It is about the evolution of the institutional structure of modern liberal democracies. Given liberal democracy as the assumed end point of convergence for all political forms (think water drops flowing down from different points on the edge of a bowl to the bottom) Fukuyama wants to know where the institutions of liberal democracy come from. He identifies three core institutions in particular: the state, the rule of law and accountable government.

The book starts with classic Man in the State of Nature theories from Hobbes and Rousseau, reconstructs them in light of evolutionary biology. He argues that both Hobbes and Rousseau were wrong to posit states of war and peace amongst primitive individuals as starting points. Instead, he offers the idea that individualism itself is a relatively late (13th century) political development, and that State-of-Nature models must begin not with individuals but groups. You could say he arrives at a Hobbesian starting point, adapted for warring groups rather than warring individuals.

With traditional political science thought experiments thus reconstructed, he begins his story with kinship groups and tribes, and moves on to the formation of the earliest states (pristine state formation as opposed to competitive state formation).

Here he again breaks with traditional Western scholarship that usually begins with Greece (really, for no good reason), and chooses to start with China instead (which turns out to yield a much more coherent story).

He argues — very successfully — that the first modern state was the one based on the bureaucracy that emerged in China during the Warring States era and successfully endured, providing the first historical break from politics governed by kinship and tribal dynamics.

After noting that China did not develop the other two institutions (rule of law and accountable government) until modern times, he moves on to India where, he argues, a modern state in the Chinese sense never developed, but rule of law and a form of accountable government did, but without being embodied in stable institutional forms within which power and inertia could accrue.

Next, he moves westward and carefully examines the case of the Islamic state, which possessed a strong state capable of resisting kinship and tribal power (by developing the unique institution of slave armies and state institutions that finessed the problem of dealing with tribal loyalties — the famous devshirme and Mamluk models), and a strong rule of law, but no accountable government.

Finally, he picks up the European story with the growth of Christianity, the tussle between the church and the state, the weakening of family and kinship structures due to the impact of the church, the emergence of the modern idea of the socially mobile “individual” and ultimately, the modern liberal democracy, with functioning state, rule-of-law and accountable-government institutions.

The story is without a doubt a work of extraordinary synthesis. Having read more than a few world histories (both straight-up narratives and analytical accounts), I can safely say that Origins is in something of a class by itself. Like it or dislike it, it will definitely allow you to appreciate world history in ways that you probably have not occured to you.

Ignoring the foundational assumptions inherited from The End of History, which you pretty much have to either accept or reject based on your ideological leanings, the one weakness of the book is its uncritical assumption that the institutional structure of the world is in some sense central to the story of political evolution.  We do not really get a more fundamental account of organizations and institutional forms, and how they emerge from more basic forces. We also do not get an adequate account of the birth-death lifecycle dynamics of institutions. So you could call this position “institutional essentialism,” which makes the account something of a curve-fit of ideal and timeless notions of institutions onto the actual institutional history of the world.

I’ll stop here, since I can’t do justice to all three books in one post. Next time, I’ll cover the other two, and try to weave all three stories together into some sort of harmonious synthesis. Should be an interesting challenge.

jld December 2, 2011 at 2:37 am

Ah! Ah! Thanks for the overview, that’ll spare me the chore of reading them :-)

RG December 2, 2011 at 7:59 am

I loved the introductory imagined conference due to a personal reason from long ago.

Once when I was about 18, I got this idea of summarizing key concepts from books by great authors and scientists, and somehow weaving it in the form of an imaginary conversation. Soon after, I was thrilled (and disappointed) to find that such an idea has already been implemented by Sir Laurence Peter in his book Peter’s People.

Absolutely loved the structured compare/contrast format of the three authors and books. Like @jld I offer thanks – for the same reason! I am sure I will not enjoy devouring these tomes as much as reading this piece. Await the next installment.

Am curious to know: did you read the books one after the other or were they consumed in a kind of parallel fashion?

Sima December 2, 2011 at 8:40 am

Keeping up with your 10x writing output is already killing me, Venkat. Trying to tackle your reading list as well…that would push me over the edge, for sure.

I’m pleased to hear that Fukuyama brings China into the equation, but…

“After noting that China did not develop the other two institutions (rule of law and accountable government) until modern times…”

Does that mean that he believes China has achieved both rule of law and accountable government?

Venkat December 2, 2011 at 10:31 am

No, he doesn’t… sorry, my accidental misrepresentation. But I guess you could say weak forms of those things have emerged, compared to imperial times.

Sima December 2, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Thanks for clarifying that.

I think care is required in even suggesting that weak forms of those things have emerged. There have certainly been considerable efforts to refine or ‘perfect’ the legal system in recent years, but I think this is better understood as a move toward ‘rule by law’ rather than ‘rule of law’.

Some of my older Chinese friends see their history in largely cyclical terms and view the current state as simply another imperial cycle.

David Graeber December 2, 2011 at 11:17 am

The book has a complex but quite carefully worked out architecture – which simply requires a little bit of attention by the reader to figure out.

I also find it odd it’s described repeatedly as “angry” without noticing the fact that it’s also playful and funny (how many actual jokes do the other two put in? like zero?) But I guess you once again mistook playful for incoherent.

Sad really. A book is only as good as its readers.

Jordan Peacock December 2, 2011 at 11:56 am

While I disagree with Venkat’s conclusions (and, for what it’s worth, loved the book myself), I can attest that his analysis has been anything but cursory. I hope you’ll stay full judgement til part II. Glad to see you in on the discussion though.

Venkat December 2, 2011 at 12:03 pm

I don’t know quite what to say to that. I suppose you have every right to defend the book and clarify your intentions that various readers may or may not see come through.

The humor/playfulness definitely did not come through for me. The architecture of the book, on the other hand, did come through quite clearly. I just didn’t find it as persuasive as the individual fine-grained arguments.

I haven’t actually gotten into my take on your book, since this post was mostly a preamble for all 3 and a dive into Fukuyama, but my reaction was much more positive than you seem to think (and since 3 people appear to have bought the book already via my affiliate link since I posted this last night, it looks like most readers are getting that I am actually recommending your book).

I’ll get into my take on Debt in the 2nd part, next week.
Venkat

jld December 2, 2011 at 1:49 pm

Huh?
This is “The Internet” isn’t it?
Why should anyone think that you are the real David Graeber?

David Graeber December 3, 2011 at 12:40 am

Well, you know, there’s a bit of a difference between saying you don’t agree with the overall argument, and saying that there isn’t one, that the book is, as you claim, a rubble-like mass of anecdotes with no coherent thread. You have the right to say anything you like in your review (as I have the right to say anything I like in reply) but since virtually no one else who’s reviewed the book seems to have had too much trouble seeing the overall architecture and agreeing there was, indeed, an overall form and structure to it, whether or not they find the argument itself compelling, your describing it as an incoherent mass of unconnected arguments strikes me as indicating either that you for some reason, unlike most readers, didn’t figure out what the organizing structure was, or, alternately, that you’ve chosen to consciously misrepresent its contents.

Venkat December 3, 2011 at 1:52 am

I did not find the overall argument persuasive partly *because* I found it incoherent.
This is not a subject where I rely on social proof to decide what I think, so I am afraid I have to trust my own judgment here. That does not constitute misrepresentation or bad faith where I come from. Merely independence of thought.

As for the humor, as a friend remarked, a few jokes peppered through a book do not make it humorous. But then humor too is a subjective thing.

But thanks for the #OccupyBlogComments movement here. Few of the authors I’ve reviewed on this site have joined in the conversation as you have, and none so energetically.

That, btw, is my kind of humor. I know, I know, you don’t see it, right?

At any rate you may have successfully browbeaten me into not posting a review at all, or limiting myself to a much shorter post than I’d originally intended. I have no taste for unnecessary flame wars.

David Graeber December 3, 2011 at 12:47 am

Oh yes, and as for humor, there are – to take just the most example – actual, explicit jokes scattered throughout the book. Many are placed in a different format like quotes just so you can figure out what they are. Did you somehow just not notice those?

Goblin December 3, 2011 at 4:43 pm

Dr. Graeber, aside from the thin skinned, dare I say reactionary, comments how is this a good demonstration of of intellectual, let alone individual, cooperation? If you can’t take a little bit of criticism without politicizing it or taking it personally then how are you helping your case? As you demonstrate here some of the very same moods and attitudes that were part of the original criticism. And frankly such personal grievances are best handled out of the publics eye. Might I suggest opening up a back channel (via email) discussion to address your concerns? This seems best for this situation, I as I am sure many others, see no reason to involve the public in what is properly a private scuffle.

So take it out back, and when you two are done bruising each other, then both of you can limp back into public with your honors’ intact, and with, I hope to God, some sort of mutual understanding/ respect of one another.

dr z (or is it David Graeber?) December 5, 2011 at 12:20 pm

What makes you think this is David Graeber the author of the book?

Goblin December 5, 2011 at 1:47 pm

Either way it doesn’t matter, but my comment is an attempt force his hand, so that Venkat will know one way or another.

dr z December 5, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Fair enough…

Venkat December 5, 2011 at 4:15 pm

LOL!

The email address seems to be legit, but who knows. I’ve responded on the assumption that it is the real David Graeber.

Jon December 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

FWIW, Dr. Graeber:

Going after those who offer critique of one’s work didn’t work for Anne Rice on Amazon, and, if it matters to you, it’s not doing you any favors here either.

Steve Heise December 4, 2011 at 8:46 am

How the World Works

One perspective is not enough.

Markus December 5, 2011 at 7:09 am

Goblin, you want them off the stage? Well, I must admit I sort of enjoy the spectacle. I have never read such a eloquent blog comment disagreement.
But like a action scene from a Kurusawa movie I guess the fighting is over and er are back to conversation and mimics ;-)

Goblin December 5, 2011 at 1:37 pm

This is a version of a speech I’ve given before to a pair co-workers who had a spat in the middle of a (limited) break. So If you want to read anything meta-from my comment, take is as a plea of decency on the web (even if such pleas are viewed with disdain, I think it needed to be said).

dms December 5, 2011 at 9:20 am

Venkat, If I can read only one (apart from the definitive one that you are going to write :), which one would you suggest?

Picador December 5, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Venkat:

Your comments defending Fukuyama’s “The End of History” strike me as unusually obtuse for you:

These reactions (in my opinion) conspired to miss the point: attempting to counter a purely conceptual argument intended to illuminate philosophical questions, sort of like the idea of general equilibrium in economics, with empirical and historical counter-arguments.

Grand theories that fly in the face of observed fact deserve to be ridiculed, Venkat. It’s called “science”. And yes, this is why neoclassical economics is also not a science, but a religion. That is what you call any discipline that clings to beautiful theories and models after they have been exhaustively debunked by ugly reality.

To be fair to Fukuyama’s critics, they were responding more to the co-option of his ideas by politicians seeking a post-Cold-War moral justification for “spreading democracy” than to Fukuyama himself.

… politicians whom Fukuyama went out of his way to support by acting as their pet “intellectual”. Again, this is a distinction without a difference. Like the Chicago economists, Fukuyama quite actively whored himself out to the neocons running the world, dumping any pretense of objective scientific or historical inquiry in favour of manufacturing pseudo-intellectual propaganda to provide cover for the machinations of empire.

Am I missing something here? Why all the apologetics for such an intellectual fraud? What next, a thoughtful review of the arguments put forward in Newt Gingrich’s latest magnum opus? A considered essay on the arguments made by global warming denialists? Cigarette company scientists? Holocaust deniers?

Markus December 6, 2011 at 10:31 am

Beware, from the forest emerged a troll. They seldom stray to these parts. Stay still and perhaps vi will venture elsewhere.

Phil Windley December 7, 2011 at 4:08 pm

Curious if you’ve read much of Philip Bobbit and how you think it fits into all this.

Picador December 12, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Beware, from the forest emerged a troll. They seldom stray to these parts. Stay still and perhaps vi will venture elsewhere.

My comments were in direct response to arguments made in the original post. They were not off-topic, and were intended to further the discussion of the merits of one of the authors being reviewed. Unlike you, I made no personal attacks on anyone participating in this discussion, but have addressed arguments on their merits.

I have to guess that you disagree with one or more of the things I said. That doesn’t make me a troll.

Markus December 12, 2011 at 7:07 pm

OK, please read you posting again, Picador.

You do not counter arguments with arguments, but with ranting. Your tone and ad-hominem attacks speaks for themselves.

Conscious trolling – I believe you did not intend it, when you say so – but certainly not debating either.

The great deal of the beauty of Ribbonfarm – at least to me – lies in the quality of the comments.

Bret Pettichord December 16, 2011 at 6:20 pm

I recently read Graeber’s Debt book and was really looking forward to your review. I really liked the book. More than anything, it gave me a new frame to look at history and, as such, helped me understand some connections that were puzzling for me. For example, it allowed me to interpret the story of Genesis as an ancient attempt to reframe the debt peonage of the Hebrew people in a less humiliating light. That, of course, is not an argument from his book, but rather my own extrapolation, taking off from Graeber’s basic frame that disaster capitalism is nothing new. It’s had a big change on how I think about a lot of things, and I am looking forward to hearing your comments about it, Venkat, however you choose to frame them. I also found it to be an angry book, but that did not make me like it any less.

Picador December 16, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Markus,

A troll, as I undertand the term, is someone who attempts to hijack a conversation by posting off-topic comments, including ad hominen attacks and other forms of abuse aimed at people involved in the conversation.

The original post by Venkat was a review of several books, including one by Francis Fukuyama. In the course of critiquing the book, Venkat engaged with the author’s ideological positioning, which necessarily hugely informs any reading of the book. Among the arguments made by Venkat were:

1. Fukuyama’s critics from the anti-imperialist left “conspired to miss the point” of his political theories.

2.These critics were wrong in part because they asked Fukuyama’s abstract, theoretical proposals to apply to real-world situations.

3. Some of the critics’ wrongheadedness was a result of their “responding more to the co-option of his ideas by politicians seeking a post-Cold-War moral justification for “spreading democracy” than to Fukuyama himself.”

I responded to each of these arguments in turn with specific reasons why I thought they were deficient. I did not “rant”. I set out my reasons for why, based on his writings and public actions (including but not limited to his public support for America’s genocidal adventure in Iraq), I think Fukuyama is an authoritarian boot-licker shitbag who isn’t worth reading. (Remember: it is his political writings which are the topic of conversation.)

You responded to my post by attacking me personally and attempting to derail the conversation without adding anything of substance to it.

You continue to attack me using vacuous insults (“ranting” etc) without engaging any of my arguments.

If you disagree with me, Markus, tell me how and why. Unless throwing around unsubstantiated insults is the kind of “high quality commentary” you come here for.

Venkat December 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm

Okay, that’s enough. Please don’t make me lock down the comments for this post.

M.S. Patterson December 19, 2011 at 10:28 am

Just a brief comment about tone and humor:

I am an irregular reader of this blog, and thus am not steeped in your language.

So while I agree with you on a few points about Dr. Graeber’s work–in particular that his politics peeks through in places, and that his editor let him down from time to time–I did feel like some of your commentary about his work was borderline insulting, and your Jerry Springer analogy is pretty unflattering to him in particular. I suspected while reading that much of it was supposed to be humor, but I couldn’t really be sure, and if so he ends up the butt of your jokes more than the other two.

I suspect that he had a similar response upon encountering it, presuming those are indeed his comments. While an academic and a scholar, he is only human, and attached to his work. Had I spent as much time working on a piece of scholarship as he clearly has on “Debt”, I’d be pretty irked to see it called a “heap” as well.

(For the record, I also disagree with this characterization. The book has a somewhat meandering structure, but it is to a purpose, and Graeber clearly intended to take the reader the oxbow route for a reason. For those expecting the canal route from point A to point B and on, this might be frustrating or even incomprehensible, I guess. Many of the ideas contained within the book are sufficiently jarring and alien to the modern Western POV that circuitousness is a virtue, I think.)

Personally, I would go ahead and post your review and thoughts about the book, and not be worried about the repercussions. After all, what’s wrong with a little heated exchange now and again?

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