Debt on the 12th Planet

by Rob Horning on February 28, 2012

In his 1976 book The Twelfth Planet, independent scholar Zecharia Sitchin drew on his heterodox studies of archeology, biology, anthropology, and ancient Sumerian to put forward the thesis that an alien race from the planet Nibiru came to earth thousands of years ago and enslaved the human species and forced them to mine precious metals, instilling in our ancestors a religious respect for metallurgy and an insatiable love for gold. As I remember it from Sitchin’s appearances on the Art Bell show in the 1990s, the original political hierarchies in ancient times derived from the appointed intermediaries to the Nibiru people (known in various human mythologies as the Nephilim or the Annunaki); these became the earliest human kings, with access to supernatural power that justified their rule, the purpose of which was essentially to expedite the greatest amount of precious metal extraction possible.

I couldn’t help but think of Sitchin’s origin story when, in chapter nine of Debt, Graeber lays out the details of what he calls the “military-coinage-slavery complex,” by which the empires of the “axial age” became caught up in a cycle of crisis and conquest. Graeber argues that coinage was basically invented during this period to pay armies, who were then employed primarily in capturing slaves who could in turn work the mines to provide the necessary coinage. “The entire Roman empire, at its height,” he suggests, “could be understood as a vast machine for the extraction of precious metals and their coining and distribution to the military.”

Both Graeber and Sitchin are addressing the same riddle: They are trying to explain the apparent absurdity of human goldbuggery, find some ur-villains at the beginnings of civilization who can be blamed for the miseries created by the otherwise pointless expansion of economic activity along such lines. The point of economic organization and expansion via debt instruments can’t be as irrational as digging up the planet’s gold supply to fuel endless wars, can it? But what is the root of economic evil? Why have we chosen to suppress the “everyday communism” that Graeber identifies as the true core of human value, “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace”?

For Graeber, gold remains the mechanism that blinds us. In describing the return of coinage in the era of Western colonization, he argues that debt and other ad hoc modes of credit come to reinforce the depersonalized relations of the cash nexus epitomized by circulatable currencies.

If one looks at the actual history, though, it quickly becomes clear that all of these new forms of money in no way undermined the assumption that money was founded on the “intrinsic” value of gold and silver: in fact, they reinforced it. What seems to have happened is that, once credit became unlatched from real relations of trust between individuals (whether merchants or villagers ), it became apparent that money could, in effect, be produced simply by saying it was there; but that, when this is done in the amoral world of a competitive marketplace, it would almost inevitably lead to scams and confidence games of every sort—causing the guardians of the system to periodically panic, and seek new ways to latch the value of the various forms of paper back onto gold and silver.

Once money served as a measure of personal honor, of reputation, not a measure of abstract economic value. Money, Graeber suggests in his compelling early chapters, initially measures status; only later is it mobilized as a medium of exchange. Ultimately it becomes a key lever for “the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal—and often vindictive—power of the state.”

The problem with cash is that it obviates social obligations, or decontextualizes them so that they can be tradable. This allows for the institution of slavery, which Graeber defines as “the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.” Slavery is the ultimate expression of the logic of cash: an economic world in which contingent social relations are eradicated, allowing for abstract and purely instrumentalized relations between people. The system of mutual trust and credit inherent in “everyday communism” is destroyed; instead emerges the pitiless accounting of competitive exchange in a Hobbesean, atomized society, where all are at war with all.

But such slavery, seen from the point of view of “the bourgeois virtues,” is another word for the freedom of urban life—the apparently bogus liberty of anonymous encounters, privacy, and the capability to escape the intricate, embedded networks of social-structuring obligations one is born into. The roots of debt in slavery end up masked by the incipient ideology of freedom as convenience — of being unencumbered by the ties and obligations of reciprocal relations with other people. Slavery and convenience are two sides of the same coin. Convenience means the ability to do everything on our own terms on our own schedule, to have everything on demand — to experience the god-like transcendent power of the Nibiru. But while only the elect few experience such freedom, the masses live with exploitation and disenfranchisement via financial mystification.

Graeber, of course, amasses far more credible evidence to support his thesis about the history of gold lust than Sitchin does for his. Though actually, how would I know? Part of Graber’s strategy is to overawe ordinary readers with the breadth of his evidence, just as Sitchin intends to with his audience. But am I any less credulous than the average Twelfth Planet reader? As Graeber paints his history of human societies, a large part of me wants to believe merely because he tends to blame the right people for everything that is wrong (elites throughout the ages, who evolved financial divide-and-conquer strategies to secure their power) and holds out the possibility that innate human goodness and the inherent bonds of responsibility we feel toward one another will eventually win out.

I found myself consulting the footnotes less and less often as I read further into Debt, because picking nits with details began to seem contrary to the experience of absorbing the broad sweep of Graeber’s massive eons-spanning argument—particularly when he enters the “cycles of history” phase of his analysis. Reading the book at that point felt like being on an especially long ride at Epcot Center, with my little cart being dragged through a captivating variety of historical dioramas from a entertainingly diverse mix of cultures that I passively accept at face value. Why would I bother to hop out of the car to probe the authenticity of the spectacle? I’m just glad someone bothered to build the thing. I don’t often get to feel as though I am the exact intended audience for something so elaborate. (Though it may be that the vaguely leftist, post-grad-school demographic is gaining market power.)

I wanted to keep figures like Sitchin and Erich von Däniken out of my mind as I was reading Debt but my own ignorance militated against it. I experienced Graeber’s lone-wolf contrarian erudition as coercive; there was no way I could have enough grounding in all the fields he draws from to mount my own critique. Graeber’s ambitious, assimilative approach implies a certain lack of trust in the incremental work of other scholars, or that collectively the various independent research projects can do anything but reinforce the institutional biases engrained by the corrupt forces of established power.

Because of its scope, Debt reads as though it was the product of reasoning backward from preconceived tenets about human nature and politics, with suitable anecdotes framed to fit the elastic schema elaborated to encompass all of history. Whenever I felt myself becoming skeptical, I would be able to infer from the book’s rhetoric that this was a product of my ideological brainwashing, part of the implicit educational conspiracy that has kept me ethnocentrically blinkered. How silly of me, for instance, to not know that what I think of as the “Middle Ages” was really just the late arrival of a progressive world historical cycle that was mitigating the abuses of preceding age of imperialist cruelty. Debt threatens to marginalize itself by its voraciousness, its air of incontrovertibilty.

{ 137 comments }

1

garymar 02.28.12 at 8:26 am

Hey! I’m an independent scholar too!

2

Yarrow 02.28.12 at 8:49 am

In a further striking similarity, both Debt and The Da Vinci Code run to 500-odd pages. Clearly Graeber’s historical accuracy must be on a par with Dan Brown’s.

3

ajay 02.28.12 at 10:03 am

an alien race from the planet Nibiru came to earth thousands of years ago and enslaved the human species and forced them to mine precious metals, instilling in our ancestors a religious respect for metallurgy and an insatiable love for gold.

A plot later used by L Ron Hubbard in “Battlefield Earth”.

4

cjcjc 02.28.12 at 10:04 am

A strong critique, which echoes Henry / Gabriel Rossman – if he can get (e.g.) the history of Apple so wrong, why should we trust him on the ancient stuff?

5

Neville Morley 02.28.12 at 11:24 am

Your experience of reading the book seems to have been that it’s simultaneously too academic (basing its argument on an enormous range of specialised material that ordinary readers can’t hope to master and hence are liable to accept the argument uncritically) and insufficiently academic (ignoring the incremental work of ‘proper’ scholars in favour of an ambitious broad-brush synthesis; I know you don’t say ‘proper scholars’, but the remark about ‘lone-wolf contrarian erudition’ seems to have a similar flavour).

I think this is a standard feature of the genre; more or less identical criticisms have been leveled against Spengler, Toynbee, Braudel etc., not to mention earlier figures like Marx. I do think it’s very different from the likes on von Daeniken and his reductionist antiquarianism. The real question is whether it could be done differently, or what the consequences would be if (as doubtless the majority of professional historians might prefer, as with all such grand schemata) it wasn’t done at all.

The obvious point is that all the incremental scholarship is carried out within existing interpretative frameworks, which allow certain ideas to be thought more easily than others and which mean that some questions simply don’t get asked, not because of any coercive force or institution but because that’s the way the world has developed. A grand theory like Graeber’s offers both the opportunity and the provocation to think about things from a different perspective. As I said in my contribution, within the area of my professional competence I think some of his detail is definitely dodgy, not because everything has been run through his backward reasoning from preconceived tenets but because he simply hasn’t read the right stuff. However, if the overall theory is strong enough, whether or not it’s based on backward reasoning (how can any historical analysis not be based on a certain amount of hindsight?), then it will be worth the effort rethinking current assumptions to see how different the past then looks.

6

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 11:54 am

At present in Europe, economists specialising on Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, France and so on all agree locally that austerity is the only option. Nonetheless a majority of the same people agree that in aggregate, that’s to say from a more general European perspective, their policies are pro-cyclical and simply wrong.

There is therefore no guarantee that the work of specialists addressing a multitude of narrow fields will succeed in creating a valid whole when their work is bolted together. In particular, because politicians can neither halt the passage of time nor acquire all of the knowledge of every specialist, someone must assume the responsibility of acting as a generalist. If his or her conclusions are to differ in any way from the specialists’ aggregate, that’s to say if there’s to be any hope of deriving generally correct solutions, then at least some specialists’ conclusions must be challenged.

At present, society pretends that this is not the case but this alters nothing. Implicitly or explicitly, we are governed by generalists who draw on evidence and enforce decisions without any defined boundaries.

7

Bill Benzon 02.28.12 at 11:55 am

Graeber’s ambitious, assimilative approach implies a certain lack of trust in the incremental work of other scholars, or that collectively the various independent research projects can do anything but reinforce the institutional biases engrained by the corrupt forces of established power.

Well, yes, Graeber’s building a case; that’s obvious. I’m not yet done with the book; and I’m not in a position to second guess him on the history. However . . . .

One problem with incremental scholarship is that it is always and ever, well, incremental. It never yields a large-scale picture. At best, it leaves us with the large-scale pictures we’ve inherited from the 19th century. Now maybe one of those classical thinkers got it exactly right, or maybe there isn’t any large-scale order, maybe it’s just one thing after another. But how are we to know unless someone takes a flier on a large-scale version?

8

ajay 02.28.12 at 11:58 am

At present in Europe, economists specialising on Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, France and so on all agree locally that austerity is the only option

Wait, what? That’s a fairly extreme statement. Economists specialising in France all agree that austerity is the best option for France? Can you back that up at all?

9

ajay 02.28.12 at 12:04 pm

Nonetheless a majority of the same people agree that in aggregate, that’s to say from a more general European perspective, their policies are pro-cyclical and simply wrong. There is therefore no guarantee that the work of specialists addressing a multitude of narrow fields will succeed in creating a valid whole when their work is bolted together.

And this too is questionable. Let’s grant arguendo that your description is correct: that most economists in France think correctly that austerity in France alone will be good for France in the long run, but Europe-wide austerity will be bad for everyone in Europe including France. ( And the same for other European nations and their economists.) A kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma setup in fact.
That doesn’t mean that their academic work is self-contradictory or factually wrong. Just that the policies they recommend could backfire. The whole point about the Prisoner’s Dilemma is that every player is entirely correct about the reward matrix – and still, the best strategy for an individual is one that, if emulated by all players, is not the optimum possible.

10

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 12:09 pm

@ajay

Well that’s kind of my point.

11

Henry 02.28.12 at 12:29 pm

Actually, contra #3, I think that the comparison in this post is rather unfair. I’m not the appointed CT expert on the Annunaki/lizard-people hypothesis (that would be dsquared), but I know my way around the literature reasonably well, and Graeber’s historical effort is not of the same genre. Certainly, it’s tendentious, and clearly oriented towards present day concerns. But the same is true of _any_ grand scale sweeping history that is worth its salt – tendentiousness is not in itself a problem, and most macro histories at least glance in the direction of present day concerns (that’s one of the important things that history is supposed to do). I think that you could reasonably take issue with Graeber on the specifics, if you spotted major things that he got wrong. That’s what I tried to do in my own piece on Graeber’s arguments about the modern international economy. I also think that you could possibly say some interesting things about the inherent trickiness of a project like this (reading a couple of posts at Savage Minds, including Graeber’s own, it’s as though anthropologists wanted their own Jared Diamond – but having their own Jared Diamond presents problems if you are supposed to be all about rich attention to detail and nuance at the micro-level as a discipline). But I really don’t think that it’s fair to see him as a somewhat more careful Erich von Daniken – or, if it is fair, then it’s an indictment which applies in equal force to more or less any historical project with this scope.

12

ajay 02.28.12 at 1:17 pm

10: but their work is still valid as a description of the situation, even if their preferred policies conflict. You seemed to be saying that the aggregation of work by a bunch of narrow specialists might produce a general picture that is factually wrong, which seems dodgy to me. If I’ve misread you I apologise.

Also, #8?

13

DaveL 02.28.12 at 1:50 pm

Why have we chosen to suppress the “everyday communism” that Graeber identifies as the true core of human value, “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace”?

Because beyond small farming communities or other social structures where everyone knows everyone else, a “gift” economy won’t work? We haven’t “chosen to suppress” it, we’ve invented other mechanisms that substitute for it when we don’t know the people we are dealing with. When the number people you knew and your neighbors knew grew beyond the level where you could assess their trustworthiness, new methods were required.

If it is true that money was invented to pay soldiers (which I would like to see the footnotes for …), it is precisely the situation where you “gift” something (military service at the risk of your life, health, etc.) and you have no assurance anything will ever be gifted back. Being “gifted back” with something small, somewhat concealable, and fungible sounds like a very high-tech solution.

Does Graeber ever address the scaling problem with “gift” economies? Does he ever address the fact that soldiers were as often paid in loot as in coin?

The book is on my to-read list, so perhaps all these questions will be answered.

14

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 1:52 pm

Re. #8

From the NY Times:

“[Francois Hollande] forecast a lower growth rate for the French economy this year than Mr. Sarkozy did, but endorsed Mr. Sarkozy’s promise to reduce the annual budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product by the end of 2013 and to balance the budget by 2017. (The deficit in 2011 was 5.4 percent of gross domestic product.) Although Mr. Hollande said he would spend more than Mr. Sarkozy had on social programs, he would also raise more money through taxes.

“Over a five-year term, Mr. Hollande said, he wants to increase spending gradually by up to 20 billion euros (about $26 billion) and government income — taxes — by up to 29 billion euros (about $38 billion).”

So M. Hollande’s plans, widely derided as unrealistic, still entail knocking $14Bn annually from aggregate demand in the economy.

I’ll be honest and say I’m not especially interested in the specific example — it’s merely topical. It’s hardly a challenge to think up examples where specialists by their very specialisation lose perspective.

15

Neville Morley 02.28.12 at 1:57 pm

@DaveL #13: the argument is that coinage, rather than money, was invented to pay soldiers. No direct evidence for this, but coinage does appear e.g. in cities in Lydia at exactly the time when those cities were employing substantial numbers of mercenaries (so this isn’t the same as rewarding troops who are fighting for their own fatherland). Decent summaries of the debates in Chris Howgego’s Ancient History from Coins or Sitta von Reden’s new Money in Classical Antiquity.

16

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 2:26 pm

@Ajay, re #10

Neither is it difficult to imagine the aggregation of specialists’ work producing factually incorrect information.

The eurozone example is handy in this instance because it enables the general picture to be assessed by the same experts and in accordance with the same standards as the particular local situations. It is therefore a nice argumentative convenience but any number of alternative formulations are possible.

An example seminal in a sense is the intelligence failure prior to 9/11. The intelligence data available was sufficient to alert the authorities but the vital information never made it to the desks of the people who might have halted the attack. It was filtered out much lower down the organisational charts by people each possessing just fragments. Only someone in possession of a substantial amount of relevant data could have judged its relevance, however. Those doing the filtration had no hope of doing this.

However the function of many of those who filtered out the critical data was precisely to reduce to manageable proportions the megabytes (or even terrabytes) of intelligence data collected daily. The decision makers who received only the filtered product could not hope to process all the information handled by all the subordinate intelligence gathering channels.

If you want more examples I can come up with as many as you please, but my interest is in the general point, not in the specific failures of economics or any other discipline.

Getting back on topic, do you feel specialisation confers some infallibility on specialists? Obviously even the most rigorous scientific methods only guarantee more accurate results as greater amounts of data are collected. Never is a “correct” result guaranteed even in simple measurement problems, and a wide range of critical social, cultural and economic fields furthermore preclude any sort of scientific rigour.

A major problem is that other forms of rigour — argumentation etc. — are either disdained or inapplicable due to a paucity of people with interdisciplinary skills. There is moreover no broadly agreed standard short of experimental science, that’s to say that the territory between science and voodoo appears to be up for grabs. I don’t believe history is voodoo and neither do I believe the social sciences to be voodoo but I do know they’re not sciences properly speaking either.

I’d be interested in you proving somehow that a procedure exists to transform in a general way the locally constructed work of specialists into generally applicable policies. I say “procedure” because if the task is not rigidly and unambiguously structured then the individual carrying it out is in effect the all-powerful generalist described in #6.

17

Chris Bertram 02.28.12 at 2:38 pm

_We haven’t “chosen to suppress” it, we’ve invented other mechanisms that substitute for it when we don’t know the people we are dealing with._

It is worth noting that Graeber, correctly in my view, sees baseline communism at work, even now, in many dealings with strangers. When someone stops you in the street and asks for directions, for example.

18

cjcjc 02.28.12 at 2:45 pm

What about when someone stops you and asks for money?!

19

Dave 02.28.12 at 2:54 pm

On the other hand, you know, fuck the incremental work of other scholars.

20

ajay 02.28.12 at 3:24 pm

There is moreover no broadly agreed standard short of experimental science, that’s to say that the territory between science and voodoo appears to be up for grabs. I don’t believe history is voodoo and neither do I believe the social sciences to be voodoo but I do know they’re not sciences properly speaking either.

In that they’re not pretending to provide an objectively accurate description of reality, you’re right, they aren’t sciences. (I’m sure no modern historian would be caught saying “no, my theory on the Fall of Rome is RIGHT and every other theory is PROVABLY WRONG”. ) So it’s really missing the point to demand that there be a provably accurate procedure for aggregating lots of social-science specialists’ work.

21

marcel 02.28.12 at 3:53 pm

Henry wrote:

I’m not the appointed CT expert on the Annunaki/lizard-people hypothesis (that would be dsquared),

Then what’s the point of keeping Holbo around? Is that just part of the (spousal-hiring) deal so that Belle will post?

22

Chris Bertram 02.28.12 at 4:11 pm

#18 – sometimes. Ditto letting people into traffic and a whole bunch of stuff. Only sociopaths don’t do some baseline communism.

23

John Bedell 02.28.12 at 4:19 pm

One problem with communitarian fantasies like Graeber’s is that they ignore the misery of dealing all the time with other people you know. My mother and two of my best friends grew up in small towns where their families knew everyone, and they fled for the anonymity of big city life as soon as they could. They all felt that to get along in the village people had to conform to very narrow codes of behavior, at the risk of ostracism, and they hated it. (This is confirmed by a wide swath of social science about village life.) I cannot imagine wanting to have personal relationships with my plumber, mechanic, grocer, butcher, and so on. It is my personal experience that mixing up economics into friendships only screws up the friendships. Monetizing these relationships really does free us from a whole set of burdens.

Besides which, economies based on primitive communism were all very, very poor, and attempts to make communism the basis of modern states have not worked out very well. So far as we know, market relations are the only way short of Bolshevism to make a complex economy work, and I, for one, would rather have airplanes and the internet than a cozy village life. The reason market economies have come to dominate the world is not US power, it is that most people prefer things this way.

24

Adrian Kelleher 02.28.12 at 4:27 pm

@Ajay

Not if it’s provable that error can result from over-specialisation itself.

25

Yarrow 02.28.12 at 4:40 pm

DaveL @ 13: Because beyond small farming communities or other social structures where everyone knows everyone else, a “gift” economy won’t work?

As Chris Bertram @ 17 says, this happens every day, even in our current society. And certainly Wikipedia is an example of something larger than a small farming community. (And to be sure, smaller than a nation-state: Wikipedia claims about 100,000 regular contributors, while Iceland, for instance, has 300,000 people.)

But it’s at least interesting that large parts of the Internet mix gift economics into the money economy. GitHub, for instance, is a for-profit company that hosts software repositories. A repository is a container for the source code of a project (which may run to hundreds or thousands of files) and all of its history. The stored history allows one to do things like revert the project to the state it was in last Tuesday, backing out of Wednesday’s terrible mistake. More importantly, if Team A is working on the front end of the project, and Team 1 on the back end, each can work with an independent copy of the repository, merging their changes at intervals into a reference copy. The underlying software, Git, has tools for handling the conflicts that occur when more than one team has changed the same file. In theory, Team A’s copy of the repository, Team 1’s copy of the repository, and the reference copy are co-equal. In practice, the reference copy is usually just that. But since all three will be synched frequently, the team copies are in practice full backups of the reference, which guards against disaster.

What GitHub adds to this is a bit of a social network, and (for open-source software) the ability of anyone at all to make their own copy of a repository, modify it, and request that the owner of the original repository pull those changes into the original (a pull request). It’s hugely popular, with over two million repositories and one million users.

They make their money by selling privacy — if your source code is readable by all, then you pay nothing. If you want it to be available only to others in your company (say), then you pay, with the monthly fee increasing with the number of repositories and the number of people allowed to see them. I don’t know whether they think of the open-source hosting as advertising, a way of generating the closed-source business that makes them money, or whether they think of the closed-source hosting as a way to make the money to support the open-source hosting. Probably a bit of both.

Internally, they operate very much along the lines of Graeber’s baseline communism: Scott Chacon describes GitHub’s workflow this way:

To work on something new, create a descriptively named branch off of master (ie: new-oauth2-scopes)

Commit to that branch locally and regularly push your work to the same named branch on the server

When you need feedback or help, or you think the branch is ready for merging, open a pull request

After someone else has reviewed and signed off on the feature, you can merge it into master

This is a company with 35 employees — smaller than a small farming community. On the other hand, a million users trust them, probably most of them signed up to work on open-source projects. Many significant open-source projects store their code on GitHub. They trust these strangers not to suddenly withdraw their gift, or start charging for it. That’s partly because of Git itself — each active repository on GitHub will have copies elsewhere. And partly because it’s part of the culture — of course, if you’re offering a web-hosted service to software developers, it will be free to open-source projects. Which became part of the culture because of baseline communism: “the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ will be assumed to apply.” (Debt, p. 98) Here the need is large, since all but the largest open-source projects have little hope of raising money; and the cost is reasonable — the cost of additional hardware and bandwidth required is swamped by the salaries of 35 developers.

26

Watson Ladd 02.28.12 at 4:50 pm

Yarrow, you don’t trust to the gift economy to secure food, or water, or light, or medical care. Yet somehow that the gift economy works for things like software where copying is free indicates it can work for other things. (Traffic laws don’t count: believe it or not there is a cop charged with enforcing them who will enforce them)

Capitalism isn’t eliminated when two large companies sign an agreement regulating a joint venture, or someone gives their private property as a gift to someone else. That the secretary loans the boss her pen, and he gives back thereafter, does not negate the capitalist relations between them or even in which they are embedded.

27

LFC 02.28.12 at 5:03 pm

the “military-coinage-slavery complex,” by which the empires of the “axial age” became caught up in a cycle of crisis and conquest. Graeber argues that coinage was basically invented during this period to pay armies, who were then employed primarily in capturing slaves who could in turn work the mines to provide the necessary coinage.

There’s a well-known line of argument (associated esp. with Tilly) about what might be called the ‘mercenary armies-taxation-statebuilding-war complex’ in early modern Europe. By that point (the long 16th century, in Wallerstein’s terms) slavery had been pretty much restricted to areas outside of W.Europe and paper money had come into use (I believe – don’t know precisely when that happened), so somewhat less crude/brutal methods of extraction could be used by states in the ‘core’. But they still needed to get money to pay armies and the armies then helped with taxing and other forms of extraction, so a similar kind of cycle at work. I haven’t read Debt so I don’t know what Graeber does with the ‘long 16th century’.

28

Sebastian 02.28.12 at 5:29 pm

Weird how many on the left are so strenuously against the gift economy when you put the ‘charity’ label on it. With that label we get to hear about how evil charity-givers often have strings attached. But in a GIFT economy they just have overlapping social obligations incurred by the gift. When you call it charity, we hear about the horrors of impugning someone’s honor and pride, something that of course can’t happen in a GIFT economy.

I’m pretty open to the validity of a fair number of leftist criticisms of charity and the need to rely on government instead of charity (a dominance hierarchy in Graeber’s 3 pronged division system) but it amazes me how all those criticisms seem to magically disappear if we call it ‘communism’ or ‘gift economy’.

But anyway I’ve been distracted.

“Both Graeber and Sitchin are addressing the same riddle: They are trying to explain the apparent absurdity of human goldbuggery, find some ur-villains at the beginnings of civilization who can be blamed for the miseries created by the otherwise pointless expansion of economic activity along such lines. The point of economic organization and expansion via debt instruments can’t be as irrational as digging up the planet’s gold supply to fuel endless wars, can it? But what is the root of economic evil? Why have we chosen to suppress the “everyday communism” that Graeber identifies as the true core of human value, “the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace”?”

Three easy kernels of answers.
1. People are easily confused between common symbols and actual things. Money is a symbol of tradeable value for stuff AND symbolic of social status. People like stuff and people like social status. Therefore any marker that will get you stuff and social status will often gain symbolic ‘value’ all its own. This is especially true in the case of gold which has some intrinsically useful characteristics–it is pretty and a malleable metal.

2. The “everyday communism” thing isn’t as deep as you think. People are ok with taking small bits of time to help other people (giving directions) or to obey procedural rules that clearly make everyone’s life better (traffic rules, though you should probably admit to the fact that nearly everyone breaks those when it is convenient and they think it won’t hurt anyone) but rarely want to do more than that for complete strangers (i.e. this doesn’t scale up well).

3. The slavery thing is deeply confused, both historically and analytically. Slavery is valuable because LABOR is valuable. Being able to extract labor out of someone without doing much to improve THEIR life is a very valuable thing to do. A point I’m certain those on the left can appreciate. The fact that slave LABOR was employed in mines without noting the importance of the fact that it was also employed in building roads, tending fields, making baskets, preparing food, etc. etc. etc. is to miss the whole point that cheap labor is very valuable to people who can direct it. It is confusing the symbol (in this case gold) with the reality (what you can do with gold, and slave labor, and the fact that your military dominance means you can capture more slaves).

Yes gold/slavery/military dominance are related historical facts. But they are related because:
People like status and the higher the better.
Lots of people like to be able to make other people subservient to them when they can.
Free labor is GREAT if you are the one using it.

Why do you have to reach to GOLD to explain these things?

29

Chris Bertram 02.28.12 at 5:37 pm

Assuming Watson’s “traffic laws don’t count” was aimed at my earlier remark … well sorry Watson but it isn’t a matter of traffic _laws_ but of traffic _etiquette_ as respected among drivers. Well, round here at least. Chicago may be different.

30

Yarrow 02.28.12 at 5:39 pm

Watson Ladd @ 25: Yarrow, you don’t trust to the gift economy to secure food, or water, or light, or medical care. Yet somehow that the gift economy works for things like software where copying is free indicates it can work for other things.

I didn’t make that claim. I do claim that open-source software is an example that refutes DaveL’s idea that “beyond … social structures where everyone knows everyone else, a “gift” economy won’t work.” Wikipedia is one example of a gift economy that works, where not everyone knows everyone else. GitHub is an interesting mixed example, where gifts and exchange occur in parallel.

If Marx’s belief in essentially unlimited technological progress were true, I could easily see a future in which information and the arts became the mostly interesting parts of what people did, with baseline communism the major mode in those areas. The state could wither away with no effort on anyone’s part.

Since I believe resource limitations prevent unlimited technological progress, I don’t think it will be anywhere that easy. Since I believe resource limitations prevent the unlimited growth of capitalism, and capitalism depends on unlimited growth, I think something else is in our future. My fear is that it will be oppressive hierarchy; my hope is that it will look at least something like the open-source economy is starting to look today. How to achieve that? I don’t know.

31

cjcjc 02.28.12 at 5:49 pm

I’m not sure how describing these everyday courtesies as “communism” advances the debate in any way.

32

Sebastian 02.28.12 at 5:55 pm

I’d like to second cjcjc on the “communism” term. Unless you intentionally want to bring the ghost of the USSR into the conversation, there were terms used to describe “giving people directions” and “following right of way regulations” before Marx. What is ‘communism’ doing that is worth the horrific baggage?

33

LFC 02.28.12 at 6:00 pm

Sebastian:
The fact that slave LABOR was employed in mines without noting the importance of the fact that it was also employed in building roads, tending fields, making baskets, preparing food, etc. etc. etc. is to miss the whole point

No. Slave labor in mines, according to the OP’s summary of Graeber’s view, played a specific role in the extraction cycle. This is a historically and analytically separate point from the one you are making about the “value of cheap labor to people who can direct it.” In the different context of a non-empire-based system, a similar cycle occurs much later: see my comment @26.

34

Henry 02.28.12 at 6:02 pm

bq. Weird how many on the left are so strenuously against the gift economy when you put the ‘charity’ label on it. With that label we get to hear about how evil charity-givers often have strings attached. But in a GIFT economy they just have overlapping social obligations incurred by the gift. When you call it charity, we hear about the horrors of impugning someone’s honor and pride, something that of course can’t happen in a GIFT economy.

I’m not at all sure what you’re trying to get at here. The leftist hit on charity is pretty clear. (1) it’s one-sided and presumes and reinforces a profound distinction between the giver and the recipient. Here, the technical term for the gift economy, ‘diffuse reciprocity’ gives a tolerably broad hint as to how it is different from simple charity. (2) that in an economically unequal society, like the one in the US, the emphasis on (and broad subsidization of) charitable giving replaces political discussion of what our goals should be in e.g. providing for the poor, supporting research etc, with an approach dependent on the whims and crochets of the rich and very rich.

35

Barry Freed 02.28.12 at 6:07 pm

I’m not sure how describing these everyday courtesies as “communism” advances the debate in any way.

Because it’s a form of gift. He’s following Marcel Mauss here.

36

JW Mason 02.28.12 at 6:12 pm

Wow, what a nasty little piece of hackwork this post is.

37

Yarrow 02.28.12 at 6:13 pm

Sebastian @ 27: The “everyday communism” thing isn’t as deep as you think. People are ok with taking small bits of time to help other people … but rarely want to do more than that for complete strangers

I know a fair number of activists, and know plenty of examples of people who do more than that for complete strangers. People who dropped everything to go to New Orleans when Katrina hit; people who spend seemly every waking hour not spent in a dead-end job trying to improve the world; people who travel hundreds of miles to teach for a week or two, for $500 or for airfare or for nothing. A spontaneous gift of $100,000 to the local Catholic Workers community.

I don’t want to be too idealistic here — one of the reasons people do such things is that, in these communities, doing them is a way to achieve high status. But that’s precisely the point, no?

So yes, maybe significant generosity is rare — but does it need to be rare?

38

LFC 02.28.12 at 6:30 pm

I just looked at a few pages of Graeber’s Ch.11 (via Amazon) covering 1450-1971, which he calls “age of the great capitalist empires.” From the opening page of that chapter: “All the Axial Age pieces reappeared, but they came together in an entirely different way.”

39

Shelley 02.28.12 at 6:36 pm

This explains Rick Santorum.

40

Dave 02.28.12 at 6:43 pm

Wow, what a nasty little piece of hackwork this post is.

I got all the way to “Epcot Center” before I thought, “Christ, what an asshole.”

41

Watson Ladd 02.28.12 at 6:47 pm

Yarrow, that’s completely the point. The gifts being discussed are immensely valuable: food during a famine is a commodity all will kill for. We don’t organize our lives in the belief that strangers unknown to us will feed us in old age if we feed the elders now. Gift economies don’t extend to strangers: you make gifts to people in your society.

By contrast, arguing that free software is the gift economy at work ignores the importance of copyright law, a state-sanctioned monopoly to it, as well as the economic benefits of cooperation. If I need to customize some software for my need, it makes sense to offload the support and future development. Analyzing the development of FOSS software without this social context is dangerous: it’s the opposite of seeing capitalism at work everywhere.

42

js. 02.28.12 at 6:57 pm

RE: the people claiming or assuming that Graeber is arguing for a return to small-scale, more or less purely “human economies”—have you actually read the book? Because he explicitly denies this.

Similarly, if you read the book, you’ll learn that Graeber defines “communism” in a very specific way, and gives reasons for doing so (hint: it has nothing to do with the “ghost of USSR”).

43

Sebastian h 02.28.12 at 7:17 pm

Hint: if you’re defining terms idiosyncraticaly, you can choose less baggage ladened terms for even more clarity!

44

Henry 02.28.12 at 7:22 pm

Sebastian – these are hardly idiosyncratic – they are actually terms of art in the debate – see the Mauss cite mentioned above, as well as lots and lots of work in anthropology, sociology, and bits and pieces of sociology and economics. It might be more accurate to say that it’s your own idiosyncracies of interpretation which are getting in the way here – not that you need to be a social scientist, but these terms are reasonably readily understood by those social scientists who, in fact, have come up with them and use them.

45

Dan 02.28.12 at 7:39 pm

If that usage really is a term of art, it says more about anthropology, sociology, and bits and pieces of sociology and economics than anything else! But on a serious note, there is such a thing as the ethics of terminology; and if labeling a wide range of cooperative and gift-giving behaviour as “communism” doesn’t breach it, I don’t know what does.

46

Omega Centauri 02.28.12 at 7:39 pm

And aren’t some of us using communist here, because we hope its more common usage will force people to confront the baggage?

47

LFC 02.28.12 at 7:51 pm

Neville Morley in his post identified himself as “a historian of the ancient economy”. Other than Morley, are there any historians, historical sociologists, or other historically-oriented social scientists among the contributors to this seminar? I don’t know who Rob Horning is (which is perhaps the fault of my ignorance) and I’m not going to bother to Google him. But it seems to me one can disagree with this post without calling its author “an asshole” (Dave @40). Anyway I pretty much agree with what Morley said @5 above.

48

Sebastian h 02.28.12 at 7:59 pm

Look, I’ll try not to get too distracted by this rabbit hole on ‘communist’ but unless your target audience is specifically limited to social scientists who use the term communist to mean something divorced from the history of Marx, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao, youre doing yourself a disservice using it that way. And really so is the discipline. If you are going to create and then use a term of art you can choose to create one with less baggage. If you are trying to ‘recapture’ it, you’re probably on a fool’s errand, but in that case you shouldn’t complain about the freight you are intentionally injecting into the discussion.

49

LFC 02.28.12 at 8:05 pm

It seems to me that even people who are not social scientists (esp in the CT readership which is presumably a little different than a randomly picked crowd somewhere) should know there is a difference between “communist” and “Communist.” That’s all I have to say on this thread-derailing topic.

50

js. 02.28.12 at 8:22 pm

labeling a wide range of cooperative and gift-giving behaviour as “communism”

But this isn’t quite it either. I don’t have the text at hand, so this paraphrase from Chris Bertram’s post will have to do:

“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.

Again, it’s not a bad idea to read the book before you start criticizing it.

51

Sebastian h 02.28.12 at 8:36 pm

So back on the topic of the original post: as I said earlier, reasoning from the money side of the equation is misleading. Lots of people like to get their wants fulfilled, lots of people like to be higher status than others, lots of people would live to get the fruits of other people’s labor. When money can get those things, people want it. When causing indebtedness can get it they use that. In fact people will use a wide variety of tools to get what they want.

52

Dan 02.28.12 at 8:46 pm

As it happens, I do have the text at hand, and here’s the relevant passage:

I will call this “baseline communism” : the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply.

If the barrage of qualifications doesn’t immediately raise suspicion that “baseline communism” is going to be applied in a pretty indiscriminate fashion to — like I said — a wide range of cooperative and gift-giving behaviour, the supplementary examples certainly should: a plumber asking his co-worker to pass him a wrench; the creation of Apple; the institution of conversation; asking a stranger for a cigarette. I think I have a rough idea of what these cases have in common, but I cannot for the life of me work out what it has to do with communism.

53

Zamfir 02.28.12 at 8:57 pm

I enjoyed Graeber’s book a lot, but when the OP started about space aliens, I recognized the feeling. I can’t remember reading a book in which I found so much parts silly, hard to believe or simply wrong, while still finding the overall book insightful and enjoyable.

54

Gabriel Rossman 02.28.12 at 9:51 pm

I concur with Henry @ 11 that this post is not being fair to Graeber and I am speaking as the other person who objected to the “tribute” argument in chapter 12. As Henry says, the book is falls into the legitimate genre of big history and not that of crank literature. I should add that while I am obviously not an expert on the full span of issues Graeber addresses, I am at least conversant with a few of them (relational models theory, the history of Rome, etc) and I thought he used them responsibly and intelligently.

55

Bill Benzon 02.28.12 at 9:56 pm

Though I’ve posted this elsewhere in the seminar, I’ll post it here because the primitive communism bit has come up quite a bit in discussion:

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.

I note also that Fiske seems to locate each of these types of interaction in individual transactions, allowing for the possibility that one’s relationship with a given individual will proceed by different types of interaction for different things. Fiske certainly doesn’t use these to characterize whole societies nor, I believe, does Graeber.

56

gordon 02.28.12 at 10:07 pm

Well, at least now I know where the basic idea for “Stargate” came from.

57

buford puser 02.28.12 at 10:07 pm

An interesting complaint from an academic:
He’s coercing me with his eruditions! He is a crank!

58

Substance McGravitas 02.28.12 at 10:15 pm

I will quote myself prior to this book event:

Let me once again recommend David Graeber’s Debt. Still not done, but it’s as close to a Theory of Everything People Do as anything else I’ve read, so it’s fun for that reason, but also so ambitious that the bullshit detectors are blinking.

Crooked Timber’s gonna have a variety of posts on it in a week or two, where I expect a lot of haggling over chains of argument and facts, and okay-smartypants-what-NOW?

I admit to my knee jerking a bit in the way the original poster’s did, but it seems to me that a post based on “How should I know?” and “This book is too darned ambitious and sure of itself!” is not the kind of contribution that I can use. I further don’t understand “Debt threatens to marginalize itself by its voraciousness, its air of incontrovertibilty.” What does that mean? Are there examples?

59

Neville Morley 02.28.12 at 10:17 pm

Many apologies to the author for perpetuating the thread derailment, but the discussion of ‘communism’ ties in with an issue that’s been causing me to wonder about aspects of Graeber’s rhetorical choices. This started with my feeling that his critique of the way that the language used to talk about past societies perpetuates the idea that present conditions are universal and eternal, and closes off a series of other questions, is remarkably close to Marx’s critique of bourgeois political economy, and yet Marx has a remarkably low profile in the book; I’ve postulated (elsewhere) that this is a deliberate tactic, as people who know Marx well enough will recognise the technique of deconstructing bourgeois ideology anyway, while people who would normally dismiss anything remotely Marxish can be persuaded to accept a thoroughly subversive argument because it’s presented through the medium of anthropological anecdotes and the broad sweep of world-historical development.

The use of ‘communism’ seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, a deliberately provocative choice of term for something that could have been described differently. I must admit that I entirely failed to spot this as an issue on either of my readings of the book, but then I’m the sort of social scientist who doesn’t have an issue with it when it’s spelt with a small ‘c’. Now that it’s been pointed out, I don’t feel that it makes any substantive difference to the argument, but I do wonder about the rationale behind the choice of term, given that this is a book aimed at a general audience.

60

Raven 02.28.12 at 10:23 pm

LFC, #49: “… there is a difference between ‘communist’ and ‘Communist.'”

As between “democrat” and “Democrat,” “republican” and “Republican,” “libertarian” and “Libertarian,” or for that matter “conservative” and “Conservative,” “labour” and “Labour.”

Ants, for instance, are communist but not Communist, not Marxist-Leninist, nor yet Maoist (no little Little Red Books).

And these distinctions are well enough known that I doubt commenters can really have too hard a time understanding that the “baseline communism” of simply helping unrelated/unacquainted people without payment has nothing to do with the Communist Party.

61

js. 02.28.12 at 10:39 pm

Neville Morley @59:

I guess I myself hadn’t paid that much attention to Graeber’s use of “communism”—in context it seemed to make quite a bit of sense. But what you say here makes a whole lot of sense. Still a bit surprised though that people on a left(-ish), academic(-ish) site are finding the use of small-c communism so “provocative”.

As for the derailment issue, the OP doesn’t seem to me to be on any recognizable “rails” to begin with. Should we be talking about space aliens and Scientology instead?

62

Bill Benzon 02.28.12 at 10:43 pm

In his Savage Minds post, Graeber indicates he got the term “communism” from Mauss:

First I set out the principles that one can assume will always be at play. Examples of these are: the three moral logics that can be appealed to in economic transactions—which I labeled as “communism” (after Mauss), “exchange,” and “hierarchy”…

63

Gabriel Rossman 02.28.12 at 10:45 pm

Bill @ 55,

Yes, I was also struck by the similarity to Fiske. I assumed Graeber used Fiske (most recently in my comment @ 54) and that he just tweaked the nomenclature, but I just checked the works cited and he doesn’t mention him.

64

Bill Benzon 02.28.12 at 11:07 pm

Now I suppose, Gabriel, that we could wag our fingers at Graeber for that omission, but, for various reasons, I’m not inclined to do so. Rather, what interests me is that he DOES seem to have been working independently. So, we have two independent considerations of the same issue in similar literature, and they come up with congruent typologies. That seems to me an endorsement of the typology. If Graeber had found it in Fiske and simply followed him, well, maybe he neglected to look closely enough or missed the same literature that Fiske missed, whatever. But independently coming up with the same conclusion, that’s a bit different.

65

Peter T 02.29.12 at 12:02 am

If Graeber’s thesis (or any other widely grounded general historical thesis) takes off, we will at least be spared continued reference to marxian generalities about feudalism and the bourgeoisie – terms abandoned or qualified beyond easy recognition by most historians for at least a generation, but still in common currency as a form of explanation in, eg, economics. So some disciplines might get a little closer to the actual facts, which would be a good thing.

The impersonality of modern life can be overstated. Impersonal exchange relies on chains of trust – with enforcement very much a minor and occasional part. The larger the sums involved, the more trust is essential. Currency trading is an affair of a couple of thousand people who all know each other, and take each other’s words on trades worth millions. A large part of the GFC was down to a breakdown of trust – on the part of the banks, rating agencies and others. The banks sold each other poisoned products, and credit seized up when they all realised that everyone was as untrustworthy as they knew themselves to be. Trade payments involve a chain from buyer to local bank to seller’s bank to seller to shipper, with each party presumed to have enough knowledge of the next to trust them (of course, there are always niches for fraud or betrayal, but these niches exist because of the general level of trust, not despite it). Long-distance trade is very old, and it too speaks of a basic human willingness to treat strangers as trustworthy. It’s the ground state of human sociality.

So far, Graeber seems to have passed a basic test – the experts who have weighed in have not pointed to fundamental errors, but to differences of opinion. this makes it different to, eg Freakonomics, which in my experience only impressed those who did not have any expertise in any of the subjects it covered.

66

Sebastian 02.29.12 at 12:34 am

“So far, Graeber seems to have passed a basic test – the experts who have weighed in have not pointed to fundamental errors, but to differences of opinion. this makes it different to, eg Freakonomics, which in my experience only impressed those who did not have any expertise in any of the subjects it covered.”

Interestingly Graeber’s error on Apple is so big as to almost be hilarious, or maybe a gaffe in the “accidentally saying the truth” meaning of the word. He uses the founding of Apple as an example of his small ‘c’ communist/communitarian ethos, when anyone who knows anything at all about Steve Jobs would realize that if you were going to make an analogy with communism, it would be to point out that Jobs was a akin to a slightly [?] crazy dictator with totalitarian tendencies.

67

Henry 02.29.12 at 12:41 am

Polanyi’s three modes of reciprocity, redistribution and exchange also map closely onto Graeber and Fiske, and are, I suspect, an ur-source for both (Graeber cites to Polanyi for sure, although it may just be to the Great Transformation book – don’t have my copy here to be sure).

68

Substance McGravitas 02.29.12 at 12:48 am

Interestingly Graeber’s error on Apple is so big as to almost be hilarious

What percentage of the book’s space/argument does that take up, do you figger?

69

Yarrow 02.29.12 at 12:58 am

Neville Morley @ 59: Marx has a remarkably low profile in the book … The use of ‘communism’ seems to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, a deliberately provocative choice of term for something that could have been described differently.

I suspect you’re right about the low profile for Marx in Debt (Graeber engages with Marx extensively in Toward An Anthropological Theory of Value, for instance). As for the choice of communism, presumably one of Graeber’s intended audiences is the anarchists, many of whom like communism much more than Marx.

And here Joseph Kay writes:

I also suspect Graeber is playing a double-move given the US context: first establishing that communism is the ever-present basis of society, then playing down the idea of a communist society. In the context of ‘communism’ being a dirty word, this may well be a tactical move to provoke US readers (and others) into rethinking what communism is, and perhaps warming to it, without having to admit to being ‘commies’.”

To which Graeber responds “I … was quite intentionally challenging popular conceptions of the term ‘communism’ in just the way you describe.”

70

chris 02.29.12 at 1:05 am

anyone who knows anything at all about Steve Jobs would realize that if you were going to make an analogy with communism, it would be to point out that Jobs was a akin to a slightly [?] crazy dictator with totalitarian tendencies.

But that isn’t an analogy with communism; at most, it might be an analogy with Communism, but only at the price of pointing out that practically the first thing Stalin, Mao et al. did after getting into power was to betray the ideals of communism and set up dictatorships. Which may have a lot to do with Apple or it may not, but it has very little to do with small-c communism in the sense that it’s being used here. (If I were the terminology police, I’d probably mandate something like “communitarianism” for the reasons expressed upthread, but if it’s a legitimate convention in the field, then Graeber can hardly be pilloried for adhering to it.)

It has, of course, long been popular to use the crimes of dictators calling themselves Communist to blacken the name of communism, but that doesn’t obligate people who know better to put up with it.

P.S. I don’t see how the founding of a for-profit company has anything to do with communism either, but I haven’t read Graeber’s argument on the point. Maybe he comes up with something, but I think he would have been on safer ground talking about something like Firefox.

71

Yarrow 02.29.12 at 1:16 am

When LizardBreath pointed out the Apple goof, I realized I’d read right past it — because although it didn’t happen at Apple, things like it do seem to keep happening. I don’t know the politics, if any of the authors of the Agile Manifesto, but it certainly sounds like the sort of call for a human economy that a mostly-Republican group might generate:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

72

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 1:26 am

“So far, Graeber seems to have passed a basic test – the experts who have weighed in have not pointed to fundamental errors, but to differences of opinion. this makes it different to, eg Freakonomics, which in my experience only impressed those who did not have any expertise in any of the subjects it covered.”

Perhaps not incidentally, Graeber’s book touches on mostly mushy domains, where even “experts” can only have well supported or less well supported opinions. Who is an “expert” at how much or how little reciprocal trust is required in ordinary trade?

If you want to find extremely poor arguments, these are not hard to find.
A glaring example would be his claim that the entire enterprise of economics as science is somehow dependent on the story of money emerging from barter (“The answer seems to be that the Myth of Barter cannot go away, because it is central to the entire discourse of economics.”)

The Sumerians did not use barter — instead they used silver as an accounting unit, and the temple as a clearing house (and merchants did in fact use silver as commodity money).

What exactly is subversive to economics in the claim that the primordial trading system was not barter, but the equivalent of a Wall Street market maker?

Perhaps Adam Smith should have said something to the effect of “The propensity to exchange one thing for another in a clearing house with a common accounting unit is common to all men in large societies, and to be found in no other race of animals” — but the loss of elegance would not change the underlying truth of Smith’s claim.

73

Substance McGravitas 02.29.12 at 1:45 am

What exactly is subversive to economics in the claim that the primordial trading system was not barter, but the equivalent of a Wall Street market maker?

Step out of the frame: what is subversive is no natural requirement for a trading system in man. I don’t have the book in front of me, but Sumerian taxes were not, I believe, in silver, so a person who had a field and animals might have to surrender some of the bounty from that, but that’s not really participation in a market, and said Sumerian yokel may never have needed to trade for anything else in his life.

74

Sebastian 02.29.12 at 1:51 am

“To which Graeber responds “I … was quite intentionally challenging popular conceptions of the term ‘communism’ in just the way you describe.” “

So he is playing the ‘recapture’ the term communism game intentionally and not just using it because it is a term of art. That’s almost certainly a tactical blunder for the effectiveness of his argument, but at least he was aware of it and chose to do it anyway.

“Which may have a lot to do with Apple or it may not, but it has very little to do with small-c communism in the sense that it’s being used here. “

Yes, but the point is that Apple doesn’t have anything to do with small-c communism as he defined it anyway. If you squint really hard and stretch the meaning to just this side of the breaking point, you might be able to say that Apple usurped a communist impulse, broke it into submission, and harnessed it for profit. (And I say that as someone who is mostly ok with Apple).

What you wouldn’t say, when talking about small-c communism-as-defined-by-Graeber is: “Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican)[sic] computer engineers who broke from IBM[sic] in Silicon Valley in the 1980s[sic], forming little democratic circles[sic] of twenty to forty people [sic]with their laptops[sic! zoink! the Apple II wasn’t designed on a laptop] in each other’s garages.”

Nearly every detail in that sentence is wrong, and the point is trying about Apple being communitarian in style/nature/ethos is almost as wrong as is humanly possible even if the sentence had ended at Apple computers is an example.

Apple may be the very company which is LEAST like what Graeber describes as communist-in-his-definition or democratic-in-his-definition. Quite seriously I’m having difficulty thinking of a company which is more the antithesis of what he is talking about. If you were going to say that Apple were a paradigm of a psycho-social phenomenon, you would almost certainly say it was more similar to a totalitarian cult of personality.

That is an *especially* ironic mistake to make if you are intending to take back the definition of ‘communism’ from people who think it has something to do with Stalin or Mao.

75

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 1:55 am

@72

Graeber says that debt accounting was kept in terms of silver — but those debts could indeed be paid in nature.

That there ” is no natural requirement for a trading system in man” does not seem to mean anything except that ancient economies could be –and most often were– subsistence economies.

And the Sumerian economy did have actual markets with merchants either using silver for trade, or acting themselves as “market makers” using credit in silver — nothing subversive to economics here either.

76

Substance McGravitas 02.29.12 at 1:59 am

That there ” is no natural requirement for a trading system in man” does not seem to mean anything

It means something in relation to this:

The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals.

77

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 2:12 am

@75

I don’t think Graeber’s claim was as modest as playing gotcha with Adam Smith over one quote: Graeber claimed that the “Myth of Barter” is central to economics as a science. It is nothing of the kind.

78

Substance McGravitas 02.29.12 at 2:24 am

I don’t think Graeber’s claim was as modest as playing gotcha with Adam Smith over one quote: Graeber claimed that the “Myth of Barter” is central to economics as a science. It is nothing of the kind.

I’m positive you know economics better than I do, and if Graeber’s wrong about that, then fine, he’s wrong. I do think, however, that Debt including the “Myth of Barter” bit can be part of a useful effort to battle against market fetishists. If there are economists who favour Adam Smith’s formulation – maybe there are none – they are wrong and it would be to their benefit to see people differently. If there are market utopians whose ideal is to see pricing on everything including breathable air – where is the documentary clip I’m remembering of the economist who talked about that? – then perhaps their vision is inhuman or impossible.

79

Barry Freed 02.29.12 at 2:29 am

@76

I don’t think that’s what he’s claiming at all. He seems to me to be claiming, among other things, that economics as a science has no historical understanding of the origin of monetary transaction and that’s where this myth of barter comes into it. See John Quiggin’s entry below for more detail on this point.

80

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 2:40 am

Oh, there are plenty of people –I would not be surprised to find economists among them– who could be disabused of the myth of barter. And certainly even in ancient societies with developed markets, such markets have social flavors which are not captured by simplified economic models.

But I was providing an example of a poor argument by Graeber — I was not dismissing the entire book, which I found extremely uneven, with lucid and engaging writing alternating with sophomoric arguments.

81

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 2:52 am

@78

Unfortunately, he is in fact claiming exactly that:

“The answer seems to be that the Myth of Barter cannot go away, because it is central to the entire discourse of economics.” (Chapter 3, p. 43)

And he goes on to argue, for instance, that economics is driven by this myth of barter to the claim that money is not important (and provides a quote by Samuelson which does not really say that.)

But any competent economist with intellectual integrity knows that it is a deep embarrassment of economics that it can not integrate money easily into many models — that it is something deplorable to the state of economics, and “money does not matter” is not a claim that any serious economist can make in moments of lucidity.

82

Alex K. 02.29.12 at 2:53 am

My previous answer is directed @79 not @78

83

abbott 02.29.12 at 3:44 am

Re the thread that starts with #13 and branches out –

May I point out that

1. You all seem to conflate a gift economy with a communist principle of human relations. According to him they are two different principles of human morality (out of three, the third being hierarchy)

A recent example: a communist principle is when I let someone use my blowtorch to stiffen their pot enough to get it off the potter’s wheel with relative impunity, because they need it and don’t have one and I have mine out already anyway and the studio heat gun is in use. I was really offended when that person offered me a (gorgeous) bowl in exchange for the continued use she makes of my blowtorch (i.e. she mixed a gesture of good will and friendship with a gift-economical gesture). By the way, as a gift exchange this would have put me in her debt, because we live in a society in which gifts are quantifiable using money: a whole can of propane is $5, she sells her bowls for $30+ depending on their size.

2. I haven’t finished the book yet, but he seems to say very explicitly that strictly communistic XOR exchange XOR hierarchical societies don’t work, and that every society has a mix of these three principles at work all the time (and maybe even at the same time).

Remember – straw men burn off in the kiln.

84

Gabriel Rossman 02.29.12 at 5:09 am

Bill @ 64,
I was just observing that Graeber doesn’t cite Fiske and didn’t mean to implicitly wag a finger. I agree that it’s entirely possible that he came to the typology w/o reading Fiske, though as Henry observes this could be because they’re working in the same tradition and so aren’t really “independent.” Alternately, he may be familiar with Fiske but prefers not to cite him because he prefers other work in the tradition.

85

Bill Benzon 02.29.12 at 11:23 am

“…Fiske and didn’t mean to implicitly wag a finger…”

Didn’t mean to imply you were. Sorry.

86

robotslave 02.29.12 at 12:29 pm

Oh, good, it is supposed to be The Vagina Monologues, but with communism instead. That’s what it seemed like to me, it’s good to know I wasn’t wrong to feel mildly buffaloed.

So yes! Let’s all admit the shameful feelings we’ve had about our communisms, and the apprehensions — and misapprehensions — we may have had about other people’s communisms. Let’s rediscover our communisms, and explore them. Let’s learn to see our communisms for the beautiful things they are! Let’s say it aloud, together, without fear or embarrassment: communism! Communism! Communism!

And then two days after we leave the theater, let’s all go right back to regarding anyone who uses the word a little too eagerly in casual conversation as… well, perhaps a bit extra-planetary?

87

cjcjc 02.29.12 at 1:10 pm

#86 – very good!

88

DaveL 02.29.12 at 1:33 pm

It is worth noting that Graeber, correctly in my view, sees baseline communism at work, even now, in many dealings with strangers. When someone stops you in the street and asks for directions, for example.

People’s willingness to do small favors (“giving directions”) for strangers makes perfect sense. A very small investment, with the possibility the stranger won’t be a stranger forever, the possibility the stranger is a friend of a friend, etc. As was mentioned by cjcjc in the next comment, would you give a stranger money?

Or, more apposite to the situation pre-money, would you give a stranger a cow? Although anthropology is replete with incidents where “primitives” give strangers gifts as though they were part of their economy, or as an “investment” as I suggested in the previous paragraph, they are also replete with incidents where the locals are offended when the anthropologists don’t reciprocate, or reciprocate inappropriately. Gift economies are also about enforcement (see John Bedell above, on how stifling life in a small group/small town can be).

As for pointing to examples of gift economies on the internet (as Yarrow does above), they support my point (aside from the inarguable truth that the internet didn’t exist in 1000BCE). Knowing other people, in the sense of reputation, is facilitated by the internet and similar technologies, and enables gift economy-like behavior over a wider scale.

89

dsquared 02.29.12 at 1:48 pm

A recent example: a communist principle is when I let someone use my blowtorch to stiffen their pot enough to get it off the potter’s wheel with relative impunity, because they need it and don’t have one and I have mine out already anyway and the studio heat gun is in use. I was really offended when that person offered me a (gorgeous) bowl in exchange for the continued use she makes of my blowtorch (i.e. she mixed a gesture of good will and friendship with a gift-economical gesture).

I think you might have done yourself out of a shag there mate.

90

Neville Morley 02.29.12 at 1:54 pm

Would I give a stranger money? Yes, as it happens, not always but often; not large amounts, but certainly enough for a cup of tea or to make a phone call. Obviously not to respectable-looking City gent types, ‘cos I hear that’s a scam.

And this is with no expectation whatsoever that the stranger may be a friend of a friend or the like; simply in the hope of an incremental improvement in the general sum of human happiness, and because I’d feel bad afterwards if I didn’t. If you insist on characterising that as an investment in personal karma that’s up to you.

91

ajay 02.29.12 at 1:57 pm

89: further to that, did taking offence strike anyone else as a really odd reaction? I might have been slightly embarrassed by her generosity – the bowl sounds like it’s worth a lot more than the blowtorch use – but actually offended? Not really.

86: kid, you have to realise that not everyone here was brought up in a nest lined with old copies of the Reader’s Digest, and therefore not everyone here regards the word “communism” as intrinsically obscene.

92

cjcjc 02.29.12 at 2:06 pm

#91 – (1) yes that did strike me as odd, I hope I would have graciously accepted – “how beautiful but you really didn’t have to do this” etc. (#89 makes the point rather more wittily!)
(2) no, merely historically obscene

Whatever we choose to call such courtesies, I have no idea how “lending your blowtorch” type behaviour has any relevance on those occasions when what I want is a new phone, car or house…

93

robotslave 02.29.12 at 2:12 pm

@91

Ah, but if only they were equally comfortable with the word “vagina.”

94

robotslave 02.29.12 at 2:21 pm

By which I don’t mean “har har u no have sex,” so much as a “the first names of the contributors to this seminar are: Chris, John, Henry, Barry, John, Neville, Malcolm, Daniel, Lou, Richard, and Rob.”

95

LFC 02.29.12 at 2:22 pm

not everyone here was brought up in a nest lined with old copies of the Reader’s Digest, and therefore not everyone here regards the word “communism” as intrinsically obscene

yes, and a red diaper baby might not regard the word “Communism” as intrinsically obscene either

96

LFC 02.29.12 at 2:27 pm

robotslave @94
oh come on. I’m sure you have noticed this blog has women among its writers. Does every seminar have to have a gender balance now?

97

Henry 02.29.12 at 3:28 pm

fwiw, the full name of “Lou” is “Margaret Louise Brown.” And I’m pretty sure that other women were invited to participate.

98

Chris Bertram 02.29.12 at 5:08 pm

Yes Henry is correct. I asked a bunch of people, both men and women, but not everyone came through with a piece, and we ended up with the contributions we ended up with.

99

robotslave 02.29.12 at 5:50 pm

Ah, so 9% women, then.

But LFC is right, the gender of the contributors surely matters less than their degree of comfort with the word “communism.” Which appears to be all over the place.

100

Chris Bertram 02.29.12 at 6:46 pm

So robotslave, you presumably read my explanation that some pieces didn’t get finished and, if they had, the gender balance would have been better, but you proceeded to make your dickishly sarcastic 9% comment anyway. Thanks a bunch.

101

robotslave 02.29.12 at 6:51 pm

I’m not trying to be a dick here, Chris.

I was responding, I thought in kind, to ajay’s suggestion @91 that people who don’t like the word “communism” were “brought up in a nest lined with old copies of the Reader’s Digest.”

In retrospect, I should have realized I was escalating unnecessarily, and I apologize.

102

LFC 02.29.12 at 8:23 pm

Just to clarify: My remark @95 was intended as a joke. I can see it might not have been read that way. (Unlike robotslave, I have no problem with the word “communism.”)

103

robotslave 02.29.12 at 10:11 pm

@102

As long as we’re clarifying things, LFC, I’ve got no problem with the word “communism,” either, when it’s used to describe the familiar political tendency*.

Unlike Graeber, I’m not quite convinced that the negative connotations the term has picked up in our society are a problem that needs solving. And if we stipulate that they are, I’m still not sure his plan to fix the word works for me. He seems to be trying to strip away the aspect of political intention, and turn the term into a sort of clinical behavioral descriptor.

 

 * nor with “Communism” when used to discuss fundamentally communist states or revolutions, formal theories of communism, etc.

104

Phil 02.29.12 at 11:25 pm

I think you might have done yourself out of a shag there mate.

“Now, I like my blowtorch. Your bowl is very nice too. But which is better? There’s only one way to find out – dzamalag!”

(No, I don’t know what this means either.)

105

DaveL 03.01.12 at 12:21 am

Unlike Graeber, I’m not quite convinced that the negative connotations the term has picked up in our society are a problem that needs solving.

Presumably Graeber could have said “primitive communism” if he really cared, or just “friends with benefits.”

106

JamesH 03.01.12 at 3:18 am

On the OP: I can’t speak for the Sumerians, but as a practicing Anthropologist with a major in Archaeology, Graeber’s account of the emergence of coinage is certainly not equivalent to “Aliens did it”. The idea that coinage is chiefly deployed as a method of tax gathering, which forces people to work for the government to amass the coinage to pay the tax, and also provides a method of paying armies to collect the tax, is in accord with all the archaeological evidence and with the history of colonialism as well. It’s how the French subjugated the highlands of Vietnam and Southeast Asia into their internal opium trade, for example – “You pay us this tax in silver piastres or we’ll kill you, and the only thing you can make for which we will pay silver piastres is opium” – which they then sold into China in exchange for silver to mint the piastres with. Australia treated the PNG labour force in much the same way. According to the neo-Chartalists/MMT people, this relationship, prettified with the welfare state, is still the foundation of modern currency. I haven’t read much of “Debt” yet, but I found myself thinking of a lot of citations Graeber could have given, but didn’t. A pity.

107

Substance McGravitas 03.01.12 at 3:19 am

Since I can’t add a thank-you under the top-of-the-page admin notice I’ll say thanks for all the Debt posts here. Much appreciated.

108

js. 03.01.12 at 5:32 am

Just want to second Substance at 106. Thank you for the seminar (‘cept for this post though; sorry).

109

tigerbear 03.01.12 at 2:11 pm

Presumably Graeber could have said “primitive communism” if he really cared, or just “friends with benefits.”

Well, he could but “primitive” carries all sorts of connotations, especially within anthropology, which I expect he was trying to avoid. Since apparently he’s discussing features of behaviour which people in both modern and traditional societies possess, it seems a bit of a misnomer.

Of course, for those outside of anthropology (and within) “communism” carries a lot of connotations his use of the term isn’t referring to. But so long as he’s defined the term in relation to a specific anthropological definition (Mauss, it seems), I don’t really see what the problem is: an anthropologist using an anthropological term (which he defines) in a work of anthropology.

I realise this is a work intended for a more popular audience, but surely a successful book which means to be this accessible should allow its readers into the world of anthropology, and using terms from it is all part of the process.

110

Katherine 03.01.12 at 2:27 pm

“the way that the language used to talk about past societies perpetuates the idea that present conditions are universal and eternal, and closes off a series of other questions”

@comment #59 – is that so thoroughly subversive? And there was me going through life thinking it was thoroughly obvious. But then, I also think it should be thoroughly obvious that evo-psych is a load of donkey’s arse-dribble, and that still gets funding.

111

Neville Morley 03.01.12 at 2:54 pm

@Katherine #109: I think it’s pretty obvious to the majority of people working in the humanities, broadly defined, but clearly it’s less self-evident (if not seen as completely wrong) to plenty of social scientists, economists, evolutionary psychologists etc.

112

Katherine 03.01.12 at 3:02 pm

“I asked a bunch of people, both men and women, but not everyone came through with a piece, and we ended up with the contributions we ended up with.”

Chris at #98 (and Henry around there too) – I suppose it would be awkward of me to comment then that Lou’s post, the only one by a women, was also the one where the following comments utterly ignored the main thrust of the post?

113

Chris Bertram 03.01.12 at 3:07 pm

It isn’t “obvious” to me at all. That is, it is obvious that there are a load of bogus ideological claims being made under the banner of evo-psych (especially wrt to gender, race etc). It also seems as if there has been interesting work done about, for example, cognitive illusions. But then I’m not entirely clear about where the boundaries of evo-psych are supposes to lie (ie what’s in an what’s out). But damning all evolutionary explanation of parts of our cognitive architecture as “donkey’s arse dribble” seems to me to go some way past the “obvious”.

114

Chris Bertram 03.01.12 at 3:10 pm

Katherine #111 You are welcome to make that judgement: but we don’t pre-audition the commentariat here (sometimes I wish we could).

115

ajay 03.01.12 at 3:11 pm

There’s only one way to find out – dzamalag!”

In another universe everyone knows this as the catchphrase of a prime-time TV panel show.

116

Katherine 03.01.12 at 3:12 pm

I’d have thought the presence of the phrase “donkey’s arse-dribble” might have signalled that I was being a bit sarcastic and over-the-top, but never mind.

My main point (such as it was) was the first sentence – it doesn’t seem to me to be terribly subversive that “the way that the language used to talk about past societies perpetuates the idea that present conditions are universal and eternal, and closes off a series of other questions”, and I was wondering if I had been labouring under a shocking misapprehension all this time.

117

Katherine 03.01.12 at 3:13 pm

“You are welcome to make that judgement” – not so much a judgement, as an observation. Do you disagree?

118

Adrian Kelleher 03.01.12 at 3:17 pm

Kerry Soviet hoists red flag…

‘Pay as you please’ policy paying off for restaurant
Irish Examiner

“As a business concept for cash-conscious Irish consumers, ‘pay what’s fair’ catches the attention. A Killarney restaurant, ‘Pay as You Please’ is celebrating its first, successful year.

“‘We never set ourselves a target, money-wise,’ says co-owner Rob O’Reilly. ‘All we wanted to do was make ourselves reasonably popular with locals and make enough money to pay the bills. What actually happened was amazing. It exceeded all expectations with locals and tourists supporting us beyond our wildest dreams.’

“After the meal, people pay whatever they feel is fair by anonymously slipping their cash into a box on the counter. ‘We never really worried about the trust aspect. People are overwhelmingly honest…’

119

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.01.12 at 3:22 pm

@115, could you explain what you mean by “not terribly subversive”, please. It seems to be kind of the opposite or ‘subversive’, as it actually makes it impossible to question the present conditions, the dominant doctrine. In the ‘it is what it is and and can’t be anything else’ sort of way.

120

Henry 03.01.12 at 3:38 pm

bq. Chris at #98 (and Henry around there too) – I suppose it would be awkward of me to comment then that Lou’s post, the only one by a women, was also the one where the following comments utterly ignored the main thrust of the post?

Katherine – the differential way in which commenters treat women posters and men posters at this blog is a real problem that we worry about a lot. However, in this case, I’m not sure that this is what was going on, given that robotslave (and I’d imagine many and perhaps most readers) did not pick up on Lou’s sex.

121

Katherine 03.01.12 at 4:50 pm

Well, you do Henry, although Chris at comment #113 seemed entirely unconcerned.

As to the question of Lou’s gender being discernible or not – the post was discernibly about women’s view points (or lack thereof) in Debt, and about the presence of feminist anthropological view points, and was pointedly ignored. Which is a shame, since I had thought that things might have improved round here.

Thanks for your reply though.

122

Katherine 03.01.12 at 4:54 pm

Henri @ comment #118 – I was responding to something in comment #59. Perhaps you could refer back to satisfy your curiosity.

123

ajay 03.01.12 at 4:59 pm

Katherine, do you have a point you’d like to discuss w.r.t. Lou’s post?

124

Neville Morley 03.01.12 at 5:24 pm

Just to clarify, my “obvious” in #110 referred to the power of rhetoric in shaping the way we think about things, rather than to the status and credibility of evolutionary psychology. I think I’d suggest that ‘subversiveness’ is context-dependent. Within many areas of the humanities, I’d agree, it isn’t particularly subversive to suggest that the language used to describe the past influences the interpretation of that past, tending to obscure differences between past and present and hence in effect to project present-day assumptions onto the past (although in my own field of economic history there are plenty of people who are quite happy to use terms like ‘market’ and ‘trade’ in an entirely unreflective manner). In various areas of the social sciences, on the other hand, terms derived primarily from the analysis of modern society are applied to the past quite consciously, on the assumption that they reflect universal principles of human nature. Questioning such dominant accounts, esp. as economics at least is so important in shaping the world today, is surely at least a little subversive?

125

JJ 03.01.12 at 5:45 pm

As I’m just another one of those lesser-educated trolls who lurk in the academic groves watching the elephants slug it out for territorial dominance of the ivory towers, I wouldn’t know a lower cas(t)e communist from an upper cas(t)e Fascist. But I do know that Communism and Fascism are two sides of the same coin. And the name of that coin is Capitalism. And just as the agricultural revolution shackled the overwhelming majority of our ancestors to physical slavery and various lesser forms of involuntary servitude, so has the Industrial Revolution shackled the overwhelming majority of their survivors to intellectual slavery and various lesser forms of voluntary servitude. In this, the best of all possible utopian worlds.

126

Bill Benzon 03.01.12 at 6:43 pm

…I’m not entirely clear about where the boundaries of evo-psych are supposes to lie…

As far as I can tell, no one’s clear on that. It’s no more well-defined than “cognitive science.”

127

robotslave 03.01.12 at 6:43 pm

@119

Look again— I didn’t get Lou’s gender wrong. I listed all of the first names of the primary contributors to the seminar, without explicitly saying they were all male.

I’d claim that I did this precisely because it occurred to me that “Lou” is commonly used as both a male and female nickname, but I’d understand completely if nobody believed me.

128

Katherine 03.01.12 at 6:57 pm

Ajay, I’ve already made my point, which was that no one talked about what Lou’s post was actually about, but managed 40-odd comments about the difference between debt and blackmail. It was a quite impressive collective avoidance of the subject.

129

Katherine 03.01.12 at 7:03 pm

Questioning such dominant accounts, esp. as economics at least is so important in shaping the world today, is surely at least a little subversive?

The only reason I was questioning that was because of my apparent ignorance that this isn’t done in social sciences (or sciences sciences, or y’know, generally about general stuff generally) as a matter of course. Now I know that, then yes I’d agree, sadly, that apparently it is subversive.

PS The thing about evo p’sych was a sarcastic throwaway about evo psych, not an attempt to suggest that your statement had anything to do with its status and credibility. Also, I had just thought of the phrase “donkey’s arse dribble” and my inner teenager thought it was funny because it was a bit rude.

130

robotslave 03.01.12 at 7:51 pm

@128

Katherine, if you have anything to say about Lou’s main points, I’d be interested in discussing them over in that article.

That first paragraph of hers really was pretty controversial, wasn’t it? I’ve tried to defend her characterization of Petra’s bargain as a debt relation, but it seems to really bother a segment of the commentariat. I’d also observe that the objections seem to come mainly from people rooted more in economics than anthropology, while Lou’s expertise is in the latter, which naturally informs her substantive criticisms of Graeber.

I’m not sure where to put this comment, or other metacriticism. I think I’ll put any further thoughts about the matter on Lou’s page, as I’ve already done enough disservice to Rob here (anyone remember Rob?).

131

Phil 03.01.12 at 8:42 pm

I wouldn’t know a lower cas(t)e communist from an upper cas(t)e Fascist.

Frankly, if you’ve got the wit and energy to come up with that line, you’re perfectly well-equipped to find out what lower-case communism is. You could skim this thread, for a start.

132

Brian Marick 03.02.12 at 3:10 pm

Yarrow at 71:

I don’t know the politics, if any of the authors of the Agile Manifesto […]

I was one of them. Those whose politics I know range from wingnut US Right (“Obama is a Tyrant”) to I guess mainstream European social democrats. I’d be surprised if anyone’s more Left than that. FYI.

133

Brian Marick 03.02.12 at 3:59 pm

Yarrow at 25:

DaveL @ 13: Because beyond small farming communities or other social structures where everyone knows everyone else, a “gift” economy won’t work?

As Chris Bertram @ 17 says, this happens every day, even in our current society. And certainly Wikipedia is an example of something larger than a small farming community. (And to be sure, smaller than a nation-state: Wikipedia claims about 100,000 regular contributors, while Iceland, for instance, has 300,000 people.)

DaveL at 88:

As for pointing to examples of gift economies on the internet (as Yarrow does above), they support my point (aside from the inarguable truth that the internet didn’t exist in 1000BCE). Knowing other people, in the sense of reputation, is facilitated by the internet and similar technologies, and enables gift economy-like behavior over a wider scale.

As one of the people who does the kind of https://github.com/marick that Yarrow mentioned, I think I agree with him over DaveL. Things like Github are a little bit the sort of “vulgar gift economies” that Eric Raymond popularized in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which (in my opinion) hastens to turn diffuse reciprocity into something that looks and acts an awful lot like an economist’s idealized market, just using reputation for currency instead of greenbacks. But that driving force is mixed up with real diffuse reciprocity, a good measure of communism, and the plain old obsessive making programmers are prone to.

From the inside, it doesn’t feel like a small-scale gift economy raised to a global scale via technology.

134

Barry Freed 03.04.12 at 1:20 am

I suppose it would be awkward of me to comment then that Lou’s post, the only one by a women, was also the one where the following comments utterly ignored the main thrust of the post?

The one as in the only one, really? Which seminar were you reading?

135

DaveL 03.05.12 at 12:46 am

@Brian Marick @133. I’m not sure how the increased reach that we get from the Internet contradicts the idea that gift economies work when reputation is well-known and when the investment in gifts is relatively small compared to the total worth of a giver. Yes, some people will give disproportionate amounts, some people will give to people of unknown reputation. Even such acts sometimes redound to the benefit of the giver and make perfect sense both morally and economically; the social equivalent of any risky “investment.”

“Diffuse reciprocity” works when you know the person (or community) you are giving to. As for Wikipedia, it may have 100,000 regular contributors, but how many editors does it have?

From the inside, it doesn’t feel like a small-scale gift economy raised to a global scale via technology.

To me, it does. You get the idealized behavior, but you also get people who “contribute” but their projects die, you get people who take stuff but never contribute, etc. You get all the behaviors you would expect in a “small-scale gift economy.” You get ostracism and expulsion into the wilderness. You also get the behaviors you expect in a owner/buyer relationship (or even a lord/serf one) if you try to get help/support from a “free” project. Not always, any more than a market transaction is always exploitive, but there are many ways to be a lord.

136

Katherine 03.05.12 at 1:01 pm

Barry Freed @ Comment #134 – if you can point me to another post in the seminar where the comments ignored the main thrust of the post – rather than disagreed with it, or got sidetracked after a bit – then I’ll amend my opinion.

Robotslave @ Comment #129 – her first paragraph may well have been controversial, but on any honest reading of the post, it wasn’t her main point, merely an opening illustration of something she found illustrating.

I did post a similar observation over there too. Like I said, that was my purpose.

137

Barry Freed 03.06.12 at 12:19 am

There’s a lot of room for interpretation between “got sidetracked after a bit” and “ignored the main thrust of the post” but I thought that characterized many of the discussions (ignored, that is, or got sidetracked very quickly indeed). See, for example Neville Morley’s post, I think maybe the second and third comments addressed the post, precious little after that. (Like I said, a lot of room for interpretation between the two).

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