Clinton TIME MAGAZINE Graeber - Money + Comments
Clinton bombed civilians in Serbia - war criminal
Could you briefly talk about some ways to create jobs that we're not using now and why banks and corporations are sitting on so much cash?
Well, the banks have about $2.2 trillion in cash uncommitted to loans. And they need to hold somewhere between $160 billion and $200 billion of that because they have their own mortgages that are still uncertain. But they could loan in theory, at conservative ratios of 10-to-1, $20 trillion. Obviously, if that happened, the recession would be over in 15 seconds.
What is Debt? – An Interview with Economic Anthropologist David GraeberFriday, August 26, 2011
Philip Pilkington: Let's begin. Most economists claim that money was invented to replace the barter system. But you've found something quite different, am I correct?
David Graeber: Yes there's a standard story we're all taught, a 'once upon a time' — it's a fairy tale.
It really deserves no other introduction: according to this theory all transactions were by barter. "Tell you what, I'll give you twenty chickens for that cow." Or three arrow-heads for that beaver pelt or what-have-you. This created inconveniences, because maybe your neighbor doesn't need chickens right now, so you have to invent money.
The story goes back at least to Adam Smith and in its own way it's the founding myth of economics. Now, I'm an anthropologist and we anthropologists have long known this is a myth simply because if there were places where everyday transactions took the form of: "I'll give you twenty chickens for that cow," we'd have found one or two by now. After all people have been looking since 1776, when the Wealth of Nations first came out. But if you think about it for just a second, it's hardly surprising that we haven't found anything.
Think about what they're saying here – basically: that a bunch of Neolithic farmers in a village somewhere, or Native Americans or whatever, will be engaging in transactions only through the spot trade. So, if your neighbor doesn't have what you want right now, no big deal. Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor's cow, you'd say, "wow, nice cow" and he'd say "you like it? Take it!" – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don't even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women's councils.
So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of 'I owe you one' turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?
By the time the curtain goes up on the historical record in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC, it's already happened. There's an elaborate system of money of account and complex credit systems. (Money as medium of exchange or as a standardized circulating units of gold, silver, bronze or whatever, only comes much later.)
So really, rather than the standard story – first there's barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that – if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find "I'll give you twenty chickens for that cow" type of barter systems, it's usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason – as in Russia, for example, in 1998 – the currency collapses or disappears.
PP: You say that by the time historical records start to be written in the Mesopotamia around 3200 BC a complex financial architecture is already in place. At the same time is society divided into classes of debtors and creditors? If not then when does this occur? And do you see this as the most fundamental class division in human history?
DG: Well historically, there seem to have been two possibilities.
One is what you found in Egypt: a strong centralized state and administration extracting taxes from everyone else. For most of Egyptian history they never developed the habit of lending money at interest. Presumably, they didn't have to.
Mesopotamia was different because the state emerged unevenly and incompletely. At first there were giant bureaucratic temples, then also palace complexes, but they weren't exactly governments and they didn't extract direct taxes – these were considered appropriate only for conquered populations. Rather they were huge industrial complexes with their own land, flocks and factories. This is where money begins as a unit of account; it's used for allocating resources within these complexes.
Interest-bearing loans, in turn, probably originated in deals between the administrators and merchants who carried, say, the woollen goods produced in temple factories (which in the very earliest period were at least partly charitable enterprises, homes for orphans, refugees or disabled people for instance) and traded them to faraway lands for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli. The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples' units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.
This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or 'washing of the tablets,' they'd cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for 'freedom' in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means 'return to mother,' since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.
PP: You have noted in the book that debt is a moral concept long before it becomes an economic concept. You've also noted that it is a very ambivalent moral concept insofar as it can be both positive and negative. Could you please talk about this a little? Which aspect is more prominent?
DG: Well it tends to pivot radically back and forth.
One could tell the history like this: eventually the Egyptian approach (taxes) and Mesopotamian approach (usury) fuse together, people have to borrow to pay their taxes and debt becomes institutionalized.
Taxes are also key to creating the first markets that operate on cash, since coinage seems to be invented or at least widely popularized to pay soldiers – more or less simultaneously in China, India, and the Mediterranean, where governments find the easiest way to provision the troops is to issue them standard-issue bits of gold or silver and then demand everyone else in the kingdom give them one of those coins back again. Thus we find that the language of debt and the language of morality start to merge.
In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, 'debt,' 'guilt,' and 'sin' are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It's as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it's the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren't real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.
How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an 'I owe you one' – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they're a cheapskate, and mock them, but you're unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that's when you start saying, "traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they're not of the finest quality, this means war!"
Money, in the sense of exact equivalents, seems to emerge from situations like that, but also, war and plunder, the disposal of loot, slavery. In early Medieval Ireland, for example, slave-girls were the highest denomination of currency. And you could specify the exact value of everything in a typical house even though very few of those items were available for sale anywhere because they were used to pay fines or damages if someone broke them.
But once you understand that taxes and money largely begin with war it becomes easier to see what really happened. After all, every Mafiosi understands this. If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. "You owe me, but I'll cut you a break for now…" Most human beings in history have probably been told this by their debtors. And the crucial thing is: what possible reply can you make but, "wait a minute, who owes what to who here?" And of course for thousands of years, that's what the victims have said, but the moment you do, you are using the rulers' language, you're admitting that debt and morality really are the same thing. That's the situation the religious thinkers were stuck with, so they started with the language of debt, and then they tried to turn it around and make it into something else.
PP: You'd be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his 'On the Genealogy of Morals' the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You've been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche's argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?
DG: Well, to be honest, I've never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.
In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.
But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn't paid up.
But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says 'twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye' – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don't pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock's pound of flesh.
Needless to say there's zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I'm an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn't.
Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that's where you end up with.
If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as 'debts' – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that's an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.
PP: Interesting. Perhaps this is a good place to ask you about how you conceive your work on debt in relation to the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss' classic work on gift exchange.
DG: Oh, in my own way I think of myself as working very much in the Maussian tradition. Mauss was one of the first anthropologists to ask: well, all right, if not barter, then what? What do people who don't use money actually do when things change hands? Anthropologists had documented an endless variety of such economic systems, but hadn't really worked out common principles. What Mauss noticed was that in almost all of them, everyone pretended as if they were just giving one another gifts and then they fervently denied they expected anything back. But in actual fact everyone understood there were implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.
What fascinated Mauss was that this seemed to be universally true, even today. If I take a free-market economist out to dinner he'll feel like he should return the favor and take me out to dinner later. He might even think that he is something of chump if he doesn't and this even if his theory tells him he just got something for nothing and should be happy about it. Why is that? What is this force that compels me to want to return a gift?
This is an important argument, and it shows there is always a certain morality underlying what we call economic life. But it strikes me that if you focus too much on just that one aspect of Mauss' argument you end up reducing everything to exchange again, with the proviso that some people are pretending they aren't doing that.
Mauss didn't really think of everything in terms of exchange; this becomes clear if you read his other writings besides 'The Gift'. Mauss insisted there were lots of different principles at play besides reciprocity in any society – including our own.
For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don't have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he'll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he'll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they're more likely to expect you to do it again.
Or take communistic relations – and I define this, following Mauss actually, as any ones where people interact on the basis of 'from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs'. In these relations people do not rely on reciprocity, for example, when trying to solve a problem, even inside a capitalist firm. (As I always say, if somebody working for Exxon says, "hand me the screwdriver," the other guy doesn't say, "yeah and what do I get for it?") Communism is in a way the basis of all social relations – in that if the need is great enough (I'm drowning) or the cost small enough (can I have a light?) everyone will be expected to act that way.
Anyway that's one thing I got from Mauss. There are always going to be lots of different sorts of principles at play simultaneously in any social or economic system – which is why we can never really boil these things down to a science. Economics tries to, but it does it by ignoring everything except exchange.
PP: Let's move onto economic theory then. Economics has some pretty specific theories about what money is. There's the mainstream approach that we discussed briefly above; this is the commodity theory of money in which specific commodities come to serve as a medium of exchange to replace crude barter economies. But there's also alternative theories that are becoming increasingly popular at the moment. One is the Circuitist theory of money in which all money is seen as a debt incurred by some economic agent. The other – which actually integrates the Circuitist approach – is the Chartalist theory of money in which all money is seen as a medium of exchange issued by the Sovereign and backed by the enforcement of tax claims. Maybe you could say something about these theories?
DG: One of my inspirations for 'Debt: The First 5,000 Years' was Keith Hart's essay 'Two Sides of the Coin'. In that essay Hart points out that not only do different schools of economics have different theories on the nature of money, but there is also reason to believe that both are right. Money has, for most of its history, been a strange hybrid entity that takes on aspects of both commodity (object) and credit (social relation.) What I think I've managed to add to that is the historical realization that while money has always been both, it swings back and forth – there are periods where credit is primary, and everyone adopts more or less Chartalist theories of money and others where cash tends to predominate and commodity theories of money instead come to the fore. We tend to forget that in, say, the Middle Ages, from France to China, Chartalism was just common sense: money was just a social convention; in practice, it was whatever the king was willing to accept in taxes.
PP: You say that history swings between periods of commodity money and periods of virtual money. Do you not think that we've reached a point in history where due to technological and cultural evolution we may have seen the end of commodity money forever?
DG: Well, the cycles are getting a bit tighter as time goes by. But I think we'll still have to wait at least 400 years to really find out. It is possible that this era is coming to an end but what I'm more concerned with now is the period of transition.
The last time we saw a broad shift from commodity money to credit money it wasn't a very pretty sight. To name a few we had the fall of the Roman Empire, the Kali Age in India and the breakdown of the Han dynasty… There was a lot of death, catastrophe and mayhem. The final outcome was in many ways profoundly libratory for the bulk of those who lived through it – chattel slavery, for example, was largely eliminated from the great civilizations. This was a remarkable historical achievement. The decline of cities actually meant most people worked far less. But still, one does rather hope the dislocation won't be quite so epic in its scale this time around. Especially since the actual means of destruction are so much greater this time around.
PP: Which do you see as playing a more important role in human history: money or debt?
DG: Well, it depends on your definitions. If you define money in the broadest sense, as any unit of account whereby you can say 10 of these are worth 7 of those, then you can't have debt without money. Debt is just a promise that can be quantified by means of money (and therefore, becomes impersonal, and therefore, transferable.) But if you are asking which has been the more important form of money, credit or coin, then probably I would have to say credit.
PP: Let's move on to some of the real world problems facing the world today. We know that in many Western countries over the past few years households have been running up enormous debts, from credit card debts to mortgages (the latter of which were one of the root causes of the recent financial crisis). Some economists are saying that economic growth since the Clinton era was essentially run on an unsustainable inflating of household debt. From an historical perspective what do you make of this phenomenon?
DG: From an historical perspective, it's pretty ominous. One could go further than the Clinton era, actually – a case could be made that we are seeing now is the same crisis we were facing in the 70s; it's just that we managed to fend it off for 30 or 35 years through all these elaborate credit arrangements (and of course, the super-exploitation of the global South, through the 'Third World Debt Crisis'.)
As I said Eurasian history, taken in its broadest contours, shifts back and forth between periods dominated by virtual credit money and those dominated by actual coin and bullion. The credit systems of the ancient Near East give way to the great slave-holding empires of the Classical world in Europe, India, and China, which used coinage to pay their troops. In the Middle Ages the empires go and so does the coinage – the gold and silver is mostly locked up in temples and monasteries – and the world reverts to credit. Then after 1492 or so you have the return world empires again; and gold and silver currency together with slavery, for that matter.
What's been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we've been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors. Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That's why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.
Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He'd probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
PP: You mention that the IMF and S&P are institutions that are mainly geared toward extracting debts for creditors. This seems to have become the case in the European monetary union too. What do you make of the situation in Europe at the moment?
DG: Well, I think this is a prime example of why existing arrangements are clearly untenable. Obviously the 'whole debt' cannot be paid. But even when some French banks offered voluntary write-downs for Greece, the others insisted they would treat it as if it were a default anyway. The UK takes the even weirder position that this is true even of debts the government owes to banks that have been nationalized – that is, technically, that they owe to themselves! If that means that disabled pensioners are no longer able to use public transit or youth centers have to be closed down, well that's simply the 'reality of the situation,' as they put it.
These 'realities' are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That's one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the 'Third World debt crisis' – what got called, rather weirdly, the 'anti-globalization movement'. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).
When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: "Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated." I find this extraordinarily hopeful.
PP: Broadly speaking how do you see the present debt/financial crisis unravelling? Without asking you to peer into the proverbial crystal-ball – because that's a silly thing to ask of anyone – how do you see the future unfolding; in the sense of how do you take your bearings right now?
DG: For the long-term future, I'm pretty optimistic. We might have been doing things backwards for the last 40 years, but in terms of 500-year cycles, well, 40 years is nothing. Eventually there will have to be recognition that in a phase of virtual money, safeguards have to be put in place – and not just ones to protect creditors. How many disasters it will take to get there? I can't say.
But in the meantime there is another question to be asked: once we do these reforms, will the results be something that could even be called 'capitalism'?
David Graeber currently holds the position of Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London. Prior to this he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University. He is the author of 'Debt: The First 5,000 Years' which is available from Amazon.
Interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland.
David Graeber says: August 26, 2011 at 3:59 pmI personally feel betrayed that we are not in outer space, not to mention the distinct lack of flying cars, anti-gravity sleds, teleportation devices, androids that can do my laundry, longevity drugs, or virtually everything else I was promised as a child would be around by now. I mean, kids who grew up reading Jules Verne in 1900 got almost all the stuff he predicted. We never got any of what we were supposed to get! But that's kind of a different rant.
David Graeber says:
The Caliphate is a fascinating anomaly. In the Middle Ages, almost all really significant empires were founded by nomads (Arabs, Mongols, Turks) and were differently organized than in Antiquity, not being based on peasant troop levies paid in coin. The Caliphate did take on some of the qualities of ancient empires – for instance, dirhams and dinars were by far the strongest metal currency of the period – and that was, significantly, the area of Eurasia that went least far in abolishing slavery (though Islamic law placed significant limits on the institution.) However, rather than the Classical military-coinage-slavery complex, where armies paid in coin reduced huge numbers of people to slavery, and those slaves became the main force of production, the Caliphate developed differently. Slaves were rarely used as factors of production (particularly after the Zanj revolt), but mainly as forms of display and, even more importantly, as soldiers in their own right. The habit of using slave armies under the Caliphate and its successor states is others virtually historically unprecedented – in most times and places, slaves are the very last people you'd allow near weapons, for obvious reasons – and had the effect of causing the military-coinage-slavery complex that did exist to form something of a bubble insulated from civil society, and particularly what we'd call 'the market' – since commercial relations are regulated largely by religious courts independent of the government and in fact the religious scholars who run them tend to avoid any entanglement in affairs of government entirely. The result was among other things the world's first anti-government free-market populism. It's a complicated story, described at greater length in the book, but suffice it to say that while it bore a superficial resemblance to ancient empires the fundamental dynamic was very different.
David Graeber says:
You really haven't got very far in the book!
Another version of the same story appears on page 50-51, where I note that while Chartalist and State theories of money were rejected in theory in turn-of-the-century Europe, they were adopted in practice across the colonial world:
"I have already mentioned that one of the first things that the French general Gallieni, conqueror of Madagascar, did when the conquest of the island was complete in 1901 was to impose a head tax. Not only was this tax quite high, it was also only payable in newly issued Malagasy francs. In other words, Gallieni did indeed print money and then demand that everyone in the country give some of that money back to him.
"Most striking of all, though, was language he used to describe this tax. It was referred to as the "impôt moralisateur," the "educational" or "moralizing tax." In other words, it was designed—to adopt the language of the day—to teach the natives the value of work. Since the "educational tax" came due shortly after harvest time, the easiest way for farmers to pay it was to sell a portion of their rice crop to the Chinese or Indian merchants who soon installed themselves in small towns across the country. However, harvest was when the market price of rice was, for obvious reasons, at its lowest; if one sold too much of one's crop, that meant one would not have enough left to feed one's family for the entire year, and thus be forced to buy one's own rice back, on credit, from those same merchants later in the year when prices were much higher. As a result, farmers quickly fell hope- lessly into debt (the merchants doubling as loan sharks). The easiest ways to pay back the debt was either to find some kind of cash crop to sell—to start growing coffee, or pineapples—or else to send one's children off to work for wages in the city, or on one of the plantations that French colonists were establishing across the island. The whole project might seem no more than a cynical scheme to squeeze cheap labor out of the peasantry, and it was that, but it was also something more. The colonial government was were also quite explicit (at least in their own internal policy documents), about the need to make sure that peasants had at least some money of their own left over, and to ensure that they became accustomed to the minor luxuries—parasols, lipstick, cookies—available at the Chinese shops. It was crucial that they develop new tastes, habits, and expectations; that they lay the foundations of a consumer demand that would endure long after the conquerors had left, and keep Madagascar forever tied to France.
"Most people are not stupid, and most Malagasy understood ex- actly what their conquerors were trying to do to them. Some were determined to resist. More than sixty years after the invasion, a French anthropologist, Gerard Althabe, was able to observe villages on the east coast of the island whose inhabitants would dutifully show up at the coffee plantations to earn the money for their poll tax, and then, having paid it, studiously ignore the wares for sale at the local shops and instead turn over any remaining money to lineage elders, who would then use it to buy cattle for sacrifice to their ancestors.19 Many were quite open in saying that they saw themselves as resisting a trap.."
David Graeber says:
Another teaser quote from the book:
Legally, our notion of the corporation is very much a product of the European High Middle Ages. The legal idea of a corporation as a "fictive person" (persona ficta)—a person who, as Maitland, the great British legal historian, put it, "is immortal, who sues and is sued, who holds lands, has a seal of his own, who makes regulations for those natural persons of whom he is composed"166—was first established in canon law by Pope Innocent IV in 1250 ad, and one of the first kinds of entities it applied to were monasteries—as also to universities, churches, municipalities, and guilds.
The idea of the corporation as an angelic being is not mine, inci- dentally. I borrowed it from the great Medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, who pointed out that all this was happening right around the same time that Thomas Aquinas was developing the notion that angels were really just the personification of Platonic Ideas.168 "According to the teachings of Aquinas," he notes, "every angel represented a species."
"Little wonder then that finally the personified collectives of the jurists, which were juristically immortal species, displayed all the features otherwise attributed to angels . . . The jurists themselves recognized that there was some similarity between their abstractions and the angelic beings. In this respect, it may be said that the political and legal world of thought of the later Middle Ages began to be populated by immaterial angelic bod- ies, large and small: they were invisible, ageless, sempiternal, immortal, and sometimes even ubiquitous; and they were en- dowed with a corpus intellectuale or mysticum [an intellectual or mystical body] which could stand any comparison with the "spiritual bodies" of the celestial beings."
All this is worth emphasizing because while we are used to assum- ing that there's something natural or inevitable about the existence of corporations, in historical terms, they are actually strange, exotic crea- tures. No other great tradition came up with anything like it. They are the most peculiarly European addition to that endless proliferation of metaphysical entities so characteristic of the Middle Ages—as well as the most enduring.
They have, of course, changed a great deal over time. Medieval cor- porations owned property, and they often engaged in complex financial arrangements, but in no case were they profit-seeking enterprises in the modern sense. The ones that came closest were, perhaps unsurpris- ingly, monastic orders—above all, the Cistercians—whose monaster- ies became something like the Chinese Buddhist ones, surrounded by mills and smithies, practicing rationalized commercial agriculture with a workforce of "lay brothers" who were effectively wage laborers, spinning and exporting wool. Some even talk about "monastic capitalism."
Still, the ground was only really prepared for capitalism in the familiar sense of the term when the merchants began to organize themselves into eternal bodies as a way to win monopolies, legal or de facto, and avoid the ordinary risks of trade. An excellent case in point was the Society of Merchant Adventurers, charted by King Henry IV in London in 1407, who, despite the romantic-sounding name, were mainly in the business of buying up British woolens and selling them in the Flanders fairs. They were not a modern joint-stock company, but a rather old-fashioned Medieval merchant guild, but they provided a structure whereby older, more substantial merchants could simply provide loans to younger ones, and they managed to secure enough of an exclusive control over the woolen trade that substantial profits were pretty much guaranteed.172 When such companies began to engage in armed ventures overseas, though, a new era of human history might be said to have begun.
"For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don't have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he'll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he'll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they're more likely to expect you to do it again."
Was that sarcastic?
A few months later the eager grad will ask a letter of recommendation from the professor and the professor will take the dinner into account.
If Soros buys a professor dinner he expects an academic article supporting his worldview from that professor.
David Graeber says:
I don't think that's necessarily true at all. The graduate student might just want to be able to say "I had dinner with Milton Friedman!" and George Soros certainly does not expect an academic article out of every time he buys someone dinner – mainly he just wants recognition as the sort of person who would be liberal with his money, or, maybe more accurately, not the sort of person who's stingy with it. Now, sure, you can dress that up as an "exchange" if you want, but only insofar as you can dress anything up as an exchange if you're absolutely determined, as is a regular practice in intro economics classes ("what about people who throw themselves on grenades to save others?" "well, they're maximizing their feelings of being a good person for those few moments before they blow up…") – but that tells you nothing other than that we've decided we want to view everything as an exchange and created utterly unfalsifiable circular models that basically say "if someone does something, it's usually for a reason, and I can take whatever reason that is and define it as a good they are getting in exchange for doing it." That's an ideological exercise that tells you absolutely nothing either about people's actual motivations (why they feel like a good person for sacrificing themselves, why Soros wouldn't want to be seen as stingy) or about the actual logic of the transaction itself.
This is incidentally the reason Soros himself abandoned Austrian-style economistic theories of human behavior. As a student of Popper, he knew a circular argument when he saw one, and was aware that if you see such an illogical argument made consistently by powerful people and not being challenged, you are in the presence of a dangerous ideology.
Take for example the Medieval habit of demanding "writs of non-prejudice." As Marc Bloch notes, in feudal Europe, if you give a gift to a superior, it is considered a precedent, and rather than ever being reciprocated, it is added to the web of custom and you are expected to do it again the next year. If the king runs out of wine and demands some monks send an emergency contribution, if they comply, the same will be expected every following year. The only way to head this off is to have the superior sign a document saying they will not expect it in the future. It's easy to see how this principle of precedence underlies the real logic of most explicitly hierarchical relations. If you give money to a beggar, he's not going to reciprocate either, but he might well expect you to do it again. Etc etc.
David Graeber says:
You know there actually are, um, hunter/gatherer bands in existence, and the economic life of many, many have been carefully observed.
There's nothing to stop you from making up a story if you're absolutely determined to. I could also make up a story and say that money was brought by space aliens 25,000 years ago and that would be hard to disprove too. Of course, in either case, the paleolithic barterers inventing money, or the space aliens bringing it through an interdimensional wormhole, you'd still have to explain how just about all known human societies – including all known hunter/gatherers – somehow abandoned or forgot about the resulting money system over the course of the next 10 or 20 thousand years except some guys in Mesopotamia who were using it instead for keeping temple accounts, and scattered groups of non-hunter/gatherers in places like New Guinea or Africa who decided to stop using money to buy and sell material objects but start using instead to arrange marriages and mediate blood-feuds.
Karl Bucher incidentally did come up with the theory that money would emerge from inter-group barter, and Marx seemed to be of the same opinion. The problem is when you would have sufficiently regular and systematic interaction between such groups that money could emerge and be promulgated, and why, if such regular and systematic interactions did occur, there would still be a need to restrict things to the spot trade. It is of course correct that sharing comes before credit, but there are systems of exchange that can be observed in many societies without money or markets – just, they are not usually systems of exchange of material goods. It's kind of a long story but a lot of it is covered in the book.
Think of it this way: in a tribe, or clan, there are multiple kinship connections. Let's say a woman, call her Anna, has 4 brothers and 3 sisters. Let's say that in her clan you cannot marry into your mothers family.
Of her 4 brothers, let's assume are married. Further assume that 2 of them are married to 2nd cousins. The other 2 are married to women of a neighboring clan.
Suppose one of the sisters-in-law came to the marriage with pots and pans. Suppose another sister-in-law came to her marriage with a supply of sewing and medicinal items. Sister-in-law 3 came to her marriage with a supply of cloth and art supplies. You get the idea.
Dinner must be cooked, outfits must be sewn, fevers must be treated, and ceremonial ornamentation must be created throughout the year by all of the women who are related by marriage to Anna.
It is lunacy to assume that the 1st sister-in-law is going to *barter* the pots and pans used for dinner in some kind of precise economic exchange that will obtain for her a fever medicine. When dinner needs to be cooked, it needs to be cooked well. One or more of the sisters will cook it on Monday, maybe another sister cooks on Tuesdays. Etc. But the pots are shared, because these women are connected by moral actions to each other; at some level, the survival of each rests on the survival of the group.
The notion that within kinship groups someone barters their pots and pans every single day is nuts. If you need to cook dinner, you borrow the pots and pans. If someone needs to treat a fever, unless you have no sense of self-interest, you give them the medicine.
Because fevers are contagious…
The faster their fever is treated the less risk you yourself-or your children-will become sick. It is in your interests to make sure that all members of your family are well and healthy. Anything other than that is self-defeating lunacy.
But fevers and medicines are an extreme example. However, I have seen more trivial items borrowed village-wide.
On a practical note, I have observed in more than one location in Alaska villages where one kid will ride a bike up to school. Another kid seeing the bike sitting at the school door will get on it and ride the few blocks through the village down to his house. Another cousin will spot the bike, get on it and ride it to the school again. These villages are pretty small and the bike rides take about 3 min. to get from one into the other. If you ask, "hey you kids, whose bike is this?" You will get blank looks of confusion. I remember a darling kid looking up at me like I was nuts. He sized me up as a dumb whitey for asking such a nonsense question. He shrugged and looked at me and said, "it's just THE bike."
Whoever needed THE bike when it was not in use, used it.
You can see how these kids are at risk of being charged with theft in Anchorage… But failure to share and borrow is viewed as a moral flaw. Moral action is doing whatever helps the group.
Nobody *bartered* time on the bike. The bike was constantly being borrowed. When people are connected in community ties, borrowing is the norm from what I have seen and experienced.
One of the points DG makes but I believe is both brilliant, and needs much more discussion, is his point that **Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers made transactions through this spot trade. Adam Smith assumed that people had no moral relations with each other, that morality only emerged out of the concept of exchange.**This was a core error.
One of the great, even momentous tragedies of our time is the appalling assumption that the relationships among human beings can be reduced merely to exchange value. This makes for a meaningless and pallid world. It explains a great deal about why we seem to be observing so much turmoil in political and economic realms; these exchanges lack meaning, far too often. That leads to looting, by banks and rioters. It's lack of social cohesion; relationships are too weak to sustain the rigors of ethical conduct.
Had I not seen your comment I would not have had to think this through in order to respond. So I thank you very much. I hope that my response makes some sense.
Again, for me one of the key concepts in this wonderful post is the way that DG keys in on Adam Smith's complete misunderstanding of actual human communities and the way that human interactions are based on borrowing and contributing as one is able. Adam Smith was writing in 1776. It was about that time that early convict ships were being sent to Australia, and at that time there was no such discipline as anthropology. In the 1800s, aboriginals were hunted with guns as sport. The complex kinship networks and marvelously inventive marriage rules of tribes and clans were unknown to him. The reciprocity that makes tribal life possible is, at least in my observation, based on borrowing.
If you think about it, if all those sisters-in-law had to haggle and barter specific amounts of value every single time they needed to cook a meal or sew a skirt, they'd all go nuts. Borrowing and contributing what one has is more simple and efficient as long as the group norms are honored. For that to happen, there are inherent moral relationships built upon the family relationships within the community.
When Adam Smith missed the significance of orrowing and reciprocity — and substituted notions of exchange among Neolithic villagers — he enabled economic theory to run wild on the assumption moral behavior is not an economic factor. Posts like this one may help us come to our senses again.
Writing and money too complicated; this comment is already scandalously long…8^\
David Graeber says:
Well ReaderofTeaLeaves' post might have been long but he did really get the point I was driving at, and illustrated it beautifully
I'm dumbfounded by the discussion of anthropologic economics with the omission of the underlying lynchpin; womens labor. Women's labor (other than the one sentence reference to Native American Women's Council) is not calculated even today in the economic models unless there's monetary compensation for services rendered.
Graber discusses barter, exchange, gifts, reciprocation, debt, coinage, morality's interconnectedness to debt whilst ignoring the elephant in the room, womens' cooperative structures. Frankly, manmade economic systems rest upon the shoulders of women's free labor. In the current economic structure, the value of free labor is dismissed. Therein lies the fallacy of economic models. Male economic doctrines ignore the single most important structure that is the platform of all economies; womens' labor.
How do women compensate for services rendered that are not computed in the debt/credit monetary GNP? Are there economic expectations amongst women and if so what are they? How do women barter their invested time and labor? If I help my neighbor, give birth, provide childcare, take care of extended family, daily nourishment to others, household maintenance, do repairs, and a multitude of services to family and community, what is the expectations and/or compensation? Is it monetary and/or reciprocation? Women's labor is dismissed due to the fact that many labor out of love, compassion, kindness, caring, and necessity. They understand the big picture, without these daily acts that are not monetarily compensated in man world economics, civilizations would be extinct. Cooperativism is the female economic model. What keeps society's healthy are women, they are the lynchpin of all civilization's existence.
David Graeber says:
This is true of the interview, and I'm sorry for that, but I don't think it's true of the book. The argument that all other social relations are based on a bedrock of "communism" is especially about the role of women's labor, and I start moving from the economic to the anthropological/historical literature precisely by demonstrating the way that kinship, care-giving, sexual politics, and everything else that involves women is pushed about of the economic literature to make it seem like the essence of economic life is a bunch of guys swapping a bunch of material objects. In fact I start from the fact that in Medieval Ireland, female slaves _were_ the highest denominations money, and by asking how is it possible that so many (male) scholars just make note of this but don't think it's in any way interesting or significant. The analysis of the emergence of markets in Mesopotamia and also Greece focus on the fact that a shift from what I call "human economies" and commercial economies invariably leads to a crisis of debt peonage primarily effecting women, where again, units of women's labor are the main chits being moved around, and that Biblical patriarchy – here following Gerda Lerner – seems to emerge, ironically enough, as a form of male popular resistance to such predatory lending practices. But it's a long argument. I'm sorry none of this ended up in the interview.
"Maybe women thereby evolved to avoid "debt."
Women's evolution was/is based upon the primary directive; survival. Warring tribes brought with them death and destruction motivated by theft of resources. As well as the obliteration of tribes whose values and belief structures challenged others way of life. To survive the slaughter, women acquiesced their inherent rights of human equality. Female autonomy spiraled downward into human ownership and slavery. Women became property of the invaders as they witnessed the slaughter of their families and tribe. Thus the subjugation and oppression of women of the warring cultures. Today we witness around the world the domination of women as acceptable "cultural" practices.
Secondly, Women's evolution exists due to the known known; to safeguard the survival of the offspring. Women and enlightened men understand the profound significance of Sharing of resources and Cooperativism. These two pivotal points are the anchors in the perpetuation of the species and stable societal systems are the byproduct. Many a time, the expectations in the exchange is appreciation of the simple act of sharing, ensuring the perpetuation of the common good onto the next generation.
Today's economic upheaval is intertwined with unwarranted risk; gambling in our economic systems, and wars purchased on the country's credit card. The false belief structures of reward equated in monetary acquisition is the accepted exchange for services and labor rendered. Immense monetary and resource acquisition is the holy grail of hoarders that penalizes every level of human existence. Sharing and redistribution is our salvation.
David Graeber says:
I'm not entirely sure what I think of an evolutionary perspective, but leaving that aside, I like the general direction. In most societies women are especially involved in those relations that cannot be reduced to debts. But the irony – and historical tragedy – of this is that (and the book contains detailed case studies here, notably the matrilineal Lele) is that it has made it easier for men to render women into units of account and exchange whereby debts can be measured and paid. It would be very interesting to see this angle developed further.
To understanding the complexities of debt/credit in prehistory, past as recorded by the victors, and present cultures, it's necessary to delve into when, why, and how women have been priced as monetary units. The practice of bride price had been the custom in the USA well into the 20th century. Even today the cost of the wedding falls upon the bride's family, a tradition that hasn't disappeared. Maybe abbreviated, but still exists. However, in many cultures the bride price is today, the accepted custom. A longstanding tradition in many past and present cultures is the prerequisite bride dowry/trousseau also known as the bride price. The bride's parents must provide the groom some form of monetary compensation to marry the daughter. It can be dependent on the culture of whether its cash, property, livestock or a combination thereof as well as the "virginity." Virginity was/is deemed in many cultures as part of the monetary unit. If she's been "deflowered" her value is less and the dowry must compensate. Whereas, the price settled on the bride herself by the groom at the time of marriage is a property transaction.
The flip side of the coin of the female dowry is that the groom must pay the bride's family an agreed price. Again, the bride is a property transaction agreed upon by groom and the patriarch.
Many cultures refer to the dowry as a custom. In truth, the bride is a monetary unit. I lean toward the origins of women treated as monetary units from the invasions of barbaric tribes sweeping down and the obliteration of the tribes for ownership of the resources. Women's autonomy was denied as she became captured property/monetary unit. Virginity was calculated as a monetary value. Thus denying the women ownership of her physical sexuality. Double standards are accepted but not questioned as it reveals the truth of how women were/are a commodity in the patriarchal construct.
Another aspect of the deflowered virgin in cultures is the family's recourse to end her existence due to the perceived shame upon the family. And then there's the unwed pregnancies. I remember even in the 60′s in the USA, the stigma of an illegitimate birth was a familial catastrophic event tagged with cultural shame. The child's a bastard due to patriarchal dominance script. The prescribed male surname is a necessary attachment for legitimacy. Thus the woman's maiden name was (is) deemed unworthy and she incurred the wrath of family, community, and religion. The father's surname was the only validated proof of legitimacy to live within the societal norm of the community.
Consider the origin of the groom asking the father's permission to marry his daughter. Or the father handing over his daughter to the groom at the ceremony. Today it appears as a quaint and innocuous tradition. The reality is women were the property of the father/patriarch. The exchange of ownership; who gives this woman?, or hand over to the groom was a property transaction. Women in many societies have regained the ownership of themselves but not in all world cultures. Today women are allowed to choose not to marry, live together with no contract, and/or the potential bride can set a transaction price if considering marriage; the engagement ring. The groom seals the deal with a wedding band; she's married. Another version even today of ownership. Perhaps we've evolved toward partnership marriages as both are accepted equals in the relationship. However, dominate and subordinate marital paradigms exists in many of today's marriages.
David Graeber says:
Debt plays a critical roles in this. One of the central arguments in the book has to do with bridewealth. The classic anthropological argument is this is not "brideprice", a man or his family is not buying a bride, because they cannot resell her, only, at best, return her for a refund to her own natal family. This is true enough in what I call "human economies" (ones in which currency is used mainly to rearrange social relations, rather than to buy things), but with the rise of commercial economies, and particularly money-lending this changed – because if a male debtor defaulted, his wife and children could be taken away, as peons if not as slaves. The existence of slavery made things even more resemble a sale pure and simple, and in Nuzi, for example, the traditional bridewealth was exactly the same as the price of a female slave.
Gerda Lerner's argument is that the obsession with premarital virginity, the invention of veils and sequestration of women – all of which are not at all in evidence in the very earliest Sumerian periods, when women in fact could be doctors, scribes, administrators, even sometimes rulers of city states – has to do with the effects of commercial markets that suddenly made a distinction between "good girls" (respectable married types) and "bad girls" (slaves and prostitutes) seem critical. It's all much complicated by the existence of sexual rituals – sometimes termed "sacred prostitution" though that seems an inappropriate term – in many Sumerian cities. At first their practitioners were highly honored people, brides of the god. Eventually, actual sex-work, red light districts inhabited both by women and boys, seemed to form around the fringes of the temples, and the people who ended up working there were mostly debt peons. The whole image of "Babylon" as the place of both high finance, and place of whores – that you find in the Bible, Herodotus, through all the patriarchal religions – seems to go back to a popular reaction to this; basically, poor indebted fathers who fled the cities in fear of their daughters being taken away and joining semi-nomadic pastoral bands such as existed on the fringes of urban space – bands that would indeed periodically come sweeping back into the cities again. Thus the conventional narrative, that it was waves of patriarchal Semites from the desert who overwhelmed Sumerian civilization and undermined the status of women is not entirely wrong, it's just they managed to do so because thousands of refugees fleeing debt traps joined them, and the added this violent antipathy to women's freedoms – in the guise of protecting "their" women from the dangers of debt peonage, "immorality", etc – into the mix.
Lerner notes telling that the first reference to veils we have is a Middle Assyrian law that says respectable women have to go veiled, slaves and prostitutes are not allowed to wear veils, and all the penalties are not on the respectable women that don't but on the slaves and prostitutes that do.
Athenian women were also expected to wear veils outside the house. Most people don't realize this since it so flies in the face of our stereotypes.
David Graeber says:Yes, the Mesopotamian bullae are a great mystery, there's all sorts of theories about them, but they were clearly credit instruments of some kind. The question is how far they circulated. I hadn't heard the theory that writing itself derived from their use. Fascinating.
I am very late to this conversation but I am quite curious….
You state in the post, "In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, 'debt,' 'guilt,' and 'sin' are actually the same word." I cannot think of a word in Hebrew or Aramaic that has the same root for all three concepts, but I know that, at least as far as "sin" is concerned, both languages have a rich vocabulary :-) Could you let me know which root word you were thinking of when you wrote that?
David Graeber says:
You know, I definitely have plenty of evidence for the Aramaic and Sanskrit, but Hebrew… I left my notes in the UK, but I remember it was slightly more tenuous. The Aramaic word hoba (sorry can't do diacritics on this thing) is used regularly for both debt and sin, and that's the origin of the usage in the Lord's Prayer ("forgive us our debts" – translated "trespasses" in the Anglican verson). It is derived from the Hebrew hobah, which is mostly used just for debt, but I'm pretty sure is used in the OT for guilt or sin on certain occasions – though admittedly not nearly so much, and mainly in the later texts. But this is as far as I can go with what I have on hand right now. It's possible in the Hebrew case "same word" might be overstated, since some would say using hobah for guilt or sin is just metaphorical, and anyway, came fairly late in the day.Apikoros says:
Thank you. I asked my Rabbi this same question last night and he also suggested the hebrew "chiyuv" as the word you were referring to. He pointed me to this post (which you may find interesting):
I found your post interesting because I remembered reading (somewhere, a long time ago) that cuneiform writing was originally developed to mark the outside of clay "envelopes" containing counter pieces that recorded commercial transactions so that the "envelope" did not have to be broken to count the tokens contained therein each time it changed hands. With time, the tokens were deleted, the envelope became a slab and the cuneiform marks became the record of the transaction.
David Graeber says:
Thanks for checking that!
Yes, the Mesopotamian bullae are a great mystery, there's all sorts of theories about them, but they were clearly credit instruments of some kind. The question is how far they circulated. I hadn't heard the theory that writing itself derived from their use. Fascinating.
Merijn Knibbe says:
This is the longest thread I've ever followed to the end….
and I still might have two points to add to the arguments above.
1. On markets and prices and human behavior. A number of economist indeed try to explain all human behavior in terms of rational behavior on 'explicit' markets (used cars) as well as 'implicit markets' (marriage, crime, education), without however ever giving a clear definition of the concept 'market'(you don't believe me? Search in the textbooks for such a definition!). One of the defining qualities of explicit, real world markets is however that prices (or at least the way the eventual price will be set) are agreed upon before a transaction is concluded, explicitely (buying a house) or implicitely (buying groceries in a supermarket). And though 'shadow' prices can be calculated for some of the 'implicit' markets of these economists (i.e. monetary income foregone by students spending time on their education (or pretending to do so…)). Such a 'shadow price' is not known in advance (which of course disables all attempts at rational calculation) – and the 'implicit markets' of (neo-classical) economists turn out not to be markets at all. Rational behavior in real markets is already questionable, but in what's called 'implicit markets' it's fundamentally impossible.
2. On credit. Economists have difficulties with recognizing 'credit' as a kind of money. Weird. Every conpany selling something 'on credit' is in fact creating money, as is born out by the fact that the debts owned to the company often can be sold to specialized banks. Once a monetary system exists, every individual or company can create purhcasing power, by accepting a 'You Owe Me' denominated in the unit of account from a customer. And it's not too long ago that such systems were the main kind of monetary exchange systems, in the villages and cities of at least Europe – the tally stick system. When one studies nienteenth and eighteenth and seventeenth century accounts and probate inventories, he or she cannot but be surprised by the amount and level of debts characteristic of the economies of these centuries.
David Graeber says:
Thanks for the contribution – the first point was very illuminating.
As for the second: I suspect you'll really like the book. Did you know, for instance, that the word for "symbol" in both English and Chinese ultimately traces back to words for tally sticks?
Minnie Klein says:
A methodological note. I don't accept the premise that any society formation that existed at any time in prehistory must have been discovered by now, because I don't accept that our scant historical records, plus anthropology's descriptions of stone-age societies from the very recent past, exhaust the possible or even likely forms of human society. (Analogously, astronomers do not claim that the possible space of cosmological formations is exhausted by what is observed through telescopes.) I believe that agnosticism is a wiser attitude to take towards the prehistoric progenitors of our own civilization, and that reasonable speculation should not be restricted by what anthropology deems feasible.
David Graeber says:
Actually I would agree – we know that democratically organized autonomous city states existed in the late Iron Age, and not just in Greece but India, and elsewhere, but we don't really have anthropological evidence of those in later periods.
However, there is an incredibly wide variety of cases from anthropology – there are literally thousands of different sorts of money that have been documented put to an incredibly wide variety of usages. There are an endless variety of system of exchange. If despite this you find everything _but_ the hypothetical imaginary explanation you came up with in your armchair, then saying "so what, I bet in precisely the period we don't know about, they did exactly that" – I call that special pleading.