By all accounts, anything written by David Graeber is about as far from typical “conservative” fare that you might expect to find featured on this site. Graeber is an anthropologist and anarchist, an early member of the Occupy Wall Stree movement. He’s so “out there” that even Yale decided not to renew his contract as an assistant professor in 2005.
If he’s too liberal for Yale, then…well, you know. Probably too liberal for me, too, right?
Or maybe not. If just to understand why the leaders of the Occupy Movement believe what they do, it might be worth the effort to read what he has written.
I heard about Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years from, of all places, a science fiction blog review (and my apologies for not remembering which one). The review described how sordid and strange certain cultures were in how they dealt with debt. It intrigued me: cultures on our own planet as foreign and strange as something that might appear in Star Trek or some other fictionally created world.
The descriptions don’t disappoint. But the strange trading rituals and bizarre debt arrangements between tribes, families, and individuals of the Australian outback, the African savanna, or the American forests that Graeber describes in his look at the last 5,000 years are just prelude. As the language of debt conflates sin, morality and finance, we come to Graeber’s central question:
What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?
It’s a fascinating question, and it’s hard to not sympathize with the quandary that Graeber sees in the language that we have developed to talk about debt, our capital systems, and markets. Even so, Graeber’s conclusions make straw men out of the theories underlying the modern market economy, starting with Adam Smith, dismissing them with only short thrift.
This isn’t to say that Graeber doesn’t see a place for markets. It is capitalism, as means for power and form of slavery, that Graeber despises. “It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.” For example, the conquest of the Americas is integrally connected to mass slavery, in the forms of African slavery and debt peonage. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, while “coolies” from India built South African silver mines. Peasants of Russia and Poland were free landholders through the middle ages, only becoming serfs at the dawn of capitalism.
And so on. The choice between state and market is wrong, he says, and it’s domination of political ideology over the last centuries has “made it difficult to argue about anything else.”
Capitalism requires constant consumption and destruction, Graeber argues, and for that reason has always been created by warfare and conquest, rather than as a replacement for barter as we have generally accepted (see Adam Smith). With less and less to consume, humanity is reaching its social and ecological limits.
Graeber’s conclusions are, to say the least, a rewriting of history as we’ve been taught, to say nothing of how we view markets and capital.
I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren’t hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”
It’s a rosy look at people who need not work to produce because they are free from debt, and in that sense, completely free. It sounds great…but it’s rosy, and ignores human nature’s desires to create and work.
Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a monster of a book, difficult even, though always fascinating. While I do not agree with the extremities to which his conclusions take him, there is something to be said for the corruption created when capital and political power are conflated. Crony capitalism is a distortion of the free market, just as political interference in the market is a distortion.
At the very least, Debt measures up as an interesting anthropological history of cultures as disparate from my western world as Vulcans or Klingons are from us. More importantly, and more to the point why I recommend you read Debt, unlike cultures created for science fiction, they are real, and that in itself is worth the read.
Publius Online is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, a month long quest to post every day. Each day should match a letter of the alphabet. Today is the letter D.