Fortunately I didn’t contract with Chris in advance to contribute to the Graeber seminar, so I’m not in debt on this score, paying late and therefore a bad person.

Right. I’m only about halfway through the book – on audiobook: must have something to do on the bus – and quite enjoying it. Some skepticism about Graeber’s scholarship has been expressed in the wake of revelation of that embarrassing bit about Apple computers that he got totally wrong. I am not an expert on all the ancient and exotic anthropological and etc. evidence Graeber cites, but I’m not an absolute beginner. I started studying the history of ideas of debt, and related subjects, a few years back. See here and here. I started because it occurred to me the Plato I was teaching was, to a surprising extent, about debt, reciprocity and, generally, the convertability of moral into monetary categories, and vice versa. Euthyphro on piety. It’s ‘care of the gods’, which – this is his final suggestion – turns out to be the capacity to enter into healthy exchange relations. Meno on whether being good boils down to getting your hands on the goods. Cephalus, the old man, launches the mighty ship, Republic, with the thought that justice is ‘speaking truth and paying debts’, which morphs into the lex talionis thought that justice is payback – doing good to friends and harm to enemies. Plato, like Graeber, is really really concerned to shred this stuff, if he can. So I find Graeber interesting. I haven’t gotten to the bits where Graeber discusses Plato, but I see he does discuss him. And I haven’t found any flagrant inconsistencies between what he says about other ancient stuff and what I have read in other authors about ancient stuff. So I’m inclined to think the Apple slip was a one-off accident, not indicative of larger problems. As to the tribute system stuff. It sounds like Henry is right about that and Graeber is wrong. I haven’t gotten to that part of the book yet.

Right. Getting down to business. Here’s what seems to me a fundamental tension in the book. On the one hand, Graeber wants to emphasize that debt is a very specific relation. Everything isn’t debt, human relations-wise. More generally, everything isn’t exchange. For him, this is the larger significance of defeating the myth of barter and the double-coincidence and all that (go read the other posts if you don’t know what I’m talking about.) Money emerges as a way of accounting for debt, but not everything is debt. So money isn’t a way of accounting for everything. I’m simplifying, but this is the gist. (One of many gists, but enough for one post.) [click to continue…]

Doublethink doubleplusungood

by John Q on March 3, 2012

The news that Republican members of the Wyoming Legislature wanted the state to investigate buying an aircraft carrier[1] as insurance against a possible collapse of the US seems as good an occasion as any to signify the final descent of the party into irredeemable loopiness. Add to that the revival of birtherism, the inability to deal with Rush Limbaugh, and the absence of any coherent economic policy except tax cuts for the rich and you have a party that has seriously lost touch with reality.

As I observed a couple of years ago during the epistemic closure memetime, reality-denial mechanisms have some major political benefits, particularly in mobilising resistance against policy innovations, and tribal solidarity against outsiders of all kinds. But it seems clear at this point that the costs I mentioned then are now bigger than the benefits for the Repubs.

[click to continue…]

Red Plenty!

by Henry Farrell on March 3, 2012

_Red Plenty_, which I’ve written about several times, is now available (“Powells”:, “Amazon”: in a US paperback edition. It’s a fabulous book which should apply to a wide variety of CT readers – a mosaic novel that simultaneously speaks intelligently to the Soviet calculation debate, _and_ has engaging characters. It’s beautifully written to boot – this bit, which I’ve quoted before, will give you some sense of how its more cerebral passages flow.

bq. But Marx had drawn a nightmare picture of what happened to human life under capitalism, when everything was produced only in order to be exchanged; when true qualities and uses dropped away, and the human power of making and doing itself became only an object to be traded. Then the makers and the things made turned alike into commodities, and the motion of society turned into a kind of zombie dance, a grim cavorting whirl in which objects and people blurred together till the objects were half alive and the people were half dead. Stock-market prices acted back upon the world as if they were independent powers, requiring factories to be opened or closed, real human beings to work or rest, hurry or dawdle; and they, having given the transfusion that made the stock prices come alive, felt their flesh go cold and impersonal on them, mere mechanisms for chunking out the man-hours. Living money and dying humans, metal as tender as skin and skin as hard as metal, taking hands, and dancing round, and round, and round, with no way ever of stopping; the quickened and the deadened, whirling on. That was Marx’s description, anyway. And what would be the alternative? The consciously arranged alternative? A dance of another nature, Emil presumed. A dance to the music of use, where every step fulfilled some real need, did some tangible good, and no matter how fast the dancers spun, they moved easily, because they moved to a human measure, intelligible to all, chosen by all.

Finally, we’re going to do a Crooked Timber seminar on it in a few months. This should give plenty of opportunity to those of you who want to join the discussion to get your hands on a copy and read it.