Friday, December 09, 2011

Review Of Dr David Graeber’s 5,000 Years of Debt (continued)


Part Five

Chapter 5: “Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations

Dr David Graeber begins to get down to what he is about, and for the next 137 pages he explains his book’s challenge to “the extraordinary place that economics currently holds in the social sciences .. a master discipline”, it’s basic “tenets” treated “as received wisdom” and “basically beyond question” and a theory “so obviously true (sarcastically) that no one who understands it could possibly disagree”. I agree broadly with the overly arrogant image of mainstream economists, regularly challenged here in Lost Legacy, without sharing Dr Graeber’s specific proposed alternative when he proclaims boldly:

“I am going to … create a new theory, pretty much from scratch” (p 90). So let’s examine it.

His “key term” is “reciprocity”, in that “all human relations are based on some variation of reciprocity” (p 91), but before I started to get impressed about something I would agree with, he opens with a broadside against two anthropologists, George Homans and Claude Levi-Strauss, the latter of whom started a craze (his words) for exchange theory, and later was described as “an intellectual god of anthropology”, who made the extraordinary argument that human life could be imaged as three spheres: language (the “exchange of words), kinship (the “exchange of women “) and economics (“the exchange of things”). However, this leads to his assertions about “debt”, which, he says, repeatedly, is “what happens when some balance has not yet been restored”. And it is this theory of balance, repeatedly returned to in this chapter, that I shall criticise, long with Dr Graeber’s new theory of moral relations, which he moral principles he alleges for “any human society” can be seen to be founded upon.

Dr Graeber’s three new principles consist of “communism, hierarchy, and exchange” (p 94).Words can be said by authors to mean whatever they want them to mean (cf. Alice in Wonderland). Communism to Dr Graeber operates on the principles of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” (p94), into which he conveniently applies a whole host of phenomena. He could just as conveniently call it Christianity, with its 2,000 years of endemic ‘unChristian’ behaviours. Instead, he calls it communism, with its 75 years of endemic, and not very ‘communist’ moral behaviours, given his sanitised definition of it. It is more productive, I suggest, that key terms in social science are neutral, rather than theologically or politically provocative. After all, Dr Graeber presumably wishes to persuade his readers.

What Dr Graeber calls “mythic communism” or “epic communism”, which has “inspired millions” (as did nazism), he further asserts that “all of us act like communists a good deal of the time”, but not always “consistently”. He concedes that a communist society “could never exist”, yet he claims that all societies have included elements of communist behaviour for millennia. Societies, including capitalism, he says have “always been built on top of the bedrock of actually existing communism”, and “when two people are interacting, we can say we are in the presence of a sort of communism” (p95), much like Jesus Christ claimed when he said, “Where two or three have come together in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18.20). It is more helpful and more persuasively neutral to define this moral dimension as a reciprocated and co-operative sociability, common to the human species, without lumbering it with political or theological baggage. But Dr Graeber does not think much of reciprocity assertions, preferring his own assertions about everybody having a bit of communism at their core.

Dr Graeber runs through many interesting examples from anthropological field studies to illustrate his thesis, that are not always unambiguous evidence in support of his communist moral perspective. He draws communist implications (‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to his needs’) from Nuer pastoralists in southern Sudan, reportedly (1920) giving deliberately misleading information to perceived outsiders, as they would to potential enemies, though not to known friends. The Nuers’ communist behaviour to friends, like that of selfless help and aid given to victims of flood, famines, and economic collapse, is, claims Dr Graeber, a reversion to inherent communist morals. But there is another side to this inherent primitive communist behaviour in the Nuer, and in other examples he gives, which constantly challenges their proclivity for communist morals in their “constant engagement in feuds” (p 96-7). In other anthropological studies, originally vigorously denied by anthropologists at the top of their profession, but shown in the archaeological record of the extent to which Neolithic communities of hunter-gathers suffered and inflicted death by violence at levels far in excess of male deaths in recent centuries, world wars, genocides and communist and Nazis tyrannies not withstanding. (See Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilisation: the myth of the peaceful savage’, 1996, Oxford University Press, and in many other works in the 14-page bibliography and the 20-pages of notes it contains).

I know from my experience as a new apprentice of the fun the adult toolmakers and older apprentices had in sending me on silly errands to the stores (to get ‘left-handed screw driver’, etc.,). It was a traditional, informal initiation process of strangers earning acceptance into the group. In later years, I joined in the fun of inducting other new lads. I think Dr Graeber, who finds communism in such common rituals and behaviours, needs to get out more.

Reciprocity is all around in work groups when partner reciprocators hand someone “a match, a piece of information, holding the elevator”, etc., (p. 97) and begin to develop a relationship with the receiver, which is constantly strengthened by mutual reciprocation – and breached by acts of non-reciprocation of refusing to supply a request of a match, of passing by in a car in the rain, and, say, breaking the informal ‘grape vine’, a powerful source of group solidarity despite its notorious unreliability. Such reciprocation exchanges occur in all universities too and are fully explained by reciprocation theory, without cluttering them with being “a sort of communism”.

Dr Graeber recognises that people “always behave in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than others” (p 99), a conclusion well known the observers of reciprocation relationships. That is what cements the relationships. Chimpanzees, studies show, groom in 2-3 hour sessions those who hold dominance ranks above them or are dependent (children and mothers) on them. In addition, some chimps have non-dominance, non-sexual relationships with other chimps based solely on reciprocation relationships, and pointedly shun those who have not reciprocated a grooming session from them in the past. Robin Dunbar, (Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language, 2004, 2nd ed. Faber) called this ‘social grooming’, and suggested as much as 42 per cent of a chimps time was spent on it. He suggested there were parallels in human gossiping circles. Its trigger was not an inherent communism, which, if significant enough to be a “main moral principle” of “economic relationships” in Dr Graeber’s new theory, it is a very partial one, given he admits we do not (never) know “what people are thinking”. We most certainly don’t, compounded by the unreliability of what people say about their hidden thinking.

In my practical fieldwork of humans negotiating, I found, and taught, that what people do is of greater significance than what they say. You cannot easily hide what you do with the people interacting with you. If you can, “you’re a better man than me Gunga Din” (Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads). Deception is almost an art form in ‘that insidious and crafty animal, vulgarly called a statesman or politician’ (Adam Smith, WN IV.ii.39 468), and projecting onto people one’s own ‘theories’ of why they behave in a certain manner is most pronounced in modern high-economic neo-classical rational micro-theory and, I must say, in Graeber’s ‘new theory’ of communism too in human relationships. Chimpanzees (‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’) and humans (‘one good turn deserves another’) demonstrate the consequence of completing reciprocated exchanges, and the consequence of breaching such exchanges by non-reciprocation. It also explains why the “spirit of solidarity” is selective – breaches in reciprocation – and why there are moral failures at the personal level, as well as with most, if not all, outsiders.

Dr Graeber asserts that he knows differently and that my point above is “only reciprocity in the broadest sense”, quoting Marshall Salins (Stone Age Economics, 1972) that “all accounts will eventually balance out”, and Marcel Mauss (1924, The Gift) with his theory of “alternating reciprocity” (my copies of both books are not to hand). But such explanations are more a hope than an experience. They fit with Dr Graeber’s concepts of
“balance” in trading relationships, derived from his ideas of ‘exchange is all about equivalence” (p103), that bargainers “try to seek the maximum material advantage”, by “comparing the value of two objects” (though he admits that “in practice this is rarely true”, p 103) and admits that there “has to be some minimal element of trust” (though on page 74 he says that in “competitive markets, trust become a scarce commodity”), yet billions upon billions of traded exchanges occur daily.

Dr Gaeber swings about with dubious generalisations (and interesting but difficult to judge anecdotes from his and other anthropologist’s field experiences) that suggest to me that he might have a distant acquaintance with the real world of both commercial and inter-personal exchanges. However, I do agree with him broadly that “standard economic theory” (and his clear summary of it p114) cannot explain the real world (p105). I am not a known defender neo-classical economics on Lost Legacy. Adam Smith did not analyse markets mathematically, he wrote of real people confronting different problems in reaching the same solution, and for him this has posed a problem for his legacy. Most readers of his books read them with the modern paradigms of economics refracting Smith’s sentences into that they are not saying.

Briefly, one person’s self-interest is not exactly of the same content as that in the minds of other people. Our self-interests may be different. I may want to invest in the home market; you may prefer to invest abroad; I may be seeking a sale to realise cash, you may want to add to future income; I may consider my best interests are served by selling to anybody; you may refuse to treat with foreigners, Muslims or Jews. To say that we maximise our ‘self-interests’ cannot be said to be of exactly the same content. Your self-interest prefers tariffs to operate; I may prefer absolutely free trade. Our self- interests may be in conflict - employers or government may conceive of different self-interests to their employees.

Moreover, ‘equivalents’ in Dr Graeber’s vocabulary may be meaningless. To seek for ‘equivalence” – you gain what I lose – is a nonsense, convenient for transforming into mathematics or arithmetic, but meaningless in the real world. Both parties can perceive their agreement in entirely different dimensions. I figure I am much better off than before the trade (it enables me to do ‘X’) and you can simultaneously believe that you are much better of with the deal than you would be without it. The price is common, but the same price means different things in the consequences that follow for both parties. The seller reaches her quarterly sales target at that price; the buyer can afford a better holiday at that price. Why? Because there are ranges of possible prices open to each party (it’s good advice to think in ranges and not absolutely rigid invariable demands). Hence, never accept the first offer – test it, there may be a better deal in the hidden range open to the other party but not yet disclosed. It is surprising to see that Dr Graeber sometimes agrees and sometimes disagrees with these fundamentals such (there are other examples) ‘equivalence’ and ‘maximum material advantage’ on p102 versus ‘relative value impossible to quantify’ and ‘no way to even conceive of a squaring of accounts’ on p 112.

I finished chapter 5 unconvinced of Dr Graeber’s completely new theory. He is an interesting and entertaining writer with lots to say on his suggestions of communism, hierarchy, and exchange, but his book, so far is full of propositions of doubtful weight (from what I know of anthropology, economics, both Adam Smith’s moral political economy and the modern neo-classical synthesis, and my experience of the panorama of life.

There are six chapters to go, I look forward to reading what else he has got in store for readers.

[Next post: Part 6: 'Games with sex and death’.]



Blogger ginsbu said...

What happened to part four?

Enjoying the review!

4:59 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...


Oops! I got home late last night (Thursday) from a grandson's birthday party and forgot to poast Part Four.

Thanks for spotting this. I have now posted Part Four above Part Five.


9:34 pm  

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