Seminar on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years – Introduction

by Chris Bertram on February 22, 2012

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.

{ 70 comments }

1

Gaspard 02.22.12 at 8:54 am

Thanks, Chris and CT, I’m really looking forward to this. Graeber sidesteps the issue of consumption and the role of the consumerist mentality (p379) relying on Elizabeth Warren-style reasoning, but it seems hard to envisage pockets of resistance without rethinking this.

2

Phil 02.22.12 at 9:38 am

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).

Ah, go on, identify them. Firstly because you’re the political philosopher around here, and secondly because from this formulation I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.

Good post – makes me want to read the book; it sounds like it argues with itself in some interesting ways.

3

Left Outside 02.22.12 at 9:39 am

That was fascinating thank you. Graeber sounds strongly reminiscent of Karl Polanyi in places, who I’ve always found fascinating. I’m suppose I’m going to have to go and read his book now! and from what I’ve heard I’ll be adding a tome to my pile.

While I’ve always liked critiques of exchange and debt based on their amorality (rather than immorality) I’ve not met anyone who takes such a position with an effective argument against Adam Smith’s idea that exchange breeds sympathy (empathy) for those you exchange with. Why is the amorality inherent in exchange not outweighed by this other current?

4

Conall Boyle 02.22.12 at 9:46 am

Great summary! I can understand the emphasis on the philosophical content, but as usual it’s all a bit ‘chewy’.

What struck me was the revelation his rubbishing of the hypothesis that barter leads to the creation of localised money, a hypothesis beloved of economists. Instead Graeber shows that debt — an arrangement of trust — pre-dates money (an anthopological observation).

Money is invariably imposed by central, often colonial authority, who require tax revenues for war. Later this government money becomes the stuff of commerce. [For more on the mis-understood nature of money have a look at Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics

5

Gaspard 02.22.12 at 9:59 am

@LeftOutside: Graeber doesn’t deny that exchange breeds sympathy, but says that the idea of exact exchange in single transaction is anathema to fostering a continuing relationship. So – I help you build a barn, you help me do the harvest, not you give me 3 chickens for a lamb and we’re all square and have no reason for a further relationship.

Incidentally when I was in Greece recently it was really striking how Graeberian commerce continues to be there – once you’ve had the distinction pointed out you notice it all the time.

6

uni 02.22.12 at 10:38 am

Excellent! I have planned to read Debt this spring. This is a good nudge to get me going.

Boston Review recently did an interview with Graeber and two-part published it here:
http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/david_graeber_debt_economics_occupy_wall_street.php
http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.1/david_graeber_debt_economics_occupy_wall_street_part2.php

7

Scott Martens 02.22.12 at 10:54 am

“communism, exchange, and hierarchy”

I’d replace the word “communism” with “justice”, in part for marketing reasons, but also because I think it better captures the notion people are trying to communicate as one much more fundamental than Marxism. Getting people to understand that economic justice, exchange and hierarchy are good things in general, but not always in specific, is a lot easier than dealing with anything that has the word “communism” in it.

I don’t find the notion of an “Axial Age” compelling, for all the reasons why the idea of a “Modern Age” (with respect to which we are ostensibly “post-“) is not all that useful, and Graeber’s invocation of it doesn’t do much for me. The idea that I think is underexplored in historiography is the notion that productive relationships simply became more distant in both time and space as humanity progressed, and the resulting coordination problem led to a variety of solutions, of which markets and money and debt are one particularly successful but imperfect class. This gives the whole picture of economic development a much more continuous history, like the way that Ian Morris gives east-west development inequality a continuous history going back to the Ice Ages.

I don’t know if that kind of historical narrative is better in any objective sense, but I like it more and I think Graeber’s thesis is better suited to it.

8

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 2:31 pm

‘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.’

I’m sorry, Chris, but this kind of talk is foolish. You are not going to get something on the size of (let’s say) ‘Occupy Wall Street’ or the St Paul’s Cathedral encampment doing any of the following things: providing a living income for sevearl million unemployed people; providing a living income (ie a pension) for several million people over the age of sixty; providing affordable and reliable health care to all citizens based on their medical needs; providing a justice system which prevents the strongest and most venal in any society from preying on the weakest; and so on.

The state in which you and I live, Chris, is not ‘a beast’. British society doesn’t do all the things that I, as a social democrat, wish it did do, and it doesn’t do all of them as well as I might wish or as well as they are done in, say, Denmark. But it does enough of them to make the difference between an uncivilised and a civilised society.

If you or I collapse with, say, breathing difficulties in the next sixty minutes, the ‘beast’ will not let us die. There’s a phone network that I or someone else can use to summon help, there are skilled professionals to take me to a hospital, skilled professionals to give me immediate treatment, more skilled professionals to give me longer-term care, a system whereby I am given money and other kinds of support if I am too ill to work, schools which make it possible for people to become nurses and doctors (or telecoms engineers, or pharmaceutical researchers), a criminal justice system which prevents the first guy with a weapon from stopping my ambulance on the way to hospital, a system of taxation which funds these public goods, a system of law which gives me recourse if someone tries to unjustly deprive me of those goods, an economy which can support that level of taxation, and so on.

The existence of such a society is not a small deal, and neither can it be taken for granted. I’ve seen a society in which almost none of those institutions exist, and I really don’t want to live there. Some societies will let you or me die if we collapse. They don’t have a decent level of economic development, or welfare states, and they need both.

Serious left-wing politics does not consist of saying ‘yeah, someone’s gonna take care of all that health and taxation business, and the other stuff- let’s start a commune up.’ Welfare states will not run themselves, and they will not just continue to exist through sheer inertia: it takes intelligence and nerve and effort to make sure that such states are not diminished or destroyed by their right-wing enemies, or by economic crisis.

9

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 2:43 pm

Just to amplify one point- I said: ‘You are not going to get something on the size of (let’s say) ‘Occupy Wall Street’ or the St Paul’s Cathedral encampment doing any of the following things’ (provide pensions, health care, the rule of law, etc).

I should add- even if the number of communes, or whatever you want to call autonomous communities, were to multiply by thousands or even millions, you’re *still* not going to get them providing, say, an effective system of health care.

Intelligent left-wing politics can never mean turning our back on the market economy and the state and creating a lot of small autonomous communities: because those small autonomous communities are not, for example, going to keep you alive if you have a stroke, or give you a fair trial if you’re accused of a crime.

10

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 3:00 pm

#2 @Phil …. my point was just that Graeber is clearly talking about a conception of freedom as self-ownership. Kant officially rejects the possibility of self-ownership, but, in my view, what he says about right, persons and bodies in his political philosophy comes practically so close as to make no difference. I’m sure rigorous Kant scholars will be appalled at my saying this.

#7 @Scott – I don’t think “justice” will do here, notwithstanding your marketing problem. There can be justice in the exchange of equivalents that has nothing to do with the recognition of the needs of the other.

#8, #9 @Dan – thanks for some necessary corrective points. However I think you mistake the point that’s being made (and that’s probably my fault). Obviously I can’t speak for Graeber here, but what I was intending was not the thought that the structures of the broader society should be replaced by networks of autonomous communes, but rather that schemes of self-help and democratic self-organization, flourishing in the “nooks and crannies” of the wider society can provide a _model_ and inspiration for the transformation (rather than replacement) of that wider society on more egalitarian and democratic lines. Maybe you also think that’s also zany irresponsible utopianism, but it is a different idea to the one you are ridiculing. See also my thought on the “eco-left” at
http://crookedtimber.org/2011/05/22/the-fragmenting-coalition-of-the-left-some-musings/

11

SamChevre 02.22.12 at 3:08 pm

Central to Graeber’s historical account is a transition from what he calls “human economies” to “commercial economies”.

I wish I’d known this seminar was coming up and read the book.

It seems that the distinction between “human economies” and “commercial economies” is closely related to the distinction Doug Muder makes, in Red Family, Blue Family between “inherited obligations” and “negotiated commitments”.

Easier to read PDF version here

Our belief in negotiated commitment – that people are not obligated to relationships they did not choose – is like one of those devastating European germs that white settlers spread throughout the world three centuries ago. We are immune; our families are based on negotiated commitments and (though they are far from perfect) work quite well in that environment – as long as we can maintain the social safety net….
Liberals have a vision of how the world should be. I believe in that vision. It is a fairer, more just world than has ever existed before. It is better adjusted to the realities of modern life. And it is, in my opinion, the only vision of the future that does not eventually lead to competing fundamentalisms fighting a world war.

12

Omega Centauri 02.22.12 at 3:08 pm

Thanks. I had never heard of this work before, but it sounds fascinating. As such I feel I will have to puchase, read, and digest the book before participating. I wonder how many CT readers who are not themselves social scientists are in the same boat?

13

ajay 02.22.12 at 3:14 pm

CB: your last paragraph sounds fairly similar to the kind of ideas Matt Ridley outlined in “The Origin of Virtue”, and which later got picked up for use by the Big Society crowd… comments?

14

Steve LaBonne 02.22.12 at 3:18 pm

Omega- by coincidence, just yesterday I pre-ordered the paperback edition from Amazon.

15

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 3:23 pm

ajay: not really, since I haven’t read Ridley. But from my point of view, one of the really bad things about “The Big Society” (basically a cynical cover for cuts) was that it got genuine collective self-organization a bad name. But things like self-build housing co-ops (for example) don’t suddenly become right-wing because some Tory politician wants a photo opportunity.

16

Alex 02.22.12 at 3:42 pm

Chris, you may or may not have noticed that the head of the Council of Voluntary Organisations was one of the elect invited to Dave-from-PR’s NHS summit (the one both the doctors and the nurses were left out of).

I’m beginning to think “nonprofit capitalism” may be an important development in the last 10 years or so.

17

mds 02.22.12 at 4:06 pm

If you or I collapse with, say, breathing difficulties in the next sixty minutes, the ‘beast’ will not let us die.

If it’s a commercial market-oriented beast and you lack the ability to pay, yes it will.

18

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 4:16 pm

Chris- just on a personal level, I certainly didn’t intend to ridicule you and I am sorry if that’s how it came across. I did attempt a fairly emphatic rebuttal of what I thought you were agreeing with Graeber on.

You say that ‘schemes of self-help and democratic self-organization, flourishing in the “nooks and crannies” of the wider society can provide a model and inspiration for the transformation (rather than replacement) of that wider society on more egalitarian and democratic lines’. Sure: I agree. Historically, schemes of self-help and democratic self-organisation played quite a big part in the emancipation of women or the gay rights movements.

First point: but those SoS-HaDS-O were certainly not sufficient to achieve their goals, and were probably not even the most important ways that women and gays did improve their lot. Things that were more important included high politics (the Wolfenden report, the Private Members’ Bills on topics like abortion or divorce or the legalisation of homosexuality); changes in elite or popular opinion which prompted or supported the politicians to change things; the legal system, which gave people an avenue of redress if they were being in practice deprived of their rights; technology (very hard to imagine a more equal status for women without effective birth control)- and so on.

Second point: you don’t need Graeber-style anarchism to tell you that people doing their own thing can provide models for the improvement of society. All you need is a belief in liberty: if people are free to do what they damn well choose so long as it’s not hurting others, they will, and if that way of life proves attractive to others, they’ll choose it. Some people are always first adopters, whether you’re talking about buying iPods or being openly gay.

Third point: but most of the big problems in society are still going to mean that you engage with what the state is doing and what markets are doing. Schemes of self-help and democratic self-organisation might make unemployment marginally more bearable for British or Greek workers, but they’re not going to decide whether Britain has an unnecessary set of austerity problems or how big Greek unemployment becomes.

Fourth point: and I don’t think that Graeber does just see self-help as something that can provide an otherwise capitalist, statist society with a few useful models of how to improve things. He thinks that whole model of society is wrong.

I think- and I think Dsquared will voice similar sentiments, when he appears- that such a view really is witless utopianism. You can’t provide a civilised way of life for countries populated by tens or hundreds of millions of people without some things that Graeber seems to find so distasteful: money, a banking system which includes provision for debt, legally enforceable contracts rather than a reliance on social norms.

19

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 4:18 pm

mds: ‘If you or I collapse with, say, breathing difficulties in the next sixty minutes, the ‘beast’ will not let us die.
If it’s a commercial market-oriented beast and you lack the ability to pay, yes it will.’

Yes, and Chris Bertram and I live in the United Kingdom, so the National Health Service won’t let us die.

Which is the point I’m making: the UK is not utopia, but it’s a damn sight better than a country without an NHS or similar system. And the NHS will really just survive through inertia.

20

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 4:20 pm

Typo- last sentence should be ‘And the NHS will really *not* just survive through inertia.’

It really won’t, by the way, with the government that we currently have in power. And that government will not be dissuaded from its health plans by everybody just turning their back on politics and setting up self-help schemes.

21

Luis 02.22.12 at 4:20 pm

Second point: you don’t need Graeber-style anarchism to tell you that people doing their own thing can provide models for the improvement of society.
In fact, CT was supposed to have a seminar on just this point a few years back, when it was emphasized in Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias. I’m still bitter that seminar never got off the ground ;)

22

Substance McGravitas 02.22.12 at 4:33 pm

Introduction here:

http://mhpbooks.com/books/debt/

23

Bill Benzon 02.22.12 at 4:34 pm

William James on (nooks and) crannies:

“I am against bigness and greatness in all their forms, and with the invisible molecular moral forces that work from individual to individual, stealing in through the crannies of the world like so many soft rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, and yet rending the hardest monuments of mans pride, if you give them time. The bigger the unit you deal with, the hollower, the more brutal, the more mendacious is the life displayed. So I am against all big organizations as such, national ones first and foremost; against all big successes and big results; and in favor of the eternal forces of truth which always work in the individual and immediately unsuccessful way, under-dogs always, till history comes, after they are long dead, and puts them on top. You need take no notice of these ebullitions of spleen, which are probably quite unintelligible to anyone but myself.”

William James, letter to Mrs. Henry Whitman, June 7, 1899. The Letters of William James, ed. Henry James, vol. 2, p. 90.

24

Substance McGravitas 02.22.12 at 4:34 pm

“Exchange”, by contrast, is governed by an ideal of strict reciprocity among free and equal persons.

Maybe some more strength should be put on Graeber’s emphasis that “exchange” is what members of human economies do with people they don’t trust: strangers. So the sphere of markets necessarily leads to abstract chains of relationships with people you don’t care about at all and may never see and want to take advantage of.

25

Bill Benzon 02.22.12 at 4:45 pm

FWIW, working independently, so far as I know, Alan Fiske has come up with a scheme similar to Graeber’s. Where Graeber talks of communism, Fiske talks of communal sharing; where Graeber talks of hierarchy, Fiske talks of authority ranking; and where Graeber talks of reciprocity, Fiske talks of equality matching. Fiske also talks of market pricing, which would seem to be a property of Graeber’s commercial markets.

26

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 4:47 pm

Substance McGravitas: ‘Maybe some more strength should be put on Graeber’s emphasis that “exchange” is what members of human economies do with people they don’t trust: strangers. So the sphere of markets necessarily leads to abstract chains of relationships with people you don’t care about at all and may never see and want to take advantage of.’

Yes: I really think we should put a lot of emphasis on that point by Graeber, because it shows us precisely why he is not just wrong but foolish. If we are going to get rid of markets then we limit ourselves to interactions only with those people that we know on a first-hand basis- which is a pretty small number.

If that’s the kind of society people want, good luck with gettingfood that hasn’t been grown or killed by you or your neighbours, or medicine, or clean water. Good luck with living in any community larger than a clan.

27

ajay 02.22.12 at 4:57 pm

I’m beginning to think “nonprofit capitalism” may be an important development in the last 10 years or so.

Important but not necessarily positive, as quite a few non-profits pay their founders huge salaries, rather than being nasty profitmaking companies that pay their founders huge dividends.

28

ajay 02.22.12 at 5:00 pm

If we are going to get rid of markets then we limit ourselves to interactions only with those people that we know on a first-hand basis- which is a pretty small number.

Dan, don’t forget that as well as exchange and communism there’s also hierarchy. So we limit ourselves to interactions with people we know on a first-hand basis, people who can compel us to do their bidding, and people whom we can compel to do our bidding.

Still doesn’t sound all that great.

29

Gaspard 02.22.12 at 5:01 pm

@Dan Hardie – the question of whether there is value in “Debt” doesn’t hinge on whether there could be an anarchist NHS, and presenting a binary choice between ineffective anarchy and participating in politics as usual is a false one.

Replacing the 4 or 5 property shows per day on the taxpayer funded BBC with ones discouraging them from turning themselves into debt peons would represent a tangible step in the right direction. Graeber’s polemic outlines possibilities to think otherwise, sorely missing in politics as usual.

30

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 5:17 pm

No, I really don’t think that it needs a book of several hundred pages to make us think that property porn (largely discontinued since the slump anyway) is a bad thing, nor do I think that Graeber is making such a small claim. He’s talking big, baby. Society has been going on the wrong path for 5,000 years and he’s the man to tell us why. He’s also not thought through the massive, and rather obvious, problems with his critique of exchange, and so his writing is deeply foolish.

*(Nor do I think, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, that distasteful TV programmes on property were a major cause of the biggest slump for eighty years. If only the solution to our problems were as simple as ‘Don’t give ‘Location, Location, Location’ another series’.)

31

Substance McGravitas 02.22.12 at 5:17 pm

If we are going to get rid of markets then we limit ourselves to interactions only with those people that we know on a first-hand basis- which is a pretty small number.

I haven’t gotten to the end of the book so I don’t know what his prescriptions are. Certainly without markets it’s going to be hard to get birth control pills if your uncle doesn’t have a factory in the garage. The value of the book for me right now, though, is in helping to remind me how symbolic money is and how forgiving it is possible to be when the agreed-upon mechanisms of society do not work so well. Chris mentions the Islamic material above (and Graeber in the notes IIRC mentions that he may be overselling it) and the emphasis on merchants driving harder bargains for the rich than the poor and on taking care of the welfare of the poor in a market collapse without recourse to intervention in the markets, the market being more obviously recognized as a societal tool rather than “the way things are”.

32

ajay 02.22.12 at 5:20 pm

Nor do I think, at the risk of stating the bleedin’ obvious, that distasteful TV programmes on property were a major cause of the biggest slump for eighty years.

Well, no Slate column for you then.

33

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 5:27 pm

Dan and ajay:

I think it is exceptionally misleading to say that if we do without markets then we limit ourselves to interactions only with people we know personally. Not misleading because false though, misleading because you end up conflating two points. I don’t disagree with you that markets (or, often worse, hierarchies) are necessary for allocation of resources and large-scale coordination of activity.

But you can’t take that as settling the distributive point. From each according to their abilities/to each according to their needs is a different distributive principle from one where people interact according to an instrumental calculation (the exchange principle). First, as Graeber often points out, there’s no reason why I can’t interact with strangers according to the communist principle, and, in fact, I often do (and so do you). Second, we can think about how to design mechanisms that divorce (to a greater or lesser extent) the allocative question from the distributive one.

(This was the task that Jerry Cohen set (but did not solve) as a challenge for the left in _Why not Socialism?_ . Market socialist schemes of various kinds are attempts at it. And I know that Cohen was very much influenced and inspired by Joseph Carens’s book _Equality, Moral Incentives, and the Market: An Essay in Utopian Politico-Economic Theory_ . )

Now Graeber, at least as I read him, is actually less utopian on this point than Cohen is. He doesn’t want to replace hierarchy and exchange with communism, because he thinks that all three principles are inevitable components of any society. But he does want to shift the balance substantially away from exchange and hierarchy and towards communism.

34

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 5:29 pm

Dan: my guess is that you haven’t read the book and are mainly riffing off my (imperfect) account. Is that correct?

35

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.22.12 at 5:31 pm

I believe it’s been more or less accepted since the 1800s that an anarchist utopia would function best in a small community with a very modest standard of living (due to a limited division of labor). So, yeah, if you collapse with breathing difficulties, there won’t be an NHS helicopter available, and you may have to die. But hey, everything is a tradeoff.

36

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 5:36 pm

Chris- I haven’t finished the book, and like Substance McG, I’m hoping that there is something in the last fifty pages which makes me slap my forehead and say ‘Aha, Graeber’s right and I’m wrong.’ But I have read every blogpost and article I found by him, and if they are a fair summary of his ideas, I think my forehead will remain un-slapped.

Too much of the book is just ‘see, money has a history, and that history is linked to states, and states sometimes do bad things’. Like, really? Next you’ll be telling me the Pope’s not a Methodist.

37

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 5:48 pm

Fair enough Dan, you aren’t going to change your mind. I diagnose a temperamental allergy to anarchism. Which is a pity since even anarchists who don’t have fully credible plans for a functioning NHS in their back pockets can say illuminating things about the society in which we live. And have done.

38

robotslave 02.22.12 at 5:54 pm

@33

I could very well be wrong here, but from what I have read of Graeber on the Occupy movement and politics generally, I suspect that he would rather strongly disagree that hierarchy is an inevitable component of society.

39

Alex K. 02.22.12 at 5:54 pm

“Maybe some more strength should be put on Graeber’s emphasis that “exchange” is what members of human economies do with people they don’t trust: strangers. So the sphere of markets necessarily leads to abstract chains of relationships with people you don’t care about at all and may never see and want to take advantage of.”

Is it not true that killing strangers outside your tribe was a major preoccupation of tribal/communal societies? Compared to that, interaction via exchange is a monumental improvement. Despite all the pathological aspects of market interaction, the overwhelming majority of exchanges are of the Econ 101 variety: two parties trying to take advantage of each other end up with a mutually beneficial trade.

In this context, a rational thesis that seems to be close to David Graeber’s argument is: ” The most beneficial form of interaction with strangers — exchange — is gradually leading to a loss of communal interactions that are superior to exchange and hierarchical interactions.”

I am extremely interested to see if David Graeber deals adequately with what I see as the main competing explanation of the modern loss of communal interaction: the modern loss of a single, public religion. Ubiquitous exchange relations do not seem to affect the willingness of Mormons to donate two meals per month to the needy, nor does it affect their willingness to make other less symbolic donations to the community.

Examples like those make me think that the causal relation is reversed: a huge modern development (the loss of a single public religion) leads gradually to the loss of community, which in turn leads to the adoption of the best available means of interaction with people that are now strangers: exchange.

I would be disappointed to find that all Graeber has to offer on this point is shallow, “Religion is the opium of the people” dismissals.

40

Chris Bertram 02.22.12 at 5:57 pm

@38 – it might be very minimal, but I doubt that he believes that parental authority over small children wrt to the desirability of playing with matches is something that will wither away.

41

robotslave 02.22.12 at 6:02 pm

@40

I quite agree that Graeber would likely expect parental authority to exist in his preferred social structure. I am far less certain that he would characterize that relationship as “hierarchy.” Or “authority,” for that matter.

42

Gaspard 02.22.12 at 6:36 pm

@30: You can scoff about property shows all you like, but when Graeber says (can’t find the exact quote) that looking at objects merely in terms of what they can be sold off for is the mark of a conquering army, I immediately thought he’d just described “Bargain Hunt” just about perfectly.

Another person who’s ideas dovetail with some of “Debt” are Jaron Lanier’s on the way the technological changes in the music industry means that only the owner of the delivery system (Apple, Amazon) make any money from recorded music and artists can no longer support themselves except by endless touring. The story of a relationship being disrupted or maintained is what needs to be focused on, and where it was most eye-opening for me.

If the Greece and Irish situation was explained in the mainstream media as firing school bus drivers and special needs assistants so that pension funds would not lose the odd per cent from their portfolio, the relationship would be a lot clearer.

43

Substance McGravitas 02.22.12 at 6:39 pm

I haven’t finished the book, and like Substance McG, I’m hoping that there is something in the last fifty pages which makes me slap my forehead and say ‘Aha, Graeber’s right and I’m wrong.’

That isn’t what my position is. I don’t see that I have yet been pointed towards an abolition of markets as a great thing in itself right now, although much is being made about the terrible uses of markets and their terrible origins (in which an absence of markets might well have been an advantage to various yokels at various places in history). I am finding the book a terrific read, whether or not I think this or that support for the general argument is tenuous, and as I am relatively unschooled in this stuff it’s important for me to be reminded just how much of a social construct markets are.

I get miffed at people dying for nonsensical religions and I should also remember that people die for want of the proper symbols.

44

Yarrow 02.22.12 at 6:58 pm

robotslave @ 40: Put your mind at ease. “We are all communists with our closest friends, and feudal lords when dealing with small children.” (p. 113)

45

Steve LaBonne 02.22.12 at 7:12 pm

I get miffed at people dying for nonsensical religions and I should also remember that people die for want of the proper symbols.

My heart rouses
thinking to bring you news
of something
that concerns you
and concerns many men. Look at
what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
despised poems.
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

46

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 02.22.12 at 7:57 pm

I am only an egg, and in possession of no credentials in any of these fields, but I have read Debt and I seem to have missed some of the perfidious things Dan Hardie discerns in it. My own impression is well-expressed by Substance McGravitas’s #49; indeed, while the point is hardly original to him, I was very taken by Graeber’s careful peeling-apart of “markets” and “capitalism.”

In particular I seem to have missed the chapters in which Graeber calls for us to foreswear markets altogether and become naked hippies in the forest. Perhaps this is because I read it as an e-book; those have all kinds of problems, I understand.

47

Watson Ladd 02.22.12 at 8:08 pm

I’ve got some thoughts about the topic, and this seems to be be the best place to put them. First, the Axial age empires were liberating. One could walk from London to Rome without a sword, speaking a single language, and using a single currency. (The EU ought to make its banknotes images of Caesar) The old societies depended crucially on relations of belonging that made them hostile to outsiders.

Exchange precedes secularization, but also brings it about. Who cares that a Quaker cannot swear when he has gold in his hands? It’s no surprise that the first commercial societies were the arsenal of liberty, where the genocidal Spanish were repelled. Napoleon brought commerce as he freed the Jews.

Debt has another side: social lubricant. If I can’t go into debt to you, I can’t get things now and pay later. Regardless of whether the ambulance driver gets payed by his passenger or the state, he needs to get paid and goes to work in the belief that he will get paid.

In that respect Graeber is ignoring the real issue: the social nature of freedom. Commercial society creates a conception of freedom as individual accomplishment and development. If we want to think about furthering liberation, the question is liberation for individuals, or the reconstitution of traditional social forms which will only survive by unceasing violence against those who dream of man rising to the stars.

48

robotslave 02.22.12 at 8:08 pm

@44 – Color me unconvinced :)

Seriously, though, there’s a whole body of elaborate theoretical work in anarchist child-rearing, and I seem to remember reading somewhere that David Graeber was himself raised by anarchist parents. Whether their parenting hewed to any particular anarchist theory of same, I have no idea. And is really none of my business.

49

Neville Morley 02.22.12 at 8:28 pm

#47: “The axial age empires were liberating.” Depends which one, depends who you were. Yes, certainly in the case of Rome, you get the extension of various institutions like language, law and currency across a much wider area than hitherto, but that is to the benefit primarily of the state and a tiny wealthy elite. And the evidence suggests prevalent banditry; those who travel extensively certainly don’t do this without protection.

50

Substance McGravitas 02.22.12 at 8:39 pm

One could walk from London to Rome without a sword, speaking a single language, and using a single currency.

Who did that?

51

chris y 02.22.12 at 8:53 pm

First, the Axial age empires were liberating. One could walk from London to Rome without a sword, speaking a single language, and using a single currency.

It’s true: these days you totally need a sword to walk across the Channel.

52

peter ramus 02.22.12 at 9:12 pm

One could walk from London to Rome without a sword, speaking a single language, and using a single currency.

And your slaves could carry your stuff.

53

mds 02.22.12 at 9:48 pm

And the NHS will really not just survive through inertia.

Indeed not. Especially when it is under attack from people with a great deal of money, a substantial swathe of the banking industry, and those who hold the enforceability of private contracts situationally sacred while declaring that “there is no such thing as society.” So I suspect that social norms will actually have to play a pretty substantial role in its survival.

Yes, and Chris Bertram and I live in the United Kingdom, so the National Health Service won’t let us die.

Elderly Greek pensioners whose country is being destroyed by out-of-control debt hysteria resulting from an implosion of our current banking system will be comforted by this, I’m sure.

And that government will not be dissuaded from its health plans by everybody just turning their back on politics and setting up self-help schemes.

If David Graeber were still at Yale, I’d try to pass on to him that he shouldn’t turn his back on politics. Alas, he was let go because of his inconvenient strong political opinions.

54

uni 02.22.12 at 10:00 pm

A brief terminological question. Chris B and others here use the phrase “nooks and crannies”. Though clear enough the phrase is somewhat cumbersome. And hard to turn into -ism -ist and -lly forms. I prefer the term “interstitial” as used by Wright in Envisioning Real Utopias. But I haven’t seen it much in print elsewhere. Does any one know if it has caught on somewhere?

55

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 10:04 pm

(Me: ‘Yes, and Chris Bertram and I live in the United Kingdom, so the National Health Service won’t let us die.’

mds, in the manner of one making an unanswerable retort: ‘Elderly Greek pensioners whose country is being destroyed by out-of-control debt hysteria resulting from an implosion of our current banking system will be comforted by this, I’m sure.’)

Yes, quite. My saying I want to defend my country’s social democratic healthcare system means I am indifferent to the economic sufferings of Greece, or perhaps complicit in the same. Thank you for your contribution, idiot.

56

robotslave 02.22.12 at 10:22 pm

…were still at Yale, I’d try to pass on to him…

That is so, so pathetic.

Over here at Princebridge (you wouldn’t have heard of it, it’s exclusive) we’ve developed an advanced technique for comprehending particularly difficult texts, e.g. Dan Hardie’s otherwise impenetrable “everybody just turning their back on politics,” delivered gnomically in the midst of a critique of anarchism.

57

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 10:59 pm

I wasn’t going to comment again until I’d finished the book. But that now won’t be until Friday at the earliest, so some quick hit-and-run comments on some of the things I find problematic about it (bearing in mind that the last few pages may resolve all these problems):

1) Graeber establishes that money, debt and financial institutions have their roots in forms of social organisation which practised war and slavery. Not a big surprise to anyone who’s read their ancient or medieval history, but fine, I think that’s pretty much inarguable.

But Graeber seems is the same as proving that money, debt and financial institutions are morally tarnished and perhaps inherently destructive. (Sorry about all the ‘seems’ and ‘perhaps’, but I think that his central arguments are nowhere near as clearly made as they should be.)

Now this – if he does think it- is just foolish. You can say exactly the same things about any system of writing or number. Who practised them first? The same civilisations that came up with money. In fact, you can’t have any kind of developed financial system without written records. How much of a taint does writing have, or arithmetic? I really can’t see that his argument is any less trite than that- it really is ‘this all came from slave-owning, war-making states’. Yes, and have you wondered about where the Phoenician, Greek and Latin alphabets came from?

For that matter, we can tell similar stories about antibiotics, radar, telecommunications, heavier-than-air flight- the list is nearly endless. All were significantly developed for military use, in particularly bloody wars, by powers that were ruthless, often imperial, and at least sometimes actually genocidal. But if someone tried to make that an argument (explicit or implicit) for why you shouldn’t use antibiotics, or air travel, or the internet, I hope you’d laugh at them.

2) Too much of the argument is assertion or even tautology, dressed up in rhetoric: he says that some practice is morally offensive and/or that it poisons social relations. How do we know that this is true? Why,because he’s said so.

3) Maybe it’s hiding for me at the end, but so far I can’t see that he details with any clarity (as opposed to rhetorical energy, of which he has plenty) what he would change about capitalist society as it currently exists, nor of how he would change it. Yes, he wants a better society, a less greed-obsessed society, a society not in the grip of crisis, etc, etc. Oddly enough, me too. What do we change? How do we change? What possible dangers and unintended consequences might attend your preferred methods of change? And I think that last question in particular- what might go wrong with what you want?- is just a real problem for him.

I’ve enjoyed some of the anthropological byways he’s toured, but I have to say that the main thrust of the book is not something that we should really respect.

It’s so much easier, and so much more gratifying, to say ‘we’re living in a *bad* society and we need to start living in a *good* one’ than it is to say ‘first we need to make sure we don’t make things worse- let’s think about how we can do that’.

And so far as I’ve read, I think Graeber’s just been doing the former. It’s nice to tell yourself that you’re the most moral person in the room and everyone who disagrees with you is just a grubby compromiser, but saying it don’t make it so.

58

Dan Hardie 02.22.12 at 11:03 pm

Sorry, third paragraph above should read:

‘But Graeber seems *to think that showing that* is the same as proving that money, debt and financial institutions are morally tarnished and perhaps inherently destructive.’

59

JW Mason 02.22.12 at 11:15 pm

Just want to say that I think Debt is one of the most important books published in the past year — certainly it had the largest impact on me — and I’m thrilled that CT is doing this seminar.

60

Timothy Scriven 02.23.12 at 1:43 am

“I believe it’s been more or less accepted since the 1800s that an anarchist utopia would function best in a small community with a very modest standard of living (due to a limited division of labor). So, yeah, if you collapse with breathing difficulties, there won’t be an NHS helicopter available, and you may have to die. But hey, everything is a tradeoff.”

I don’t recall discussing this in our meetings. Most anarchists are fully committed to maintaining industrial society and have no plans to abolish the division of labour, although trimming it back so everyone does a share of the menial tasks may be advisable.

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.23.12 at 8:14 am

Timothy, not to abolish the division of labor, of course, but to limit it, surely? I haven’t been to meetings, but it seems to me that, generally speaking, high complexity creates the need for a hierarchy.

62

robotslave 02.23.12 at 12:39 pm

@61 – I’m skeptical of the notion that high complexity creates the need for hierarchy. I would agree, though, that quite often in practice, high complexity is hierarchy. In the example given, consider the complexity of the NHS in its distribution systems.

For the helicopter in particular, you need to send geographically dispersed land and air ambulances to patients, and patients into a heterogeneous and resource-limited hospital network. You need a fast dispatch system, and regardless of how the administrators run their monthly meetings, the dispatch system itself is hierarchy.

Also, @60 “I don’t recall discussing this in our meetings” is by far my favorite quote from the seminar thus far.

63

Bill Benzon 02.23.12 at 3:54 pm

Chris: Your last paragraph sounds a bit like a plug for the Transition Movement, which originated in England and which, as you may know, has since spread to 30 countries around the world. It’s very local, very “interstitial.” Here’s a bit of prose from the website of ‘movement HQ’ (don’t know whether or not there’s any connection with the Wed evening anarchists meeting):

It’s a place where there’s a community-led process that helps that town/village/city/neighbourhood become stronger and happier.

It’s happening in well over a thousand highly diverse communities across the world – from towns in Australia to neighbourhoods in Portugal, from cities in Brazil to rural communities in Slovenia, from urban locations in Britain to islands off the coast of Canada. Many of these initiatives are registered on the Transition Network website.

These communities have started up projects in areas of food, transport, energy, education, housing, waste, arts etc. as small-scale local responses to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy. Together, these small-scale responses make up something much bigger, and help show the way forward for governments, business and the rest of us.

64

Phil 02.23.12 at 6:56 pm

For the helicopter in particular

When I used to read the anarchist & left-libertarian press, and when anarchists used to say the words “after the revolution”, I remember reading a mostly-serious discussion of whether there would be helicopters after the revolution – not air ambulance helicopters particularly, any helicopters. The answer they regretfully reached was, probably not – that the number of things you really needed a helicopter to do wasn’t big enough to justify the massive expense in materials, resources and social co-ordination that would be necessary to build and run even one. Helicopters = conspicuous consumption, basically.

65

caspar henderson 02.24.12 at 11:37 am

I haven’t read all the comments in response to Chris Betram’s post but I have finished Graeber’s book. I’m no convinced by CB’s conclusion that perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” (although obviously this is a good thing). I think Graeber explores and asks us to explore a number of options and possibilities — not necessarily to repeat but to adapt an innovate upon. These could even include, inter alia, revival of something like the Confucian suspicion of traders: philosophers saw them as a necessary evil, to be exploited and controlled by the state. Also, the institution of Jubilee, developed in ancient Mespot., adopted by biblical Hebrews and a theme in virtually every peasant revolt since. Odious debts…

66

Alex 02.24.12 at 12:29 pm

Phil: I am now imagining a sort of anarchist great chain of being, in which all technologies and artefacts are classified on this basis. Unfortunately, the very effort to create such a taxonomy would be forbidden on its own terms, in a sort of Borgesesque recursion.

67

ajay 02.24.12 at 1:41 pm

I am now imagining a sort of anarchist great chain of being, in which all technologies and artefacts are classified on this basis.

I was imagining it in less elevated terms as the equivalent of whether or not something is zero-rated for VAT purposes.

“No, you see, the chocolate-coated Hob Nob is clearly a biscuit, and therefore an acceptable part of basic subsistence requirements, but the Jaffa Cake is a cake and therefore involves unacceptable levels of hierarchy and coercion in its manufacture.”

But surely the point about an anarchist revolution is that, after it, no one will be in a position to tell us whether we can build helicopters or not? If I and a few thousand other like-minded free individuals want to build an air ambulance, or an airsea rescue service, or just something that will allow us to go heliskiing, then we can jolly well go ahead and do it as long as we don’t hurt anyone else while doing it.

68

robotslave 02.24.12 at 3:24 pm

@67

Why the restriction on harming others?

And even if we stipulate that autonomous “diversity of tactics” is somehow outlawed by The Revolution, who’s going to stop your helicopter-cult from harming anyone who undertakes anti-helicopter actions? Or prevent you from operating the helicult as a strict hierarchy, for that matter?

One of the longstanding criticisms of the anarchist socio-political model is that it has no means of preventing a devolution into warlordism. One can posit that after the revolution, no-one will ever again want to do cults, militias, street gangs, clans, etc., but I’d sort of prefer a more systemic or structural guarantee.

69

Utisz 02.26.12 at 3:04 pm

@54 Glad you brought in the word ‘interstitial’. It’s used quite a bit in John Holloway’s Crack Capitalism (2010), so yes it is gaining currency.

70

John Bedell 02.28.12 at 3:08 pm

For anyone who wants to understand the transition from more personal to more market dominated and bureaucratic societies, I recommend Roberto Calasso, especially The Ruin of Kasch.

As for actually changing the world, I am not optimistic. I see again from reading the posts here that left-wing thought has fragmented into a realist school devoted to winning elections (by co-opting right-wing rhetoric about freedom) and putting very modest limits on capitalism, and an essentially fantasist wing devoted to building wonderful little helpful neighborhoods or dreaming about what happens after the revolution that is never coming.

I am myself of the realist persuasion, but even I find the politics of the British Labour Party or the Democrats in the US deeply boring and profoundly unsatisfying. Since socialism collapsed into bureaucracy and mediocrity, what has left-wing economics amounted to? Quibbling about getting the levels of taxation and regulation right, and worrying about how to control health care costs. Not exactly inspiring stuff. Profound change is off the table because that scares the median voter — and maybe rightly so, given the spotty history of revolution. So we tinker with capitalism and long for the days when corporate bigwigs limited their own salaries for appearances’ sake.

I want a more just society, but I am still waiting for a realistic plan. Or, really, have given up waiting, since I doubt one will emerge in my lifetime. Instead, I distract myself with online debate and exploring our world, which, whatever its other faults, is the best one ever for people of boundless curiosity.

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