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And oh, why not, a review of "Debt" that's four years old | Wired Cola

And oh, why not, a review of "Debt" that's four years old

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[This came up because a certain professor invited me to read Graeber's article "Debt: The first 5000 years". I had done so in 2011; the article was published in 2009. I think my critique from 2011 holds up, so I'm publishing it here, lightly edited. I hope you will all look forward to my upcoming article, "Decorative Gardening: The First 5000 Years"]:

It's an interesting take, but I think the author suffers from Moore-Klein Syndrome: find coincidences, name them correlations, assume causation. And while an anthropologist's analysis of debt could be fascinating, I think this one is burdened by being written by an anthropologist.

More particularly, he seems to ignore that the Slavery Question is whether anyone can be regarded as someone else's personal property, and that slavery doesn't generate shocking property institutions, but rather that those institutions are shocking when used on a person.

The assertion that money didn't start as a means to improve liquidity is...challenging. His attempt to extract political structure from the "debt to society" metaphor is probably a false etymology, as if I claimed that the phrase "iron will" meant you didn't have anemia. Maybe there's some solid anthro research behind this theory of debt and society, but I detect the smell of the author just making things up.

Here's a particular passage that is the core of his argument:

The institution of wage labour, for instance, has historically emerged from within that of slavery (the earliest wage contracts we know of, from Greece to the Malay city states, were actually slave rentals), and it has also tended, historically, to be intimately tied to various forms of debt peonage – as indeed it remains today. The fact that we have cast such institutions in a language of freedom does not mean that what we now think of as economic freedom does not ultimately rest on a logic that has for most of human history been considered the very essence of slavery.

That's an enormous claim requiring a certain amount of evidence, I'd say. The existence of a non-enslaved professional class (that is, people whose daily bread was not grown or gathered by them, but rather bought or traded for their non-food-making skills) goes very far back. The current theory is the Egyptians had substantial non-slave, non-farmer skilled populations. Also, the "roots in slavery" argument effectively extends to everything except for farming and foraging. Mediterranean sailing? Rooted in slavery. Cities? Rooted in slavery. Greek civilization, and therefore democracy? Rooted in slavery. Pizza? Well, you get the idea. The long history of slavery (and the relatively short history of near-universal emancipation) mean every institution older than Mormonism is rooted in slavery, plus also rooted in murder, envy, metallurgy, decorative gardening, masonry...when you can make the same argument about all of these (and you'll love my "Decorative Gardening: The First 5000 Years" article), it's reductio'd ad absurdum.

Also, how he mentioned the Spanish conquest of the Americas and their extraction of precious metal without noting the disruptive amount of inflation they caused is beyond me.

A devout economist would generally regard the existence of debt as an escape from various liquidity problems, most commonly the problem of insufficient trading currency, be it cowrie beads, cows, coins, or bullion. Paper bills and fiat currency may be a radical extension of simpler instruments like debt, loans, and scrip, but the problem being solved is similar (and I don't submit that any of those solutions are THE ONE TRUE SOLUTION to non-intrinsic trading medium dilemmas, but they're all plausible and in use).


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