Brad DeLong : No, Silicon Valley Did Not and Does Not Partake of the Anarchist Utopian Nature. Why Did You Imagine It Did?: I would be smarter if I read more Unfogged comment threads...
Courtesy of an unknown lurker informing the Mineshaft that "Graeber, on Twitter, sourced [his] Apple claim to his memory of a lecture by Richard Wolff", and of bjk commenting on More on Graeber, I am led to the… unusual opinions… of neo-Althusserian structuralist wingnut--and guy who made it pleasant to be at U.Mass--Richard D. Wolff:
Economic Crisis from a Socialist Perspective: Beginnings for the "reform plus" strategy: The contradictions of capitalism offer us partial yet useful examples of the democratization of enterprise advocated by this “reform plus” agenda. One of these, recurring in California for decades, can illustrate our argument.
In the Silicon Valley on the peninsula below San Francisco, groups of computer software engineers in large capitalist corporations (IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and so on) quit their jobs. They leave well-paid positions as hired workers. They explain that they detest being told what to work on and how to work by supervisors and executives. They reject work in suits and ties, in arid corporate buildings, etc. They insist that such conditions stifle their creativity, their work productivity, and their physical and mental well-being.
After quitting, small groups often gather with their laptop computers in someone's garage. They form a new enterprise with rules of strict equality. All decisions about what to work on and how to work are made collectively. All proceeds from the sale of software they create are received and distributed collectively (partly to themselves as individual incomes). The net revenues that remain after individual incomes and all other costs are subtracted - the surplus/profits - are distributed by means of collective decisions with each engineer having an equal voice. Each engineer's job description in such enterprises has two parts: (1) Monday through Thursday work on software in ways collectively determined, and (2) on Friday participate in collective decision-making regarding what to produce, how to produce, and how to distribute the enterprise's revenues.
In such enterprises, workers have become their own collective board of directors and have abolished the exploitative worker-capitalist relation. In Marxian terms, they have replaced their enterprise's capitalist class structure with a communitarian (or communist) structure. Because Marxian ideas are largely excluded from circulating and being taught in the US, these engineers and the journalists and academics who describe them cannot use Marxian class terms. Instead, they refer to “innovative entrepreneurship” to explain the many breakthroughs in software and computer technology achieved by such non-capitalist (in Marxian terms) enterprises. The working conditions of software engineers are no doubt unique, as are the concrete conditions of all other kinds of work, but many share the capitalist division between workers and boards of directors that this new socialist strategy would target for change.>Thus, this new socialist strategy might recognize and celebrate such basic transitions out of capitalist enterprises as germs of the broader social change it seeks. On that basis, it could demand and pursue the political, cultural, and economic conditions - including state assistance - needed for such non-capitalist enterprises to function successfully. Such a new socialist strategy could show that achievement of its goals would provide all workers with a new freedom to choose between working in capitalist or in such non-capitalist enterprises.
Achievement of such socialist goals would likewise provide all consumers with new choices between commodities made by traditional capitalist enterprises and those emerging from democratized ones. State assistance (financing, subsidies, etc.) would be justified to enable non-capitalist enterprises to grow and compete with capitalist enterprises to see what mix of them a democratic society would choose…
Wolff's references for these paragraphs are to:
McCarty, Nolan, Poole, Keith T. and Rosenthal, Howard (2008) Polarized America: The Dance of Ideology and Unequal Riches MIT Press, Cambridge and London
Putnam, Robert D. (2000) Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community Simon and Schuster , New York
Resnick, Stephen and Richard, Wolff (2002) Class Theory and History: Capitalism and Communism in the USSR Routledge , New York and London
None of these, needless to say, provide any documentation for Wolff's… fantasies, I guess we should call them.
From my perspective, it seems clear that Wolff is spinning his narrative out of:
- one part Ron Rosenbaum's and Robert X. Cringely's writings about the countercultural thread in Silicon Valley (i.e., such groups as the Homebrew Computer Club),
- four parts George Orwell's and others' visions of what Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War ought to have been,
- five parts Karl Marx's 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, and
- ninety parts getting-into-the-'shrooms.
Wolff's writings are of interest because I, at least, am highly confident that David Graeber picked them up for the infamous Apple passage in his alternatingly brilliant, annoying, and completely wrong book Debt:
The greater the need to improvise, the more democratic the cooperation tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle: not only with things like freeware, which everyone talks about, but even in the organization of their businesses. Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages…
(The passage gave rise to this Mammoth Unfogged Thread on which the most famous example is: "Playboy magazine is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly lesbian) women who broke from the Knights Templar in the 6th century, forming little fantasy football leagues over Twitter…" Note that the thread is, on balance, more pro- than anti-Graeber.)
Graeber gives no references for this "famous example" in Debt. He does, however, write:
Seminar on Debt: The First 5000 Years: 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.)
Graeber, however, does not name a single company of which it is true-for which, in Wolff's words:
groups of computer software engineers in large capitalist corporations (IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and so on) quit… small groups often gather with their laptop computers in someone's garage… form a new enterprise with rules of strict equality… decisions about what to work on and how to work are made collectively… proceeds from the sale of software they create are received and distributed collectively… net revenues that remain after individual incomes and all other costs are subtracted - the surplus/profits - are distributed by means of collective decisions with each engineer having an equal voice…. Monday through Thursday [engineers] work on software in ways collectively determined, and… Friday participate in collective decision-making… workers have become their own collective board of directors and have abolished the exploitative worker-capitalist relation… replaced their enterprise's capitalist class structure with a communitarian (or communist) structure…
Note what Graeber does not say: He does not say "I wrote this passage from what I remembered of a lecture by Richard Wolff that was itself excessively vague". He says, instead: "What I wrote was right! What I wrote is true of many, many firms!! But I am not going to tell you what they are!!!"
Having doubled down, he quadruples down, blaming his editor:
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…
And then he octuples down by blaming his publisher:
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…
And then, having established to his satisfaction that what he originally wrote was completely 100% correct and true of many, many firms in Silicon Valley, he hexadecaples down:
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…
For it is not just one "garbled sentence" that intelligent opinion thinks is simply totally wrong, it is an entire chapter--chapter 12--and more.
Let me give just one example: Graeber's claim that the:
Federal Reserve… is technically not part of the government at all, but a peculiar sort of public-private hybrid, a consortium of privately owned banks whose chairman is appointed by the United States president, with Congressional approval, but which otherwise operates without public oversight…
is the kind of glaring error that Graeber claims nobody has noticed.
Of the twelve votes on the Federal Open Market Committee, it is not one single vote but rather seven--a majority--that are cast by officers of the United States government.
These officers--seven of them, not one--are the Governors of the Federal Reserve.
They are all appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.
And the Governors play a substantial role in the appointment of the five other voting and the seven non-voting members of the Federal Open Market Committee as well.
Needless to say, I am now scrutinizing the parts of Debt that I liked very, very carefully indeed…
UPDATE: And another inconsistent account by David Graeber of where his Apple passage came from. Mark Gemein:
The Strangest History Of Apple Ever: Reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the history of the economics and ethics of debt by David Graeber, I stumbled on one of the oddest histories of Silicon Valley you’ll ever see. Graeber is the anthropologist who is in some ways the intellectual father of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Debt is not precisely an academic monograph, or a popular book. It’s what in the 19th century would probably have been thought of as a treatise on political economy. And it covers a lot of ground…. [I]t’s not really worthwhile going over what’s wrong with [Graeber's Apple] sentence. Yesterday I sent a tweet asking about this with a big “!?” Here’s the ensuing Twitter dialogue.
@markgimein David Graeber,Debt,p96: Apple was founded by engineers from IBM who formed little democratic circles of 20-40 with laptops in garages.-HUH?!
@davidgraeber: oh ask Mr Wolff
@markgimein: You mean Tom Wolfe (this http://bit.ly/tuUz4O ?) But he was talking about HP, not Apple.
[I though Graeber might have had in mind Tom Wolfe’s essay about the origins of Hewlett Packard and Silicon Valley. That was somewhat closer to the description in the book.]
@davidgraeber: no I mean Richard Wolff the Marxist economist whose student did a study of the origins of Apple and never published it
@markgimein: Don’t know about Wolff. But I don’t think Apple was founded by IBM refugees. And when it was founded there were no laptops.
@davidgraeber: the laptops thing was a result of a compression of two sentences, that was silly
@davidgraeber: Richard Wolff actually and I think he led me astray
@davidgraeber: yeah I know I think Wolff was just kind of wrong about a lot of this; I tried to check with him but he didn’t answer the email
@davidgraeber: it’s upsetting; it’s also possible he was talking about a different early start-up; anyway won’t be in the 2nd edition!
Give Graeber a pass on the laptops. I’m prone to typos myself, and know how irritating it is when I make a hash of what I meant to say with a quick last minute rewrite that introduces mistakes. Graeber is old enough to remember that there were Apples long before there were laptops. Still, the sentences about Apple in the book do elicit another “Huh?”
Wolff was just kinda wrong about a lot of this
sits very, very uncomfortably next to Graeber's line-of-the-month-for-March:
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.)