Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Debt, by David Graeber

(Full title: Debt: The First 5000 Years)

In these very pages, over the last several years, a sufficiently masochistic reader can dig in to find me struggling toward some basic criticisms of the modern study of economics. One of the basic complaints I've raised is that the field which claims to predict human behavior ignores far too much relevant humanity. Rather notably, it assumes away the dynamics of power and control, and as well presents a distorted and jaded view of the positive human motivations by which we estimate value. David Graeber has problems with this too, and he takes it further than I ever would have thought to. The central claim in Debt is that the majority of the economy, for the majority of history, actually arose from these interpersonal relationships and values, and not that truck and barter shuck and jive. The discussion relies less on neatly-tied case studies, or on any ideological paradigm (although he does make ethical judgments), and more on a broadly scoped anthropological and historical understanding of how lives were lived across time, among different classes, in different societies. There's a fair amount of jigsaw work in the earliest examples (as their must be when it comes to understanding very old or remote societies), and like all history, it's qualitative (although admirably inclusive), but holy fuck is it ever refreshing to read someone base his ideas about human economic interaction by observing human interaction, instead of burying it in a mountain of assumption-fudging artificially precise quantitation.

The opening bombshell (which I've linked to once or twice) is that, unlike the textbook discussion, there has never been any historical barter economy worthy of note, and that exchange using impersonal coin tended to arrive centuries after institutionalized credit arrangements. Most economic affairs were more typically conducted using a more or less elaborate organization of debts and favors, where members of a community would lend and borrow with varying levels of formality, and with individual cultural character too. It's also observed that community- and family-minded people are motivated by a "baseline communism" (as he cautiously calls it, meaning that at some point, we're all in this together) and tendency for hierarchical organization, most of which tends to get underplayed by the various modern economic theories.

Graeber divides the economic history of the globe broadly into pre-monetary times, ancient urban societies and the following imperial ages, the middle ages, and the capitalist era (not failing to speculate on whatever the hell it is we've transitioned into now). In discussing the early development of money, Graeber utilizes what he can in that period of history between writing and coin (the earliest writing known, after all, is ancient Sumerian credit accounting). He also leans heavily here on isolated cultures as they had been encountered and studied by Europeans, and the social and economic ways they reacted to the contact. (It tended to go badly for them.) Precious money-like objects, when actually used, tended to be reserved exclusively for social, human exchange (that is, for the not easily quantifiable--for men to woo women, in most cases), and while tokens have also been frequently used to keep track of debts and favors, this too was built on interpersonal trust and a sense of community. It's a recurring theme that it has historically taken a violent disruption of that social network that to turn these habits into more impersonal varieties of monetary exchange.

[As an aside, I think this is an interesting way to consider the evolution of western thought too, and it calls into question some of the things that were left on the table when the select pieces of the canon were going into the sociological scrapbook. Which was the bigger mark that ancient Athens left on the European world? Was its philosophical schools (the rediscovery of Aristotle), or was it the acceptance of slavery and the subjugation of women, right down to the veil (which count be more as an evolutionary initial condition)? Also, I wonder how much resistance there's been in European thought to universalizing human behavior by studying groups of people that Europeans were butchering and enslaving, literally by the boatload. My comic book understanding of the history of philosophy is not really up to the task, and admittedly they didn't know a lot about them yet, but it does seem the colonial-age thinkers argued a lot more with hypothetical primitive people than actual ones.]

The basic theme here is in fact a moral one. Slavery (which was rather a sudden concern for some of the African people he mentions), punitive state power, and imperial war were highly correlated with the transition to and away from currency, right up until the modern era. It took a powerful government to make the stuff official, and if there really is intrinsic value to gold, it's that it can be stolen and anonymized. Generally, Graeber writes, the estrangement of debt and finance from human connectedness made the tragedies worse (he doesn't make a more disturbing case than the Conquistadors, who kept at it because of a fucked up finance system that kept those vicious fuckers in debt too--how is the systematic destruction of a civilization more moral than not paying back your sponsors?). Adam Smith's contention that the economic sphere was separate from the human social one (and was in fact to the good), was as radical as it was utterly ahistorical. It's taken a lot of violence to get to the point where that's the default assumption, Graeber notes, and even then, the moral imperatives of debt aren't even equally applied. And really, who's doing more for the world, the one who impoverishes himself in misery to pay off his creditors, or someone who spreads happiness among his family and friends?

One interesting aspect of this viewpoint is the picture it makes of the middle ages. Graeber paints a different environment than we usually imagine, in large part because he expands it beyond the borders of violent and backward Europe. But even there, yes, it was indeed horrible in the usual respects, but people were also by most measures unprecedentedly free. Slavery was not reinstituted in any of the world civilizations following the previous imperial age, and (again despite the popular conceptions), regular people were largely left alone by greater powers. The world didn't revert to barter, but it did revert to credit. [And you know, this sort of quiet utopia is pretty close the sort of community relationships that Wendell Berry idealized in rural America too.] It's interesting to point out too, that the closest the world has seen to a free market (that is, an ungoverned one, that still works), was in the Islamic world of this time, which esteemed its merchant-adventurer class, and it succeeded because, according to the author, it was both anti-capitalist (usury was forbidden in spirit and cultural practice), and built on personal trust and community connection.

Does it all hold up? Graeber presents a great deal of compelling correlations, and some good causal hypotheses--the arguments for the origin of money are convincing--but now and then I think he goes a little too far. I wasn't quite convinced, for instance, that materialist thought was really generated from contemplating the economic nature of things, although no doubt the ideas of the time got swapped liberally around. The author frequently resorts to etymology (which must be an anthropologist's trick) to showcase various points, and while it's interesting how these thinkers of the time (and Graeber is quite good at linking thinkers to their times) found commonality in the ideas, it still feels like a stretch to state, say, that a sense of mind/body duality arose because coins have two sides. The institutions of the various imperial eras--savery and organized war--that originated coinage and then went hand in hand with it, have in my less expert opinion, much to do with resource availability and population density, and call it an emergent property of urbanization perhaps. For example, I don't think the middle ages would have evolved the Medicis and the Renaissance without coal. It seems an important additional ingredient to universalize our imperial economy (which runs on de-personalized credit) with the ancient ones, but then again, that's just my hobby horse. So far as the utopian qualities of the middle ages or rural subcultures go, I'm skeptical. You don't choose your communities, after all, but you're stuck there. As an alternative to the slavery/coin/military complex, people developed strictly hierarchical societies, a perversion of a different one of the human metrics presented in the book. (And fuck the communism of the rich, anyway.) It seems that history tells us we're left to pick our poison, a tradeoff of one kind of evil for another. Being tied to a small-town underclass is a different sort of hell. Maybe the next age will give us a genuine reimagining of social and economic organization. Here's hoping.


Keifus said...

Evidently, there's been some problem with the comments system. This is a response to one...

I don't want to give the wrong impression here: it's a 400-page book, with like 50 pages of endnotes, and the mind/body dualism wasn't one of his major point. More like a place where he dug a bit deeper in his bag of tricks than was really necessary.

Regarding slavery, he doesn't equate African slavery (or slavery in the classical world) with indentured laborers or peasants, although some similarities are certainly noted. He looks at lots of different historical cases, and kind of riffs on them according to that moral paradigm. This does include a discussion how, as the middle ages wound down in Europe, free peasants gradually found themselves as serfs, and how it came along with a major shift in the economic climate.

Inkberrow said...

Speaking of ahistorical, it appears from your review, Keifus, that Graeber wants to correlate slavery (and other ills?) with Western civilization in particular. That "rather sudden concern" was a way of life for Africans since the Egyptians, and the Atlantic slave trade simply provided a vast new customer base for existing African slavers. Does he touch on the history of China, India, and pre-Columbian Central and South America as well?

It's important in broad historical analysis not to confuse differences in degree with differences in kind, and to avoid placing undue emphasis on what most recently happened. Contemporaneous technological superiority in weaponry and transportation and nation-state cohesion for Europeans over the last half-millenium does not translate into either ethical superiority or indictment in absolute historical terms, however fashionable is such a thesis today.

Keifus said...

Hey Inkberrow, thanks for stopping by!

He wants to correlate certain kinds of economic views with mechanisms that also create impersonal, institutional violence. Slavery and being on either side of an imperial war are some of them.

It would be fair to say that he compares traditions of slavery at different times and for different cultures. Its rise to prevalence the classical era (and relative absense in the middle ages) is central in constructing his overall thesis. He looks at China and India extensively. The Americas somewhat less so, for kinda obvious reasons.

In Africa, at the time of the Atlantic slave trade, he describes it in some detail as a difference in kind. (He's an anthropologist, after all.) Or if you want, it was a sufficient difference in scale that the personal or social nook that indenture occasionally occupied went so completely to hell that it became a difference in kind as well. I don't think anyone would argue that that the slave trade was extremely disruptive to African societies as they existed before it arrived. It's interesting for the purposes of the book that it happened so abruptly.

My personal opinion is that those things may well be phenomena of scale. Just the same, however, I'm more than happy to indict the institution of slavery. Recent or otherwise.

Graeber's got some serious anarchist leanings, and it does shine through occasionally. Not as prominently as you probably want to think here. And I do appreciate the urge to rethink the assumptions that underlie modern economic thinking. Especially when they're unjustified by the available evidence. And the morality of debt is clearly as much a construct as any other arrangement.

Inkberrow said...

My pleasure, Keifus. Your essays are good reading.

I should have figured that Graeber is more measured than I wanted to believe, but I tend to wear a defense of Western civilization on my sleeve. I may even have to--curses!---read his book before I conclude I have a basis to complain.