Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Review Part Seven Of Dr David Graeber’s “5,000 Years of Debt”

Part Seven

Dr Graeber summarises Chapter 6 (“Games with Sex and Violence”) in Chapter 7 (“Honor and Degradation”), and asserts that “human economies, with their social currencies – which are used to measure, assess and maintain relationships between people, and only perhaps incidentally to acquire material goods – might be transformed into something else”. However, “we cannot begin to think about such things, without taking into account the role of sheer physical violence” (p 165). Indeed, such “Human” Economies practise violence at their core and their periphery. They are quite barbaric and not given to “sweetness and light”. They are not paragons of virtuous societies.

Mostly, his accounts show that men practise “sheer physical violence” in their social institutions against women. Predominantly, this violence was an internal phenomenon from within the so-called “human economies” and it was practised in numerous cultures (for want of a better word) in them over many millennia. The “African slave trade ”, which, writes Dr Graeber, was characterised by its “very brutality”, was “imposed from outside” of the Human Economies. We know this in great detail from the written records and public debate in European and North American legislatures, a source that was not so well documented in the Human Economies where slavery was practised widely in all historical regimes in Europe, the Near East, the Mediterranean, Central Asia, and China. One main difference between millennia-long classical institutional slavery across the globe and the Atlantic trade, noted by Dr Graeber, was the “suddenness” by which the Atlantic slave trade was imposed on tropical Africa (and, incidentally, lasted over a couple of centuries, not millennia. This short, but for the individual victim life-long and a dreadful event, compared we should note to the agonies of slavery practised in “Human Economies” for millennia, is not noted by Dr Graeber, as if he believes that it was a necessary characteristic of market economies only; it wasn’t. The implication, sometimes hinted at by Dr Graeber, is that he believes that historically, commerce in markets, is a uniquely immoral and brutalising phenomenon. This is a bold (even reckless) implication, given the long list of rival candidates throughout history that remain much better qualified for such a negative accolade, among which I suggest must be what Dr Graeber designates, ironically, as the “Human” Economies.

As Dr Graeber moves through his thesis (still worth reading for its coverage of anthropological literature, not normally accessed by most economists), he opens discussions of slavery as an export along, with “goods, cattle and people” in Ireland from “600 AD (CE)” (p 171). “Money”, he writes, “was employed almost exclusively for social purposes: gifts; fees to craftsmen, doctors, poets, judges, and entertainers, [and] various feudal payments" (p 172). Once again, this is clear evidence of exchange, in a Smithian sense, occurring across the social fabric – giving something to get something in return, whatever their respective “values” (which “value” would only be of interest to neoclassical and Marxist economists). Exchange in Smith’s sense is not recognised by Dr Graeber, in order, I suggest, to keep the conceptual integrity of his claimed Human Economy intact, despite the scattered evidence from his own accounts of exchange occurring when no “money” was involved. However, he is compelled to observe of the Irish “social” exchanges, that they were, “albeit in the sort of unwieldy arrangement that markets later developed to get round” (p 172). It was the “unwieldy arrangements”, not their cause, by which monetary markets resolved them. Whether Smith was correct of the existing problem being universal ‘barter’, he was correct about the improvements from resolving them. Smith was not conversant with the anthropological record (no surprise, neither was anybody else).

From page 176, Dr Graeber treats readers to a discussion of the “Origins of Patriarchy” covering, what amount to ‘Honour Killings’ (sadly, too often regular news items in the British press of events happening even today). Historically, says Dr Graeber, “war, states, and markets all tend to feed off one another”, and it was in “Mesopotamia” where an “explosion of debt” threatened to turn all human relations – and by extension, women’s bodies – into potential commodities” (p. 179). Yet in chapter 6, his account shows that human relations in his “Human Economy” achieved the miserable low status of “women’s bodies” independently in Africa without “states and markets”, nor anything remotely resembling the mobilisation of men into standing, or semi-standing, armies of Mesopotamian Sumerian societies (3,500-800 BCE).

In Irish and nearby Scottish societies at the time, from 3000 to 2,000 BCE (BC), “war” was more like small raiding parties, and continued for long enough when Norse and Viking invaders from outside swept in small raiding parties across their territories, well into the early centuries of the first millennium. Women were also the prime victims, if they were not killed, along with their men folk and children, they were often transported across the Irish Sea in like manner to the Atlantic slave trade millennia later. Modern DNA analysis of Irish and Scottish populations show interesting genetic markers of their distant origins, and some surprising evidence of unexpected sexual contacts by Irish male slaves with the wives of the raiders, c.1200 years ago Those Viking or Norse women, who quietly bore Irish children, were almost certainly vulnerable to a death sentence if caught by their, perhaps unsuspecting, men folk.

Dr Graeber’s account of the emergence of coins in Ancient Greece is interesting, linked to Greek Philosophy, the Homeric world, and moral debates (Plato, etc.,). He notes, of course, that there was an “omnipresent danger of predatory violence that reduces human being to commodities” (p 194) and to “encourage the very worst sorts of behaviour” (compared to what and where?).

Two factors might be important in these territories - changing ideas of social relations and literacy, both of which once started, their consequences continued to change the European world, when wedded to science and innovation, spreading eventually to the whole world (Western Philosophy was based largely on the Classics – Scottish university faculty wrote and lectured in Latin up to the 18th-19th centuries. Despite the succession of empires, with large populations, devastating wars and social breakdowns, the modern world began to emerge in the 18th century. The fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century stalled European civilisation until the c.15th century. Meanwhile, despite the stunning advances in knowledge and technology in China and India (and in the early centuries from the spread of settled Islam), their potentiality as rival forerunners of a market-driven industrialisation sank into stagnation until the late 20th century, not helped by disastrous experiments in communism.

Much of what Dr Graeber considers to have been retrograde steps in moral standards is wrapped around his notions of debt as the key determinant of the world’s misery.

His conclusions to the three chapters covered so far in my notes (pp 207-10) open with another swipe at Adam Smith: “we seem” he writes, “to be trapped between imagining society in the Adam Smith mode, as a collection of individuals whose only significant relations are with their own possessions, happily bartering one thing for another for the sake of mutual convenience, with debt almost abolished from the picture, and a vision in which debt is everything, the very substance of all human relations – which of course leaves everyone with the uncomfortable sense that human relations are somehow an intrinsically tawdry business, that our very responsibilities to one another are already somehow based on sin and crime. It is not a very appealing set of alternatives” (p 207). I am not sure what Dr Graeber means in this paragraph, nor do I recognise the Adam Smith of Moral Sentiments (1759), where he mocks the “poor man’s son” who is “visited by ambition” and “admires the conditions of the rich”, and is determined to emulate them to become rich in possessions whatever the costs (“trifling conveniences”, Smith calls these possessions). The dreadful consequences on his life are that he exposes himself to “anxiety, to fear, and to sorrow” and finally to “diseases, to danger, and to death”, all in pursuit of a “splenetic philosophy of no great value and certainly never to be described as “necessary for happiness” (TMS IV.1.8: pp 181-3). Typically, Smith notes that the misguided actions of such people can have unintended beneficial effects on society’s progress to opulence (TMS IV.1.9 and 10: pp 183-5) though he does not think much of the moral sense.

Amazingly, Dr Graeber explains why he “developed the concept of human economies: ones in what is considered really important about human beings is the fact that they are each such a unique nexus of relations with others’ in that “no one could ever be considered exactly equal to anything or anyone else”, adding that in a human economy, money is not a way of buying and trading human beings, but a way of expressing just how much one cannot do so” (p 208). This paragraph is of truly Orwellian proportions, much like Stalin's rule in Russia.

He admits to describing societies in which men disproportionally dominate women, and use violence to exchange them and their children to each other in marriages, and in payments to their husbands or fathers for debts in exchange for ‘tawdry” (by any definition) pieces of cloth, given by men a believed by men but otherwise meaningless magical property and “brass rods”. Among insiders their made-up, but convenient beliefs, suit the beneficiaries, the rapists (the women remain silent during their, perhaps life-long ordeal or too old the be sexually useful; they don’t have a voice in these ‘human’ economies – that are already living artifacts, disposed of at men’s will and fancy, and moved around like today’s sex traffickers).

Later, they were transferred to outsiders to suit personal preferences in who should go and who should stay in local chains of violent conspiracies of brutal kidnapping. This Human Economy is also claimed to have existed in Ireland, Scotland and much of England, in the wake of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, and Norman invaders, as well as long periods of Norse and Viking, raiders from their many settlements. Later in the second millennium, the Atlantic slave trade devastated swathes of tropical Africa, aided and abetted, so to speak, by compliant men in Human economies. That some anthropologists have uncovered in all these internal and external depredations “a unique nexus of relations with others” enshrined by the principle “no one could ever be considered exactly equal to anything or anyone else” (to which weird notion I shall return in following reviews) is one way of describing a situation with all the subtlety of making something mean whatever an author wants it to mean in well-documented (except possibly in their Celtic fringes) hierarchical societies.



Post a Comment

<< Home