Seminar on Debt: The First 5000 Years – Reply

by David Graeber on April 2, 2012

Let me begin with an apology—for two things, actually. First, for the fact this response to the seminar on my debt book was so long in coming. It happening that at the time the seminar was going on I was desperately trying to finish a book with a very firm deadline (not to mention I was also struggling with a flu, which added all sorts of interesting complications. I did finish it though. Only just.) Second, for the fact that, to make up for the delay, I seem to have overcompensated and the response became… well, as you can see, a little long.

Sorry.

Allow me also to remark as well how flattered I am by so much of this discussion. When I wrote the book it never occurred to me I would end up being compared with the likes of Polanyi, Nietzsche, or even Ernest Mandel. I shall try very hard not to let this go to my head. Now how shall I start? It would be ungracious not to respond to each in some way. But I think it might be best to start by clarifying a few issues that seem to crop up pretty frequently, both in this seminar and in other reviews and comments I’ve seen on the internet. Then I will take on the specific responses.

The stupid Apple thing.
The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. Actually it was about a whole of series of other tiny start-ups created by people who’d dropped out of IBM, Apple, and similar behemoths. (Of them it’s perfectly true.) The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong. I should have caught it at the proofreading stage but I didn’t. I did catch it when the book first came out, tried to get the publisher to take it out, and have been continually trying since July. All to no avail. I have absolutely no idea why a book can go through eight editions and it’s impossible to pull out a couple lines of obviously incorrect text but they just keep telling me, no, I have to wait until July. Allow me to reassure the reader: You have absolutely no idea how frustrating this is, especially as the stupid line has been held out, reproduced, sent around in every conceivable way to suggest that nothing else in the book is likely to be factually accurate To which all I can reply is: well, notice how this is the only quote in the book that happens with. That one sentence gets repeated a thousand times. No other one does. That’s because it’s the only sentence flagrantly wrong like that. In fact, I’ve communicated with, or read reviews by, scholars of Greece, Mesopotamia, and Islam, Medievalists, Africanists, historians of Buddhism, and a wide variety of economists, etc, etc, and none have noticed any glaring errors—in fact, the most frequent reaction is that it’s remarkable that someone who is not an area specialist actually more or less gets it right (remember, these are scholars often loathe to admit even their own colleagues in the field get it more or less right.) The book is pretty meticulously researched and has stood up to scholarly review. The problem is I haven’t been able to get the one idiotic garbled sentence out despite my utmost endeavors. But it will be. They promise. Soon.

Impersonal relations.
A surprisingly large number of readers concluded from the book that I am against all impersonal relations, or all impersonal exchange relations, or even all exchange relations. It feels a little odd to have to say this, but let me hereby state that I am not “opposed” to such institutions, nor am I suggesting they should be, or could be, eliminated. Any complex society will have all these things in some form or another. The question is which. To be honest it never occurred to me, when writing the book, that anyone would think I am opposed to impersonal relations as such. In retrospect I can see how someone might get that feeling, since I describe the birth of impersonal market relations as originating in slavery, and violence. But the argument I thought I was making was not that all impersonal relations are necessarily violent, or bad, but that a history of violence has shaped the particular forms of impersonal relationship we have (our notion of freedom, market exchange, I could add bureaucracy though I didn’t go into it in the book) in ways we can no longer see. This means that what passes in our society as impersonal relations are inherently problematic. They have been colored by their violent origins. One way to put this is that what we think of as impersonal relations aren’t really impersonal at all, in the sense of being disinterested, bereft of human concerns. They just strip those concerns down to abstractions, like the idea of “self interest,” which is not a universal human concept in any sense, but has relatively recent historical origins, which I describe. Again, this infusion of supposedly impersonal relations with certain isolated personal motives is probably inevitable and I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing but I do think we need to think about which we have chosen and why. Myself, I’m not sure we might be better off living, not in a society which assumes we are all driven by the Sin of Avarice (which must be indulged), but one which assumes we are driven by the Sin of Sloth. But perhaps that’s another matter. The point is I am critiquing the kind of impersonal relations we have developed, not the very idea of impersonal relations themselves.

Another brief corrective while I’m at it: I’m also not saying that having lots of social relations are always inherently good and therefore the loss of social ties is always bad, violent, or oppressive. I get accused of that sometimes too: i.e., of not being able to recognize that leaving your small town where everybody knows you and setting out for the big city can be a liberating experience. Obviously this is true. It’s also true I don’t really talk about the positive aspects of running away from home, etc, much in the book, but I assumed that readers would realize that I was aware of them. Well, most readers did I think. Just not all. (Anyway I define freedom as the freedom to make promises and commitments, to create new social relations. You can’t do that if you’re already bound down by old ones.)

Human Economies.
This one only came up occasionally in the Crooked Timber discussion but I’ve seen it crop up again and again in other contexts. The twin ghosts of Hobbes and Rousseau crouch so stubbornly on our backs that it’s well-nigh impossible to say anything about stateless societies without the conversation ending up being about whether (a) all stateless societies are good (egalitarian, free, abundant, well-adjusted, etc), or (b) all stateless societies are evil (violent, oppressive, superstitious, etc). Let me make clear my own position right away. I take a position© all stateless societies are different. Sure, there are some ways they might be said to differ systematically from our own, but they are negligible compared to the way they different from each other. And this is pretty much what one would expect from a category of people who have nothing in common other than not being organized under a centralized government. But for me, this very heterogeneity is also what makes such societies so fascinating, and to my mind, politically important. Two towns a hundred miles apart in Medieval (or contemporary) Bengal, or Germany, may have their different local customs, but they will share the same basic set of assumptions about the nature of the universe, the same basic political and economic system. Two traditional communities even a few dozen miles apart in Zambia, or Amazonia, or Indonesia are likely to have absolutely different conceptions of what human life is ultimately about and what institution mechanisms are appropriate for realizing it. They confront us with an endless archipelago of human possibilities. In this light, it does grow rather tiresome having to listen to debates about whether all stateless society, or “human economies” are idyllic utopias, or nightmare worlds of “institutionalized rape” (i.e., arranged marriages – note here, virtually all traditional European societies had arranged marriages, especially in fact among the nobility, which you’d think might give those who levy such slurs pause to reflect for a moment about what expressions like “being treated like a princess” actually imply; some stateless societies in contrast didn’t practice arranged marriage at all—as I say they were all different. But logic flies out the window the moment one assumes that one can lump all “primitive” folk together and use the sins of any one as condemnation all of them.) This completely misses the point. There’s very little one can say that is true even of all hunter/gatherers, the Hadza and the Haida, to take two similar-sounding names, are aside from the similarity of their names about as different as two different societies can possibly be. The whole conversation, whether undertake by Steve Pinker or John Zerzan, is basically meaningless. Human economies tend to be all different, and to have both admirable and atrocious elements. The same is true of commercial economies.

To be fair, though, on the latter point, on looking over some the responses, and rereading my own text, I realize some of the fault here is my own. There is a certain ambiguity in my use of the term “human economy” that does lend itself to such misinterpretations, and some confusion in the Crooked Timber discussion as well. So it might help to clarify.

The problem is that I use the term in three increasingly inclusive senses. At its narrowest, a “human economy” is, I say, a system where currency is present, but it is used primarily to rearrange social relations, only secondarily, if at all, to buy and sell physical objects. In a broader sense I use it to refer to any economic system that isn’t dominated by commercial money—including those do lacking any sort of currency at all, since here, what we would consider “economic life” is simply a subordinate moment in a larger system whose purpose is the mutual creation of human beings. In this second sense it overlaps somewhat (but not perfectly) with stateless societies. Finally, in the last, and broader sense, all economies, even our own, are human economies, since the exchange of goods and services is still really just one subordinate moment in the process by which people shape each other and create meaningful lives—even if we often seem to lose sight of this. This latter sense is closer to the way anthropologist like Keith Hart speak of “the human economy.” My argument is that in all three senses of the term, human economies really operate on the principle that human beings are unique because of their unique relations with others (even if we live in a tree, with no social relations, we are still the sum of our past social relations), but that our obsession with exchange has taught us to overlook this. When no commercial relations are present, or they do not play an especially important role in society, in contrast all this is just self-evident.

This is why I felt it was justifiable to say that these are all ultimately the same thing.

The problem I realize is that the term “economy” functions somewhat differently in each. It’s only in “human economies” in the most restricted sense, when currencies are being used to settle disputes, or arrange marriages, or express appreciation to curers, and so on, that we are speaking of economies in the most familiar sense of “a global system of reciprocal exchange where accounts are ultimately expected to balance out” (as in the way one might speak of a “moral economy” or “libidinal economy”, etc). In the two broader cases it’s more like Karl Polanyi’s idea of the economy as a society’s system of material provisioning. This is admittedly confusing, and it’s not surprising many were confused. For instance: my discussion of marriage exchange systems is—and here I draw on a long tradition of feminist anthropology that goes back to Gayle Rubin’s essay “The Traffic in Women”—meant to show how perhaps the first form of that human violence that made impersonal, market relations possible. It is not meant to argue that such institutions are typical of human economies, let alone their defining features. They are the point at which such systems begin on a conceptual path of deconteztualization and exchangeability that will ultimately lead to slavery, and impersonal, commercial economies. What makes it even more complicated, and potentially confusing, is that when these systems first appear, they stop halfway: hence, they recognize that the death of your brother deprives you of a unique and irreplaceable individual, and that no compensation could possibly be his equivalent; then they demand compensation anyway. So with giving one’s sister in marriage—when exchange marriage is the rule. Such contexts, which I note appear in the context of at least potential violence, open the door to the complete alienation and exchangeability of slavery, which dissolves the logic of human economies away entirely. But my identifying human economies particularly with currency use makes it easy to think those forms of exchange are what human economies are most essentially about.

I guess I should have made that a lot more explicit.

PART I: UNPLEASANT STUFF: DELEGITIMIZATION EFFORTS

Now on to the author-by-author response. It would probably be best here to get the least pleasant tasks out of the way first.

I mentioned when the seminar took place on Crooked Timber, I was in the middle of finishing a book. I find it slightly ironic that in chapter two of that book, the part I had long since finished, the following passage appears:

1. the US spends more on its military than all other countries on earth combined. It maintains at least two and half million troops in 737 overseas military bases, from Paraguay to Tajikistan, and, unlike any other military power in history, retains the power to strike with deadly force anywhere on earth.
2. the US dollar is the currency of global trade, and since the ‘70s has replaced gold as the reserve currency of the global banking system
3. Also since the 1970s, the US has come to run an ever-increasing “trade deficit” whereby the value of products flowing into America from abroad far outweighs the value of those America sends out again.
Simply set these facts out, and it’s hard to imagine they could be entirely unrelated—particularly when one considers that for centuries, the world trade currency has always been that of the dominant military power, and that such military powers always seem to have more wealth flowing into them than they send out. Still, the moment one begins to speculate on how all this works, on what the actual connections between US military power, the banking system, and global trade may be, one is likely to be dismissed—in respectable circles, at least—as a paranoid lunatic.

The contribution of Henry Farrell, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University, to this symposium, entitled “The World Economy is Not A Tribute System,” is a perfect case in point.

Farrell’s work is a classic example of de-legitimization, by which I mean, it is not written in an attempt to engage an author in a serious debate about issues, but rather, to try to make a case why that author’s arguments are undeserving of debate and do not have to be assessed or considered at all. Rather than refute him point by point, which would presumably bore most readers to tears, perhaps it would be more interesting to explore how such a strategy works.

The links between military systems and money creation is of course a major theme of the book; it is only to be expected that I should pursue the matter to the current day. What seems to provoke Farrell is not this, or any outlandish claims I make—because I don’t actually claim that the “world economy” is a tribute system, or make any particularly outlandish claims—but more, I suspect, the fact I use provocative language in doing so: words like “empire” and “terror.” Mainstream discussions of such issues are riddled with euphemisms and taboo; it’s considered acceptable, for instance, to speak of the US as maintaining an “empire” if one approves of such arrangements (if one is say a Bush aide, or Niall Ferguson), but not if one is critical of them; similarly, while those who attack the US or US military can be described as terrorists, the US, with all its bombs and drones and missiles, can never be described as inspiring “terror” in anyone. So not only do I draw connections between military power and what economists like to call “seigniorage” (the power to decide what money is), I had the temerity to say that the US is an imperial power and that US military power does scare a lot of people, and this is one (just one) reason some accede to US-sponsored monetary policies that are not to their economic advantage.

How does a strategy of de-legitimization proceed? Basically, the pattern seems to be this:

1. start not by addressing the author’s argument, but by challenging their authority to make one.

2. Proceed to either

a. associating him with some other individual or group deemed similarly outside the bounds of respectable expression, and/or
b. ignoring the intellectual tradition he is drawing on entirely, so as to suggest he is an isolated lunatic.

3. Finally, now that the reader has been prepared to expect the worst, present a wildly inaccurate version of the author’s argument, twisting it into something no reasonable person could possibly believe, and dismiss it as such

Just to give a sense of how common this approach is, let me start not with Farrell’s own essay, but with a brief review written a week or so earlier by Gabriel Rossman, a sociologist at UCLA, which Farrell himself quotes approvingly at the beginning of his own. It’s revealing because Rossman seems—judging from my rather limited interactions with him—to be honestly convinced he was being friendly and measured in his approach. Basically, he appears to have made every one of these classic de-legitimization moves without being fully aware he was doing so.

Let’s examine how he does it. After beginning with some positive remarks about my critique of standard economics, he proceeds as follows:

1. challenge to authority: he trundles out the Apple passage, quoting it in full and saying it calls all my qualifications as a scholar into question

2. he then proceeds to

a. Associate me with Noam Chomsky, who I never cite or mention, explaining that he, Gabriel Rossman, also had this sort of “paranoid” view until he grew up and learned something about economics
b. Avoids associating me with Michael Hudson, the actual economist who I do cite and whose work I claim to be following, even though the sections he is critiquing are basically a summary and expansion on Hudson’s work

3. Now that the reader has been prepared to expect the worst, Rossman doesn’t even address my actual arguments, saying some of them are too ridiculous to even mention, except to note that I seem to think that the only reason other countries buy treasury bonds is fear of being blown up—a statement I obviously never made.

The upshot to this is particularly revealing. Once Farrell’s post on Crooked Timber went up a week or two later, both he and Rossman went after me on twitter, accusing me of claiming that central bankers only used T-bonds for a reserve currency for fear of military attack. I had been bedridden with flu that day, and avoiding the Crooked Timber seminar, but I did get up briefly to check my twitter account, and couldn’t allow such a statement to pass unchallenged. So I demanded Rossman find me a passage where I suggested anything of the sort. Of course he couldn’t, since there isn’t any, but Rossman insisted I had claimed exactly that and cited a specific paragraph in chapter 12. The passage in question says nothing even vaguely like he claimed. In fact it doesn’t refer to treasury bonds at all, but to Saddam Hussein’s announcement that he would start using euros, instead of dollars, for trading oil, noting that while there’s no way to know whether rumors that this played into the US decision to attack Iraq were true, it’s significant a lot of people thought it did, and that some oil producers who might have otherwise considering switching to the euro were surely intimidated. Rossman basically says “whatever. Then you say the only reason anyone uses the dollar in the oil trade is for fear of being blown up.” So I had to point out the passage didn’t say that either. This is the remarkable thing: the fact that he had now been caught twice wildly misstating my position gave him no pause whatsoever, but he continued flailing away, acting as if whatever I did say could be treated as equally extreme as the ridiculous extremist positions he falsely attributed to me…

I need hardly point out the irony here. Rossman’s initial delegitimizing move was to find the only major error of fact in the entire book, one which has nothing to do with the actual matter at hand, so as to basically say nothing I say can be trusted. This move was extremely effective. Pretty much everything else he had to say in his review was ignored in subsequent internet discussions: that one Apple quote was, once again, cited endlessly, put on facebook, blogged by Brad DeLong, tweeted by Paul Krugman, etc etc. Even though Rossman was careful to say he did not know if there were any other errors of fact, and then in the meat of his essay went on to challenge not facts but interpretations, commentators on the discussion section of his blog remarked that now that he had shown my work was “riddled” with egregious errors, there was no point in taking any of it seriously at all. Others reacted to his review by saying they had now decided not to assign it for courses because nothing I said could be believed. Hence the irony. By these standards, Rossman’s own corpus should be considered worthless as well, since he made more egregious errors of fact in a few pages of description of the contents of my book than are contained in the entire 534-page book itself. These include mistakes so glaring that if Prof. Rossman had performed on that level consistently on his SAT exam, it is unlikely he would have gotten into college; if he had done so on his GREs, he certainly never would have gotten into grad school and became a professor at all.

So why is it that his wildly inaccurate statements don’t cause people to conclude that nothing he’s ever written should be taken seriously? Presumably because he’s a “respectable scholar.” And once he’s managed to establish I’m not, I’m a Chomskian paranoiac, what does it really matter whether he accurately summarized my delusions or not?

What I find remarkable is that Rossman seems genuinely unaware of how contemptuous his approach is—he seemed honestly surprised when I took offense at having my positions misrepresented. (When I pressed him, pointing out my actual position, which is that US “seigniorage” is ultimately an effect of US military dominance, even if the exact means through which it operates are murky, he said that he believed this to be the case as well—then insisted he still disagrees with me, though he still hasn’t made it clear to me how.)

Let’s move on to Farrell. He employs pretty much exactly the same approach. Farrell also starts by attacking my scholarship (in his case using a particularly obnoxious rhetorical strategy of citing my own words about the importance of careful scholarship against me.) In fact in the piece he never attacks my scholarship at all. He attacks my interpretations and claims they prove I am a bad scholar because these interpretations are not properly footnoted.

The comment begins with the ritual nod to the barter critique, then proceeds to the passage where I argue that in the last 30 years, we have seen “a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness”—that is, ensuring the lack of any sense of viability of social movements or of alternatives to existing economic relations. He suggests this is borderline paranoid conspiracy theory, since, apparently, ruling classes don’t really rule or come up with strategies of domination. (This is another of those interesting taboos: when speaking of the past, one can speak of “ruling classes” pursuing strategies of rule, but when speaking of the present, this is crazy talk.) He then proceeds to say “this apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people like monetized relations” (emphasis his).

Note here the slick rhetorical move. Once Farrell has suggested I’m sort of a nutter, he can attribute any sort of crazy argument to me and figure his audience will believe I really made it. In fact I never said remotely like that. The passage in question refers to neoliberalism, which I describe as an ideological system that blots out dreams of “alternative futures,” that insists that nothing other than the current financialized form of capitalism, let alone other than capitalism itself, could be a viable economic system. Instead, he pretends I’m arguing that only fear causes people to ever want to use money for anything at all! This is of course insane. Nowhere in the book do I say anything of the sort and at any number of places I make a point of drawing attention to forms of market populism and popular celebration of monetized relations (i.e., in Tudor England, Ming China, Medieval Islam…)

What Farrell basically did was to ascribe a knee-jerk leftist position to me without even bothering to check whether I held it, and then projecting it onto a passage that obviously says something else. In doing so, he managed to completely overlook one of the more innovative arguments of the book, one that in fact breaks dramatically with much leftist orthodoxy—particularly Marxist orthodoxy. Joseph Kay, writing in the Libcom blog , picked up on this right away:

the arc of Marx’s Capital begins with commodities and shows how commodification implies class society. There’s a tendency to deduce therefore, that any time anything exchanges for a price, capitalism will be reproduced, rising vampire-like from the dead to once more suck the blood of the living. Graeber sees it very differently. In the absence of state power, market exchanges tend not to give rise to the inhuman monster of capital … but rather tend to be re-absorbed into a moral economy of a human society, a society to which Marx’s account doesn’t apply

In other words, where many assume that anything like money or markets must be wiped out because even the simplest cash transaction contains some sort of evil DNA that, owing to some profound flaw in human nature, will grow and grow until capitalism is reestablished, I argue the opposite: that while markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence, in the absence of such violence, they will quickly turn into something far less obnoxious—and can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy. Kay correctly notes this is a direct challenge to a lot of received leftist ideas. Farrell, in his zeal to reduce my book to bizarre simplistic arguments no sane person would ever make, remains entirely oblivious to one of the main theoretical arguments of the book.

Again, think of this in terms of scholarship. The whole point of Farrell’s piece is to say I’m driven by my biases to become a bad scholar. Yet here he has already produced an example of the most slipshod scholarship imaginable: completely misunderstanding, or even failing to notice, central arguments of the very book he has undertaken to critique! Once again, if this was the level of reading skills he had shown in the verbal portion of his GREs, Farrell would have flunked and never got into grad school. Obviously he didn’t flunk. I suspect if he wants to, in fact, he can read exemplarily well. He just didn’t feel in this case he should have to bother. Why? Because of exactly the sort of political bias he ascribes to me.

Farrell’s systematic misrepresentation of my arguments would make a point-by-point refutation of his further criticisms tedious and rather pointless. Instead let me describe what I am actually trying to do in the discussion of “debt imperialism” in chapter 12.

I begin the chapter by speaking of myths, symbols and rumors. I emphasize that the way the world economy works, the actual connections between military force, currency regimes, and economic power are impossible to pin down, and that it’s therefore inevitable that paranoid conspiracy theories abound. Yet, speaking as an anthropologist, I cannot help but find these myths and rumors significant—in fact, see them as themselves playing a key role in the system. I begin by emphasizing the murkiness of it all, noting how stories I’d assumed were paranoid myths (there are vast catacombs full of gold under lower Manhattan, that they were the real target of 911), can turn out to be half-true (there are indeed vast catacombs full of gold under lower Manhattan, there’s just no reason to think they were a target of 911). These rumors and stories are all the more important—I thought this was clear—because the US exercises power largely indirectly. The US insists on maintaining the capacity to, and has a history of, using nuclear weapons, launching invasions, fomenting coups, and assassinating rivals, but it obviously does not do so on a regular basis. It just wants to ensure that others know it has the capacity to do any of these things, and that in dealing with enemies no option is ever—as so many US administrations like to put it—“off the table.”

I then proceed to quote Michael Hudson’s argument that the US is an imperial power and that its imposing US treasury bonds to substitute for gold as the reserve currency of central banks operates effectively as a “global tax” or tribute system. This of course is the premise Farrell is objecting to: his title after all is “The World Economy is Not a Tribute System.”

I should explain a bit about Hudson’s book, since it is on this that I build almost my entire argument.

Hudson’s book is called “Superimperialism.” It proposes that the US is indeed presiding over a global empire. Now, the normal definition of an empire is: a political structure based in one country or society that dominates other countries or societies by military force, extracting tribute as “protection” payments. “Protection payments” here is always meant in both familiar senses of the term: on the one hand, empires do provide genuine security services, for elites in particular; on they other, they shake people down by at least implicit threat of force. The line between the two forms of protection is generally kept blurry. Empires rarely state outright that they are simply extorting the money. And often it’s unclear how much the leaders of subject states are happy with such arrangements or not. In the book Hudson makes an explicit case that under Nixon, the US did develop a system of compelling client regimes to buy T-bonds as a way of paying for the US military that “protected” them from the Soviet bloc. During the Cold War, the Communist bloc were of course were outside the US-imposed currency system, and at the time, the US used various forms of pressure on its allies to ensure they did acknowledge the primacy of the dollar: for instance, threatening to pull its troops out of West Germany if that country’s central bank did not become a first linchpin of the T-bond system. Hudson documents all this. After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, former communist regimes were, he says, obliged to become part of the US-centered monetary order. The result is the massive advantage the US has in the world marketplace, being able to effectively write checks that are never cashed but instead treated as if they were gold by central bankers.

With consummate dishonesty, Farrell ignores my initial framing of the discussion around Hudson’s ideas. He pretends I knocked together the argument about the imperial system myself, and leaves reader with the impression I only mention Hudson in a footnote, as one of three sources for my ideas (the others are Niall Ferguson and Robert Brenner. Actually, the footnote merely provides examples of three economists coming from different theoretical perspectives all of whom describe these arrangements as imperialistic, to show it’s not an outré idea.) Farrell then claims I get Hudson backwards:

Finally, he points us towards Michael Hudson, who (unless I misunderstand him badly) is interested in the opposite causal relationship to Graeber’s – Hudson is interested in how US financial privilege facilitates foreign policy adventurism, rather than how foreign policy adventurism scares people into continuing to cleave to the Mighty Dollar.

There are lots of weasely cover words here—“unless I misunderstand him badly,” “is interested in” (rather than “says”)—but Farrell’s actual position is clear enough. He is suggesting that, in a book called “Superimperialism,” what Hudson describes as “America’s financial-military empire” is, unlike any previous empire in history, operating through purely voluntary arrangements. According to this version of Hudson, fear of US arms plays no role whatsoever in upholding those financial arrangements that, effectively, cause other nations to fund the Pentagon and keep goods pouring into the US basically unpaid-for. Why do they go along with them? Who knows? Perhaps they are dazzled by US financial instruments. Or perhaps they like having an empire around. Or perhaps it’s some combination of the two.

So: which of our interpretations of Hudson’s argument is correct?

Well, there’s an easy enough way to find out, and that’s to ask Hudson. So I did. The last time I ran into Michael Hudson I read him what Farrell had written. Hudson’s reaction was to burst out laughing. He pointed to a recent essay he’d written on the 2009 Yekaterinburg conference that contained such unambiguous lines like, “foreigners see the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization as Washington surrogates in a financial system backed by American military bases and aircraft carriers encircling the globe.” Obviously, he said, the whole system is based on fear of US military power. Neoliberal arrangements began with Pinochet for a reason. There has to be the threat of violence backing them up. “Basically,” he said, “the US government’s position come down to ‘adopt our version of the free market or we’ll shoot you.’”

“Can I quote you on that?”

“Sure.”

In other words, Hudson position goes much further in this direction than I ever have.

Again—I’m sorry to be rude, but I didn’t start this thing—one really wonders what this has to say about Prof. Farrell’s professional qualifications. After all, he is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations. Prof. Hudson’s work falls under his supposed area of expertise, not mine. Yet I, a lowly anthropologist, managed to figure out pretty easily what Hudson is saying, and Farrell, the man who receives a salary based on his presumed understanding of such matters, comes up with interpretations of Hudson that make the man himself laugh in disbelief.

In our conversation, Hudson also made a point of emphasizing that the main objection to his argument that the buying of treasuries has become a form of tribute is, usually, the fact that China, a US military rival, is purchasing them as well. “Yes,” he said, “but If that were proof I’m wrong, why is it that China is the only place where bankers are trained using my book?” Chinese officials he said, were quite candid in personal conversation, saying that the effects of US military encirclement and world domination obliged them to go along with a monetary system where they are effectively funding the Pentagon, but they are actively working with powers like Russia to put an end to this situation. So, as with the argument about Iraq to which Farrell so vehemently objected, we have the peculiar circumstance that the two countries (Russia and China) that the US happens to have its nuclear missiles aimed at are the very countries trying to figure out a way to buck the rule of the dollar. Farrell apparently wants us to believe this is a complete coincidence.

So what’s really going on here? Do countries resist the reign of the Almighty Dollar because they already oppose US military domination, or does the US intimidate them militarily because they resist the reign of the dollar? How can it not be a bit of both? And surely it was the same with Iraq (or Iran, or Venezuela; pretty much every oil producing nation that has made a move away from the dollar has also been the target of US military threats or subversion of some sort): countries in the crosshairs of the US military are unlikely to wish to use the dollar, the US sees attempts to move from the dollar as hostile gestures. This was the only point I was really making when I wrote the offending passage about Hussein’s switching his oil sales the dollar—what he called “the enemy’s currency”— to the euro:

How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility.

This is hardly a radical statement. The switch to the euro was just one of a series of hostile moves on both sides, which on the US side included an embargo and constant military attacks, and I emphasize have no idea how much it actually weighed in to US plans to escalate to outright regime change. My point was simply that there were widespread rumors it weighed in, and they had an intimidating effect.

This is the argument Farrell really focuses on. He calls me a bad scholar for failing to provide documentary evidence for the existence of such impressions. Obviously the demand to document rumors is bizarre. What kind of documentation is he asking for? If all he wants is speculation, one can google up no end of it just by typing in “Iraq dollar euro invasion” or the like. Or is he demanding evidence that policy-makers paid any attention to such rumors (that they did not, as I put it, “ignore the possibility” there might have been a connection)? It’s easy to find such assertions too. Here’s a paragraph from a recent piece by the UK Independent’s Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, one of the world’s most respected foreign correspondents:

Iran announced late last month that its foreign currency reserves would henceforth be held in euros rather than dollars. Bankers remember, of course, what happened to the last Middle East oil producer to sell its oil in euros rather than dollars. A few months after Saddam Hussein trumpeted his decision, the Americans and British invaded Iraq.

For Fisk what I observed—that there’s a widespread impression of such a connection—is treated as simply self-evident. “Of course” people remember. This is what I assumed too. But Farrell wants documentation. Can Fisk’s essay be so considered? Who knows? No doubt if Farrell wanted to be stubborn, he could like some annoying six-year-old, play the game of “prove it!” forever, insisting that just because Fisk claims something, it doesn’t prove he’s right. If I then turned up a quote from a banker or statesman stating on the record they were intimidated, no doubt he would demand proof it was not an isolated case. If I got a grant and carried out a detailed survey of bankers and statesmen, he could always critique my methodology.

But this only goes to show the absurdity of Farrell’s position. Because what he’s challenging is—as Fisk recognizes—simple common sense.

It’s as if a bunch of men are playing poker and one is brandishing a shotgun, and he declares, “I’m dealer. In this game, I’m always dealer. And I say from now on, deuces and threes are wild, but just for me. Is that okay with everyone?” And they all agree. And the guy with the shotgun ends up with most of the chips, and cashes some in to buy an even bigger shotgun, and occasionally points the gun at players he doesn’t like for one reason or another, and even shoots one, though not explicitly because of his objection to the rules of the game (though he was grumbling about them), and the game continues. And Steve Farrell says, “yeah, but can you prove that the presence of the shotgun or the fact he shot that guy in any way influenced anyone’s willingness to accept those rules? I demand documents!”

This is what I’d really like to emphasize. The absurdity. Farrell tries to represent himself, by default, as a moderate, reasonable voice, and me as presenting extreme positions without evidence. In fact, my claims are, if you peek past the sometimes provocative language, extremely modest. It’s Farrell’s positions that are extreme. I claim we can’t know how much Hussein’s euro gambit factored into the US decision that he was an implacable enemy that needed to be removed, but imply the gambit wasn’t completely ignored. Farrell seems to want us to believe the US paid no attention to that particular hostile gesture at all. I argue that US military power is one element in the maintenance of a US-dominated financial system that grants the US enormous economic advantages. Farrell appears to be arguing it is not a factor at all. That the poker players are utterly unmoved by the presence of the shotgun, but have agreed to allow the man holding the gun to make up the rules of the game for some other, unspecified, reason.

I will allow the reader to decide for herself why any respectable scholar would take such a peculiar position.

A final word. I get this reaction fairly often, “gee that book was great, except for that weird paranoid stuff at the end.” It’s a bit ironic because all I do in that last chapter is extend the logic of the book down to the present. The book provides extensive historical documentation of the links between empires, violence, and forms of money creation throughout history. Almost no one ever objects to any of that. But the moment I suggest that such connections didn’t somehow just magically disappear around—I don’t know—1945, to be replaced by historically completely unprecedented voluntary arrangements which nonetheless seem to have almost exactly the same effect, suddenly I’m treated as one step from the loony bin. It never seems to occur to those who cast such aspersions that there should be any burden of proof on them to demonstrate that such a historically unprecedented arrangement really exists. They assume that we must start by assuming that the official line from those in authority, however historically unlikely, can simply be assumed to be the truth unless absolutely proven otherwise.

II: MORE PLEASANT RESPONSES

Both Rossman and Farrell apply the de-legitimization rhetoric effectively—at least, for anyone who hasn’t read the book. Contrast to this Rob Horning, in his response, “Debt on the 12th Planet,” which is just such an incompetent attempt at de-legitimization it’s actually kind of fun to read. I won’t carry out a rhetorical analysis, but merely remark that Horning seems to think that anyone who writes a sweeping historical work that isn’t entirely mainstream in its conclusions is the equivalent of a moonbat who believes in space aliens. I don’t know why. The amusing thing here is while he presents himself as defender of mainstream scholarship, he clearly doesn’t have the slightest idea what mainstream scholars have actually been saying for the last fifty years or so. For instance, he starts out by claiming I might as well be wearing a tinfoil hat because I connect the rise of bullion/cash economies with military operations. But this is the emerging scholarly understanding of the matter! (He might have checked the footnotes.)

In fact what Horning is doing is measuring my work not against mainstream scholarship, but against the sort of overview of history one is likely to encounter in a high school textbook or on the Discovery Channel. These in turn are simply based on works of grand historical synthesis written in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The problem is that no one is writing such syntheses any more, so people like Horning have no way of knowing what more recent (and also less Eurocentric) research has turned up. And of course if Horning had his way it would stay that way. Fortunately, though, his approach to de-legitimization is so clumsy and hamfisted it is unlikely to have much effect.

Neville Morley (“The Return of Grand Narrative in the Human Sciences”), in contrast, likes the idea of writing one of those sweeping old-fashioned that current textbooks now draw on, like Weber, or Toynbee, or even Frazer. I find myself strangely charmed to be compared to Frazer. I know I shouldn’t. As an anthropologist I’m trained not to of course. It’s almost the worst thing one could be compared to. And true, when I set out to write the book, I was really thinking of something more like Marcel Mauss—or, anyway, what Mauss might have come up with had he actually got around to writing a proper book. Frazer in contrast is ponderous, obnoxiously superior, and his methodology is a joke. But he inspired great artists for a century. And yes, people like that still remembered what it meant to think big.

Morley is also spot on when he describes my basic problematic. The way I’d myself put it is this. The reason why grand narratives, or metanarratives if you like, have been so broadly rejected in radical theory since the ‘80s is that they close down possibilities rather than open them up, and, of course, tend to imply that political power should be in the hands of some intellectual elite that understands the inevitable direction of history. The problem is that you can’t really think outside some narrative structures. So the result is that those who think they are embracing a postmodern skepticism towards metanarratives, and just looking at contingent particulars, seem to end up reproducing the reigning assumptions of the day (economism, usually) without even noticing they’re doing so. There was a recent special issue of the journal Current Anthropology called “The New Keywords” organized by Lauren Leve, which I contributed to, where we actually tried to demonstrate how exactly that happened in ‘80s and ‘90s anthropology: instead of grand theory we ended up with a series of themes, consumption, identity, agency, flow… and all of them, really, ended up precisely echoing the logic of the market and the emerging neoliberal ideology of the day. So the question is: how do you write a grand narrative that will ensure we don’t do this, but which won’t also won’t try to enslave us to some Party that will lead us in the Inevitable Direction of History.

Daniel Davies contributed a piece called “Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years” notes that in most Mesopotamian clean slates, commercial loans (denominated in silver) were left to stand, and consumer loans (denominated in grain) cancelled. He takes this as analogous to current “Too Big To Fail” policies, in which commercial loans of big banks were effectively forgiven and consumer loans (i.e., mortgages) left to stand. Obviously it is the exact opposite, and when this was pointed out in the discussion, he replied he was aware of that but couldn’t help himself. Okay. I guess we all give into such temptations.

As far as I can make out the essay is trying to make two points:

1. impersonal mechanisms are necessary, and debt generally works well as one such impersonal mechanism

2. sometimes these mechanisms do escape and get out of control, as debt does when it becomes a matter of morality, and this is bad

3. there are already controls, like bankruptcy, on most levels of the system

The example he takes from the book, of the dzamalag (“you can’t organize a modern industrial society on the basis of organizing a wife-swapping party every time you want to buy a blanket”) seems to be another case of the inability to resist rhetorical temptation. I mean, it’s okay, there are worse sins certainly. But talk about a straw man! Dzamalag are rare events even among the Gunwinggu. It’s not like that’s how people go about getting blankets on an everyday basis. I thought that was rather obvious. What’s more I emphasize that even in the modern world economy, when you get up to the really big money, the backdrop of sex, drugs, music, danger, feasting, and whatnot has hardly gone away.

Anyway, as I noted above, where exactly do I argue I’d like to do away with impersonal mechanisms, or impersonal exchange? What I’m arguing in that passage is that economics is a field that largely creates the reality it describes and then naturalizes it, and by doing so, they’re doing us all a world of harm. To repeat: the reason is because they do not actually eliminate human passions or moralities. They just select one or two—the passion of acquisitiveness, the morality of debt—and treat them as if they are the only ones relevant to the transfer of goods and services, or even, for the most ambitious economistic thinkers, the only ones relevant to anything at all. So I don’t think that there are impersonal mechanisms and the problem is they sometimes go crazy. I think the main problem is there is a craziness already lying behind what we take to be impersonal mechanisms.

This is why saying that existing forms of deleveraging are adequate—or could be tinkered with to become so—rather misses the point I was making when I called for a jubilee. What I like about a grand gesture like that is it would also operate as a conceptual reset, a public declaration that we understand now that money is not what we were pretending it was. Tinkering in the midst of a crisis is just a way of preserving one’s illusions as long as possible, and those illusions blind us to the very possibility of creating a humane society.

John Quiggin provides two tidy little interventions. One, “The unmourned death of the double coincidence” suggests economics might actually be better off getting rid of the myth of barter because it might allow economists to see that money’s key function is temporal, as a store of value. This is radicla. As far as I known John Locke was the last major thinker who suggested that was money’s primary function. Will it work? Why not try? Couldn’t do much worse than economists are doing already far as I can make out. The second “The end of debt?” is even more provocative in its own way, and its kind of a shame it didn’t spark more discussion. Here is my own slight extrapolation of his argument:

1. corporations used to be conceived as moral persons who are expected to honor their debts

2. since the ‘80s (basically since the dawn of neoliberalism) all this has gone by the boards and corporations regularly try to rearrange and cancel debts if they can get away with it – especially to employees

3. neoliberalism has meant that everyone is supposed to imagine themselves as a tiny corporation, applying market logic to everything they do. But considering the way corporations now behave, this means not treating debts as matters of morality, and we may well get to the point where most Americans start declaring bankruptcy.

This is similar to my argument in the book that people have effectively been saying “if the financialization of everyday life means we’re all supposed to be little corporations, well, why can’t I be a financial corporation and be allow the make up money too?” Or I suppose it’s the other side of the coin. It’s a potentially important argument. If nothing else there should be a more widespread discussion of the fact that so many firms just regularly try to see if they can get away with not paying debts if they can. I always say one of the great advantages of the academic life, as opposed to working in the creative industries (being a writer, musician, artist, etc) is that universities never, ever pretend they just forgot to pay you. It’s unusual. But the same is true of all sorts of businesses, so that just as agents had to come into existence to force publishers (etc) to actually pay the talent, so there is a whole class of lawyers who exist just to cause different sorts of firms to actually honor their contractual obligations.

In Debt Jubilee or Global Deleveraging?, Barry Finger provides a surprising (at least to me) comparison of my work with that of Ernest Mandel. He argues that while Mandel still envisioned a mass democratization of production, and was engaged in the classic Marxist project of ideological critique of those forms of consciousness that stand in the way of our achieving this, my own book, written 50 years later, plays an analogous role in a less revolutionary age.

Do we need to reset the clock as did our ancient forebears and call for a universal debt jubilee, as David proposes? Or do we need to call into question by means of social struggle the fundamental class arrangements upon which debt and the ideology of debt is at present so firmly implanted in the unexamined preconsciousness of society’s rank and file?

I guess my own political practice makes clear what I think my stance here is (though as we all know, historical actors can be and often are mistaken about the overall significance of what they’re doing): last summer, when I was first promoting the book, was also the time when I was actively encouraging my proto-OWS friends here in New York to adopt the “99% versus 1%” rhetoric that ended up making such an impression, and turning national debate back to matters of class privilege that had largely been neglected. I don’t think there’s an inconsistency here. This isn’t exactly a class analysis, at least in the classic sense of the term (in fact it’s not an analysis at all, as I keep pointing out, it’s a slogan, it’s a way of encouraging people to make certain sorts of analysis rather than an analysis in itself). But it points to something. What the 1% are is, effectively, a ruling class, they represent the point where concentrated wealth can be turned into political power. National politics in the US has been reduced to battles between different factions of that 1%. This is not just a traditional Marxist bourgeoisie though—and this is where I think it dovetails with the argument in debt—it represents the effects of financialization whereby more and more, economic value is not extracted indirectly, through the wage, but directly, through rents and more generally by what they used to call “political-jural extraction,” which I think was Perry Anderson’s term for feudalism. I’m not saying we’re reverting to feudalism quite, but something else in some ways analogous.

Whenever a surplus is extracted directly rather than indirectly, ideology also changes, since it’s much harder to disguise what’s really going on. Hence the neoliberal obsession, noted in the book, in preemptive attacks on anything that even looks like it’s an alternative. They’re barely even trying to convince anyone capitalism is a good system any more; just arguing that no other system is conceivable.

The main argument of the essay though is that debt cancellation is not really a revolutionary demand. That’s true in a sense. But the issue strikes me as more complicated:

No debt jubilee that David unearthed, if I read him correctly, was ever proposed as a permanent framework for the root and branch reconstruction of society on more democratic and egalitarian foundations.

Actually, I’m not sure this is true. It really depends on your definition. Obviously a Mesopotamian style clean slate was meant as a way of preventing mass popular unrest, or defusing it. But often there were very radical effects when governments did have to step in, or even, revolutionary regimes put in by debt protestors (many of the Greek tyrants might be so considered.) The Athenian constitution for instance came about largely in reaction to popular debt abolition campaigns. Could it be considered “a permanent framework for the root and branch reconstruction of society on more democratic and egalitarian foundations”? Well, in a way, yes, it was a total reorganization along radical democratic lines, but it didn’t get all the roots and branches (there were still aristocrats around to grumble about the system in all our surviving texts, still complete political suppression of women, still slavery…) But who ever has? But by these standards no revolutionary program, other than some millenarian ones, would really count as revolutionary until quite recent times, and one could always argue that no recent ones really got to the “root and branch” stage either. So perhaps the question is not whether there have been any debt cancellation campaigns that were truly revolutionary, but whether there were any revolutionary movements that didn’t demand debt cancellation. And of course, why it is assumed that’s all I’m asking for in a book where I am quite careful to say that I am not suggesting a program, trying to only propose one thing that I think everyone across the political spectrum might be willing to consider, and where my own political orientation makes it clear I’d like to ultimately go rather further than Ernest Mandel himself?

Or maybe he was just trying to bring me out to say so? Okay, in that case, here I am saying it.

I do strongly agree with Finger’s conclusion. It’s the problem with trying to be inclusive. I am much more in favor of debt strike and mass debt repudiation than some cosmological sacred king waving his hand and wiping the slate clean. But it never hurts to put the idea out there because one of the strategies of popular movements nowadays is to create a Mesopotamian-style crisis of defection and ungovernability, a state where the political order is so delegitimated the political class feels they have to do something genuinely dramatic to convince anyone to take them seriously again (as happened say, with Argentina’s debt repudiation in 2003.

But perhaps one shouldn’t put all one’s cards on the table! I’ll stop here.

I really enjoyed reading Malcolm Harris’s “The Dangers of Pricing the Infinite.” This is the kind of pragmatic application of one’s ideas in unexpected ways that makes one feel perhaps one actually wasn’t crazy to spend all that time researching and writing it. He also hones right in on what I thought were some of the more compelling philosophical issues that I opened up, but didn’t really resolve: money’s origins as recognition of unpayable debt, the moral tensions produced by the assumption of jural equivalence, the peculiar indignation at being reduced by debt to a utilitarian calculating machine that often drives debtors to unspeakable acts… The overall point is that Student Loan debt is rapidly turning into a kind of cosmic debt to society that everyone is saddled with, of the sort that everyone (or everyone who expects access to things like health insurance) is obliged to take on. As I noted in the book, any such idea of “cosmic debt”, that our relation with the totality that includes us—whether it’s society, or nature—is profoundly flawed, there’s a reason world religions always ultimate reject the idea, and why we should as well. Our relation to society and the cosmos is nothing like a business deal between equals. Yet if we insist on taking up that language, it would be possible to come up with an intellectually consistent ethical position: one would have to say, “we are each born with an infinite debt to that which made our being possible, to our ancestors, to society, to nature—but no one could possibly claim the authority to speak for those ancestors, for society, for nature, to tell us how we have to repay it. We can only do so ourselves.” Yet somehow no one ever takes this position. It is the absurdity of the current day that not only are young people told they are obliged to take on an unpayable, and unforgivable, debt to society, but those who speak for society are its criminal classes—those who control finance capital, whose have themselves created an ethical system where its their obligation not to take any consideration but personal profit, and the interests of shareholders, into account. Future historians may consider this one of the most peculiar turns of human history.

Richard Ashcroft’s contribution, on money and incentives and public policy, is if anything even more gratifying, since he is basically saying my framing of the history of money is liberating of thought: opening up new ways to think about ongoing questions of collective concern (i.e., must we assume monetary self-interest as a universal principle for policy decisions.) For an author, what could be better than that?

It is, as I think I remarked in the book (anyway I say it a lot) one of the more pernicious aspects of our contemporary political order that anyone who wants to run something, even a charity, is expected to receive training in, and operate within the logic of, an economic (or at least “rational choice”) approach to human affairs that assumes everyone is basically greedy and selfish. My old teacher, Marshall Sahlins, spent a lifetime pointing out the absurdity, and the theological basis, of such assumptions (as I do in the book noting that the term “self-interest” originated as a self-conscious secularization of St. Augustine’s “self-love”), and I do something think it would be nice to be able to move on and talk about something else, but it’s impossible. It just keeps coming back at you. Because it’s imposed on everyone who wants to deal with power. And in practice on anyone whose life is defined by debt.

One interesting corollary is that the ability not to behave like a utilitarian, maximizing individual is held out as a prize in our society. This might be of interest too to anyone thinking about incentives. I’ve written a little about this (an essay called “Army of Altruists” for Harpers a few years back). I’d be very curious what Prof. Aschcroft thinks of this.

Lou Brown also thinks the book is “Good to Think With” and suggests a few angles I might pursue. You know, I have to be honest and admit I haven’t read Bina Aggarwal’s book yet. I should. It was on my list. Now I’m going to have to really read it. It’s kind of outrageous how even the most relevant feminist literature on any subject gets sidelined and ghettoized. So here I’m kind of embarrassed having been caught doing something I always accuse others of. Sorry. Yes. Must read that.

The economic anthropology stuff in contrast I kind of grew up on. I’m rather fascinated by the whole idea of experimental economics but I just haven’t had the opportunity to get any proper command of the literature—though I did read a politely worded but rather devastating essay recently that some LSE folk put me on to basically describing how despite the fact that some (not all) of the basic assumptions about human behavior underlying all economic theory had now thus been disproved, economists have made nary a mention of such studies, let alone think about changing their axioms. If I have a problem with experimental economics—and I’m not sure I do—it’s that it always runs a danger of accepting the bulk of economics’ blinders in order to challenge certain elements. We can talk about “trusting strangers,” “rewarding or punishing generosity” and so on, and that’s fascinating, but when you live in a small community it quickly becomes apparent that many of the motivations that everyone seems to feel are central to communal (and therefore economic) life are ones that economics has no place for at all. We can talk about egoism versus altruism all we like. But that’s an opposition that only comes into being, that’s only imaginable, through the market. If nothing else it hardly covers the real range of motivation. What about spite? Malagasy villagers I knew were obsessed by spite. They assumed that much of the key economic actors’ behavior was based not on self-interest, or desire to help others, but on embarrassing or otherwise harming people they couldn’t stand. Selfish people who just wanted to accumulate things were considered weirdos, it wasn’t much of a problem. Spite was everywhere. Has anyone even considered writing an economic analysis of spite?

I will end with the beginning, Chris Bertram’s gracious introduction. Thanks Chris! And thanks for your patience. I’m not sure whether it would be better to show my gratitude to you as author by a full engagement with your piece, or as editor by not making this very long response any longer than it is already, but I’ll go for something halfway in between.

Some of Bertram’s qualms about my argument I’ve already addressed. Saying cash systems have violent origins, and stressing the degree that violence has shaped everything about our way of thinking about property, freedom, sociality, and so on, in no way contradicts the notion that markets, even cash markets, can be popular or felt as liberating. It’s just that worms remain in the bud. This becomes a limit on what can be made of this kind of freedom. For instance, take a line from Bertram’s piece itself:

Yet as Sam Bowles has shown, market societies can actually engender high levels of mutual trust and dispositions to pro-social punishment (of free-riders and the like) which more clannish and “human” societies struggle with.

Myself, I’m not sure how being more efficient in punishing lazy people is particularly “pro-social” (not to mention that having such mechanisms is itself a sign of lack of social trust). This is one of the points I was trying to make in my defense of the “non-industrious poor” at the end of the book. I actually think the morality that makes it possible for us to say that markets are pro-social because they punish “free riders” is itself a rather perverse effect of the history of markets. It assumes for example that each person’s contribution to a group can be quantified, and that the production of marketable goods and services is always the model for how to do this. Otherwise how can you say that one person’s contribution is really more valuable than another’s?

I want to rethink all that.

Similarly with notions of freedom. Chris Bertram is right—I speak of the one conception I take to be dominant in our contemporary folk beliefs, and thus simplify matters enormously—perhaps egregiously. One has to crush a lot of complexity underfoot when trying to operate on a certain theoretical level, and I’m surely guilty of that. But I do think the dominance of these property-related conceptions of rights and freedoms in our folk conceptions is something that we ought to take more seriously. It’s a bit like Lukacs noted about philosophy: every generation, someone comes along and says “these objects and individuals we take to be bounded and self-identical are really processes and relationships, our folk conceptions are all wrong!” And everyone says, “you’re obviously a genius, we’ll make you a professor,” and he becomes a famous philosopher, and then the next generation someone has to do it again because it has no effects on folk conceptions whatsoever. Why? Because, as John Holloway, one of the most recent to point this out, so adeptly observed: if you don’t treat objects as bounded and self-identical, you can’t very well buy and sell them. So it doesn’t matter that we all know in the classroom it isn’t true. We forget as soon as we start operating in our everyday commoditized existence. So with freedom. We all know it’s more complicated. But there’s a reason why, despite the fact that every charter of human rights written in the last half century has included rights to work, livelihood, and so on, no one ever accuses governments of “human rights abuses” for enacting politics that cause high levels of unemployment, or removing food reserves or subsidies on basic staples. But they do accuse them of human rights abuses all the time for acts that can be seen as trespass on someone’s rights of self-ownership. (In fact, I’ve even proposed a definition of “fetishism” as exactly this sort of thing: when we think we don’t believe something but our behavior shows we actually do. But that’s kind of another story.)

This I guess is why I’m a radical, and not a liberal. Don’t get me wrong. Liberals have made magnificent contributions to the world. I might be an anarchist, but I have no desire to see anyone privatize the NHS—nor, interestingly, do any other anarchists I am aware of (though granted, I don’t know many anarcho-capitalists. I suspect it’s because they largely don’t exist, except on the Internet, which is crawling with them.) But this is because as an anarchist, I see states as bureaucracies of violence, and make a distinction between state institutions, and public or better, common institutions, that happen to be run by the state because states rarely allow anyone but themselves to manage collective resources (unless it be for private profit.) There are collective institutions that cannot be run without recourse to violence—where you need to be able to call up the guys with sticks and guns or it all wouldn’t work. There are collective institutions—and I suspect large communal health arrangements are one—that could. I tend to see a collective health system as falling into the latter category so it never occurs to me it should be eliminated, even if currently run by the state.

As for the “social-democratic project”, well, it wasn’t really the topic of my book but I just can’t see how we’re going to go back to that. I did talk a little about this in the book when I talked of the two cycles of post-war capitalism. The Keynesian deal, as I called it, fell apart when too many people demanded in—and that was during a period of unprecedented global growth rates. Now we’re in a time when returning to such growth rates, even if possible, would destroy the planet’s ecosystem almost instantly. As I say, I doubt capitalism itself is sustainable another generation. I’m not so much worried about the long-term viability of capitalism as the prospect that the next thing they come up with will be even worse. That makes it a very silly time to decide we should no longer be trying to think of something better. What will it look like? How will we get there? Well, I’m working on it. So are millions of others. Yes, it will certainly have to involve a lot of hiding in nooks and crannies. But those nooks will surely expand. Some already are.

What’s important to me is how to do it with as broad an alliance as possible—as anarchists such as myself who have been involved with OWS have consistently tried to do. How to find a common ground to push things further towards a free society, without any sort of consensus of just how far we can ultimately go?

{ 368 comments }

1

BC 04.02.12 at 1:16 pm

Was this post the book you were finishing?

2

J. Otto Pohl 04.02.12 at 2:12 pm

On the Apple quotation I would not sweat it. Nothing is perfect and even big shots sometimes make mistakes. If that is the only thing that the copy editors missed then you are doing a lot better than a lot of other writers.

3

david 04.02.12 at 2:17 pm

Regarding the three-part link between global military power, reserve currency status, and trade deficits, isn’t there a very bog-standard Keynesian account that invokes the Triffin dilemma to link #2 and #3 explicitly, with #1 tacked-on as part of domestic monetary policy objectives more generally?

History of economic thought accounts often note that Keynes himself predicted the emergence of trade deficits if the dollar was adopted as a reserve currency; hence he advocated the bancor. The Americans preferred the dollar for overtly geopolitical reasons (observe that the orthodox account thus emphasizes the conflict between political objectives and monetary policy stability objectives – economists like talking up such trade-offs). So the relationship is actually acknowledged in the orthodoxy; what drives the reaction is the notion that the geopolitical objectives and monetary policy objectives are both desired in some sense (which makes no sense in orthodox, even orthodox Keynesian, theory) – it’s a Triffin dilemma because of the notion that the geopolitical dominance comes at the expense of domestic goals, not that the two work together.

4

deliasmith 04.02.12 at 2:18 pm

The stupid Apple thing.
The endlessly cited Apple quote was not supposed to be about Apple. … The passage got horribly garbled at some point into something incoherent, I still can’t completely figure out how, was patched back together by the copyeditor into something that made logical sense but was obviously factually wrong.

As a copy editor, I have to say this sounds horribly plausible, and is almost certainly, fittingly, a consequence of word-processing, Word, and, very likely, Track Changes. As an old copy editor I remember when manuscripts were edited in pencil and every change was, therefore, visible and comprensible. Track Changes is pernicious in that it facilitates reckless editing, and, because any correction more complicated than a substitute word is very difficult to comprehend, it seduces the second reader /editor into “Accept” mode, so making the change invisible.

5

Watson Ladd 04.02.12 at 2:33 pm

What are markets absent the state? It seems that the equivalence between things expressed by the fact they can be bought and sold exists whenever things become bought and sold, absent the state. There’s also a question of institutions: while South Africa protects the rights of women and to a job explicitly, and the US does not, South Africa has a rape epidemic and massive unemployment. Just because we talk about rights in certain ways doesn’t mean that we don’t think other things are important, or that we don’t set up institutions to protect them.

6

William Timberman 04.02.12 at 2:50 pm

Yes. Social democracy is unstable. I’d rather it weren’t so, but the evidence of the last thirty years would persuade me that it is, even if I hadn’t read Capital, or Debt. Unfortunately, there’s just no way to explain this to my Democratic Party friends, who want me, on pain of apocalypse, to drop everything else NOW and start making phone calls for President Obama.

I’m not going to do it. Instead, I’m going to think about how to make hidden things less hidden, much as you’ve done with Debt, and ask myself with a bit more urgency how we might actually break up the consensus, based largely on force and the threat of force, which is currently being carved into the flesh of Greeks, Spaniards, and Foxconn factory workers. So far American consumers have felt safe in assuming that the knives will never get round to them, but these days, the energy required to hold fast to such assumptions has made the mechanisms of ignorance and denial a lot less efficient than they were in, say, 1960.

We need scholarship, but we also need imagination. That’s really why big books like yours are important whether or not they have flaws. It’s an anti-entropy thing, I think, and very much needed.

7

GW 04.02.12 at 3:07 pm

May I note one very minor problem? On page 112, you mention Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor as an example of gratitude to a patron. There are undoubtedly many examples in music to find of such returns on patronage, but we have really no idea about the circumstances of this piece’s origins. Due to some unique non-idiomatic features, it has been plausibly argued that it originated as a solo string instrument piece, but we don’t have a date and thus we cannot place it in any circumstance in which Bach wrote it in response to a patron.

8

Steve LaBonne 04.02.12 at 3:11 pm

Due to some unique non-idiomatic features, it has been plausibly argued that it originated as a solo string instrument piece, but we don’t have a date and thus we cannot place it in any circumstance in which Bach wrote it in response to a patron.

It’s even far from clear that the piece is actually by Bach!

(A few years ago I got to hear Andrew Manze perform his solo violin version. It was amazing.)

9

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 3:39 pm

Hoo boy, I’m only a little more than half way through reading Graeber’s response but I’m already putting on the popcorn. This should be a good ‘un.

10

JW Mason 04.02.12 at 3:50 pm

I am not even halfway through the piece, and I already think it might be the best thing I’ve ever seen on CT.

11

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 3:52 pm

BTW, there’s a sentence chopped off at the end of the 2nd paragraph of the section on Neville Morley’s contribution:

So the question is: how do you write a grand narrative that will ensure we don’t do this, but which won’t

[Thanks Barry. I've now inserted the missing text. CB]

12

Bill Benzon 04.02.12 at 3:58 pm

Well, here’s a little music by way of an overture:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkDR1ufChak

(Andrew Manze performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor.)

13

peter ramus 04.02.12 at 4:02 pm

Thanks for your marvelous book, David.

I’m sure the people at Melville House have their hearts in the right place, but Debt really was poorly copyedited (an example on pg. 45, “It’s also clear that the mere existence of money, in itself, is not enough to allow us see the world this way.” Bloggers get a pass on this sort of thing, but not publishers), so I’m persuaded that your explanation of the infamous Apple sentence is accurate. Maybe you should leave it in future editions with an endnote that says LOL.

14

Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 4:03 pm

Professor Graeber,

“commentators on the discussion section of his blog remarked that now that he had shown my work was `riddled’ with egregious errors, there was no point in taking any of it seriously at all”

For what it’s worth this was not my intention although you are right that it is a common reading of my review. On multiple occasions (here’s one example) when I’ve come across this reaction I’ve explained the original point of my review which is that I think the book is very important and well worth reading, although I have severe reservations about one of its arguments. I have convinced several people to read the book and will continue to consider it for course adoption when I prep the appropriate course in a few years. Your distaste for me and my reading notwithstanding I will continue to do so.

As for the “Chomsky” thing, as I say in my review, that’s because this is where I myself first encountered the argument. I don’t consider this a slanderous association.

As for our conversation, it began when I saw you replying to some people asking you about the tribute argument and you said something to the effect that “if you disagree the burden of proof is on you.” Since I thought Farrell had made a positive case I asked you your opinion of it. If you’d said “I’m busy/sick and haven’t had the opportunity to read it but I imagine I’d disagree with him” I would have simply said “get better, I look forward to seeing your reaction when you’re up to it.” Unfortunately that’s not how it went and you proceeded to argue on the substance, constantly saying “burden of proof is on you” without acknowledging that you’d not yet had the opportunity to see whether Farrell had met the burden.

As to the core substance of the dispute I remain convinced that is a fair reading of chapter 12 to say that you are very strongly implying that greenback/t-bill seignorage is a form of tribute. Here is the Iraq passage so people may judge for themselves:

“When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation.* How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility.”

the footnote reads
* “As many have remarked, the three countries that switched to the euro around this time—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—were precisely those singled out by Bush as his “Axis of Evil.” Of course we can argue about cause and effect here. It’s also significant that the core euro-using states such as France and Germany uniformly opposed the war, while U.S. allies were drawn from euro-skeptics like the UK.”

Since it apparently is lost on people when I critique this point, I just want to reiterate one more time that my skepticism about chapter 12 notwithstanding, I think the book as a whole is a very impressive piece of scholarship with excellent style and a very interesting model that should be read by anyone with a serious interest in exchange.

15

Walt 04.02.12 at 4:12 pm

David, I find your response to Henry puzzling. It doesn’t really matter if your views are derived entirely from Hudson — if they do, then Henry’s argument would just be that Hudson’s views are wrong. It doesn’t matter if they’re from you, Hudson, the Dalai Lama, or Adam Smith himself.

And they basically are wrong. Dollar hegemony is a price the US pays for its imperial role, not a benefit it derives from it. China has been able to industrialize by holding down the value of their currency against the dollar — this has made China’s exports more competitive, and the US’ less. If the renminbi floated, and had been the reserve currency, China would be less developed, and much less of a threat to US hegemony than it is going to be on its current path.

In the 80s, under the Plaza Accord in the 80s, the US leaned on its trading partners to drive the value of the dollar down. The costs of dollar hegemony had gotten to be too high.

16

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 4:23 pm

To Walt, the point is that Farrell was not contesting my position, he was just obnoxiously dismissing my scholarship on false grounds because he disagreed with my position. If he wanted to contest my positions he could have done that instead. He chose not to take that path. So I suggest you take that up with him, not with me – I had to respond to his actual comments, not some imaginary comments you think he should have made.

As for dollar hegemony being the “price the US pays” well – that’s if you assume that “the US” is some sort of hypostasized Hegelian subject with a single will and set of interests. I obviously. don’t share that view. Anyway what you wrote is a little like saying the underdevelopment of Spain was “the price it paid” for ruling the Americas and that this proves that Spain didn’t have an American empire! Obviously the choice to base one’s economy on global military dominance will have all sorts of ill effects. So?

17

Shelley 04.02.12 at 4:27 pm

Just wanted to mention that the Sacramento Bee this morning has a front-page story on how people in their 80′s are finding themselves being harassed for the money they still have not been able to repay on their college loans.

To the grave.

Sigh….

18

Dominic 04.02.12 at 4:27 pm

“Maybe you should leave it in future editions with an endnote that says LOL.”

Or, better, “U MAD?”

19

Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 4:30 pm

ps,

Could you post some links to the reviews by specialists? I’d love to read them

20

Katherine 04.02.12 at 4:48 pm

despite the fact that every charter of human rights written in the last half century has included rights to work, livelihood, and so on, no one ever accuses governments of “human rights abuses” for enacting politics that cause high levels of unemployment, or removing food reserves or subsidies on basic staples.

Well, I hope it’s a good sign that when I left Amnesty International four years ago, they were just winding up to start campaigning on so-called “third generation” rights – ie the rights contained in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The aim was to try to frame abuses of these rights as human rights abuses, since most countries have actually signed up to the ICESCR, but haven’t turned them into anything resembling action. Bit difficult in the current economic climate, which kind of makes your point.

21

Henry 04.02.12 at 5:27 pm

I am at the International Studies Association meeting at the moment, but will, i hope, be responding to this post in a couple of days. Suffice to say that while I will not be adopting Graeber’s rather particular style of argument, I won’t be nearly as nice as Gabriel either.

22

Alex 04.02.12 at 5:34 pm

This is an impressive reply to the criticisms of the book – I must confess that this keeps getting put down my “to read list” by other, less intimidating books, in part because I am very ill-disposed towards anything that uses the term “neoliberal” and part because of “that” quote. But, you have, convinced me that I should put it off no longer – so if your reply has achieved nothing else, you have atleast earned a few of my euros.

23

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 5:37 pm

I apply a simple rule, Henry. Don’t be more than half as obnoxious as the person who attacked you. No one forced you to take a super-aggressive approach and no one forced you to insert glaring easily-identifiable errors in your text when doing so.

24

Jacob 04.02.12 at 5:49 pm

Do you remember the part in the movie “Crumb” where his brother starts writing more and more words in the comic strips he is drawing, until the words take over the page and become indecipherable.

This post was like that.

For example, http://26.media.tumblr.com/SwB8yjjD2l966q5mqd1MORv4o1_500.png

25

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 6:07 pm

Jacob, you must have read a different post than I did. The tussle with Henry aside, I found his reply very interesting and engaging and it made me go back and reread a number of the posts he was responding to. More like this please (minus whatever personal issues there seem to be between DG and HF – which I must admit I was at first drawn to in this post as I loves me a good academic brawl but honestly there’s really so much more here to think on).

26

conchis 04.02.12 at 6:08 pm

I apply a simple rule, Henry. Don’t be more than half as obnoxious as the person who attacked you.

Perhaps you’ll find this obnoxious, but I personally think you failed rather epically on this score.

Worth bearing in mind that in disputes like this both sides are likely to underestimate their relative obnoxiousness. Henry probably thought he was being less obnoxious than you did, and you probably come off as more obnoxious than you think you are.

27

Steve LaBonne 04.02.12 at 6:09 pm

Jacob, since others do not experience it that way (for examples see #9 and #20), may I suggest that perhaps the problem is at your end.

28

LFC 04.02.12 at 6:11 pm

Graeber: “I argue that US military power is one element in the maintenance of a US-dominated financial system that grants the US enormous economic advantages. Farrell appears to be arguing it is not a factor at all.”

My recollection is that H. Farrell explicitly acknowledged that there is a connection between the US’s global military position and its economic position

29

Salient 04.02.12 at 6:26 pm

David, sincerely, thank you for your kind offer to not be more than half as obnoxious as a person who attacks you. Forgive me for some degree of bitchiness in this reply, which you’re certainly welcome to reciprocate by half, and please trust it’s coming from someone who is perfectly happy to count you as a strong political ally, for whatever that’s worth to you.^1^

First, I think your dismissal of Walt’s contention is unconvincing. It feels like you’re responding to a description of the state as hegemonic entity by pointing out that underneath that hegemony there’s lots of internal conflict and competing interests. So what? You certainly feel comfortable making statements about the same hegemonic entity exploiting its military might in order to exact tribute. Can you imagine how you’d feel if someone dismissed your Chapter 12, on the grounds that there’s lots of complexity driving US military decisions? It’s rhetorically convenient for you that the “Axis of Evil” moniker was spoken after the switch to the euro, but do you believe that this would have been an incorrect characterization of US relations with I/I/NK prior to their decision to switch to the euro? For Iran and NK both, wouldn’t you say that their switching to the Euro was largely a response to our military aggression (specifically anti-nuclear aggression), and was done in order to obtain necessities for their nuclear power plant construction (and possibly nuclear weapon^2^) projects?

More importantly, I still feel like you still haven’t resolved a fundamental problem. The violence that is most relevant to the value of the dollar is the domestic violence carried out by imprisonment of our country’s own citizens for tax evasion. Military violence (or the threat of it) is a second-order phenomenon, and saying of course we can argue about cause and effect here is hardly a convincing response to folks who think you got cause and effect backwards, right?

Count me among those folks. Let me try to explain my summary of the contention I failed to raise coherently last time around.

By accumulating dollars, China’s undermining the first-order value of those dollars by diluting the proportion of those dollars that will return to the US state through taxes. The dollars the US obtains from this are, at a very basic level, used to purchase goods and services provided by its own citizens. Let me explicitly assume that the predominant goal of the state is to maximally extract and control resources received from the global population, subject to various constraints and idiosyncrasies, blah blah blah. This requires some combination of (1) increasing one’s share of the existing resources, and (2) increasing the infrastructural/human/technological/etc capital available to one’s citizens in order to increase the existing resources.

The more dollars China obtains and holds, the more cheap stuff US citizens buy from China, which enables the firms providing that cheap stuff to industrialize, investing in capital. China isn’t making capital ‘investment’ tributes to the US; we’re making capital ‘investment’ tributes to China.

Unless and until the US abandons requiring its citizens to pay their tax obligations in dollars, the staggering dollar investments held by China can be used, at any time, to make staggering purchases of goods and capital from US businesses. This is true because US businesses need to denominate their exchange in dollars for tax purposes.

In crude summary, China is extracting capital resources from the U.S. The core feature of an empire is its extraction of capital/land resources for the purpose of manufacturing finished goods, which can be traded back to the periphery tributaries at fairly arbitrarily high markup because the tributaries’ capital is underwhelming, they can’t keep up with their citizens’ own needs for finished goods.

^1^I tried my best to avoid what you called ‘weasel’ language so that it’s easier to dispute statements and characterizations…

^2^”possibly” partly because I’m vaguely skeptical and in part because the specific ‘what they need fissile material for‘ doesn’t matter to my point

30

LFC 04.02.12 at 6:27 pm

I’m sure the people at Melville House have their hearts in the right place, but Debt really was poorly copyedited

I can’t comment on the copyediting of Debt, not having read it, but copyediting standards have fallen a lot in recent years ISTM. I’ve seen books from prestigious university presses (one in particular that I won’t name) that are riddled with grammatical and typographical errors. One or two mistakes are understandable but not a whole slew of them.

31

rf 04.02.12 at 6:28 pm

As a non-academic with no connection to Farrell, and no aspiration to engage in the ‘delegitimization’ of anyone I have to ask how you can square Farrell’s remarks from his post:

“I’d genuinely like to see Graeber tackle these more subtle questions, and come up with a better account of the role of debt and money in the international economy. It’s an important set of issues, and even if I doubt I’d agree with him much, I think he would have a lot of interesting things to say.”
With:
“Farrell’s work is a classic example of de-legitimization, by which I mean, it is not written in an attempt to engage an author in a serious debate about issues, but rather, to try to make a case why that author’s arguments are undeserving of debate and do not have to be assessed or considered at all.”

It’s pretty clear that he doesn’t object to you using words like ‘empire’ or ‘terror’, but instead thinks certain claims in the book are poorly sourced. He mentioned two specific cases (the Iraq War and Argentina’s debt default) that he feels you have misinterpreted.

Here’s the Argentina quote:
“By 2000, East Asian countries had begun a systematic boycott of the IMF. In 2002, Argentina committed the ultimate sin: they defaulted – and got away with it. Subsequent U.S. military adventures were clearly meant to terrify and overawe, but they do not appear to have been very successful: partly because, to finance them, the United States had to turn not just to its military clients, but increasingly, to China, its chief remaining military rival.”

…….this could have been an interesting conversation.

(And Steve La Bonne, people are entitled to interpret the above post as they wish without you sticking your oar in)

32

Salient 04.02.12 at 6:35 pm

Also, regarding

I argue that US military power is one element in the maintenance of a US-dominated financial system that grants the US enormous economic advantages.

If that’s all you’re trying to do, then your failure’s in your aim, and it’s a more severe failure. ‘X is one element in Y’ is so weak as to be worthless.

Making a careful and incisive argument about the precise ways that US military power contributes to the maintenance of [...] is interesting, and it’s that argument that many of us are disputing.

If your response is to say that you never meant to make such a precise argument in the first place — which isn’t what you said, granted, but I think it’s implied by your ‘X is one element in Y’ statement — you’ll have to forgive us for having found that argument in Chapter 12 of your book… Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain / In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come, and all that.

33

Phil 04.02.12 at 7:06 pm

Again—I’m sorry to be rude, but I didn’t start this thing

By this stage in the tedious, overblown, low-signal, self-indulgent exercise in score-settling you label Part 1, I really didn’t care who started it.

Farrell’s systematic misrepresentation of my arguments would make a point-by-point refutation of his further criticisms tedious and rather pointless.

On the contrary, a point-by-point refutation is always… well, it’s not always *very* interesting, but it’s always more interesting (and more constructive) than self-righteous name-calling.

Initially I found it ironic that you accused Rossman of showing contempt for you before heaping contempt on him, then accused Henry of failing to quote your work before failing to quote his criticisms, but maybe it’s actually deliberate; tit-for-tat, or a kind of game-theoretical strategy of trusting till the first default then defaulting ever after. Whatever – it makes really tedious and uninformative reading.

Still, looking forward to part 2 (and to your book, which I shall definitely seek out).

34

rf 04.02.12 at 7:14 pm

LFC 26
Graeber: “I argue that US military power is one element in the maintenance of a US-dominated financial system that grants the US enormous economic advantages. Farrell appears to be arguing it is not a factor at all.”

My recollection is that H. Farrell explicitly acknowledged that there is a connection between the US’s global military position and its economic position

Yep, pretty explicitly here

http://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/22/the-world-economy-is-not-a-tribute-system/#comment-403770

35

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 7:16 pm

I’m sorry if I have disappointed anyone now that it turns out I never made the wild claims others attributed to me. But it seems a bit unreasonable to ask me to pretend to have made arguments I did not in fact make in order to gratify others’ desire for a more lively debate!

For what it’s worth these are positions I do take:

I do think that the US dollar would not be the world’s reserve currency if the US were not the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military power, and I do argue that military intimidation plays a role in maintaining the current financial system, but that, as with all imperial arrangements, those actors who go along with them have all sorts of different motives for doing so. How could this be otherwise? Finally – and here, as others have correctly noted, is my most radical argument – I do think that the more aggressive form of overt imperialism we saw under GW Bush was not *just* a reaction to the fact that for once in history, a mad terrorist scheme to attack the US actually worked, but had deeper causes. (After all, police and spy efforts would have been more effective in dealing with the actual attackers, who were a relatively small group of fanatics, and were what finally did bring in the culprit a decade later when the Obama administration decided to make it a priority.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the collapse of the Washington consensus in the face of a sudden and massive efflorescence of global social movements, including the so-called “anti-globalization” movement in the US – which, we tend to forget, was a near-obsession of news and policy-makers at the time – that led to the expulsion of the IMF from most of the world, was followed by a policy of overt militarism and intimidation, where the US declared a global and permanent “war on terror” reserving for itself the right to attack anyone on the planet. It was, obviously, not a direct attack on the forces most immediately and successfully challenging the Washington Consensus but that’s hardly surprising – part of my whole argument is that this is not who these things usually work. In a way it doesn’t really matter all that much who you attack – the whole project of invading Iraq, I’m convinced, had more to do with the side-effects at home (overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome”, marshaling nationalist fervor for political reasons) and overseas than it did with “grabbing Iraq’s oil” or anything like that. To be honest I figure they just thought it would be an easy, and easily justifiable, excuse to commit a really massive number of US troops to the Middle East in a combat capacity – just as I suspect that the fact that we still have so many troops in Afghanistan for no apparent reason a decade after a successful invasion probably has something to do with the fact that Afghanistan is conveniently located rather near to both India and China. If India or China were running a gigantic military operation involving tens of thousands of troops in Mexico or Canada, where it maintained a client regime, even if it was technically just fighting local Mexican rebels, and there was nothing the US could do about it, do you really think this would not have effects on how we dealt with those countries at G20 meetings as well? Personally, I think that recourse to sheer military force was ultimately suicidal, that the empire is falling apart, but that’s another argument.

However, sorry, saying that is NOT saying that “the only reason anyone buys T-bonds is because they’re afraid of being blown up” and is no excuse whatsoever for effectively lying to the world and attributing to me positions I obviously never put forward and do not hold.

36

Phil 04.02.12 at 7:23 pm

OK, I’ve read the whole thing now. And thanks for that (most of it) – some really interesting & thought-provoking stuff. This in particular

We can talk about “trusting strangers,” “rewarding or punishing generosity” and so on, and that’s fascinating, but when you live in a small community it quickly becomes apparent that many of the motivations that everyone seems to feel are central to communal (and therefore economic) life are ones that economics has no place for at all.

struck me as true & important, as did this:

I don’t think that there are impersonal mechanisms and the problem is they sometimes go crazy. I think the main problem is there is a craziness already lying behind what we take to be impersonal mechanisms.

A question, if you’ll tolerate it after I got so snotty above: can we apply the same kind of genealogical (“worm in the bud”) critique to *all* impersonal mechanisms whose origins go back to conscription & enslavement? (The calendar? Arithmetic? Writing?) Is money unique – and if so why?

37

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 7:31 pm

To RF:

yes, I actually had in an earlier draft something to the effect of “either he’s taking an absurd position, or his position doesn’t actually differ in any significant way from my own so the entire exercise seems pointless.”

38

Phil 04.02.12 at 7:32 pm

what you wrote is a little like saying the underdevelopment of Spain was “the price it paid” for ruling the Americas and that this proves that Spain didn’t have an American empire

Eh? Walt didn’t question the US’s imperial role, as your second clause suggests; his comment was “Dollar hegemony is a price the US pays for its imperial role, not a benefit it derives from it.” And as I understood it the underdevelopment of Spain was the price it paid for its American empire; it certainly wasn’t a benefit of it.

39

Substance McGravitas 04.02.12 at 7:36 pm

I blame Twitter.

40

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 7:39 pm

To Phil,

Yes, of course underdevelopment was the price Spain paid for its empire. But you ignore my previous sentence: that Walt’s objection only makes sense if you see “the US” as a single entity with a single collective interest. Why did “Spain” pursue policies that were not to the long-term benefit of “Spain”? Well, I’m sure you could argue they didn’t know, but the more immediate answer is, because “Spain” didn’t exist, as an actor – the policies were pursued by a confluence of Hapsburg monarchs, court elites, Italian merchant bankers, various militarists and military suppliers… So there are various factions of that 1% of the US population that has some say in setting policy that are pursuing policies that are hugely beneficial to themselves even if they are not to the long-term economic health of the US. It is only if you play along with the peculiar ideological fantasy that “the US” is somehow a single political actor that has collective interests and that these interests are the collective benefit of the entire population that you would see Walt’s evidence as in any way contradicting my argument.

41

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 7:46 pm

To Phil,

who wrote

“A question, if you’ll tolerate it after I got so snotty above: can we apply the same kind of genealogical (“worm in the bud”) critique to all impersonal mechanisms whose origins go back to conscription & enslavement? (The calendar? Arithmetic? Writing?) Is money unique – and if so why?”

Well, actually, you know I’m not saying money as a *technology* has such a worm in the bud, any more than other technologies like calendars, math, etc. First of all money is not the same as markets. But even so I’m talking about more complex, you might say higher-order phenomenon. The examples I use in the book are more things like our implicit conception of freedom as rooted in Roman law property rights, or the concept of “self-interest”, or, as I also throw in my response, a lot of the logic lying behind bureaucracy. I think technologies of the sort you mention are pretty much neutral.

42

Tim Mason 04.02.12 at 7:52 pm

David Graeber has written a very good book. I’m not sure that he does himself any favours in defending it as he has done here. Perhaps there are some lessons that it is best to take as negative examples: his tone here reminds me of the acrimony with which Sahlins attacked Obeyesekere.

But that is up to him: I hope it won’t lose him any readers, for the book is well worth the reading. As he says, it isn’t Frazer. Nevertheless, it hasn’t popped up out of nowhere. The return of grand narrative, stretching from beginnings, or near beginnings, to the present day, took off in the sixties, mainly as a popular genre, rather than a scholarly one. But it also took off in the academy: Graeber is treading over much the same soil that some of the associates of Ernest Gellner, such as Michael Mann, have done. Mann’s ‘The Sources of Social Power’, the first volume of which appeared in 1986, can usefully be read alongside Graeber’s work, as can a number of books written by Charles Tilly’s intellectual offspring. Elsewhere, you will find the Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight’s ‘Blood Relations’ which, when it came out in 1995, was received with almost as much enthusiasm as Graeber’s book today.

We do need the broad sweep that these books offer, for they all ask us to think from vantage points that are likely to point to the fissures in the present set-up, and suggest ways in which solutions may emerge.

43

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 8:08 pm

To Tim Mason,

Hmm, well you know I *was* Sahlins’ research assistant when he wrote that reply to Obeyesekere book. Oh dear. Do you think some of it rubbed off?

Funny thing is I do think Obeyesekere had some points. They were just talking past each other. I didn’t think that was the case here – these just seem to be attacks without proposing any actual alternative argument. So there was nothing positive to respond to.

I suppose I should have just ignored them.

44

Martin 04.02.12 at 8:28 pm

Are you sure that Paul Krugman tweeted anything like this? – according to his blog he has only a “robot” tweeting for him, merely indicating that he has a new blog post:

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/the-power-law-of-twitter/

And indeed, his twitter account doesn’t seem to contain any personal tweets. Perhaps I’m mistaken, just wondering.

45

David Graeber 04.02.12 at 8:45 pm

Actually you know I just remember seeing it on twitter and thinking “oh god, not him too!” Could it have been Stiglitz and I was confused? As you might imagine when I see this sort of thing my reaction is not to study it but to flip the page as quickly as possible (I mean, you know, electronically). I could have got him confused with someone of the same ilk. Or maybe it was just someone pretending to be him, I have no idea honestly.

46

Alex K. 04.02.12 at 9:02 pm

The book’s claim that commercial activity originates in the “human economy” seems to rely a lot on arguments that project the institutions of surviving primitive cultures back a few thousand years, to illustrate how the primordial form of ancient money originated from the activity of rearranging human relations.

This seems to me to suffer from a huge selection bias: the surviving primitive cultures that _stayed_ primitive could be _precisely_ the cultures that shunned the use of money for what we see as normal economic relations.

If this is so, then such cultures could be non-representative of ancient cultures that developed moneyed exchange for prosaic goods (for instance, the Sumerians could have developed regular commercial money simply because they were dealing with agricultural surpluses) . At any rate, if the selection bias argument is correct, then the argument using such modern primitive cultures as representative is invalid.

I am aware that I am ignoring a lot of literature on this thesis — this is simply because I do not know it. That is why I ask kind souls to point me in the direction of such arguments (for the origin on regular commercial money from “human economy” money) that do not rely on such back-projections of modern primitive cultures to much earlier times. The more specific the argument and reference, the better.

47

deixis 04.02.12 at 9:04 pm

48

Walt 04.02.12 at 9:05 pm

I think the Spain example is a good one. As far as I can tell, it’s like you were arguing that from the point of view of the Spanish elites, underdevelopment was an active positive goal. This a much bigger claim than just that they didn’t care about the cost because short-term gains.

Dollar hegemony is not particularly in the interest of the 1%. If everyone switched to the euro tomorrow as the reserve currency, this would only affect the 1% in so far as the euro proved to be a low-inflation, stable currency.

Dollar hegemony is directly harmful to US military hegemony, since it the mechanism by which China is trading T-shirts and tennis shoes for the industrial and technological know-how to compete with the US as a military power.

I haven’t read your book, but I am planning on reading it. (I’m on the waiting list at the library.) I read Gabriel and Henry’s reviews, and it didn’t particularly make me want to not read it, and neither of them struck me as particularly hostile. It’s as if they were historians of Spain, so of course they argued about the interpretation of Spanish underdevelopment.

Unlike the Spanish example, though, it seems more important in that this notion that the dollar’s role as the reserve currency is this incredibly awesome thing for the US ruling elite leads to bad analysis of current events.

49

Donald Johnson 04.02.12 at 9:17 pm

On the Farrell thing, David, you probably should have left out the personal comments about GRE scores, getting into college, etc… If he badly mistated or completely misunderstood your points it’s enough to point that out.

I sort of suspect that we’re going to see further examples of how all-too- human motivations influence scholarly debates when Henry comes back with his response.

50

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 9:19 pm

I sort of suspect that we’re going to see further examples of how all-too- human motivations influence scholarly debates when Henry comes back with his response.

I fear you may be right but I certainly hope not. More light, less heat!

51

WF 04.02.12 at 9:19 pm

re: Apple, aren’t the contents of this exchange with Mark Gimein from last November inconsistent with the post?

52

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 9:26 pm

WF – not if you have a look at this tweet in that post:
@davidgraeber: the laptops thing was a result of a compression of two sentences, that was silly

which seems to me to be entirely consistent with what Graeber wrote in the post.

53

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 9:28 pm

Anyway this Apple shit is a huge distraction.

54

WF 04.02.12 at 9:32 pm

That’s the only tweet that seems entirely consistent, though.

What I get from the tweets is 1) it’s November 2)specifically the laptops are a silly mistake introduced in editing 3)the rest of the information came from Richard Wolff.

This is not what I get from the post. I assume the timing thing is just a mistake, but still.

55

Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 9:37 pm

WF,

I don’t see an inconsistency as such between these accounts, just very minor variations. In any case, I can’t imagine any possible reason Professor Graeber would have to deliberately misstate the genesis of the Apple SNAFU. Suffice it to say that however much or little importance we attribute to the error having been made, we all agree the sentence contains some factual errors, he’s not completely sure how the errors got there, and he wants to correct the passage at the earliest opportunity.

56

Tom Bach 04.02.12 at 9:42 pm

Before getting to far into the weeds on the Apple error, it might help to read the section in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream about David Abraham and Weimar.

The Spanish example is particularly helpful because the Spanish underdevelopment wasn’t in anyone’s real long-term interest; just as denying global warming/climate change to avoid controls on carbon and coal is. And yet, oddly enough, lots of folks are willing to put long-term interests aside.

Odd how people, even the 1%, aren’t rational agents.

57

Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 9:43 pm

I also agree with Barry Freed that the Apple thing is much overblown. If I were writing my review over again, one of the things I would change would be to skip over this and go directly from my (four glowing paragraphs of) praise for the book as a whole to my skepticism of chapter 12.

58

Tom Bach 04.02.12 at 9:44 pm

Also what Barry Freed said.

59

WF 04.02.12 at 9:49 pm

I can’t imagine any possible reason Professor Graeber would have to deliberately misstate the genesis of the Apple SNAFU

Well, the main thing that’s consistent in both accounts, it seems to me, is that the SNAFU is in no way Graeber’s fault. If it somehow were Graeber’s fault, I imagine that could be the motivation to deliberately misstate the genesis of the SNAFU.

Barry Freed, the Apple shit may or may not be a distraction in the general scheme of things, but I’m pretty sure that under this post, it’s perfectly on-topic.

60

Henry 04.02.12 at 9:58 pm

David Graeber is now on teh Twitter, telling folks that he’s going to stop paying attention to me, because I’m apparently a Bernard Lewis groupy, as well as a denier of the Nakba and Armenian genocide. This on the basis of a driveby tweet from a random nutter. I’ll merely note this for the record in re: his standards of good argument as described above. My personal feelings about Graeber are much as you might imagine, following this display, but I will genuinely do my best to put this aside in my reply to his reply, since I think there are some interesting issues to be discussed. In addition, as I stated in the original post, I still think there are many good elements to the book, contra his claim that I am lying about the book in order to delegitimize him. I just don’t think those bits are present in the last chapter.

61

rf 04.02.12 at 10:07 pm

I agree WF, especially for those of us that havent managed to read Debt yet and so have to presume that Farrell and Graeber are arguing in good faith. The Apple thing itself doesnt matter, and I can imagine was used by certain quarters to discredit Graeber, but if theres an evolving story of how that mistake came about then it shows someone unwilling to own a mistake.

62

Chris Bertram 04.02.12 at 10:19 pm

IIRC, the serial retweeter of the Apple thing was Tim Harford

63

LizardBreath 04.02.12 at 10:21 pm

So there are various factions of that 1% of the US population that has some say in setting policy that are pursuing policies that are hugely beneficial to themselves even if they are not to the long-term economic health of the US.

I’m looking at this, and trying to see how it relates to the following quote from Debt:

What is remarkable for present purposes is not so much that American dollars are created by banks, but that one apparently paradoxical result of Nixon’s floating the currency was that these bank-related dollars themselves replaced gold as the world’s reserve currency; that is, as the ultimate store of value in the world, yielding the United States enormous economic advantages.

It’s not contradictory, obviously, so long as the enormous economic advantages flow to some faction within the US power structure. But I find that I really don’t understand what the economic advantages from the dollar acting as the world’s reserve currency are, and who (in general terms, not talking about a list of names) they flow to.

64

Henry 04.02.12 at 10:29 pm

sorry – I should have been more precise – the claim is that I have supported Bernard Lewis’ denial of Nakba and the Armenian genocide. I don’t think I need to add that the claim is obvious bullshit.

65

Tom Bach 04.02.12 at 10:31 pm

Joseph Stiglitz claims that the Us has enjoyed
great advantages with the dollar as the world’s reserve currency of choice, particularly the ability to borrow at low interest rates seemingly without limit. But he also wants it to change because of the problems associated with it.(http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/28/AR2009082802111.html)

66

More Dogs, Less Crime 04.02.12 at 10:31 pm

Niall Ferguson is not an economist. He is a pop-historian, although one of his histories is “The Ascent of Money”. I had never heard of Brenner, but checking on Wikipedia, he seems to be an historian as well.

67

rf 04.02.12 at 10:37 pm

“the claim is that I have supported Bernard Lewis’ denial of Nakba and the Armenian genocide”

It looks more like Graeber’s just entertaining him, to be honest.

68

More Dogs, Less Crime 04.02.12 at 10:38 pm

LizardBreath, I can’t speak for Graeber, but in the wake of the Eurozone crisis and viewing the comparative performance of non-Euro countries, it seems very valuable to have your debt denominated in a currency you control. Some countries with their own currency still run into problems with debt and wind up with a speculative attack on the currency. U.S currency being valued for other transactions means there is extra demand for it, so the U.S could start monetizing its debt without suffering too much. But the U.S doesn’t seem too keen on doing that right now, which helps explain why it’s still the “tallest midget”.

69

Colin Danby 04.02.12 at 10:39 pm

We may get another thread to hash this thing out better, but I have to support Henry re reserve currency — this is not a well-supported argument.

First, to go to page 366, the Hudson bit quoted there is much too glib. Gov’t debt in general gets rolled over, in the sense that new bonds are issued as old ones come due. That’s not a “free financial ride” nor is it “a tax imposed at the entire globe’s expense.” The U.S. Treasury makes its promised payments. You only run into problems if, like Greece, nobody will buy your new paper. But it’s easy to explain the global appetite for U.S. debt — it’s still the safest financial asset you can hold. So if Hudson is the basis of the statement on 365 that the dollar’s reserve-currency status is “yielding the United States enormous economic advantages” then there’s a real problem here.

Second, the link between the dollar’s use and U.S. military power now seems down to pure assertion: “I do think that the US dollar would not be the world’s reserve currency if the US were not the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military power.” This is not good enough.

As for Robert Fisk, good grief. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Fisk particularly the “11 September attacks” heading. This is not the person I would be
calling “one of the world’s most respected foreign correspondents.” I have no way to assess his record as a whole, but he clearly has enough appetite for whacko conspiracy theories to make his mention of the Iraq-dollar thing rather less than an endorsement.

More generally: I’m very much in favor of scholars reaching into areas removed from their core training. But you have to expect criticism from people who know relevant literatures better. There are large economics and IR lits relevant to these questions that go completely unreferenced in the book. There is an ample lit on seigniorage. Against this background, the footnotes and referencing for chapter 12 are extremely thin. People I would normally expect to see mentioned e.g. Charles Kindleberger or Barry Eichengreen are not in the bibliography.

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Henry 04.02.12 at 10:48 pm

Rf – don’t think so. Graeber says that he hadn’t known this and will henceforth be ignoring me as a result. He is unequivocally assenting to the claim.

71

Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 10:49 pm

LB,

It’s entirely a consensus position to say the USD is a reserve currency and this represents a transfer from the rest of the word to America. Eg, an NPR Planet Money story on this issue (http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/2011/08/12/139583229/the-friday-podcast-why-the-world-still-needs-dollars).

On the face of it this especially benefits the state and the financial sector, but also benefits consumers through cheaper imports. The main folks it hurts are exporters and domestic industries competing with imports. It also facilitates very cheap credit for both consumers and the government, which is good in the short-run but can have nasty long-run destabilizing effects as we’ve all seen with the examples of Greece and exurban ghost towns throughout the American sun belt. Overall, I think it’s fair to say that seignorage benefits most Americans (not just the 1%) in the short-run but has much more complicated effects in the long-run.

(Disclaimer: That’s my own reading of the distributional consequences of seignorage, I don’t recall what it says about this in Debt.)

72

rk 04.02.12 at 11:41 pm

I haven’t read Debt: The first five thousand years, but after reading Henry’s commentary, among others, I was very interested to do so . Graebner’s response has dampened that interest. It may be unfair and illogical, but I find that intemperance delegitimizes.

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Colin Danby 04.02.12 at 11:44 pm

Gabriel, that there is *some* benefit* i.e. a benefit greater than zero to some folks in the U.S. from the $’s reserve currency status is surely true. That there are “huge” or “enormous” benefits (PBS and Graeber respectively) does not follow … if these terms even have any meaning. As far as I can see, the people who make these overheated claims make no effort to quantify benefits. Even roughly. They do not even begin to assemble an argument grounded in data. All you offer @71 are vague hypotheses. But perhaps I’m wrong, and there is more rigorous published work on this question that supports your views.

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Tom Bach 04.02.12 at 11:51 pm

Paul Krugman, on the other hand, thinks that the dollar as reserve currency is no big deal:
http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/14/dollareuro-irrelevance/

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Gabriel Rossman 04.02.12 at 11:52 pm

Colin,

Second, the link between the dollar’s use and U.S. military power now seems down to pure assertion: “I do think that the US dollar would not be the world’s reserve currency if the US were not the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military power.” This is not good enough.

Absolutely. As best I can tell, Professor Graeber’s argument boils down to it being improbable that a military hegemon would also just happen to be the issuer of the global reserve currency (with the idea being that the former causes the latter or it’s endogenous, but not that it’s mostly in the direction of seignorage financing adventurism). There is also a stronger form of the argument that the USA was motivated by Iraq’s defection to the euro to invade that country and this had an effect of pour encourager les autres, which he suggests but hedges (“weighed into,” “impossible to know”).* On this basis he sees the link (especially in its weaker form) as demonstrated unless proven otherwise and does not see rebuttal (or even grounds for skepticism) in arguments that there are competing explanations as to why countries want dollars or that it’s hard to square the tribute model with the massive dollar reserves of our great power rival.

So yes, I agree, the arguments in chapter 12 and later defenses of it are not good enough. At best they provide a speculative model but definitely not a demonstrated theory. Another way to put this is that I think the burden of proof is on demonstrating the hegemon->seignorage model, not on disputing it.

*His claim that I have misrepresented him is mostly about presenting him as making this argument in its strong form, without the hedges. There are also some secondary issues about dollar reserves vs dollar denomination of oil sales, etc.

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lupita 04.03.12 at 12:42 am

As far as I can see, the people who make these overheated claims make no effort to quantify benefits. Even roughly.

This will be very rough. Most of the illegal drug, arms, people, endangered species, etc. trafficking in the world is conducted in dollars. Most of the laundering is done in London and New York. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, there is evidence that tainted money was the only source of liquidity available to some banks during the second half of 2008, thus is was responsible for keeping the financial system afloat. So the first benefit is being saved from near death by drug cartels that use your currency.

Another benefit was that during each and every financial crisis in Latin America, South East Asia, and elsewhere, billions fled our countries to, guess where? The Anglo-American financial system. That would be another benefit that could easily be quantifiable.

Finally, low interest rates on the national debt are clearly a benefit to the US. Just look at what happens to other countries when the interest on their debt is suddenly raised. They basically lose their sovereignty. And why do 3rd world central banks keep on buying Treasurys? Protection. Protection from ruinous speculative runs on our currencies and IMF prescriptions.

Graeber is not the first to call this system an imperial racket scheme. In the 3rd world, everybody does.

77

geo 04.03.12 at 12:45 am

Colin @69: as for Robert Fisk, good grief

What do you find so bonkers about the quotes about 9/11 in Wikipedia? They seem quite cautious and measured to me. Certainly nothing there should disturb anyone’s conviction that Fisk is indeed a great reporter.

78

geo 04.03.12 at 12:53 am

Here’s the infamous column Wikipedia refers to. Very tame stuff. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-even-i-question-the-truth-about-911-462904.html.

Couldn’t find the Sydney speech. Also just noticed this from the question period: “maybe the plane was hit by a missile.” No idea where that came from. Still, Colin’s swipe seems unjustified. But needless to say, let’s please not get off on 9/11.

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christian_h 04.03.12 at 12:58 am

Colin: I do have to say I find it troublesome to dismiss a person’s work based on taking a couple quotes from a Wikipedia page (while simultaneously complaining that someone else didn’t refer to the ample literature on seignorage).

Also, why do you think t-bills are “the safest financial asset you can hold”? You are describing, not (making any attempt at) explaining. Do you not think that this “safest asset you can hold” status is related to the US’ hegemonic imperial position, and that the latter relies in part on the primacy of US military power?

80

Cranky Observer 04.03.12 at 1:02 am

= = = So the first benefit is being saved from near death by drug cartels that use your currency. = = =

That’s a bit romantic, but IMHO the more likely benefit is that it is easier to track and when desirable manipulate such flows when they are conducted in your currency and through your banking system. The NSA, Treasury, and DEA probably get 90% of the data they need just by monitoring Wall Street’s data lines.

Although I can’t contribute anything deep to this discussion, one question and one point do occur to me. The question is, if there is such little value to maintaining the dollar as the world’s reserve currency why does the US work so hard at doing so? Freely admitting that the answer could be “it made sense at one time; now it is inertia” one still wonders why the effort is expended?

The point of note is that everyone in the aerospace industry knew that high-level executive officials of the United States and the nations of the Airbus consortium intervened in airliner purchase decisions both at home and abroad, but until the Wikileaks documents were published no one who was commenting publicly knew for a fact what levels of executive and intelligence agency involvement were being brought to bear to influence, bribe, and threaten nations to make the “right” decision (Boeing or Airbus respectively). Not saying everything that goes on in the world is a Cheney-intensity conspiracy, but clearly strong actions are taken behind the scenes to achieve national ends and not revealed to the public or even discussed in polite company – so lack of open discussion of the reserve currency benefits doesn’t mean that no discussions/actions are taking place.

Cranky

81

rf 04.03.12 at 1:13 am

In regards Robert Fisk theres substantial evidence to suggest that a good deal of what he has written the past decade should be taken with a pinch of salt (which is not to dismiss his earlier work) Make of it what you will

http://angryarab.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/exposing-robert-fisks-fibs-i-just-hate.html

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LFC 04.03.12 at 1:26 am

from the OP:

Mainstream discussions of such issues are riddled with euphemisms and taboo; it’s considered acceptable, for instance, to speak of the US as maintaining an “empire” if one approves of such arrangements … but not if one is critical of them; similarly, while those who attack the US or US military can be described as terrorists, the US, with all its bombs and drones and missiles, can never be described as inspiring “terror” in anyone.

If “mainstream” = major newspapers and other journalistic outlets, this might be true. It’s really not true, I think, of academic IR, where the proposition that the US has an ‘empire’ often gets discussed without the implication that it’s a good thing, and quite often with the implication that it’s a bad thing.

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Jake 04.03.12 at 1:31 am

The question is, if there is such little value to maintaining the dollar as the world’s reserve currency why does the US work so hard at doing so?

What does trying hard to maintain the dollar as the world’s reserve currency look like? Or what would the US do differently if we weren’t trying to maintain the dollar as a reserve currency?

Not complain when people talk about buying oil priced in Euros? Run gigantic deficits to convince everyone that there’s a massive dollar devaluation coming? Pass onerous banking laws that make doing transactions with dollars a pain in the ass? Institute capital controls on dollar flows into or out of the US?

It’s hard to get a sense of what these efforts would look like. By comparison it’s easy to see how you would try and influence airliner purchasing decisions…

84

Colin Danby 04.03.12 at 1:50 am

Lupita, I appreciate your larger concerns, but you must recognize that this argument does not hold together. Liquidity as such was generally supplied by central banks during the worst of the crisis — that was not the key problem. Capital flight does not depend on currency — it’s about finding safe assets, outside the reach of a particular gov’t.

Christian, I was quite explicit re Fisk that “I have no way to assess his record as a whole.” Fisk was introduced *by Graeber* as an “one of the world’s most respected foreign correspondents” in an effort to justify his own passing on of the Iraq-dollar theory. My point is that whatever the overall quality of Fisk’s work, his weakness for the whacko, which the _Independent_ piece fully substantiates, makes him a poor prop for Graeber’s argument.

The U.S. gov’t has the power to tax the single largest single economy in the world. That’s the obvious thing making U.S. debt an attractive asset — you’re looking at capacity to repay. U.S. debt is highly liquid. It’s not hard to construct a very simple explanation for why a safety-seeker would want to hold it.

A lot of this is sheer inertia and path-dependence: the U.S. emerged from WWII as the largest national economy and largest military power, and still is. 70 years is not a lot of time.

Is there an additional causal loop through military power? I don’t know. Even with a much smaller military I rather doubt the U.S. would be in danger of foreign conquest, nor are its current wars wars of plunder (whatever Paul Wolfowitz’s fond hopes re Iraq, conquest is not profitable). What I do know is that the arguments that I see for this proposition rely heavily on assertion. It’s just as easy to argue that empire is costly and foolish.

And note that even if there is a positive feedback loop between hegemony and foreigners buying your debt, that still has nothing to do with reserve currencies.
A lot of the arguments re currency appear to be arguments about borrowing, with currency somehow conflated in.

85

hartal 04.03.12 at 1:51 am

Germany and Japan had an interest in propping up US military power in the Cold War. Germany and Japan did this by holding dollar denominated assets and helping the US manage the relative value of the dollar from WWII to late 80s.
After the end of the Cold War, Germany and Japan no longer have the same interest in propping the US financial system.
The US is no longer a dominant industrial power; it has reached its twilight stage of financial dominance. The reserve status of the dollar is crucial for the US financial system, but Germany and Japan no longer have a stake in holding and propping up the dollar.
In the twenty first century the US has exercised military power to inspire loyalty and confidence in the US dollar now that Western World can no longer be counted on to support the US.
Is this the argument that Graeber is making?
In the comments section to Farrell’s initial criticism I mentioned two books by David E. Spiro and Carla Norrlof; I don’t think Graeber or Farrell has read them yet. Interested in what they have to say about those two books.

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john c. halasz 04.03.12 at 1:56 am

As someone who participated in the initial Farrell thread, I think it’s fair to say that Farrell did start by taking some snarky, disqualifying moves, which I, among others, took objection to. (Whether that’s fully “de-legitimating” or not, and what the relevant scholarly standards for argument and evidence should be, isn’t really answered by equally snarky references to SAT or GRE exams, which, of course, are equally dependent on the sort of exclusive “qualifications” that they would ostensibly oppose). And not having read the book (still) and the alleged offending passages, I can’t really judge whether Graeber’s or Farrell’s reading is the more accurate or “fairer” one. (Though Farrell was asked for an alternative account of the relation between U.S. $ and military hegemony, and other than a vague appeal to alternatives in the poli-sci/IR “literature”, IIRC, didn’t venture to commit himself to his own account).

But to answer to Walt et alia, it’s by no means far fetched to suggest that the U.S. $ hegemony and the industrial military complex are joined at the hip, both by origin and by current operation. It’s not a matter of the U.S. $ reserve currency status benefiting the broad masses of the U.S. working population, (which, given that it involves leakage of READ and corresponding employment, as well as the deterioration of U.S. industrial/tradeable goods capacity, it basically doesn’t), but rather a matter of Wall St. Hi-Fi and MNC interests benefiting at the expense of the broader population, both at home and abroad. IIRC the Bretton Woods negotiations began with the matter of how the U.K. would repay its debt and then proceeded on to how the post-war trade and for-ex regime would be arranged, when the U.S. was overwhelmingly dominant both in terms of industrial capacity and as a net creditor. (IIRC when Reagan was elected the U.S. was still a net creditor to the RoW to the tune of $350 bn, about $900 bn nowadays, and didn;t actually tip over into net debtor status until the later 1980′s. ANd I;ve mentioned here at CT before the large discrepancy between cumulative U.S. external debt and the larger U.S. cumulative CA deficits). That Keynes’ proposals and far-sighted warnings were ignored is hardly surprising. And Nitze’s NSC 68, the founding document of U.S. “military Keynesianism”, regardless of whether he was more interested in the “military” or “Keynesian” part, makes the connection clear enough in the documentary record, (aside from the fact that, like much of the U.S. foreign policy elite at that time, he was by origins an Ivy League/investment banker product). And when Nixon broke the Bretton Woods framework, the Treasury official in charge of carrying out the policy at that time, one Paul Volcker, remarked something to the effect of, “Well, we’re just going to have to outrun them”.

I argued on the original thread that, well, yes, seignorage and tribute is to crude an argument, since it’s a matter of a dollar recycling regime. And the “strong $ policy”, which all U.S. administrations proclaim, whether factitiously or not, involves taking advantage of a) the ability of U.S. Hi-Fi/MNC interests to borrow long and cheap to invest abroad at much higher returns and b) the differential between nominal $ and PPP FX terms, (which enables not just the capture of foreign resources and products on the cheap, with large corporate rents through the control of market access, but also the capacity to buy up financial and productive infrastructure on the cheap abroad, especially in the wake of FX crises). That such a gambit runs into trouble periodically and needs to be reset, should come as no surprise to anyone who takes “contradictions” seriously, rather than merely as a violation of formal logic. (Though “Red China” is a bit of a red herring here, since FX differentials would exist regardless of their FX/capital control policies, and since, at least before the GFC, the PRC was running trade/CA deficits with Taiwan, Japan, S. Korea, etc., so it was more a matter of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere 2.0 than of the PRC alone, for all that the latter managed to” free-ride” on the “Washington Consensus”). How exactly military/technological hegemony might fit in with the enforcement/maintenance of the “advantages” of U.S. $ hegemony, maintaining the “freedom of the high seas”, might require further examination and specification, with all due allowance for mismatches between means and ends and other such “miscalculations” and irrationalities, but that some such basic connections exist is not a far stretch, whatever the inadequacies of Farrell’s or Graeber’s account might be.

(BTW the analogy with the Spanish Empire is not uninteresting. Granted it was a still largely feudal system, which determined the motives of its enactors, and that such raw plunder is not to be quite countenanced nowadays. But that the importation of “cheap” gold and silver resulted not just in inflation that undermined domestic mercantile interests, but also entrenched domestic rent-seeking behaviors, is something the Count-Duke Olivares found out all too well.)

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purple 04.03.12 at 2:13 am

The reason the US runs a trade deficit is because its productive economy is no longer as strong as its financial economy. The dollar should be much weaker given American competitiveness in productive industries , but because the US dollar has demand as a holder of value, it isn’t.

This state of affairs guarantees that the US will rot from within, either through the collapse of wages in the productive sector (i.e. GM bankruptcy), or the evisceration of manufacturing to the 3rd world.

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purple 04.03.12 at 2:20 am

As for market exchange, most of the world is not as tied to it as the West. In Philippine squatters areas for instance, it is common for families to share suppers as a way to get to get a full variety of food. This idea of sharing is based on a common understanding, or ‘consideration’, people don’t charge each other for it. Part of the idea behind destroying squatters areas, i.e. communally held land where the notion of title does not exist, is to create more exchange -based conditions where political power is based through courts and privilege.

The fact is, it is impossible for most rich Western economists to imagine another way of life. So all they can do is belittle and make up cute non-sequitors. They are mostly incompetents anyhow, who to a man failed to predict the crash of 2008.

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Ostap Bender 04.03.12 at 3:00 am

What are people trying to prove here — that dollar as a reserve currency was introduced out of goodness of the hearth?

Please pardon my non-academic, common-sense perspective but imposing one’s currency just as imposing one’s language, culture, law, military, etc. seems to be an instrument or at least expression of domination and is as such imperialist. The fact that such domination techniques and expansion policies or whatever you want to call them often backfire doesn’t change their nature. Alexander the Great or Napoleon is no less of an emperor or Roman empire is no less of an empire because they ultimately failed. Same goes the other way considering that there might be some benefits, for ex. Hitler invented and built the highway (Autobahn) system…

And Robert Fisk is a veteran journalist who understands middle east better than your average embedded journalist http://bit.ly/HbQtzT. The wikipedia 911 entry only demonstrates that, unlike some other journalists, he is capable of critical thinking. But I agree that 911 controversy is ultimately irrelevant since what resulted doesn’t have much to do with 911 to begin with…

Which brings us back to the first point about American imperialism…

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js. 04.03.12 at 4:22 am

Having read all of Graeber’s replies except the Henry bit (need more time, and not sure I want to get into that anyway), I just wanted to say, thanks. Read the book, learnt a lot, and learnt more from this.

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 4:47 am

Someone else said Farrell was a wingnut genocide denier on twitter so I just shrugged and said “oh, I didn’t know, I’ll just ignore him then.” So Farrell’s claim that I am out there spreading aspersions about him is yet another example of his utterly dishonest mode of argument. In fact, I did not say anything other than exactly that: “oh I didn’t know.”

Really I have no idea whether the guy was right or not – how would I? But Farrell’s history of dishonest argument, of which the above remark is just the latest example, was indeed more than enough to lead me to want to take any excuse not to have to further engage with him, since, frankly, who would benefit? And believe me, I have much better things to do.

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William Timberman 04.03.12 at 5:03 am

Not being an economist, no doubt I’ve missed a whole lot, but I seem to remember that in the case of Spain, the gold and silver from the New World all wound up elsewhere, in exchange for goods that were of no great use in enhancing Spain’s own productive capacity and real (future) wealth. Am I wrong in thinking that being forced to watch a goodly amount of the available supply of dollars wind up in China in exchange for plastic storage bins, iPhones and cheap television sets should suggest some alarming parallels between the U.S. now and Spain then?

Granted that the modern U.S. economy is a horse of vastly different size and color from the Spanish economy in the time of Philip II, I can’t help but think that our passion for replacing machine-tool and chemical salesmen with aircraft carrier strike forces, B2 bombers and predator drones, not to mention Vatican-sized embassies everywhere our armed emissaries set foot bears a recognizable resemblance to the panicky response to competition that sent the Armada against those pesky Elizabethans.

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Henry 04.03.12 at 5:11 am

David if you really can’t see the differences between the standards you expect from others, and the standards you apply to your own conduct, then I genuinely feel a little sorry for you. There is something wrong with the way you interact with the world.

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Kevin 04.03.12 at 5:15 am

I’m pretty sure that David Graeber at 89 just single-handedly invented a whole new category of internet troll. Not just trolling his own post, but trolling for a specific individual who is one of the host’s of the blog that invited his response to a forum on his own book!

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Colin Danby 04.03.12 at 5:24 am

There is a pattern e.g.
http://www.businessweek.com/finance/occupy-wall-street/archives/2011/11/david_graebers_odd_history_of_silicon_valley.html
of passing wrong stuff on, and then blaming someone else for it.

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hartal 04.03.12 at 5:29 am

Since Graeber is relying on Michael Hudson who sounds so much like Henry C.K Liu who also claims special inside connections with the Chinese elite….Well, for this discussion to be productive, people should just comment on the cogency of Hudson’s views. It would probably be best if we did not rely on only Graeber’s summary of Hudson’s views either. As I have been indicating, I think there is some important support for at least parts of Hudson’s ideas in those books by David Spiro and Carla Norrlof who Henry already said was once a colleague. So I imagine that Henry would be happy to have a cordial discussion with her.
The issues here are important, difficult and interesting. We can do better!

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john c. halasz 04.03.12 at 5:46 am

Maybe Twitter should be banned as a source, just as much as SATs and GREs!

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Henry Farrell 04.03.12 at 5:56 am

bq. Really I have no idea whether the guy was right or not – how would I? But Farrell’s history of dishonest argument, of which the above remark is just the latest example, was indeed more than enough to lead me to want to take any excuse not to have to further engage with him, since, frankly, who would benefit? And believe me, I have much better things to do.

Imagine, for a moment, the universe in which some random nutter had directed a tweet at alternative-Henry-Farrell this morning, claiming that David Graeber had plagiarized his dissertation, and linking, for “proof,” to some site which actually showed nothing of the sort. And in which alternative-Henry-Farrell, without bothering to check further, had sent out a tweet of his own to his followers, saying that he hadn’t known this, and would henceforth ignore David Graeber. Then imagine what David Graeber’s reaction would be (hint: it wouldn’t be very pleasant to around in any universe that I, at least can imagine). And with that, I propose to leave the Internet’s self-appointed Mr. Angry to his own devices until I have time to pull together a proper response to the quite extraordinary claims in his post, and previous and subsequent allegations associated therewith …

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 6:07 am

In response to Alex K (#46): you do realize that what you are describing as “selection bias” ultimately comes down to my habit of relying on all evidence that actually exists (both of contemporary stateless societies and historical records we actually have, like those of the early Celtic law codes), rather than purely imaginary scenarios you just made up

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mclaren 04.03.12 at 6:14 am

To expand a little of David Graeber’s claim that “I do think that the US dollar would not be the world’s reserve currency if the US were not the world’s overwhelmingly dominant military power, and I do argue that military intimidation plays a role in maintaining the current financial system…” — let us ask: Why did the US dollar become the world’s reserve currency?

Arguably, the US dollar attained that position after WW II. Was America’s economic & geopolitical status at the end of WW II in significant part (perhaps largely) due to America’s military?

You are going to be hard put to argue otherwise, I think.

As for Graeber’s claim that American military intimidation plays a big role in America’s current reserve-currency status, many commenters appear to making objections which posit a simple one-for-one relationship twixt American military power and intimidation. E.g., they appear to think that Graeber is saying “America will invade countries which threaten the status of the US dollar as a reserve currency.”

But a great deal more subtle connections can be found. Viz., the School of the Americas and the connection with the rise of neoliberalism and cryptofasist authoritarian governments like the Pinochet regime. America supplies weapons and training, the authoritarian government supply the intimidation and brutalization of elements of their society demanding social justice and economic liberalization.

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 6:17 am

to Lupita (#76)

“Graeber is not the first to call this system an imperial racket scheme. In the 3rd world, everybody does.”

Yes, precisely. In most of the world, the kind of arguments Hudson or I were making are just the assumed starting-point of all geopolitical discussion. And since I spend so much of my time with people who come from places where it’s just assumed, it actually rather startled me to see some of the reaction I got. After all, what’s more likely: (a) that most people mistakenly believe that US elites get a benefit from their empire, but at the heart of the empire, people understand the real truth – that they don’t, or (b) that everyone else knows what’s actually going on, but the beneficiaries come up with elaborate and complicated arguments to convince their own public they aren’t really running an “imperial racket scheme” at all?

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 6:55 am

This is the last thing I will ever say to Henry Farrell.

If someone had said I’d plagiarized my dissertation and you replied “oh I didn’t know” I might say “look, now Henry Farrell is uncritically accepting ridiculous aspersions about me,” but I would certainly not go and claim to a different audience that you were “now going around saying I plagiarized my dissertation.”

Why?

Because I’m not a liar, Henry.

Nothing really more to say.

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John Holbo 04.03.12 at 7:04 am

[While I was composing this comment the thread heated up considerably between Graeber and Farrell. Possibly no useful discussion can now be had, but here's my two-cents worth of substantive defense of Farrell's side.]

Graeber: “I argue that US military power is one element in the maintenance of a US-dominated financial system that grants the US enormous economic advantages. Farrell appears to be arguing it is not a factor at all.”

I just finished the Graeber chapter in question – finally got through it! – and I have to say that this mild-to-a-fault gloss on its content seems to me disingenuous. How could Farrell disagree with such a claim? It’s trivial. Indeed it is. But the claims in the chapter I just read seem to me not so. In the book, Graeber is suggesting the strong – decidedly non-trivial – tribute thesis that Henry found doubtful: namely, countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency largely out of fear of being bombed.

“… the fact that it [the US] can, at will, drop bombs with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capacity. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.” (366)

This passage, and others from the chapter, are most straightforwardly read as advancing the thesis that the threat of US bombing is not just ‘one factor’ (as opposed to ‘not a factor at all’) but rather that it is a major, primary, determinative factor (as opposed to merely ‘one factor’.) Of course, ‘a case could well be made …’ is consistent with it being the case that the author himself is not making the case. But if the author is not making the strong case then, as Graeber himself now points out, the only other ready-to-hand case is the trivial one. Why attribute malice and incompetence to readers who quite understandably fail to assume that secretly you are trafficking in triviality, when you seem to be saying something highly substantive?

Suppose history had somehow gone very differently and the US did not exert global military hegemony, at the start of the 21st Century. Would the US$ still be a reserve currency for the world? Who the hell can say? It’s all connected, after all. If Graeber’s actually saying something interesting enough to bother about, I fail to see how it is not approximately the thing that Henry is bothered by. In which case Graeber should defend it, not attempt to substitute speculative GRE scorings for argument.

The Hudson point is likewise slippery.

“foreigners see the IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization as Washington surrogates in a financial system backed by American military bases and aircraft carriers encircling the globe.” Obviously, he [Hudson] said, the whole system is based on fear of US military power. Neoliberal arrangements began with Pinochet for a reason. There has to be the threat of violence backing them up. “Basically,” he said, “the US government’s position come down to ‘adopt our version of the free market or we’ll shoot you.’”

The claim that the US wants to enforce neoliberalism is one thing. The claim that the US wants to force other countries to accept the US$ as a reserve currency is something else. I’ve never heard anyone arguing that it must be false that neoliberalism is taking root in the EU, since they use the Euro. There are two quite distinct theses here.

At this point I expect Graeber will say: but the Robert Fisk quote! And others, perhaps. So Graeber is not alone in seeing this. Well, that’s all well and good. But Henry’s original post didn’t deny that someone besides Graeber himself might see this. He didn’t deny that someone might argue for it. He expressed willingness to be convinced (while, it is true, cocking a skeptical eyebrow – but that is no sin.) He just asked what the evidence was supposed to be. After all, many people – most who study this area, if Henry is right – don’t see it this way. Not because they shudder at the thought that the US might be deemed an empire. (I’m sure Henry is more likely to shrug than shudder at that thought. Who would deny it?) To ask that someone defend a controversial and non-self-evident claim is not to ‘de-legitimate’ them in some terrible way.

One last note: Graeber’s suggestion, in Chapter 12, of why the Chinese might want to pay ‘tribute’ to the US, seems to me weak. He suggests this this is how the Chinese have operated before. They pacified the northern barbarians by giving them stuff. I fail to see what analogous ‘pacification’ good the Chinese could be buying this time. It’s much more plausible to say they are developing as fast as they can, per Yglesias post today:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2012/04/02/why_china_pays_quot_tribute_quot_to_the_united_states.html

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 7:21 am

“One last note: Graeber’s suggestion, in Chapter 12, of why the Chinese might want to pay ‘tribute’ to the US, seems to me weak. He suggests this this is how the Chinese have operated before. They pacified the northern barbarians by giving them stuff.”

Actually I should clarify here – I said that the Chinese tribute trade system, as documented by a huge literature of scholarship, had for almost two thousand years tended to work by making arrangements that were on paper economically disadvantageous for larger (especially political) advantage and when you see China apparently doing this again, it seems unlikely it’s a mere coincidence. For what it’s worth I think China gets any number of advantages out of current arrangements. On the one hand they are trying to pacify what probably looks from their point of view as a dangerous and somewhat irrationally violent group of barbarians armed with nuclear weapons – partly by the familiar method of creating economic dependency. So they go along with current arrangements for the time being, though they also would like to ultimately get out, as they will sometimes even publicly say. Second of all, the Chinese elite were trained as historical materialists and probably think of all this debt mumbo-jumbo as superstructure, inessential: they cannot help but notice they are getting more factories, airports, highways, super fast train lines, etc, and the US is getting less. So who cares about the “debt”? Third, I strongly suspect, though I cannot prove, that there is a tacit arrangement between the US and Chinese governments: China pretends to get upset about debt, though really they don’t care, and the US pretends to get upset about intellectual property rights, but really they turn a blind eye. But as I say I can’t prove that.

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conchis 04.03.12 at 7:27 am

Farrell’s claim that I am out there spreading aspersions about him is yet another example of his utterly dishonest mode of argument.

Is this intended to be ironic? Because that’s not actually what Henry said.

What Henry said was (a) that you said you were going to ignore him (which you did), (b) that this was on the basis that some random drive by nutter said Henry was a genocide denier (which it was).

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 7:51 am

Actually his words were

“David Graeber is now on teh Twitter, telling folks that he’s going to stop paying attention to me, because I’m apparently a Bernard Lewis groupy, as well as a denier of the Nakba and Armenian genocide. “

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Phil 04.03.12 at 7:53 am

Farrell’s history of dishonest argument, of which the above remark is just the latest example, was indeed more than enough to lead me to want to take any excuse not to have to further engage with him, since, frankly, who would benefit? And believe me, I have much better things to do.

a) We’d all benefit. You’ve contributed some interesting & useful discussion of other people’s points and poured a bucket of shit over Henry, and frankly I’ve no idea why. Henry’s argument struck me and still strikes me as nuanced and constructive, lightyears away from the strawman you’ve been kicking around in his place. The point is not to demonstrate that the US is an imperial power, that US elites get some benefit from empire, or to assert that there has to be some connection between US military power and the dollar’s status as reserve currency – all of these are fairly uncontroversial around here – but to stand up your contention that the relationship’s articulated in a particular way.

b) Fair enough, but low-signal polemic is not one of them (it fails on ‘better’).

Also, what John H said.

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 7:59 am

Anyway this is tiresome. I have no interest in arguing further about who slanted whose post or tweet how much in what way. It is the definition of pointlessness. My problem from the beginning with Farrell is that he’s not an honest interlocutor. When you’re dealing with someone like that, extended engagement just spins around in meaningless circles like this has generated. I have better things to do.

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Tim Mason 04.03.12 at 8:41 am

I think the bombing reference might be quite vigourously defended. I dare say many of the commenters here will find Sven Lindqvist’s ‘A History of Bombing’ rather iffy, for all kinds of reasons, but it nevertheless offers a compelling story of how central a role the power and the threat of the bomber have played in the shaping of the modern world. You can hear Linqvist give a talk on the matter – a podcast from an LSE conference chaired by Paul Gilroy. And anyone who lived through the fifties and sixties will recall how, even in the homelands of capitalism, fear of bombardment was one of the basic keys to political and social action.

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Maria 04.03.12 at 9:01 am

David,

I don’t know anything else about you than I’ve read from you on this blog and your Twitter account. Gabriel Rossman has graciously shrugged off your appalling behaviour and engaged with you on the merits of your arguments. Henry wrote a favourable piece on your book and took issue with one argument, but you repeatedly say he’s a liar who only wants to “de-legitimize” you.

Is it remotely possibly for you to step back from what you are doing and see how deranged-seeming and nasty your actions are?

The only person who is “de-legitimizing” your work is you. Count me among the many who read the seminar pieces – including Henry’s – and were engaged by your work, and now would have nothing to do with it.

You’ve been given a platform to discuss and promote your book, and lots of smart people – including Henry Farrell – have spent many hours, gratis, supporting this. If you cannot conduct your public persona in a civilised manner, than you really should take your toys and go home.

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daelm 04.03.12 at 9:56 am

frankly, maria, david responded correctly to henry’s comments. they are an exercise in deligitimization, though whether henry intended that is an entirely different question. (i think that this kind of deligitimization is institutional, and henry is merelt acting from his role).

david was also, as you note, quite sarcastic about that and offended people by that. however, issues of courtesy are not more important than issues of fact and your notion that david’s rudeness is so much more important than the content of his reply is merely wrong: people who think genteel discourse is more important than accurate discourse should skip both and leave it to others.

henry doesn’t get a free pass because he hosted the discussion. nor does the fact that he’s your brother entitle you to insist that david bow and scrape in thanks for all the supposed exposure you seem to think he’s derived from this. i’m pretty sure that david would have survived not getting teh Awesome!!1! honour of a CT blog post.

and really, if your criteria for what works of political or social analysis you’re prepared to be “engaged by” is whether the author tugs his forelock in accordance with your elevated opinion of your family members, then you probably need to review that, stat.

d

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Phil 04.03.12 at 10:01 am

they are an exercise in deligitimization

“There is a narrow consensus, which sharply defines the things that can or cannot be spoken of by Serious People. Coercion is of course, an important element of how the system survives.”

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Phil 04.03.12 at 10:09 am

Oops. The above is of course a quote from Henry Farrell, who went on to say that he’d like to read more from David Graeber on the subject of debt and money in the international system (“I think he would have a lot of interesting things to say”). As delegitimisation efforts go, this is subtle stuff.

issues of courtesy are not more important than issues of fact

No, but they’re important in their own right – and when somebody responds to civilly-worded criticisms which he believes to be wrongheaded by (a) being demonstratively rude and (b) ostentatiously refusing to address those criticisms, those issues of courtesy and issues of fact are getting somewhat entangled.

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conchis 04.03.12 at 10:15 am

Actually his words were… what you quoted plus the next sentence, which fairly clearly modifies the bit you excerpted.

I agree this is tiresome, but can you really not see the argumentative double standard you’re applying here?

I guess not – we all see what we want to see, and now that you and Henry are both predisposed to interpret each others’ comments in the most uncharitable way possible, there seems little hope for productive discussion. Which is a shame, because it seemed like there should have been.

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Alex 04.03.12 at 10:46 am

we have the peculiar circumstance that the two countries (Russia and China) that the US happens to have its nuclear missiles aimed at are the very countries trying to figure out a way to buck the rule of the dollar

*Buying* dollars as fast as you can is a way of “bucking the rule of the dollar”? I mean, the salient fact about Chinese currency policy since the 1990s is that they have a) chosen to maintain an exchange rate peg to the dollar and b) accumulated enormous reserves of dollars in so doing which they c) hold in the form of Treasury paper. Very recently, they have allowed the RMB to appreciate gradually, which will reduce the flow of dollars from intervention into the central bank and from there into SAFE’s investments. This means the stock of dollars held by SAFE will grow more slowly.

I suppose you could come up with a story that they want to drive up the dollar and therefore harm US exporters, in the hope that the US would eventually crack and give in. But it’s in the nature of a central bank that it can always intervene downwards. That is precisely what the Chinese central bank did on a regular basis for the last 20 years. If the Federal Reserve wanted to devalue the dollar, it could do so at any moment, which would ruin such a strategy. Also, such a strategy would be functionally indistinguishable from one of banking your trade surplus in dollars.

It is of course possible that Chinese policy makers convince themselves they are doing the second while actually doing the first, and it is the sort of thing that economic anthropologists would be interested in…

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Neville Morley 04.03.12 at 10:51 am

Is there any chance that we could have a separate thread to discuss all the bits of David Graeber’s response that aren’t about Chapter 12 and Henry? Especially for those of us watching this train crash through our fingers from behind the sofa? Or am I missing the point of blogs again?

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Walt 04.03.12 at 10:58 am

I think Neville has a good suggestion. The rest of David’s post was pretty reasonable, and worthy of separate discussion. I honestly have no idea why this particular topic got so heated, but it would be a shame if it overshadowed the other bits.

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Slocum 04.03.12 at 11:01 am

“were engaged by your work, and now would have nothing to do with it.”

Yes, a person’s ideas change their value when that person is grumpy on the Internet.

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John Quiggin 04.03.12 at 11:09 am

“Am I wrong in thinking that being forced to watch a goodly amount of the available supply of dollars wind up in China in exchange for plastic storage bins, iPhones and cheap television sets should suggest some alarming parallels between the U.S. now and Spain then?”

There is one important difference. The available supply of dollars is limited primarily by the supply of zeros available to the US Treasury. Assuming they have 13 of them, and a few pieces of paper, they can print as many trillion dollar notes as they need and hand them over to China, fully discharging all of their obligations and more. Actually, for reasons I can’t recall now, but which came up during the debt ceiling crisis, they might prefer to use coins (no metallic value needed, but it might be a nice gesture to make them out of gold, or, if they want to be snarky, rare earths).

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Maria 04.03.12 at 11:16 am

daelm, it’s very simple. Grown-ups can and do disagree civilly. You should try it.

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rf 04.03.12 at 11:18 am

Daelm
Oh please, the only one delegitimising anyone is Graeber, who prefers to have a childish rant than engage with criticism of his work. Graeber is not a marginal figure, he’s an associate professor at Goldsmiths with multiple book deals and forums to voice his opinion. (From naked capitalism, to the Guardian, to here)
Most reviews of his book, that I have seen, were positive. Any time I have seen him challenged, also in a thread on Naked Capitalism, he’s resorted to tiresome hyperbole. He appears to me to be just another authoritarian minded dope, warped by the total culture (cult) of US grad school. This is the behaviour of an anarchist Larry Summers.

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belle le triste 04.03.12 at 11:18 am

Even as we speak, imperial scientists are at work far beneath Fort Knox fashioning a single, bright, gleaming nay glowing coin from trans-Uranic metals, a “pluto-dollar” if you will, stipulated value the exact size of the debt, to hand to China with great pomp and say, “Here you go, all paid off, suck on this.”

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Maria 04.03.12 at 11:20 am

Slocum, yes, when someone says the people largely agree with them but take them up on one point are merely liars acting in bad faith, it causes me to question their judgement and ethics and choose to support (i.e. buy and read the books) of others instead.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 11:41 am

Walt and Neville,

Yes, and I’d even include his rebuttal to Horning in this reckoning of the balance of the post being reasonable and worthy of separate discussion since I think Horning actually was doing the delegitimization thing that Graeber accuses Henry and myself of. In case anyone forgot, both Henry and myself defended Professor Graeber against Horning (see @ 11 + @ 54 of that thread), which is curious behavior for delegitimizers and dishonest interlocutors.

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Walt 04.03.12 at 11:49 am

Gabriel, you delegitimizers are wily like that.

John Q, it’s because the Treasury has the statutory to mint coins in any denomination. Printing paper money requires cooperation of the Fed.

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Stuart 04.03.12 at 12:20 pm

“Has anyone even considered writing an economic analysis of spite?”

Rousseau’s second discourse?

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rf 04.03.12 at 12:28 pm

@ Rossman
To be honest I don’t think using Horning as a scapegoat now would accomplish anything, in fact his post seems to have ended up the most perceptive.

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rf 04.03.12 at 12:34 pm

This kiddy glove treatment of Graeber, and the silence from this blog’s resident loudmouths, is very telling, and certainly not a reaction someone outside the closed shop of academia would have received. Graeber’s a bully and this level of indulgence doesn’t seem to have had a positive affect on his emotional development, so perhaps it’s time a different approach was taken?
And, in my opinion, the discrepancy in Graeber’s story on how the’ Apple mistake’ came about is becoming important, as something reeks of horses&&t.
(I also don’t want to be accused of attacking Graeber anonymously online so ‘rf’ are the initials for my name, Ronan Fitzgerald. Not that that’s going to clear up my anonymity)

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rf 04.03.12 at 1:01 pm

Graeber: “But this only goes to show the absurdity of Farrell’s position. Because what he’s challenging is—as Fisk recognizes—simple common sense.”

So aside from a three year old Robert Fisk article misrepresented as having been written in January of this year, Graeber’s source is common sense? The below claims are backed up by one Robert Fisk article and common sense? Christ almighty: (of course he has equivocated enough through the use of “weasly words” for none of this to actually mean what it quite clearly says.. , “a case could well be made”…. “is impossible to know”)

“The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together.”

And

“When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation. How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.”

And

“By 2000, East Asian countries had begun a systematic boycott of the IMF. In 2002, Argentina committed the ultimate sin: they defaulted – and got away with it. Subsequent U.S. military adventures were clearly meant to terrify and overawe, but they do not appear to have been very successful: partly because, to finance them, the United States had to turn not just to its military clients, but increasingly, to China, its chief remaining military rival.”

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Steve LaBonne 04.03.12 at 1:02 pm

There is an interesting discussion lurking beneath the barrages of insults. On the dollar hegemony thing I’m pretty well persuaded that Graeber is just wrong. To see an obvious case of how having one’s currency widely adopted as an investment haven can hurt one’s economy, just look at Japan. They desperately need a weaker currency but the market prevents this from happening.

I think the same is true of the strong dollar, which is partly though loosely related to the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. As to that that status I suspect it is really a penis-measuring kind of thing that has little real economic benefit even to the interests that are most emotionally attached to it.

This is the behaviour of an anarchist Larry Summers.

Sadly, so it appears. (And by the way I would be interested to know who “daelm” actually is.) I will read his book when the paperback comes out (I have it on order from Amazon), but this thread has somewhat diminished my sense of anticipation. Still, we need as many unconventional economic thinkers as we can get, because the old order is visibly tottering and old ideas will not get us to a stable and tolerable new order.

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Jacob 04.03.12 at 1:08 pm

Um…this comment thread is strangely polite, given the original post.

Look, the Apple thing is totally on topic, given that Graeber introduced it. The Mark Gemein exchange clearly contradicts Graeber’s description above, and suggests that Graeber is perhaps overly credulous of unpublished Marxist manuscripts (mimeographed, perhaps?) given his claims of historical rigor.

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Alex K. 04.03.12 at 1:42 pm

you do realize that what you are describing as “selection bias” ultimately comes down to my habit of relying on all evidence that actually exists (both of contemporary stateless societies and historical records we actually have, like those of the early Celtic law codes), rather than purely imaginary scenarios you just made up

In the case of the Celtic law codes, both cattle and cumal are used as money — the Celtic case does not differentiate all that well between your thesis and say, Nietzsche’s thesis in the Genealogy of Morals (and I interpret this part of your argument as partly trying to turn Nietzsche’s theory on its head). Your use of the Celtic law codes is legitimate, but by itself it is not very powerful evidence.

You summarily dismiss modern examples of more or less spontaneous apparition of money as being influenced by a modern mindset. That is indeed a problem with this kind of evidence — but your evidence from modern primitive societies suffers from survivorship bias, and I don’t remember you discussing this problem with your data anywhere in the book.

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William Timberman 04.03.12 at 1:47 pm

JQ @ 119

Yeah, I think Brad DeLong was the one with the large platinum coin fetish. I have to admit, I laughed out loud when he came up with that. No one is more fun to read these days, even when I disagree with him.

But then, back to Graeber. The U.S. can print or mint as many dollars as it likes, certainly. Then again, if anyone seriously questions the full faith and credit that make them spendable, and the Chinese become restive about all their dollars possibly turning back into electrons, or paper, or platinum, isn’t that what the aircraft carriers are for, and aren’t aircraft carriers at best a temporary solution — as the Spanish long ago discovered?

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K. Williams 04.03.12 at 1:55 pm

“a person’s ideas change their value when that person is grumpy on the Internet.”

It isn’t that Graeber’s ridiculous and childish behavior (evidenced both here and in myriad other Internet exchanges) changes the value of his ideas. What it does is make it harder to trust his judgment and his intellectual honesty, since he clearly has no respect for viewpoints that are different from his own. And trusting Graeber’s judgment is especially important when it comes to a book like “Debt,” because it covers such a wide range of material, material that most of us are unfamiliar with and therefore have to trust that Graeber is representing accurately. Similarly, that’s why the last chapter is so disconcerting — it’s material that most of us are familiar with, so when we see what Graeber does with it (making assertions that seem obviously wrong) it makes one wonder whether he’s as wrong about the unfamiliar stuff.

I’d add, though, that Graeber’s reaction to Henry isn’t all that startling — reading “Debt,” I couldn’t avoid the nagging feeling that the author was, to put it bluntly, just kind of a self-enamored, self-aggrandizing jerk. The final footnote in the book exemplifies this — it’s a quintessential humble brag, a self-elevating statement in the guise of self-criticism:

“I can speak with some authority here since I was myself born of humble origins and have advanced myself in life almost exclusively through my own incessant labors. I am well known by my friends to be a workaholic—to their often justifiable annoyance. I am therefore keenly aware that such behavior is at best slightly pathological, and certainly in no sense makes one a better person.”

That is, “I work much harder than any one I know, and all of the success I’ve enjoyed in life is the result of this incessant work. But I’m not a better person because of it. No, really. I’m not.”

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 2:22 pm

Well, this is a last thing I’ll say – I’ve moved on from the discussion.

In response to the “bully” remark – you know, I never initiate attacks on other people’s works like the ones I was responding to. And if people disagree with me or criticize me for something I actually did say, I think I tend to respond quite graciously, even often giving ground or admitting error. However, I have very little patience for people who launch aggressive attacks on me based on things I didn’t say and obviously don’t think. So if a “bully” is someone who has zero patience with being falsely accused of things, then I’m guilty. Otherwise…

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Dave 04.03.12 at 2:24 pm

I think Henry deserves all the spite Graeber has mustered here. Henry’s initial review really was fundamentally contentious, and its seemingly magnanimous tone, I think, is just dressing and academic courtesy, which I actually think is quite pernicious. Graeber is just more credible here, for my money.

137

Robert Halford 04.03.12 at 2:31 pm

How lame. It would have been nice to have this turn into a more serious discussion. I blame both sensitive academic egos and Twitter; nothing good ever came of that format.

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Chris Bertram 04.03.12 at 2:32 pm

As the person who set up this book seminar, I feel some responsibility for the way events have unfolded. I’ve also probably been paying more attention to the back-and-forth (and its prequels) than most people. Having said that, I’m not really neutral here so much as conflicted. I consider Henry to be a friend and I don’t know David personally at all (though I’ve read and admired the work of his that I’ve read). I did, though, invite David here and have a responsibility of a host to a guest.

Henry didn’t like the chapter and thought it made claims that David didn’t support adequately. Obviously, David strongly disagrees with that assessment. But David can’t have expected that a book seminar from a variety of contributors would be uniformly positive (and it would have been less good if it had been). I can’t agree with David
that Henry acted from a motive of “delegitimization”. He just didn’t like the chapter.

David has explained that he was unwell when the whole Apple thing kicked off. If I’d been been feeling like crap and then had my alleged mistakes retweeted around the internet by hundreds of mockers (and I think, as I said, that Tim Harford was the main conduit: Harford tweeted that a single sentence discredited the whole book) then I’d have been pretty upset too. I’m generally more sensitive to that sort of thing than, say, Henry is. But I think what’s happened here is that David has allowed the Apple-mockery business to frame his whole view of Henry in a way that is inaccurate and, in the end, self-defeating. (David was arguing with Henry and Gabriel Rossman on twitter about the “tribute” thing at exactly the same time as the Apple retweeting was going on.)

=====================

I also has a minor reaction to David’s response to my own contribution. I had written of “market societies” and David immediately codes this as “markets”; I had written of pro-social punishment and David reads this as punishing the lazy. But that’s not what Sam Bowles (who I was channelling) has in mind. There’s a long literature that argues that capitalism tends to undermine the moral conditions of its own existence, that it depends for its functioning on the persistence of pre-capitalist norms which it eventually destroys. Bowles argues that such societies actually tend to generate some pro-social norms and backs this with a comparative study of different societies. The contrast is between northern Europe where strangers will come up and remonstrate if you park in front of a fire exit and Greece (or Iran) where people who pay their taxes get ridiculed as suckers. My response wasn’t intended as an endorsement of Bowles’s argument so much as to point to the fact that, insofar as David Graeber buys into something like Daniel Bell’s crowding-out thesis, there’s some new research that cast doubt on those assumptions.

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Phil 04.03.12 at 2:39 pm

I don’t think anyone deserves all the spite Graeber has mustered here; I don’t think it’s ever a useful or constructive form of discourse, although God knows it’s got enough of a pedigree in radical circles.

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Random Lurker 04.03.12 at 2:59 pm

“The contrast is between northern Europe where strangers will come up and remonstrate if you park in front of a fire exit and Greece (or Iran) where people who pay their taxes get ridiculed as suckers.”

Is the argument that capitalism tends to transform northern Europe in Greece (or Italy, for that matter)?
Because it seems to me that nothern/central Europe have a longer capitalist history than Greece, Italy or Iran.

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belle le triste 04.03.12 at 3:05 pm

Merchant banking was invented in Lombardy.

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William Timberman 04.03.12 at 3:12 pm

Phil @ 139

I don’t think anyone deserves all the spite Graeber has mustered here; I don’t think it’s ever a useful or constructive form of discourse, although God knows it’s got enough of a pedigree in radical circles.

Whatever God does or doesn’t know, none of us are God, and no matter how long a knitting needle you use when poking at someone, in the end, you can’t pretend that you aren’t at the other end of it. Wounding with polite discourse, then claiming innocence, seems to be an academic specialty. We all know how it works. Be as mean as you like, but don’t break any crockery.

Not having followed the history of Henry and David’s apparent antipathy toward one another, I can’t claim to know who started it, or who’s kept it going, and I certainly don’t want to be part of it. Nevertheless, openly expressed insults seem to me to be roughly equivalent, morally speaking, to a subtle smirk in the right quarters. Intemperance can take many forms, and all else being equal, I don’t see why one form should be favored over another when judging the substantive merits of an argument.

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Popeye 04.03.12 at 3:17 pm

Graeber @ 108:

My problem from the beginning with Farrell is that he’s not an honest interlocutor. When you’re dealing with someone like that, extended engagement just spins around in meaningless circles like this has generated. I have better things to do.

This is so disingenuous that I almost have to conclude that Farrell’s criticism was 100% dead on and Graeber knows it. Things started to “spin around in meaningless circles” when someone decided to go off on a long screed about “delegitimization” and “slick rhetorical moves” instead of focusing on the substance up for debate. Even if Farrell and Rossman’s reviews were completely dishonest and malicious — and quite frankly, they were not — the immediate allegations of bad character guaranteed that most of this thread would be a waste of time.

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Jacques Distler 04.03.12 at 3:31 pm

John Holbo said:

Suppose history had somehow gone very differently and the US did not exert global military hegemony, at the start of the 21st Century. Would the US$ still be a reserve currency for the world? Who the hell can say? It’s all connected, after all. If Graeber’s actually saying something interesting enough to bother about, I fail to see how it is not approximately the thing that Henry is bothered by.

Of course, any attempt to argue this point is to engage in dubious alternative-history counterfactuals. But, clearly, the US$’s status as a reserve currency derives in some measure from
a) the US status as the world’s dominant military power
b) the US status as the world’s dominant economy

Graeber’s argument, if it means anything, is that US$’s status as a reserve currency is the deliberate result of (a), rather than a (possibly incidental) result of (b).

It’s hard to contemplate the US continuing to exert global military dominance in a world in which its economic strength were drastically diminished. But the converse is not so hard. We can easily imagine an alternate history in which, after the end of the cold war, the neo-isolationists in the US won the policy debate, and now, two decades later, the US has beaten its aircraft carriers into plowshares.

Would the US$ still be the world’s reserve currency?

Plausibly. The alternative, in which the Euro replaced it, looks a whole lot more unlikely, today, than it looked five years ago. And that’s not because of any US saber-rattling; it’s because of the ECB’s apparent impotence in the face of the euro-zone’s sovereign debt crisis. The Japanese Yen, after their lost (going on two) decade(s), looks no more plausible.

US Treasuries are, today, the safest place to park your excess cash, for reasons that seem to have little to do with the number of aircraft carriers or predator drones that the US possesses, and much to do with other, non-military, factors.

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Random Lurker 04.03.12 at 3:34 pm

@belle le triste 141

Of course, I would even say that modern capitalism was born in Italy in the early renaissance, but then the path of trade changed because of the discovery of the Americas and, while central and northern Europe enjoyed a growing economy in part thanks to transatlantic trade/colonisation, Italy had a clear economic involution. In particular, the part of Italy have the highest tax evasion rate[1] is southern Italy, that was extremely underdeveloped during the whole 19th century.
So on the whole, if we speak of modern capitalism, I would say that Italy became capitalist later than, say, Germany (and certainly later than Denmark or England).
Unless you think that also low tech sharecropping on fields owned by aristocrats landlords who anyway sell the products (thus a non-subsistence economy) counts as capitalism.

[1] In proportion. In absolute terms tax evasion in the north is higer, but this happens in big part because northern Italians are much wealthier and as such pay (or should pay) much more taxes.

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David Graeber 04.03.12 at 3:42 pm

You know I tried to bow out but during my morning coffee I glanced again – and I saw Chris’ note so I probably should respond to that.

Well, there was a kind of comedy of errors and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it Chris. But yes, it could have gone better. As I remember I was first approached in November about the idea of an on-line seminar, responded “sure”. I don’t remember being consulted as to a date, other than getting the emails sent to everyone announcing one, and as it turned out the dates were smack in the middle of the period I was working with an incredibly intense deadline (I had to write an entire book in two months) so I couldn’t really participate. I guess if there was a real oversight it was not asking me if the dates were okay. Anyway so here I am with intense deadlines, hardly able to read email, and Chris writes to ask when I’ll have a response. Very politely and graciously, saying, of course you don’t have to, you can choose the format… But I kind of felt on the spot. So I checked the page and the first thing I see is Farrell. And he and Rossman were going after me on twitter. And someone told me about the Apple thing. So I wrote back and said I wasn’t going to write a reply, I don’t really want to have to defend myself against stuff like this. Especially since the Farrell piece struck me as a classic tactic of being superficially polite and actually extremely dishonestly nasty so as to bait someone. Best not reply. But Bertram asked me to reconsider, insisting most of the posts were very positive. Which was true and I was touched by those. Then I had the whole thing hanging over my head for a month when I had a zillion other things I really ought to have been doing… I really didn’t want to have to write this at all.

Generally speaking, I never pick fights, I don’t think I’ve ever written a hostile review, and I don’t think I am in any way uncivil or inconsiderate or unfair if people levy honest criticism of what I actually said. But I do have a tendency to show probably undue impatience with people who descend on me from nowhere denouncing me for things I obviously didn’t say. My usual solution to this problem is just not to reply – though sometimes I give in to temptation. This time I really didn’t want to have to.

I know Farrell is your friend but there’s a huge difference between disliking someone’s argument and applying the kind of apparently calculated dishonesty – or, alternately, contemptuous sloppiness – he employed. Like pretending I made up an argument without documentation when I clearly indicated I was adopting it from someone else and even started with block quotes from the guy. But again, my first reaction was I really didn’t want to have to write a reply at all.

Oh by the way: “I had written of pro-social punishment and David reads this as punishing the lazy.” Actually I was reacting to the fact that referred to punishing “free-riders and the like.” Now, it’s true, the phrase “free rider” covers a lot of range but historically it tends to be applied to those not pulling their weight by not contributing enough (being lazy) more than, say, cheating, especially since the latter tends to be more easily referred to just as “cheating” etc. This might just be a matter of my own anthropological background but when the issue comes up in the material I’m familiar with it’s usually around questions about how to deal with lazy folk in an egalitarian society where goods aren’t distributed according to performance. Anyway I hadn’t read the piece you were referring to, but I did think it worthwhile to point out in the book I had been challenging the entire notion that the existence of “free riders” is always a fundamental moral and social problem, as tends to be assumed in economic literature. That was all I was really getting at. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate choice of words and owing to my unfamiliarity with the Bowles argument – was he really talking about taxes or things like that? – I just got the wrong idea what you were saying.

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Jake 04.03.12 at 4:02 pm

Oh look, it’s a new irregular verb! I suffer from extreme time pressure, you misunderstood the point, he is calculatedly dishonest.

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belle le triste 04.03.12 at 4:06 pm

RL: no claims made, just a bit startled at your first formulation; much clearer now, thank you.

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Barry 04.03.12 at 4:57 pm

Barry Freed 04.02.12 at 3:39 pm

” Hoo boy, I’m only a little more than half way through reading Graeber’s response but I’m already putting on the popcorn. This should be a good ‘un.”

It’s like watching somebody throw all of his opponnents into one of those big grape-stomping pits, then take a potion of giantism, and proceed to make ‘red, red wine’ with them.

J. Otto Pohl 04.02.12 at 2:12 pm

” On the Apple quotation I would not sweat it. Nothing is perfect and even big shots sometimes make mistakes. If that is the only thing that the copy editors missed then you are doing a lot better than a lot of other writers.”

I had a saying that I called the Norm Ornstein Rule (named after the only honest guy in AEI). It says that if several people are saying that an organization is not a pile of s**t by using the same member’s name, then that guy is the only honest person in that organization.

We need a second rule, that if people all go around pointing at the *same* (non-critical) flaw in somebody’s work to dismiss that work, then that work might actually only have the one flaw.

It’s not a perfect rule, of course, but it could be a good guide.

150

Barry 04.03.12 at 5:13 pm

Tom Bach 04.02.12 at 9:42 pm

” Before getting to far into the weeds on the Apple error, it might help to read the section in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream about David Abraham and Weimar.

The Spanish example is particularly helpful because the Spanish underdevelopment wasn’t in anyone’s real long-term interest; just as denying global warming/climate change to avoid controls on carbon and coal is. And yet, oddly enough, lots of folks are willing to put long-term interests aside.

Odd how people, even the 1%, aren’t rational agents.”

Not really; the 1% are making out like bandits, and handing down massive advantages to their children (while remaking society into a place where those advantages are even stronger). If they don’t – well, loot the place – others will, and take those advantages for themselves.

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Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 5:14 pm

Barry,

I recanted and I’m a bit ashamed of that comment given what’s happened here, read on for my subsequent comments. It’s a shame really what a complete clusterfuck this turned into and it had the opportunity to be something really great. I think Substance McGravitas had the right of it above and the well was poisoned some time ago on twitter (and yet again there more recently). Twitter and thin, thin skins. (BTW, I think Gabriel Rossman has conducted himself admirably here in a manner most conducive to productive discourse, kudos).

152

Barry 04.03.12 at 5:30 pm

William Timberman 04.03.12 at 5:03 am

” Not being an economist, no doubt I’ve missed a whole lot, but I seem to remember that in the case of Spain, the gold and silver from the New World all wound up elsewhere, in exchange for goods that were of no great use in enhancing Spain’s own productive capacity and real (future) wealth. Am I wrong in thinking that being forced to watch a goodly amount of the available supply of dollars wind up in China in exchange for plastic storage bins, iPhones and cheap television sets should suggest some alarming parallels between the U.S. now and Spain then?”

Many people outside of Spain may have ended up with much of that wealth, but I’m willing to bet that the Spanish *elites* ended up with quite a bit, for quite some time.

153

Colin Danby 04.03.12 at 5:37 pm

Dave, “contentious” is a *good* thing. You make strong arguments, and people will and should come after you to show you wrong. Can your argument stand up? Sorting out facts is *always* part of this process. Henry’s original post was kinder than the average referee report. Graeber’s response is undignified fit-throwing.

And what Jake just said.

154

Steve Williams 04.03.12 at 5:43 pm

David Graeber

‘On the one hand they [China] are trying to pacify what probably looks from their point of view as a dangerous and somewhat irrationally violent group of barbarians armed with nuclear weapons’

Mr Graeber has written quite a few offensive sentences in this thread (really, we’re probably racing towards three figures at this point), but I’m voting for the sentence quoted above as a contender for the pick of the lot. Is everyone in Zhongnanhai a bigoted simpleton, I wonder, or just most?

Maybe we all look the same to “them”, as well.

Oh, and China has the bomb for the best part of 50 years too.

155

Steve LaBonne 04.03.12 at 5:47 pm

What’s so offensive there, Steve? Hell, the US looks pretty much like that to plenty of Americans.

156

William Timberman 04.03.12 at 6:01 pm

Barry @ 151

Yes, it does seem that if you’re high enough up the food chain, you can live off the proceeds of your banking system alone for quite a long time — e..g. Spain, Holland and England — but in the end, as Adam Smith was among the first to point out, national wealth and wealth for the consumer class, be that class as small as Spain’s in the day or as large as the U.S.’s before the recent decline began, are two different things.

157

hartal 04.03.12 at 6:01 pm

David Graeber writes:

“In other words, where many assume that anything like money or markets must be wiped out because even the simplest cash transaction contains some sort of evil DNA that, owing to some profound flaw in human nature, will grow and grow until capitalism is reestablished, I argue the opposite: that while markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence, in the absence of such violence, they will quickly turn into something far less obnoxious—and can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy. Kay correctly notes this is a direct challenge to a lot of received leftist ideas.”

Well this is a classic anarchist position, Proudhonist in its naivety. Evil located in the state and money men. Debt, debt, debt. Anti-semitism has fully infused this tradition. Markets themselves are seen as liberating, which implies skepticism of anything that smacks of planning (never mind that corporations do not eschew planning).

Graeber proclaims that he is not a Marxist. Of course. He sounds like a Proudhonist. Perhaps we should study what the school devolved into. Dudley Dillard will be helpful.

158

chrismealy 04.03.12 at 6:06 pm

I’m pretty sure China and Russia have nukes too. Why would they pay us tribute?

159

Stephen 04.03.12 at 6:32 pm

Two comments on the statement attributed to Prof Graebner (I do not know how accurately), that “The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together.”

One. Granted that the US military could, given its logistical capacity, in practice do that: on what points could it, within political constraints, actually do so? I would say, at a minimum level of reason, that the US cannot in practice drop bombs, without intolerable repercussions, on anywhere inside Russia, China, India, Japan, either Korea, Australia, Indonesia, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, any of the EU countries, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Brazil … and a whole list of other smaller places (apologies to Norway, Iceland, New Zealand …)

Two. The US dollar is now the main, but not the only, reserve currency. Pre-1914,if I have understood history rightly, sterling was the main, but not the only, reserve currency, to the advantage of the UK. That did not in any way depend on the ability of the UK to drop bombs on, or even to make a vaguely credible military threat against, any point on the surface of the planet: could they even threaten to invade Belgium, leave alone Germany or the US? Conclusion: having the main reserve currency, and benefiting from it, did not then depend on overwhelming military force. If it did not then, why must it now?

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Stephen 04.03.12 at 6:33 pm

Oh for an edit function. In practice should be in principle.

161

Phil 04.03.12 at 6:45 pm

openly expressed insults seem to me to be roughly equivalent, morally speaking, to a subtle smirk in the right quarters

In terms of offence given, that’s true enough, but in terms of corrupting the discourse the subtle smirk actually does much less harm. Take offence, if you think offence was intended; tell the person doing the offending that they’ve offended you. Then drop it and get back to pointing out that they’ve misquoted the second sub-clause on page 32. That way, if you’ve got the stronger case, you will win – the very worst that will happen is that they’ll start blustering and refusing to engage. But once you’ve kicked over the table it’ll stay kicked over.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 7:04 pm

Stephen,

It’s a direct quote from p365-6 of Debt. I suggest you read the book, most of which is truly excellent, but even without getting the book you can confirm this quote with Amazon’s “search inside” feature.

And on the substance of it, I completely agree with you that there are some pretty big constraints (including purely domestic ones) on our ability to send out USAF sorties in a way that means that our power as we could realistically exercise it is substantially less than our power as it exists on paper. This especially goes for if it were open fiscal gunboat diplomacy without a pretense of legitimacy. The sheer military disparity between core (especially the US) and periphery may be very great, but the normative constraints on naked aggression are correspondingly greater than when the US sent a show the flag expedition to open Japanese trade in 1853, the British used the Opium Wars to push dope and seize a colony from China in the mid 19th century, or the French sending a punitive expedition to demand indemnities from Haiti in 1825.

Actually, I think as much is implicit in how Graeber’s insistence on qualifying that his argument about Iraq and the euro was not the sole and direct cause but only possibly one of several contributing factors. However I don’t think he fully appreciates the implications of how problematic it is for the tribute model to understand that the USA cannot realistically exercise its technological capacity to destroy in the absence of at least a facially plausible causus belli.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 7:08 pm

,,,that the USA cannot realistically exercise its technological capacity to destroy in the absence of at least a facially plausible causus belli.

Wait. Apologies in advance for the thread derail, but I can’t let this slide. There was a facially plausible causus belli for the Invasion of Iraq?

164

Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 7:09 pm

Barry Freed,
The “odd” part of the comment was meant ironically; so, yes I agree that the 1% make out like bandits but only over the short run. Longer term they stand to lose quite a bit.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 7:10 pm

Hang on, Gulf War I and Kuwait. Okay. But still, I think that when we’re talkign about what teh limits of teh US making up reasons out of whole cloth to “service the target” – Iraw is a bad example.

166

Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 7:13 pm

Tom Bach, I am not the Barry who made the comment @04.03.12 at 5:13 pm that you are responding to. Carry on.

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Phil 04.03.12 at 7:13 pm

One more point, from the Department of Subtle Smirk Replay.

Graeber (quoted):

In fact, it could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. at its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world – in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s – with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and police and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy.

Farrell:

On the one hand, this identifies something real. There *is* a narrow consensus, which sharply defines the things that can or cannot be spoken of by Serious People. Coercion is of course, an important element of how the system survives. But the language here suggests a seamlessness, and a level of shared intention and planning on the part of the “rulers of the world” who have “constructed” and “designed” this system that seems to me implausible. Many of the most important features of modern capitalism have less to do with conscious coordination than with unconscious synchrony. Graeber, it seems to me, radically overestimates the extent to which monetary systems and debt arrangements are the product of conscious design. Furthermore, his apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people *like* monetized relations, and that sometimes they have good reason to prefer them over the more embedded forms of interaction that Graeber thinks are preferable.

Graeber:

He suggests this is borderline paranoid conspiracy theory, since, apparently, ruling classes don’t really rule or come up with strategies of domination. (This is another of those interesting taboos: when speaking of the past, one can speak of “ruling classes” pursuing strategies of rule, but when speaking of the present, this is crazy talk.) He then proceeds to say “this apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people *like* monetized relations” (emphasis his). Note here the slick rhetorical move. Once Farrell has suggested I’m sort of a nutter, he can attribute any sort of crazy argument to me and figure his audience will believe I really made it. In fact I never said remotely like that.

So:

1. Farrell said that Graeber was arguing that the entire system – capitalism, money, the whole shebang – rested on fear and hopelessness.
1.1. This is an inaccurate rendering of Graeber’s argument.
1.2. Farrell didn’t say this because he had misunderstood or misread Graeber’s argument, but because he wanted to discredit Graeber by attributing a “crazy argument” to him.
2. In order to make this credible, Farrell first had to present Graeber as “some sort of nutter”.
2.1. Farrell therefore said that Graeber’s argument was “borderline paranoid conspiracy theory”.

I’m not buying any of this. Farrell is clearly arguing that the fact that “many people *like* monetized relations” tends to sustain the system as it is, so that – for those people – there’s no need to look to the creation of “a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair”. (And surely Graeber wouldn’t deny that “the rulers of the world” – whether we personalise them or not – are in the business of system-supportive desires and dreams quite as much as they do fear and despair.) Nor is he smearing Graeber as paranoid, just saying that Graeber is suggesting “a level of shared intention and planning” which he, Farrell, finds implausible.

I’m deeply saddened and disappointed by all this.

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Jake 04.03.12 at 7:15 pm

Stephen @ 158: Before 1914, the UK most certainly did have overwhelming naval superiority – “the Sun never sets on the British Empire” etc – and used this to ensure the free flow of goods when they wanted and to prevent it when they didn’t.

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Wax Banks 04.03.12 at 7:16 pm

Well, this is a last thing I’ll say – I’ve moved on from the discussion.

You know I tried to bow out but during my morning coffee I glanced again

David G. –

That behaviour — where you stomp out of a conversation but can’t keep from ‘glancing again’ over your morning coffee, i.e. first thing in the fucking morning — is worth correcting.

170

Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 7:24 pm

Also too, isn’t the pre-1914 era also referred to as Pax Brittanica?

I haven’t read the book yet, but I absolutely must now. I just have to see what everyone is all up in arms about. I hoping it’s not just about bombing and nukes or whatnot. I mean I don’t think anyone is seriously arguing that the US does not have overwhelming military dominance and a prediliction for foreign adventurism. And sure Russia and China have got nukes – but so does Pakistan and they’re getting bombed out of “carelessness”. Anyways, isn’t there some sort of official US Military Force Power Projection policy?

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 7:26 pm

Dragon King,

Yes, believe it or not there was a facially plausible causus belli in Iraq. You may recall all that business about enforcing various UN resolutions, etc. To say “facially plausible” is not to say “valid” or “stands up to scrutiny” or “was demonstrated in retrospect to have been based on solid empirical assumptions.”

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Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 7:28 pm

Barry Freed,
Sorry for the error.

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Stephen 04.03.12 at 7:31 pm

Gabriel Rossman @161

Thanks for confirming that the statement attributed to Prof Graebner is in fact by him. Given the Kilkenny-Cats-Fight nature of the debate, if that is the word I am looking for, on this thread, any objective comment is welcome.

I’m glad that we agree there are in fact enormous and insurmountable external (we’ll bomb you back, or your economy will not survive) and internal (hell, no, we can’t do that, think of the next election) constraints on the USAF’s theoretical ability to bomb anywhere, anytime. Which does somewhat detract from Prof Graebner’s argument, no?

I should have included Saudi Arabia among the list of effectively unbombable states, of course.

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Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 7:36 pm

This is getting OT (which may be a welcome distraction at this point) but in the age of this new age of the drone are there (or will there soon be) any unbombable states?

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Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 7:37 pm

Sure there were all manner of untruths and liars running around in the lead up to the invasions; but surely, the name “shock and awe” was meant to have some resonance beyond the immediate dismantling of Iraq. As I recall, we moved from Afghanistan to Iran specifically because there were an insufficient number of shock and aweble targets in first.

Surely as well the Leeden doctrine, wasn’t it he, which insisted on the random destruction of some small or, in any event, weaker country every couple of years; or the more “rubble less trouble” thugs which seems to posit a connection, at least in the minds of pro-war maniacs, between American military domination and the our status as home to the world’s best treated 1% . To say nothing of Friedman and “his suck on this” remark.

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Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 7:37 pm

Ugh, sorry for the bad editing there but you get the idea.

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Steve LaBonne 04.03.12 at 7:40 pm

It seems to me that aside from its immorality, one striking feature of the US’s mania for blowing people up is how little it actually does to advance US interests however defined (even those of the 1%). Quite often it appears to do the contrary.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 7:41 pm

Wait. So we’re talking about Gulf War 2.

Okay, as abrasive as Graeber has been, you gotta be kidding that invading Iraq demonstrates the limits of how the US goes about picking military targets. The UN resolutions nominally being enforced – how did those get passed anyways? Might have something to do with the Lone Superpower and its attendant Military-Industrial Complex pushing for it, but then again maybe everyone did really believe that Saddam was 45 minutes away from nuking his own people or whatever.

Anyways, here’s a question. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know if anyone is actually arguing that the world economy actually is a tribute system – but for argument’s sake I will put forward that argument. We have one country with overwhelming military supremacy and it maintains trade deficits with practically every other nation on the planet. Maybe these facts aren’t related in any way whatsoever and it is all just a coincidence, but (and here’s the question) what difference does it make?

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Barry 04.03.12 at 7:47 pm

Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 7:13 pm

” Tom Bach, I am not the Barry who made the comment @04.03.12 at 5:13 pm that you are responding to. Carry on.”

That was by me, the evil Barry.

And it’s something that you knew, but I’ve noticed that it slips people’s minds so easily; several times in the comments to this post:

It doesn’t matter whether the country/empire prospers, so long as the elites do,
and it doesn’t matter if their great-grandchildren curse their names.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 7:49 pm

BF,

Seems like drones are mostly about killing nonstate actors within a sovereign state’s territory and not so much than taking on the sovereign state itself. Even to the extent that they are about coercing states, I don’t see how that gets past the legitimacy + retaliatory limits to force raised by Stephen @ 158.

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Barry 04.03.12 at 7:50 pm

Another: ” ,,,that the USA cannot realistically exercise its technological capacity to destroy in the absence of at least a facially plausible causus belli.”

Dragon-King Wangchuck “Wait. Apologies in advance for the thread derail, but I can’t let this slide. There was a facially plausible causus belli for the Invasion of Iraq?”

That’s sort of the point – it was plausible enough to enough people who mattered in and to the USA, and that’s all that was needed.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 7:51 pm

Or if we want to talk about bombing some more, consider Graeber’s example of the poker player with the shotgun. I mean surely, he wouldn’t actually shoot you – that would be illegal. He’d get arrested and not get re-elected and possibly go to jail for war crimes (just like Rumsfeld – LOL!). But what if he had a history of just randomly beating folks or even just funding other folks who were beating on you already or giving people exploding cigars or introducing other people’s family members to sadistic torture regimes. Anyways, any of a whole long list of unpleasantries, all of which are done with relative impunity – the implication being that the big shotgun kinda makes folks less likely to call the cops when the drunken rage sets in.

What I’m saying is even though the favourite phrase is “nothing is off the table”, a lot of stuff is going on at and under the table even while “negotiations” are playing out. That being bombed into the Stone Age isn’t the default alternative to cooperation being presented, there’s always targetted assassinations and trade embargoes and who knows what else the US military is capable of.

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Stephen 04.03.12 at 7:55 pm

jake@167: “Before 1914, the UK most certainly did have overwhelming naval superiority … and used this to ensure the free flow of goods when they wanted and to prevent it when they didn’t.”

One: ensuring the free flow of goods =/= being able to “at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet”. Which rather modifies Prof Graebner’s rather exreme statement, no?

Two: the UK pre-1914 was, as I understand it, committed to free trade. I would be grateful for instances of their using naval force to prevent the free flow of goods when they didn’t want it, outside actual wartime. The only obvious exception that comes to mind is the RN’s long and costly but ultimately successful endeavour to suppress slave trading. That may not, of course, be what Jake has in mind.

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Barry Freed 04.03.12 at 7:58 pm

Seems like drones are mostly about killing nonstate actors within a sovereign state’s territory and not so much than taking on the sovereign state itself

True. For now. But the future belongs to the drones and I suspect we’ll be seeing them applied in a multitude of new and alarming ways. Up to and including the assassination of state actors within a sovereign state’s territory but it won’t be called war. That wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

That was by me, the evil Barry.

Are you the one with the goatee?

It doesn’t matter whether the country/empire prospers, so long as the elites do

That can’t ever be said enough.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 8:01 pm

Even to the extent that they are about coercing states, I don’t see how that gets past the legitimacy + retaliatory limits to force raised by Stephen @ 158.

You’re kidding right? Even the official line is that the US is engaging in active military operations inside of Pakistan because Pakistan isn’t doing enough about “the terrorists.” IOW – do what we (the US) say or we’ll do it for you (and quite shoddily while we’re at it). Granted I don’t see the connection between this and US government bonds – but again, I haven’t read the book yet.

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Stephen 04.03.12 at 8:02 pm

Phil @ 166, quoting Prof Graebner:
“a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world – in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s – with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and police and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy.”

Graebner doesn’t seem to have ever spoken to friends in the ex-Soviet empire, then?

Hint: rulers of the world =/= US government

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 8:02 pm

Dragon King,

Yes, Graeber’s passage and the subsequent discussion was about the 2003 invasion. (There was no euro in 1990). And yes, those resolutions were themselves the result of aggressive American diplomacy (including bribing some nations w side-deals), but they were signed off on by other countries fairly powerful countries. My point is that if we try to imagine, say, the US bombing Argentina to punish it for defaulting it’s difficult to imagine such an effort getting much traction either diplomatically or domestically. Of course it is fairly plausible to imagine the US seizing overseas assets, trade embargoes, etc, but none of that has much to do with how many hours of flight time it takes our bombers and missiles to reach various points on the globe.

From your several comments my expectation is that you’d find chapter 12 convincing. For reasons I’ve already stated (and Henry among others added to), I did not.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.03.12 at 8:14 pm

So the issue is with the wording of it then. That since Graeber talked about bombing, it’s about bombing. I don’t want to speak for Graeber – he’s very unpleasant to folks he thinks are trying to do that. But – if he was using “bombing” as sort of the ultimate expression (since it’s “not off the table”) and that in fact it was much more likely to be a host of other unpleasant activities facilitated by having the most powerful military force in the world – does that make the disagreement go away?

Because really, I’m having trouble understanding the objection. One player with overwhelming military force and massive trade deficits. Sure there’s probably plenty of other plausible explanations of how that came to be, but Occam’s Razor and (I’m guessing here) some of the other non-objectionable chapters of the book kinda point in one direction. And when it comes down to it – does it actually make any difference? If the world economy were in fact a tribute system, what actual difference would there be from what we currently have?

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geo 04.03.12 at 8:39 pm

@187: If the world economy were in fact a tribute system, what actual difference would there be from what we currently have?

Addressing this question (or, if one feels it’s already been addressed, addressing it in still simpler terms, or even just repeating previous answer) would be much appreciated.

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WF 04.03.12 at 9:06 pm

If the world economy were in fact a tribute system, what actual difference would there be from what we currently have?
A glib answer would be: Zhou Xiaochuan wouldn’t rank above Hillary Clinton in the most powerful people in the world list.

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Walt 04.03.12 at 9:15 pm

In the wake of World War 2, the US had unprecedented military supremacy over half the world, and yet didn’t start running a large current account surplus until the early 1980s. That’s 40 years of tribute the US forgot to collect.

It makes a difference in that an accurate picture of how the world works is better than an inaccurate one. The idea that the trade deficit is the US extracting surplus from the world is part of the same circle of confused ideas that lead to austerity in the euro-zone — ideas based on thinking of countries (or their elites) like they are single households, or that money has value other than its purchasing power.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 9:15 pm

Geo and Dragon King,

Here are some speculations about what a modern world would look like that actually worked on tribute:

* little or no seignorage from great power rivals to the hegemon
* lots of seignorage from client states to the hegemon, especially client states that are especially dependent upon or vulnerable to the hegemon
* no competing reserve currencies issued by the hegemon’s closest allies
* competing reserve currencies issued by the hegemon’s great power rivals
* open discussion by the hegemon’s elites of the use of military force to enforce seignorage and the occasional exercise of the same. (it doesn’t count if the hegemon’s elites discuss and use military force only in terms of geostrategic concerns). Basically, think of some of the dialogs in Thucydides about enforcing Athenian hegemony over the Delian League

As to why it matters if we actually have a tribute system or just something that (allegedly) looks like one, I think there are two issues. One is that it’s nice to get the basic mechanism right even if the wrong mechanism happened to give reasonably good results (and I dispute that it does in this case). The sun more or less does look like it goes around the earth but eventually heliocentrism breaks down. The other is that the tribute argument has a moral dimension. I think pretty much all of us agree that it’s much more morally palatable for foreigners to buy dollar-denominated assets as a medium of exchange (or store of value or tacit export subsidy or whatever) than as tribute to avoid being bombed or invaded.

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Phil 04.03.12 at 9:35 pm

Inconsequentially, coming to this thread while reading the Hunger Games series is weird. (In Suzanne Collins’s dystopia, ‘tribute’ has a very particular meaning, somewhere between ‘tax’, ‘gladiator’ and ‘human sacrifice’.)

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geo 04.03.12 at 9:44 pm

Thanks, Gabriel, that’s very helpful. But haven’t other people already pointed out about point 3 that the euro was not viewed as serious potential competition by the US when it was devised? And about point 5 I have grave doubts: open discussion by US elites of the real reasons for their proposed military interventions is the very last thing you would expect, based on the historical record. According to US elites, every US military intervention in history has had as its motive to keep the peace, repel aggression, foster human rights and the welfare of peoples, or some other noble goal. The US has never, according to its elites, used force to suppress independent nationalism (aka “Communism”) or to enhance its strategic position in a resource-rich region. By the same token, it would never, according to its elites, use military force to enforce seignorage. Oddly, this account of US motives does not command assent among clients, rivals, or even allies. I can’t imagine why the statements of hegemonic elites would have even a shred of credibility, or the slightest weight as evidence, among political scientists.

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Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 9:52 pm

The Athenians justified the continuation of the Delian League after the treasury moved to Athens because of the Persian threat, no? It was, in other words, a geo-political argument for the continued collection of “dues” not an straight economic argument for “tribute.” The overthrow of Arbenz and Mossadeq were sold as geo-political yet both had important economic benefits for some one or another, no? Surely this demand for a justification by elites that is purely tribute based is asking a bit much.

196

Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 9:53 pm

Or what geo said.

197

Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 10:22 pm

Tom,

I was mostly thing about the late stages of the Delian League, after the Persian threat receded and Athens began bullying its allies around more severely.

geo,

I’m less cynical than you about the sincerity of expressed motives. Some times you have to read between the lines, but not too deep between the lines since it would be prohibitively difficult to coordinate strategy without ever saying more or less what you mean. And I think a lot of the motives you list for purposes of implying that they are merely pre-textual actually do have some subjective weight to the elites themselves. I don’t really see how else to explain Kosovo or Libya. (Qaddafi was a nuisance in the 1980s but has been an American client since 2003 — actively intervening to help a poorly understood group of rebels depose him was counterproductive to American power). For that matter, I don’t even really see how else besides the domino theory to explain the Viet Nam War since I’m highly skeptical that the US would have cared if we thought it was just a nationalist revolt against French colonialism, a ruling religious minority, etc. Even in the case of the Iraq War, I think you see the expressed motives of human rights, democracy, etc, having some weight (but not being determinative). Specifically, I see the “domino theory in reverse” democratization model as the best explanation for how the US (mis)handled the occupation with dissolving the army, de-Baathifying the bureaucracy, and other things that were counter-productive from the perspective of the pure exercise of punitive power, strategic counter-balance to Iran, control of oil, and other ulterior motives.

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Tom Bach 04.03.12 at 10:43 pm

Gabriel,
The bully round was justified by mutual defense not because they wanted to get rich, although rich they got.

I also wonder about this claim:
actively intervening to help a poorly understood group of rebels depose him was counterproductive to American power

As I recall the US NATO allies ran out of bombs relatively quickly and the US’s power was rather forcefully restated because it had all the weapons. In what way, I wonder, was “American power” undermined?

Relatedly, elites say things like opposing Obamcare or increased taxes on them is a result of their love of freedom. Are we supposed to take this a face value?

As to democratization, the absence of a coherent policy or set of policies for democratizing Iran after an invasion launched on trumped-up grounds suggests a less than full commitment to democracy, as I see things.

199

Ostap Bender 04.03.12 at 10:59 pm

Just read Henry’s original critique http://bit.ly/wNPhan

First — imo, Henry’s overall tone is passive-aggressive and patronizing and yes he is delegitimizing based on (very unoriginal) conspiracy theory “argumentation”. His overall attitude seems to be: “nice try but now i’ll tell you what’s going on here.”

So, according to Henry, Graeber started off nicely in his chapter 2 but then became irrational and got carried away with his “pet theory” in “suggesting” (Henry chooses his words carefully) the correlation between “military might” and economic interests. To that Henry offers the (rational?) ANSWER which says that all is much more complex and ultimately due to (magical?) “market forces.”

I ain’t an academic but if this mambo-jumbo is all Henry has to offer, I am not surprised that he and his learned colleagues ultimately had to resort to reprehending Graeber for naughty behavior.

200

hartal 04.03.12 at 11:04 pm

Highly skeptical of Graeber’s anti Marxian anarchism, but I find it surprising that Henry is so critical of Graeber’s ideas about the importance of military power to US monetary hegemony when he has not even read the book by a former colleague that is being received as one of the most important contributions in IPE in years (Carla Norrlof). So I don’t get it. Why attack the thesis if you are not interested in the most articulate version of it being discussed in your very academic circle presently? Something strange about this debate.

201

Ostap Bender 04.03.12 at 11:09 pm

“He who by profession has become a slave of trivial details is the victim of bureaucracy.”
– Antonio Gramsci

202

Donald Johnson 04.03.12 at 11:10 pm

“Some times you have to read between the lines, but not too deep between the lines since it would be prohibitively difficult to coordinate strategy without ever saying more or less what you mean”

Well, here’s where that Chomsky fellow comes in handy. You don’t get very far up in any social system if you don’t internalize a certain set of beliefs about how noble and wonderful the system is. Rich people might really believe that if you cut their taxes it will work out better for everyone. The Politburo really believed it was working for the betterment of workers all over the world and supporting liberation movements, or I assume some believed that at least part of the time, in the beginning.

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shah8 04.03.12 at 11:12 pm

I’ve been munching popcorn for awhile, but I think the chapter 12 controversy is fundamentally ridiculous. People *insist* on over-simplifying complex realities.

First of all, tribute is not about profitability, and rarely ever has been (i.e., Pizarro). It’s usually ultimately about paying a premium to assert a primary sense of central, and to place those who receive tribute in the middle of social, economic, and military ties.

One has to understand US Middle East policy as being about preserving a state of central actor-ship in the face of natural regional monopolies by well-established Egyptian, Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian polities. The US maintains ties with those willing to be friendly (Turkey and Egypt), and supports weak actors such as Israel, KSA in pursuing those aims. Iraq is a country with a strong resource base in terms of oil and water, and a reasonably strong human capital base. Left to it’s own devices, Iraq would be the primary country that matters to…say…Jordan or KSA, and not the US, and oil, which is a critical resource, would be dominated by politics that are not permeable by US state actors–which would not be an acceptable state of affairs. It’s bad enough that Iran has more of a say over Herat, and Pakistan is willing to ignore US interests in order to pursue Iranian gas for their energy-starved businesses. It would be a disaster if the leader of Iraq has more of a say about how much production Ghawar should undertake than any US politician.

Seignorage is not about tribute, but about state vision. It works like language does, and one would do well to read James C Scott’s Art of Not Being Governed, and think about the contents in terms of money instead of written language and institutions. One would also benefit, and benefit strongly by reading Barry Eichengreen’s books. Lastly, the lack of real understanding of 19th century history and economics is pernicious in a discussion like this. Not to mention the willful ignorance of the the Third World Debt Crisis.

Bottom line:
Is it a tribute system? Use our dollars, so we can get a discount on your stuff, or be bombed? A protection racket like that? No. Do countries actively fear being bombed if they don’t do such and such? No–international geopolitics is way too irrational (and opaque to small country leadership) for that threat to be more than noise. It *is*, however, a complement to military force, and is often used as a substitute or supplement to military force. The idea is not about profit, but about the secure sense and well-being of being on top, with cushiness for all in that 1% and their courtiers. Seignorage is fundamentally about *information rents*. You know who needs/wants what before anyone else does. The expense of maintaining dollar hegemony is about other countries *needing* to let agents of *your* country, such as international bankers, know what their needs and intentions are. It’s about making exits from any economic block friendly to your country–>expensive for that small country. It’s about being useful in ways that attracts people from a very long ways away. The UK and Ireland using regulatory arbitrate to insert themselves more firmly as central to the world engines is a close cousin of dollar hegemony. In this sense, no country will ever bomb you for not using their currency. Countries will bomb you for harboring designs of regional hegemony, and as such, piddling things like dollars and euros do not matter at this scale.

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Phil 04.03.12 at 11:40 pm

You don’t get very far up in any social system if you don’t internalize a certain set of beliefs about how noble and wonderful the system is.

On the contrary, I think people who genuinely believe the system they’re serving is noble and wonderful are precisely the kind who don’t get very far up in it, by and large. (Ronald Reagan’s the only obvious exception I can think of.) I think a much more common mentality is one of taking pride in running things (and after all somebody’s got to run things) in certain ways (which are, after all, the only practical ways to run things) and for certain ends (which are, after all, the only realistic and sensible ends to achieve). And what comes out when all those bracketed assumptions are challenged isn’t a hymn of praise to the status quo but bafflement and anger at anyone challenging anything so, so… *obvious*.

I think geo and Gabriel are both right: you won’t find a State Department memo in the 1954 files headed “Making Guatemala Safe For United Fruit”, whereas you probably will find a bunch of verbiage about freedom and strategic interests, but that’s not because the people involved held a super-sekrit unminuted meeting where they discussed what all that freedom guff *really* meant. Everyone knew what it really meant – maybe not explicitly, possibly not even consciously, but ‘freedom’ couldn’t mean political freedom plus nationalisation of foreign companies – it just wouldn’t have felt right.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.03.12 at 11:50 pm

Donald Johnson @ 201
I associate the internalization argument more w Bourdieu than Chomsky, but yes, I agree. Also, I see you as agreeing with me that stated motives of elites (whether in the USA or USSR) have some non-trivial sincerity and explanatory value.

Tom Bach @ 197
There’s no contradiction between your point that Libya was an exercise or demonstration of American power insofar as it showed off our superior inventory of missiles (and it’s not as if anybody doubted that America has a large arsenal) with my point that it had the effect of decreasing America’s strategic position by virtue of replacing a client with a poorly understood loose coalition of internally fractious rebels. Basically, it wasn’t the kind of thing that a thoroughly cynical hegemon would have done.

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mclaren 04.04.12 at 12:00 am

John Holbo claims: “In the book, Graeber is suggesting the strong – decidedly non-trivial – tribute thesis that Henry found doubtful: namely, countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency largely out of fear of being bombed.”

Permit me to suggest that this is a paraphrase which distorts Graeber’s argument so radically that it verges on deliberate misstatement.

A much better paraphrase would go like this: “In the book, Graeber is suggesting the strong – decidedly non-trivial – tribute thesis that Henry found doubtful: namely, countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency largely out of fear of being destabilized or placed on a sanctions list or losing most favored nation trading status or otherwise suffering economic and/or military retributions, up to and including having weapons and funds supplied to internal authoritarian elements which threaten the regime which tries to stand up the American global tribute system.”

The first version is crude and clearly false. The second version captures the subtlety of what happens in the real world and has a great deal of evidence to support it. Let me quote a U.S. diplomatic cable recently leaked:

We propose to tell the new government that Spain will appear on the Watch List if it does not do three things by October 2008. First, issue a [Government of Spain] announcement stating that Internet piracy is illegal, and that the copyright levy system does not compensate creators for copyrighted material acquired through peer-to-peer file sharing. Second, amend the 2006 “circular” that is widely interpreted in Spain as saying that peer-to-peer file sharing is legal. Third, announce that the GoS [Government of Spain] will adopt measures along the lines of the French and/or UK proposals aimed at curbing Internet piracy by the summer of 2009.

We will now encounter the obvious and foolish lie that this is not a direct threat against Spain, and the further and even more infantile lie that even if it is a direct threat against the government and economy of Spain, it has no bearing on the U.S. global reserve tribute system. That’s laughably easy to disprove, since the entire focus of America’s effort to force the rest of the world to enact SOPA-like laws is to preserve America’s “knowledge economy,” without which (since America has now outsourced and offshored so much of its physical manufacturing of durable goods) the U.S. dollar would drop like a rock.

We now pre-emptively debunk the lie that “America has not outsourced or offshored most of its physical manufacturing of durable goods” — consider the Forbes article “Why Amazon can’t make a Kindle in the U.S.” or the New York Times article “Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class.”

We now return to the regularly scheduled lies, smears and distortions launched in a failed and futile attempt to delegitimize Graeber’s inconvenient facts and inappropriate logic.

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 12:05 am

Gabriel Rossman,
So a Libya with no central authority because of internal political conflicts that might take years to resolve weakens America’s strategic position because? How does cynical enter into this? The idea that American elites get rid of a badly run state for a worsely (should that be a word) run one negatively effects America’s strategic position how? Qaddafi was a loon even if a client. How, forgive my thickheadedness, how does his absence make the US’s strategic position worse?

Also, as I recall the newspaper reporting, the US’s allies lack of bombs came as something of a shock. I mean it’s one thing to have everybody “know” something and it is quite another to show that, in fact, the US’ allies cannot sustained independent military activity, no?

208

Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 12:09 am

Sorry, I meant to add, especially after the whole Libyan nuclear thingy was defused? Isn’t, in fact, Libyan oil now headed to Turkey, which might shore up an important strategic alliance in the attempt to isolate Iraq?

209

Inconvenient Graeber Quotes 04.04.12 at 12:09 am

Permit me to suggest that this is a paraphrase which distorts Graeber’s argument so radically that it verges on deliberate misstatement. A much better paraphrase would go like this: “In the book, Graeber is suggesting the strong – decidedly non-trivial – tribute thesis that Henry found doubtful: namely, countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency largely out of fear of being destabilized or placed on a sanctions list or losing most favored nation trading status or otherwise suffering economic and/or military retributions, up to and including having weapons and funds supplied to internal authoritarian elements which threaten the regime which tries to stand up the American global tribute system.”

“… the fact that it [the US] can, at will, drop bombs with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capacity. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.” (Debt: The First 5,000 years, p.366)

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rf 04.04.12 at 12:11 am

@ Hartal
I’ve been meaning to get the Norrlof book since you mentioned it in Henrys original post. (I’m too broke at the minute though) Is there any chance, when you get the time, of expanding on what Norrlof has to say, and how it ties in with Graeber’s arguments?

211

mclaren 04.04.12 at 12:17 am

Inconvenient Graeber Quotes, thanks for providing us with that sterling example of a lie by omission. Your selective quote represents the classic cherry-picking fallacy.

In return, using your methods of selectively ignoring most of the evidence, I can prove that all prime numbers are even. The number 2 is prime, so there we go.

And you actually think your fallacious cherry-picking of one passage out of a multi-hundred page book constitutes a serious argument…?

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Peter T 04.04.12 at 12:17 am

shah8 makes good points. A lot of the discussion here – and certainly the argument in chapter 12 of Graeber – is missing a sense of how power shapes systems without overtly using force. Good power theorists, like Luttwak or Clauswitz are aware that the use of force can as often undermine influence based on power as reinforce it. The ability to inflict damage is not the same as the ability to force compliance, and this is a long-recognised weakness of air power used alone.

Iraq, for instance, weakened perceptions of US power – it revealed that the army was unable to support sustained combat against even a medium level insurgency. A shift to reliance on drones and bombers signals a weakening in US ability to shape events.

On the wider front, Graeber is surely right that perceptions of US power do influence economic flows. In particular, one might focus on the perception of the US as a safe haven, and the accompanying role of Wall St as the premier financial centre. And the use the US makes of this to pressure others. What, for instance, is the Chinese leadership making of US financial sanctions – extending well beyond its borders – against Iran? Won’t they be thinking that it would be a good move to insulate financial networks such as SWIFT from US politics, and move some of their more critical international dealing from Wall St? And if they succeeded in doing so, wouldn’t it weaken the US finance sector?

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hartal 04.04.12 at 12:22 am

I took a grad course at Harvard in International Political Economy…well…a very long time ago. So I am not current with the literature. I read Gilpin. Gilpin was Spiro’s advisor, Spiro lays out a security deal for T bills deal between the US govt and Saudi elites. Sad thing here is that the petrodollars were not recycled in such a way that the poor countries hit hardest by oil price hike got cheap loans. In fact the petrodollars ended up being lent to those third world countries that had oil deposits to develop.
Now I have only skimmed Norrlof, and since I haven’t followed the literature in a very long time, I was hoping that Henry or some other expert would comment on it. It seems to me that for the most part she makes the case that dollar got regional power at first in part due to military power. After WWII the dollar ascended to a global currency due to singular US economic and military power. Now it remains in that position due mainly to institutional inertia. But US military power–especially relative to Europe–plays some role in continuing global use and confidence that the dollar will remain the favored global currency. US military power also encourages other governments to keep on the good side of the US. In my opinion, whatever benefits the US as a whole draws from the status of the dollar are probably less important than the fillip that it provides to finance capital–the dominant fraction of the dominant class.
Again this is just based on a skim. Some of that I threw in. I have 65 papers to grade. No TA.
I want an expert opinion.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.04.12 at 12:32 am

Tom Bach @ 206

The main way it hurts the USA is by making it harder to credibly commit to future deals we’d like to make with prospective clients who have something as valuable to offer as intel on the AQ Khan network. Also, I don’t really see how it benefits the USA to demonstrate that our NATO allies are a paper tiger. (Nor for that matter do I see how it benefits those allies themselves, including France which was the main advocate for intervention). As for routing oil to Turkey, our deal with Qaddafi already included oil concessions for Britain and in any case I don’t think you can argue with a straight face that this was the reason we deposed him.

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Watson Ladd 04.04.12 at 12:36 am

shah8, that Israel is weak would be news to the Egyptian army, which got completely neutralized by an Israeli army a tiny fraction of the size and had to ask the US to beg Israel to hold off on taking Cario.

Lastly, anyone who wonders why the dollar is demanded has to realize that it is the only currency with a century of price stability, tied to the biggest economy in the world, one which continues to grow and with good leadership. The euro is too new and risky, the yen tied to a sclerotic economy, to be a good money for this. (Anyone who says tribute must explain why cocaine is sold for dollars. It can’t be because we would crack down more if it was euros.)

As for Sumer, new research indicates that Assyria had a monetized economy during the neo-Assyrian period. This is the result of recent archeological work in the 1980′s along with new analysis of the external trade.

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rf 04.04.12 at 12:37 am

Hartal
Thanks for the reply. Just going through the reviews on her webpage (the below from foreign affairs) it certainly looks interesting, and relevant.

“Drawing on “hegemonic stability theory,” which was developed by Charles Kindleberger, Robert Gilpin, and others in the 1970s and 1980s, Norrlof argues that the United States has incentives to use its dominant position to organize and maintain an open economic system, providing security and access to markets for other states while enjoying a steady stream of economic benefits for itself. With the special role of the dollar, the United States has been able to externalize the costs of macroeconomic adjustment, and its global military presence reinforces the perceived stability of the dollar and the U.S. market. Thanks to the mutually reinforcing logics of trade, money, and security, Norrlof argues, even a gradual decline in the United States’ global market share would not undermine its primacy.”

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Salient 04.04.12 at 1:11 am

The second version captures the subtlety of what happens in the real world and has a great deal of evidence to support it.

Your quoted passage is certainly reasonable evidence for the thesis that the U.S. is attempting to globally enforce domestic copyright law on behalf of copyright holders, but it doesn’t say anything about “countries adopting the US$ as a reserve currency.” Did you mean to quote a different passage?

The argument we’re having isn’t about “The United States demands that the rest of the world honor and accede to some version of various domestic laws protecting corporate entities, and backs that demand by credible force.” Instead it is, as you pointed out, very specifically about whether countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency for that reason.

The argument of the opposition is not “my word, the US would never do anything like that!” The argument of the opposition is more like: “Dollar-denominated foreign reserve currency is an unintended and adverse-to-the-US consequence of US policy. Since the claim that this particular consequence is backed by credible force would imply that dollar-denominated foreign reserve currency is intended and welcome-to-the-US, that claim is false.”

We can argue about whether dollar-denominated foreign reserve currency is intentional, the ways in which it benefits the US state, the ways in which it works against the aims of the US state. (Graeber did rightfully point out that we all should be rather specific and explicit about what we mean by “US state” there, but I don’t feel there’s any need to be more cautious than he was.)

But fine, whatever, I guess “We now return to the regularly scheduled lies, smears and distortions” is a pretty good indicator that talking about this further really has failed and is futile.

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Salient 04.04.12 at 1:19 am

Oh, and when we’re having a stupid argument about whether or not Graeber asserted X, calling a direct quote of the paragraph where he asserts X “cherry-picking” is just fueling the stupid fire. What would make more sense would be to say “look, it really doesn’t matter whether or not Graeber casually asserted X in passing, and it’s awfully stupid to spend time arguing over what exactly he meant by of ‘a case could well be made’ when we could be talking about his far more interesting and more well-supported assertion Y.”

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 1:39 am

Gabriel Rossman,
So if the US shows that it is the only power capable of waging war this doesn’t improve its strategic position relative to France and England should they want to pursue an independent foreign policy? That is to say, the US showed France and Britain that they are paper tigers which improves its bargaining position with them.

As to the clients and their information: bombs now or bombs later, might be the reason.

As to the oil, Britain isn’t Turkey.

As to straight faces, I find it hard to believe that anyone would resort to that kind of pointless non argumentative argument in a thread already cheapened by name calling and the like. I don’t think it is facial ridiculous to suggest that increasing US control over the dispersal of oil played a part in the decision to topple Qadaffi, given that was one outcome. But that’s just me.

I would suggest that insisting that we take seriously rhetorical flourishes about democracy creation, reverse dominoes and sincere anti-communism is less than convincing given the rather weak track record of the US doing any of the hard work necessary to create democracies in, say, Guatemala, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or Libya. Isn’t the proof of a pudding in its eating?

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Henry 04.04.12 at 1:45 am

@208 mclaren has a recent track record on this stuff which speaks both to his/her ineptitude in making sweeping claims and his/her specific unhappiness with me.

Hartal – I’m afraid I still haven’t read Carla’s book. Haven’t heard the buzz that you have – but this could be a function of the fact that I’m not in the game-theory stats heavy mainstream of IPE, but off to a small corner on the side.

And my response post, fwiw, will be ready some time tomorrow. Warning – it will be long.

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 1:47 am

Here’s a link to the Turkey shift in which it is suggested that Turkey’s decision is the result of US pressure:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkey-to-reduce-iranian-oil-imports-by-20-percent-under-pressure-from-us/2012/03/30/gIQACrV4kS_story.html
No bombs but still.

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Gabriel Rossman 04.04.12 at 1:48 am

Tom,
I’m taking off. I don’t mean that in a “I’m mad at you kind of way” because I’m not at all and I see you as a nice good faith kind of guy, but more in a “I’ve been dealing with this thread for two days now and I need to go cold turkey on it and get on with other things.”

best

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geo 04.04.12 at 1:54 am

Gabriel @196: I think a lot of the motives you list for purposes of implying that they are merely pre-textual actually do have some subjective weight to the elites themselves. I don’t really see how else to explain Kosovo or Libya.

I must say I’m a bit shocked that you seem to think that “to keep the peace, repel aggression, foster human rights and the welfare of peoples, or some other noble goal” figured materially in motivating US intervention in Kosovo, Libya, or anywhere else. Of course these are the stated goals, but if they were the real goals, then they would be regularly acted on not merely when doing so served other US interests, like preventing successful independent economic development, which might inspire similar aspirations elsewhere (eg, Cuba, Vietnam, Nicaragua); providing low-cost support to profitable clients (eg, Indonesia, Iraq vs. Iran); or distracting the electorate, or simply throwing a crappy little country up against the wall (Panama, Granada). The history of US interventions makes it clear that it has no interest in international law and order or human rights except as a marketing strategy. Don’t tell me it has succeeded with you?

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geo 04.04.12 at 1:56 am

Sorry, “Grenada,” of course.

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 2:09 am

Gabriel,
Now that we’re back on a first name basis. It has been a long strange thread.

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mclaren 04.04.12 at 2:16 am

Salient your irrelevant objection was already anticipated and debunked. Brush up on your reading comprehension, please.

“…the further and even more infantile lie that even if it is a direct threat against the government and economy of Spain, it has no bearing on the U.S. global reserve tribute system. That’s laughably easy to disprove, since the entire focus of America’s effort to force the rest of the world to enact SOPA-like laws is to preserve America’s “knowledge economy,” without which (since America has now outsourced and offshored so much of its physical manufacturing of durable goods) the U.S. dollar would drop like a rock.

Rule of thumb: if you can’t read the material, don’t bother trying to respond.

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 2:17 am

Geo,
Exactly. There is such a thing, it seems to me, as institutional inertia. 1898 is a pretty important year for the institution of American foreign policy.

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LFC 04.04.12 at 2:19 am

Geo:
For someone whose social and literary criticism and book reviews are nuanced, you have an exceptionally un-nuanced view of US foreign policy. Do you think, for instance, it’s irrelevant that Samantha Power, author of a book on genocide and Obama advisor, was presumably in the thick of the Libya decision-making? What elites say is worth paying attention to precisely b/c it’s a mixture of pretexts and other things and even on occasion sincere statements — the challenge is separating and identifying these elements. Your approach of “it’s all transparent pretext” ignores quite a lot. (For one example, the development of interest in human rights, especially in the ’70s: see for instance Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia.) I am critical of a lot of US foreign and military policy but the scalpel is stronger than the bludgeon, I think.

I thank Hartal btw for harping on the Norrlof book, which I have not read but might given his mentions. (I did spend about 2 minutes with the intro on google books and I would note her paragraph of caveats ['I'm not saying this and I'm not saying that'] on the top of p.8.)

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Tom Bach 04.04.12 at 2:28 am

LFC,
The use of the protection of the human rights of national minorities isn’t immune for misuse by horrid little people. See
http://books.google.com/books/about/Defending_the_Rights_of_Others.html?id=fR7y42jJezYC

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Salient 04.04.12 at 3:21 am

Well, let’s do some brushing up, then.

the entire focus of America’s effort to force the rest of the world to enact SOPA-like laws is to preserve America’s “knowledge economy,”

I completely agree, that’s the entire focus. Preservation of the “knowledge economy” is the desired outcome.

Since we’re also in agreement that “America has now outsourced and offshored so much of its physical manufacturing of durable goods,” I’ll go ahead and clip it with ellipses. (I personally think the US would be pulling the same SOPA-type crap even if businesses hadn’t outsourced and offshored so much of its physical manufacturing of durable goods.)

without which … the U.S. dollar would drop like a rock.

The form of the entire statement is: The US pursues A, without which we’d have not-B. Here B = “stability of the dollar” or something like that. It doesn’t assert anything about whether or not B is a desired outcome, let alone the desired outcome. It certainly doesn’t assert that A is pursued in order to accomplish B (and more importantly, it marshals no evidence whatsoever in support of that assertion). Anyhow, I’d happily read a filling-in of the details from you (more pleasant than getting called infantile etc), so maybe just ignore whatever I’m babbling about here and just make a case for what you’re asserting.

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geo 04.04.12 at 3:34 am

LFC: I don’t see that your and Gabriel’s view of US foreign policy is more nuanced than mine, Tom’s, or Chomsky’s. I think the main purposes of US foreign policy are the ones I laid out: creation of a favorable investment climate, undermining of possible alternatives by increasing actual and prospective barriers/costs to economic nationalism; pursuit of military/strategic advantage; and, where possible and necessary, distracting or placating the US domestic population, sometimes by appealing to revenge fantasies and sometimes by pretending noble motives, both of which are matters of indifference to those who actually control the institutions (essentially, business) to whom policymakers are accountable. The historical record is pretty clear: when there is anything substantial at stake, the US always acts for some combination of the first three reasons unless material or reputational costs would be too high, and never for idealistic reasons. When nothing substantial is at stake, actions have less value in determining basic motives.

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John Holbo 04.04.12 at 4:35 am

Since I’ve now been accused by maclaren of cherry-picking, let me produce the adjacent fruit, for fairness. The idea – maclaren’s idea – seems to be this: Graeber did not really mean, literally, that the US$ is a reserve currency because the US military projects global dominance. Rather, Graeber was loosely gesturing at the final point on a continuum of cases of exerted coercive power, that would include many non-military forms of arm-twisting. Bombs are vivid cases in point, but they are not supposed to be the only examples, or even the most important ones.

This does not fit with the text. What comes immediately prior to the bit I quoted is a discussion, not just of military power, but very specifically of air power.

“The U.S. military, unlike any other, maintains a doctrine of global power projection: that it should have the ability, through roughly 800 overseas military bases, to intervene with deadly force absolutely anywhere on the planet. In a way, though, land forces are secondary; at least since World War II, the key to U.S. military doctrine has always been a reliance on air power. The United States has fought no war in which it did not control the skies, and it has relied on aerial bombardment far more systematically than any other military – in its recent occupation of Iraq, for instance, even going so far as to bomb residential neighborhoods of cities ostensibly under its under control. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, and will …” (365-6)

And then we are back to the bit I picked from p. 366. So, far from supporting a looser, broader reading, the context actually supports a narrower, stricter reading than even I made. Graeber is not just saying that countries adopt the US$ as a reserve currency out of fear of the US military. It’s specifically that they fear the air force. (Ground forces are explicitly set aside as a ‘secondary’ factor.)

What follows the bit on p. 366? Some discussion of Hudson on how it is advantageous to the US to have its currency be the reserve. Then back to military stuff. “Since Nixon’s time, the most significant overseas buyers of U.S. treasury bonds have tended to be banks in countries that are effectively under U.S. military occupation” (367).

What’s really going here? In his post, Graeber disavows this ‘they adopt the US$ as reserve out of fear of the air force’ reading that is, as I have now shown, well-supported by his text. Well, that’s fine. You are allowed to change your mind. But it’s silly to accuse Henry of being unfair, for reading Graeber as saying what he, indeed, said. So Graeber should come clean and say: Chapter 12 was over the top. Yes. I got a bit carried away. Farrell wasn’t delegitimizing, he was reigning in a line that was getting seriously out of hand.

Now a more interesting question is: why did Graeber’s chapter go of the rails in this way? I think the charitable reading is this. Graeber thinks people don’t think seriously enough about the implications of the US having so much military power. We know it’s there, but we’re used to it and we don’t step back and say: this is really crazy and really important. But his foot slipped. He exaggerated, to overcompensate for what he takes to be general neglect of this topic. And Henry dinged him for exaggerating. Also, Graeber was too concerned to shoehorn a general issue – US imperialism – into this shoe – Debt. Rather than the plausible, albeit vague point he’s now saying he wanted to make ‘it’s all related’ – US military power, US dollars – we in fact got the implausible silver bullet shot: ‘the US air force is propping up the US dollar as reserve currency, and this is in effect a tribute racket’. I’m sure Graeber doesn’t believe this thing but he did, unwisely, say it in his book. He probably said it to be vivid and get people thinking about related stuff that’s important. And that’s fine. But he did say it.

This also explains why Graeber has been dropping erroneous hints and tweets that Henry must be some apologist for American imperialism or Nial Ferguson-lite type. He feels Henry pushing against the point he meant to make. But Henry was actually just pushing against what he said. This is not petty or delegitimizing or point-scoring on Henry’s part. It is a perfectly reasonable, pertinent critical angle to take. Henry praised the book generally but said one chapter was over the line. And I would concur. The book is on the whole quite good, but one chapter went off. It isn’t an attempt to delegitimate Graeber or his book to say so.

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Tony Lynch 04.04.12 at 4:39 am

I am finding the CT contributer tribalism rather trying. Why not have a cup of tea and a Bex and a good lie down?

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John Holbo 04.04.12 at 4:56 am

“Why not have a cup of tea”

No need for such a self-restrictive either/or! I was drinking a cup of tea while I composed that comment. (If there’s anything that the history of imperialism teaches us – British, in particular – it’s that you can drink tea while doing other stuff.)

You may object that I didn’t address the part of your comment that was about Bex and lying down. But this is only half fair. I am currently dosed on what I believe to be the local equivalent. But I have not seen fit to lie down. Fair enough.

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Ostap Bender 04.04.12 at 8:17 am

Henry and some of his learned colleagues seem to be doing what members of academia often do and which seems to be very effective marketing strategy for for the said members to gain some PR, build their brand/name. They get into disputes with higher profile academics than themselves. But everyone seems to be doing it, especially since the web 2.0, the age of self promotion… In any case, I am sure if academics had PR managers/agents (maybe they do?), they would mandate this technique for all their clients.

In fact, Graeber gained some very important PR via his dispute with Zizek in LRB. After that, Graeber got some space in The Guardian, etc… Even the Great Zizek is a provocateur of first order (which is imo justified considering his weltanschauung). But, sure, one can also say that debates are traditionally part of the academic’s job description.

So let’s agree that that is “normal”.

Of course, whether this practice is entirely parasitic can only be measured by the level of authenticity, argument, originality and ultimately history… which, unfortunately, all tend to be somewhat elusive categories…

This would be in response to all the conduct related commentary.

More concretely, in my estimation so far: Graeber passes. Zizek is the king. Henry fails (royally). Rossman fails (miserably). Chomsky is the ultimate gentleman.

We now return to the regularly scheduled….

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ciaran 04.04.12 at 8:33 am

@Ostap Bender
as in academia so also in hip-hop….

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Phil 04.04.12 at 10:27 am

Knowledge is cloud-shaped, clouds develop in conversations and conversations enact authority. As I was saying, a few years ago. (I really should have got it written up properly.)

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Katherine 04.04.12 at 11:01 am

Now now gentlemen, let’s not get testerical.

It seems fairly obvious to me that both Graeber and Henry have been speaking in good faith, although with their blood raised, and assuming that the other is speaking in bad faith, and calculatedly. No good can come of continuing in that vein.

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soru 04.04.12 at 11:14 am

Also, Graeber was too concerned to shoehorn a general issue – US imperialism – into this shoe – Debt.

It does seem rather as if Chomsky, instead of writing books for the general reader on Vietnam, had added a aside to one of his academic linguistic works apparently claiming universal grammar caused the Gulf of Tomkin incident or some such.

And then when questioned, retreated to ‘is it really a conicidence that English is the most widespread world language?’ and ‘why are you defending the bombing of Cambodia?’

If you have a novel academic idea or perspective, and that does have a genuine logical connection to a political argument, then that’s one thing. Another is if you have such an idea, and it merely _doesn’t contradict_ the kind of things you (and perhaps everyone you know?) already believes.

It can be helpful to keep the two cases in mind as possibilities; only one will be true.

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Agog 04.04.12 at 12:02 pm

Regarding the relation of this hotly-debated chapter to the rest of Debt, nobody has pointed out that Michael Hudson has written extensively about ancient credit/money systems and debt jubilees as well as (earlier, I think) his idea of“Superimperialism.”

Hope that’s helpful to people who haven’t read the book.

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rf 04.04.12 at 12:31 pm

Geo: “I don’t see that your and Gabriel’s view of US foreign policy is more nuanced than mine, Tom’s, or Chomsky’s.”

On the basis of Gabriel Rossman’s comment at 197 and what Geo has had to say on this thread, I’d have to think this sounds reasonable.
Fwiw Odd Arne Westad’s explanation for US foreign policy adventurism, outlined in his book The Global Cold War, seems to me a convincing analysis (Maintaining US hegemony and ‘human rights promotion’ –taking that as a broad term – aren’t mutually exclusive concepts but inseparable and deeply ingrained aspects of a US foreign policy ideology) Or to quote him at length for clarity:

“By the mid twentieth century both liberty and interest – “theory” and “tastes” – had natural and integrated places in US foreign policy ideology, wielded together as symbols and key perceptions in a universalist understanding of Americas mission. During the Cold War what set the function of these ideas apart from those of ‘normal’ states within the Western state system was how American symbols and images –the free market, anti-communism, fear of state power, faith in technology – had teleological functions: what is America today will be the world tomorrow….It therefore makes sense to speak of an American ideology that goes back two hundred years, but it is an evolving ideology into which generational experiences are interpreted and perceptual conflicts solved.
The history of America’s interventions in the Third World is very much the history of how this ideology developed over time and how it framed the policies of the US foreign policy elite.”

Agog
Thanks, you just saved me £20!

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Steve LaBonne 04.04.12 at 12:45 pm

Now now gentlemen, let’s not get testerical.

That’s a wonderful word- I am so going to steal it.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 1:10 pm

HF should at least be flattered that his contribution was taken seriously. Rob Horning’s and DD’s attacks were so inept they were relegated to the ‘More pleasant responses’ section.

I noticed that in HF’s piece – titled ‘The world economy is not a tribute system’, remember, i.e. headlining with what was clearly meant as a flat contradiction of Graeber – the chapter he ‘liked’ was addressed only superficially (and its unoriginality was focussed on), and seemed to function mostly to introduce a quote from Mencken about simplistic arguments – which was then applied to Graeber’s thesis about tribute. As a self-confessed wearer of the foil helmet (reclaim ‘conspiracy theorist’ from the haters! Cf ‘queer’, ‘nigga’.), I recognised a number of delegitimation ‘tropes’ in Henry’s discussion, and though this doesn’t mean he was adopting a conscious delegitimation tactic (hatched in a smoky room with Gabriel whassname, JH, and DD), I never mind seeing this kind of thing getting a good old upbraiding.

I note that the standard incidents of anti-conspiratorial rhetoric tend to obey the third law of bullshit methodology – that for every BSM principle, there is an equal and opposite counter-principle, just as superficially plausible. (Relatives would be the most eager to find the truth – or most likely to want to draw a line; the simplest account is the most probable (Occam’s Razor) – or the world is complex and we must follow the evidence without imposing patterns (do not use Occam’s Erasor); a functional explanation implies an implausible degree of intentional control – or we should not infer intention from function. HF takes the ‘too simple’ route and the implausible degree of intentional control route, based on winkling out a single mention of the word ‘designed’, and riffs on it.

HF also spends a lot of space quoting Graeber on the need for scholarly rigour and proper footnoting, in another failed attempt at a neat tu quoque – i.e. all aimed at specifically and personally accusing Graeber of being unscholarly.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 1:11 pm

But most importantly, given the parodic versions of Graeber’s thesis presented by HF, JH et al., it’s worth looking at the relavant passage in full, to see whether they are exegetically supportable (I don’t think they are).

Before posting that passage and probably consigning myself to moderation for length (Sorry, mod), I’d just add:
1. that Graeber’s account of the importance of defending dollar hegemony compares favourable with the cursory, dismissive and rather evasive accounts that I’ve encountered from those keen to poo-poo the idea.
2. that anyone claiming to be evidence-sensitive should acknoweldge that the US (diplomatic corps) gace Saddam green light to invade Kuwait, then made up a load of stuff about babies in incubators, then rescued Kuwait, in the process installing a permanent military presence in K and Saudi Arabia (after 9-11 and the resultant rise of the ‘AQ’ banner, the Saudi installations were relocated over the border to Qatar).

So, that passage:

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 1:11 pm

The U.S. military, unlike any other, maintains a doctrine of global power projection: that it should have the ability, through roughly 800 overseas military bases, to intervene with deadly force absolutely anywhere on the planet. In a way, though, land forces are secondary; at least since World War II, the key to U.S. military doctrine has always been a reliance on air power. The United States has fought no war in which it did not control the skies, and it has relied on aerial bombardment far more systematically than any other military—in its recent occupation of Iraq, for instance, even going so far as to bomb residential neighborhoods of cities ostensibly under its own control. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet.11 No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.

Because of United States trade deficits, huge numbers of dollars circulate outside the country; and one effect of Nixon’s floating of the dollar was that foreign central banks have little they can do with these dollars except to use them to buy U.S. treasury bonds.12 This is what is meant by the dollar becoming the world’s “reserve currency.” These bonds are, like all bonds, supposed to be loans that will eventually mature and be repaid, but as economist Michael Hudson, who first began observing the phenomenon in the early ’70s, noted, they never really do:

To the extent that these Treasury IOUs are being built into the world’s monetary base they will not have to be repaid, but are to be rolled over indefinitely. This feature is the essence of America’s free financial ride, a tax imposed at the entire globe’s expense.14

What’s more, over time, the combined effect of low interest payments and the inflation is that these bonds actually depreciate in value—adding to the tax effect, or as I preferred to put it in the first chapter, “tribute.” Economists prefer to call it “seigniorage.” The effect, though, is that American imperial power is based on a debt that will never—can never—be repaid. Its national debt has become a promise, not just to its own people, but to the nations of the entire world, that everyone knows will not be kept.

At the same time, U.S. policy was to insist that those countries relying on U.S. treasury bonds as their reserve currency behaved in exactly the opposite way as they did: observing tight money policies and scrupulously repaying their debts.

As I’ve already observed, since Nixon’s time, the most significant overseas buyers of U.S. treasury bonds have tended to be banks in countries that were effectively under U.S. military occupation. In Europe, Nixon’s most enthusiastic ally in this respect was West Germany, which then hosted more than three hundred thousand U.S. troops. In more recent decades the focus has shifted to Asia, particularly the central banks of countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea—again, all U.S. military protectorates. What’s more, the global status of the dollar is maintained in large part by the fact that it is, again since 1971, the only currency used to buy and sell petroleum, with any attempt by OPEC countries to begin trading in any currency stubbornly resisted by OPEC members Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—also U.S. military protectorates. When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation.14

How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.15

NOTES:

11. Indeed, perhaps the greatest compromise to United States global power in recent years is the fact that there is now one place —the region of China facing Taiwan—where air defenses are now so dense and sophisticated that the United States Air Force is no longer certain that it can penetrate at will. The inability to blow up Osama bin Laden is, of course, the most dramatic limit to this power.
12. Or, to put the money in the United States stock market, which ultimately has a similar effect. As Hudson notes, “American diplomats have made it clear that to buy control of U.S. companies or even to return to gold would be viewed as an unfriendly act” (2002a:7) [sic: s/b '2003a', I think - TW], so, unless they want to move out of dollars entirely, which would be considered an even more unfriendly act, there is little alternative. As to how “unfriendly” acts might be received: see below.
13. Hudson 2002a:120 [ditto - TW]
14. As many have remarked, the three countries that switched to the euro around this time—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—were precisely those singled out by Bush as his “Axis of Evil.” Of course we can argue about cause and effect here. It’s also significant that the core euro-using states such as France and Germany uniformly opposed the war, while U.S. allies were drawn from euro-skeptics like the UK.
15. For a few representative takes on the relation of the dollar and empire: from a neoclassical economic perspective, Ferguson (2001, 2004), from a radical Keynesian perspective, Hudson (2003a), from a Marxist one, Brenner (2002).

REFS:
Brenner, Robert. 2002. The Boom and the Bubble: The US in the World Economy. London and New York: Verso.

Ferguson, Niall. 2001. The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000. London: Allen Lane

_____. 2004. Colossus: the price of America’s empire. London: Penguin

Hudson, Michael. 2003a. Super Imperialism: The Origins and Fundamentals of U.S World Dominance. London: Pluto Press

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 1:15 pm

‘poo-poo’ -> ‘pooh-pooh’, I think.

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Henry 04.04.12 at 1:34 pm

bq. Henry and some of his learned colleagues seem to be doing what members of academia often do and which seems to be very effective marketing strategy for for the said members to gain some PR, build their brand/name. They get into disputes with higher profile academics than themselves.

Osip – this isn’t _prima facie_ plausible – getting into fights with anthropologists is not a useful way for political scientists to win recognition. Most of my colleagues in IR will recognize Karl Polanyi’s name – and that’s about it for the entire field of anthropology (you may say that this is a problem with my field, and you would be right, but that’s an entirely different debate). Trust me when I say that this falls under the category of a massive pain in the arse, and annoying distraction from work that I would much prefer to be doing, and which I find much more interesting (and which _would_ likely contribute directly to my career, although that’s a side-benefit).

Katherine – I actually don’t think that Graeber is arguing in bad faith. Indeed I’m sure that he entirely and fully believes in what he’s saying.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.04.12 at 1:41 pm

Hey, just want to say thanks to everyone for the discussion that wasn’t specifically about “the unpleasantness.” I’ve learned a lot – mostly that there is a lot of stuff here that I don’t have any clue about.

I hope it’s still okay to ramble on about the topic of seignorage and hegemony. The list of characteristics in Gabriel Rossman’s comment about what a global tribute system would actually look like helps me understand a bit better, and I’d like to talk about it somewhat.

I think others have mentioned that if you don’t consider the Euro as a real competitor to the US dollar, than we have what looks a lot like what’s been described. But I think it goes further than that. Not that I’m claiming that Europe is just a collection of client states for the US – I have some crazy beliefs, but the sky is still blue in my world. I’m suggesting that the level of ongoing co-ordination and co-operation between the Western powers is ahistorically high. Is there really anything that compares? The innumerable joint task forces, co-ordination of intelligence assets, multi-national forces where command and control rotates amongst member nations – I’m not a historian so I might have this all wrong, but I don’t recall anything on this level happening except in cases of World War.

Can it be hegemony if there is a rival power but that rival power is very friendly and co-operative? I suppose that by the definition of hegemony, you can’t. But if you consider the Euro-US dollar duopoly, that’s close to nine tenths of global reserve currency. And if you also consider the Euro as part of a two-headed global empire, then we can check off the point about open discussions about enforcing seignorage. Discussions which might involve military preparations to address potentially belligerent opposition. And while those opponents might not be “state actors” by the literal definition, the argument could be made that they are more representative of the state than the official policymakers. And if I personally were able to deliver a compelling version of that argument I would. Because I believe there is truth to it.

How about if I make the observation that the current crop of elites with the bulk of policy-making power in both jurisdictions have incredibly similar (shall we say austere) ideologies. Or at least that’s what it looks like to someone that isn’t immersed in international relations day in and day out. I’m sure there’s nuance and probably outright rifts that I don’t know about. That’s something this thread has reminded me of, that there’s lots I don’t know about.

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LFC 04.04.12 at 1:45 pm

I would just note that this

2. that anyone claiming to be evidence-sensitive should acknowledge that the US (diplomatic corps) gave Saddam green light to invade Kuwait, then made up a load of stuff about babies in incubators, then rescued Kuwait, in the process installing a permanent military presence in K and Saudi Arabia (after 9-11 and the resultant rise of the ‘AQ’ banner, the Saudi installations were relocated over the border to Qatar).

has no relevance to the discussion since, as I believe was also noted upthread, no one AFAICT is claiming that ‘Gulf War I’ (Desert Storm, whatever label you want) was somehow related to Saddam’s bucking the dollar. The euro did not exist in 1990, as has already been noted.

I also want to make a brief point or two about airpower: (1) it’s not just the airplanes that make for power projection, it’s the aircraft carriers that carry them. An airforce without the carriers isn’t a lot of good for ‘global power projection’, which is partly why the US military has eleven carriers and, to replace aging ones, is currently building two more at a cost of roughly $12 billion each; (2) airpower alone doesn’t win wars, at least not conventional interstate wars. I could be wrong but I think there’s pretty much a consensus of mil. experts on that. Of course there aren’t any interstate wars going on in the world right now so it may be something of a moot point. And airpower can certainly intimidate, terrorize, cause destruction etc even if it can’t win wars, that’s true.

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Henry 04.04.12 at 1:59 pm

Tim – I’m finishing up my post, which will talk more to some of these issues, likely not to your full satisfaction, but there you go. The short version is that I’ve no problem _at all_ with all-about-the-power-and-goodies explanations, but do want to see good evidence. There is excellent evidence, for example, that the US views access to oil as a vital national interest, and that the threat of military action always looms in the background. There is no very good evidence that the threat of military action looms in the background of decisions about currencies.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.04.12 at 2:10 pm

Speaking of considering only how things appear as opposed to actual function, I think this graphical representation says a lot.

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 3:22 pm

Phil @ 161

(A belated response, this, but the rest of life intervened for much of yesterday. Catching up to the wave has taken some time. )

In terms of offence given, that’s true enough, but in terms of corrupting the discourse the subtle smirk actually does much less harm.

I don’t think so. The corrupting influence of both is amply evident right in this thread, in which rhetorical tricks based on an implied pecking order are as common as all-out rhetorical assaults, and in the end have done just as much, in my opinion, to deflect attention from the actual substance of the argument. If you want to decry the derailment of a substantive discussion, is there really much to choose from between As an outsider, you obviously aren’t aware that experts have already debunked your rather simplistic view of the effects of X and So’s your old lady? As I said, I don’t think so.

As to the substance of what’s wrong with Chapter 12, my take is that Henry, et al., have in essence accused David of overextending his tribute metaphor, and waved away objections to it with unprovable assertions of a hidden mechanism that he claims cannot be described with any specificity, but which resembles in important ways the evil effects of the tribute systems of earlier times. David has replied with accusations of delegitimization based not on errors in the marshaling of evidence for his argument, but malice in defense of a status quo which Henry profits from, but David does not.

What I notice, after reading the book, and noting not only Henry’s, but DD’s objections to its conclusions, is that similar objections have long been raised against Chomsky’s explanations of how power has worked itself out in the implementation of U.S. foreign policy. In both cases — assuming the reasoning in good faith of the critics, which I have no reason to deny — the argument against is based on internal, and in some cases privileged evidence. Some version of I was there, and it didn’t happen like that, or I have years of experience investigating the details of how X affects Y, and it doesn’t work like that, is almost always a part of it.

To be honest, I prefer the way in which Geo seems to approach the issue, which is to ask why — if things don’t really work the way David says they do — do the results so often indicate that it might as well work the way he says it does. This is not conclusive proof that David is right — or Chomsky either, for that matter — but neither, in my opinion, does it prove that he’s wrong. Something I don’t like very much is definitely awry in the explanations the U.S. government and its defenders offer for why it does what everyone outside of its foreign policy circles admits that it does. No one from inside that charmed circle is any more convincing to me than David is — in fact, most of them seem to be lying outright. Even if David is overextending his metaphor, I can’t help feeling that at this point someone damned well ought to be doing exactly that — pour encourager les autres, if for no other reason.

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Walt 04.04.12 at 3:38 pm

That passage points to how important it is to kill this idea that the US works behind the scenes to promote dollar hegemony. Look at the countries that Graeber lists — West Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea — and add today’s most vigorous payer of “tribute”, China. What is that a list of? It’s a list of the most spectacular examples of economic growth in human history. It’s a list of countries that either rebuilt industries destroyed in war, or built industries from scratch to become major economic powers.

Even the most cursory glance of the facts will show that the evidence for the tribute thesis is weak. Somewhat notoriously, Germany has disproportionate power within the euro-zone. Do they use this power to demand “tribute”? No, it’s the exact opposite — it’s Germany that runs a trade surplus with Spain and Italy and Greece.

China and Russia both have current account surpluses, while former communist countries that are more firmly in US orbit, such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia run current account deficits. Has the US has somehow concocted a system where nuclear-armed rivals have to pay, while military helpless client states get paid?

Before about 1982 the US didn’t run a large current account deficit. In the 80s, the US used its influence to get West Germany and Japan to cut back on their trade surpluses with the US — and this wasn’t just talk, the current account deficit shrunk for a while. After Ben Bernanke became Fed chair, he complained about a “global savings glut” that lead to the US’ large current account deficits. Every couple of years, Congress flirts with doing something about China’s currency manipulation. Whenever the current account gets in the news, it’s always as a menace.

This is not an argument about whether the US does bad things. Of course the US does bad things, and it uses its disproportionate power in the world to advance its own interests. The US really installed Pinochet. The US really uses its power to impose intellectual property laws on other countries. But the evidence that the US uses its power to deliberately run a current account deficit, and that running a current account deficit is even bad for the countries running the surplus, is very weak. It’s a superficially plausible idea that sounds sophisticated, but it’s just not true. And if you believe the idea, you will understand how the global economy works less well. It’s on the level of Ron-Paul-style gold-buggery.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 3:41 pm

Well, I would just note that 1. since (a) the passage under discussion refers directly to the relevance of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia being US protectorates and (b) there has been much talk of drawing conclusions according to the evidence, it is in fact highly relevant; 2. that rather than diverting the issue to that of ‘relevance’ it would be more interesting to address the small matter of accuracy – because to me it looks as though the manifest facts seem to be widely ignored or discounted, AFAICT on the basis of generic ‘implausibility’, ‘conspiracism’ etc. – as though such a basic diplomatic manoeuvre were unheard of, bizarre, outré or out of (national-elite) character, or something.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 3:43 pm

Previous addressed to LFC @249

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 3:50 pm

Walt, the flaw is see in your argument is this: that the U.S. is bound to fail in getting its way — here, there, and in the end perhaps everywhere — doesn’t mean that it hasn’t tried.

But that’s a long discussion. Maybe it would be better to wait for the other shoe — i.e. Henry’s much anticipated reply the OP.

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Steve LaBonne 04.04.12 at 3:55 pm

Walt, the flaw is see in your argument is this: that the U.S. is bound to fail in getting its way —here, there, and in the end perhaps everywhere—doesn’t mean that it hasn’t tried.

But there is plenty of evidence that it has tried, quite strenuously, with respect to intellectual property law. On the other hand, the next time somebody comes up with solid evidence that it has done the same with regard to the dollar’s use as a reserve currency will be the first. Moreover, it’s easy to see who among the US 1% benefit from the former; the latter, not so much.

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.04.12 at 4:21 pm

What is that a list of? It’s a list of the most spectacular examples of economic growth in human history. It’s a list of countries that either rebuilt industries destroyed in war, or built industries from scratch to become major economic powers.

You know, there’s no specific reason why a nation paying tribute would necessarily do badly unless the level of tribute was something grotesquely unbearable. I think someone mentioned that all that gold and silver carried forth by Spanish conquistadores didn’t help the average Spaniard (although to be fair, it didn’t help the natives either). How about instead we hang tea bags from our tricorner hats and harrumph a lot.

I think the key here is the second sentence of yours that I quoted. Massive amounts of industrialization and rebuilding leads to extraordinary economic growth. Certainly seems reasonable – whether there’s tribute exacted or not.

Before about 1982 the US didn’t run a large current account deficit.

Before about 1982, the US did not have near-monopoly on exerting military force in any corner of the world. Your data point actually feeds our conspiracy theories!

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Agog 04.04.12 at 4:30 pm

“Whenever the current account gets in the news, it’s always as a menace.”

“Four legs good, CAD bad.”

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Ostap Bender 04.04.12 at 4:44 pm

Thanks for the link, Agog #240

Yes, Graeber says he derived directly from Hudson’s “Superimperialism”. As per Henry’s request for sources in the course of this discussion, Graeber also linked to the (well documented) Hudson’s article “De-Dollarization: Dismantling America’s Financial-Military Empire / The Yekaterinburg Turning Point” (http://bit.ly/3WdTc) that directly addresses the issue at dispute here.

Hope Henry addresses the Hudson article in his anticipated, long response (as Graeber explicitely invited him to).

Otherwise, Henry will likely fail again.

@ Henry #247,
I am a visual artist, in fact a designer, and the cross/inter/multi-disciplinary approach in contemporary art/design as well as I think is increasingly the case in contemporary science is necessity and reality. This seems to be relevant not only within art or science per se but also between the different species of human knowledge, such as art and science (I am the living proof). The lines are blurred and I don’t think this is a controversial concept at all. To bring this as an argument strikes me as reactionary and as some kind of logical acrobatics and a “double bind” (http://bit.ly/39lySc) despite (or perhaps better to say especially because of) your acknowledgement of this as a problem…

But even that aside, your ‘Crooked Timber’ readership is not political scientists only (again, I am the living proof) and I think you should be aware that involvement here arguably contributes more to your overall notoriety and prominence than your reputation within the narrow circle within your profession. Why else would you be a regular contributor at CT?

Besides, Graeber is extremely (and openly) political and he openly declares himself to be an activist even. He even claims that he is one of the initiators of the OWS and I even read an early interview with him where he claims (perhaps somewhat vainly) that he came up with the 1% vs 99% catch phrase. And “Debt” is hugely influential with general public, especially the politically engaged portion of it. It can’t get more relevant than that for a political scientist today.

Imo (@Graeber, I will stroke your vanity here but will trust you that you will not let it go to your head), it can be even said that as Nietzsche felt that it is necessary for philosopher to be artists, Graeber does the same in terms of being an activist, thus, in a way, invents and/or at least builds upon/takes to a new level the scientific-scholarly-political genre (not to be confused with populism i.e. pbs-like ‘popular science’ approach).

So, Henry, by any standard you should not treat this as the “pain in the arse” if you are serious about being a political scientist. Political scientists should not ignore work of politically relevant scholar-activists. Therefore your argument doesn’t really speak in your favor at all. Not to mention that it may be offensive to your audience (especially considering you are listed as a regular contributor here).

Moreover, the academic superstars are not superstars because they are acknowledged by their narrow niche but precisely because they manage to reach wider audience and make their work relevant to the general public which is doubtlessly one valuable purpose of scholarship and which, as we know, certainly leads to speaking engagements, book deals, article publications and in some cases maybe even tenures (granted, not surprisingly, this can also have the opposite effect as far as tenures are concerned)… So I think you are either not being completely honest with yourself (and me/us) or are greatly underestimating your own contribution here…

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Bill Barnes 04.04.12 at 4:46 pm

William and Geo,

Somewhere near the beginning of all this, Graeber makes the important point that there is no such thing as “the United States” as a unitary actor. What he doesn’t acknowledge is that the same is true of “the U.S. government,” “the Establishment,” “the Ruling Class,” “Capital” –it’s true even of, e.g., “the CIA” (except in moments of real crunch time). If the thinking and motivations of individuals and small groups, and the epistemological and political processes among them, matter in determining the actions of large organizations and institutions, and I think they do, then Graeber, Chomsky, Geo are all missing something important in the way they characterize the “real” sources of the actual foreign policy behavior of the U.S. government — and the behavior of powerful actors in general. Unless one is a strong determinist, the self-conceptions and ideologies of institutional elites matter, and if you know any of these people, you know that many of them are largely sincere much of the time (typically with some degree of strategic fudging when speaking in public) — they really do believe some version of the justifications they announce for the policies they pursue (even if they rarely present their full thinking in public). And however one conceptualizes the powers behind the throne, they can’t do without, nor can they strictly dicipline, this mass of human capital. No regime or class or coalition of elites can rule a large complex society for long without growing into a “hegemonic vocation” which includes some real disciplining and real sacrifice of narrow class/elite intersts for the sake of a somewhat persuasive program of public goods, elaborated and operated by “intellectuals” who believe in what they’re doing. The current Republican Party is failing in this regard. That presents an opportunity to drive a wedge between the majority of policy intellectuals and professionals and “the ruling class” (including Democratic elites) — but to do that, we’ve got to take the self-conception and avowed ideals of the former seriously.

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JJ 04.04.12 at 4:51 pm

Gabriel Rossman @ 192:

“The sun more or less does look like it goes around the earth but eventually heliocentrism breaks down.”

Of course, you obviously must have meant “Anglocentrism”.

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Walt 04.04.12 at 4:55 pm

DKW, if you really believe that, then how can you avoid concluding that the US is (either accidentally or on purpose) the greatest benefactor in the history of mankind? China was a poor country, but then once it began paying tribute it saw growth rates of 7% per year. Apparently paying tribute to the US is the surest path to end poverty ever known. The US will show you the pot at the end of the rainbow, but all you have to do is pay a little finder’s fee.

And what do you think happened in 1982? Leonid Brezhnev on his death bed agreed that all the world must pay tribute to the US?

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 5:13 pm

Bill Barnes, I don’t deny what you say, but although I’m flattered to find myself in the distinguished company with which you’ve surrounded me, I can’t speak for them, only for myself. For myself, I’d reply that something like what was once described as false consciousness is at work amongst those in our governing and managerial classes who believe what they say about the reasons they do what they do. That’s no doubt presumptuous on my part, but I’d argue that if, for example, Hilary Clinton actually believes what’s she’s recently said about Honduras, or Bahrain, or Syria, or Israel, or if she’s being honest about any of the policy positions she’s recently taken vis-à-vis any of the world’s troubled spots, then she’s out of her fucking mind. Accusing her of false consciousness is probably much more charitable than that more obvious conclusion, so I hardly feel compelled to apologize for it.

Likewise Eric Holder on due process and judicial process, Barack Obama on our eternal friendship with Israel, or Ben Bernanke on just how hunky-dory everything is playing out with our economic prospects. If these folks (as the President thinks we ought to call ‘most everybody these days) aren’t lying, then I probably should have spent more time studying metaphysics, and left politics and economics alone.

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Salient 04.04.12 at 5:20 pm

Political scientists should not ignore work of politically relevant scholar-activists.

Coordinating and hosting a book event for a book, writing a review for the book event that praises the book’s first eleven chapters but takes issue with the twelfth, and then inviting and publishing an arbitrarily long response from the author, seems like quite the opposite of ignoring that book. (Arguing ad nauseam about precisely what Graeber said or meant to say on p.336 or in Chapter 12, on the other hand, offers diminishing returns at best.)

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Dragon-King Wangchuck 04.04.12 at 5:28 pm

DKW, if you really believe that, then how can you avoid concluding that the US is (either accidentally or on purpose) the greatest benefactor in the history of mankind? China was a poor country, but then once it began paying tribute it saw growth rates of 7% per year.

Maybe I do conclude exactly that. Or then again, maybe I conclude that “the US” is a clever parasite and only feeds off of hosts that either have or soon will have resources to spare. The type of mafia protection gang that targets successful nightclubs instead of barely scraping by dive bars.

And about 1982 – you brought it up. I don’t know what the external debt numbers are for that period, but I suspect that the change was gradual – taking place over the span of several years – many of them coinciding with the reduction in influence of the Soviet Union. And sure, there’s probably lots of reasons and factors that come into play – but I’m just saying that the evil US dollar uberalles shadow conspiracy would predict something along the lines of what you’re saying disproves it.

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Henry 04.04.12 at 5:34 pm

Ostap – I don’t regard dealing with engaged scholar activists in general as being a ‘pain in the arse’ at all. But even if you’re not greatly sympathetic with my underlying position here, I hope you’ll realize why dealing with this (and writing a 5,500 word reply post) hasn’t been a particularly happy experience for me. Few people get excited at the prospect of being called a liar in public debate, or at having to explain at length why they actually are not. Would you find this an enticing opportunity? Do you really think that political scientists who looked at this whole sorry affair, and decided it wasn’t for them, are deserving of blame?

And actually, you’d suggested in your original contribution that this was a specifically _academic_ way of climbing up the slippery pole. It may be different in other disciplines, but in my one, the most I’m likely to get from other academics is funny looks and suggestions that I really shouldn’t be spending so much time engaging with these tedious arguments. Nor do I imagine that I’m going to boost my public audience much (the people who read me at Crooked Timber already, read me at Crooked Timber already, and I don’t imagine that this has drawn many non-readers in). To be clear again: in general, I enjoy public debates, which is why I participate in them (and why Crooked Timber is what it is), but in this specific instance, it hasn’t been an enjoyable experience at all.

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Bill Barnes 04.04.12 at 5:50 pm

William — Accusations of lying, false consciousness, being out of one’s fucking mind all have some degree of truth to them, to widely varying degrees from instance to instance and person to person, but they are all blunt instruments. On one hand, self-serving, easy-way-out self-deception is the most universal of human psychological tendencies. On the other hand, the skewing of one’s epistemology and ideology by the hegemonic order under which one achieves “success” and satisfaction, and the pressures of an intense work life within professions and institutions that reward expertise in orthodoxy, the life of the star “normal scientist,” all equal something more complicated than false consciousness, as typically understood. (I’ve seen a lot of this over 40 years as a political scientist and 25 years as a practicing trial lawyer.) Gramsci is indispensable, and often vulgarized.

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Chris Bertram 04.04.12 at 5:52 pm

_Coordinating and hosting a book event for a book, writing a review for the book event that praises the book’s first eleven chapters but takes issue with the twelfth, and then inviting and publishing an arbitrarily long response from the author, seems like quite the opposite of ignoring that book._

Indeed. And when I emailed my fellow members of the CT collective in October last year to suggest that we put on this event, it was with some enthusiasm for the book and for Graeber’s work more generally. I then went about the business of recruiting people who could comment insightfully on the text. It wasn’t the perfect crowd but I think that, on the whole, the contributions were pretty good, as were some of the comments threads below them. Co-ordinating all this was, I should say, a fair amount of work.

I don’t know what David Graeber hoped to achieve with his aggression above, nor am I sure about what he has achieved in the wider world, as it were. People will make up their own minds. What he’s done for me is to change the future experience of reading his work. I have _Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology_ sitting next to me. My current enthusiasm for reading it is approximately zero and, if that enthusiasm revives, the authorial voice will be somewhat different for me than it was before. Well, too bad for me, I guess: ymmv.

Finally, in the light of various comments I’ve picked up around the web, I’d like to say something about the CT collective. First, we’re not an “academic blog”. We contain both academics and non-academics. We do this for fun and interest, and not for reasons of career or advancement (back when we started in 2003 most academics looked askance at bloggers). We are non-hierarchical and we operate by consensus. None of us has any authority over the others and nobody has ever tried to chuck their weight about either. We are, in effect, an anarchic collective. Ironic, then, that this particular interaction has gone so badly.

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 5:54 pm

Henry, I do get how much you wish that you hadn’t felt obliged to write this reply, but I for one am glad that you did write it. It may feel like a negative on your personal balance sheet, but for me, it’s one more very good reason to pay attention to what appears on CT, and I thank you for it.

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 5:56 pm

me @ 270

Oops, wrong thread. My apologies. I’ll go post it on the correct one.

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Henry 04.04.12 at 5:57 pm

What Chris said. We got into blogging for the fun of it, long before it was academically or professionally even quasi-respectable, and have stayed doing it in the same format, rather than going professional or semi-professional as nearly all of our then-contemporaries did, because that’s what we enjoy.

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 6:08 pm

Bill Barnes @ 268

All true, but sometimes blunt instruments are precisely what’s needed. Otherwise, lies are accepted by everyone who matters as the functional equivalent of the truth for all practical purposes, and the rest of us are obliged to bear the consequences. It goes without saying, I think, that not only are we not compensated for our troubles, we are in fact dismissed as irrelevant. You can’t have it both ways. If the Hilary Clinton of my example believes what she’s been saying, she’s nuts. If she’s doesn’t believe it, then she has motives which she doesn’t feel it incumbent on her to explain to anyone who doesn’t already know what they are. Maybe this is necessary, and maybe it isn’t, but in either case it’s most certainly false advertising.

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Phil 04.04.12 at 6:42 pm

academic superstars are not superstars because they are acknowledged by their narrow niche but precisely because they manage to reach wider audience and make their work relevant to the general public

Not convinced. As far as I can tell you need to have a pretty solid track record of getting the publications going out and the grants coming in to get to Farrell’s and Graeber’s section of the ladder; in most cases I suspect progressing up it has similar requirements.

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Phil 04.04.12 at 6:55 pm

According to Arendt’s account, when Eichmann was put on trial he refused to plead either Guilty or Not Guilty; he lodged his own variant, “Not guilty in the sense of the indictment”. In other words, “if I accepted your foundational assumptions, I’d be guilty; if I was doing what I did then, here and now, I’d be guilty”. I think he meant it, and in a warped way I think he was quite insightful.

Less extreme variant: if Hillary Clinton was using the same moral vocabulary as you or me, she’d have to be either crazy or lying through her teeth. In fact, scratch that – there’s no form of mental imbalance I’m aware of which involves functioning perfectly normally while using abstract nouns to mean different things from other people. She’d have to be lying through her teeth, deliberately, systematically, consistently, day after day. This seems stupendously unlikely. I therefore conclude that when she says (for example) the word ‘democracy’, she genuinely and sincerely means something different by it than I do – and that explanations predicated on the idea that she (and everyone like her) is really committed to cynical great-power foreign-policy realism are going to end up short of evidence and long on rhetoric.

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Barry Freed 04.04.12 at 7:08 pm

Phil, I think you’re right but just to problematize things: don’t you think if Hilary were asked what her definition of ‘democracy’ was that she’d give you something you would recognize as belonging rightfully to the family resemblance definition of ‘democracy’ and maybe enough even to agree with it, in whole or in part?

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 7:13 pm

Phil, the Eichmann plea insight is interesting to me in that I once watched a film of the part of the Nürnberg tribunals where each of the accused made his plea. If I remember correctly, some of the accused, like Hess, answered simply nein!, or nicht schuldig. Some, however, responded as Goering did, namely Ich bekenne mich im Sinne der Anklage nicht schuldig, exactly the formula that you say Eichmann used for his plea.

I wonder if this is a standard plea in German, or if, as it appears to a non-native speaker, they were in fact refusing to acknowledge the tribunal’s right to jurisdiction over their alleged conduct.

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Bill Barnes 04.04.12 at 7:13 pm

“You can’t have it both ways. If the Hilary Clinton of my example believes what she’s been saying, she’s nuts. If she’s doesn’t believe it, then she has motives which she doesn’t feel it incumbent on her to explain to anyone who doesn’t already know what they are. Maybe this is necessary, and maybe it isn’t, but in either case it’s most certainly false advertising.”

On the contrary, “both ways” is the only realistic way to have it, unless you’re parsing everything she says sentence by sentence. Every paragraph is going to contain both things she “really” “believes” (in some sense, and that’s not a simple question) and things she doesn’t “really” “believe” (in some sense). Sometimes she’s doing this knowingly and deliberately and sometimes not. Yes it’s “false advertising” to one degree or another, but it’s sometimes aimed as much at her self-conception as at an external audidence. Anyway, I didn’t mean to reference the Hillary Clintons but rather people a step or 2 or 3 down, the deputy Assitant Secretary and section head and their senior staff and equivalent people on congressional staff and at Brookings, NED (or at least NDI), etc. I’ve known some such people personally, and generally they are neither liers nor out of their fucking minds. Some of them aren’t even assholes. I can send you a paper more or less on point if you’re interested (I’m at barneswab@aol.com)

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Henry 04.04.12 at 7:16 pm

William – glad to see that it’s of use to at least one reader …

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William Timberman 04.04.12 at 7:28 pm

Phil and Barry, I would argue that Hilary is relying on an ambiguity in the meaning of these words which exists only because she and the government she represents have introduced that ambiguity into our discourse, and that they have done so precisely because they want to forestall any morally-based opposition to their policies.

As hardly anyone can credibly deny, not only democracy, but even more notably torture have undergone this Realpolitik re-definition in recent years. Isn’t that what the adjective Orwellian was in fact invented to describe? Are we really going to do nothing about it but psychologize Hilary, et al.? Like I say, I should’ve stuck to metaphysics.

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Ostap Bender 04.04.12 at 8:40 pm

@ Salient #265

Well, I didn’t say Henry or CT is ignoring the book, obviously he is not. It is absurd to claim that.

However, I said that “Political scientists should not ignore work of politically relevant scholar-activists.” in response to Henry who said that he is not participating here in the capacity of political scientist and that this is in fact “pain it the arse” and distraction from his more important work of political science. What are his motives to pursue this, I can only guess as I tried in my previous post and Henry himself clarified that he enjoys public discussion etc. in his post #267.

Furthermore, Graeber whitdrew from the discussion at post #146 and we are now approaching post #282 and a 5500 words essay from Henry. Salient, Henry and your other learned colleagues continue to argue as you say “ad nauseam”. I am not sure how much this really hurts Graeber’s ideas or is counter productive to CT’s (socially responsible) efforts to promote/publish these ideas as you seem to claim. But if you think that this is the case, than it seems that you are more responsible for the ad nauseam counter effect than (ungrateful, rambling/“arbitrarily long”) Greaber. So this also seems a little bit contradictory.

@ Henry #267
I understand, Henry, you are trying to find some kind of sensible, dignified way out of this mess which might be hard at this point. Although, I don’t think this is impossible, If you feel this is only hurting you, maybe you can just excuse yourself and disengage as Greaber did and let your initial argument stand for itself… I don’t know…

However, I would disagree with you that “the people who read me at Crooked Timber already, read me at Crooked Timber already, and I don’t imagine that this has drawn many non-readers in”. I am sure Graeber drew more readers considering his increasingly high profile. I hope you are not trying to claim that the level of readership at CT has nothing to do with the content you publish since that would undermine your own work here as well as CT’s readership… For ex. I didn’t read CT or knew you before. I came here via a twitter link regarding Graeber and I doubt I am a special case…

@Chris Bertram #269 + @Henry #272
“My current enthusiasm for reading [Graeber] it is approximately zero…”
Since this is based on Graeber’s “aggression above” it seems that you equated Graeber’s personality with his scholarship which might explain the ad hominem argumentation problem encountered in the course of this debate. I personally don’t find this to be a lot of “fun” nor particularly “anarchic” regardless of my non-academic background… Nor I think that proper argumentation is a matter of “professionalism or semi-professionalism” but rather matter of respect for the human intellect. If disregard for logic (as exemplified by ad hominem argumentation above) on account of fun is a permissible policy at CT, then my enthusiasm for reading CT it is also approximately zero…

@Phil #274
So what then distinguishes an accomplished anonymous academic (even if he got, say a Nobel Prize in his field) from someone like Zizek aka “Elvis of cultural theory”?

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lupita 04.04.12 at 10:03 pm

the next time somebody comes up with solid evidence that it has done the same with regard to the dollar’s use as a reserve currency will be the first.

I present the following evidence, though I am certainly not the first to point out what exactly the US is doing (not doing, rather) to ensure that dollars continue to be used as the world’s reserve currency.

First, some context. This is a partial list of countries and institutions that have expressed their wish to replace the dollar as the world’s reserve currency:
July 2009 – Russia
2010 – UN
Feb. 2011 – IMF
Feb. 2011 – France
Aug. 2011 – China
Oct. 2011 – Vatican
March 2012 – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa

So, if all these important countries and institutions want to replace the dollar, why don’t they? The reason is the desire for an orderly transition from the old system to a new one. Particularly, the US as the emitter of the current reserve currency needs to participate. The US holds veto power at the IMF and UNSC plus the power to create chaos around the world by withholding its consent and participation in a transition.

This is the evidence that the US using its power to impose its will, in this case, the continued use of the dollar as the global reserve currency. Put another way, if it were not for the US’ opposition to a new financial system, the transition would have begun years ago.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.04.12 at 10:04 pm

Walt @253 – it’s not about deficit, it’s about accumulated debt, isn’t it?. If all those dollars (currently parked in US gilts or held in reserve?) were to be used to buy Euros/put back in circulation, would that not have some pretty bad effects for US plutocrats? I am nowhere near being an expert in this stuff, but I like to think I can tell when a topic is being evaded, and this one does seem to me to be (in general, I mean – I’m not particularly interested in charging Walt with evasiveness).

Also, there is the specific issue of petrodollar recycling, which is not identical to that of ‘dollar hegemony’.

As an aside, I wonder whether war debts owed to the US by the victors in WW2 would be relevant here? Also Marshall plan loans (and grants). Not to mention rearmament funding to the 3rd Reich (and Japan?)…though Hitler defaulted, IIUC, Germany later repaid some or all of them (there were some Bushes involved there too, weren’t there?)

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LFC 04.04.12 at 10:47 pm

I want to make a few brief comments about certain aspects of D. Graeber’s long post that followed the ‘aggressive’ section that caused all the ‘unpleasantness’. I found some of this material quite interesting, even though I haven’t read Debt and didn’t read every word of the CT symposium.

A couple of notes. (1) I know people who would take issue w/ saying, as DG does, that ‘rat. choice’ approaches assume people are basically selfish and greedy. (2) Do the notions of egoism and altruism really stem from the market? In any case, the suggestion of an “economic analysis of spite” is interesting.

Finally, re the passage where DG wonders why no one ever accuses govts of human rights abuses for actions that cause unemployment or reduce food subsidies etc. That may be true. OTOH, the ‘working notion’ (if I can use that phrase) of human rights has definitely expanded in recent years, e.g. in the discourse and concerns of NGOs like Amnesty, to encompass economic and social rights, not just traditional political and self-ownership-type rights. A recent book by Daniel Chong, the title of which is eluding me, deals with this.

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Phil 04.04.12 at 10:56 pm

Are we really going to do nothing about it

I give you the My Dad Getting Angry insight. Scene: mid-evening, some time in the 1980s. The conversation turns to prison conditions, which at that time were even worse in the UK than they are now. My father gets launched on a rant about how appalling and intolerable and inhumane and so on the prisons are, working himself up to quite a pitch of emotion – red in the face, tears in his eyes, the full monty. My mother, unimpressed, says there’s no point him getting himself all worked up. My father snaps back – “Well, it’s about time somebody got worked up!”

[beat]

My mother replies: “Yes, but not to *us*.”

And she was right. For my father, getting angry and letting the world know how angry he was counted as Doing Something, even when the world in question consisted of his immediate family. My mother knew that getting angry behind closed doors does nothing to change anything – and that changing things didn’t necessarily involve getting angry at all.

Calling Hillary a liar isn’t doing something; it’s just shouting among ourselves.

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Phil 04.04.12 at 11:00 pm

So what then distinguishes an accomplished anonymous academic (even if he got, say a Nobel Prize in his field) from someone like Zizek aka “Elvis of cultural theory”?

In academic terms, not a lot. Having massive name recognition outside the academy doesn’t translate into respect inside it – ask Chomsky.

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Matt 04.04.12 at 11:07 pm

Having massive name recognition outside the academy doesn’t translate into respect inside it – ask Chomsky.
Well, that’s at least a bit misleading, as Chomsky is massively influential and respected in the academy for his academic work. His political writings are, of course, a more complicated matter, though I suspect many in the academy are sympathetic, but they don’t think, unsurprisingly, that work that’s not academic in nature should be treated as if it were.

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Phil 04.04.12 at 11:18 pm

they don’t think, unsurprisingly, that work that’s not academic in nature should be treated as if it were.

Zizek, same thing. That was actually the point I was making.

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Ostap Bender 04.05.12 at 1:26 am

@Phil #276
“Having massive name recognition outside the academy doesn’t translate into respect inside it – ask Chomsky.”

No need to disturb Chomsky, I already partially agreed with you. As I said in #260 “leads to speaking engagements, book deals, article publications and in some cases maybe even tenures (granted, not surprisingly, this can also have the opposite effect as far as tenures are concerned)… “

Considering the positions of CT academics in this debate (even despite CT’s self proclaimed “anarchic” tendencies), I don’t think any of the academics here are in danger…

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William Timberman 04.05.12 at 5:38 am

Phil @ 285

There’s your Mom’s homily, and then there’s Pastor Niemöller’s. I suppose the faithful can accommodate both somewhere on the ecclesiastical calendar. I do think, though, that asking us to believe that Hilary believes what she’s been dishing out — even in part — is essentially obfuscatory. And if we act as though she’s lying everywhere we go, not just in this forum, who knows? Bye-and-bye we may actually help make the world a better place.

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Anon 04.06.12 at 7:06 pm

Since David Graeber seems to have only recently learned the English language, I’ll help him out a little bit. When someone says, “I didn’t know X”, the implication is that now they do know X. And clearly someone will not state that they know something that they believe to be false, right? So when you say “I didn’t know X”, you are implying that you believe X is true.

Hopefully this little lesson will help you in your future interactions with speakers of the English language.

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Cranky Observer 04.06.12 at 9:49 pm

I’ve been participating in on-line discussions since 1981, and IMHO Crooked Timber is one of – if not the – best such that has ever been and possibly ever will be.

That said, also in my opinion (humble or not) boundary maintenance has been getting stronger here over the last year, and is quite intense in the Graeber discussion threads including the two running now. Not to mention a little moral support from Berkley.

If that is what the hosts want, so be it; CT is still among the best even so. But a bit saddening to me.

Cranky

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Henry 04.06.12 at 11:36 pm

Cranky – we’re not happy that it turned out this way either – it’s a unique situation for us, and was entirely unexpected. I’m not sure what kind of boundary maintenance issues you are concerned with – if it’s ideological, I don’t think we have changed. We _have_ become less tolerant of people slagging off posters or other commenters – especially female posters or commenters – and especially if there isn’t much intellectual substance to the slagging. People should feel free – and encouraged – to talk about substantive issues from a wide variety of different political perspectives (neo-nazis, racists, anti-semites etc can expect a ban, but people posting from the strong left or indeed strong right can expect space provided that they show a minimum of respect to other commenters as everyone is expected to).

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Ostap Bender 04.07.12 at 12:33 am

@Cranky
Crooked timber CENSORED my comment to “Because: Imperialism!” (see posts No.68+87, http://bit.ly/HVCkpf).

Read the CENSORED comment on twitter: http://tl.gd/grfm2i (unless this gets CENSORED as well).

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Henry 04.07.12 at 12:45 am

Ostap – as noted above, if you want to slag off the posters here, especially after having established a bit of a track record (claims that I was looking to pick fights to boost my career, that I was offending my audience, and then finally that I was dishonest), you’re liable to get short shrift. If you want to restate your arguments, such as they are, in calm language without accusations of personal dishonesty, craftiness etc, you’re welcome to (as noted in comments on the other thread, if you actually had bothered to read. If, alternatively, you just want to shout CENSORED, CENSORED, CENSORED across the internets, that’s fine by me, although I’ll likely ask you to move on from here, as it adds substantially to the pain in the arse factor.

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Ostap Bender 04.07.12 at 4:52 am

@Henry #295
If you have something to say to me please respond to the post YOU censored. Otherwise, your words have no meaning. For your convenience, I am providing a link with my original, uncensored text: http://tl.gd/grfm2i

If your claim is that I am just another “internet nutter” because I “shout CENSORED, CENSORED, CENSORED” I would like to point out that I am merely stating the fact, and I do have the evidence to back it up: http://bit.ly/I8cZaD.

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Peter T 04.07.12 at 6:02 am

William Timberman’s point at 264 and following is interesting. Thinking about this, I am not sure that there’s a single belief here that can be judged true or false. Hilary may think, as a private person, all sorts of things are true about Israel or Honduras (or about their leaders) that she judges she cannot say as Secretary of State, because they are not helpful in that role in advancing the objectives of the administration (among which is the maintenance of a certain image of the US and of certain kinds of discourse among nations). So what she “believes” is not, in her role as Secretary of State, really the issue.

The image that springs to my mind is of the interactions among a dysfunctional family. Everyone “knows” that x is a lazy freeloader, y gets away with a lot because they scream when they don’t get their way, and z is a terrible parent. But they talk in nudges, circumlocutions, excuses; they all gather at Christmas and so on. Occasionally someone will get cast out, but this is rare and spectacular. The outside psychologist is free to describe this as lying, but the family would not see it that way.

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William Timberman 04.07.12 at 6:52 am

Peter T, on the contrary, these circumlocutions of state, to coin a phrase, are precisely the issue. As in your example, we all make use of such fudges to keep the peace in intolerable situations; they’re an indispensable part of being human. When they become unmoored from a mutually recognizable reality, however, when they in fact exploit our human instincts persuade us to ignore or consent to a course of action by our government that endangers us, they become more than polite convention, or an honest disagreement about the meaning of words. War is peace, ignorance is strength, freedom is slavery, etc. aren’t little white lies.

Calling torture enhanced interrogation or the U.S., Western Samoa, and Israel the international community may only be a difference in degree from something we once called diplomacy, but when we’re encouraged to forget that difference, we should ask to what end.

299

dsquared 04.07.12 at 10:33 am

presumably the reserve currency status of the Swiss franc is attributable to the might of the Swiss Empire, which IIRC once covered a land area roughly equivalent in size to modern Switzerland.

300

Henry 04.07.12 at 12:23 pm

Actually Ostap, forget it – when someone sets up a Twitter account, with 73 tweets over a few days and counting, for the sole purpose of abusing me, this really suggests someone that we don’t want to hear from, or engage with. Consider yourself banned permanently. Any further posts you make will not be disemvowelled – they will be deleted.

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Peter T 04.07.12 at 12:32 pm

William

I agree they are an issue. I was more trying to get at the psychology – how the users see them. I think once you are in some where where circumlocution is inevitable and necessary, you will, under pressure of circumstances, slowly drift away from others recognized realities. The bad parent may become an actual abuser, but the family will be persuaded by their own choice of words and their past habits to ignore or downplay the reality.

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Barry Freed 04.07.12 at 2:18 pm

This is sooo late to the party but I really would have loved to have seen Kevin Carson weigh in here. Especially with regard to state intervention in market relations.

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Other Pete 04.07.12 at 4:21 pm

@ Barry Freed

Agreed.

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peter ramus 04.07.12 at 7:37 pm

presumably the reserve currency status of the Swiss franc is attributable to the might of the Swiss Empire, which IIRC once covered a land area roughly equivalent in size to modern Switzerland.

d^2, I’m seriously underinformed when it comes to matters of global finance, but isn’t the question everyone’s bickering about how the US can have such prodigious debt and reserve currency status at the same time? Is Switzerland similarly burdened with debt?

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Tim Mason 04.08.12 at 6:45 pm

Most of my colleagues in IR will recognize Karl Polanyi’s name – and that’s about it for the entire field of anthropology

Perhaps IR is a little out of the loop, but I would have thought that Ernest Gellner, Clifford Geerz or James C Scott might have rung a few bells in the halls of political science. Even Keith Otterbein, although less globally celebrated, crops up from time to time in the bibliographies of discussions of the state; his accounts of Kentucky feuds might add much to professional understanding of inter-state relations as well.

I am rather surprised to read the remarks here about any reticence the USA might have about bombing. Until just yesterday, we lived in a world in which the West in general, and the USA in particular, made it clear that they would be willing to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR, and it is but the day before yesterday that they dropped two of them on a world power. While some scruples may have been introduced since the end of the Cold War, I’m not sure how seriously they need be taken: the American public objects to seeing troops killed in large numbers far more than it does to bombing enemies into submission.

Does bombing work? Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The British used it quite effectively in the Middle East in the aftermath of the First World War, but found it less so when attempting to bomb enemies in more protected terrain. By and large, it’s probably true to say that the bomber has never been decisive in any large-scale conflict – but one should never underestimate the optimism of the technocrat: the drone is simply the latest in a series of weapons which were going to prove, once and for all, that war from the air would, in the end, prove to be the ultimate key to power. During the last half century, that key was located in the American White House.

So whatever the merit of the idea that dollar hegemony is a Good Thing for Hillary Clinton, I don’t think one should simply dismiss Graeber’s suggestion that fear of American air power is a consideration of some importance to lesser powers.

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William Large 04.09.12 at 10:09 am

I don’t know anyone on this site, and my view is to interpret everyone charitably, but I did think Henry’s piece was spiteful (though that is not a judgement of his intentions, because a lot of academic writing is spiteful, because that is the way we are trained). I think he knowingly used academic tropes that are used to discredit other writers. Why he did that I have no idea. I also think that David’s indignation was perhaps also a little over the top, but I understand his irritation.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.12 at 1:30 pm

Tim Mason: the USA in particular, made it clear that they would be willing to drop nuclear bombs on the USSR, and it is but the day before yesterday that they dropped two of them on a world power.

And the two would appear to be quite intimately related.

dsquared: presumably the reserve currency status of the Swiss franc is attributable to the might of the Swiss Empire

peter ramus: Is Switzerland similarly burdened with debt?

I don’t think it probably is, no. Also, where both war and finance are concerned it is in any case quite peculiar, and owes its special position to being a no-questions-asked banker for all kinds of criminals up to and including criminal sovereigns/war criminals – and having its plucky neutrality respected as the fighting rages all around.

Unless DD really does think that Graeber’s aim is to put forward a universal iron law of war and finance in not more than 10 words (in which case you might think G would have actually gone to the trouble of formulating one), it’s hard to read this as anything but idle facetiousness. I’m sure DD would endorse this description, given the alternative.

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dsquared 04.09.12 at 1:46 pm

Switzerland has gross external liabilities of $1.4trn, a little less than three times GDP. Not very much of that is government debt, of course, and, also of course, the SFr is never going to compete with the dollar as a reserve currency because they just don’t print enough of them. (I really don’t understand why Tim Wilkinson thinks this is a gotcha; possibly for the same reason that he thinks Switzerland is a no-questions-asked banker to criminals, ie he isn’t as clever as he thinks he is and he thought the prospect of getting one over on me was too tempting to check).

But Switzerland does indeed earn quite significant seinorage on the global float of Swiss francs, which is significantly larger than the amount needed for use in Switzerland (it’s actually pretty debatable whether it would make sense for Switzerland to have a currency at all if it wasn’t for this). And the reason for this (and the reason why it has a global banking centre, albeit one that’s much smaller than people think it is – banking is a smaller industry than tourism in Switzerland), is precisely the same sort of thing that Henry says in respect of the USA.

Which is to say that – Switzerland’s particular military attributes – ie, that it’s got a long history of neutrality, and its geography makes it more or less impossible to invade – are certainly relevant to the reasons why people put money into Swiss francs (and they still do – Swiss franc interest rates have been hammered down close to zero by inflows from Germany and Greece as a result of euro instability, and if you are a Swiss homeowner or small businessman this is a genuine and monetisable benefit to you). But nobody’s scared of being invaded by Switzerland and nobody pays tribute to the Swiss Empire; it’s just that Switzerland has the very attractive characteristic of being a very politically safe state that is not going to collapse on you or inflate away your savings.

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Henry 04.09.12 at 2:03 pm

bq. I don’t know anyone on this site, and my view is to interpret everyone charitably, but I did think Henry’s piece was spiteful (though that is not a judgement of his intentions, because a lot of academic writing is spiteful, because that is the way we are trained). I think he knowingly used academic tropes that are used to discredit other writers. Why he did that I have no idea. I also think that David’s indignation was perhaps also a little over the top, but I understand his irritation.

William – I certainly could have soft-pedaled my conclusions more than I did, but when you think that a chapter is a bit shit because it makes enormous assertions on the basis of no or inappropriate evidence, it’s hard to say anything other than that it’s a bit shit. When you go to some lengths to make clear that you don’t have any general beef with the book as a whole or the author, you really aren’t trying to discredit the writer – you’re saying that the argument fails very badly.

Tim Mason – fair enough that they would almost certainly recognize Geertz’s name. But Ernest Gellner (and I’d really count him as a sociologist/worldly philosopher rather than an anthropologist) they won’t know unless they took a course in comparative politics on nationalism at grad school – this is an enormous shame. James Scott they would recognize – but as a political scientist, albeit one with idiosyncratic interests, a deplorable habit of writing clear, beautiful sentences &c (speaking of which ‘reticence’ does not mean ‘reluctance’ – I admit that I am losing this linguistic battle and am likely irrational on the topic, but am going to hold out as long as I possibly can). And the Graeber defense is not that “fear of American airpower is a consideration of some importance.” It is a claim that the possibility of being bombed is so terror-inducing that the elites of small countries will believe more or less anything plausible about what is likely to motivate US retaliation. Or at least, that’s what he’s arguing when he isn’t suggesting himself that dollar denominated oil etc are what motivate US military action.

And what dsquared says about Switzerland.

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Phil 04.09.12 at 2:27 pm

I did think Henry’s piece was spiteful (though that is not a judgement of his intentions, because a lot of academic writing is spiteful, because that is the way we are trained). I think he knowingly used academic tropes that are used to discredit other writers.

I think I sort of know what you mean, and I think the notion of academic spite might actually be quite useful to think with. On another thread, John H. wrote just recently about

the ‘wanting this to be true’ (in the sense of ‘always trying to make out how this could be true’) motivated reasoning rigor of the partisan, ideological line

which I think is a really interesting formulation. One way of situating HF’s critique of DG’s chapter 12 – and situating it in a valid & even honourable academic tradition – might be to say that he detected DG “wanting this to be true” & tried to unpick some of that “motivated reasoning rigour”, applying the differently rigorous logic of someone who didn’t want it to be true. Spiteful? Some of the best critiques are spiteful in a sense – that is, in the sense that they don’t give their target a break. They’re not saying “you’re right, but I wish you’d put more emphasis on A and B”, they’re saying “Are you actually right? I’m not sure. Are you? Really?”. It can be a terrifically productive approach – I still think a thought-out reply to HF would make really interesting reading – but it can be annoying, and it can feel delegitimating, and it can feel like a personal attack.

I also think that David’s indignation was perhaps also a little over the top, but I understand his irritation.

Yes. What seems odd, though – at least if you take a Martian’s eye view for a moment – is that nobody who thinks it was monstrously rude of HF to say things like “there is no supporting evidence for these assertions” (or words to that effect) also seems to think it was monstrously rude of DG to say things like “what’s the matter, can’t you read?” (or words to that effect). Perhaps it’s something to do with different speech contexts, and by resorting to sledging DG was creating the impression of HF pulling rank on him.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.12 at 3:20 pm

The topic is Graeber’s Thesis X, and the (apparently serious, then) suggestion is that X entails that Switzerland must have military dominance to support its reserve currency status (and even seigniorage; I don’t think there’s much reason to think Thesis X would state that all seignorage is tribute).

So is Switzerland’s debt burden similar to that of the US? No, it’s tiny – the rest of the world is not going to be troubled by it (maybe this is to do with what’s rather unsatisfyingly presented as a brute fact, that the Swiss ‘just don’t print enough’ of their currency?)

And am I to take it that Switzerland does not in fact owe its special status to its history as no-questions asked bankers for top-echelon criminals, and more generally as maintaining banking services for all comers in war time (recall too if you will that tax evasion is a crime)? And that its neutrality being respected – i.e. all the men with all the guns standing behind it – unlike, say, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Iceland (but like Andorra) – is related to that status?

So (a) Switzerland doesn’t extract a significant amount of seignorage from the rest of the world; need I go on? OK, (b) its fortunes are peculiarly intricated with war, violence and crime, albeit in a passive way (c) we still don’t have a Thesis X to test against the important Case of Switzerland, and certainly not one that is going to have any trouble accommodating it.

I mean, Switzerland?

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geo 04.09.12 at 4:15 pm

‘reticence’ does not mean ‘reluctance’ – I admit that I am losing this linguistic battle and am likely irrational on the topic, but am going to hold out as long as I possibly can).

Fight on, Henry! As Karl Kraus observed during the Japanese bombardment of Shanghai: “If those who are supposed to look after commas had made sure they are always in the right place, Shanghai would not be burning.”

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Tim Mason 04.09.12 at 7:14 pm

@Henry

Correcting someone’s English on a blog? I begin to understand why David Graeber thinks you go in for deligitimization. Actually, you’re wrong: check the OED; which gives ‘abstinence from overemphasis; restricted use of something’. The usage dates from the 19thC, although the OED notes it as rare – which suggests I may be holding the fort, rather than you.

Actually, I was searching for a word – have to search, as English is no longer my primary language – that would go half way towards your argument and hit on reticence. ‘Reluctance’ won’t do: if you look at the tonnage that the USAAF has released on the world over the last decade or so, to call them ‘reluctant’ is a wild abuse of terms. On the other hand, your use of reticence won’t do either: they are quite happy to advertise shock and awe. But while we’re on how people use words, I have to say that I can make neither head nor tail of …

It is a claim that the possibility of being bombed is so terror-inducing that the elites of small countries will believe more or less anything plausible about what is likely to motivate US retaliation.

as a fair summary of what DG actually wrote. But it may be closer to the mark than you think. Elites of small – or even quite large – countries are well aware that the US or one or another of its allies is quite likely to bomb them, and that they may do so for whatever reason they see fit. Iraq, for example, has been bombed at fairly short intervals ever since the end of WWI. As Arthur Harris wrote in 1924, “The Arab and Kurd now know what real bombing means, in casualties and damage: They know that within 45 minutes a full-sized village can be practically wiped out and a third of its inhabitants killed or injured.

Given the double-binds that they often find themselves caught in – bombed if they do, and bombed if they don’t – “elites of small countries” (how can a man who claims to be fussy about language write down his nose like that?) might be forgiven for double-guessing the rules. As both Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi found themselves having to do.

680 squadron – whose predecessors had dealt with Libya (one of the first, if not the first country to be subjected to bombardment from airplanes) – took pretty pictures of the whole of Iraq, Iran and Palestine before the British forces withdrew from the area, and subsequently felt sure they could hit anything they wanted, anytime they wanted. And they made sure that the locals knew what they were up to.

So there are two parts to Graeber’s case. The one is that elites outside the USA know that they can be bombed, and that this will have a strong effect upon their choices. That part looks pretty solid to me – but then, I’m an RAF brat, so I might be particularly open to the argument. The other is that this impinges upon their choice of reserve currency. Here, the arguments seem to me murky and difficult to decide. You may have the better of it, but I’ll personally remain open on the question.

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robotslave 04.09.12 at 7:27 pm

I don’t think there’s much reason to think Thesis X would state that all seignorage is tribute

Perhaps, but then Graeber hasn’t done much to suggest there are other explanations for seigniorage he’d find plausible, has he?

It’s not his duty to enumerate them, of course, but how many non-coercion-based explanations for seigniorage could he allow before slipping up and accidentally letting one in that could account for the present status of the US T-Bill?

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.12 at 8:51 pm

eight

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.12 at 8:51 pm

no, seven

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dsquared 04.09.12 at 9:30 pm

this is all, as RS says, a bit funny though. The whole problem is that Graeber is looking for a theory (involving coercion or something) to answer the question:

“Why is it that the currencies of politically stable and economically important countries tend to be used a lot?”

ie, a theory of something that doesn’t need a theory to explain it. I mean, one could write an interesting book about religious cleansing, hygiene taboos and all of that throughout history and across the world, but actually there’s only one reason why people wipe their arses and it has to do with practical utility. Which btw is also the central argument of my post, which I don’t think Graeber addressed all that well.

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Phil 04.09.12 at 10:06 pm

that elites outside the USA know that they can be bombed, and that this will have a strong effect upon their choices. That part looks pretty solid to me

We really aren’t living in the world of Kipling’s ABC, though. In logistical terms it wouldn’t be impossibly difficult for the US to bomb Belgium or Peru or New Zealand or Côte d’Ivoire or China or Canada, but I find it hard to believe that elites in any of those nations think of it as a live prospect.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.09.12 at 10:14 pm

Ah, yes, (and the little Switzerland/not as clever as something-or-other business may of course now belatedly be reassigned to the idle facetiousness category), the classic ‘there is no need for an explanation’, in response to a description of events. Surely Smeagol remembers days, days less dank and fishy, long bright days in the meadow under the sun, when this would have prompted laughter – laughter light and gleeful, dismissive without rancour, or is atht Bombadil?

I think it unlikely that either he or the pale and glottal wretch that supersedes him will be able to recall that central argument in any detail, nor its relation to (titter) arse wiping. The question in nay case being atht of why people wipe the arses of others (never in the field of human arse-wiping have so many etc.)

(Yeah Ok, but straight off and after a few pints.)

Also – (without wishing to make too many cod-enemies) Henry – are you sticking with the previous version, or going with this new arse-wipery instead?

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Phil 04.09.12 at 10:37 pm

Get some sleep, Tim.

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dsquared 04.09.12 at 11:53 pm

and the little Switzerland/not as clever as something-or-other business may of course now belatedly be reassigned to the idle facetiousness category

Noop, Tim – you don’t know anything like as much as you think about Switzerland, or a lot of other subjects, and you are certainly letting quality control slip in the service of picking arguments with me, and this is a serious point which you should take seriously, when you wake up.

It’s also worth noting that a statistician or econometrician would note that there is a hell of a sampling problem here. The kind of places that note that a major commodity like oil is heavily used and imported by the world’s largest economy, which also provides a non-inflationary currency, and then thinks “But Now I Must Set Up An Alternative Arrangement So As To Not Deal With America!”, tend to have lots of other things wrong with them too, because places like Belgium, Peru or New Zealand would quickly see that this is a silly idea and not do it. So even if there was a perfect fit between Defying The Dollar Hegemony and Being Bombed, a rigorous statistician would ask whether we could be sure of the direction of causation, and indeed whether Saddam Hussein hadn’t perhaps done some other things which might have (controversial opinion, bordering on the contrarian!) made him at least party responsible for the Gulf Wars.

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Jonathan 04.10.12 at 12:44 am

These are the OED’s examples for “reticient” (adj. 2):

1875 Rep. Sel. Comm. Condition of South (43rd U.S. Congr. 2 Sess.) 15 The State registrar was just as reticent to give us information.
1932 Daily Capital News & Post Tribune (Jefferson City, Missouri) 14 Feb. 11 a/6 They were reticent about leaving it [sc. home].
1948 Jrnl. Amer. Folklore 61 29 Dreams, promptings of the spirit, and peep-stones have all combined to make the reticent girl give in to the proposals of a polygamous suitor.
1959 Times 8 Oct. 13 Having‥informed my employer of my impending call-up, he is naturally reticent to improve my position.
2008 F. Kellerman Mercedes Coffin xxxviii. 311 She knows he’d be reticent to hire a lawyer to defend her?

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Henry 04.10.12 at 1:17 am

We’ve been here before on the ‘reticent’ thing – I refer those interested to this comment, which summarizes my “research” (read: 30 minutes with Google Ngrams) on the topic …

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lupita 04.10.12 at 1:49 am

the world’s largest economy, which also provides a non-inflationary currency

Not according to Dilma Rousseff who is at the White House today complaining to Obama. According to the Financial Times, “Ms Rousseff said that excessive monetary expansion in the US and Europe was hampering growth in countries such as Brazil” and “complained about a “monetary tsunami” that has swamped emerging markets, inflating the value of their currencies and rendering their industries uncompetitive.”

Furthermore, countries are setting up alternative arrangements to sidestep the USD. In December, China and Japan agreed to trade in yen and yuan plus the latter agreed to hold reserves in yuan. Last month, a similar arrangement was reached by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

I would rely much more on the collective wisdom of these leaders than on some quant’s.

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geo 04.10.12 at 2:47 am

I’m amazed that OED allows those uses of “reticent.” I’ve looked in a dozen usage guides; three* mention “reticent,” and all say clearly that it means “laconic,” “reserved,” or “secretive,” and does not mean “reluctant.”

*Bergen Evans, Contemporary English Usage
JN Hook, The Appropriate Word
Bryan Garner, Modern English Usage

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Peter Erwin 04.10.12 at 11:53 am

geo:
The OED doesn’t “allow” things; it attempts to record actual usage patterns. If it finds a consistent pattern of a particular usage via written citations, then it will duly mention that.

(That’s why the OED has entries for things like “ain’t” — it’s been widely used in English over the past few centuries — despite what usage guides and even common agreement may feel about its appropriateness or validity. It’s also why the OED includes obsolete usages — e.g., “nice” meaning “stupid”. Of course, the OED will make small notes about certain words or usages being “rare” or “nonstandard” or “obsolete”…)

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.12 at 12:28 pm

Phil: in logistical terms it wouldn’t be impossibly difficult for the US to bomb Belgium or Peru or New Zealand or Côte d’Ivoire or China or Canada, but I find it hard to believe that elites in any of those nations think of it as a live prospect.

But the offending paragraph says that The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs…[etc] and the ‘essence’ and ‘ultimately’ is of some importance, just as one might say the essence of state power is ultimately the fact that it alone can use force against its citizens. But you don’t get baton charged the moment your tax return is late, etc. Similarly, before the US got to the point of bombing Belgium, there would have to have been a long escalation of hostilities, presumably with Belgium doing something against US ‘national interest’, then ‘vital interest’, then ‘national security’ etc. All kinds of other methods of getting it into line would have to have been tried and failed, embargoes and sanctions and condemnations, months pass, propaganda about Belgium is put out, attempts to get internal opposition going by economic means, finally trying to foment internal opposition by giving weapons and strategic input and special forces to whatever bunch of nutters can be found, nutters fail but Belgium is now ‘killing its own people’ and whatever imaginary thing it is doing or refusing to do amounts to a rejection of freedom and democracy. More nutters are given scripts about the repression they face and how terrified they are now the true nature of the Belgian oppressors is coming out. Finally, more in sorrow than in anger, the US calls a no-fly zone or some other ‘peacekeeping’ force, and you have your bombing.

The whole thing is implausible because its almost impossible to imagine what Belgium might do to provoke a coalition of interests in the US ruling class to bother with all that, and even harder to imagine that it would refuse to bow t pressure long before things got to the bombing phase. But if that did happen, by the end of the process it would not be surprising when the bombs burst, and the plucky Belgians would certainly by then be in little doubt that it was a live prospect.

With Côte d’Ivoire the process looks much more feasible for a number of reasons.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.12 at 12:48 pm

dsquared – Noop? this is a serious point which you should take seriously – Come off it. 325 comments on and your rehashing obvious points with silly examples is suddenly an occasion for hushed reverence. ‘Very Serious’, I think you mean.

Look, it’s fairly simple and no amount of cod-didactic allusion to ‘things I don’t know about Switzerland’ or ‘how I am not as clever as I think’ is actually any kind of answer. At least in the fictional version of the Emperor’s new clothes, people were told what they were supposed to be agreeing to. If you have special knowledge about why Switzerland is actually after all a good counterexample to a thesis X, why not put it to use and tell the world?

Because what I’ve seen instead is:

1. Representing mystery Thesis X as an explanans (of your chosen explanandum), followed immediately in the standard way by pointing out that there really is no need for such an explanation. (But this realisation is arrived at just too late for it to provide input to a minimal principle of charity in interpretation, as suggesting that this should not after all be read into Graeber’s project.) This second kind of shift to meta-discussion, like the ‘if only you knew/were not so thick’ one, is generally an evasive move.

2. The argument from arse-wiping, along with an allusion to another occasion when you made a similar argument about the way things are always done (basing it around an admittedly inaccurate claim which Graeber did pop in to confirm was ‘backwards’). Which is changing the subject, but since you raise it, that ‘central argument’ seems to have been a claim about how it’s always done the basic underlying question being that of economics rather than anthropology – “How do we best organise the decision making process with regard to production, consumption, and exchange?” – except one of those things is not like the others.

3. Shifting the subject again to the petrodollar war business – and some arms length hinting at how statisticians with minimal data might speculate about possible directions of causation, or something. Also apparently suggesting that Belgium would think buying oil in Euros a silly idea, and not do it.

4. A passing but heavily sarcastic reference to Gulf I and Saddam’s responsibility for it. I can only guess this is an attempt to deny the evidence that S was tricked by the US – while steering clear of any actual consideration of facts or evidence. Also Gulf II – apparently Saddam was ‘at least partly responsible’ for that too.

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Walt 04.10.12 at 1:09 pm

Tim, are you high? Belgium is in a place known as “Europe”, home to many of the world’s leading industrial powers. US hegemony would end about 10 seconds after the first bomb exploded over Belgium, if not before.

Do you seriously think the US is omnipotent? The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain because the US wills it so?

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.12 at 2:39 pm

No, Walt, I’m not high, thanks ever so much for your concern though. And no, I don’t think the US is omnipotent, but thanks for that valuable contribution too.

I deliberately chose the most ridiculous example to illustrate the point. It’s the initial conditions that are the craziest – that the US would need to go any distance down that path, that it would consider it worth its while, find it in its interest to cause massive ructions in Europe. But that is the hypothesis you have to take to start with in order to imagine how things would play out.

Long before things got as far as even thinking about bombing(!), other European powers would (in this hard-to-imagine situation, just to repeat for the dullards) have had to pick a side, and make adjustments and preparations. But the whole point of that scenario is to point out just how many other stages US influence would go through before (and – overwhelmingly probably – instead of) stampeding towards the launch codes.

And of course lots of wars and conflicts may have looked ridiculously unlikely from 10, 20, 30 years ahead or even less. But as things escalate, as the blockades are ‘defended’, or the ‘peacekeeping’ forces attacked, events roll on and the newspapars report soberly and no one concludes ‘this can’t be happening’.

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Walt 04.10.12 at 3:20 pm

‘You are already arguing a position that up until earlier today I would have considered an absurd straw caricature of Graeber’s view, so I don’t really know how far you are prepared to go. I don’t understand why you are so committed to defending this Graeber chapter, to the point where you are seriously arguing that the US could, purely in the pursuit of its own self-interest, bomb Belgium without completely destroying the existing international order.

I mean, the US is going to deploy “nutters” to convince the populations of France, Germany, Italy, and UK that Belgium is a threat, such that they will support military action against their own interest? How is this a plausible scenario, even as a hypothetical?

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Watson Ladd 04.10.12 at 4:03 pm

lupita, you may have heard of something called the Federal Reserve. Did you know they post data about the inflation rate? It turns out that actually, the US has not devalued the dollar noticeably.

Tim, just because Saddam thought he could get away with it does not make invading Kuwait OK, any more then a sleeping cop outside a bank is an invitation to rob it.

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Phil 04.10.12 at 4:21 pm

before the US got to the point of bombing Belgium, there would have to have been a long escalation of hostilities, presumably with Belgium doing something against US ‘national interest’, then ‘vital interest’, then ‘national security’ etc. All kinds of other methods of getting it into line would have to have been tried and failed, embargoes and sanctions and condemnations, months pass, propaganda about Belgium is put out

I’ll stop you there. The point I was responding to was your assertion

that elites outside the USA know that they can be bombed, and that this will have a strong effect upon their choices

Not “know they can be embargoed, propagandised against and destabilised”, “know they can be bombed”. And not “this will be in the background of their decision-making processes” but “this will have a strong effect”. Your scenario offers no support to this statement – in fact, if anything it counts against it; if those Belgian elites were being strongly effected by the known threat of bombing, how would they reach the point of doing anything against perceived US national interests?

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Agog 04.10.12 at 4:32 pm

dsquared’s framing of the question (9.30pm – ‘why are currencies of big, stable countries so widely used’) is very close to the economists’ often-attempted emulation of Laplace: ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’. Except what they dismiss is so often something not quite as provisional as a hypothesis, such as ‘documented history’ or ‘how human beings actually behave’.

It does seem very likely that that kind of currency will tend to be popular among foreigners. But that is not to say that the issuer of said currency might not (did not) make efforts to promote its use (coerce people into using it) for non-altruistic reasons.

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Tim Wilkinson 04.10.12 at 4:42 pm

That quote wasn’t me.

if those Belgian elites were being strongly affected by the known threat of bombing, how would they reach the point of doing anything against perceived US national interests?

Well, quite. You’re describing an effective threat of force. It’s just about impossible to imagine things getting to that stage (or indeed what kind of things we could be talking about here). I don’t imagine for an instant that anyone in the Belgian government is worried about bombing; but they might be worried about pissing the US off in general because of its power – and the fact is that ultimately there is behind that power, the power to bomb.

If somehow the Belgians woke up and found they’d sleepwalked through progressive escalation into a situation in which the US had become openly hostile, they might well, had things progressed far enough, start thinking about the possibility of being on the wrong end of military action (and surely that would be enough to make them seek a compromise, but if madly not, etc…). But I think you get the idea without further repetition.

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Walt 04.10.12 at 4:55 pm

Right, but as has been already spelled out in great detail, a) there’s very little evidence that the US does anything to promote the use of the dollar, and b) there’s very little evidence that it’s in the interest of the US (and evidence that it’s actively against the interest of the US).

We are witness to the birth of the left-wing equivalent of goldbuggery. It has the same base psychological motivation — the ascription of a mystical significance of money not just as a tool of the economy, but as a thing in of itself. Rather than a straightforward analysis of power and of material interests, we are now fated to argue about an irrelevancy. Thank you, David Graeber!

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hartal 04.10.12 at 5:03 pm

Eichengreen admits that at least parts of the US derive substantial benefit from the role of the US dollar as intl reserve currency. Lower interest costs, greater latitude to carry out macroeconomic policy, source of strength for the US financial system, ability to devalue debt denominated in one’s own currency.
Is this too being denied, Walt?

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robotslave 04.10.12 at 6:47 pm

@317

To be fair, Graeber in his reply did in passing tell us why he feels explanations are needed for the seemingly obvious:

“What I’m arguing in that passage is that economics is a field that largely creates the reality it describes and then naturalizes it, and by doing so, they’re doing us all a world of harm.”

Whoo, who’s delegitimizing now, eh?

Given his penchant for calmly and with a straight face saying things that he knows perfectly well to be hyperbolic*, I’ll assume he’s only referring to a particular subset of economics and economists, and isn’t really meaning to insult a rather large number of people who are well aware of the problem of unstated assumptions in their research, and would be horrified if their work were used to hurt people.

So presumably some or all of “well of course lots of people will want to use a stable, widely available currency” is naturalized reality, created if not by (certain Capitalist) economists, then by other agents of the malevolent cabal that ultimately reaps all the benefits of the grand charade. I take it we’re supposed to think things like “but a currency can’t be stable without implicit violent threat,” or “but we shouldn’t even need currency often or at all, let alone reserves,” and then dismiss our “obvious” or “practical” answer, and start looking for a man (and not a window) behind the curtain we’ve discovered (or perhaps woven).

Henry’s later question, “why would someone insist on explaining this in terms of agency, particularly that of a state actor?” is a bit of sauce for the gander, inviting us to wonder if Graeber isn’t standing on a patch of naturalized reality himself**.

 

 * which is fine, particularly if one freely admits to it, as Graeber frequently does. FWIW, I also don’t believe he’s suggesting that economies didn’t exist until economists invented them (though that might have gone over rather nicely some 20 years ago) nor more narrowly claiming that e.g. feudal economies did not exist until the eighteenth century, when political philosophers (the “economistic thinkers,” in Graeber’s phrasing, of their day) began to describe the system that would later be named Feudalism. iirc there are those who say fully capitalist systems didn’t exist until well after 1776, so that might be a starting point of sorts for Graeber’s hyperbolic characterization of economics.

 ** which is fine, too. Perhaps the best idea to come out of the pomo rabbit hole is that not only do all of us do this to some extent, but that it’s impossible to avoid or escape it completely.

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Substance McGravitas 04.10.12 at 7:03 pm

Whoo, who’s delegitimizing now, eh?

This, given the current situation, should also have a “this is fine” asterisk.

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Phil 04.10.12 at 7:07 pm

Tim W – sorry, wrong Tim.

You’re describing an effective threat of force.

No, I’m describing a situation in which one of two states has greater freedom of action, in fields touching on both of them, than the other one. Certainly that situation’s been produced by *something* – or, more plausibly, by several somethings – but I don’t know what leads Graeber (or Tim M) to believe that the one key factor is the credible threat of death from above.

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geo 04.10.12 at 7:58 pm

Long ago (well, a few days ago) in a thread far, far away (well, in his reply-to-Graeber thread, @38), Henry proposed a nifty thought experiment:

to clarify the broader point about the independence of market power from military power – imagine a thought experiment under which aliens decide to intervene in human affairs by positioning death ray satellites such that if any US military personnel or US owned and directed materiel strays outside the US’s own national borders it will be instantly destroyed. What would happen to the US’s economic power? And what would happen to the power of large corporations with a US basis? In other words, what would happen if the US was identical to today’s US in all ways except its ability to project military force abroad? My first approximation guess is that this would have significant consequences for oil markets (which are obviously incredibly important) and military procurement, but that for most other areas of the economy, it wouldn’t actually have much direct impact.

I’ve had a low-grade virus and little energy the last few days, and in any case I don’t have anything blazingly original to offer in response to this call for scenarios, but it seems to me that there’s still life in this thread, and that directly addressing Henry’s challenge in this passage would be a natural continuation of it. (Apologies if, somewhere in the 4-500 comments posted subsequently, someone already has.)

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machin 04.10.12 at 8:00 pm

I don’t think this comment thread is nearly long enough.

So:
- Can anyone here deny that Farrell was wrong about Hudson?
- Can anyone here deny then that Farrell’s argument about Graeber’s lack in scholarship rigor (on the issue of military power and international monetary arragements) pretty much crumbles ?

And if anyone needs some more evidence to support the idea that the US is an imperial power which uses sheer force to extract tributes , which Farrell seems to consider outlandish , I’d suggest Giovanni Arrighi’s “Adam Smith in Beijing”, especially Chapter 9 “The World state that never was”, subsection “The Changing Nature of US Protection”.
BTW, Arrighi works IS quoted in chapter twelve of Graeber’s book.
Of course, when you don’t want to see the evidence, it’s much harder to see them.

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robotslave 04.10.12 at 8:03 pm

@339

I’m all in favor of a good hearty attempt at delegitimization, even when it’s pointed at myself*. Graeber, however, doesn’t seem to feel that way. I’m fairly sure I’ve seen him say, in the context of Occupy, that The State, or this or that bit of its apparatus, needs to be delegitimized** in the eyes of the citizenry, so I doubt it’s delegitimization per se that he’s objecting to in Henry’s critique.

I wonder, what would you call a monopoly on the legitimate use of delegitimization? I’d like to stick -ist on the end and use it to describe anyone who seems to want one.

 

 * but then, I enjoy internet, er, “debate.” So, you know, sampling bias etc etc.

 ** he also uses “delegitimated,” a seemingly more recent coinage (no OED entry) that I would have guessed pertained more narrowly to undoing laws, but iirc he’s used it outside that context, so there may be other connotations I’m unaware of. Or it might just be a clunky synonym.

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Walt 04.10.12 at 8:07 pm

“Greater latitude to carry about macroeconomic policy” and “ability to devalue debt” is an intrinsic property of having your own currency. “Source of strength” I don’t see. “Lower interest costs” is true, but is a mixed bag — it’s the centerpiece of China’s industrialization strategy, which is probably the biggest threat to US hegemony.

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Substance McGravitas 04.10.12 at 8:24 pm

I doubt it’s delegitimization per se that he’s objecting to in Henry’s critique.

Sure. Graeber was using it as near-synonymous with argumentum ad hominem — which makes me sigh — whereas delegitimating a body of received wisdom is his aim, and we all must agree that there are some bodies of received wisdom that deserve a good delegitimizationalismic assault.

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robotslave 04.10.12 at 8:38 pm

…we all must agree that there are some bodies of received wisdom that deserve…

Oh yes, certainly. But if you’re suggesting we all must agree that the same some-bodies are so deserving, well, I might quibble with that.

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LFC 04.10.12 at 8:43 pm

geo 341

Seems to me the answer would depend on (1) what the effects of the scenario would be on the corporations w ties to the US mil. and procurement (to include Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, among quite a few others); (2) what the ripple effects of the first set of effects would be on rest of the US economy; and (3) what the net effect would be on US “economic power”. Since I don’t know the answer to (1) or (2), I don’t have an answer. But that would be the approach, ISTM.

A more realistic, perhaps, scenario would be: imagine a retrenched US w a smaller military and reduced — not zero, as in Henry’s scenario, but reduced — force projection capability. What happens to US ‘economic power’ under those conditions? My guess would be: some negative effects perhaps, but not a whole lot.

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Substance McGravitas 04.10.12 at 8:43 pm

I’m not suggesting that and I don’t wanna get sidetracked on it: minor and banal point about messenger vs. messages, blah blah blah.

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Data Tutashkhia 04.10.12 at 8:56 pm

@341
There is already such a country: China.

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Jake 04.10.12 at 9:27 pm

@349: Interesting. China was in the news recently for threatening to cancel A380 orders if the EU implemented their plan for cap-and-trade on airline emissions. They are somewhat less in the news for running a massive computer espionage program against effectively every company in the defense industry around the world, and many others besides (eg: Google). Most companies thus attacked have kept quiet for a variety of reasons, one of which is fear of losing their access to Chinese business.

@347: International trade is completely dependent on the ability to cheaply and reliably transport goods by sea. Oil being the most obvious example. Shipping is vulnerable to disruption by piracy and blockade, and defending against those threats requires the ability to project military power into the ocean. If the US lost its ability to patrol the oceans, I’d expect things to go downhill very quickly.

Being able to bomb other countries feels different – more superficially threatening but harder to use and less effective in practice.

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dsquared 04.10.12 at 10:02 pm

fear of losing their access to Chinese business.

“fear of losing access to business” really isn’t going to do the work of “fear of being bombed”.

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Jake 04.11.12 at 1:58 am

It could do the work of “why do all these countries put up with stuff they dislike from America, if not fear of being bombed.”

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Nils 04.11.12 at 7:11 pm

I suspect that this particular intra-academic exchange is going to become legendary, because it combines both deeply important substance and the highest of dudgeon, along multiple axes. Graeber certainly seems to have learned his style from his old mentor Sahlins, for better or worse.

I have to say, like many of Graeber’s critics, I was deeply impressed by the book, but found the last chapter odd, and Graeber’s defenses of it here even odder. I was particularly astonished by his claim that, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that… [the Bush administration's post-9/11] policy of overt militarism and intimidation [followed] the collapse of the Washington consensus in the face of a sudden and massive efflorescence of global social movements, including the so-called ‘anti-globalization’ movement.”

Maybe I’m over-reading Graeber here, but I think what this means is that he thinks that the “deep” motivation behind the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were that the US wanted to cow those who were interested in challenging US economic hegemony, and that responding to the 9/11 attacks were just a pretext for that. In fact, to be precise, Graeber *doesn’t* actually say that. What he says is that “it’s not a concidence” that X followed Y — with X being the post-9/11 wars and Y being the rise of the anti-globalization movement. So if it’s not a coincidence… then what is it exactly? At a strictly grammatical level, the opposite of a coincidence is an scheme, a purpose, or at minimum some kind of causal relationship. But what is that causal relationship? Here I feel Graeber is vague at best, and verges on conspiratorial.

David is right (and amusing) to reject the notion that “‘the US’ is some sort of hypostasized Hegelian subject with a single will and set of interests” but I fear he falls prey to what is only a slightly more fallacious idea, which is that even the 1% elites who happen to have their hands on the levers of power are rational agents, or that, even if we’re assuming they’re rational, they always make good decisions on the basis of good evidence. In fact, they thought it was going to be an easy win, and they were dead wrong; all the evidence suggests that the Bush administration was in way over its head. There is VAST evidence supporting that contention. My rule of thumb is that when dealing with any complex bureaucracy, it’s almost always more accurate to assume incompetence than vast, precisely-executed conspiracy when you want to explain its actions.

But what’s even more bizarre about Graeber’s assertion is what it implies (I won’t say “argues”) about the motivations behind the post-9/11 wars. On the specific case of Iraq, the reasons/motives for the elites inside the White House (and their useful idiot enablers outside) to promote the war are an almost textbook case of overdetermination: post-9/11 fear of WMDs, personal hatred for Saddam Hussein, frustration with the humanitarian crisis that the endless sanctions regime was causing (with attendant bad impacts on US regional standing), a desire to find a regional basing site for the US outside Saudi (oil matters here), and so on. Where all those fit in the mix will be something historians argue about for decades.

But the idea that the war was motivated primarily (Graeber doesn’t actually say ‘primarily’ but he certainly foregrounds this causal variable) by a desire to intimidate the Porto Alegre crowd is… uh, highly original. I guess you can’t prove a negative, but it just seems like a classic double-bank shot type of historical argument: this isn’t what any of the primary actors said they were doing,

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William Timberman 04.11.12 at 8:37 pm

I guess you can’t prove a negative, but it just seems like a classic double-bank shot type of historical argument: this isn’t what any of the primary actors said they were doing,

That’s certainly true, but there’s also ample evidence that these primary actors don’t always say what they believe to be true, but rather what seems necessary for us to accept as true if they are to be free to act without significant interference from us. In other words, they not only lie, but they create a universe of lies which makes it difficult or impossible to judge the sincerity of any particular pronouncement.

So, the fact none of them ever mentions the mailed fist holding the cornucopia doesn’t mean that it doesn’t enter in a significant way into their calculations, nor prevent anyone with an ounce of sense or a lifetime of sad experiences from assessing what is said independently of the speaker’s expressed intent. One thinks of all options are still on the table, or Madeleine Albright’s If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future. Even better is her What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

Does anyone here really think that the rest of the world, confronted by such statements, is mistaken in perceiving in them a military threat, and that they do so solely because they’re ignorant, envious, or capriciously anti-American? If so, I’d say Occam’s razor is in dire need of a bit of sharpening.

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JJ 04.11.12 at 11:32 pm

rs@343:
“I wonder, what would you call a monopoly on the legitimate use of delegitimization?”

That would be Higher Education. The secular clergy legitimates the secular aristocracy which in turn legitimates the secular clergy.

356

robotslave 04.12.12 at 7:32 am

@355

It’s a little unclear, but I take it that by “secular clergy” you mean academia, and by “secular aristocracy” you mean government, the rich, or some combination thereof (if you allow any distinction between the two to begin with).

Interesting, then, that Graeber’s extensive footnotes to Debt refer entirely to academic sources, and also that he, a graduate of Phillips Academy Andover, has been enrolled or employed by scholastic institutions for all of his adult life, and that he has to date shown no inclination to leave the Academic Industry for full-time occupation in political activism (or any other pursuit, life-pattern, or, horrors, “career”).

I thought castigation of Teh Universiteh was mostly a habit of the far right, but on reflection, it’s not too surprising to find it on the other end of the political spectrum as well.

357

Tim Wilkinson 04.12.12 at 8:00 am

China, which basically keeps itself to itself, is perhaps a nascent example of something closer to economic dominance. Maybe you could say it’s effectively neutralised – and not attempted to outdo or emulate – US dominance, both in military terms – by being highly uninvadable – and financial-monetary terms, in part by managing its currency. As a result its millions of impoverished labourers (internally speaking, its policies are pretty unlovely of course) have been able to deliver it actual economic advantage, not fundamentally based on capitalist finance or projection of military power. This is all far more bold conjecture than categorical assertion (Iknow perfectly well how little I know about China).

robotslave: Graeber’s extensive footnotes to Debt refer entirely to academic sources

Not so.

358

robotslave 04.12.12 at 8:10 am

@357

Forgive me, I meant almost entirely. I think my copy editor must have garbled a rewrite of a rewrite of the passage.

359

JJ 04.12.12 at 8:55 am

“…it’s not too surprising to find it on the other end of the political spectrum…”

Take your standard political spectrum, from communism on the left to fascism on the right, and join the ends to form a circle. Place that circle in the xy-plane at the origin of the z-axis. Raise the fascist end of the circle by one unit and drop the communist end by one unit. You’ve just transformed a one-dimensional linear spectrum into a three-dimensional helical spectrum which cycles from communism at the bottom through socialism, liberalism, conservatism and finally fascism at the top. The line joining fascism to communism is the collapse line, so that communism and fascism are no longer two distinct opposite extremes of a linear spectrum but a single totalitarian political entity. There is no other end of the spectrum.

360

robotslave 04.12.12 at 10:37 am

Your three-dimensional model is discontinuous at the fascism = communism point. And it’s not really “helical,” as there is no repetition of the cycle, but that’s incidental.

I’m not sure this model does what you want it to; in mathematics the correct reading of a discontinuity is not “collapse,” but rather “there can be no valid interpretation here.”

All of which rather glaringly has nothing at all to say about the fact that Graeber is a committed academic, and does zero to help you out of the pickle you’ve gotten yourself into in trying to condemn academics and simultaneously defend the basis of Graeber’s thesis.

361

Peter T 04.12.12 at 12:40 pm

Graeber’s chapter 12 treats military power very crudely, and is weak on that count. But that does not mean that military power does not lead to economic benefit. For one thing, a good many states are anxious to ensure that they can shelter under the US military umbrella. This leads to a willingness to be accommodating in areas like trade agreements, intellectual property, extradition, banking secrecy, compliance with US-led embargoes and sanctions and the like. It also weighs in purchases of US arms, civil aircraft, comms technologies, satellite services and much else. The total benefit to the US is surely considerable. The general concept is “protection rent”, and it has a long history.

The effects of the situation posed in Henry’s thought experiment would surely include a lot of reactions along the lines of “if US protection is unavailable, then we have no need to take a softer line (and accept domestic political consequences) on economic issues” – probably swiftly followed by consideration of whose military umbrella might now be the broadest, and whose economic interests might therefore need to be considered more.

362

JJ 04.12.12 at 4:05 pm

restart:
with(plots):
setoptions3d(axes=none,scaling=constrained,transparency=0,grid=[11,21]):

plot_title:=(title=”Standard Normal Political Spectrum\n(Linear to Helical Transformation)”,titlefont=[HELVETICA,14]):

theta:=-45:
phi:=0:
orient:=(orientation=[theta-29*i/4,phi+9*i/4]):

arrw_opts:=shape=cylindrical_arrow,color=black,width=0.022,head_length=0.06,head_width=0.06,orient:
barrw_opts:=shape=cylindrical_arrow,color=black,width=0.05,head_length=0.09,head_width=0.09,orient:

ra:=piecewise(i=1,0):
la:=piecewise(i=1,0):

a_br:=display(seq(arrow([0,-1,0],[ra,0,0],barrw_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
a_bl:=display(seq(arrow([0,-1,0],[la,0,0],barrw_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

a_b:=(a_br,a_bl):

kdel:=piecewise(i=1,1):

a_x:=display(seq(arrow([-Pi*1.2*kdel,0,0],[Pi*2.4*kdel,0,0],arrw_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
a_y:=display(seq(arrow([0,-1.4*kdel,0],[0,2.8*kdel,0],arrw_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
a_z:=display(seq(arrow([0,0,-1.4*kdel],[0,0,2.8*kdel],arrw_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

rt:=piecewise(i=1,[0,0,0,""]):
ct:=piecewise(i=1,[0,-1,0,""]):
lt:=piecewise(i=1,[0,0,0,""]):

lbl_opts:=(font=[helvetica,14],color=black,orient):
t_br:=display(seq(textplot3d(rt,align=RIGHT,lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
t_bc:=display(seq(textplot3d(ct,align=ABOVE,lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
t_bl:=display(seq(textplot3d(lt,align=LEFT,lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

t_b:=(t_br,t_bc,t_bl):

t_x:=display(seq(textplot3d(piecewise(i=1,[(Pi*1.2+0.2)*kdel,0,0,'X']),lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
t_y:=display(seq(textplot3d(piecewise(i=1,[0,(1.4+0.3)*kdel,0,'Y']),lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
t_z:=display(seq(textplot3d(piecewise(i=1,[0,0,(1.4+0.3)*kdel,'Z']),lbl_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

axsarrws:=(a_b,a_x,a_y,a_z):
axslbls:=(t_b,t_x,t_y,t_z):

fright:=(v,t)->piecewise(tv,v):
gright:=(v,t)->piecewise(tv,-1):

fleft:=(v,t)->piecewise(tv,-v):
gleft:=(v,t)->piecewise(tv,-1):

Ztright:=(u,v,t)->[fright(v,t),gright(v,t),u]:
Ztleft:=(u,v,t)->[fleft(v,t),gleft(v,t),u]:

grid_opts:=(color=grey,orient):
right:=display(seq(plot3d(Ztright(u,v,(1-i/20)*Pi),u=0..1,v=0..Pi,grid_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
left:=display(seq(plot3d(Ztleft(u,v,(1-i/20)*Pi),u=-1..0,v=0..Pi,grid_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

hright:=t->(t+sin(t),cos(t)):
hleft:=t->(-(t+sin(t)),cos(t)):

spcrv_opts:=(color=red,thickness=2,orient):
spcrvright:=display(seq(spacecurve({[hright((1-i/20)*Pi),1-(i/20)*u]},u=0..1,spcrv_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
spcrvleft:=display(seq(spacecurve({[hleft((1-i/20)*Pi),-1-(i/20)*u]},u=-1..0,spcrv_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

helixrevolveright:=(t,s)->[fright(s,t),gright(s,t),s/Pi]:
helixrevolveleft:=(t,s)->[fleft(s,t),gleft(s,t),-s/Pi]:

hel_opts:=(radius=0.01,color=black,orient):
helright:=display(seq(tubeplot(helixrevolveright((1-i/20)*Pi,s),s=0..Pi,hel_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
helleft:=display(seq(tubeplot(helixrevolveleft((1-i/20)*Pi,s),s=0..Pi,hel_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

pt_opts:=(color=red,symbol=cross,symbolsize=40,orient):
ptrightmost:=display(seq(pointplot3d(Ztright(1,Pi,(1-i/20)*Pi),pt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
ptright:=display(seq(pointplot3d(Ztright(1/2,Pi/2,(1-i/20)*Pi),pt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
ptcenter:=display(seq(pointplot3d([0,-1,0],pt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
ptleft:=display(seq(pointplot3d(Ztleft(-1/2,Pi/2,(1-i/20)*Pi),pt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
ptleftmost:=display(seq(pointplot3d(Ztleft(-1,Pi,(1-i/20)*Pi),pt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

points:=(ptleftmost,ptleft,ptcenter,ptright,ptrightmost):

Txtright:=(u,v,t)->(fright(v,t),gright(v,t),u):
Txtleft:=(u,v,t)->(fleft(v,t),gleft(v,t),u):

txt_opts:=align=BELOW,font=[helvetica,14],color=black,orient:
txtrightmost:=display(seq(textplot3d([Txtright(1,Pi,(1-i/20)*Pi),"Fascism"],txt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
txtright:=display(seq(textplot3d([Txtright(1/2,Pi/2,(1-i/20)*Pi),"Conservatism"],txt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
txtcenter:=display(seq(textplot3d([0,-1,0,"Liberalism"],txt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
txtleft:=display(seq(textplot3d([Txtleft(-1/2,Pi/2,(1-i/20)*Pi),"Socialism"],txt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):
txtleftmost:=display(seq(textplot3d([Txtleft(-1,Pi,(1-i/20)*Pi),"Communism"],txt_opts),i=0..20),insequence=true):

txtpoints:=(txtrightmost,txtright,txtcenter,txtleft,txtleftmost):

display({axsarrws,axslbls,left,right,spcrvright,spcrvleft,helleft,helright,points,txtpoints},plot_title,orientation=[theta,phi]);

363

piglet 04.12.12 at 8:09 pm

I am late and my two cents don’t matter much and won’t be read by hardly anyone but anyway. Part of this exchange makes me just sad. Sad because it appears that Graeber has something important to say (everybody here says we need to red the book and I will, probably, at some point) but at the same time that he is not intellectually reliable. Sorry to be blunt. Whatever the merit of Farrell’s and others’ criticism, an academic and book author must be able to respond in a more productive, and more convincing, manner than Graeber has. I can’t believe that anybody with a claim to intellectual seriousness hasn’t learned how to engage in debate. Graeber isn’t the only one, of course, to have that deficiency. It makes me sad every time. Such a waste of time, energy, passion, that could have been expended so much more productively.

364

piglet 04.12.12 at 8:35 pm

122:

“Even as we speak, imperial scientists are at work far beneath Fort Knox fashioning a single, bright, gleaming nay glowing coin from trans-Uranic metals, a “pluto-dollar” if you will, stipulated value the exact size of the debt, to hand to China with great pomp and say, “Here you go, all paid off, suck on this.” “

Years ago I read the phrase (trying to translate): “The US dollar is the only currency still tied to a metal standard: namely lead and uranium.”

365

JJ 04.12.12 at 8:43 pm

Sorry, Peter. I didn’t to step on your post.

You’re right, and it’s that military umbrella, or the lack of it, which backs up which economic interests are there to be considered.

366

piglet 04.12.12 at 8:49 pm

134:

“It isn’t that Graeber’s ridiculous and childish behavior (evidenced both here and in myriad other Internet exchanges) changes the value of his ideas. What it does is make it harder to trust his judgment and his intellectual honesty, since he clearly has no respect for viewpoints that are different from his own.”

Put it better than I did above.

367

JJ 04.12.12 at 9:56 pm

Specifically, Iraq did not then nor does Iran now qualify for coverage under the American military umbrella. Iraq was bombed in 2003, under false pretexts, after it switched to the Euro. Iran switched to the Euro last month.

368

machin 04.12.12 at 11:21 pm

Anyway, the Vietnam war is a lie.

I know that feels bro.

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