While there is a plenty of material one can use from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, most of it appears on the edges, in insights scattered here and there. These include, in random order: a market is not necessarily tied to profit, indeed, most markets in history have not had profit as their prime function, if at all (which leads one to the logical position that capitalism and markets are by no means synonymous and may be opposed to one another); debunking Adam Smith’s quaint founding myth of the origins of ‘the economy’; labour under capitalism has hardly ever been ‘free’; the reason why the treasures of the Americas were mined at all was due to Chinese need for bullion (90% of the total output) – most ships simply sailed straight there; redistributive economics is based on the violence and war of warrior aristocracies; markets always arose as a side product of the state’s activities, rather than state and economy being separate spheres; his redesignation of the Near East as the Near West, indeed that the West begins somewhere around Iran and Iraq, since from a global perspective there was little that distinguished Muslim, Christian and Jewish parts of the world.
Most of these points you can find elsewhere, but Graeber’s genius is to weave them into an intriguing narrative. But the problems are greater than these insights. To begin with, he is an ardent advocate of the superior role of anthropology, especially in response to economists. This may take the form of some great accounts (the Tiv from Africa is one example, which I read as an instance of the imaginary resolution of a real contradiction), but it usually ends up in a kind of primitivist argument: the true insight into human nature and interactions is to be found in these anthropological investigations into tribal peoples from Africa, Greenland, Asia, the Americas and – Graeber’s own field of research – Madagascar. The upshot is an assumption he shares with Adam Smith et al: human nature is the same wherever we look. The trick is to identify how we tick. All of which leads to a trans-historical assumption, embodied in the inadequate suggestion that all human societies operate on the basis of interwoven patterns of baseline communism, reciprocity and hierarchy.
Further, for a long book that deals with a central economic, social and political issue, there is no systematic economic theory that underpins his argument. For instance, he accepts the common position that the prime economic motor in some periods of history was plunder. The catch here, as Marx drily observed, is that you need something to plunder. Another example: despite his extended discussions of slavery and its crucial role in relation to coinage, one searches in vain for any theory of class. He has many opportunities, such as the ‘military-slavery-coinage’ complex as a way of relieving debt pressure in ancient Greece (228-30). This cries out for a class analysis, but none is forthcoming. And for my purposes, ancient Mesopotamia plays a crucial role in his discussion, for it provides the earliest evidence of what he calls a credit-based economy with far-flung international ‘trade’. Not only does he rely almost solely on the problematic Keynesian approach of Michael Hudson, but he provides no treatment of the crucial economic factor here, agriculture, let alone any effort at making sense of ancient economies.
He also buys into that intellectualist fantasy of the Axial Age, which he extends from 800 BCE to 600 CE. The Buddha, Confucius and Pythagoras were all alive at its beginning, thereby setting in train debate, intellectual schools, traditions of thought. But why is this an intellectualist fantasy? It imagines that the activity of intellectuals may determine a great stage of world history.
Ultimately, his criticism of capitalism is moral. I was taken with his proposal that the absolute thug, Hernan Cortes, is the quintessential image of the entrepreneur – ostentatious, debt-ridden, cunning, unbelievably brutal, with an unhealthily high opinion of himself. Despite this promising beginning, the argument boils down to morality. Self-interest, that key element of capitalism, is simply a derivation from theological notions of sin. That is, capitalism valorises and gives free reign to one of the basest motives of human beings, greed. That point might be worth making when scoring a cheap shot against some dull-witted economist, but it doesn’t get you very far.
A case in point is Graeber’s curious valorisation of village life in Europe before it was torn up by industrialisation and the ideology of self-interest. Despite the gossip, back-biting and scandals, above all people lived together in trust and communal ‘love’. They spent time with one another, valued friendships and family, extending credit to one another in a complex web without coinage. After all, since you know everyone and can trust them, such credit is not a problem. I hardly need to point out that this is a romantic ideal, a fantasy-land that never existed. But the stronger point is that production of such a life takes place under capitalism, that the ‘traditional’ is itself a product of the modern. Apart from that, I grew up in such places, small villages and towns in country Australia. The reality is that you can’t have bucolic bliss without village idiocy – the lantern jaw, the glazed eye of just a little too much inbreeding.
As a result, Graeber’s solution is quite lame (I only hope that his publisher wanted something more positive at the end). It’s a biblical-style Jubilee, a global cancellation of debt. Not only does this contradict his romanticised image of a community based on trust and mutual credit, but it fails to realise that a Jubilee is a system-restoring device, not one that leads to anything new.