Fortunately I didn’t contract with Chris in advance to contribute to the Graeber seminar, so I’m not in debt on this score, paying late and therefore a bad person.
Right. I’m only about halfway through the book – on audiobook: must have something to do on the bus – and quite enjoying it. Some skepticism about Graeber’s scholarship has been expressed in the wake of revelation of that embarrassing bit about Apple computers that he got totally wrong. I am not an expert on all the ancient and exotic anthropological and etc. evidence Graeber cites, but I’m not an absolute beginner. I started studying the history of ideas of debt, and related subjects, a few years back. See here and here. I started because it occurred to me the Plato I was teaching was, to a surprising extent, about debt, reciprocity and, generally, the convertability of moral into monetary categories, and vice versa. Euthyphro on piety. It’s ‘care of the gods’, which – this is his final suggestion – turns out to be the capacity to enter into healthy exchange relations. Meno on whether being good boils down to getting your hands on the goods. Cephalus, the old man, launches the mighty ship, Republic, with the thought that justice is ‘speaking truth and paying debts’, which morphs into the lex talionis thought that justice is payback – doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Plato, like Graeber, is really really concerned to shred this stuff, if he can. So I find Graeber interesting. I haven’t gotten to the bits where Graeber discusses Plato, but I see he does discuss him. And I haven’t found any flagrant inconsistencies between what he says about other ancient stuff and what I have read in other authors about ancient stuff. So I’m inclined to think the Apple slip was a one-off accident, not indicative of larger problems. As to the tribute system stuff. It sounds like Henry is right about that and Graeber is wrong. I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet.
Right. Getting down to business. Here’s what seems to me a fundamental tension in the book. On the one hand, Graeber wants to emphasize that debt is a very specific relation. Everything isn’t debt, human relations-wise. More generally, everything isn’t exchange. For him, this is the larger significance of defeating the myth of barter and the double-coincidence and all that (go read the other posts if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Money emerges as a way of accounting for debt, but not everything is debt. So money isn’t a way of accounting for everything. I’m simplifying, but this is the gist. (One of many gists, but enough for one post.)
And yet: human beings (not just economists), when called upon to explain how society works, have a strange tendency to reach first for efficient market hypotheses, and to hold on like grim death. Natural or even cosmic orders of orderly payback. That’s the ticket. We are ‘in debt’ to the gods, or our parents, or society. Graeber is quick to point out the inadequacies of these metaphors. Is a debt you can never pay off really a debt? If peasants are exchanging wheat for prayers by priests and protection by nobles, exactly how many prayers does a bushel of wheat buy, on the going feudal market? If these questions have no non-absurd answers, then there is something wrong with the question. Like Plato, I’m inclined to buy this part of the argument. These attempts to cash out holiness as payback, or justice as fair exchange (retributively or reciprocally), have conceptual problems. The tension comes in when Graeber tries to argue, further, that there is something bourgeois, hence peculiarly modern about this seemingly timeless – at least ancient – and cross-culturally ubiquitous compulsion to describe society by debt-ifying and exchang-ifing and reciprocity-ifying all of human relations, in descriptively inaccurate fashion. Everyone says it’s all debt. But it isn’t all debt.
Graeber says, for example, that Rabelais is prescient about how the modern world is falling prey to this debt-ified frame of mind, having Panurge wax eloquent about how debt makes the world go round, so by being perpetually in debt, he is a benefactor of all. But it seems to me that this bit of wit is timeless. Rabelais is playing with exceedingly ancient ways of thinking, not peculiarly modern ones. It’s close to being a cultural universal to think things work this way (not for things actually to work this way). If someone asks you how society works, and you haven’t really thought about it much, you will say it’s a debt system. By extension, what makes it ok that society is as it is (however that may happen to be) is that it is all a cosmically efficient credit market, in which everyone pays and gets paid and accounts even out.
I’ll just conclude with this classic bit of Anaximander, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Whence things have their origin,
Thence also their destruction happens,
According to necessity;
For they give to each other justice and recompense
For their injustice
In conformity with the ordinance of Time.
The universe is in hock to itself up to the armpits. Everything that moves is debt and payback in motion. The nub of Panurge’s joke is here. If you like the universe, with all its moving around ways, you’d better love debt.
Graeber appreciates that you find this sort of thinking everywhere, at all times, but he also wants to hammer home that the tendency of economists to think this way is blinkered and parochial. And bourgeouis and modern. It’s not exactly a contradiction to have it both ways. It may be perfectly true that this style of thinking is highly characteristic of economists and the modern, commercial bourgeoisie. But this isn’t a distinguishing characteristic. What Graeber thinks is that everyone is wrong, not just economists in the grip of the myth of the double-coincidence. Folk thinking and econ thinking are the same. And wrong, according to Graeber (and Plato before him).