Friday, October 28, 2011

Human Commodities

David Graeber sees a link between market economies, debt, and slavery.  In particular, enslavement historically has a strong link to debt.  Market economies and lending both originated in ancient Mesopotamia, and so did the practice of seizing everything of the debtor when those loans went bad, including property, children, wife and the debtor himself.  Similarly, much of the African slave trade was based on persons seized for various types of debt.  Debt peonage has been a recurrent theme through our commercial history..

Graeber points out that various kinds of personal obligation and debt existed before commercial economies, but argues that these were historically well differentiated from ordinary relations of trade, and except for capture in war, did not result in ripping persons from their community context.

Markets and money debts gradually resulted in what Graeber calls "commoditization of persons."  He presents some evidence linking this not only to slavery, but also to the systematic loss of rights by women that occured after the early days of Mesopotamian civilization.  A fascinating argument, I think, even, perhaps, for those who don't wholly buy it.

The revulsion against commoditization of persons is doubtless one reason many of us feel such anger against such instruments as the "dead peasant" insurance policies.