The Return of Grand Narrative in the Human Sciences

by Neville Morley on February 22, 2012

David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style.  It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus.  In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer.  In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism…

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The end of debt?

by John Q on February 22, 2012

In ordinary language, a debt is a morally and legally binding obligation to (re)pay somebody. But that’s not the only commonly-used definition of debt. In corporate finance, “debt” refers to a class of securities with a fixed interest payments, senior to equity in claims on assets. Until late C20, this description carried with it much of the freight associated with the ordinary definition – failure to repay debt would involve the end of the corporation as a legal person, so any honest and prudent corporate manager sought to avoid this, and to keep a good credit rating. That all changed with junk bonds and Chapter 11 – corporations now routinely restructure, to wipe out debt (particularly debt owed to employees).

Then there’s sovereign debt, which has always been a special category. Historically, loans to sovereigns debt were more like the reciprocal obligations described by Graeber than like the debts owed by subjects to sovereigns. If you lent to a king (your own, or a foreigner) you gained favor, and hoped to be well paid, but couldn’t do much about it. That attitude extended more generally to aristocratic debtors (exemplified by Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair).

What happens when this view of debt becomes more general As I’ve written previously, current trends imply that most Americans will sooner or later go bankrupt, and of course millions more have defaulted on mortgages in the current crisis. For most of those involved, this event has been catastrophic, and has carried with it a burden of shame and guilt. But, as with divorce, it’s hard to maintain a moral stigma for a life-event that is so commonplace (the fact that bankruptcy is private, while divorce is public, cuts both ways here).

I don’t have an answer on this, only a question. If everyone treated debt as a financial instrument, to be managed in whatever way suited them, how would/will society and the economy change?

Debt Jubilee or Global Deleveraging?

by Barry Finger on February 22, 2012

Fifty years ago, another ambitious examination of historical development was published. This too drew abundantly from “economists, economic historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists” in order to elucidate patterns of social existence and institutional evolution. This too promised to locate in the remote past of humanity, experiences that have “penetrated into unconsciousness of individuals, there to encounter the echoes from the primitive-communist past, which have never been completely buried by the effects of 7000 years of exploitation of man by man.” This too argued, in effect, that a lost social consciousness would be key to the reassertion of a future freed from economic oppression. David Graeber asserts that communism is in fact one of the basis for all human societies. But, while Ernest Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory was written in the context of a cold war in which the fundamental question of social organization was ever present, David begins his quest 2000 years beyond the mist (and myth) enveloped origins of ancient communalism to the beginnings of society already differentiated by class and social function. The current social context is one permeated by a crushing global financial collapse, where – unlike Mandel’s time — the fundamental questions of the class organization of society no longer present themselves as urgent political propositions.
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The world economy is not a tribute system

by Henry Farrell on February 22, 2012

In a blogpost in July of last year, David Graeber talked about why he wrote _Debt_.

bq. But in a way, Keith had it exactly right. The aim of the book was, indeed, to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate, but at the same time, without any sacrifice of scholarly rigor. History will judge whether it’s still possible to pull this sort of thing off (let alone whether I’m the person who will be able to do it.)

He further advised that writers of such books should:

bq. back up your statements with extensive, detailed references that actually do say what you think they say. Good scholarship is more appreciated by popular audiences than academic ones. This is a bit scandalous but I have found it to be true. I have about 100 pages of notes and bibliography in the book and non-academics commenting on the book rarely fail to note, approvingly, that I don’t ask anyone to take my word for what I say, but back up all my claims with numerous references. Some show signs of actually having checked a few to make sure I was on the level. It’s an interesting comment on academia that we almost never do this.

There’s a lot to like about _Debt_, but I don’t think that it delivers on this promise (or, at least, not on the scholarly rigor bit). Much of the specific historical discussion in the book is beyond my pay grade – while I’m interested in the discussion, and enjoyed Graeber’s reconceptualization, I can’t say that much about it. Hence, this response will focus on the stuff that I do know a little more about – today’s international political economy, and the relationship between money and military force within it.

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The unmourned death of the double coincidence

by John Q on February 22, 2012

Jumping in first, I want to recommend Debt: The First 5000 Years as a book that ought to interest just about everyone interested in the way societies are organized. I learned a lot from it, well beyond the core point about the centrality of debt. I haven’t managed to collect my thoughts into a coherent response, so I’m just going to put one or two of them up for discussion, and read the other posts with interest

My first observation is that while economists are the target of quite a few well-armed barbs in Graeber’s book, his message is one that will actually make economics a bit easier to do, by ridding us of the need to treat money as a medium of exchange, designed to overcome the problem that barter requires “a double coincidence of wants”

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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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