The juxtaposition of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s recent comments about anthropology and the fact that Graeber is offering what may be among the most penetrating and accessible analyses of an important dimension of the current global debt crisis is striking.Of course, maybe clear-eyed analysis of our current economic situation, and the ability to point out that other societies do perfectly well with other sorts of economic and political systems, is precisely the sort of academic work that Gov. Rick Scott thinks universities should give up. After all, no one needs to understand why US firms are shedding jobs, or take a sober look at the current financial regime in the light of the 5,000-year history of debt. Students should just put their heads down and do the sorts of degrees that will give them technical jobs. Pay no attention to The Man behind the curtain!
Graeber is doing exactly what many of us want university-based social and cultural anthropologists to do more of: not justdoing outstanding, useful applied work (which is bloody brilliant, of course), but also showing how our distinctive intellectual perspectives – comparative, evolutionary, cross-cultural, critical, even deconstructive (and ‘post-modern’) – provide academic analyses with important, ‘real world’ implications. After all, part of the current problem in the global economy is not just that we have bad applications of economic theory—we have blinkered economic theory in ascendance, including a profound limit on our understanding of debt, as Graeber points out.
More importantly, Graeber underlines that Reaganite-Thatcherist triumphalism — ‘There Is No Alternative!’ (to our own peculiar form of capitalism) — is a lie that denies human creativity, and freedom. The creative inspiration of anthropology, the potential for cross-cultural, historical and evolutionary research to show us constantly that other ways of being human are possible, is central in my own teaching and research, so I especially appreciate that Graeber is so strong and clear on this point in public. But I’ll stop introducing it and post one of Graeber’s many interviews available online:
* I’m well aware that Graeber has resisted these sorts of labels in the past (for example, in an interview with Stir Magazine). However, it’s our blog, and I get to write my own headlines.
A brief note on Graeber’s academic career
The Occupy Wall Street protest was triggered by a call from Adbusters. In an interview with Ezra Klein, Graeber specifically discusses how the protest came together, including problems with the original idea (like, who cares if you shut down Wall Street on a Saturday?). Graeber’s a great spokesman for OWS and for anthropology, even if we all don’t agree with his political perspectives (I think non-activist anthropologists should be less stressed out by activists for reasons I explained here).
In spite of the fact that he’s sometimes controversial as a theorist—he was notoriously denied tenure at Yale University in circumstances that led to widespread outrage and student protest (Wikipedia covers that particular chapter in David’s life as does an interview with David on ZNet)—Graeber is widely recognized among young(ish) anthropologists. Maurice Bloch, of the LSE and College de France, has written that he considers Graeber ‘the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.’
What’s even better is that much of Graeber’s work in economic anthropology is surprisingly accessible. Although he’s copped some flack online for writing like an academic, I think his work is surprisingly accessible given how original, intriguing and sophisticated he is. And Graeber hasn’t been afraid to give interviews, write accessible summaries of his academic pubications (see the list below), and generally do some sophisticated forms of public anthropology, including vigorously defending his ideas online.
I have to admit a bit of bias: I knew David when he was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He was a few years ahead of me. We only did one seminar at the same time (on ‘professionalization’ or how to get a job in a tough academic job market), and his work was already really impressive. His early publications on his field research in Madagascar were getting published in high visibility anthropology journals—well, ‘high visibility’ for anthropology. But he’s hardly a close friend. Most of my admiration for Graeber has come as a result of reading his publications.
One reason that he has been so controversial is Graeber’s active involvement in the ‘alter-‘ or ‘anti-globalization’ movement, his presence at protests and his participation in their organization. But Graeber is also likely controversial for what he says about other academics’ ‘radical’ scholarship.
A few years back, for example, he argued that many academic responses to violence during anti-WTO and –IMF protests revealed that the authors like to talk the talk, but were likely to criticize anyone walking the walk (or running the run, for that matter). Or, as David put it, scholars who have for years written articles that ‘sound like position papers for vast social movements that do not in fact exist seem seized with confusion or worse, dismissive contempt, now that real ones are everywhere emerging’ (From ‘The New Anarchists,’ 2002).
He offered some advice for tenured ‘radicals’ faced with the existence of movements like the Black Bloc and more confrontational forms of protest, including from their own students:
As an anthropologist and active participant—particularly in the more radical, direct-action end of the movement—I may be able to clear up some common points of misunderstanding; but the news may not be gratefully received [by academics]. Much of the hesitation, I suspect, lies in the reluctance of those who have long fancied themselves radicals of some sort to come to terms with the fact that they are really liberals: interested in expanding individual freedoms and pursuing social justice, but not in ways that would seriously challenge the existence of reigning institutions like capital or state. And even many of those who would like to see revolutionary change might not feel entirely happy about having to accept that most of the creative energy for radical politics is now coming from anarchism—a tradition that they have hitherto mostly dismissed—and that taking this movement seriously will necessarily also mean a respectful engagement with it. (From ‘The New Anarchists,’ 2002)
Yeah, that’s probably not going to win you a lot of new friends in academe (‘Who you callin’ a “librul”?!’). Graeber was never given an official reason why he was denied tenure, but he has suggested in interviews that problems arose when he began to present his anarchist scholarship and activism.
(Before anyone ill informed gets all wound up, thinking that by ‘anarchism’ I mean the celebration of rock throwing or balaclava-wearing or punk rock, please take the time to acquaint yourself with the political movement, if you don’t know what anarchism actually is. Go ahead. Look it up on Wikipedia if you want. Go ahead. We’ll wait. Or check out Graeber’s pamphlet, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology; it’s a free download which is simultaneously kind of anarchist and just plain generous at the same time.)
Anarchism from induction
In an interview, I’ve heard Graeber explain his anarchism as, at least in part, informed by what he saw in Madagascar. In villages where the state had retreated and pulled out its resources almost completely, communities were basically left to govern and provide for themselves. It was anarchism by state neglect. They did surprisingly well.
I saw something very similar in camps of the Movimento Sem Terra (the MST or ‘Landless Movement’) in Brazil (if you’re interested, the English-language website for the Friends of the MST is here). Roadside shanty camps attracted former sharecroppers, poor farmers whose small plots were drowned out by hydroelectric projects, and other refugees from severe restructuring in agriculture toward large-scale corporate farming. Activists and religious leaders were helping these communities to set up their own governments, make collective decisions, and eventually occupy sprawling ranches that had been defrauded with generations of state collusion. The MST leveraged the land occupations to demand that the Brazilian government adhere to the country’s constitution, which called for agrarian reform, especially of large holdings that were the fruits of fraud.
I found these Brazilian communities is situations similar to those in Madagascar that Graeber observed: community-based groups, even cooperatives formes by people with very little education, developed greater and greater ability to run their own lives when the state was not around. They elected their own officials, held marathon community meetings in which every member voted (even children), and, when they eventually gained land, often became thriving, tight-knit communities, especially when the shared struggle had steeled their solidarity.
I won’t go into the whole story, because it is a much longer post, but I talked for a long time in rural São Paulo state about the movement with a veteran agitator. He had been dispatched to a camp under extreme pressure from a local rancher; the rancher’s hired gunmen routinely held target practice near the camp, rifle shots echoing through the 400 corrugated steel sheds. A veteran from union struggles, anti-dictatorial resistance, and a host of other movements, this particular activist was placed in the camp so that someone there was armed; organizers hoped to give the gunmen cause to pause in their bare-faced intimidation.
Over a meal of camp-butchered beef, the activist told me that the MST was like nothing he had seen before. The only movement he could think to compare it to were the Italian anarchists that his immigrant grandfather had told him about, the reason his family originally fled to Brazil.
In other words, anthropological research like Graeber’s can offer a kind of evidence-based idealism, a utopianism that’s hard headed and founded firmly in observations of diverse communities, not contrived in a sheltered cloister or from untested principles.When apologists for our own current situation offer excuses or tell us that we shouldn’t seek greater justice, equity or governance, because ‘It can’t be any other way but the way it is,’ anthropological research can show that this is not the case. Perhaps few other areas of contemporary life beg for this reality-based imagination more than economic activity.
Graeber on banks, money, crashes and imagination
According to Graeber, the crisis of 2008—the crash of financial markets and the bailout by the US and UK governments of major banks—revealed two key principles about the current economic system were myths: 1) that markets can take care of themselves, and 2) that debts are inviolable and have to be paid. Not only did deregulated markets get themselves in serious trouble, but, when push came to shove, the state stepped in to save key institutions by absolving them of their debts. In reality, the bailouts simply transferred the debts from private institutions to the state itself, in essence, nationalizing debt, a kind of reverse, negative form of socialism, where the populace owns, not the assets of the banks, but only their debts.
The problem is that, because our leaders cannot conceive any other way to organize our economic system, we are artificially trapped by self-imposed limits. From Graeber’s piece in The Guardian:
But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world’s financial architecture, when anything seemed possible.
Everything we’d been told for the last decade turned out to be a lie. Markets did not run themselves; creators of financial instruments were not infallible geniuses; and debts did not really need to be repaid – in fact, money itself was revealed to be a political instrument, trillions of dollars of which could be whisked in or out of existence overnight if governments or central banks required it. Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?”
Graeber’s piece harkens back to the discussion of money that runs through several of his publications and in his interviews. Although anthropologists commonly argue that money is a social convention, as much a product of trust and social convention as any inherent value, Graeber has provided a remarkable excavation of the history of money in Debt: The First 5,000 Years that builds this basic insight into a critique of economic common sense that is much more far-reaching.
Money as social convention
In his historical research, Graeber ran up against the fact that the documented history of money did not match the hypothetical history posited by economists. By itself, this gap is hardly a fatal flaw. Virtually every neo-classical theorist and Marx and Engels’ account of the emergence of economic activity from ‘primitive communism’ were also based upon evolutionary accounts of civilization that are no longer tenable given what we know about the past 10,000 years.
Specifically, Graeber shows that the typical developmental sequence posited by economists—barter leads to money leads to credit—is not only more variable, but is sometimes precisely reversed. The first ‘money’ of which we have definitive proof is credit-based money in Mesopotamia; currency shows up much later, and many of the most successful trading states throughout history were deeply suspicious of bullion as a means of exchange. Credit precedes money historically. It’s a fascinating argument, but you’re going to have to go check out David’s book or any one of the versions I link to below if you want more than this thumbnail sketch.
The problem isn’t just a flawed origin myth, however, or an empirical difficulty, but the ways in which this flawed origin myth bolstered economists’ insistence that alternative economic arrangements were simply not possible, based upon their understanding of ‘human nature.’ The economists’ origin myths assume that a very specific form of human actor—an actor deeply conditioned by life in market capitalism with debt-based money—exists in all societies and situations. For example, in what he calls the ‘myth of barter,’ economists assume that economic calculation and market-like transactions could have preceded both the existence of markets and money. As Graeber writes on the website Naked Capitalism:
Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king. (from On the invention of money)
Moreover, as Graeber points out, in fact, we don’t have to imagine what life would be like without money; we have a large number of ethnographic examples from around the world that offer concrete, empirical evidence that the human situation might be far stranger than we can imagine.
When Graeber has talked publicly about his research into the history of money and debt, however, he has sometimes encountered stiff resistance from some economists, even from economists who concede his historical work is impeccable. For example, since September, Graeber has had a kind of running online argument with a number of individuals from a particular stream of economic thought that they call ‘the Austrians.’ (If you really want to follow the argument, I’ve linked to a number of their posts below.)
Suffice to say that some of the arguments are not mutually exclusive (the origin story is not necessary for the economic theory, really). But Graeber explores why some economists feel compelled to defend an origin story for money in barter—the Myth of Barter—that they know is not supported by the evidence. Graeber argues that ultimately the compulsion to defend these myths comes from insecurity in the face of the constructedness of culture, a need to deny that both the object of study and the means of study are intertwined (a criticism that anthropologists have leveled against themselves, sometimes excessively, so at least it’s a familiar discomfort):
At this point, it’s easier to understand why economists feel so defensive about challenges to the Myth of Barter, and why they keep telling the same old story even though most of them know it isn’t true. If what they are really describing is not how we ‘naturally’ behave but rather how we are taught to behave by the market—well who, nowadays, is doing most of the actual teaching? Primarily, economists. The question of barter cuts to the heart of not only what an economy is—most economists still insist that an economy is essentially a vast barter system, with money a mere tool (a position all the more peculiar now that the majority of economic transactions in the world have come to consist of playing around with money in one form or another)…—but also, the very status of economics: is it a science that describes of how humans actually behave, or prescriptive, a way of informing them how they should? (Remember, sciences generate hypothesis about the world that can be tested against the evidence and changed or abandoned if they don’t prove to predict what’s empirically there.)
Or is economics instead a technique of operating within a world that economists themselves have largely created? Or is it, as it appears for so many of the Austrians, a kind of faith, a revealed Truth embodied in the words of great prophets (such as Von Mises) who must, by definition be correct, and whose theories must be defended whatever empirical reality throws at them—even to the extent of generating imaginary unknown periods of history where something like what was originally described ‘must have’ taken place? (from On the invention of money)
Again, I’m only grazing the tip of the iceberg here, but what I mean to suggest is that the critique that Graeber’s leveling against certain forms of economic thought is hardly unusual; anthropologists do it to ourselves all the time. I just don’t think economists are used to it being done quite so well to them, especially not by someone who has taken the time to do the empirical work that makes the construction of economic reality over five millennia so clear.
The recent history of debt
Perhaps the most important area currently where culture and economics are fused in the Western imagination is the concept of ‘debt.’ As Graeber makes clear, ‘debt’ is a social promise perverted into an institution by power, mathematics and violence. Repeatedly in interviews, Graeber has highlighted how our current understanding of debt treats it as an unbreakable promise —the only unbreakable promise—such that individuals and states must sacrifice every other social contract, goal and obligation, to their people and to posterity, in order to honour their promises to bankers.
Reverse engineered mortgage for the Ekstrom family, by Dan Edstrom
I was involved in “drop the debt” campaigns of various sorts since at least 2000. What got me interested in some of the philosophical issues I ended up exploring in the book was the peculiar moral power of the notion of debts. So many otherwise sympathetic people, even when told of the terrible, almost unimaginably inhuman suffering inflicted on people in the global South because of the depredations of the IMF, would still respond, “well, that’s terrible that so many children died slow and painful deaths, but still—surely one has to pay one’s debts! They borrowed the money! You couldn’t possibly be suggesting they not pay it…” How is it that the morality of debt can trump any other recognizable form of morality, and make things that no one would ever, possibly agree with in any other context seem suddenly acceptable?
But there is an irony in thinking of a promise made by a state to pay a debt as something absolutely sacred. After all, a debt is just a promise, and politicians make all sorts of different promises. They break most of them. So why are these promises the only ones that they can’t break? It is considered completely normal for someone like Nick Clegg [in the UK] to say, ‘well of course we promised not to raise school fees. But that’s unrealistic.’ ‘Unrealistic’ here means ‘obviously there’s no possibility of breaking my promises to bankers, even those linked to banks we bailed out and in some cases effectively own’. It’s striking that no-one ever points that out. Why is a promise made by a politician to the people who elected him considered made to be broken – it isn’t “sacred” in any way – whereas a promise the same politician makes to a financier is considered the “honour of our nation”? Why isn’t the “honour of our nation” in any way entailed in keeping our promises to people to provide healthcare and education? And why does everyone just seem to accept that, that this is just “reality”?
Graeber suggests that the ‘language of debt’ is a ‘moral’ one, not just an economic one. I would also add that we are told that debt default is an apocalyptic scenario, more dangerous than gutting social programs, disinvesting in infrastructure, making health care inaccessible, and bringing about all the slow moving catastrophes that often accompany austerity programs designed to increase states’ ability to pay their debts.
What makes Graeber’s analysis so interesting is that, because of his extensive historical research, he can actually trace how the current economic cosmology of debt arose, and point to periods when debt threatened to cause similar crises. Specifically, he argues that the fluctuation historically back and forth between debt-backed or credit money (as we’ve essentially had since 1971) and bullion or commodity-backed money, is accompanied by larger shifts in patterns of warfare, slavery and debt bondage. Specifically, Graeber suggests that the expansion of debt is part and parcel of a virtual money system, one that has been dealt with before in human history. The debt has not gone away, it’s just been moved around:
What we’ve learned now is that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really went away. It was fobbed off by cheap credit at home and massive plunder abroad – the latter, in the name of the “third world debt crisis”. But the global south fought back. The “alter-globalisation movement”, was in the end, successful: the IMF has been driven out of East Asia and Latin America, just as it is now being driven from the Middle East. As a result, the debt crisis has come home to Europe and North America, replete with the exact same approach: declare a financial crisis, appoint supposedly neutral technocrats to manage it, and then engage in an orgy of plunder in the name of “austerity”.
If the current situation seems demoralizing, Graeber suggests that we might look to other time periods to see how people before us have dealt with the seemingly inexorable increase in debt that accompanies the shift from commodity-backed currency to credit-backed currency. From his interview on ZNet (Part 2):
The shift to credit tends to prompt two questions: 1) what’s to stop people just going crazy with it and creating new forms of money with reckless abandon? 2) What is to stop people from thereby falling into debt traps and becoming enslaved? The usual solution is to create some kind of control, which is why you had periodic debt cancellations in Mesopotamia; jubilees, bans on usury, and various other mechanisms that appeared in the Middle Ages; and so on. This makes sense, because if money is just a social construct, and is recognised as such, then people will be more open to changing the rules that govern it. And in fact in the Middle Ages this was completely recognised. Aristotle’s position that money is an agreement we make with each other, which was very much a minority view in antiquity, got widely adopted in Europe. If it’s an agreement, we can renegotiate it at any time, and people did. They would cry out and cry down the value of money, and shift it around all the time.
So the question becomes: why didn’t that happen this time? Why have they not, since 1971, set up these overarching institutions to protect debtors, which is what they’ve always done in the past? Why did they not create controls so that money couldn’t just be created with reckless abandon by those in power as a way of enslaving everybody else? In fact, what’s happened is exactly the opposite of that. They’ve created overarching institutions, like the IMF, to protect creditors. That essentially is what the IMF is: it is part of a huge financial global bureaucracy developed gradually over the past 30-50 years, dedicated to the principle that no-one is ever allowed to default on a loan. Which is crazy – even according to standard economic theory the profits from a loan are supposed to be a reward for taking a risk. This leads to insane speculative bubbles, a situation in which 90-95 percent of all money is actually speculative with no connection to production or trade, and people becoming effectively enserfed.
In America, for instance, pretty much everybody is in debt. The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery. What do you have here today? You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn’t want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the U.S. he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself and renting yourself is at best a legalism.
Of course, slavery, like money, is a social institution. But like all social facts, it can appear to those who believe in it that it has an independent existence over and above the communities in which it shapes our interactions. Butwhen we stare this social fact in the face, try to wrap our heads around this immense growth in debt, it can seem like there is no escaping from the institutions that we ourselves have created.
The financialisation of capital has lead to a situation where something like 97 to 98 percent of the money in the total ‘economy’ of wealthy countries like the US or UK is debt…. ‘Abstract’ money is not an idea, it’s a promise — a promise of something concrete that will exist at some time in the future, future profits extracted from future resources, future labour of miners, artists, fruit-pickers, web designers, not yet born. At the point where the imaginary future economy is 50 to 100 times larger than the current ‘real’ one, something has got to give. But the bursting of bubbles often leaves no future to imagine at all, except of catastrophe, because the creation of bubbles is made possible by the destruction of any ability to imagine alternative futures. It’s only once one cannot imagine that we are moving towards any sort of new future society, that the world will never be fundamentally different, that there’s nothing left to imagine but more and more future money. (Graeber 2009: 7)
I’ll admit, it’s a harrowing reality to imagine, but even realizing that another world is possible is part of the battle to get there.
Anthropology and the economic imagination
Graeber’s vision of anthropology—that the study of diversity around the globe and across evolutionary time helps us to see what is possible, especially when our social facts are so intimidating that we cannot imagine life without them, however they cause us suffering—is one that I think needs to be shared more often. Certainly, this exploration of human potential is a hallmark of neuroanthropology, in which the variety of the human condition continually challenges our understandings of what the nervous system might be able to do.
Graeber doesn’t just offer us critique or the threat of chaos; his work shows how anarchism and alternative systems, not only can be imagined, but in fact exist around us, in distant times and places but sometimes quite close to home. This hard-headed, evidence-based idealism is a crucial resource in anthropology and an essential foil to our critical mission. Graeber and other commentators close to social movements like the Wall Street Occupation aren’t just arguing from a basis of vague principles; they are often presenting alternative models, some of which anthropologists know well through the kind of wide-ranging, first-hand field research that is a hallmark of our field.
Part of creativity and problem solving is not constantly needing to re-invent the wheel but opening our eyes to the versatility and ingenuity of many sorts of people, one thing that makes anthropologists like David Graeber pretty useful. It’s not that anthropologists are so smart (although some of us are); it’s that we’re out there in the wild, actually paying attention to some of the crazy things people can do.
When people argue that ‘There is no alternative,’ it’s because they cannot imagine a life without scarcity, debt, and the familiar social facts that so torment us. Maybe that’s one reason that folks like Governor Scott don’t think we need imagination, or anthropology, for that matter. Of course the person without an imagination can’t imagine the use of having one.
And then there’s a libertarian response here: On the Austrian Theory of Money, a Reply to David Graeber that especially takes issue with the use of ‘primitive’ economic systems, in part because the author argues that the Austrian stream of economics represented by Menger and Mises (and Murphy) applies primarily to complex economies (personally, I don’t find this distinction persuasive for a number of anthropological reasons, including the existence of large areas of non-market-based economic activity even within Western economies, but that’s a different subject).
One of the ironies is that both sides (well, there’s actually probably at least three sides to these debates, especially if you include the commentary) accuse the other of being ideological committed prior to evidence and of attacking strawmen that collapse important distinctions within the two fields (for example, pointing out diversity in economic thought or the fact that Graeber’s historical work is not the same as some other recent anthropological theory).
There’s plenty of examples of people with ideological commitments accusing other people of having ideological commitments (as if it were truly possible to be any other way), but I have to admit that I laughed out loud in my overly-long, procrastinating web search on the topic when I found one of the participants in the discussion outed as the person behind a ‘Jesus-woulda-hated-taxes’ website (to which I won’t link).