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).