Thursday, November 03, 2011

Occupy and David Graeber

I have been mostly raving about David Graeber's new book, Debt: The First 5000 years recently.

Business Week has a long, interesting article on the author and on his seminal role in the Occupy Wall Street Protests. I recommend all of it, but here is just one facet that summarizes one of the main arguments of his book.

Graeber’s problem with debt is not just that having too much of it is bad. More fundamental, he writes in his book, is debt’s perversion of the natural instinct for humans to help each other. Economics textbooks tell a story in which money and markets arise out of the human tendency to “truck and barter,” as Adam Smith put it. Before there was money, Smith argued, people would trade seven chickens for a goat, or a bag of grain for a pair of sandals. Then some enterprising merchant realized it would be easier to just price all of them in a common medium of exchange, like silver or wampum. The problem with this story, anthropologists have been arguing for decades, is that it doesn’t seem ever to have happened. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” writes anthropologist Caroline Humphrey, in a passage Graeber quotes.

People in societies without money don’t barter, not unless they’re dealing with a total stranger or an enemy. Instead they give things to each other, sometimes as a form of tribute, sometimes to get something later in return, and sometimes as an outright gift. Money, therefore, wasn’t created by traders trying to make it easier to barter, it was created by states like ancient Egypt or massive temple bureaucracies in Sumer so that people had a more efficient way of paying taxes, or simply to measure property holdings. In the process, they introduced the concept of price and of an impersonal market, and that ate away at all those organic webs of mutual support that had existed before.

That’s ancient history, literally. So why does it matter? Because money, Graeber argues, turns obligations and responsibilities, which are social things, into debt, which is purely financial. The sense we have that it’s important to repay debts corrupts the impulse to take care of each other: Debts are not sacred, human relationships are.