I've just now put down (“finished” might be a bit strong) David Graeber's Debt: the First 5,000 Years . I find myself remembering what Harold Demsetz used to (maybe still does) say of John Kenneth Galbraith: he said "I can't find a testable hypothesis." Same thing here. This is a highly entertaining read, brimming with ideas—or at least anecdotes that suggest ideas. It's easy enough to get a general notion of what he is up to but you'll play the very devil trying to figure out exactly what it is he is trying to say.
Graeber does have one worthwhile core point that he believes underlies much what he says. In a nutshell, we were born with a sense of obligation; debt emerges from the primordial ooze. All our sense what we owe to others begins there; it may ramify and permutate in a thousand ways but we all emerge from under the same. This is a fascinating and provocative idea, surely wrong in particular but no matter, still worth trying to clarify and understand.
A second fundamental idea is trickier. That is: Graeber seems to be trying to distinguish an older, more humane (?) form of obligation from a harder, more impersonal variety that we might call, for lack of a better name “economic.” This too is an interesting and provocative idea though at this point it is hardly a new one. Indeed, Graeber here seems to be flirting with a modern anthropology that is perhaps as old as Hesiod or Rousseau, if not Marx, saying nothing of so much of 19th and 20th Century anthropology—postulating a “primitive” past which can clarify our understanding and also provide a stage for criticism of the present.
The fact that this sort of thing has been tried before without success is no reason to try it again, but here is where Graeber gets maddeningly slippery. He makes much turn, for example on occasion of creation of coinage—an event that seems to occur simultaneously in various places around the world at, give or take, around 600 BC. Here we encounter, it seems, a new device for imposing state power: impose coins, use coins to collect taxes, uses taxes to build military might, all at the expense—the impoverishment—of “the poor,” particularly the peasants.
This is surely a plausible account of some events in some places at some times but it is far from clear how it fits into the larger story. For example, is he saying that state power creates coinage, or that coinage creates state power? If the former, of course we would like to know what does create state power. If the latter, it might be useful to spell out just how the new “coining empires”differ from other occurrences of human oppression—going back to, say, the rise of an agricultural surplus around, perhaps, 3000 BC. The very fact of an agricultural surplus yields priests, clerks, warriors and slaves, not so? Are we to believe that there is something about these earlier forms that are necessarily more humane than we get in the “coinage empires?”
I'd grant that Graeber's story seems most plausible—and he himself seems most energized—when he is talking about polities that impose themselves on weaker and less sophisticated neighbors—what he seems to have observed in brutally clear form in Madagascar under the French. But this isn''' the only form of debtor-commerce. Yet curiously, Graeber says little or nothing about “ordinary” or “every day” commerce. Indeed at one point he tries to show how a particular kind of exchange-counter is used not in the m market-place, but precisely for non-market transactions—marriage alliances, for example, or compensation for injury. He dismisses the market place, with seeming irony, as women's work. Yes, well, fine, but what is going on the market place? What is this woman's work, and how has it been carried out for all these thousands of years? It's an odd exclusion for a book with so vast a claim to coverage. Yet it's the kind of thing you come to expect from this stimulating, suggestive, yet ultimately exasperating, book.
And by the way, no, I do not repent of what I said the other day.