Creative Refusal

The new strategy of creative refusal of impoverishment by austerity continues to unfold. After some different strategies in New York, today’s countrywide general strike in Spain made it clear that the crisis in the eurozone shows no sign of being over. Tonight in New York, David Graeber urged an overflow crowd to extend our historical as well as geographic understandings of creative refusal.

With the Greek elections ahead, new cuts promised across Europe and recessions now official from the UK to Portugal, refusal is just beginning. The electricity surcharge strike in Greece has been joined by a tax strike in Ireland with a rally planned for Saturday after only 23% of taxpayers have consented to the new austerity tax.

In Spain today, the general strike shut down the auto industry, heavy industry, the trains and the airports. Electricity use, the new index of strike action, was down 25%. Should there be any news reports here, they will no doubt show the small fire in Barcelona. Much more impressive were the direct actions. Here’s the Atocha Station, site of the bombings whose anniversary just passed, closed by the strike:

The Atocha Station closed by strike action

For the edification of Chris Hedges, here’s what Black bloc actually does–it shut down a major highway in Barcelona this morning and this took personal courage:

Students block Diagonal Avenue, Barcelona

And then this evening, Spanish time, a rally of impressive proportions in Puerta del Sol:

It was against this, shall we say, striking background that David Graeber spoke of creative refusal. As is his wont, he expanded our horizons in time and space. The true radicality here is to see the so-called modern with its obsession with self-interest and its invention of the market as the exception to a far longer human history concerned with very different cosmologies.There’s a real intellectual liberation at work here.

Cultural studies types of my vintage might think of E. P. Thompson’s eighteenth-century poachers, “stealing” the landlord’s fish or game, as a prototype for creative refusal, leading to de Certeau’s appropriation of “poaching” to mean using office stationery or doing personal tasks on work time. More recently, James Scott and others have talked of the ways that the enslaved and the colonized were deliberately slow at their work, pushing the horizons further back. Graeber wants to take the entire range of known human history as a resource for creative refusal, arguing that it impoverishes us to set so much of it aside. In a bold conceptual move, he called for thinking of history as social movements.

Drawing on his astonishing range of learning, Graeber cited examples from ancient Sumeria to Polynesia and Madagascar. He repeatedly suggested that the outcast and the marginalized might be thought of as choosing such status in order to defend an anti-hierarchical politics. He described, for example, how Madagascar was first permanently settled by slave colonies, whose enslaved revolted and established complex barriers to the establishment of a state.

What’s inspiring is the willingness to see all humans as political actors with mature motives and to assume that humans have always been far more connected than the so-called historical record demonstrates. In thinking about Polynesia, for example, Graeber asked whether it makes sense to assume that the so-called Polynesians reached as far as Easter Island from South-East Asia–and then stopped, never trying to reach South America, as even the shipwrecked sailors of the whaler Essex did in 1820. This assumption is necessary to reinforce the idea of “primitive” isolation so that when Captain Cook and others arrived, they must have been seen as gods with unheard of technologies, like ships.

Finally, he mentioned a Papua New Guinea people who have a consensus-building culture, which, like Occupy, involves endless meetings: only there is an obligation on all speakers to be funny, so the meetings are very popular. Now that’s an idea whose time has come.



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