Debt: 4,102 days later

by Henry Farrell on July 8, 2023

As Chris suggests, one of the most memorable disasters at Crooked Timber was the seminar on David Graeber’s book, Debt. Timothy Burke described it at the time as conveying:

that feeling of grad school as Hobbesean nightmare, of small arguments quickly and casually intensified into thermonuclear exchanges, losing all potentially meaningful disagreements along the way.

I wrote the post that precipitated the explosion, which was indeed written more harshly than it ought to have been. Still, I am not sure the end outcome would have been different: while I didn’t know it at the time I wrote, there had already been some signs that Graeber was not going to treat the seminar as an ordinary debate with disagreements among colleagues.

I’ve heard many stories about him since – some about his exquisite sensitivity to perceived slights, his sense of grievance (reinforced by his early career experiences), and his willingness to bear grudges; some about his great and unexpected kindnesses to people who would be unlikely to be ever to repay him. And of course he has written and co-written books since, which have stimulated useful thought (e.g.), while also, like Debt, getting a lot of criticism for their use of evidence.

I wouldn’t have said this when Graeber was alive, because he almost certainly would have interpreted it as another deliberate and vicious putdown, rather than the somewhat complicated compliment that it is, restarting the feud. I think the best way to understand Graeber is as a writer of speculative nonfiction. He is often wrong on the facts, and more often willing to push them farther than they really ought to be pushed, requiring shallow foundations of evidence to bear a heavy load of very strongly asserted theoretical claims. But there is value to the speculation – social scientists don’t do nearly enough of it. Sometimes it is less valuable to be right than to expand the space of perceived social and political possibilities. And that is something that Graeber was very good at doing.

It’s also something that I personally benefited from, even though I certainly didn’t think it at the time. Graeber’s reply, where he accused me of various kinds of dishonesty, provoked me to explain at length why I thought he was wrong to describe the world economy as a system where the threat of US military invasion terrified everyone into paying tribute. I found myself arguing that:

Thinking about superficially anodyne relationships as forms of “tribute” has the useful and salutary effect of pushing us to think about them as being political, rather than something that just naturally happens. But it also pushes us – as Graeber’s line of argument suggests, to think about them as being exacted under the direct threat of military force in the event that they are not delivered. That’s what tribute is. This may explain some relationships in the world economy, but it doesn’t explain nearly as much, I don’t think, as Graeber argues. More generally, as Graeber makes clear in his response, it focuses on the state as the primary locus of action. If it weren’t for the state’s military and ideological power, markets would be reabsorbed into society. But this radically underestimates the role that market actors and market integration play, independent of US interests. It used to be that countries which didn’t pay up their debts could expect to be invaded by major powers. Now, even in the absence of even an indirect threat of force from the US, they can expect to find themselves isolated from the world economy instead. And this is not because the US state orders it to happen, but because economic actors, who are largely autonomous of the US government, or of any other state, coordinate to make it so.

In the last five years, Abe Newman and I have written a lot about how the US is able to exert imperial hegemony, even in circumstances where the threat of military force is vanishingly unlikely. Specifically, we have argued that the US dollar clearing system and other economic and information networks provide the US with extraordinary power to surveil and exert pressure. And we have a book forthcoming in two months that makes this argument at greater length to a broader audience.

Obviously, I can’t speak for Abe, and I can’t say that any of our specific ideas start from Graeber’s work, because they don’t. Our notion of US empire starts from a fundamentally different set of suppositions, emphasizing economic networks rather than military supremacy. Still, I can say that the first time I really thought about the question of how US power over the economy can’t be reduced to a military tribute system, and what it might involve instead, was provoked by David Graeber.

If Graeber were still alive, I would guess that he’d furiously disavow even so indirect a role, and I don’t imagine he’d like the book much, even if I weren’t one of the authors. But I owe him, and the otherwise disastrous situation he precipitated a genuine debt nonetheless. Now, 4,102 days later, I’m acknowledging it.



Luis 07.08.23 at 3:51 pm

I refuse to accept that it has been a decade.

(And more seriously, this is more gracious than anything I’d be able to muster in your shoes, Henry, even a decade later.)


Matt F Stevens 07.08.23 at 5:36 pm

I appreciate this gracious retrospective, as well as the link to Timothy Burke’s observations. The latter reminded me of my own — disastrous — grad school experiences, which I’m still kicking myself over, 20- years later.

I often wonder if Karl Marx’s example was hobbled the left since its inception. The vicious contempt he showed to ostensible allies, over minor doctrinal differences in some cases, made him a terrible role-model to follow.


Limericky Dicky 07.08.23 at 8:34 pm

Henry Farrell
had David Graeber over a barrel.
Or so it may have seemed, until America’s first manifestly ineffectual campaign of military-economic Dirty Tricks
immediately precipitated de-dollarisation and a rush to join the BRICS.


Doctor Science 07.09.23 at 12:52 am

Bret Devereau at ACOUP has just put up a post arguing that the US doesn’t have an empire, it is Team Captain of the Status Quo Coalition. He’s coming from the POV of a historian of Rome and the ancient (western Eurasian) world generally, and of military history (again, of western Eurasia) through the ages.


dilbert dogbert 07.09.23 at 3:06 am

Check out Krugman’s post in the FNYT about de-dollarisation.


Kevin 07.09.23 at 5:19 am

I understand why Graeber’s fans liked him – he was a radical, he put his ideas into practice at places like Occupy, he was a talented writer, and he wrote for a popular audience.

The problem is, at noted above, that his books are chock full of absolute nonsense, made up citations (in the sense that what is being cited bears no resemblance to the claim in the book), deliberate obfuscation of facts, and wholly biased reads of the literature. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them non-academic. I think Henry is, frankly, being polite above – the problem goes beyond simple academic disagreement and into the realm of, as far as I’m concerned, deliberate attempts to mislead the audience in service of a political aim. There are many social scientists I disagree with, but I’m not sure there is another academic of the same public standaing where I so often felt reading their work, deliberately mislead.


Doctor Memory 07.09.23 at 3:15 pm

For better or worse, there are a handful of CT posts that I remember and still cite in conversation years after the fact: the primary one is and will probably always be Cosma’s “In Soviet Russia, Optimization Problem Solves You” — which I only semi-jokingly refer to as the lodestone of my adult political philosophy — and the other is, alas, “The world economy is not a tribute system” and Graeber’s absolute meltdown of a response to it. As the old demotivator poster used to say, “it could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others” and Graeber’s decision to go nuclear in response to a frankly anodyne criticism has served as a sort of.. anti-lodestone.

I won’t say that I’ve always successfully prevented myself from getting into idiotic sniping arguments disguised as grand defenses of important political principles on the internet in the aftermath, but I’d say that the desire not to come off as that level of un-self-aware windbag has at least successfully decreased the frequency at which it happens.


steven t johnson 07.09.23 at 5:01 pm

Doctor Science@4 for some odd reason cites Bret Devereaux’s latest except without declaring it to be more symptomatic than enlightening. The best thing about this I think is the way the title makes it clear from the beginning the post is nonsense at best: The US is not a status quo power.

For decades it has aggressively pursued control over the governments of pretty much the entire planet. It has relentlessly waged economic warfare against political dissidents in areas where it never had control, rather than accept the status quo. It has blithely re-written national borders whenever it suits its policy. A status quo power does not actually need to keep increasing its military budget year on end, for the simple reason a status quo coalition could actually provide the military muscle to maintain the status quo. It is the offensive that requires overwhelming superiority.

And it doesn’t take too long before you see that Devereaux somehow thinks North Korea and Iran are “revisionist” powers, the dreadful threat to the status quo. Whatever private meaning Devereaux assigns to his construct “status quo,” in practice it is pretty close to saying western civilization, aka Christendom, and a handful of trusted imitators. There is not really that much difference between a Devereaux and Victor Davis Hanson, however much he flatters himself.

There are actually numerous issues in the whole production, like citing public opinion polls when the issue is whether public opinion ever drives foreign policy. Or should be in a realistic discussion of foreign policy and war. Or, a supposedly reputable historian taking Freedom House ratings so seriously? Frankly, as an index of freedom the percentage of the population (or select segments thereof) in jails or on parole/probation, much less shot, should count for something.

Devereaux’s work on the dead past suffers from his importing his ideological nonsense. You can’t understand the past if you don’t understand the present.


both sides do it 07.09.23 at 6:45 pm

Cosma’s “In Soviet Russia, Optimization Problem Solves You” — which I only semi-jokingly refer to as the lodestone of my adult political philosophy

There must be hundreds of us, we should start a journal

+1 to the graciousness of the post, which as a bank shot also serves as example of what’s possible through blogging that’s harder on other platforms


Neville Morley 07.09.23 at 8:16 pm

I like your idea about Graeber as a writer of speculative non-fiction, as it certainly makes sense of how he writes about topics that I know about – ancient economic and social history, broadly defined. In Debt above all, but also in other works, he could offer really interesting, thought-provoking ideas, IF there was a decent amount of sophisticated secondary literature by specialists which he found broadly congenial and so could work with; if there wasn’t any such body of research, or he didn’t find it congenial, or didn’t know about it, he either avoided the topic altogether (the bizarre lack of attention to the Roman Empire in Debt), or produced dubious banalities. It’s a version of the idea of SF as extrapolation; he needed a body of scholarship that was sufficiently clever and interesting in its own terms for him to be clever and interesting about it in his terms.


Ebenezer Scrooge 07.09.23 at 10:58 pm

Steven @ 8: I don’t think that Devereaux was arguing that the US is itself a status quo power. He argues that the dynamic doings of the US are the status quo, and a favorable status quo to (almost) all the other rich countries, or at least their elites. This goes to Henry’s point on “tribute”: Japan for instance does not follow the US lead out of fear of the Sixth Fleet. Indeed, Japan works under the umbrella of the Sixth Fleet. Maybe this is bad for the world, but Japanese elites perceive it as good for Japan. Ditto likewise EU and others.


Henry Farrell 07.09.23 at 11:45 pm

Chris noted that Wilhoit’s Law is likely the most famous thing ever published on CT. I regularly wonder whether my two greatest lifetime contributions to the world will be (a) having noticed it in the comments to an otherwise utterly undistinguished post that I’d written and starting the ball rolling by publicizing it a bit, and (b) egging on Cosma to write that piece. And even if my role in both is indirect, it wouldn’t at all be a bad record.


steven t johnson 07.10.23 at 2:01 pm

Ebenezer Scrooge@11 It is still amazingly unclear how North Korea’s existence makes it into a “revisionist” power. (Actually it is not even clear that Devereaux even understands that the PRC’s reluctance to actually completely starve the north into total surrender—unlike the US and the cannibal kingdom of the south— is by no means the same thing as breaking the siege.) It is equally amazingly unclear how the Iraqi war on revolutionary Iran or the later de facto partition of Iraq show that Iran is a revisionist power.

Nor does Devereaux draw any distinction between elites and others, especially when discussing interstate anarchy in more recent times.

The US chains on the world, the huge empire of bases, is hugely expensive. Like the large majority of colonies back in the day, such things are overhead costs. If you were really reducing things to military tribute, it is presumably the US that is paying the way for the rest of the rich man’s club. (I remember Trump believed that too, and complained about it.) I don’t think the tribute model of imperialism makes any sense, but Devereaux’s conclusion that the US hegemony is the status quo of “free and rich” (in quotation marks because I remember them from the post) doesn’t follow.

“…US dollar clearing system and other economic and information networks provide the US with extraordinary power to surveil and exert pressure…” and “economic networks rather than military supremacy…” suggest the assumption these things are somehow separate, rather than one being the costly prerequisite paid for with as regressive as possible taxation and the international financial networks defended by the world police as much private property, both wealth and income, as possible. At this point, this approach doesn’t seem to me to be productive.


Timothy Burke 07.10.23 at 5:16 pm

I actually think all big-scale synthesizing social science is speculative nonfiction: it almost always involves selecting for a major theme or idea or theory and exploring it monomaniacally in order to draw attention to the causal and descriptive power of that theme and to challenge all the other speculative nonfictions. I can’t think of any book operating at the scope and scale of Debt that isn’t greviously wrong in a major way at some point–either in omitting a whole range of cases that the author isn’t familiar with (usually non-Western, but not always), or in relying on some really antiquated generalizing source where the author isn’t aware that the source has been discarded or superceded, etc., and usually thus also wrong on many minor points too. I think the problem is that the people who have the ambition to write such an account are very rarely inclined to gracious acknowledgement of the exaggerations and errors in their work, or to treat their writing as a thought experiment of sorts. (That’s not a universal pattern: there are important exceptions.) But David definitely didn’t know when to leave things alone; digital culture was a bad temptation for him.


Peter T 07.12.23 at 4:46 am

“It used to be that countries which didn’t pay up their debts could expect to be invaded by major powers. Now, even in the absence of even an indirect threat of force from the US, they can expect to find themselves isolated from the world economy instead. And this is not because the US state orders it to happen, but because economic actors, who are largely autonomous of the US government, or of any other state, coordinate to make it so.”

The market is not a thing – it’s a loose collection of institutions and people, some cautious, some brave, some adventurous, some clever and – because it’s money – many who think themselves cleverer than they are. So one can always find a lender, often the same one who was stiffed before, because one has promised to reform or this time is different or there’s this money that needs to be lent. Cases in point – Argentina and Donald Trump.

Isolating a country from the world economy takes state action (almost always US), and extends only so far as US power reaches. Iran does business with China and Russia and Iraq and Turkey – at the private as well as the state level; North Korea with China and Russia. Various cartel members are in US prisons, the Huawei CFO back home because US courts backed by US state power can reach into Latin America but China has countervailing power.

This is not tribute, but it most definitely is not ‘autonomous’ economic actors.

I’m not sure the term ‘revisionist’ makes sense. The world changes, so the question always is how far and in what direction human institutions change with it. The composition of the boards of the IMF, World Bank etc cannot ignore that China is now a major economic power, and that the UK is now not.


Pechmerle 07.13.23 at 12:14 pm

@9 1,000+ Cosma’s Optimizes You post is one of the greatest works of nonfiction I have ever read.
(And his reference to an uncle whose middle name is “Karl Marx” – is a truly priceless bonus.)
(P.S. The Wikipedia article on Cosma needs more independent references attesting to his intellectual noteworthiness. If any of you can add some – please do!)


Tm 07.17.23 at 11:08 am

“I can’t think of any book operating at the scope and scale of Debt that isn’t greviously wrong in a major way at some point”

I generally distrust “any book operating at the scope and scale of Debt” or similar (see also Jared Diamond). It may well be that there is value in such books being written but they really need to be greeted with appropriate scepticism, and reviewers have a professional duty to point out the shortcomings. To my dismay, the opposite usually happens – reviews in the mass media are typically written by non-experts and full of uncritical adulation, and the interested public gets a terribly distorted impression of the state of scientific debate.


Karen 07.18.23 at 5:08 pm

Happy Blog-O-Birthday!

I have nothing relevant to contribute to this discussion. I do recall having a lovely discussion with you about Dallas radio stations and their associated high school social strata back in the 1970’s, and about how all northeast Texas stoners were required by statute to have a KZEW sticker on the back windshield of their cars, which were almost all 1973 Chryslers.

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