David Graeber on Debt

I am reprinting here my short review of David Graeber’s book, Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, which I originally posted on Google Plus last summer. Among other reasons, because the book is more relevant than ever today, given the Occupy movement.

David Graeber’s Debt The First Five Thousand Years is a brilliant and powerful book; and even, I would say, a crucial one. Graeber does several things. He shows how the notion of “debt” has been integral to any notion of an “economy.” He traces the history of debt, both as an economic concept and as a metaphor for other forms of social engagement, back to the Mesopotamian civilizations of thousands of years ago. He traces the changes in how debt is conceived, and how economic exchange is organized, in various Eurasian civilizations and societies since then. And he contrasts these relations of economy and debt to those that existed (and still exist to some extent) in non-state societies (the ones that anthropologists tend to study). He takes account of Braudel’s claim that markets have long existed outside of and apart from capitalism — but shows that such markets have only improved life for all, rather than enforcing vicious social stratification through the imposition and collection of debts, when they have been grounded in a cooperative ethos, rather than a harshly competitive one. And he shows that the existence of virtual currency and virtual debt is not just a recent phenomenon, but has deep historical roots — it is hard currency, rather than virtual accounting, that is the more recent (and shallower) innovation.

Several important conclusions emerge from Graeber’s meticulous work of comparison and reconstruction. One (not surprisingly for me) is to expose the ridiculous parochialism of the notions of Homo oeconomicus, of self-interested “rational choice,” etc., which have dominated Western social thought since Adam Smith. Another is to show that “market” and “state” have always been closely intertwined, and indeed that neither can exist without the other — exactly the contrary to the current ideology which sees state and market as opposed. Graeber also shows how the moralization of debt and indebtedness — the notion that one’s moral standing depends upon one’s readiness to pay what one owes — is a shoddy myth of fairly recent invention. In general, debt (as the financialization and quantification of formerly much broader notions of community and mutual obligation) has only existed to the extent that it has been enforced by massive, organized violence — Graeber draws a straight line from the genocidal violence of the Spanish conquistadors and North Atlantic slave traders of early modernity to the policing of work relations, and the management and containment of political protest today. 

Graeber’s book is well-written, and entirely accessible to a general (non-specialist, non-academic) audience. Its calmness, lucidity, and careful sifting of evidence only add power to its ultimately quite radical condemnation of the total barbarity and oppressiveness of our contemporary society and civilization, and of the values that we unthinkingly take for granted. 

Graeber is an anarchist rather than a marxist; and his approach is quite different from any sort of traditional marxist one. Nonetheless, I think that what he does can be accommodated alongside marxist concerns. For one thing, the book closely links forms of domination (whether by violence or imposed consensus) to forms of economic oppression (this in contrast to the way that so many recent academic studies have tended to separate the former from the latter, and ignore the latter entirely). Secondly, although Graeber is largely concerned with circulation (rather than, as Marx was, with the hidden depths of production), he entirely demystifies circulation and distribution, and shows the social forces (often violent and inegalitarian) that work through them, rather than idealizing the supposed autonomy of circulation and exchange, as mainstream bourgeois social science usually does. (Graeber makes quite explicit what other anthropologists have known for a long time — that Smith’s claim for a basic human propensity to “truck, barter, and exchange” is ridiculous and incredibly parochial). 

So I think that Graeber’s long history of debt and currency has a lot to offer marxism, and vice versa. Graeber’s accounts of precapitalist economic formations and their relation to capitalism point to important dimensions that most marxist historians have failed to take into account. On the other hand, I find Graeber’s account of the current crises to be not entirely adequate. He is right that debt is at the center of current processes of dispossession, and the movements that have striven to oppose this. But I think that Graeber’s insights here need to be supplemented by more explicitly marxist accounts of capital accumulation and continuing, intensified exploitation (cf David Harvey on “appropriation by dispossession”, and Fredric Jameson on the production of massive unemployment and hence imporverishment as a necessary corollary of intensified surplus-value extraction).

22 Responses to “David Graeber on Debt”

  1. Kirby Olson says:

    I’ve gotten interested in Austrian School economics. I’m reading the Ludwig Von Mises book entitled Liberalism. He has a quite different account of what’s best for all — he claims free enterprise is good because it allows for the maximum of exchange which allows a kind of Darwinian fittest to emerge in terms of products and distribution. One of the problems I have with Marxism is that it puts kindness first, when of course all of nature is about selfishness. Marxism is unnatural and usually kills nature (though not usually with kindness). It’s interesting to hear about this author (I generally like anarchists). There is an anarchistic side in libertarianism of the kind that Ron Paul espouses (he is also an aficionado of Austrian School economics). I suppose if we’re going to turn to economics as the set of paradigms that clarifies what else we’re doing in the humanities we might as well look at all the different schools. I personally like Smith, but he wouldn’t have accepted slavery as is here said to be the case. I’m certain that Hayek and Von Mises wouldn’t have accepted slavery. Not so sure about Marxism systems. They seem to accept slavery and even to promote it as they seek to deny democracy, and to impose the will of a minority on that of the majority. Do you think that OWS is Marxist? I haven’t been able to determine what they want or what they are saying.

  2. Ian Bogost says:

    Great review. I read and enjoyed the book. One quibble:

    …entirely accessible to a general (non-specialist, non-academic) audience…

    It is very, very long.

  3. Richard says:

    It seems pointless to highlight one or two statements in a comment that is utterly incoherent, but here goes:

    “when of course all of nature is about selfishness”

    No, no it’s not.

    “Hayek and Von Mises wouldn’t have accepted slavery”

    ha!

  4. Kirby Olson says:

    Richard. Generally speaking, an argument provides a reason for the conclusions given. Just saying. I don’t think could pass for an argument in other words. Except perhaps an argument of the loosest possible kind. Just saying.

  5. napster says:

    They seem to accept slavery and even to promote it as they seek to deny democracy, and to impose the will of a minority on that of the majority. Do you think that OWS is Marxist? I haven’t been able to determine what they want or what they are saying.

    @Darcy: Yea the elite and their wall street cronies certainly allocated the investment funds in an efficient manner. Outsourcing all of the production potential of the nation to skim more money off the top and pay workers less, forcing the middle class to take on more debt when government stops funding education and starting spending more on war and military contractors. When bankers and various members of the political elite can break the wall and walk away, where is the moral rectitude of the economic system? Is this type of corrupt, mismanagement allowing the maximum production based on the survival of the fittest?

    No. It’s about people with power and money being greedy and doing whatever they want — and getting away with it.

    Your knowledge of the names in Economics means nothing. The substance of what they have written is more important then quoting a few names. Especially given the many different names you don’t include. I on the other hand, are well versed in the various historic literature — so when you say that “Smith” is a school of thought, you reveal your ignorance.

    Capitalism is amoral. Neither good nor bad. Economics and the hierarchical relations of the society itself ARE THE SAME THING. All of the economists you stated agree. So please stop saying that an economic system is “good”. The economic system does not create the social rungs by itself. That is what community and government do. All of the economists you stated agree.

    There are other choices than Marxism. So why are you so fixated with that ancient, defunct product of an impoverished 19th century writer? What value is it to what the citizens are facing today? People who are upset with the corruption of our government and our financial system are not anti-capitalist at all. They do not read Marx for guidance.

    This is easy to understand. However, someone like Darcy is a troll who probably works for a company hired to spew these contrived opinions. They act like they are confused about why people are protesting and make innuendos that they are socialists, communists, or marxist.

    Get real. The OWS movement is an American movement, just like the Farmers movements of the 1880s and the progressive movements in the early 1900s, and the civil rights movements of the 1950s-60s.

    But what would a troll like Darcy know about real people. By the words above, obviously nothing.

  6. napster says:

    Oh sorry. I said “Darcy”

    I meant Kirby Olson.

    Dude you are obviously a troll. Go away.

  7. napster says:

    @Kirby: If you are up for a debate. I’m game.

    For starters, it appears your only criteria is whether “slavery” results. Which is funny, because every single human society has trafficked in slavery or had some form of slavery or devolved into a society in which people offered up themselves as slaves in order not to starve.

    So someone who fixates on “slavery” indicates they really have no understanding about history or economics.

  8. Kirby Olson says:

    Napster, you’d have to define slavery fairly loosely to reach this conclusion. When you do this (I have a friend who defines working at Wal-Mart as slavery) you do an injustice to those who are actually living as slaves (there are some places in Africa where slavery is still a reality, all of whom would happily trade their lot with the Wal-Mart workers).

  9. Kirby Olson says:

    I’m not a troll I’m a real person. Trolls are anonymous by definition. My name isn’t Darcy. It’s Kirby Olson.

    I thought you had part of a good point here, but it was so briefly done and in passing:

    “The OWS movement is an American movement, just like the Farmers movements of the 1880s and the progressive movements in the early 1900s, and the civil rights movements of the 1950s-60s.”

    Much of the civil rights movement was Christian. Martin Luther King for instance was a Christian. I can accept Christian socialist thought.

    I don’t know much aboiut the farmers movements of the 1880s. Much of the early progressive work was also done by Christians. How the Other Half Lives for instance was written by a Lutheran.

    My problem with so much of what you’ve written is that yes, of course capitalism is amoral. You can’t have an economic system that is BASED on morality. Augustine recognized this 1500 years ago. Von Mises argues that it’s the amorality of capitalism that makes it work. This isn’t to say that you can have false advertising or sell poisonous meats. Governments have to regulate. Once the government gets into selling insurance and what have you, who will regulate the government? This is the problem with your model.

    No one really knows who or what OWS is or was. They seem to have no problem throwing people out of work, and wrecking businesses.

    I’m a fan of Locke and Smith, and am against Marx. Marx makes marks out of us all. Whatever the Farmers Movements that you mention were based on (could you note a region, perhaps?), wherever we have government takeover of business, we get a collapsed economic system. Please reflect on this, and on our economic crisis further. The government has produced a neat book called the Economic Crisis of 2008. It was written by a joint subcommittee. It’s clear that it began with Fannie and Freddie (government sponsored loan outfits).

    It’s an enormous crash of a gigantic house of cards, and we are all responsible for it in one way or another. We can all fix it, but first we need an adequate description rather than flailing about and finding scapegoats such as the Jews, or the bankers, or Wall St.

  10. Kirby Olson says:

    Prod: Haymarket riots? (1886.)

  11. Kirby Olson says:

    By the progressive movements of the early 1900s did you mean by any chance the Women’s Christian Temperance Union? I love them. Especially Carrie Nations!

  12. napster says:

    Kirby,

    Read Thomas Keen’s recent book, Debunking Economics.

    Rebutting your wildly roaming remarks and ignorance is more than I am capable. But I will respond to this portion right now, and get back to the rest later.

    You say: “Whatever the Farmers Movements that you mention were based on (could you note a region, perhaps?), wherever we have government takeover of business, we get a collapsed economic system.”
    ~~~

    Why does it matter which region the Farmer’s movements occurred? There were movements from the Dakota’s to Texas, From Tennessee to Florida and Mississippi throughout the 1870’s to the 1920’s. Collectively they were an American reaction to the consolidation of the capitalist market system into the hands of Railroads, Banks, and Industrial Combinations (Rochefeller’s Standard Oil).

    When we have a narrowing of ownership of the market system into fewer and fewer hands, we also get a collapsed economic system. Which is why serfdom arose in Europe, and why the Italian merchant states created more diverse economic wealth — because the ownership of cash flows was spread to more people as opposed to being controlled by fewer and fewer people.

    The government will never be able to consolidate more than the large financial institutions and extremely wealthy aristocrats. What happens instead is that they takeover government.

    The idea that big government and government intrusion into the market system being an evil incarnate is not only ridiculous, but an ignorant statement to make.

    The crises before the 1880’s, the depression in the United States beginning in 1837, the decline of the Chinese economy from the 15th century on, and other cyclical downturns back to antiquity HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH GOVERNMENT.

    I don’t understand your point about there being “Christians” involved with the progressive movements

  13. napster says:

    Also, you say “but first we need an adequate description rather than flailing about and finding scapegoats such as the Jews, or the bankers, or Wall St.”

    Which proves that you are either an articulate troll, or completely oblivious to the historical record.

    The bankers and the financial elites caused the current downturn. That’s not finding scapegoats.

    That’s the gat’durn truth, bubba.

  14. napster says:

    Also, I find what you say after my post about “slavery” both revealing and interesting:

    Here’s what I said:
    For starters, it appears your only criteria is whether “slavery” results. Which is funny, because every single human society has trafficked in slavery or had some form of slavery or devolved into a society in which people offered up themselves as slaves in order not to starve.

    So someone who fixates on “slavery” indicates they really have no understanding about history or economics.

    ~~~~

    Here’s what Kirby Olson says:
    December 18, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    Napster, you’d have to define slavery fairly loosely to reach this conclusion. When you do this (I have a friend who defines working at Wal-Mart as slavery) you do an injustice to those who are actually living as slaves (there are some places in Africa where slavery is still a reality, all of whom would happily trade their lot with the Wal-Mart workers).

    ~~~

    No, I do not have to define slavery loosely at all. Romans had slaves. Americans in New York and Charleston had slaves in 1700. Chinese had slaves. Many serfs were in situations akin to slavery.
    There is a historical record of slavery. That’s what I said.

    So why is it that You (not me) brought up the Wal-Mart analogy?

    It is also funny how you added the anecdotal heresay argument of “knowing” someone who works for Walmart. Does that make you argument better?

    So why am I the one accused of doing “an injustice to those actually living as slaves” when I am the one who made the Wal-mart worker analogy?

    You are also the one who brought up slavery. Not me. You. I was pointing it out with the above comment, and look how you (not me) chose to respond.

    It’s called projection.

    A troll is as a troll does.

  15. napster says:

    Oops.

    I meant to say “I am NOT the one” ….

    in this part: “So why am I the one accused of doing “an injustice to those actually living as slaves” when I am NOT the one who made the Wal-mart worker analogy?”

  16. Kirby Olson says:

    A troll is generally anonymous. When you called me ignorant I simply stopped reading. You have to learn how to have a civilized conversation before we can have one. First, you need a face. Then, you need a name. Then, you need to discuss the ideas in question as fairly as possible and to give the rationale behind your reasons. You are just throwing things. So, this isn’t a debate, and can’t be one. You’re just a part of a cartel and can’t think beyond it. I’m sorry about this, but there can’t be a debate. Have a nice new year. In a debate you should try to put aside wanting to win, and hope instead to learn something new, and to forge a new set of ideas and ideals. You just want to replay WWI. Sorry. I was hoping we’d get further than that. Kirby

  17. napster says:

    Kirby,

    Funny how everything you say in that last post describes yourself to a tee.

    I called you ignorant because you are ignorant.

    You have never even approached countering or giving reasonable to thought to any statement I have ever made. You instead bring up matters that are either irrelevant to the point being made (“christian” progressive and civil right’s movements and “Walmart” workers, for example) or you throw out a lot of famous names and think this is a substitution for thought.

    I’m glad that you are “a fan” of Locke and Smith, but exchanging ideas is not a fan club. You speak of the “Austrian school” of economics, like name dropping at a cocktail party. Do you have any idea what the Austrian School is? What do you think about the ideas of Locke and Smith, and how do they relate to the point I was making?

    Answer: you never discuss ideas. You throw out names and weave words that are meant to disparage rather than provide insight and explain.

    Which is what trolls do. Trolls are hired to produce comments on various blogs for the purpose of making it appear that there is a public opinion, rather than some contrived argument pushed by the people who pay you to troll the commentary of various blogs.

    Because I have given plenty of “rationale behind [my] reasons” and I have also debated you on the very points you made. Whereas all you do is side-step and whine about how you are sorry that you can’t debate, pointing the blame at me.

    Anyone who bothers to read our dialogue will see this for themselves.

    I wish you a happy new year as well.

  18. napster says:

    And, if you want proof that “Kirby Olson” is a troll. Go to google and type this in the search bar.

    inurl:blog “kirby olson”

    Make sure you put the quotations around “kirby olson”

    Wow, look at that history of trolling the comments. Here is one comment, Kirby Olson made on July 9, 2011

    “This is another major policy victory for GW Bush. He is the one who made the South Sudan a key piece of his foreign policy. The new president was wearing a cowboy hat given to him by W. as he signed the new constitution this morning.”

    ~~
    Really now. GW Bush made the South Sudan a key piece of his foreign policy. Is that an opinion or a fact? Seems like we could google this as well.

    Type “GW Bush made the South Sudan a key piece of his foreign policy” into the google search bar.

    Yep, Mr. Kirby Olson seems to be all over the place.

    A troll is as a troll does.

  19. napster says:

    You can also google “sudan 2005 peace agreement” to find out the actual history of the involvement of Mr. GW Bush.

    You get CNN, the UN, the BBC, the NYTimes, ….

    Funny how none of the news articles mention how GW Bush was responsible. They mention that Powell was there on the day the peace treaty was signed.

    The United Nations organized the peace process. Not GW Bush. And none of the sources that I found corroborates what Mr. Kirby Olson says.

    So why is Kirby Olson pushing this falsehood out into the commentary?

  20. napster says:

    Okay, I must apologize for calling you a troll.

    After researching the Sudan story (I read the Atlantic article,} I realize that Kirby Olson might actually be a Southern Methodist preacher. As such, Mr. Kirby Olson’s are his own.

    So am sorry that I allowed this to take away from the arguments I was making, which stand on there own merit nonetheless.

    I think you are correct in your assessment that we should just call it even and go home.

    Peace be with you. God bless.

  21. Kirby Olson says:

    The South Sudan was a long historical process. Sudan an enormous country. But on the day the South Sudan became historical reality there were many editorials citing it as a policy victory for W. I think there was at least one even in the NYT picking times, which rarely allows Republicans any positive column inches, and generally only if they are dead, or at least retired. W. did a lot of good for South Sudan. It wouldn’t exist without him. Hurray for W! Hurray for South Sudan!

    Have a nice new year, Napster.

  22. Kirby Olson says:

    You have to go to the bottom of this NYT article to read about the Bush contribution (South Sudan was at the very top of his foreign policy agenda from the second he got into office):

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/world/africa/10sudan.html?pagewanted=all

    There are similar articles in Gay Patriot, Politico, and others. (Gay Patriot is a conservative gay newspaper.)

    This was all over the internet for months, and was hardly something that I made up. Even in sources that you trust, it’s there for all to see. I’ve heard that one of their first stamps will have W. on it. Bush did a lot of good around the world, and he stuck by Israel, and he was a proud champion of free markets, Adam Smith, and Friedrich Hayek.

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