My take on David Graeber’s DEBT: THE FIRST 5000 YEARS

1371113396-anarchists-protest-against-g8-summit-continues-into-the-evening_2144719I thought it was very thought-provoking. I’m not capable of analyzing the truth of many of its claims. In terms of recent history, it did seem to get a bit fuzzy on a number of points. And it drew some parallels between epochs and areas that I am not sure were strictly merited. But the overall scope of the argument is that the use of money allows people to have interactions with each other in which there is no human component or ongoing relationship. And that the function of capitalism has been to design society in such a way that more and more of our lives fall under the ambit of these a-social interactions. And that when this style of interaction is combined with indebtedness, which encourages creditors to engage in brutal behavior towards those who owe them money, we’re left with a society in which people behave awfully towards each other. After noticing this awful behavior, we become convinced that awful behavior is an essential part of the human psyche and then we build all kinds of systems and principles to keep human beings in check. And these systems further encourage a wary style of interaction that is predicated on an utter lack of trust between people.

As an anthropologist, Graeber has observed that in many ways, our current assumptions and styles of organizing ourselves are very new. And that they would’ve struck people from the past as being ludicrous. However, we operate on the idea that what we’re responding to is natural human behavior. People are naturally self-interested. They naturally seek profit. Markets spontaneously form.

None of these things, however, are necessarily true. And Graeber uses evidence from the historical record to demonstrate other ways in which human beings have organized themselves and other ways in which they’ve conceived of debt.

In terms of that overarching argument, I found the book to be fairly convincing. You know, we go around saying, “Oh, people are evil, and the world is a cesspool.” But that’s not what we actually observe. What we observe is much more complicated than that. Sometimes order breaks down and you have the war of all against all and horror erupts. But sometimes order breaks down and it’s actually not that bad and people all band together and sort of are with each other. Human behavior and human society are more complicated than our models. And I think that our current models also encourage people to behave in terrible ways. For instance, if corporate executives had to sit down and say, “I am firing people for my own benefit and for my own profit,” then I think they would do it much less frequently. It’s the fact that they’re able to say, “I am doing this for the shareholder’s benefit,” that allows them to displace the guilt onto another’s shoulders and behave in incredibly ruthless fashions. That, to Graeber, is the logic of debt in our current capitalist system. The fact that one is in debt excuses anything you do in order to repay the debt. And the fact that someone owes you a debt excuses anything you do in order to collect the debt.

So yes, very thought-provoking, and I do recommend it.

Still not quite sure what to make of DEBT: THE FIRST 5000 YEARS

debt-new-coverI’m reading David Graeber’s…I’m not sure what to call it? His polemic? His history? His anthropological study? Anyway, it’s a book about debt. And it’s also about money. And economics. And our conceptions of ethics and citizenship. But that makes it sound a lot more far-reaching and disperse than it really is. Actually, what’s odd about the book is how focused it is. To a large extent, the book really is about different conceptions debt and money and the history of those concepts. Lots of it is focused on the differences between how anthropologists understand human behavior and how economists understand human behavior.

And it is legitimately thought-provoking.

For instance, the first hundred pages or so of the book are dedicated to attacking what he calls “The Myth of Barter,” which is the idea that prior to the development of currency, people bartered for goods with each other by swapping, like, a goat for a pair of shoes.

He says that’s a story that economists promulgated because it seemed to make sense to them. They knew that there had been a time before money, and they felt like they needed to understand how commerce possibly could’ve worked without money. But Graeber says that this barter economy strikes any anthropologist as obviously nonsensical, since no such society has ever existed. Like, on the most basic level, what usually happens if you’re in a small community and you live near someone and they need something that you have is that you go and give it to them. And then, later on, they give you something that you need. The idea here is that debt predates the availability of currency.

Not that far into it, so the thing hasn’t coalesced yet. Basically, I haven’t yet gotten to the “So what?” part. Like, yeah, I buy it. Debt is a powerful thing, and it occupies a strange moral space in our society (for instance, he makes the point that we simultaneously hold the belief that there is a moral obligation to pay your debts, and that people who loan money out for interest are evil). But I’m still not quite understanding what all this should mean to me?

I suppose my reading of the book is colored by the fact that I know Graeber was involved in the Occupy movement, so I keep expecting a radical political element to intrude. I’m pretty certain that it will, but I haven’t quite gotten there yet.

Do Americans really _want_ more leisure time?

Source: CNN
Source: CNN

Yesterday, I was linked to this marvelous interview with David Graeber (who’s an intellectual associated with Occupy and the anti-globalization movement). In it, he talks about the decline in demands for more leisure time:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I’ve wondered about this a lot. There doesn’t seem any obvious reason why our economy is organized in such a fashion that everyone has to work so many hours. But, for some reason that’s not only the way it is, that’s also the way people have accepted it should be. You see people agitating for a better social safety net, but you rarely see them agitating for a shorter workweek. Even the existing labor protections re: work-weeks are kind of a joke. There are so many jobs in the US (like computer programmer) which don’t pay overtime even though they don’t really fit into the exempt categories.

Somehow, on a spiritual level, our relation to work and leisure has changed. I think there is an extent to which people actually require work–even meaningless work–in order to provide their lives with purpose. You see this when writers go on vacation or take time off from their day jobs; they’re confronted by an open expanse of time and find it impossible to make any progress at all. When you have so much free time, you’re forced to confront questions of value: What is worth my time? What is worth doing? Why should I do this instead of something else? What does all this effort mean?

But when you work for someone else, all of those value questions are taken away from you. And while you hate the lack of autonomy, there’s also something pleasurable in being freed from the need to confront questions that are, fundamentally, unanswerable.

In his interview, Graeber addresses the other main source of meaning that our society accepts: altruism.

Most people in America accept that it’s worthwhile: a) try to make money;  and b) try to help other people. That’s why people who try to find some meaning within the working world often try to find it within ‘helping’ professions (the stereotype is the Wall Street person who drops out to join a nonprofit)

And, as Graeber, notes that’s why those professions are so poorly remunerated. People actually want to do them.

However, his notion–redefining ‘work’ as being that which helps others–doesn’t actually solve the leisure problem. It merely shifts it around. So now instead of working sixty hours a week to make value for your corporate overlord, you’re doing it to make value for your school or your nonprofit overlord.

People don’t really want leisure, per se. Instead, they want something in their life that is more meaningful than the work that they are given. But I think that once upon a time, people thought that they could use their leisure time to create their own meaning. Nowadays, I think that we implicitly believe that meaning comes from institutions.

Look at the arts. Why do so many people want to become published novelists rather than, say, accomplished letter (or email) writers? It’s because when you write a beautiful letter, then you need to accept and embrace that letter’s worth on your own. It’s something that you create for yourself (well, and one other person). Whereas when you write a novel, you only really accept its worth when it sells.

Before people can demand more leisure, we need to have some understanding of the worth of leisure. Before we can demand it, we have to desire it. I wonder right now what more leisure means to people? Does it mean more time playing video games? More time watching TV? More time driving your kids to various appointments? More time drinking in bars? All those things are fine, I guess, but it’s no surprise that Americans don’t really want more of them.