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book forum fall 2011: debt, the first 5000 years by david graeber

Starting on November 1, I’ll do a discussion on Debt by David Graeber. Here’s an interview with the author.

Written by fabiorojas

September 2, 2011 at 12:09 am

Posted in books, economics, fabio

the one where fabio gets into a twitter argument with david graeber

On Saturday, Liberationtech tweeted the post I wrote about Occupy Wall Street and its organizational tactics. This led to a direct exchange between David “The Debt” Graeber and myself. The thread touched on an number of topics, but we seemed to get stuck on the issue of impression management.

One commenter, Brett Fujioka, pointed out that open structures, like OWS, allow kooks to associate themselves with the movement. He used the extreme (but real) example of when David Duke openly praised Occupy Wall Street. This could damage OWS’ reputation. Even though the example is skewed, one could point less extreme examples of where openness can lead to damaging the brand. For example, there was a series of Occupy events in Oakland that resulted in vandalism at city  hall. Due to its open structure, it is not easy to dissociate oneself from such actions.

When I raised the issues of branding, David said that just by using the word he knew all he needed to know about me. I was impressed by his ability to treat a 140 character tweet like a zip file. Then he said he couldn’t believe he was even having this conversation. I said, “yet, here we are.” He then told me that this conversation was over… and then he tweeted me again. The Graebs lives up to his reputation.

Anyway, my overall point is that social movements vary a great deal in their internal organization. Despite what Dave-G said, some “real democratic” movements actually spent a great deal of time making sure they had the right image or brand. The civil rights movement was notoriously obsessed with image. Perhaps OWS is really a movement that eschews any connection at all with the mainstream. But lots of other successful and important movements rely on external help, which is one of the core lessons of modern movement research. And to do that, you have to be careful about how the outside world sees you.

UPDATE: W. Winecoff notes on twitter that “Occupy Wall Street” is a brand and “99%” is a slogan. Man, what we think of after the argument is over!

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Written by fabiorojas

December 3, 2013 at 2:50 am

Posted in fabio, social movements

democracy and direct action according to David Graeber

For those of us who wish to consider the implications of recent worldwide events, three of anthropologist David Graeber‘s books offer a deeper understanding of relatively unfamiliar organizing practices and their relationship with democracy:

(1) Direct Action: An Ethnography (2009, AK Press)

(2) Revolution in Reverse (or, on the conflict between political ontologies of violence and political
ontologies of the imagination)

(3) The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (2013, Random House)

Fabio’s previous posts covered one of Graeber’s most famous books Debt. For those of us who teach and practice orgtheory, Graeber’s work on direct action and criticisms of bureaucracy offer much-needed insight into how collectivities can gel in taking action. In particular, his in-depth account of how groups make decisions by consensus offers rich examples that can help students and practitioners understand the steps involved, as well as the pitfalls and benefits of these alternatives to topdown orders. (Other examples in the research literature include Francesca Polletta’s research on SDS and my own work on Burning Man – see chapter 3 of Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event).

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Written by katherinechen

June 21, 2013 at 7:00 pm

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

graeber book forum: part 1

Department store clerks hate me. When I buy something, they try to sign me up for a credit card and I refuse. If they press, I get difficult. Press too much and I snap: “No! Credit cards are the work of the devil!!!” The clerks are speechless. For years, I thought I was alone in my religious hatred of debt … but there is another  …


This semester’s book forum is dedicated to “Debt – the First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber. If you follow social theory, you may know Graeber as the author of Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. He’s also an outstanding anthropologist, having written the highly lauded Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value. He’s also recently drawn attention as an inspiration and organization for many Occupy events.

Debt is Graeber’s latest book. I think it is to be taken seriously because it offers a number of claims that are very important to consider. This will post will lay them out:

1. Exchange is carried out in non-industrial societies in terms of a debt economy. Barter does not exist in most social situations.

2. Therefore, the classical economic explanation of the origins of money is wrong. This is not merely a mistake of intellectual history, it undermines much of the foundations of neo-classical economics.

3. In fact, debt comes first and then money is used to formalize debt. It is not the case that money precedes credit.

4. Debt is used as a mechanism of social control.

5. Societies have debt/credit cycles that lead to severe social economic crises, which often result in catastrophic resolutions.

As you can see, this book is ambitious. It is nothing less than an attempt to completely undermine the traditional view of credit and debt as normal and functional features of the market economy. Over the next few weeks, we’ll get into these arguments in some detail.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2011 at 12:02 am

Posted in books, fabio, just theory

david graeber book forum

Update: Someone just helped out with a few sample chapters. Thanks!

The book forum on “Debt” will start on Dec 1. However, it seems that book distributors are out of copies and none will be ready by Dec 1. I have an order at Boxcar Books, Bloomington’s local non-profit bookstore co-op. Any chance someone can send me a PDF of the first few chapters or loan me a physical copy of the book to tide me over? I’d be in your debt. :)

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Written by fabiorojas

November 25, 2011 at 12:03 am

Posted in bleg, books, fabio

fall book forum 2013?

Please use the comments to suggest a text for our next book forum. Recent forums: Biernacki’s Reevaluating Evidence, Glaeser’s Political Epistemics, Jenn Lena’s Banding Together, David Graeber’s Debt.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 27, 2013 at 12:40 am

Posted in books, fabio

spring book forum 2013

Written by fabiorojas

February 15, 2013 at 12:20 am

Posted in books, fabio

Beyond Nuance

As many of the contributors to this series will remember, the late Marvin Bressler used to amuse the Princeton grad students with such jokes as saying that all job talk questions were special cases of two general questions: “But, is it really so simple?” or “But, is it really so complicated?” In Kieran’s contribution to this forum he notes that relational work scholarship runs the risk of devolving into an endless series of works that basically ask the first question of a strawman other (be they a garden variety economist, a behavioral economist, an embeddedness/networks economic sociologist, or whatever). A lot of this work ends up basically saying, when you dig into the details of social life you see how it’s all so much richer and more nuanced than it first appears. Much like thick description or history, this can be fascinating when applied by a talented researcher to an interesting case, but in less felicitous circumstances quickly degrades into one damn thing after another. Even under the best circumstances though it’s hard to see how the “is it really so simple” research question builds up to a distinct theoretical perspective rather than a sort of atheoretical empiricism with nihilism towards the idea of theory-building and general mechanisms.

For some people such theoretical nihilism is satisfactory, as the whole point is building a Philippic against the reductionist other. However, as Kieran argues, this isn’t relational work at its best and he draws attention to work by Zelizer herself, Almeling, and Quinn that plays up the institutional and organizational context in which relational work is performed. I fully agree that it is important to treat such contexts as structured ones, and not merely places where tacit understandings are made explicit and documented for the convenience of sociologists who later on dig through case law or other bureaucratic records. Understanding how such contexts shape relational work provides an opportunity for positive contribution by the school rather than just critique of others.

In addition to the institutional context which many of us already do a good job of taking seriously, I think we need to take seriously the idea that relational work can be categorized and schematized. This is the first step to identifying more or less consistent patterns and contingencies in how relational work is applied. That is, going from a (valuable) sensitizing concept to an articulated theory.

In the last few years Zelizer has taken the lead in this issue with the concept of circuits: who exchanges what with whom for what else. This is an important step, but for the most part it remains a sensitizing concept, encouraging us to identify and document circuits where they occur and identify patterns among them. Fortunately, one of our sister disciplines has a long tradition of work closely parallel to circuits and has developed some sophisticated theories for understanding these issues.

Anthropology has been seriously into issues that closely parallel relational work but we don’t cite them very much and are the poorer for it. Now, perhaps I am confessing nothing of more general interest than my own ignorance. Still, I have to confess that to the best of my recollection I never encountered this literature in any of my undergraduate or graduate coursework and until recently I was mostly ignorant of it and so I suspect that my experience is not entirely unique. Likewise I seldom see this work cited in relational work publications (here’s an exception). Fortunately a few things came together for me (a deliberately thin quantitative project provided me with a windfall finding about relational work in payola, a very well-written and much discussed ambitious and insightful book on the subject was published, and I started attending the relational models lab) and so I got interested in the anthro literature, much to my benefit.

Early versions of economic anthropology were much like relational work in that they were more a sensitizing concept or critique than an articulated positive theory with a typology of theoretical constructs and mechanisms for their interaction. So in his “Essay on the Gift” Mauss talks about all sorts of gift relationships but is mostly interested in sensitizing us to the contingent nature of market exchange. So while Mauss describes both peer and clientelist gifts he doesn’t really emphasize a schema distinguishing between them as the important thing is that gifts (of whatever variety) are not market exchange. In the 1950s anthro saw the development of a “spheres of exchange” model with publications like Bohannan’s work on the Tiv people. In this work, Bohannan describes three ordinal categories for objects, with exchange of objects within a category being much more acceptable than exchange across categories. So traditionally a Tiv could trade chickens for beans, slaves for brass rods, and brides for brides, but to trade brass rods for either beans or brides could be accomplished only with great difficulty and what we would call elaborate relational work. In Debt, Graeber surveys a wide range of similar cases and argues that such incommensurable exchanges are never really final, being possible only on an “it’s a purchase, not a rental” kind of basis in which the qualitatively inferior good can work to service debt but where the qualitatively superior principal can only be repaid in-kind.

The thing I find to have the most potential to move relational work forward is Alan Fiske’s relational models typology of communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.* You can and should follow the link to see what each of those terms covers, but for my purposes the really important point is that there is a typology. Moreover, the typology has a richly articulated set of contingencies and covariates and so it rises to the level of a theory rather than just a sensitizing concept. Of course we all here recognize the “market vs. else” dichotomy, but such a dichotomy accomplishes little more than facilitating a now tired critique of economics so as to pile up a mass of things beyond econ’s purview to serve as a sort of defensive fortifications against that discipline’s occasional imperialist adventurism. To build a positive theory of non-price-theory exchange requires not just treating it as the complement to the market, but disaggregating it into its constituent varieties and identifying systematic properties to these types. It is in this respect that we can move our own model forward by accepting the theoretical gifts of anthropology and reciprocating with citations.

* Note that in Debt Graeber has a closely parallel typology of “communism,” “hierarchy,” and [gift|market] “exchange.” As best as I can tell, Graeber and Fiske did not directly influence each other but rather they drew similar conclusions from a common research tradition.

Written by gabrielrossman

September 5, 2012 at 4:08 pm

graber book forum part 4 – a theory of global domination

Part 1, 2 and 3.

Finally, we arrive at the end of the book forum on David Graber’s Debt. Here, I’ll summarize the last section and then wrap up with a few comments and critiques.

1. Debt has a few main goals. First, it is an attack on the theory that money is a necessary economic institution. Second, Debt tries to persuade us that money actually embodies violent forms of domination and is used to create servitude.The third section provides nothing less than a world history, with money and currency as its focus.

Before I get to a few of the empirical claims, it is worth noting that Debt’s last chapter is nothing less than audacious. It is ambitious for someone to argue that the world’s majors institutions – states, religions – are made possible by currency. One might say this is a monetized history of the world.

Ok, so let’s get the bottom line. Graeber’s big claim is that world history, as it played out in Europe and Asia, can be viewed in three phases. An early phase occurs when currency is invented to manage large temples. This currency is then expropriated by states, used, and expanded for war fare. That leads to empires. The second phase is when this system of currency-minting and empire building comes to an end. The system collapses, old systems of debt and currency are wiped away. Then we get to modernity. Where currency comes back, states create massive systems of debt to finance development and make sure that people can get locked into the system of debt.

2. So, is world history just the story of debt slavery? I think a lot of sociologists might agree, given the popularity of Tilly’s argument that state making, taxes, and war go hand in hand. Also, I think that Graeber is likely correct that coinage was the social technology that made empire building possible, and even necessary for early European and Asian empires to continue growing.

There are other parts of the story that don’t add up for me. For example, Graeber argues that the Middle Ages weren’t as bad as one might imagine. Slavery was abolished and there was a general skepticism toward debt. True enough, but the European Middle Ages had other forms of domination and repression as well. The Middle Ages have positive traits, but I don’t think I’d imagine it as a mass liberation from the debt systems of antiquity.

Graeber tries to make everything is debt related. In the last chapter, he tries to tie every problem to debt. For example, he rightly notes that college debt is now extreme. But is that really due to the sorts of processes of state building and debt issuing that Graeber talks about? I agree with Graber’s ethical point – college debt is a form of peonage, but I disagree with the explanation. I’m more likely to note that college financing varies greatly and the extreme peonage we see today is not endemic. I’m more likely to ascribe it to certain recent public policies than the system of exploitation described by Graber.

3. What should we take away from Debt? A few lessons. First, we should be highly skeptical of functionalist explanations of economic institutions. Generalized reciprocity is the “natural” state of economic interaction, other institutions are deviations. Second, and Graeber is not unique in this, debt is sticky and exploitative. Third, debt makes possible wars and other nasty state behavior. Even if we were to argue over specific cases, or even the overall thrust of the book, there remains a lot of value.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 4, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Posted in books, economics, fabio

graber book forum part 2: the attack on neo-classical economics

Part 1.


I often teach the graduate course that introduces students to major themes of macro-sociology. I start off with rational choice theory, which, as you can imagine, triggers teeth grinding rage. I then ask students: “If people aren’t following their preferences, then what are they doing?” Answer: silence.

Of course, there are good answers to this question. Most economists, especially behavioral economists, would probably argue for a model that is close to rational choice, but includes biases. Sociologists often take this a step further and argue that people respond to social conventions, follow norms, heuristics, or employ cultural tool kits. The difference between the textbook rational choice model and what many sociologists believe lies not in the maximizing part of the model but in how individuals construct the options and judge alternatives.

I bring up this pedagogical example because contemporary economics is built on a number of simple assumptions that appear obvious and incontrovertible but can actually be successfully critiqued. The surface plausibility of standard economics is hard to argue with by novices, which is why first year graduate students often get stumped by the question I asked.

One important difference between economists and other social scientists lies in their willingness to entertain serious alternatives to the rational choice model. Psychologists are  so used to thinking about different models of decision making that they find the insistence on the rational choice model a bit puzzling.

The problem, however, is that for many routine social science questions, it is hard to articulate a simple alternative model that is easy to understand and can easily be the foundation for normal science. The rational choice model has handful of simple axioms, it’s easy to formalize, and easy to tweak.


So what does this have to do with David Graber’s book on this history of debt? Aside from being a radical criticism of debt, Graeber offers one of the few successful attacks on academic economic theory. He doesn’t attack the rational choice model directly. Rather, he, in my view, attacks one of the core ideas of economics that is tied to the rational choice model.

When you read the nitty gritty of economics, you often see the following jump. You start with a description of the rational choice axioms: people have options, rank them, and act upon them in a consistent way. The jump is this: money is the natural way that you should figure out what people prefer. Money is the natural expression of needs and the money economy is the natural resolution of the economic problem of distributing goods. Without money, you’d need to barter to pursue your own personal goals and that’s very inefficient.

The first chunk of Graeber’s book is a anthropological account of barter. Where does it exist?   Is it actually true that the money economy represents a solution to the problem of barter? Graeber claims that barter is actually exceedingly rare. According to him, barter makes little sense at all. Why pile up on specialized goods and wait for other people to pile up on what you want and then trade? That’s bizarre.

Instead, what happens in most non-monetized cultures is that people engage in generalized exchange. If you need X, Fred will give you X, but you (or someone else in the group) has to help Fred sometime later. Thus, most groups engage in a debt economy, not a direct trade (barter) economy. Of course, there are some exceptions, such as trade between hostile groups or prisoners from Western societies. But overall, Graeber claims that the overwhelming theme in economic ethnography is that barter simply doesn’t exist.

The conclusion? Adam Smith was wrong to say that people have a natural tendency to “truck and barter.” Why? It’s a strange, unintuitive form of economic exchange. Therefore, money is not the natural solution to barter, since barter, for the most part, does not exist.


According to Graeber, the anthropology literature, composed of observations of dozens and dozens of societies, undermines the link between self-interest and modern capitalist institutions. Classical economists, as well as their contemporaries, have made a deep error in assuming that a Western economic practice is the natural functional solution to economic issues that arise in all societies. I myself have even promoted this argument in my undergraduate class on economic sociology.

We’ll discuss the next step in Graber’s argument next week, but for now, I’ll conclude on the implications of Graeber’s attack on the barter-money link. If direct exchange of goods (barter) is not the embodiment of rational action, then what is? The answer, I think, is generlized exchange. A true believer in economics text books would correctly point out that generalized exchange can be described in terms of utility functions. Fair enough, but that’s not the point.

The real deep point is that monetary exchange, credit markets, and a whole host of other modern financial institutions are in no way natural. Furthermore, there’s actually an alternative to price theory, which uses money as it’s main variable (e.g., “clearing price”). The anthropologist’s version economics would start with indirect exchange as the main variable, which has a better claim to universality than prices, and then describe all institutions as recorders and shufflers of debt.

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Written by fabiorojas

December 15, 2011 at 7:08 pm

Posted in books, culture, economics, fabio