Thursday, May 1, 2014

David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years": Book Review

Over two years since Occupy, reflecting on how this anthropologist's study might have inspired OWS, the same year this appeared, does David Graeber, after so much analysis of the past, suggest present-day solutions for a more equitable future? I read this with interest and as a non-economist, I admit such books are rare. What drew me in was the all-encompassing range of Graeber's obsession (he admits as his last of many notes, and these should be consulted by readers as well as the main text-- this is one where print is preferable to e-book for ease of reference, to being a workaholic).

On the other hand, his upending of the old barter-credit-currency model and his substitution of one where markets need states to expand their plunder, enslave workers who will then mine or forge or hammer out or I suppose now type out for the enrichment of their masters to whom they are indebted, is lively and accessible. The master-slave-coinage complex he demonstrates accompanies and funds the rise of empires and capitalist enterprises. He tells this well, ranging from the imposition of veils on women as early as 1400 BCE Assyria, the message of the Rosetta Stone, the cruelty of Cortes and Luther against uprisings, and how tally sticks and indentured servitude connect. In recent decades the contract assuming workers would be silent as long as they and their children found better incomes and better conditions has now ushered in the expectation that we fund our own subservience. We invest in the markets we are told must finance our own future, as the social contract weakens and capital gain turns a mantra for all.

The conversion of moral obligations into financial transactions, and the replacement of social ties with calculated ones that erode trust in each other and shift it to paper and metal, provides the ethical critique of a materialist reductionism which changes relationships and worldviews into cold hard cash. Or, as Graeber insists, a trust in a system that backs up this cash, by invisible hands and shadowy entities, who play a Ponzi scheme that more and more reveals its lack of substance. He is at his best as he shows the integration of religion and the military into this predicament, and how in modern times the faith has moved from one intangible force to another, as praising this feels natural.

But after so many hundreds of pages detailing this, especially in ancient times and Malagasy examples of alternative societies, which he had encountered the remnants of in his fieldwork, the pace can tire out the patient. By the time he reaches the 1971 separation of the gold standard from the dollar, as Nixon had to finance the Vietnam War, tellingly, the suggestions Graeber offers for better solutions seem fragmentary and vague. Of course, we all can applaud the mutual aid that replaces rapacious capitalism or divisive state-socialism with more humane possibilities, but these remain utopian and sketchy in the closing chapters. Similarly, he lauds the "non-productive" poor and chides any who seem to think that the less affluent among us don't deserve the better things we all crave, but he lets off the hook any who rack up their own personal debt, as he denies buying "fripperies" has contributed at all (well, maybe a widow's mite?) to the larger problems of concentrated wealth and global mismanagement of profit. The rich may bear more blame, but he seems to excuse those poorer.

Despite my sympathies with most of this book, therefore, his later remarks--where he reasons that expecting others to pay back student debt because he (or I, too) did is akin to asserting that if he got mugged, his neighbors should too--seems to weaken some of the ethical impact and force with which this critique began. After all, it started in response to a professor's question why Third World nations should not pay their debts to banks. As an anarchist, Graeber while correctly attacking our longtime and current fealty to our lords as masters and bankers seems to write off the obligations owed by us, the little people. This may anticipate Occupy, but it seems to detract from the morality he seeks to advance along with wealth redistribution or a jubilee with global and national debt forgiveness.

(P.S. I read this on a Kindle and obviously the charts he embeds are not correctly viewable, and the amount of small grammatical slips (as opposed to typos) needs comment. I enjoyed much of this and his endnotes themselves as third of the book convey important qualifications and suggestions. But I wish it was proofread better and that a Kindle could be adapted to offer the reader the experience he or she deserves to do Graeber justice.) (Amazon US on 5-1-14, May Day.)

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