Bullshit Within the Limits of Bare Reason

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

My review of David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs in the February 2019 issue of Reason magazine is now online.

Spoiler alert: it’s not a sequel to Harry Frankfurt’s book.

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20 Responses to Bullshit Within the Limits of Bare Reason

  1. dL January 29, 2019 at 2:27 pm #

    “magic of the marketplace”

    It would be an interesting deconstruction to trace how libertarianism became identified with that characterization because that sentiment is not in the source texts. For example, Bastiat in Economic Sophisms only identified consumer interest–and not the interests of producers– as being aligned with the general interest. In fact, business interests–and Monsieur Bastiat repeated himself to emphasize this point–are fundamentally antagonistic to the interests of consumers and by implication, the general interest. And it is only unfettered competition that harmonizes the interests with business with the general interest. If ‘bullshit jobs” are oppressive, and competition is defined as the absence of oppression, then the high ratio of bullshit jobs in government and business is simply a measure of the lack of competition in each. There is no need for a second libertarian response, or a third one, etc. The “marketplace” is not a prima facie sufficient condition for any magic.

    • Roderick January 29, 2019 at 5:53 pm #

      Well, Bastiat did devote an entire book, his Economic Harmonies (the title evidently chosen as a rebuke to Proudhon’s Economic Contradictions), to the thesis that ultimately (big-picture, long-term, etc.) the interests of all economic actors — producers and consumers, employers and workers, etc. — are in harmony. Which of course is consistent with some of their immediate and partial interests’ being in conflict.

      • dL January 30, 2019 at 12:55 am #

        ultimately (big-picture, long-term, etc.) the interests of all economic actors — producers and consumers, employers and workers, etc. — are in harmony.

        Yeah, well Bastiat has been dead for 150 years. How long exactly is long-term? And IIRC my Bastiat correctly, the harmony of labor and capital is predicated on the condition of decreasing marginal returns on increased capital accumulation and increasing labor shares–measured absolutely and relatively–for said capital accumulation. If capital moves at the speed of light and labor moves at the speed of border control and government documents, I think we are back at Economic Sophisms. And I would proffer that IP voids the decreasing marginal returns stipulation for capital accumulation.

        • Roderick January 30, 2019 at 1:11 am #

          “Yeah, well Bastiat has been dead for 150 years. How long exactly is long-term?”

          Well, long-term in a genuine free market. Bastiat’s arguments don’t apply in the same way to a market distorted by privilege — a fact he was sometimes responsive to and sometimes not, as his outlook contained both strong vulglib and strong non-vulglib strains.

  2. Jane January 29, 2019 at 7:16 pm #

    David Graeber’s critique of markets is most apparent in his book on value theory (as well the debt book), he hints at it in chapter 6 of the Bullshit Jobs book.

    The book is “Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams” is available as a PDF on monoskop.org and as an ePub on libcom.org.

    Keith Hart (an anthropologist who’s more sympathetic of markets than Graeber) wrote a somewhat good review of some Graeber’s work:



    What does the tradition of libertarianism, that you belong to, think of forms of economic transfers (that are already pervasive) that are neither state nor market based, some of these do not even take the form of exchanges?

    Capitalist economies are not “essentially” market economies, nor even market economies with huge state intervention. Large parts of capitalist economies don’t operate according to a market logic and most of our economic transfers do not take the form of buying and selling (or state redistribution).

    In households (and we all know this from everyday experience) most economic transfer take the form of non-reciprocal sharing, which I would communism (as they operate with the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’) and occasional reciprocal gift-exchange.

    This is true of our most transactions everywhere, not just the household, like between friends and even various civil associations, even to a much smaller degree between strangers (this “degree” changes depending on how market dominated the society is), like if stranger asks you for direction or for a lighter you’re not going to start charging him/her for it.

    Here’s a short typology of these various economic forms that I am talking about:

    ——Different kinds of “exchange”: gift exchange and market exchange:

    Market exchange is an exchange of alienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal independence.

    Noncommodity (gift) exchange is an exchange of inalienable things between transactors who are in a state of reciprocal dependence.

    Market exchange establishes objective quantitative relationships (prices) between the objects transacted, while gift exchange establishes personal qualitative relationships between the subjects transacting.

    Gift exchange differs from barter or market exchange because the value of the gifts is judged qualitatively, not quantitatively as in the case of commodities. Gift-exchange is based on ‘the capacity for actors (agents, subjects) to extract or elicit from others items that then become the object of their relationship’.

    In his famous book “Gifts and Commodities”, Christopher A. Gregory (an economic anthropologist) suggests this is a general tendency.

    Gift economies tend to personify objects. Commodity/market economies, do the opposite: they tend to treat human beings, or at least, aspects of human beings, like objects. The most obvious example is human labor: in modern economics we talk of “goods and services” as if human activity itself were something analogous to an object, which can be bought or sold in the same way as cheese, or tire-irons.

    Gregory lays out a tidy set of oppositions. Gifts are transactions that are meant to create or effect “qualitative” relations between persons; they take place within a preexisting web of personal relations; therefore, even the objects involved have a tendency to take on the qualities of people.

    Commodity exchange (market), on the other hand, is meant to establish a “quantitative” equivalence of value between objects; it should ideally be done quite impersonally; therefore, there is a tendency to treat even the human beings involved like things.

    ——Some non-exchange, non reciprocal forms of economic transfers: Demand sharing, pooling, “everyday Communism”:

    It’s similar to what David Graeber calls “everyday communism” (others like anthropologist Thomas Widlok call it “demand sharing”), which he defines as:

    “An open-ended agreement between two groups, or even two individuals, to provide for the other; within which, even access to one another’s possessions followed the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’.”

    ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’, the old communist formula, basically means if you have a need and I have the ability to meet that need, I do it.

    Keeping count or reciprocating is very frowned upon in these sort of situations.

    This sort of communism is quite common (even under capitalism), in families, between friends and there’s a little of it in every non-hostile relationship.)

    What characterizes a sharing context comparatively is that it extends the circle of people who can enjoy the good implicated in a resource, for instance accessing a certain resource such as water. In other words, sharing food or drink is an action done for its own sake, putting the good of nourishment in the place of any specific goals that may be derivative of the transfer of food items, for instance the attempt to create obligations for the future. In this understanding, sharing is not a manifestation of an altruistic move, putting the goals of others above one’s own goals, but rather one of renouncing derivative goals altogether in the face of intrinsic goods—its intrinsic value if you will. In gift-giving contexts, by contrast, goals of various kinds (whether held jointly by the exchange partners or not, whether altruistic or egoistic) override the intrinsic good of whatever it is that is being provided.

    It’s important to distinguish exchange, which is usually for “external” and strategic benefits such as having a network of partners, creating obligations for the future, etc. (gift-exchange) or and more impersonal and violent benefits when it comes to market-exchange – from sharing that entails the intrinsic goods of receiving a share (sharing out) and of being accepted as a member of the community of humans with recognized needs (sharing in).

    Unlike what the economic fundamentalists would have you believe, sharing is not governed by either ecological need and pressure nor a diffuse notion of generosity and altruism. The ethnographic record shows that sharing takes place not only under conditions of scarcity, and that it typically takes the form of demand sharing rather than apparently generous gift-giving. In fact, a number of cultural conditions have to be in place for sharing to work. Unlike the case of exchange systems, these conditions are not formally institutionalized normative systems but, instead, complex systems of habitual practice. In the ethnographic cases (including those in capitalist societies), sharing works because people have a shared history of mutual involvements as kin, because they master numerous ways of initiating sharing through implicature and other forms of talk, and finally because they recognize the presence of others as the (often silent) demand that it constitutes toward those who have and who are in a position to give.

    Many acts of sharing took place, and continue to take place, because they are initiated by the taker and social strategies are in place that decouple giving from receiving. Sharing may therefore take place (as said before) without the provider enacting and expressing charity. Often it takes place in a way that downgrades the act of giving as part of leveling any potential attempts of the giver to take political advantage from his or her economically advantaged position. Demand sharing not only inverts the sequence of action but also the tone of the transaction that is known as “charitable giving.” There is no sharing without a demand. The demand need not be uttered, and it need not be the demand of a specific interlocutor since it is a demand for provisioning that emerges as a consequence of moral role relationships or as incurred by a particular situation of copresence, as I would prefer to call it. We need to recognize that one’s mere bodily presence, underlined by addressing the other person in particular ways, is always a demand for being acknowledged as a partner, a personal being with legitimate needs. An appropriate definition of demand sharing is therefore much broader than the use of explicit demands such as “Give me . . .” leading to the appropriation of what one may think one is entitled to. The explicitness of the demand may differ and it may be entirely implicit very much like a “silent demand”. Humans are sufficiently able to put themselves into the situation of others to be able to know what the intrinsic goods of shared objects are for fellow humans without any demand being uttered.

    Sharing is generally characterized by the preparedness to suspend measuring objects against one another (which means that sharing does not necessarily entail that everyone gets the same) in that situation and by the unwillingness to hang on to something in a particular situation.

    • Roderick January 30, 2019 at 12:45 am #

      “What does the tradition of libertarianism, that you belong to, think ….”

      Well, I belong to several different nested and/or intersecting libertarian traditions (and I’m also not sure whether you intended a restrictive or nonrestrictive clause there). But the left-wing market anarchist tradition that I primarily identify with tends to see the cash nexus as ONE valuable form of market exchange (in part because of the coordinative function of a price system: cf. MIses, Hayek, usw.) but crucially NOT desirable (and, absent distorting power relations, not likely) as a supreme, monolithic, hegemonic, all-pervasive form of market exchange. We tend to use the term “markets” rather as inclusive of, but broader than, the cash nexus; and in any case, terminology aside, our ideal economy would be a mix of a variety of forms of exchange, including the cash nexus, sharing economies, worker cooperatives, individual entrepreneurs, private ownership, common ownership, etc. Which we also think is what people tend to do when unconstrained by relations of domination and coercion.

      Check out our book Markets Not Capitalism, which we offer for the low low un-capitalist price of zero dollars and zero cents!

      • Roderick January 30, 2019 at 1:13 am #

        And for a partly sympathetic, partly critical review of Graeber’s Debt book from a left-wing market anarchist perspective, see William Gillis’s piece here.

      • Jane January 30, 2019 at 7:06 am #

        I don’t think that broadening the meaning of term “market” as to mean any voluntary transaction would be analytically helpful or correct, the term would not apply to any of these other forms of economic transfer (some of which are not even exchange based), as much of these terms were consciously coined in opposition to market-exchange and as something outside it.
        I know that this comes from an essay from your colleague Charles Johnson, but it also something that Rothbard used do, as he would tacitly equate market with anything voluntary, and would use it to conclude that anyone who disagreed with him on the subject of markets is necessarily advocating for coercion and authoritarianism.

      • Jane January 30, 2019 at 8:33 am #

        On “the coordinative function of a price system: cf. MIses, Hayek, usw”,, the philosopher John O’Neill present a convincing critique of the economic calculation debate in his book “The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics”, he criticism are more centered around Mises’ side of the debate, the economist Philip Mirowski is the one who focuses on Hayek’s side.

        You can find a PDF of the O’Neill’s book here (he also wrote papers about Austrian econ):


    • dL January 30, 2019 at 10:27 pm #

      a fact he was sometimes responsive to and sometimes not, as his outlook contained both strong vulglib and strong non-vulglib strains.

      Hmm, I would say that more about the readers of Bastiat than Bastiat himself. I can’t find this “vulglib” yin yang in Bastiat’s work. Yes, I suppose one could say Bastiat in Economic Harmonies tried to walk back a bit the consumer producer antagonism he advanced in his previous work, Economic Sophisms, claiming that he–and not without cause–was misinterpreted and that this misalignment of incentives was merely transactional in nature and not etched into the permanent condition. However, no market libertarian, left or right, would claim labor and capital are fundamentally and permanently in conflict. Economic Harmonies is not Cato’s Human Progress, which uses an intergenerational standard of living test(which I equate to Orwell’s loudspeakers) to morally judge the political economy

      • Roderick January 31, 2019 at 9:58 am #

        The vulgar/nonvulgar dance I detect in Bastiat doesn’t have anything to do with the presence or absence of consumer/producer antagonism. For more what I have in mind, see my comments on his debate with Proudhon.

        • dL January 31, 2019 at 10:54 am #

          For more what I have in mind, see my comments on his debate with Proudhon.

          I fail to see how defending the time value of money is vulgar libertarianism. Vulgar libertarianism would be more along the lines of citing the time value of money to defend Goldman Sachs as the free market in action. But as you wrote in your commentary piece regarding Bastiat’s response to Proudhon’s example of debtor plight:

          Bastiat’s response is that, first, it is a mistake to take the prevailing economic plight of debtors as evidence of the natural tendency of interest, since the existing loan market is not free but is distorted by various sorts of governmental interventions

          So, Bastiat was not using a time value of money argument to defend the French political economy status quo or the plight of debtors circa 1850.

        • Roderick February 1, 2019 at 2:41 am #

          Yeah, I’m not saying that “defending the time value of money is vulgar libertarianism.” Search for the several occurrences of the word “vulgar” on that page to see what I’m saying.

  3. Jane January 29, 2019 at 7:48 pm #

    Are you familiar with C. B. Macpherson’s “The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism”?

    It’s a critique of some of the main assumptions of the tradition within liberalism that mainstream libertarians identify with, I’d love to know if you have ever engaged with it.

    • Roderick January 30, 2019 at 1:02 am #

      I read Macpherson’s book back in the Pleistocene when I was a college student, which was also when I was much more of a mainstream capitalist libertarian, and so predictably didn’t think much of it. I haven’t revisited the book since, and so might find it more congenial today, in my more lefty sere and yellow leaf; but from my recollection of the book I suspect I would still find it to a great extent an uncharitable strawmanning of the liberal individualist tradition, which in its main line has, as I read it, always been pro-sociality and anti-atomist.

      So, again going by my recollection, it’s by treating the highly atomistic (and consequently thoroughly anti-liberal and anti-individualist) Hobbes as the poster boy for liberal individualism, and assimilating what I see as very un-Hobbesian thinkers to the Hobbesian paradigm, that Macpherson is able to tell the story he wants to tell.

      To be clear, that’s not to say that the liberal individualist tradition isn’t full of deeply problematic shit. But I’m inclined to think Macpherson’s story about where the problems lie is unhelpful.

      For a bit on why I see liberal individualism as inherently opposed to, rather than being a form of, atomism, see the first few pages of this piece of mine (though today, 12 years later, I would describe the landscape a bit differently than I do in that piece).

      • Irfan Khawaja January 31, 2019 at 6:11 pm #

        I happened to read large swatches of Macpherson last year: you have a good memory.

    • dL February 1, 2019 at 8:29 pm #

      Search for the several occurrences of the word “vulgar” on that page to see what I’m saying.

      Well, of course, I already did that. Each instance you cited, you qualified it. For example:

      one might call this a “vulgar libertarian” moment in Bastiat – though given his defense of labour unions, his relentless assaults on mercantile privilege, and his overall orientation toward narrowing the gap between rich and poor, he’s certainly not a vulgar libertarian in general

      Which doesn’t support the contention that you are now making(?) that Bastiat followed a “vulgar/nonvulgar dance” in his work.

      • Roderick February 1, 2019 at 10:07 pm #

        Isn’t being vulgar in some contexts but not all, precisely what it is to do a vulgar/nonvulgar dance?

  4. dL February 1, 2019 at 11:20 pm #

    Isn’t being vulgar in some contexts but not all, precisely what it is to do a vulgar/nonvulgar dance?

    There’s a difference between a momentary stumble and a dance. No one is perfect.

  5. David Gordon February 2, 2019 at 8:02 pm #

    Spoiler alert: it’s not a sequel to Harry Frankfurt’s book.


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