21 May, 2012Issue 19.3AfricaEconomicsHistoryWorld Politics

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Musab Younis

BritishDavid Graeber
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Melville House Publishing, 2011
534 pages
ISBN: 978-1933633862


This has been a year soaked in discussions about debt: how much of it we have, what to do about it, who is responsible for it. Nick Clegg’s promise this week to “wipe the slate clean to rid people of the deadweight of debt” was immediately attacked as misleading, but his announcement was not an isolated act of speech. It forms part of a much broader strategy by the current governing coalition, and its allies in the business sector and media, to draw on the moral force of debt and obligation in order to legitimate their actions. We’ve become used to the repetition of these ideas: that we are in debt, that we owe obligations to others, that we must undergo some hardship in order to fulfil these obligations, that it is important to pay our debts, that we have been living beyond our means, that those who have been even more profligate than us (the Greeks) are enduring a suffering they basically deserve.

Such ideas, dominant though they are, haven’t imposed themselves without resistance: a counter-discourse, broadly defined as “anti-austerity”, tends to refocus the obligation of this debt (the rich should pay it), the causes (the financial sector), and solutions (a Tobin tax, or more radical measures). But even here, there have been comparatively few attempts to explore in detail the supremacy of the idea of debt. Where does this moral force of debt come from, and how is it that politicians are so convincingly able to draw on its discursive power?

Graeber begins Debt: The First 5,000 Years with this question, pointing out that while “obligation” is a somewhat nebulous concept, “debt” tends to be quantifiable: across languages the latter word also emerges from the same roots, and often has the same meaning, as guilt and sin. He quickly moves to question the dominant interpretation of the origins of money. Before money, the traditional story goes, people would exchange unlike goods according to a primitive barter system; the invention of money provided a way to index value, after which credit superseded coins.

Tracing the mythical world of barter economies in the work of Adam Smith and modern neoclassical economists, with echoes and shadows in dozens of other places, Graeber argues that this dominant view has the process backwards. The oldest economies we know about were not barter economies, but credit economies. Money in the form of coinage was closely linked to the formation of armies who needed payment. And barter economies, far from representing the archetypal pre-modern communities, actually have tended to arise only when coinage or paper money has been introduced but then has, for some reason, collapsed.

Debt goes on to focus not on the myth of the barter economy, but its underlying basis in the idea that all human relations are built on exchange between self-interested actors—an idea that now forms the basis of vast fields of work in sociology, economics, and political science. Instead, Graeber argues, human relationships have existed along forms ranging from radical equality to radical inequality, and each of these has come attached with very different moralities. Out of the three types of human relationships Graeber posits—communism, hierarchy, and exchange—only the last bears any relation to the rational-choice model.

Exchange implies a formal equality between partners to a contract, but at the same time it tends to suggest that both partners are uninterested in each other beyond the transaction at hand. A debt, then, is “just an exchange that has not been brought to completion”: a creditor and debtor are not equal in status, but there must always be the premise (or illusion) that they can eventually become so. Debt is built on two things: the mathematical calculation of obligation and the use of violence for enforcement purposes. With a detailed and riveting assortment of examples—anthropological cases, folk tales, jokes, religious texts—Graeber presents us with an unremittingly engaging conversation about the meaning, history, and anthropology of debt on a canvas that takes as its potential source material all recorded human history. Discussions include blood feuds, Rabelais, the Iroquois, the Congolese Lele, the concepts of honour and dignity, patriarchy in Babylon, Roman law, Brahim scholars in 200 BC, and Islamic trade theory. “If we have become a debt society”, he states, “it is because the legacy of war, conquest and slavery has never completely gone away.”

Graeber develops the concept of “human economies” as distinct from commercial economies (the latter are, in historical terms, “a relative newcomer”). Human economies, which are not “necessarily in any way more humane”, are systems in which the primary concern is not the accumulation of wealth, “but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings.” In such economies forms of money exist not for the purpose of swapping vegetables for wood, but for creating, rearranging, and otherwise organising relationships between people.

Drawing on the work of French anthropologist Philippe Rosabé, Graeber argues, with reference to blood-feuds and bridewealth, that in such societies “money is first and foremost an acknowledgement that one owes something much more valuable than money.” Not all will agree with the strict differentiation between human and commercial economies, but the evidence Graeber provides on the unique ways in which such “human economies” use money is convincing. It quickly undermines economistic assumptions that seek to apply our own use of money to different societies or to generalise human behaviour across time and space.

In one impressive section, Graeber links the fears of cannibalism expressed by the West African Tiv people to the ways in which complex forms of debt peonage in Africa were invaded and disastrously subverted by the slave trade, which was able to work through the mechanisms of human economies (in which money was used to rearrange relationships) to tear human beings out of their relational contexts and turn them into objects of exchange.

In another chapter, titled “The Axial Age”, he discusses the rise of coinage—in the context of ancient Greece and Persia—as the result of a “military-coinage-slavery complex”, in which standing armies required new forms of payment largely stolen and mined by slaves. The entire Roman empire might thus be seen, he argues, as a vast machine for mining precious metals, distributing them as coins to the military, and enforcing their use on subject populations. There is a real danger, in such a capsule summary, of doing some violence to the sheer scope of Graeber’s book. Debt is very far removed from the standard model of social science monographs (academic or popular), and navigating its unadorned and excited prose is a relentlessly interesting experience.

One stark idea toward the end of Debt, when Graeber brings his analysis to the present, is that the relationship between the US deficit and US military spending—the two very closely correlate—is not accidental. Those who are buying the world’s reserve currency in the form of treasury bonds are, posits Graeber, in effect being compelled to pay for America’s vast network of military bases. Which states are being so compelled? During the Cold War, West Germany, and now (apart from China) Japan, South Korea, and the Gulf—all states which rely on US military protection and host the US military. It is, in other words, a form of imperial tribute. This idea is neither new nor radical—it has been outlined by Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin in their Empire of Debt and by Niall Ferguson in The New York Times—but with the background that Graeber provides it becomes an intriguing prospect for research. From an international relations perspective, the literature on neo-empire (whose ur-text is still Hardt and Negri’s flawed Empire) remains visibly underdeveloped.

Having, in his own words, “largely avoided making concete proposals”, Graeber decides to end with one: a Babylonian-style cleaning of the slates, writing off all debt and beginning afresh. It is a proposal characteristic of Graeber in both style and substance—there is no reason to think he isn’t serious, but at the same time, the mental leap required to conceive of the suggestion and its implications presents a kind of ideological victory on its own. With a paperback edition due for release next month, the steady upsurge of interest in Debt signals just how perspicacious a writer Graeber has been: he might just have written not only the defining text of this recession, but a book that could radically destabilise the dominant discourse on debt.

Musab Younis is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Wadham College, Oxford. He is the deputy editor of Ceasefire magazine.