DAVID GRAEBER, “DEBT: THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS”, MELVILLE HOUSE PUBLISHING, NEW YORK, 2011. Part Six.
[My analytical ‘reviews’ of David Graeber’s book, as I read through it, are my initial responses, , more like notes from a first reading that I would make when working in a library on a subject’s literature for a research project. Here, my draft notes are made with a view to summarizing them into a considered appraisal of the book’s merits.
I shall continue to publish my draft conclusions for those who have not yet read the book. For those who are too busy to read my notes in their present form, I shall present a summary review later. My initial comments are subject, where necessary, to re-drafting, excision and elaboration. Any comments, etc., may be posted as usual, or, as some have done already, sent to me privately. Of course, should Dr Graeber wish to exercise a right to reply to the final review, it shall be published on Lost Legacy without my editing, as a matter of scholarly manners
Chapter six: “Games with sex and death”, reveals much of the millennia-old institutional rape, slavery, and death, in what Dr Graeber calls the “human economy”, from, we should note, long before more recent commercial markets replaced them. Travellers’ observations from the 18th century, and intensive anthropological, archaeological and sociological research on a more scientific basis from about the mid-19th century, funded it should be noted by the rise and spread of commercial economies, revealed their true nature, somewhat massaged by Dr Graeber’s ‘completely new theory’.
Characteristically, Dr Graeber has a dig at the alleged economists’ insistence that ‘barter’ was ”the innocent exchange of arrows for tepee frames, with no one in a position to rape, humiliate, or torture anyone else” (p 126). This is pure rhetoric at the cartoon level, stopping just short of saying that ‘economists’ knew about what they allegedly hid from view, and therefore, are somehow implicated in it. I note here that Adam Smith relied on French travellers’ accounts of North American native settlements, such as P. F. Charlevoix (1722) and J.F. Lafitau (1735), and that he made use of what was available to him, writing in his mother’s house and garden in Kirkcaldy without access to a university library (he had returned from France in 1767 , three years after he had left Glasgow University). Dr Graeber, and modern anthropologists, have access to large libraries of the detailed work of thousands of researchers since the 18oos, and to ever-expanding Internet resources only a click away and with shelves groaning with the weight of books, specialist periodicals and monographs. They also have access to funds to fly thousand of miles quickly (it took up the three weeks to travel from Edinburgh to London in the earyl 18th century) and safely (health and security wise) to and from their subject’s research sites. He describes modern economists as being “touchingly utopian” for not being familiar with the work of anthropology; fair enough, though I didn’t get far very in this chapter without noting Dr Graeber’s own “touchingly utopian” approach to what he reports, as if the institutional mass rapes and the bondage of women, common in the ‘traditional societies’ he describes, is excused by the cultural traditions he describes or the mores of something he calls the ‘human economy’. When Adam Smith wrote of rapine by European armies at war, he in no way hid or excused it, nor was he silent of the depredations of “merchants and manufacturers”, “rich and unfeeling landlords”, nor the crass policy limitations of legislatures and those who influenced them, in his published works. His most well known sympathisers suffered the attentions of the authorities after Smith died in 1790, particularly in 1793-4 in a bout of repressions by judicial authorities, following the outbreak of revolutionary terror in France - see Dugald Stewart’s biography for his treatment after he read his eulogy to Adam Smith to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 28 January and 16 March 1793.
People in societies in ‘Human Economy’ apparently “used one another as currency”, but “its hard to say more because the history remains largely unwritten” (p 128). If that is true, surely Dr Graeber in 2011 ought to be a little less strident in his contempt for Adam Smith for being as unsure in the 1770s about, not just ‘history’ being absolutely unwritten, but also because the because the very subject of anthropology in his days was entirely unknown.
He writes, strangely, that: “sexual exploitation was at best incidental (usually illegal, sometimes practised anyway, symbolically important). Again, once we remove some of our usual blinders, we can see that matters have changed far less, over the course of the last five thousand year or so, than we really like to think” (p 129)! In this chapter, it seems to me that Dr Graeber demonstrates his own blinders when he describes “primitive money”, which is “used almost exclusively for the kinds of transaction that economists don’t like to have to talk about” (p 129-30). Really? While modern neo-classical economists don’t even “like to talk”, recruit, or award tenure about the history of economic thought they, and Dr Graeber, repeat the myths they invented about Adam Smith. Many economists also research into economic history and the means by which people have transacted with each other.
Indeed, as Dr Graeber’s account of “primitive money” exchange transactions shows, he is blind to the nature of these exchange transactions, the common denominator of which, in his “human economy”, is the institutionalisation of the licensed rape of women and the disposal of children over many cultures and through many millennia, wrapped in male-invented superstitions, so-called magic, and religion. Far from eliminating exchange relationships, Dr Graeber's formalised theories of “human economies” are obfuscated by “quite ingenious” (p 131) theories, sometimes wrapped in jargon. He argues that passing over a token for a wife was not buying her to effect a transfer, (p.131), despite the sexual access and time honoured burden of labour services the transfer sanctioned. He says it was a rearrangement of “relations between people” (p 131) and is, he writes, “if buying anything, it’s the right to call her offspring his own” or, was the “purchase of the future fertility of her womb”. According to Philippe Rospabe , it “is not Payment” (1993, “Don Archaique et Monnoaie Sauvage
”; it is, instead, “an acknowledgment that one is asking for something so uniquely valuable that payment of any sort would be impossible: (p.131-2). That’s all right then! Except that affecting a transfer of something, anything, valuable in some sense to the men involved, secures the transfer, without which there would be no transfer. That activity in any language is a transfer by exchange. Empty jargon about “non-equivalents” convinces only those who are blinded by it.
Similar tales of non-exchange transfer are taken up in the following pages after clear, not just symbolic, payments in various “complex systems”, including paid-for “marriage” by transferring sisters (p. 132), the “swapping and trading of “wards”, a.k.a. bondage relationships (p.132) among men, that is, exchanging human beings for “bundles of brass rods”, which rods are only allowed to be held by men,’ (p. 132), paying compensation for a man’s adultery (to men, not to women) with “raffia-palm cloth” (137), “hierarchical gifts” to elders (p. 138), “camwood bars” as gifts exchanged in marriage negotiations among men, the women are not involved (p. 138), compensation to men for a woman’s adultery (assumed to have occurred by superstition, or a death-bed confession), if she died in childbirth (p.138), or if a male “sorcerer” identified culprits “divination” after sickness For slipping and falling from trees (p.139), young women become “wards” or “pawns”, and any children they have “in payment of blood-debts” (p.139), the “constant game of securing or redeeming pawns” to “transfer rights in women” among men (p 139). Dr Graeber notes (eventually) that what is “being traded were, quite specifically, human lives”, such as a sister or a “different woman, a pawn he had acquired from someone else” (p. 140), specifically a “young woman’s life”. He quotes Mary Douglas (1963. ‘The Lele of Kasa
i’, Oxford University Press) as “one gigantic apparatus for asserting male control over women” (only men could own pawns), (p. 140)! But no. Not even after this, what were explicit exchanges of ‘A’ for ‘B’ – something given for omething that is received - Dr Graeber insists this is not within the realm of Adam Smith’s ancient propensity for exchange. However, whatever else is alleged to going on in all of the events that he highlights in his “new theory” as examples there is an exchange of things that maybe not very valuable in themselves (however measured), but of immense exchangeable value (the ratio of what is given for what is received) to those men who can exercise these exchanges of women with them. Exchange for Adam Smith was not necessarily about the exchange of “equivalents” (whatever than means).
Summarising these culturally derived customs, some anthropologists have divided “economic life” into “three spheres of exchange’: ordinary everyday economic activity, mostly the affair of women in “village markets”; transactions using “local currency” (cloth and brass rods) for acquiring “certain flashy and luxurious things” like “cows, and foreign wives”, but mainly for the “give and take of political affairs, hiring curers, acquiring magic, initiation into cult societies” (p. 146) and to acquire universal “rights in women”. Dr Graeber introduces an account of suspected “cannibalism” among these gruesome rituals (gently put as “consuming human flesh”, or ‘pretending to do so”, p. 147-9).He moves on to discuss the Atlantic slave trade in detail, which, of course, for Dr Greaber, is a consequence of human economies (a strange adjective in view of the inhuman horrors described in his account of them) coming “into contact with commercial ones” and, particularly, “commercial economies with advanced military technology and an insatiable demand for human labour” (p. 155). I note from the index that Dr Graeber discusses aspects of the millennia-old African slave trade with the Arab low-tech commercial economies later in the book (so I shall return to it later).
On the African cases he discusses in detail in Chapter 6, in what he calls the “human economy”, which developed over time into incredibly socially complex “exchange systems”, showing us that talented anthropologists have studied them in depth. But he insists these exchange systems are not in any way versions of exchange as understood in sense of Adam Smith’s exchange theory (the propensity that has been basic to human beings since the evolution in early humans of “the faculties of reason and speech” (WN I.ii.2. 26). Of course, if Dr Graeber recoils from the ideas, models and theories of neo-classical economics as taught today, I am not surprised that he came to that conclusion, but he is, however, charging at windmills believing they are really made out of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy and political economy. They were not, and are not, because these windmills bear little real resemblance to the ideas of Adam Smith, as I have tried to argue since I first read an account of Dr Graeber’s thesis and I continue to do so as I read his considered account of the issues at stake. We do not understand the same things about the Adam Smith born in Kirkcaldy in 1723 because Dr Graeber is enamoured with the fantasy Chicago Adam Smith.
Partly, this clash of two visions of Adam Smith is based on Dr Graeber’s notion of the absolute necessity for “equivalence” on both side’s of transactions for the exchange of anything, which certainly can be taken from modern textbooks on economics (marginal utility), but not from Adam Smith’s legacy. This fact is disruptive of Dr Graeber’s thesis; he needs an “equivalence theory” to make his debt theories work and to rubbish Adam Smith’s concept of exchange in the famous identification of ‘truck, barter, and exchange” in Wealth Of Nations (WN I.ii.1: p 25). Dr Graeber sees “truck and barter” and asserts that “exchange” therefore only means “commercial trade and capitalist markets” (Karl Polanyi’s error too). First of all, ‘truck and barter”, as shown earlier in my review of his book, is about exchange by bargaining – something for something - which is why the word “exchange’ was included by Adam Smith. Second, exchange is not necessarily about money either; it can be about money and it can be about anything at all that can be exchanged. The bronze age-authors of the Bible knew about exchange, for in Genesis the exchange with Adam and Eve was to refrain from eating from the tree knowledge in exchange for and for not know of “good and evil”, and death. Meanwhile, they could live in the Eden Garden, “work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2. 13). According to the fable, they ate from the tree and were expelled and, in consequence both knew of good and evil, and death. There were no “equivalents” in that transaction! And nothing changed about the meaning of exchange for 200,000 years, assuming of course, that only humans among primates and other animals consciously exchange ‘things’, tangible and non-tangible.
In Adam Smith’s essay on the origin of languages, he conjectures about the necessary steps by which a language would be developed by two ‘savages’ who, for simplicity, did not speak any language and were “bread up remote from the societies of men” (A. Smith, “Considerations Concerning the First Formation of Languages”, 1761, I.1; often published with Moral Sentiments). They would naturally begin to form that language by which they would endeavour to make their mutual wants intelligible to each other by uttering certain sounds”. Smith examined the process by which they would likely move from ‘nouns’ through to adjectives and verbs, to grammar, and so on. This process, he surmises, involved their mutual agreement, and that implies the exchange of specific sounds, as they mutually progressed towards a commonly understood language. Dugald Stewart, a family friend for many years and therefore with regular access to Smith’s private thoughts, remarked in his eulogy in 1793, of the methods by which Smith constructed his philosophy: “Something very similar to [his method in the Language essay] may be traced in all his different works, whether moral, political, or literary…” (Dugald Stewart, Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith
, 1793, II.44: p 292). No money was involved in their mutual agreed exchanges and it had nothing to do with commerce. Adam Smith was never so narrow in his concept of “truck, barter, and exchange” as Dr Graeber, and most modern economists he despises so much. As a student of Adam Smith’s works, and absent Dr Graeber’s blinders, I consider him, modestly, to be wrong).
Labels: David Graeber Review