A review of David Graeber Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House, New York, 2011, 534 pages)
Debt is everywhere today. What is “sovereign debt” and why must Greece pay up, but not the United States? Who decides that the national debt will be repaid through austerity programmes rather than job-creation schemes? Why do the banks get bailed out, while students and home-owners are forced to repay loans? The very word debt speaks of unequal power; and the world economic crisis since 2008 has exposed this inequality more than any other since the 1930s. David Graeber has written a searching book that aims to place our current concerns within the widest possible framework of anthropology and world history. He starts from a question: why do we feel that we must repay our debts? This is a moral issue, not an economic one. In market logic, the cost of bad loans should be met by creditors as a discipline on their lending practices. But paying back debts is good for the powerful few, whereas the mass of debtors have at times sought and won relief from them.
What is debt? According to Graeber, it is an obligation with a figure attached and hence debt is inseparable from money. This book devotes a lot of attention to where money comes from and what it does. States and markets each play a role in its creation, but money’s form has fluctuated historically between virtual credit and metal currency. Above all Graeber’s enquiry is framed by our unequal world as a whole. He resists the temptation to offer quick remedies for collective suffering, since this would be inconsistent with the timescale of his argument. Nevertheless, readers are offered a worldview that clearly takes the institutional pillars of our societies to be rotten and deserving of replacement. It is a timely and popular view. Debt: The first 5,000 years is an international best-seller. The German translation recently sold 30,000 copies in the first two weeks. Continue reading ‘In Rousseau’s footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society’ »
This essay was written in August 2008 for a book that subsequently folded. The timing is important, the month of my retirement from the British academy (but not from university life), a month before the financial crash. I discovered it in my folders just recently and find it to be one of the better expressions of my thinking on the human economy. The owl of Minerva indeed.
In the wake of market fundamentalism
We have lived in the last three decades through an explosion of money, markets and communications and are now beginning to experience the consequences. Whatever else this hectic period of ‘globalization’ brings, it represents a rapid extension of society to a more inclusive level than the twentieth-century norm which identified society with the nation-state. In order to live in the world together, we have to devise new ways of doing things for each other that go beyond our attempts to achieve local self-sufficiency. I call this historical process ‘commoditization’ (Hart 1982), the evolution of methods for making work social, so that it can circulate in the form of commodities. This essay is one such commodity. It does not have to be sold, but it was written with the aim of finding some limited circulation in this form. So far in history commoditization has been closely linked to the extension of society by means of markets and money. But there are other means and they may become more important as a result of the digital revolution in communications — and no doubt other factors. Continue reading ‘Exchange in the human economy’ »
Thanks for reposting this, John. I don’t expect us to agree on this one, but, despite or because of my training in British social anthropology, I take a rather different view of the epistemological problem. The attempt to separate fact and fiction, society and self, object and subject is indeed being undermined by a blurring of the boundaries between the paired opposites. Our task is not to restore the separation, but to combine the poles effectively without collapsing the distinctions on which they are founded. As Tocqueville pointed out, the goal is to devise societies conducive to individual self-expression rather than maintain that personal and collective purposes are inevitably in conflict. In anthropology, the best version of this is Mauss on the unity of individual and society.
I believe that Writing Culture did open up a real possibility to begin again by rethinking the poetics and politics of ethnography, but (and here we may be in agreement) American anthropology’s focus on the fuzzy concept of culture rather than Durkheim’s on society and the individual led directly to the present impasse that you rightly deplore, at least there.
To exaggerate, I would claim that what Ernest Gellner called “the Malinowski fieldwork clique” has long been a cult formed around a guilty secret. Ethnography had to be represented as a science in order to gain admission to the universities, but there is nothing scientific about how anthropologists gain their knowledge. If we tend to get it right more often than other disciplines, the scientific parts are peripheral to how we do it. The principle of long-term immersion ensures that we internalise local society at quite a deep level. We may have our fieldnotes and learn the language (to the level of a 9 year old), even tape interviews or count households. Our secret, however, is that this is not the source of our knowledge, but rather a surface manifestation of it. We excavate our social experience much later through the religious act of writing. The discipline of this writing is that we cannot claim anything that our inner sense rejects, even if we don’t know why.
So we hide our fieldnotes away from the public eye, even after death in many cases, and tend to talk only to other members of the cult who share the guilty secret, if only implicitly. Just imagine the feeling of liberation if we could openly acknowledge the truth. There is nothing to be ashamed of. It is after all the method reached by Durkheim at the end in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, unlike his positivist manifestos of the 1890s. Anthropologists of the world unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains built on scientific pretension.
Edited extracts from a recorded conversation between Keith Hart and Bill Maurer
Marina Del Rey, August 2007
KH: There are quite profound similarities and differences between us. My version of the dialectic is that, if we want the quite significant differences to remain under control, we have to establish a framework of sameness to start with, because I really think that we’re very different in style. So I would like to start by trying to establish how some of the questions that we’re posing are the same or similar, how we came to invest so much in the study of money as anthropologists.
BM: There is one similarity that struck me in reading all your work in advance of this meeting. Both of us refuse, as you put it, to demonize money. There’s no reason why it can’t be remade anew by us for some other ends. I’ve been very frustrated by the anthropological literature. It often presents a familiar story: capitalism comes to town and then all of a sudden all that is solid melts into air; things fall apart. It’s the end of the world. And we know what happens: the story is written as if we already know the end of it: dispossession, exploitation, wealth will flow up and so on. On the one hand, yes, that’s what happens. But on the other hand, if we say that it is what always happens when there is the kind of monetization or commoditization associated with “capitalism,” then we’re never going to see the unintended effects of it when they are right in front of our noses. Continue reading ‘The politics, pragmatics and promise of money’ »
My essay is about the tension between the impersonal conditions of social life and the persons who inevitably carry it out. This relationship is poorly understood, perhaps never more than now, when the difference between individual citizens and business corporations operating on a scale larger than some countries has become obscured. My starting point is a legendary remark made in a movie by a professional killer to his victim, “Don’t take this personal, it’s just business.” But, according to my favorite American dictionary, a “person” is “a living human being” and what could be more personal than taking his life? Perhaps the hit man is referring to his own attitude, not to the effect. Killing people is a matter of routine for him, a “business”. Why should business be impersonal and, if it is, how can that be reconciled with the person who practices it?
Ideas are impersonal, human life is not. So, at one level, the issue is the relative priority to be accorded to life and ideas. Because the encounter is live and therefore already personal, the hit man has to warn his victim (and perhaps himself) not to take it so. It would seem that the personal and the impersonal are hard to separate in practice. Our language and culture contain the ongoing history of this attempt to separate social life into two distinct spheres. This is the core of capitalism’s moral economy; and gangster movies offer a vicarious opportunity to relive its contradictions.
At the heart of our public culture lies an impenetrable confusion of people, things and ideas. We no longer know how to act or in what context of mutual interdependence. The feminists were right to insist that the personal is political. The political too is often necessarily personal. But, if we relied on persons alone to make society, we would be back to feudalism or its modern equivalent, criminal mafias. There must be impersonal institutions that, at least in principle, work for everyone, regardless of who they are or who they know. We have never been more conscious of ourselves as unique personalities; yet the impersonal engines of society lie far beyond our grasp. What place is there for the humanity of individual persons in the dehumanized social frameworks we live by? This is the hit man’s dilemma and it is ours too. Continue reading ‘The Hit Man’s Dilemma (lite)’ »
This essay started out as an attempt to study the euro from an anthropological point of view; but it has ended up being more about anthropological method and money in general. Even so, a focus on the new European currency leads me to ask how we might study transnational or even global phenomena like this and still call ourselves anthropologists. For when ethnographers are not restricting their research to fieldwork in a particular place, they still tend to be limited in scope to working in one country. Social anthropology was once remarkable for the unity of its object, theory and method; but this disappeared along with “primitive” societies. Anthropologists still cling to “fieldwork-based ethnography” as their professional calling, but the study of money needs more than this. I propose as anthropology’s new object the making of world society, adopting provisionally an eclectic approach to theory and method. Anthropologists must appropriate both common knowledge and that of other specialists, if we are to identify the “historicity” (Foucault, 1973) of our own intellectual practices.
I approach the anthropology of money through four themes:
Money as memory, a meaningful link between persons and communities
Money as idea and object, the rise of virtual economy
Money as ‘heads & tails’, the impersonal expression of states and markets
Money as what people use it for, the potential for economic democracy
Following Marx, I conceive of ‘commoditization’ as a historical dialectic of social abstraction that is closely linked to the rise of money as a universal social principle. If we do things for each other in society, these services have to be separated from what we do for ourselves. This process draws us into ever-widening circles of interdependence based on calculated exchange. The money circuit is becoming detached from production, trade and politics. I ask if the euro is something new or a throwback to older forms. In future people everywhere will issue their own money instruments. Meanwhile, the euro’s movement in history offers a glimpse of where world society is heading. Money is a suitable strategic focus for anthropological study of that society. Continue reading ‘Money and anthropology: object, theory and method’ »
Magellan’s crew completed the first circumnavigation of the planet some thirty years after Columbus crossed the Atlantic. At much the same time, Bartolomé de las Casas opposed the racial inequality of Spain’s American empire in the name of human unity. We are living through another ‘Magellan moment’. In the second half of the twentieth century, humanity formed a world society – a single interactive social network – for the first time. This was symbolized by several moments, such as when the space race of the 60s allowed us to see the earth from the outside or when the internet went public in the 90s, announcing the convergence of telephones, television and computers in a digital revolution of communications. Our world too is massively unequal and the voices for human unity are often drowned. But if the twenty-first century is run on the same lines as the twentieth century, there will be no twenty-second. Emergent world society is the new human universal – not an idea, but the fact of our shared occupation of the planet crying out for new principles of association. I will explore here the possible contribution of anthropology to such a project. If the academic discipline as presently constituted would find it hard to address this task, perhaps we need to look elsewhere for a suitable intellectual strategy. Continue reading ‘Toward a new human universal’ »
What would an engaged anthropology for the twenty-first century look like? A lecture in six parts given to an undergraduate course, Politics, Economics and Social Change, at Goldsmiths College, London on 26th March 2009. It was introduced as ‘The anthropology of politics’, but my intention was to speak about how we might engage with our times through an anthropology whose object is defined as ‘the making of world society’. What do we need to know about humanity as a whole that would help us to build a better world? Such an anthropology might be both an aspect of the academic discipline of the same name and an interdisciplinary project undertaken by historians, ethnographers, philosophers, political economists, geographers, students of literature and many others, perhaps you.