David Graeber. Debt: The First 5000 Years (Brooklyn and London: Melville House, 2011).
David Graeber, as we already saw to be the case with Elinor Ostrom, is characterized above all by a faith in human creativity and agency, and an unwillingness to let a priori theoretical formulations either preempt his perceptions of the particularity and “is-ness” of history, or to interfere with the ability of ordinary, face-to-face groupings of people on the spot to develop workable arrangements — whatever they may be — among themselves. Graeber is one of those anarchist (or anarchist-ish) thinkers who, despite possibly identifying with a particular hyphenated variant of anarchism, have an affection for the variety and particularity of self-organized, human-scale institutions that goes beyond ideological label. These people, likewise, see the relationships between individual human beings in ways that can’t be reduced to simple abstractions like the cash nexus or doctrinaire socialism. I selected James Scott and Elinor Ostrom for C4SS research papers based on this quality, and I read Debt in the course of researching a similar paper on Graeber’s thought. I expect to continue with papers on Pyotr Kropotkin and Colin Ward who, despite identifying as libertarian communists, cannot be reduced to any ideological pigeonhole based on that label.
It strikes me, also, that Graeber’s view of the particularity and historical situatedness of human experience precludes abstracting human social relations into artificially separated spheres like “economic man” functioning purely in the cash nexus. One of his criticisms of modern economics, as a discipline, is that
for there even to be a discipline called “economics,” a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals see the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that, among people like the Gunwinngu and the Nambikwara, simply does not exist…. This in turn allows us to assume that life is neatly divided between the marketplace, where we do our shopping, and the “sphere of consumption,” where we concern ourselves with music, feasts, and seduction.
In fact, as we shall see below, this separate sphere of atomized cash nexus exchange has never existed in any human society except where it was artificially created by the state. The common pattern throughout human history, including communities where significant elements of exchange existed, was for production, exchange and consumption to be embedded in a context of social relationships, religion, love and family life. If anything, the common denominator throughout human history — even in our society, despite the capitalist state’s attempt either to destroy it or harness it as an auxiliary of the cash nexus — has been what Graeber calls “the communism of everyday life.” Every society in human history has been a foundation built out of this everyday communism of family, household, self-provisioning, gifting and sharing among friends and neighbors, etc., with a scaffolding of market exchange and hierarchies erected on top of it.
For Graeber, this kind of communism is the basis of everyday life in most societies, just as many anarchists like to point out that most of our lives are characterized by anarchy. He means the same thing by it as the classic definition conveyed: “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Without this universal kind of communism, based on voluntary association and self-organization, what we refer to as “capitalist” or “state socialist” societies simply could not sustain themselves. To a large extent, the cash nexus and hierarchical institutions are parasitic on this basic stratum of communism in which human life and culture are reproduced.
In fact, “communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now–that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time…. “Communist society” … could never exist. But all social systems, even social systems like capitalism, have been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.
Whenever we look at the nuts and bolts of “who has access to what sorts of things and under what sorts of conditions” — even among two or a few people — and see sharing, “we can say we are in the presence of a sort of communism.” The domain of communism extends further in “less impersonal” communities, like medieval villages, where it is commonly accepted that anyone with enough of the basic necessities of life to spare will share some with a neighbor in distress. Graeber recounts the story of a Danish traveller in Greenland who, encountering a successful Inuit hunter generously sharing his walrus kill with the less fortunate, thanked him for his own portion. The hunter was outraged.
“up in our country we are human!” said the hunter. “And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow.”
(This form of communism, let’s note, was the main form of “social insurance” against old age, sickness or incapacitation, back in the days when the normal unit of human society was a hunter-gatherer group. A strong, skilled hunter who shared his kill with those in need of food was insuring himself against want if his own fortune changed.)
Even within formally capitalist or state socialist hierarchies — corporations, state-owned factories, etc. — hierarchies often unofficially rely on the informal communism of those at the bottom rung working together to solve problems that are opaque to the idiots at the top (when not actually caused by them). And society — the communities actually on the spot — reverts to this baseline communism after a major disaster, with people stepping in to contribute their labor or risk their lives in the same extraordinary — yet ordinary — ways that Kropotkin described in Mutual Aid.
Further, when we look at specific human ventures in local self-organization in their particularity, and not through the prism of ideological abstractions, it strikes me that local, face-to-face arrangements — whatever mixture of market exchange, gifting and sharing, or autarky they partake of — are largely irrelevant to critiques like Mises’ socialist calculation problem or the anti-market socialist fear that any form of market exchange will, through the process of winners and losers, lead to a capitalist system based on absentee ownership and exploited wage labor. Human experience, quite simply, is too big for such theories to adequately describe.
Graeber’s account of the origins and history of money is liable to upset a lot of Austrian goldbugs and hard money folks. But it strikes me as pretty much unassailable on historical grounds — especially given the ahistoricity of most mainstream economic treatments of the origins of money. The conventional account, stated in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and repeated in a thousand introductions to economics since then, is that people in “primitive” societies start out by bartering necessities with one another; confronted with the problem of “double coincidence of wants,” these societies first address the problem by stockpiling especially widely desired commodities to use as media of exchange, proceed to adopting rare precious metals as the primary medium of exchange, and finally issue specific quantities of previous metals denominated in monetary values. From there, societies go on to issuing credit against stockpiled wealth.
This account, as Graeber shows, turns out to be as much of a legitimizing nursery tale as the “original accumulation of capital” and the “Social Contract.”
Schumpeter, in his History of Economic Analysis, distinguished between what he called “money theories of credit” and “credit theories of money.” The former, of which the conventional account of the emergence of specie money from barter is an example, views the medium of exchange and denominator of value functions of money as a secondary outgrowth of their primary quality as a store of value. And credit is something issued against a store of past value, accumulated from “deferred consumption.”
Graeber’s history of money and debt falls decisively into the later category, as a credit theory of money. First, he said, there’s no example in history of barter emerging as the first basis for exchange in a community of people who know one another. Barter has always been a marginal phenomenon (“it’s almost never employed… between fellow villagers. Ordinarily it takes place between strangers, even enemies.”). Barter is a mode of exchange mainly for one-off transactions between people who you will never see again, who do not exist in any common social context. (And, Graeber argues throughout this book, currency exchange on the cash nexus is the dominant practice mainly in societies where individuals have been stripped of common social context by states, and turned into atomized individuals.) Barter has nowhere ever spontaneously evolved into the adoption of specie coinage a regular medium of exchange for ordinary, daily economic transactions.
The first money used for market exchange within communities, rather, has universally been credit. These credit-money systems, emerging wherever communities engaged in internal market exchanged, have typically evolved from the “communism of everyday life.” At the most basic level, this might take the form of one person in a village hinting to the shoemaker that her shoes are getting worn out, shortly thereafter getting the spontaneous “gift” of a pair of shoes, and later taking the opportunity to reciprocate the gift when the shoemaker needs something she can provide — or, just as likely, filling a need for someone else to whom the shoemaker owes a favor. No “double coincidence of needs” ever arises. At a more refined level, this kind of system might evolve into virtual money, with everybody running ongoing tabs with the butcher, baker and candle-stick maker, and keeping account of a tab for whatever nature of goods and services they provide for their members. Periodically members of the community settle up whatever differences are left after all the debits and credits have cancelled each other out. So money was actually primarily a unit of measurement, and accounting systems appeared long before commodity-based currencies (in other words, just the reverse of the orthodox model). For example, Graeber’s illustration of an English village.
Since everyone was involved in selling something…, just about everyone was both creditor and debtor; most family income took the form of promises from other families; everyone knew and kept count of what their neighbors owed one another; and every six months or year or so, communities would hold a general public “reckoning,” canceling debts out against each other in a great circle, with only those differences then remaining when all was done being settled by use of coin or goods.
This sounds, as a matter of fact, a lot like the mutual credit-clearing systems of Thomas Greco and E.C. Riegel. It’s also, in its most primitive form, a lot like the system of “obs” in Eric Frank Russell’s “And Then There Were None.”
Money was no more ever “invented” than music or mathematics or jewelry; What we call “money” isn’t a “thing” at all; it’s a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions…. As such it is probably as old as human thought.
Barter sometimes appears in cash nexus societies where the central state collapses and the money supply dries up, but it’s more common for a credit-money system to emerge that uses the old currency denominations as a unit of account without any actual circulating currency.
(This is hardly the place for a discussion of currency in its own right, but this historical analysis seems to back up my own view of viable post-state money systems. It strikes me that store-of-value currencies, like specie and Bitcoin, are suitable mainly for anonymous, one-off transactions in situations where trust is low. Bitcoin displays all the perverse tendencies of other currencies that have been regarded as investment assets in their own right: it is deflationary, and commerce tends to dry up for want of sufficient liquidity as the medium of exchange is hoarded and concentrated in a few hands in anticipation that it will appreciate in value. The ideal currency for producers of goods and providers of service within a local community economy is a credit system like Greco’s or Riegels, in which the medium of exchange is created by the act of exchange itself in the same way that inches are “created” by the act of measuring and cutting lumber.)
Some use of specie currency occurred, even when credit-money predominated; it was used mainly for long-distance transactions between people who didn’t know each other, where trust was low.
But it has been the primary basis of exchange in ordinary situations only when states have imposed it on human society. The organization of economies around specie coinage as a medium of exchange, Graeber writes, has been closely associated historically with war and slavery. There have been two broad historical eras dominated by this complex of warfare, coinage, slavery and debt. The first was during the military empires of the Axial Age, which emerged in the mid-first millennium BCE from a sort of Dark Age interregnum after the fall of the second millennium empires, and persisted until the fall of Rome in the first millennium CE. The second was the modern era, in which European nation-states forcibly subdued and enslaved most of the world and laid the foundations of modern global capitalism. In both periods states first used coinage to pay professional armies and administrative officials in granaries and prisons, and the soldiers and state functionaries spent their pay; the states used their mercenaries to engage in foreign conquest and loot precious metals from other countries, and used war captives as slaves to mine more precious metals; and in turn, states monetized their domestic economies by requiring the use of the money as legal tender for all payments due the state. As the need for money led to rising levels of personal indebtedness, the ultimate outcome was debt slavery.
In the Axial period, patriarchy was also greatly intensified by the rise of the money economy. Traditionally “bride prices” and dowries were emphatically understood not to be an actual purchase of a woman as a commodity, because the husband was unable to sell her or otherwise dispose of her as he saw fit. If it purchased anything, it was the favor of her family — or rather, established a personal relationship between families. Before the rise of the cash nexus, however authoritarian societies might be, human beings themselves were not seen as ordinary tradeable commodities with a cash price. Even slaves were members of households, governed by the web of custom. But with the appearance of growing debt burdens, enforceable by the state, women and children took on a cash value as commodities in the market for the first time. The salability of wives and children for debt, or the selling of oneself into slavery, was the source of the understanding of the paterfamilias in Roman law as the absolute owner of the household, with powers of disposal up to and including life or death just as he had over his cattle. The cult of female purity was also greatly intensified in this era, as women became commodities who could be sold into sex slavery to pay off debt. Patriarchal morality and the cult of virginity, with the father passing his daughter “intact” to her husband, emerged as a backlash fueled by resentment against this state of affairs. In a society where women could be forced into sex slavery, and economically distressed husbands and fathers saw themselves increasingly powerless to prevent it, a man’s personal sense of honor became bound up with the idea that his wive and daughters were beyond even the hint of ever having sexual relations for money or outside the bounds of marriage.
Although the cash economy was associated with conquest and slavery in the Axial period, it advanced to an entirely different order of magnitude, on a global scale, in the modern era. The rise of economies organized around the cash nexus led, in Europe itself, to serfdom and enclosure, as feudal landlords gradually transformed into agrarian capitalists and sought to produce wool for the market and maximize their extraction of surplus labor to obtain money for the outside commodity economy. So, contrary to the received version of history, the emergence of modern economies did not usher in an era of prosperity for a previously destitute populace. If anything, before the rise of large-scale cash nexus economics feudalism was decaying into something very like de facto peasant ownership of the land, with increasingly nominal rents fixed by custom and a peasant standard of living the laboring classes weren’t to attain again for two or three centuries. The influx of precious metals from the New World led to crushing price inflation for the working classes, and almost universal expropriation of peasant land starting with enclosure of open fields for sheep pasturage and ending with the Parliamentary Enclosure of common pasture and waste. In short, capitalism in the modern era was founded on robbery and impoverishment.
In the colonial areas outside Europe, first the Spanish reduced the native population of the New World to slavery or debt peonage, and then as they exterminated the population of Hispaniola and the rest of the Caribbean and found native labor inadequate, an intercontinental market emerged in African chattel slaves. The indirect effects of this on Africa were even more devastating than the direct ones. Some slavery existed in Africa, but it occurred on a limited scale and was embedded in a customary economy. It is only in cash economies that slavery translates human beings fully into commodities with a market price. And once the European slave traders came into regular contact with the coastal areas of Africa and expressed their willingness to pay cash for human beings, the resulting corruption and chaos quickly spread deep inland. People feared to travel alone outside their villages, and entire villages abandoned their homes and moved into the forest to escape slaving raids. In settled areas, communities came under the domination of increasingly authoritarian and economically exploitative governance arrangements, justified in the name of protecting them against enslavement from outside.
Graeber also distinguishes between “credit,” in the sense of members of a community keeping running accounts or open tabs with one another, and large-scale debt as a tool of social control. The latter, usually associated with some form of debt peonage or debt slavery (whether formal or in the virtual sense of our time), is possible only in money economies with the power of creditors backed up by police and prisons. In communities where exchange is based on self-organized credit without a coercive state, the primary basis for one’s personal credit is simply reputation — and in stable communities where people know one another, it works quite well.
According to Graeber, although modern ideological paradigms distinguish between “the market” and “the state,” in fact “the market” — in the sense of an atomized cash nexus society organized around circulating currency — has never existed without being imposed by the state. In this sense, “market” and “state” have been intimately intertwined since the beginning of society.
This is not to say, however, that Graeber necessarily equates the market as such to the cash nexus or to capitalism. In fact one of the best things about his analysis is the distinction he makes between the free market and capitalism. Although “we’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing… in many ways they could equally well be conceived as opposites.” Markets — in the sense of exchange using credit accounting systems — to exchange surplus crops for necessities, and the like. Capitalism, on the other hand,
is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money…. Normally, the easiest way to do this is by establishing some kind of formal or de facto monopoly. For this reason, capitalists, whether merchant princes, financiers, or industrialists, invariably try to ally themselves with political authorities to limit the freedom of the market, so as to make it easier for them to do so.
Graeber points out that, “under genuine free market conditions,” without exogenous state enforcement machinery funded at general taxpayer expense, “loans at interest will become effectively impossible to collect.” The repayment of loans and honoring of contracts will be enforced mostly by reputational mechanisms, within communities characterized by ongoing relations between people who know one another, or within merchant guilds enforcing law merchant — in both cases, situations where a reputation for not honoring contracts could be devastating to one’s livelihood.
This kind of free market persisted for some time in local communities, to the extent it was not suppressed by the state, even when the society as a whole was governed by the cash nexus. Mutual credit persisted as the primary basis of exchange in English villages, for example, into the seventeenth century.
…[W]e’re used to blaming the rise of capitalism on something vaguely called “the market”–the breakup of older systems of mutual aid and solidarity, and the creation of a world of cold calculation, where everything had its price. Really, English villagers appear to have seen no contradiction between the two. On the one hand they believed strongly in the collective stewardship of fields, streams, and forests, and the need to help neighbors in difficulty. On the other hand, markets were seen as kind of attenuated version of the same principle, since they were entirely founded on trust.
Some lending at interest still took place within this social framework, but it was fairly marginal and comparatively non-usurious, with enforcement mainly by reputation: “lending was an appropriate vocation… for widows with no other source of income, or as a way for neighbors to share in the profits from some minor commercial venture.” (This last sounds a lot, in fact, like recent models of crowd-funding local projects in the alternative economy with micro-credit).
In this world, trust was everything. Most money literally was trust, since most credit arrangements were handshake deals. When people used the word “credit,” they referred above all to a reputation for honesty and integrity; …but also, reputation for generosity, decency, and good-natured sociability, were at least as important considerations when deciding whether to make a loan as were assessments of net income.
Cash was used mainly for dealings with strangers outside the village, or to pay tribute to the landlord and the state. In the larger economy, it was mainly used either by government functionaries and landlords, or by the violent criminal underworld — from the perspective of village society, pretty much two versions of the same thing. The majority of people residing in villages “tried to avoid entanglement in the legal system just as much as they tried to avoid the affairs of soldiers and criminals….”
This world carried with it a social ethos in which the market was embedded in a larger nexus of solidarity and mutuality.
For most English villagers, the real font and focus of social and moral life was not so much the church as the local ale-house — and community was embodied above all in the conviviality of popular festivals like Christmas or May Day, with everything that such celebrations entailed; the sharing of pleasures, the communion of the senses, all the physical embodiment of what was called “good neighborhood.” Society was rooted above all in the amity of friends and kin, and it found expression in all those forms of ordinary communism (helping neighbors with chores, providing milk or cheese for old widows) that were seen to flow from it. Markets were not seen as contradicting this ethos of mutual aid. It was… an extension of mutual aid — and for much the same reason: because it operated entirely through trust and credit.
The ideology of the state, and the state-imposed cash nexus, on the other hand, was just the opposite. In this ideology, the natural state of human beings was atomized and isolated, stripped of all social ties and contexts, in a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” Hobbes’ Leviathan was “an extended attack on the very idea that society is built on any sort of prior ties of communal solidarity.” Humans, rather than naturally convivial and empathic beings, were debased creatures who would destroy each other unless, out of sheer calculation of their self-interest, they submitted to a state which would prevent them from doing so.
So Smith’s view of human society — an anonymous cash nexus united around the tendency to “truck and barter,” and motivated by the self-interest rather than the benevolence of the butcher, brewer and baker — as something that had arisen autonomously and needed no state to maintain, was utterly false. It was, in fact, a creation of the state. And far from being something a state was required to prevent, Hobbes’ “state of nature,” with its violence and rapacity, was something created by the state.
But that’s the past. What of the future? Graeber notes that the historical pattern is for the decay of military empires and their cash nexus economies to be succeeded by eras of credit-money, like those that prevailed in the Middle Ages. Nixon’s decoupling of the dollar from gold in 1971, and the terminal crisis tendencies of finance capitalism we’ve seen in recent years, he writes, suggest that we’re entering another such era. But history occurs in spirals, not identical cycles. It rhymes, it doesn’t repeat. So the pattern isn’t identical every time. And in the forty years since Nixon’s action, Graeber points out, it appears that the power of finance capital and Empire has, if anything, been consolidated. Neoliberalism, the Washington Consensus, the financialization of the economy and political power of banks, the military supremacy of the one remaining superpower post-1989 — all have increased the power over the world astronomically.
And yet, Graeber reminds us, forty years is almost nothing in historical terms. He suggests, based on the collapse of 2008 and America’s recent military defeats, that this is the last gasp of a dying system. Argentina defaulted on its debt, the multilateral financial authorities renegotiated Third World debt on terms quite beneficial to the latter, and Washington’s political and military presence in South America — the first major foreign province of its empire — has collapsed like a house of cards. The boom-bust cycle that culminated in the Depression and was temporarily suspended by WWII and the New Deal consensus is back in full force — and it has teeth. Neoliberal capitalism, and the military power that enforces it on the world, is becoming unsustainable. The state’s foreign and domestic military apparatus — its “Shock and Awe” abroad, and fully militarized NYPD and OPD riot cops fighting pitched battles against Occupy demonstrators — was created because the ruling elite senses its impending doom, and is afraid.
Ultimately, Graeber predicts, as we move into the post-capitalist era, we will return to horizontally organized credit money, and empires and vast standing armies will decay or collapse. We will return to a more humanly tolerable basis for arranging society.
…but we have no idea how long it will take, or what, if it does, it would really look like.
At the time he was finishing up this book, the Arab Spring, M15 and Syntagma were perhaps already underway — perhaps not. But Occupy, in which he was to become so heavily involved, wasn’t even on the radar. So perhaps our picture of the successor society is coming just a little more into focus. But in my opinion, the building blocks are already there. They include the p2p model of organizing information production, open-source software design, and file-sharing — the foremost contemporary examples of the communism and conviviality Graeber celebrates. They include open-source hardware hackers, creating radically cheapened, small-scale production tools that destroy the basic material rationale of most wage labor. They include the growing development of local economic infrastructures based on small shops using such machinery, neighborhood food systems based on Permaculture and vacant lot and rooftop gardening, and local currency systems.
In Argentina in 2002, after the economic collapse, there was a vast upsurge of this economic model — of local credit systems, factory occupations, neighborhood assemblies, a resurgence of the landless movement, and the like. And following the global economic collapse that happened since, we see the adoption of similarly horizontal counter-economies in countries like Greece on a similar scale. As economic stagnation, permanent unemployment and underemployment become the norm, we will see a continued shift to this economic model. And the American superpower, suffering one humiliating defeat after another and plagued by cheap and increasingly effective area denial technologies in areas where it was once confident in its ability to project its power, will become hollowed out and retreat the same way Rome did 1500 years ago.
If we look at things in another few decades, I think, I think we will see a world in which surviving states, corporations and other hierarchical institutions are much weaker and much smaller, the major portion of social life will be coordinated by self-organized, horizontal institutions like local markets, p2p networks and social commons, and average people have a degree of control over the circumstances of their daily lives unprecedented since the hunter-gather era or the pre-state agrarian village.
Graeber’s book, and the view of human nature presented in it, is a tribute to the fact that — in the words of the Inuit hunter’s declaration — we are human; and because we are human we help each other. We have done this since our hunter-gather origins, long before the rise of states, and states — despite their pretensions of the contrary — have acted largely to suppress this human tendency or subvert it, in the interest of making us easier for one parasitic ruling class after another to exploit.