Must Read: David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

I’m reading a book that is so good, so well-written, so relevant to the zeitgeist, that I can confidently recommend it to anyone who reads, though I’m just a bit more than halfway through it myself: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber.

Before I tell you why you should go now and buy, borrow or reserve this book and get reading, I’ll call your attention to an interview Graeber gave the British magazine The White Room which gives an interesting peek into his background and main political ideas. Graeber, a well-respected anthropologist,  is becoming better known as one of the influencing thinkers behind #occupyWallStreet. A couple of sentences from the introduction of the White Room interview beautifully make a point about OWS that I less successfully try to make when people criticize its “fuzziness” and lack of demands:

…Graeber has put the spotlight on the anarchist principles of the Occupy movement, explaining that the lack of concrete demands is part of a pre-figurative politics. The protestors act as though they are ‘already living in a free society’, and thus refuse to accept the legitimacy of existing political institutions and legal order – both of which, he says, are immediately recognised in the placing of demands.

That is really a crucial, albeit admittedly terrifying point to keep in mind when thinking about the longevity of the movement. So many people dismiss it as pipe-dreaming. But the fact is, the OWS protesters are living their demands right now. The only thing restricting their freedom to live those demands is the violence inherent in the system, as a Monty Python character named Dennis memorably put it. The question of how long the occupy movement lasts depends on whether the overarching order can squash it before it develops a critical mass to spur a revolution from which there would be no looking or turning back.

I can understand the cynics’ skepticism, based on the failure of virtually all revolutionary movements against “capitalist democracy” thus far to withstand its well-funded defenses. But perhaps the conditions for change to be possible have not been favorable until now. We shall see.  Graeber’s history provides some idea of how powers, which have for millennia regulated the debt-credit relationships among people, can lose their grip if they let conditions for too many people deteriorate to the point of absurdity, which may be going on right now. Revolution and rebellion can be very effective means–if not the only ones–of attaining retribution for the abuses of the powerful.

But let’s turn full attention to Graeber’s book.  I want to share with you a few of his most interesting points (so far) to suggest the level of insight I think Graeber has reached and is helping others reach. This is a book about economics from an anthropological perspective; that is, it looks at how economics is practiced in human cultures. It asks what is the meaning of certain economic practices–trading, coining, exchanging, paying or not paying–to different cultures, which allows us to step back and see clearly that–most astonishingly to Americans, I would imagine–there are many kinds of economics going on in every system.  There is much more to American-style(so-called)  “free-market capitalism” than meets the eye, even the eyes of the best educated, most eminent economists.

Graeber argues that there are three basic kinds (moral grounds, he calls them) of economic relationships: communist, exchange and hierarchical. Whether a particular case is one or the other depends on the answer to the questions, what do the persons in the relationship get out of it, and what are they expected to give back? The communist relationship, Graeber argues, is the fundamental human one. It’s practiced in most families–in fact, increasingly restricted to families in the American culture. A mother feeds her child so that he might live. She expects nothing in return at the time. She isn’t keeping a ledger. The relationship exemplifies the communist motto, from each according to her ability to each according to his need. It’s even practiced on the street, when we freely give directions to lost souls we’ll never see again, and in the workplace, when we think nothing of exerting extra labor not in our job descriptions to help out colleagues in need. So imagine that: communism is rampant in the US!

But so is the hierarchical relationship, in which a clear power dynamic is exerted, in which the participants have different demands placed on them according to who is above whom in the hierarchy. Of course the boss-worker relationship exemplifies this, as do the teacher-student, judge-lawyer, sergeant-private, and so on.

The most exalted relationship in the American system is the exchange. It presumes equality at the outset and at the conclusion. I give you this, you give me that. We’re even. We don’t know each other from Adam, but it doesn’t matter. We’re economic equals in any fair exchange. What complicates exchange, however, is debt: You give me something I need, I will pay you back in full when I can or as I am able, bit by bit, over time. Debt introduces inequality in what is supposed to be an equal relationship and is chiefly responsible for some of the most unpleasant inventions of human society: compound interest, indentured servitude, debtor’s prison, even, Graeber argues, slavery.

I’ve written about these themes on this blog quite a bit, especially as I revisited some dialogues I’ve had with those most literal of free marketers, the “anarcho”-capitalists. I really wonder what they would think of Graeber’s work. Essentially, he demolishes a whole bunch of libertarian myths: the idea that barter must have preceded money in friendly exchanges (Graeber shows that barter is very rare even in hunter-gatherer societies and used, not between neighbors, but between potential enemies); that markets preceded states (except the historical record shows that the first markets arose in the context of military expeditions and required state-minted coins to operate);  that private property is a universal natural right preceding the foundation of the state (but Graeber demonstrates from a close reading of Roman law that property rights were developed to establish the legality of owning persons, i.e., slaves).  And so on. Page after page of eye-opening historical evidence showing that, as far as economic understanding goes, the libertarians and other free marketeers are fundamentally  wrong.

I’ll undoubtedly be returning to Graeber in this blog again and again. I can’t stress enough my admiration for the book (so far), not only for its impressive research and profound analysis, but for its up-to-the-minute timeliness. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the circumstances we find ourselves in right now.

3 thoughts on “Must Read: David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

  1. Pingback: Graeber: Why Austerity Reflects a Sham Morality « Tragic Farce

  2. Pingback: Assange Grills #Occupy « Tragic Farce

  3. Pingback: Will the “Final” Revolution Be Started by Second Amendment Absolutists? | Tragic Farce

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