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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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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…]

Debt on the 12th Planet

by Rob Horning on February 28, 2012

In his 1976 book The Twelfth Planet, independent scholar Zecharia Sitchin drew on his heterodox studies of archeology, biology, anthropology, and ancient Sumerian to put forward the thesis that an alien race from the planet Nibiru came to earth thousands of years ago and enslaved the human species and forced them to mine precious metals, instilling in our ancestors a religious respect for metallurgy and an insatiable love for gold. As I remember it from Sitchin’s appearances on the Art Bell show in the 1990s, the original political hierarchies in ancient times derived from the appointed intermediaries to the Nibiru people (known in various human mythologies as the Nephilim or the Annunaki); these became the earliest human kings, with access to supernatural power that justified their rule, the purpose of which was essentially to expedite the greatest amount of precious metal extraction possible.
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Money out of place? “Debt” and Incentives

by Richard Ashcroft on February 26, 2012

My interest in David Graeber’s extraordinary book “Debt: The First 5, 000 Years” stems from my work on incentives in healthcare. I don’t have much to say about debt and political economy. On these matters I am an ordinary citizen-punter and the most sophistication I can muster is to parrot John Lanchester’s better lines. But I know a little bit about incentives, and here I want to say a few things about the connections.

The current debate about incentives in healthcare can be split in half. One half concerns the use of incentives to motivate professionals and institutions to provide better, or different, care and services to patients and clients, citizens and customers. This is a very important debate, with roots in Adam Smith’s suspicion of professions as conspiracies against the public, the public choice theorists’ suspicion of regulation by rule-making, and the management consultant’s belief that people’s behaviour at work is driven principally by the available rewards.
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Good to Think With

by Lou Brown on February 26, 2012

On a recent edition of the public radio show “The Story” (air date February 21, 2012), the interviewee, Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian Muslim, describes the relationship his family had with a neighbor woman, Petra, a Bosnian Serb. Muslims were being rounded up and placed in concentration camps, and Trebincevic’s family lived in fear. Petra would stop by for a visit, commenting to Trebincevic’s mother, “I like your rug,” or “That’s a pretty dress.” She would then invite the mother over for coffee, all the while talking about how nice the rug would look in her apartment or how good the dress would look on her. Within a context where Petra was known to have betrayed other Muslim residents to patrolling soldiers, Trebincevic says Petra’s message was very clear: “Either agree with what I’m asking you to do, or I’m going to turn you in.” His mother would dutifully fold up her rug or her dress or whatever other possession Petra had tacitly demanded, and give it to her neighbor when she went for coffee. This is an example of a type of relationship David Graeber describes as constitutive of a human economy, an economy “concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings” (p. 130). In this case, Petra is demonstrating that Trebincevic’s mother owes her a debt that can never really be repaid. The mother must continue to make payments, with both parties fully aware that no payment will ever be enough to match the value of the original “gift”, the lives of Trebincevic’s father and older brother. This story also resonates with another of Graeber’s key points, the role of violence in the creation of a system in which human lives can be thought of as objects of exchange. [click to continue…]

Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years

by Daniel on February 25, 2012

One of the many fascinating pieces of information that David Graeber tosses off like shrapnel in Debt is that the first recorded appearance of the word “freedom” in a political document is in a Sumerian proclamation of a debt amnesty or jubilee.

What interested me, however, from the point of view of a professional banker, is that the document in question provided only for the discharge of personal debts of the Sumerians; commercial debts of merchants were not discharged. Clearly (and I suppose there is an interesting anthropological history to be written of the extent to which the appropriate level of cynicism about these things as changed from pre-Christian Mesopotamia to modern London), anyone who could have convinced the Babylonian legal system that his liabilities were all personal debts covered by the jubilee, while his assets were all mercantile trade credits, would have made out like a bandit. The point I am trying to make here is that as well as being the first mention of the word “freedom”, this proclamation marks the first recorded instance of a regulator-sanctioned selective default. Then a lot of things happened including the Fall of Rome and the Beatles, and then we had the FDIC’s decision in 2009 to transfer the assets and deposits of Washington Mutual to JP Morgan Chase over a weekend, leaving holding company creditors exposed to an extravagantly bankrupt shell. So from the start to the beginning of the story of debt, it has always mattered whether or not you were on the right side of what the relevant regulator wanted to accomplish.
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The Dangers of Pricing the Infinite

by malcolmpharris on February 23, 2012

“The notion of infinite debt comes in when this logic slams up against the Absolute, or, one might perhaps better say, against something that utterly defies the logic of exchange. Because there are things that do. This would explain, for instance, the odd urge to first quantify the exact amount of milk one has absorbed at one’s mother’s breast, and then to say that there is no conceivable way to repay it.”
– David Graeber, Debt

“Could all of this be thought ‘a normal upbringing’? Everyone seemed to think so and my parents, bless them, paid for it. So much that my father proudly presented me with a complete set of receipts on my twenty-first.”
– Derek Jarman, At Your Own Risk

It’s worth stating from the outset that this seminar and the rest of the deserved attention this book has received in all likelihood would not have occurred if we weren’t in a sequence of global debt crisis. David’s status as an “out” anarchist and the role that alignment plays in his theory and practice would most likely have (continued to) exclude his ideas from these kinds of forums under more stable circumstances. But these are not more stable circumstances. For that reason I want to leave the scholarly refutation to the scholars, and put the book to work.

In April of last year I wrote an article for N+1 on the astronomic growth of student debt in America since the 70s. At the time, student loans had just passed credit cards as the largest source of consumer debt at $800 billion. Less than a year later, the total has topped $1 trillion with no real signs of slowing, while the other measures I referenced, including youth unemployment, have increased to new record levels as well. The conclusion that “the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt” is more valid than ever.
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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 Quiggin 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 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 Quiggin 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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Money, sex, economics and stuff

by Chris Bertram on September 16, 2011

Aside from containing a brilliant exposition of how blogospherical “rebuttal” actually works — basically endless posts by halfwits repeating that X (an eminent scholar) is an ignoramus because X has contradicted the received wisdom of a tribe — this post by Dave Graeber at Naked Capitalism has to be one of the most informative and entertaining pieces I’ve read in a long while. What happens when the findings of anthropologists about earlier societies clash with the a priori assumptions of economists about how things _must_ have happened? Well, you can guess. The really interesting stuff is in the anthropological detail, so read the whole thing, as they say, but I’ll just quote Graeber on economics and scientific method:

bq. Murphy argues that the fact that there are no documented cases of barter economies doesn’t matter, because all that is really required is for there to have been some period of history, however brief, where barter was widespread for money to have emerged. This is about the weakest argument one can possibly make. Remember, economists originally predicted all (100%) non-monetary economies would operate through barter. The actual figure of observable cases is 0%. Economists claim to be scientists. Normally, when a scientist’s premises produce such spectacularly non-predictive results, the scientist begins working on a new set of premises. Saying “but can you prove it didn’t happen sometime long long ago where there are no records?” is a classic example of special pleading. In fact, I can’t prove it didn’t. I also can’t prove that money wasn’t introduced by little green men from Mars in a similar unknown period of history.

The right to be fired

by Henry on May 18, 2005

“Savage Minds”: posts on the decision of Yale’s Department of Anthropology not to renew David Graeber’s contract, and suggests that the “real tipping point was his involvement with campus politics” and more specifically his support for “one of the organizers of a graduate student unionizing drive.” The source for this appears to be “Graeber himself”: Now I’ve no way of knowing whether Graeber’s own account tells the whole story, and the other side don’t seem to be talking. But either which way, the decision to let Graeber go is illustrative of a wider problem; as Jennet Kirkpatrick and Ian Robinson “put it”:, non-tenure track faculty are fighting for the right “to be fired, but only with just cause.” It’s demonstrably risky for non-tenure track faculty to make waves, even when there’s strong justification for so doing; their reappointment (or lack of same) is at the pleasure of the Department, and they’ve no recourse (or right to know why) if they’re let go.

Update: See also this story at “Inside Higher Ed”: where Marshall Sahlins says that Graeber’s “scholarship was at the level he would have had tenure at any normal university.” See also this “petition”: in support of Graeber.