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Seminar on David Graeber’s Debt – admin notice

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2012

We’ve now received and published all the contributions in our online seminar on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years . For those wanting a handy index the posts are:

Chris Bertram, Introduction
John Quiggin, The unmourned death of the double coincidence
Henry Farrell: The world economy is not a tribute system
Barry Finger Debt jubilee or global deleveraging
John Quiggin (slight return): The end of debt
Neville Morley: The return of grand narrative in the human sciences
Malcolm Harris: The dangers of pricing the infinite
Daniel Davies Too big to fail: the first 5000 years
Lou Brown: Good to think with
Richard Ashcroft: Money out of place: ‘debt’ and incentives
Rob Horning: Debt on the 12th planet

Stay tuned, as we’re hoping that David Graeber will be able to write a response to some of this soon, but that won’t happen for at least a week or so.

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years begins with a conversation in a London churchyard about debt and morality and takes us all the way from ancient Sumeria, through Roman slavery, the vast empires of the “Axial age”, medieval monasteries, New World conquest and slavery to the 2008 financial collapse. The breadth of material Graeber covers is extraordinarily impressive and, though anchored in the perspective of social anthropology, he also draws on economics and finance, law, history, classics, sociology and the history of ideas. I’m guessing that most of us can’t keep up and that we lack, to some degree, his erudition and multidisciplinary competence. Anyway, I do. But I hope that a Crooked Timber symposium can draw on experts and scholars from enough of these different disciplines to provide some critical perspective. My own background is in political philosophy and the history of political thought: so that naturally informs my own reactions as do my political engagements and sympathies. So mine is merely one take on some of the book’s themes.

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Free Your Mind (And The Rest Will Follow?)

by Neville Morley on May 8, 2017

If the world is burning, and the walls of western civilization are collapsing around our ears, what exactly is the point of devoting time not only to reading speculative fiction – that might be understood, if not necessarily excused, as a temporary escape from contemporary horrors – but to discussing it in a learned manner? Surely our intellectual energies should be focused on the real problems that confront us, not on the imaginary problems of an imagined future? But, the answer may come, of course these are really our problems; extrapolated and magnified and taken to extremes, but still recognisably versions of the issues we face. Still, time is short; surely a more direct engagement with this world is what’s needed, to have any hope of real solutions? [click to continue…]

The One-Body Problem

by John Holbo on May 3, 2017

From a Laurie Penny piece last month for The Baffler, “The Slow Confiscation of Everything: How To Think About Climate Apocalypse”: “As David Graeber notes in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, the ideal psychological culture for the current form of calamity capitalism is an apprehension of coming collapse mated bluntly with the possibility of individual escape.”

That’s a Cory Doctorow thought. More specifically, how can humanity defeat the distinctive sorts of bullshit moral self-delusion that are the bastard progeny of that blunt mating? Evil snowcrash of snowflakes, melting, each trying to be The One. Cory credits Graeber (among others) right there on his acknowledgement page. And I might add: Penny immediately mentions Annalee Newitz’ new book, Scatter, Adapt, And Remember: How Humans Will Survive A Mass Extinction – which bears an effusive Doctorow blurb: “… balanced on the knife-edge of disaster and delirious hope.”

Call it the one-body problem. I’ve only got the one, you see …

Meanwhile, what matters is: you know, humanity. [click to continue…]

The Rapture of The Pretty Hip People, Actually

by Belle Waring on May 1, 2017

No spoilers because I’m just talking in generalities. Read away.

Walkaway is a book in which important issues about how we should live, and how we can live, are discussed and hashed out very thoroughly. Not anywhere near the level of Kim Stanley Robinson, when in the course of reading you are inclined to ask, “did I just read 160 pages of minutes from an anarcho-syndicalist collective meeting? Yes, yes I did. Huh. Why I am I finishing this trilogy? Oh right, I have a compulsive need to finish any book.” Nonetheless, the discussions are full and mostly quite satisfying even as they treat difficult issues. What do we owe one another in society? How should we distribute resources? (I will note in passing that there is a certain tension between the post-scarcity economy that seems to be available and the widespread poverty of the “default” world, but we can hardly expect a smooth transition from the one to the other; perhaps this is realism rather than inconsistency.)

However there is one topic which does not get as much of this treatment, in my opinion, even as it is a very live issue in the plot, namely, is a copy of you really you? If your consciousness could be uploaded to a computer and successfully simulated, would this represent a continuation of your actual self, or merely the creation of a copy of you, like an animated xerox? Would you “go on living” in some meaningful sense? What if these new copies of you were drafted as servants, to use the way we use machines now, but a thousand times more useful? [click to continue…]

It’s Nazi week at Crooked Timber! Do you love thrilling stories about Nazis? Great! [click to continue…]

Reciprocity vs. Baseline Communism

by John Holbo on February 19, 2015

I was rereading David Graeber’s Debt over the weekend. The intervening two years, since our book event, have not caused it to be the case that Graeber doesn’t owe Henry an apology, after all. But the life of the mind goes on. We do not freeze intellectual accounts due to outstanding personal debts. That is to say, the free market of ideas is baseline communist, in Graeber’s sense. If I have a bright idea, I do not expect to be paid back, by those who receive it, in the form of two half-insights – or 100 comments, each containing but a grote’s worth of thought; none of that. (I expect intellectual credit, of course.)

My bright idea for the day is that I have no idea what the difference is between reciprocity and baseline communism. [click to continue…]

My travelogue continues … By the way, check out friend-o-the-blog Sam Bikinoraion’s blog – he is also going round the world this year, and seems to be visiting a load of my favourite places, which I didn’t fancy taking the kids to. This episode takes me through Greece, and is posted a bit in arrears, as I headed off to the desert after the events described herein …

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Debating Fortress Unionism

by Henry on July 9, 2013

As Chris’s post below suggests, Crooked Timber is a kind of anarchist collective (albeit in ways not appreciated by David Graeber …), which reflects a variety of views. We’ve also tried over the years to encourage argument between different views (mostly on the left). In that spirit, we’re publishing a short and vigorous back and forth on the future of unions. A few weeks ago, Rich Yeselson wrote a piece defending what he called “Fortress Unionism” for Democracy (PDF version here). John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi, have written a response to Rich’s original piece; Rich has in turn responded to the response. For those who prefer to read in printed form, here’s a PDF of the argument.

Rich Yeselson is a writer, all-round public intellectual and former labor organizer. He has contributed to Crooked Timber book seminars in the past

John Ahlquist is Trice Family Faculty Scholar and Associate Professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Margaret Levi is Jere L. Bachrach Professor of International Studies at the University of Washington and Chair in Politics at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Their book In the Interests of Others: Organizations & Social Activism will be published by Princeton University Press later this year.

Debt: The Next 500 Posts …

by Henry on September 26, 2012

A coda to the coda - Mike Beggs’ piece on Graeber’s Debt in Jacobin, and the ensuing discussion in comments here at CT, has given rise to a further exchange in which J.W. Mason defends Graeber on money, and Mike Beggs restates and extends his position.


Mike sees Debt as “a move in an interdisciplinary struggle: anthropology against economics.” But most of the key arguments of Debt are better seen as part of an intradisciplinary struggle within economics. Admittedly it takes some unpacking, but Debt‘s key themes are in close harmony with the main themes of heterodox economics work going back to Keynes; while the “economics” that Beggs opposes to him represents only the discipline’s more conservative wings. … Debt‘s demonstration that money obligations are historically prior exchange of goods maps onto the insistence of Marx, Keynes and their successors that under capitalism, money values are logically prior to the production and consumption of real goods and services. … Debt‘s distinction between money and credit systems is not just an exercise in classification, but corresponds to a distinction that has has preoccupied many classical and modern economists, and has important implications for monetary policy in addition to the vaster cultural and political-economic ramifications Debt focuses on. … when Mike says that Debt exaggerates the importance of the system of payments, it is because he is coming from a narrowly orthodox view of what monetary economics is about, and why money matters. If your economic vision is shaped by more heterodox traditions — or by the responses to the financial crises of the past few years — the economics of Debt will seem more congenial.


The debate between Josh and I centers on the question of whether or not the distinction between a ‘commodity/fiat money economy’ and a ‘credit money economy’ is a useful one in understanding our present economic system and its history. He thinks it is so useful as to be the central dividing line in economics; I think it is liable to mislead. The rest of the disagreement comes, I think, because Josh conflates the commodity/fiat-credit money economy divide with other divides in economic thinking. So he seems to that if I challenge that distinction, I must be a quantity theorist, must believe that money is simply a veil, neutral in its economic effects, and must misunderstand how banking works. In fact we are on the same side in all those other dichotomies, but Josh for some reason continues to maintain that if I disagree over the core distinction, I must be standing on the other side of all the others. … I think the ‘commodity/fiat money economy’ – ‘credit money economy’ divide is a problem; and … that the rest of his criticisms rest on the conflations with other theoretical dichotomies.

Debt: The First Five Hundred Pages

by Henry on August 29, 2012

Given past history, I’m probably not the best person to write disinterestedly about David Graeber’s Debt. Still, I think that both critics and fans of his work ought to read this comprehensive critique by Mike Beggs in the new issue of Jacobin. Begg admires the energy and ambition of the book, but is also blunt.

Debt, then, does not need any more kind words from me. It’s enough to say that there is a lot of fantastic material in there. The breadth of Graeber’s reading is impressive, and he draws from it a wealth of insightful fragments of history. The prospect of a grand social history of debt from a thinker of the radical left is exciting. The appeal is no mystery. I wanted to love it.
Unfortunately, I found the main arguments wholly unconvincing.
The very unconvincingness poses the question: What do we need from our grand social theory? The success of the book shows there is an appetite for work that promises to set our present moment against the sweep of history so as to explain our predicament and help us find footholds for changing it. What is wrong with Graeber’s approach, and how could we do better?

The Return of the Baffler

by Henry on May 8, 2012

The Baffler, one of the great little magazines, is back again in a new print incarnation. And, for the first time (I think), it has a proper website. The US Intellectual History blog has run a short round table on the issue – contributions, in order are here, here, and here, with a reply from the new editor, John Summers, here. George Scialabba is an associate editor, and Aaron Swartz a contributing editor (both, of course, are long time members of the CT community). Readers are warmly encouraged to subscribe and/or to donate to the magazine’s Kickstarter campaign, which ends in only a couple of days.

The theme of the new issue is capitalist innovation and its problems. Quoting the framing piece by John Summers:

The fable that we are living through a time of head-snapping innovation in technology drives American thought these days – dystopian and utopian alike. But if you look past both the hysteria and the hype, and place the achievements of technology in historical perspective, then you may recall how business leaders promised not long ago to usher us into a glorious new time of abundance that stood beyond history. And then you may wonder if their control over technology hasn’t excelled mainly at producing dazzling new ways to package and distribute consumer products (like television) that have been kicking around history for quite some time. The salvos in this issue chronicle America’s trajectory from megamachines to minimachines, from prosthetic gods to prosthetic pals, and raise a corollary question from amid all these strangely unimaginative innovation: how much of our collective awe rests on low expectations?

There are some startlingly close parallels to the aspirations of the USSR, as described in Red Plenty, which I’ll be talking about at greater length in my contribution to the forthcoming seminar. There are also some claims that I disagree with. I’m not at all sure that this introduction has the diagnosis right. Much like the old Baffler, there are some good and excellently entertaining criticisms of specific elements of techno-boosterism, but also a little too much emphasis on the cultural rather than the political dimensions of techology.

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Because: Imperialism!

by Henry on April 4, 2012

Preliminary throat-clearing: as promised, a reply to David Graeber’s reply below, or rather, to the particular bits of it that concerned me. Before getting into the substance, let me briefly clear up that I won’t be talking at any length about what I think of his general conduct, style of argument in which he claims that serious critics are liars out to delegitimize him and so on. As you may imagine, I am very unhappy with his behavior – but I also believe that for purposes of analysis one ought to separate the person from the work. Worse people have written better books. I will, however, note (since Gabriel Rossman is too nice to do this himself) that Graeber’s account of their Twitter interactions is extremely tendentious, to the point of being more or less unrecognizable to me.

Warning: what comes below is rather long. The first section will look at the specific complaints in Graeber’s reply, each in its turn. The second will return to the book chapter in question. The third will look at broader issues of how to study imperialism.

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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.


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.
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Debt, hierarchy, and the modern university

by Chris Bertram on March 9, 2012

David Graeber’s three social principles – hierarchy, exchange and communism – are useful devices to think about the world, particularly when you become sensitized to the way in which one can turn into or mask another. One site of human interaction that may be illuminated by Graeber’s principles is the modern university: perhaps especially the British version which has evolved from nominally democratic modes of governance to extremely hierarchical ones within a generation.
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