graeber book forum part 3: the attack on economics continues

Part 1 & 2.

In the last installment of this book forum, I argued that Debt could be read as an attack on the functionalist view of money, which in turn, I think, is an indirect argument on the current state of economics. In this installment, I’ll delve into the middle section of the book, which can be read as another critique of contemporary economic history and theory.

The crux of Debt is a historical review of the origins of money and credit. The big empirical claim is that barter does not exist in most societies, so money can’t be seen as a naturally evolved institution that solves the problem of barter. The next claim that Graeber makes in the middle of Debt is that there is a very important difference between monetized economies and what he called “human economies,”  and that very bad things happen when the two mix. Money is the catalyst for these bad things.

Let’s move on the key distinction in the middle of the book. Graeber views “human economies” as social institutions where people (and objects) are unique and strongly embedded in a web of social relations. Even when money is used, it’s more as a symbol of an obligation or relationship that can’t be payed. It’s not a literal exchange. In contrast, commercial economies are based on using money to exchange impersonal goods that are interchangeable.

In reviewing historical accounts of servitude, slavery, and other forms of domination, Graeber describes how people in human economies become dominated when the come into contact with commercial economies. Essentially what happens is that people participate in spiraling debt traps, which often end up with people pawning themselves and their families in order to seek status, or to pay off “debts” created through violence. Money is what allows people to willingly subjugate themselves to others. Graeber describes this in detail for the Atlantic slave trade and suggests that a similar processes occur in other regions where symbolic debt economies mix up with monetized economies (e.g., Southeast Asian hill people contacting monetized Asian kingdoms).

As you can imagine, Graber (p. 210) makes a striking claim at the end of this section of the book where he claims that modern life is essentially willful subjugation based on a hidden system of violence:

Formal slavery has been eliminated, but (as anyone who works from nine to five can testify) the idea that you can alienate your liberty, at least temporarily, endures. In fact, it determines what most of us have to do for most of our waking hours, except, usually, on weekends. The violence has been largely pushed out of sight. But this is largely because we’re no longer able to imagine what a world based on social arrangements that did not require the continual threat of tasers and surveillance cameras would even look like.

If one were to accept Graeber’s thesis, then one must abandon the view that money is a functional requirement of the economy. Instead, it is a system of illusions that mask the violence that converted pre-modern people into docile modern subjects. Norbert Elias minus the salad fork, but with a credit card, if you will.

After the New Year: societies and debt cycles.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 29, 2011 at 5:37 am

Posted in economics, fabio

2 Responses

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  1. Enjoying this series, also added my own thoughts



    December 30, 2011 at 5:04 am

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