David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years begins with a conversation in a London churchyard about debt and morality and takes us all the way from ancient Sumeria, through Roman slavery, the vast empires of the “Axial age”, medieval monasteries, New World conquest and slavery to the 2008 financial collapse. The breadth of material Graeber covers is extraordinarily impressive and, though anchored in the perspective of social anthropology, he also draws on economics and finance, law, history, classics, sociology and the history of ideas. I’m guessing that most of us can’t keep up and that we lack, to some degree, his erudition and multidisciplinary competence. Anyway, I do. But I hope that a Crooked Timber symposium can draw on experts and scholars from enough of these different disciplines to provide some critical perspective. My own background is in political philosophy and the history of political thought: so that naturally informs my own reactions as do my political engagements and sympathies. So mine is merely one take on some of the book’s themes.
Most people who work in the capitalist West are in debt: both individually and collectively. That indebtedness takes many forms. I have a mortgage, and I have to work to pay it off. Many of the consumer goods I enjoy are bought on credit. My students, thanks to “reforms” to the British higher education system initiated by “New Labour” and put into operation by the ConDem coalition will have massive debts that they will be seeking to redeem for their entire careers. My employer has long standing debts to the banks, underpinned by covenants that require that it carry out its business to certain standards or face unfavourable renegotiation of terms. The entire people of Greece are in debt and face, as a consequence, years of austerity and the loss of much of their political autonomy. And many other countries are in the same position. As Graeber points out near the beginning of his book, many third world countries, having been sold loans from pressurizing Western banks, loans that they can’t repay, have had to implement “austerity” and accept tough conditions imposed by international bodies, such as the IMF. Debt reflects on these recent events in historical perspective, seeking out precedents, but also giving an account of the emergence of the debt and money as social institutions and the way in which out ambivalent attitude to these is infected by the way our moral language and our folk conceptions of sociality are infected with ideas of debt, owing, repayment, obligation and the like.
Graeber argues that human societies are always structured (despite appearances) around three competing moral principles: communism, exchange, and hierarchy. “Communism” is the principle familiar from Marx: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Each contributes what they can and we are sensitive to the vulnerability of other members of our family or community. This is the principle governing the “camping trip” of G.A.Cohen’s recent Why not Socialism? and, ideally, the principle at work in many families and friendships. Graeber argues (101) that this “baseline communism” is the “ground of all human social life”. “Exchange”, by contrast, is governed by an ideal of strict reciprocity among free and equal persons. I give you something and you give me something in return. It is, among other things, the ideal principle of market exchange. “Hierarchy” is a principle of authority and status: we are not equal, I have the right to command and you to the duty obey, in virtue of who we are. These principles aren’t mutually exclusive, and they have peculiar ways of morphing into one another. And it can be a matter of controversy and judgement which principle (or combination of principles) is at work at any particular moment. A moment’s reflection on the nuclear family will confirm the truth of this. There’s communism there, certainly, in the community of goods. There’s hierarchy in the relations between parents and small children. And there may be exchange too as we do deals to balance paid work and housework for example. One partner’s appeal to communism may look like a violation of exchange and reciprocity to the other, and, perhaps, a tacit assertion of domination and hierarchy.
There isn’t one particular way that these principles should ideally be instantiated. That is going to vary from one society to the next, perhaps depending on factors like size and technology. But when the exchange principle is coupled with money and with a system of lending and recording debt, the possibility exists for a kind of tyranny that is inimical to normal human sociality, to love, care, and friendship and which drives human beings to extremes of tyranny and degradation, always under the guise of meeting moral obligations. Such is the logic of the market backed by the state: those who find they have borrowed too much must repay, and must either subject themselves directly to their creditors or act in ways that promote the discharge of their debts to those creditors whatever the deeper human costs. As Graeber tries to explain the moral catastrophe of the Spanish conquest of the Americas he writes “For the debtor, the world is reduced to a collection of potential dangers, potential tools, and potential merchandise.” (319) Creditors (who, in turn may themselves owe to others) are similarly caught in a web of amoral calculation: ”… at the key moments of decision, none of this mattered. Those making the decisions did not feel they were in control anyway; those who were did not particularly care to know the details.” (319)” Such episodes and calculations recur though the book as slaves are sold and debtor parents consign their children to debt peonage or sexual exploitation.
Central to Graeber’s historical account is a transition from what he calls “human economies” to “commercial economies”. Both are societies with some form of monetary equivalence, and with the possibility of debt and credit. But in a human economy, an individual is part of a network of particular social relations (as mother, brother, cousin, wife) and the principal function of exchange is to maintain that system of relations and to effect “moves” within it. Debts may be incurred as the result of harms and get repaid with appropriate compensation. A marriage may require the bride’s family to pay or receive some token (in cows or sheep perhaps). Similarly, gift exchange is a way of affirming and reproducing a system of social relations. In a commercial economy, by contrast, money is used to buy and sell things and the commodification of the necessaries of life (housing, clothing, food) raises the possibility of the oppressive subjection of the needy to their creditors, a subjection that is all the more humiliating because is between supposed equals.
One way of reading Graeber’s musings on the three distributive principles and the transition from a “human” to a commercial economy is as a version of the “crowding out” hypothesis, familiar from thinkers such as Daniel Bell. According to the crowding-out hypothesis, market-based motivation has an intrinsic tendency to marginalize more other-directed forms of motivation, and, eventually, to undermine itself as the patterns of interpersonal trust and co-operation on which the market tacitly depends themselves become the object of instrumental calculation by market participants. On such accounts, the market itself depends on pre-modern systems of personal connection and on moral ties, which the market, a morally-free zone, erodes over time. Capitalism is its own gravedigger. The difficulty with this hypothesis is its tendency to see market society only in its most rapacious and competitive guise and not at all as a system of cooperation capable of generation new forms of sociality peculiar and appropriate to it. Yet as Sam Bowles has shown, market societies can actually engender high levels of mutual trust and dispositions to pro-social punishment (of free-riders and the like) which more clannish and “human” societies struggle with. Moreover, Graeber himself seems to recognize this when he discusses Medieval Islamic ideas of the market – “the world’s first popular free-market ideology” (278) – ideas supposedly influential on Adam Smith. Graeber mentions the Islamic economic scholar Tusi (1210-1274 AD) whose account of the the division of labour and the the way it enables individuals to realize the benefits of the complementary talents of everyone is strongly reminiscent of Rawls’s discussion of social union in section 79 of A Theory of Justice (a conception that Rawls also attributes to Wilhelm von Humbolt). Graeber’s discussion of medieval Islamic market society seems to pose a problem more generally for his account since it is in tension with his usual picture of commercial society as, essentially, the creature of coercive state power and raises the possibility of extended market-based co-operation based on trust and reciprocity.
Graeber’s tendency to see commercial society always in is most ruthless light is also manifest in his discussion of the genealogy of the modern concept of freedom, which he traces to the power that Roman slave-owners had over their households. He is certainly not entirely wrong about this. The idea of freedom as self-ownership, that individuals’ rights over themselves are best understood as being akin to those which a slave-owner would have over a chattel slave, is certainly alive and well both in political philosophy and in the folk-conceptions of freedom prevalent in capitalist societies. Ideas of freedom as rights to non-interference taken from Roman law have also been influential (I hesitate to identify the two conceptions, since Kant rejected one whilst, in his political philosophy, affirming the other). But it is hardly as if these understandings of freedom have been uncontested and it is probable that outside the Anglo-Saxon world (and sometimes even within it) they have not even been dominant. Discussions of two, or even three, concepts of liberty show that the reality is much messier than Graeber sometimes allows.
Taken together, the rejection of the idea that some version of commercial society might also be or become a system of cooperation and the assimilation of freedom to quasi-libertarian self-ownership implies that Graeber discards social democratic (or social liberal) visions of what the just society might look like. J.S.Mill, Hobson, Hobhouse and Rawls, along with Beveridge and Eleanor Roosevelt don’t get considered as a serious alternative. Presumably Graeber thinks that they either simply mask the nasty reality or represent a possibility that was briefly realized in the postwar years, but is now unrealistic. That may be fair enough, but not everyone will share his pessimism about the social-democratic project.
At the end of the book, Graeber discusses the future and alternatives to capitalism. Though he has some things to say that are highly congenial to me about the environment and about the tendency of capitalism to drive us all to excess work, this passage is quite deliberately somewhat open-ended and non-commital. I wonder whether a better expression of Graeber’s own political agenda is actually to be found somewhat earlier in the book, at the end of his account of the Axial age where he writes about it religious movements:
Where physical escape is not possible, what, exactly, is an oppressed peasant supposed to do? Sit and contemplate her misery? At the very least, otherworldly religions provided glimpses of radical alternatives. Often they allowed people to create other worlds within this one, liberated spaces of one sort or another. It is surely significant that the only people who succeeded in abolishing slavery in the ancient world were religious sects, such as the Essenes – who did so effectively by defecting from the larger social order and forming their own utopian communities. Or, in a smaller but more enduring example: the democratic states of northern India were all eventually stamped out by the great empires … but the Buddha admired the democratic organization of their public assemblies and adopted it as the model for his followers.” (250)
Does Graeber find in utopian and democratic resistance to the Axial empires an historic precedent for the Occupy movement to emulate? Perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” and the democratic instincts that persist even in the heart of modern capitalism. The anarchist writer Colin Ward used a phrase from Ignazio Silone – “the seed beneath the snow” – to make a similar idea vivid. We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.