Monday, December 05, 2011

Review Of David Graeber's 5,000 Years of Debt (part 1)


Part One:
David Graeber is an author given to different tones. There are his personal views on current events and his academic views while making his case and rubbishing others. He challenged me to read his book first before daring to criticise his reported views, as expressed, incredibly, in what he wrote himself and put into the public domain on the internet. This is an aggressive polemical style. Who can protest that when David Graeber says something about ideas with which a reader is familiar, side-swipes with put-downs, implying that what he says in one forum is beyond criticism unless a critic first reads his 534 page volume, “Debt: the first 5,000 years” (if nothing else, an arresting title)?

So, I waited until his book arrived from my bookseller. I am now reading it. No doubt I am still vulnerable to his barbs until I have read every single one of the 534 pages of his readable (so far) book (including 60 pages of end-notes and checked his 36-page bibliography), more so, perhaps since I intend to remark on his thesis as I read the chapters (as a blog, Lost Legacy, necessarily is restricted to publishing only short posts at a time).

David, in earlier exchanges on the web, objected to my using his first name as if it is a hallowed or patronising privilege. I think it is more calming to do so than using only his surname ('Graeber says...') when tempers and invective exchanges become fragile. David is a libertarian anarchist, apparently keen on long debates – a trick that the old Stalinists of yesteryear used to wear down opposition in trade unions and, no doubt, in the early Soviets too – later they simply shot people asking awkward questions.
So, to David’s book: I refer to Chapters 1 (On the experience of moral confusion) and Chapter 2 (The myth of barter).

Chapter 1 has a nice, relaxed style starting with a conversation he struck up with “trim, well-appointed young woman” (“of the activist kind” – “a perfectly decent woman”), who worked as an attorney “for anti-poverty groups”. The venue for their accidental meeting was a “garden party at Westminster Abbey” (London). This is by way of a prelude to what inspired David to write his book because of the “moral confusion” about having to pay one’s debts (in monetised economies, which are a particular target for David’s own activism).

My reaction to this chapter’s vague hints at the book’s main theme was to write in the margin, ‘Reciprocity?’ David’s advertisements of his knowledge of the insights provided by his academic discipline, Anthropology, which is not as well-known to most modern economists and may have misled him into misjudging criticism from others, who, like myself, have read quite a bit of anthropology from a general interest in subjects related to my interests in Smithian moral philosophy and political economy.

Long before monetisation, primitive as it may have been over much of the last 5,000 years, and for many millennia before that arbitrary date, during what Adam Smith designated as the ‘First Age of Man’ (Lectures On Jurisprudence, December 24, 1762, 1.27-31, pp. 14-15), before the invention of property, humans, in small bands, (according to archeological remains) were thinly spread across the continents in pockets of occupation, living off the land. Populations remained small in the main, and ‘hunting’ predominated (Smith ignored or knew nothing and said nothing about the significance of female gathering in the survival of the species), where men predominantly fed themselves, while women fed themselves and the children, much as the primates (chimpanzees) have continued to do from the separation of the species from a common ancestor, several millions of years earlier, through to changing forms in varying degrees among modern humans.

Another common characteristic of the separated lines of the primate species, was the behaviour of reciprocity, still prevalent in chimpanzees (see Dunbar, 2005, Grooming, gossip, and the evolution language, Harvard) and replicated in certain ways among the early proto-humans and, today, among humans as gossip, was that of reciprocity behaviuours. I call this phenomenon in the human line, ‘quasi-bargaining’ (Kennedy, ‘The Pre-history of Bargaining’ unpublished ms, 2003). The nomenclature is less important that the content of exchange phenomena. In this debate’s context, reciprocity has significance because it describes observable behaviour in nature among primates and others (bats, etc.,) that show early aspects of what Smith called the propensity to exchange (which is much misunderstood among modern economists and anthopologist critics like David), of which reciprocity, no doubt, we shall return to discuss in David's later chapters reviewed here,over the next month.

For now, let us register reciprocity as an observable act where one entity undertakes a favourable act for another con-specific and the recipient benefits from the other’s action, following which nothing immediately happens in return, and may not happen, no matter how long an observer watches. It is likely that the donor will not repeat the favourable action (grooming) to that con-specific if his favour is not returned sometime. Observation suggests that many receivers do eventually reciprocate (in the case of chimpanzees, usually by grooming the donor, bats by sharing his harvest of blood). And the exchange cycle then continues, even if intermittently. Studies of human non-kin relationships show the prevalence of reciprocation exchanges. Reading Chapter 1, I expected to find this phenomenon integrated or at least mentioned in David’s analysis. It wasn’t.

In Chapter 2, ‘The myth of barter’ is doggedly demolished by David quoting from 20th-century economics principles texts after a few pages of David assaulting the citadel of Wealth Of Nations, supposedly the last word on the derivation of money (it isn’t). But if we were to take 18th-century texts (often on North American colonists interacting with Native Americans) of what became the subject of anthropology, we too could have a grand time rubbishing their assertions in comparison to the more mature, late-20th and 21st century, texts, the product of tens of thousands of field and desk researchers, who scrutinise their predecessors and contemporaries’ work.

Smith fixes his attention on the “very much clogged and embarrassing” exchange operations of barter compared to the invention of money as the instrument of exchange (WN, without specifically locating its source. This observation provides a case only for the greater convenience of money; it does not necessarily deny the prevalence of successful of social mechanisms for exchange via other means in the millennia before the invention of State-sponsored money and the undoubted political role of the latter. First, stable states had to form on top of a quite complex form of centralised control.

One factor in continuing with stable (sometimes complex) social norms of exchange, as studied by anthropologists among surviving human bands from the First Ages of Man, was the size of the populations involved. Large societies have anonymity problems beyond the immediate kin group and immediate neighbours (a necessary benefit of markets). Nor should a failure to replicate the utility case for money exhaust Smith’s asserted insight into a sequence of ‘truck, barter, and exchange’. Without more data from field research, Smith and others at best could only surmise, without necessarily excluding the relevance of what they could not observe like we can now.

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Blogger Doug Gabelmann said...

I found your blog via Mark Thoma. Interesting comments. However, your writing style demands too much of your readers. Your sentences run on, and on... until a muddle of words and phrases obscures your message.

I'm not asking you to write for the half of the population who don't understand sentences with more than thirteen words. But you might think about those of us with limited time and a bounty of well scripted, informative blogs to choose from, before you hit the post button.

3:33 pm  
Blogger Mike Coleman said...

If you know that Graeber doesn't like being referred to as "David", is there any reason to do so, other than as an insult? I stopped reading your review right there...

3:47 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Doug
Thanks for your comment and suggestion. Your feedback is helpful and I shall attempt to respond positively in forthcoming posts.

I try to write clearly as Adam Smith recommended. Part 3 of the review is ready and I shall await until after dinner to re-cast any long sentences already there, and if I have time tonight, re-look at Parts 1 and 2.


5:19 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Hi Mike Coleman

I found David Graeber's response to my comment on another Blog surprising, as I was criticising his expressed views and in no sense being offensive.

I continue here with a review of his book as I read it. From past experience of surname only disputes on Blog, they often break down on personal grounds.

Experiences at School (I went to a naval college in the 1950s), and no master or prefect ever used by first name, and I often found their using my surname alone deeply offensive, especially when accompanied by a sneering tone. (I was a talented cadet, in the top 3 of my year, each year).

I did not set out to insult David Graeber. It is meant as a calming tone to keep attention on the issues, not personalities.

I was only being honest in reporting the incident. My surprise is genuine.

Gavin Kennedy
Professor Emeritus, Heriot-Watt University

5:32 pm  
Blogger Lord Keynes said...

"Studies of human non-kin relationships show the prevalence of reciprocation exchanges. Reading Chapter 1, I expected to find this phenomenon integrated or at least mentioned in David’s analysis. It wasn’t."

The relevant chapter of Graeber's book is chapter 2.

In chapter 2, it is perfectly clear that Graeber does focus very carefully on "non-kin relationships show[ing] the prevalence of reciprocation exchanges" - it is the whole basis of his analysis, when he talsk about gift exchange economies and non-enumerated debt/credit relations.

Two points:

(1) the charge leveled against economists is that they have been fixated on money (allegedly) emerging from barter spot transactions, when societies odminated by barter spot transactions appear to be rare when we look at real world money-less societies: just three “primitive” economies where barter was predominant have been found (Crump 1981: 54).

(2) It appears many money-less societies are dominated by non-enumerated debt/credit relations. In these societies barter is probably minimal: there is no reason to invent money at all. Why? Because with non-enumerated debt/credits or rough IOU exchanges, there is no significant double coincidence of wants problem.

Crump, T. 1981. The Phenomenon of Money, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

11:35 am  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Anonymous (why be so shy?)

My review is conducted as I read David Graeber's book. My comments referred to chapter 1.

Your counter-comment refers to chapter 2.

For the record I would find it difficult to make progress through the book if I corrected every comment on the basis of subsequent chapters. My review is not finished yet (but interrupted by exam grading from my old day-job, having retired in 2005, but still asked to grade in three subject areas of two postgraduate degrees).

I am halfway through the book and shall continue has time emerges.

My basic point is that Dr Graeber understates the exchange nature of transactions that involve "debts" of what exactly are seemingly spurious "never can be paid" sex slavery or toil, enforced by violence.

Exchange was the original division of labour in the creation of languages and servitude for subsistence came afterwards. Tokens as units of account was a form of money transaction. The myths that accompanied tokens, whatever their arbitrary 'values'
were not relevant as "equivalents'. Money is a myth agreed upon. Cash your pound notes at the bank of England for other pound notes!

Thank you for your references and for any others you care to send in.


3:33 pm  

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