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you owe me, but I’ll cut you a break for now
August 28, 2011 7:01 AM   Subscribe

If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. Naked Capitalism talks to David Graeber about his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Previously. And more generally. Bonus Graeber classic: "Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!"

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
posted by gerryblog (163 comments total) 116 users marked this as a favorite

 
I can't wait to read this. Doug Henwood had a great interview with Graeber on his show a few weeks back.
posted by enn at 7:09 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read this a few days ago: it's good stuff.
posted by pharm at 7:13 AM on August 28, 2011


The distinction between a slave and an exploited worker is an important one, but not because the exploited worker is a free person. The precise conditions under which an exploited person becomes free are rather important to that person, and to anyone trying to change the system, because those conditions are what you need to optimize for.

Slaves can only go free when their owner permits it; exploited workers can go free when they have access to better opportunities. It happens that the "owners" often have a great deal of influence over what opportunities are available to the exploited worker, so the worker does not have appreciably more freedom than the slave. However, the only solution to slavery is to change the underlying legal concept, while the solution to exploitation of "free" workers might be something mundane like creating new jobs.

It's important to be clear about what's causing your problem, even if it makes no difference to the effects it has on you, because (I hope) you want to solve your problem.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:19 AM on August 28, 2011 [15 favorites]


I have a lot of medical school debt. Not as much as many, but definitely six figures. I work in a city with a pretty high unemployment rate. My uncle-cum-Tea Party enthusiast insists as I mature and earn money my political convictions will veer inexorably rightward. But I've got to say, this experience of indebtedness—with a debt which legally cannot (basically) ever be liquidated—even coming as it has with every opportunity for reasonable deferment, and without threats of violence, has been a little soul-crushing. And I don't think I can ever get over that; not even when the last check is sent in. And I don't think I'd like institutions to remain in such a state that such indebtedness is natural and endemic. That makes me political, I guess.
posted by adoarns at 7:20 AM on August 28, 2011 [53 favorites]


The solution to debt slavery is to stop paying it. I don't think the American government is going to throw people in debtors prison, and people shouldn't feel any particular obligation to the banks that fucked over the American economy.

Just stop paying.

(though that would only work, of course, if everyone agreed to at once, and there were enough people doing it to choke the court system)
posted by empath at 7:26 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


From te anarchist perspective, the only solutions are Solon or the Jubilee.

But there's a interesting argument to be made for inflation, and lots of it, to weaken the creditor's position and strengthen the debtor.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:30 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Inflation is a pretty bitter pill for those who did things "right" and paid their debts / avoided debts. Politically it's a nonstarter, at least as an explicit policy goal.
posted by gerryblog at 7:33 AM on August 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


This was kind of an interesting interview, but it took a turn for the bullshit right here:
How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, “traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!”
Umm... what? First of all, as far as I can tell, he's got zero evidence. He's engaging in exactly the same kind of thought experiments that he accuses Smith et all of basing their arguments on. He makes some noises about being an anthropologist, but doesn't actually point us to the research on which this idea is based. I understand that it's an interview, but handling his assumptions this way does not give me great hope that things will be different in the book.

Second, as I understand it, the idea that violence can be compensated for with material goods, and that this somehow lead to the development of currency, is just weird. First of all, cultures throughout history have long assumed that the proper remedy for an act of violence was not payment, but revenge. Vendetta, blood law, etc. have been part of human culture basically forever, and the Talmudic tradition has spent quite a lot of time arguing that "an eye for an eye" does not actually call for reciprocal justice. Weregeld is admittedly an old Germanic practice, but that had as much to do with violation of the king's peace--the money went, at least in part, to the king, not the victim--and was significantly a mechanism for dealing with property losses, for which material compensation is reciprocal justice.

But his argument really bites the dust right here:
If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.
No, you don't have to start with violence, and the paragraph above contains the reason why. It makes a lot more sense to think instead of emerging to deal with small-scale violence within the community, currency emerged to facilitate transactions with people outside the community with whom one doesn't have "prior moral relations," i.e. strangers, foreigners, etc. "I owe you one" does work pretty well within the confines of a defined, largely immobile community, and I think he's really got a point there. But it doesn't work at all for people who travel. The traveling merchant is not likely to accept "I owe you one" from someone in a village to which he may or may not return, and the villager is not likely to accept that from a traveler who may or may not come back. There needs to be some immediate exchange of value for that to work. And despite the stereotypes of people who never went more than ten miles from the place where they were born, the ancient and medieval worlds were incredibly well networked. The Romans were at least vaguely aware of China, and the Silk Road has existed for millennia. Itinerant merchants on a smaller scale were present long before that.

More than that, people have always engaged in large-scale, impersonal transactions far more frequently than they were dealing in settling issues of violence. Again, trading in moral obligations works pretty well in communities where "prior moral relations" can form, i.e. in small, subsistence farming or hunter/gatherer communities. Once you hit the agricultural revolution, you start getting populations large enough that those moral relations can't form between everyone, and where some kind of bureaucratic state becomes necessary just to keep everything straight. And hey, wouldn't you know it: the Egyptians and Babylonians were the first people to really need to keep track of property rights, and they had some rules for that. But note that even there, the punishment for violence is usually violence, not monetary compensation.

As a thesis then, this leaves a lot to be desired. Color me unconvinced.
posted by valkyryn at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2011 [20 favorites]


From the first link:

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

Well said.
posted by fzx101 at 7:40 AM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oops...I should have read the extended description. Well that quote bears repeating.
posted by fzx101 at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


valkyrn, you may prefer the excerpt from Debt linked in the previously, though it sounds like you may be hostile to these ideas regardless of the form they're presented in.
posted by gerryblog at 7:47 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


Thanks for posting this gerryblog. I always find Graeber stimulating. If I recall correct he first came to my attention following a link from Metafilter. At this point I do not feel like a wage slave. I am mostly in agreement with Sartre and those guys who opined that most of us are a great deal freer than we commonly imagine ourselves to be. I guess the expression "wage slave" may not be as rhetorically useful for me as Graeber thinks it is for him, but I suspect he could be far more effective if he would pitch it.
posted by bukvich at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2011


By the time the curtain goes up on the historical record in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC, it’s already happened. There’s an elaborate system of money of account and complex credit systems. (Money as medium of exchange or as a standardized circulating units of gold, silver, bronze or whatever, only comes much later.)

So really, rather than the standard story – first there’s barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that – if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first...
vallkryn: his point is that the historical record shows that systems of credit/debt came before currency. I have no idea whether that's accurate or not but that's his claim as an 'antropologist.'
posted by ennui.bz at 8:01 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


All of that being said, debt is a significant moral problem, and there's a reason the Hebrew Scriptures talk about it. Both Jewish and Christian commentators on the prohibition against usury have noted that the word for "interest" or "usury" is literally "biting off," i.e. when you charge interest to someone in need, you actually make him worse off than he was before, because not only does he now owe you the money you lent him, but he owes more than when he started.

Read Ezekiel 18. The people were indicted for three kinds of impurity. First, religious impurity, i.e. idolatry. Fair enough. Second, sexual impurity. Also kind of in keeping with the theme of the Old Testament. But third, and put on equal footing with the first two:
“If a man is righteous and does what is just and right. . . does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not lend at interest or take any profit, withholds his hand from injustice, executes true justice between man and man, walks in my statutes, and keeps my rules by acting faithfully—he is righteous; he shall surely live, declares the Lord God.
The Protestant Reformers came up with a sort of tripartite model for thinking about debt. First, when dealing with the truly poor, one does not lend at all. One gives, and gives generously. Period. Anything less is actually viewed as a form of robbery, as a violation of the Eighth Commandment. Second, for the man who is not poor, but still needs money temporarily, one lends, but does not expect interest. In a sense, this is also a gift, as it lets the debtor have the time-value of money and does not make him any worse off. Here we see the kind of "You owe me one" thing that the author is talking about: borrowing/lending is a sort of fuzzy practice between people with prior moral relations, and the moral obligation is at least as significant as the financial one. But for the rich, or for business transactions and investments, interest is fine, as it simply represents just compensation for the risks involved in such lending. One does not help underwrite a trade mission without the promise of a return on one's investment, and all in all, trade missions and similar ventures are good things.

As such, there is excellent reason to think that a lot of consumer lending in the modern economy is exactly the sort of thing which the Judeo-Christian tradition has always viewed as problematic. Capitalism is fine as far as it goes, but most people don't have any capital. Treating them as if they did, i.e. putting them in the third category instead of the first or second, is oppression, pure and simple. Scripture doesn't really have a problem with people being rich, as such, but has a huge problem with people enriching themselves at the expense of the poor.*

Check-cashing outfits are the worst of the worst. This isn't capitalism at all, it's usury, pure and simple, and has existed as long as there have been poor people. Title loan places are, in fact, frequently guilty of exactly what is complained of in Ezekiel 18, i.e. not returning the pledge once a debt is satisfied. Credit cards are maybe only a step up from there, but note that these have the potential to be a bit more just: if you pay off your balance every month, i.e. if you can actually afford it, you pay no interest. This puts them potentially in the second category described above. But offering credit to people who obviously can't afford it is just scummy.

But more broadly speaking, I'm of the opinion that mortgages are actually oppressive in many cases. For the vast majority of history, only a tiny fraction of people owned land, because land is really expensive. Now granted, making land ownership more available to everyone does have a kind of egalitarian feel to it, and has, at least in theory, the potential to even out some power imbalances.** But in practice, that really isn't how it works most of the time. If you have to take out a mortgage for your house, you wind up in debt to the bank, and if you aren't careful, you can wind up spending more than the actual cost of the property in interest. This is no way to be. And I think that the practice of making this kind of lending available to people who really ought to just rent is a downright evil way of "biting off" the substance of the poor. The same goes for student loans, by the way, only that's even worse, because at least with a mortgage one can theoretically just give up the house.

it sounds like you may be hostile to these ideas regardless of the form they're presented in

Actually, and hope this comment proves this, no, I'm not. I'm just annoyed by the fact that the guy seems to be completely bullshitting about his history and then expecting us to just go along. I think he's got a great insight here, that debt is a phenomenally moral issue which plays a major role in society. But I'm not at all convinced, even by reading the excerpt there, that it worked the way he says it did.

*Whether or not this is possible is an interesting question, but Scripture just sort of seems to assume that it is.

**Though, in all fairness, Scripture doesn't seem all that interested in doing that. It's far more interested in powerful people acting justly and generously.
posted by valkyryn at 8:08 AM on August 28, 2011 [103 favorites]


It's true that if you stop paying your paper debts that they won't throw you in jail or beat you, so it isn't slavery as we know it. The chains are mostly in our heads; we have to pay the credit card bills so that we can continue to... have credit cards.

That said, one's opportunities collapse rather a lot when one's credit is shit. Credit reports are often used as a measure of trustworthiness by employers and landlords and others. They're about the only (nominally) objective assessments of personality we have. A personal recommendation isn't worth much if the recommendation seeker doesn't know the recommendation provider.

In a small town everyone knows everyone else and my Uncle Walt could reassure Mr. Wallace at the Mercantile Exchange that I'm a good kid, but in a city of ten million people there's no practical way to answer the question "can I rent my basement to this person" or "will this person come to work after the training period" but to run a credit report.

In this sense, we are slaves to Equifax, Experian and TransUnion; we are only as worthy as humans as they say we are.

What's the solution to this problem? I don't see one clearly. What is clear, however, is that if you don't pay your financial debts as you agreed to, that you're a subhuman and will be treated as such.

So, if you want to go off the credit grid, you'd better have a lot of cash in your pocket.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:12 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


But there's a interesting argument to be made for inflation, and lots of it, to weaken the creditor's position and strengthen the debtor.

What of those not in debt who have some savings? Are they just the eggs you have to break on the way to your inflationary omelette?
posted by adamdschneider at 8:13 AM on August 28, 2011


So, if you want to go off the credit grid, you'd better have a lot of cash in your pocket.

Sorta. It's possible to generate quite the impressive credit history while borrowing remarkably little money, if all you're interested in has having a good credit report for reputational reasons, this can be done. Just get a couple of credit cards, use them each once a month, and pay them all back every month. Even an account which is unused but open adds to your creditworthiness.
posted by valkyryn at 8:15 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


currency emerged to facilitate transactions with people outside the community with whom one doesn't have "prior moral relations," i.e. strangers, foreigners, etc.
Not sure why you'd think this to be true - I'd expect trade with strangers to remain an exchange of actual goods far longer because the shared acceptance of a particular commodity as money was less likely or took time to establish; by the time that acceptance comes about, it's in itself a weak sort of community between the parties precisely because they share a faith in the same money abstraction. IIRC, this holds true for what I know of ancient Silk Road trade (silk for horses in Ferghana etc.) at a time when Han China had money.
posted by Abiezer at 8:17 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


One of the great things about Graeber's work is that he's contextualizing present human economic behavior with an anthropological and archaeological perspective. There's some really cool work being done trying to put economic behavior into an evolutionary perspective, too. Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, runs a really interesting lab looking at market behavior in capuchin monkeys. Though their work obviously can't comment directly on human behavior, it does have some interesting implications. She gives a really awesome TED Talk about those here.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:20 AM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm just annoyed by the fact that the guy seems to be completely bullshitting about his history and then expecting us to just go along.

valkryn: he's making two historical claims:

a) that the record in Mesopotamia shows that complex systems of credit and debt predate circulating currency

b) that the origin of coinage goes back to paying soldiers.

I have no idea whether these two facts are arguable, but he's not bullshitting: do you have any evidence for your "trade" theory of the origin of currency?

But, in the end, I sort of disagree with the kernel of his work here: that abstracting debt and exchange (i.e. money) from a more general set of "moral relations" leads to oppression. I think this is a generic problem with anarchists, a sort of intellectual Luddism (NOTLUDDIST). The struggle is always to not have these abstractions (machines) controlled by bosses, lords, and CEOs. But the ability to abstract is (IMHO) the root of freedom.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:27 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: The chains are mostly in our heads.
posted by jimfl at 8:38 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


What of those not in debt who have some savings?

Inflation encourages them to stop hoarding and start investing.

Are they just the eggs you have to break on the way to your inflationary omelette?

Either you're a net debtor or a net borrower. If you've got some savings in someone else's debt, but most is in your house and the equities market, like most middle class people do, then inflation helps you reducing the real cost of your mortgage while increasing the nominal price of your assets. If you've got more capital than debt, and most of it is in fixed-income assets like bonds, than you're a capitalist, not a middle-class person, and inflation (potentially) reduces your capacity to seek rents on that capital. I say potentially because capitalist rent-seekers tend to demand that others bear their risks for them in the form of higher interest rates when expected inflation is higher.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:58 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


empath : The solution to debt slavery is to stop paying it. I don't think the American government is going to throw people in debtors prison

Flaw - You need to live somewhere, and you need to eat. And while the government doesn't tend to throw people in prison merely for defaulting on their debts (though not true for all types of debts - Try skipping out on child support in some states!), it does throw people in a cage for trespassing and for stealing food.


anotherpanacea : But there's a interesting argument to be made for inflation, and lots of it, to weaken the creditor's position and strengthen the debtor.

Not fast enough, and as a result, inflation actually worsens the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Why? Over the course of one human life, for all of modern human history, you can expect to see very near 1000% inflation. A million dollars given to someone born today won't even buy a cheap house on their 80th birthday. Realistically, our retirement investments barely keep up with inflation in good times, and actually lose "real" value at times like the present economy.

For those investing for the long haul, however - Those who have so much money they can consider the financial well-being of their great grand kids - They only need to beat inflation by a tiny margin. They can invest in low-but-stable-yield vehicles that will net positive in good times and bad. Their dynastic wealth grows slowly but steadily, while the rest of us work our asses off just to avoid dying in utter squalor.

If you want inflation to matter, we need a hell of a lot more of it - As in, anything from your paycheck that doesn't go to monthly expenses may as well go to hos and blow because next year it won't buy a loaf of bread. That leads to its own set of problems, though, and I don't mean to suggest it as a good idea. :)


seanmpuckett : So, if you want to go off the credit grid, you'd better have a lot of cash in your pocket.

Not true - It takes more effort to get on the "credit grid" than it does to stay off it. Just pay cash for everything, and there you have it. Personally, I did exactly that for most of my life to about age 25 (one student loan in deferment notwithstanding). Piece of cake.

The problem there comes from what you do when you actually want to buy something for which you can't front the cash - You either need to save up-front, or somehow find a non-standard lender (well-off uncle or the like) willing to take a risk on giving you cash with essentially no evidence of your credit-worthiness. Perhaps, with some pain, most of us could save up enough to front cash for a car. How many could do the same for a house?
posted by pla at 9:00 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


valkryn: he's making two historical claims

Yes, and my point is that he hasn't presented any actual evidence for either of those things. Maybe the evidence exists, maybe it doesn't, but he's making an empirical claim, for which evidence is required. Otherwise, he's just putting forth an interesting hypothesis and suggesting that it requires a particular inference, i.e. that violence is at the core of the monetization of debt.

I then put forth a different inference, one which strikes me as being just as plausible, to suggest that his preferred inference is not, in fact, required by the hypothesis he puts forth.

Again, if he's got the evidence for his claims, that's awesome, but I don't see it here, and I did read the excerpts that were available, and he doesn't introduce any evidence there either.

But the ability to abstract is (IMHO) the root of freedom.

Interestingly, this is why a lot of Christian thinkers have historically been pretty ambivalent about this concept of freedom. Scripture does seem to be pretty content with hierarchical systems for ordering society, so having abstractions in the control of a few is not an automatic problem. In particular, currency as such does not appear to be inherently problematic; as others have pointed out, it's sort of a demonstration of public trust. The fact that this trust is somehow tied up in societal power structures is basically okay.
posted by valkyryn at 9:03 AM on August 28, 2011


Pla: Amusingly, rich people don't have particularly good track records in outperforming the regular folks, i.e. the market. Some do, of course, but just as many don't. As you point out, this leads to many a squandered inheritance.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:05 AM on August 28, 2011


Inflation encourages them to stop hoarding and start investing.

I'm not sure that this is actually true, at least certainly not for the people who don't have significant amounts of capital who are still working. People do not respond as economists think they "ought" to economic stimuli.
posted by pharm at 9:07 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


it does throw people in a cage for trespassing and for stealing food.

Most people in debt have an income.
posted by empath at 9:25 AM on August 28, 2011


I have to bring a client to the grocery store before this hurricane hits, but I'm going to read through all of these articles when I get back.

Are there many anarchists in the MeFi community? I'd like to think of myself as a kind of syndicalist since I come from a very blue collar background and read libcom.org, but I have zero anarchist cred. Do the smart people around here criticize anarchist ideology in a way that's not applicable to other political and economic ideologies? Is it just assumed that these are all bullshit labels used to confuse people and mask hidden interests? And is this on-topic?
posted by jwhite1979 at 9:25 AM on August 28, 2011


Inflation encourages them to stop hoarding and start investing.

Serious question: almost no one is hoarding money in piles of physical cash. If nothing else, that money is sitting in a savings account somewhere, which means that the bank is already investing that money on its own behalf. In what way does transferring the risk of investment from the bank to the hoarder cause a general economic benefit?
posted by enn at 9:45 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


But there's a interesting argument to be made for inflation, and lots of it, to weaken the creditor's position and strengthen the debtor.
Inflation is supposed to mean a rise in both prices and wages. But it doesn't matter how much money gets printed, wages don't rise without full employment or labor action, both anathema to the capitalist/political class. What we've gotten, in lieu, is rising prices and rising, unsustainable consumer debt.
Isn't "hoarding" a cornerstone of capitalism; aren't my savings supposed to be the capital banks provide to small business, home-buyers, etc? Discouraging long-term saving encourages short-term speculation, and rampant speculation does not reduce inequality/benefit the poor, as the rapid rise in fuel and food prices, I believe, has illustrated.
posted by relooreloo at 9:47 AM on August 28, 2011 [7 favorites]


ennui: But, in the end, I sort of disagree with the kernel of his work here: that abstracting debt and exchange (i.e. money) from a more general set of "moral relations" leads to oppression. I think this is a generic problem with anarchists, a sort of intellectual Luddism (NOTLUDDIST). The struggle is always to not have these abstractions (machines) controlled by bosses, lords, and CEOs. But the ability to abstract is (IMHO) the root of freedom.

Or to put it another way: "money" is not the root of all evil, as is often said. THE LOVE OF money is the root of all evil.

I am reminded of this (from a site that's generally more woo-woo than this specific piece): "Usury - The Root of All Evil?"
posted by AugieAugustus at 9:58 AM on August 28, 2011


Bonus link: Are You An Anarchist? The Answer May Surprise You!

No, I'm not. I think Hobbes was right.

At their very simplest, anarchist beliefs turn on to two elementary assumptions. The first is that human beings are, under ordinary circumstances, about as reasonable and decent as they are allowed to be, and can organize themselves and their communities without needing to be told how. The second is that power corrupts.

I would agree with the second, but definitely not the first. We know that chimpanzees are territorial and fight wars. Slugs are territorial. Why would we think that human beings are different, that we only fight wars because we're bamboozled by the state?

We're not as reasonable and decent as we like to think. On the Internet, where social sanctions are weak or nonexistent, social norms break down. This is well known.

Ironically, I remember arguing with David Graeber about the best way to prevent trolls from taking over alt.fan.noam-chomsky. In other words: we're all territorial, even David Graeber.
posted by russilwvong at 10:02 AM on August 28, 2011 [6 favorites]


We're not as reasonable and decent as we like to think.
A principle of anarchism, as I see it, is that communities ought to function at scales where there are personal repercussions for acting un-socially. The distance and anonymity of your internet example is what allows bad behavior.
I, for one, am an anarchist, a libertarian socialist (though anarchism has come to mean so many different things to different people, it's hardly a useful label at all).
posted by relooreloo at 10:15 AM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]




> we're all territorial, even David Graeber.

In defense of Graeber alt.anarchy in 2002 is an extreme extreme case. Scale is the problem. I am reminded of a friend of mine who evacuated from New Orleans to Houma Louisiana as Hurricane Georges came right at Houma because, "if there is a disaster I want to be around people who all know each other".

The problem with banks in 2010 may not be our theory of banking. It may be the specific people who are now in power at the banks. The guys running the big New York London Zurich banks look to a lost of us peons like they are thieves.
posted by bukvich at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


A principle of anarchism, as I see it, is that communities ought to function at scales where there are personal repercussions for acting un-socially.

In other words, we'd all be better off as subsistence farmers.

One can see why a lot of people might disagree.
posted by valkyryn at 10:24 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm an anarchisht, and so is my non-hierarchical cohabitation partner.
posted by titus-g at 10:29 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


In what way does transferring the risk of investment from the bank to the hoarder cause a general economic benefit?

The bank, generally speaking, knows what it's doing with the money. The hoarder, on balance, is far less knowledgeable than the bank on matters of investment and, thus, it becomes far easier to separate the money from the hoarder. This translates to an economic benefit for the sector of ouf economy that actually matters. I'm sure you can figure-out which one that is ;)
posted by Thorzdad at 10:31 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath : Most people in debt have an income.

I responded to a suggestion that people simply "break the cycle" by skipping out on their debt.

If you have an income, the government can attach it to slowly repay your creditors. Therefore, to completely skip out on repaying, you need to lack an income (or at least somehow work completely under-the-table).

That said, bankruptcy law in the US tends to protect the magic words of "primary residence". I suspect a dedicated individual could likely find a way to abuse the hell out of that exemption. But general-purpose debts? Quite a bit tougher to just ignore them.


/ IANAL, of course.
posted by pla at 10:43 AM on August 28, 2011


I suspect a dedicated individual could likely find a way to abuse the hell out of that exemption.

This is harder than it sounds, and the bankruptcy code has provisions specifically dealing with "fraudulent transfers." Moving a bunch of money from an unprotected account into some kind of protected asset and filing for bankruptcy the next day? Not going to fly. Neither is giving a bunch of money away right before filing. And if the court thinks that you somehow induced the creditor to lend money without no intent of every paying it back, it can nail you for that one too.

All of this makes a certain amount of sense--bankruptcy is supposed to be a method of last resort, not a way of screwing people over--but it does certainly uphold the credit/debt scheme of which the author complains.
posted by valkyryn at 10:59 AM on August 28, 2011


So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

As a first approximation, it's an attempt to bridge the gap between guess culture and ask culture. You need some guidelines as to what you feel safe in asking for, or in what to guess would be fair. Before people behave un-socially, they feel cheated and thus entitled to do so. Or they create a belief system in which the un-social is moral--e.g. greed is good. This is really more of a psychological problem then an economic one.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:01 AM on August 28, 2011


In what way does transferring the risk of investment from the bank to the hoarder cause a general economic benefit?

In aggregate, I'm not entirely persuaded it does cause economic benefit, in the sense of producing better GDP figures. In fact, some economists insist that inflation doesn't matter either way, since people are basically able to distinguish the nominal and the real price of things. (I think the data is inconclusive, and there are certainly times, like right now, when more inflation might be desirable because there are liquidity traps where individual people save in a way that hurts the economy in aggregate, such that individual rationality transforms into collective irrationality.)

But if inflation persuades a saver to move into the stock market, then just as the risk is transferred, so is the reward. Remember that the bank is actually required to invest in risk-free assets, like Treasury bonds, so they collect their rents but don't invest in future growth except insofar as the deficits are invested infrastructure improvements or education that fuels future growth. (On the other hand, all that saving reduces the rate at which the gov't must borrow, making it cheaper to run deficits. I don't happen to think that war debt is a good investment, so from the perspective of future growth it would be good if people diverted their assets away from funding the war and towards to innovation in agriculture, medicine, and information technology.)
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:08 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read about this kind of stuff a few years ago when looking deeper into some of the stuff Hakim Bey discussed in Millenium.

I found a site here that discusses some of these concepts. I can't remember it all off the top of my head and don't feel like reading the whole link I just gave, but the bit I saw seems to correlate with some of my memory: Temples acted as banks keeping track of debts. They would store these debts in jars and seal the jars up. I don't remember the rest of the details. But I believe it was more that the temple and priesthood acted as the bankers and that they were the ones to keep track of the various debt obligations between various individuals (I'd assume these were high powered people in their societies, not just joe schmoes like you and me)...

In fact, after going to the parent directory, this guy seems to have quite a few articles on various topics relating to the history of money. Worth a look if people have some questions.
posted by symbioid at 11:24 AM on August 28, 2011


I'd like to read this guy's book. If he could just drop it off at my place, I'll owe him one.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just stop paying.

Yeah, that's great until they garnish your wages.
That's great until your roof caves in
or your kid gets cancer.

Then what, Mister Off-the-Grid?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:43 AM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


People take inflation into account when making transactions. In the case of debt, that means the lender makes some kind of prediction about inflation rates during the life of the loan, and tacks that on to the interest rate.

In some sense, even by discussing deliberate inflation of the currency, we're increasing the expected inflation rate and raising interest rates for everyone and making it harder to borrow. Go us!
posted by miyabo at 11:43 AM on August 28, 2011


That podcast from Henwood's radio show linked above was terrific. I forget the name of the first guess, but it was a psychologist on class and empathy. He was offering research on the phenomenon of aloof detached hipsters, amongst other things.

(I got a virus snag notice listening to it though.)
posted by bukvich at 11:46 AM on August 28, 2011


(that was supposed to be first guest)
posted by bukvich at 11:47 AM on August 28, 2011


The bottom line is I'm sure that everyone on metafilter can agree that I shouldn't have to pay back the money I've borrowed, and I shouldn't have to work.

So could people give me stuff? I could really use a new computer and car.
posted by happyroach at 11:47 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just stop paying.

Yeah, that's great until they garnish your wages.
That's great until your roof caves in
or your kid gets cancer.

Then what, Mister Off-the-Grid?


I think you missed a critical element in empath's comment. He also says:
(though that would only work, of course, if everyone agreed to at once, and there were enough people doing it to choke the court system)
posted by jwhite1979 at 11:48 AM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


People take inflation into account when making transactions.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, both individuals and institutions are spectacularly bad at accounting for that sort of thing, particularly the former. It can be really hard to tell the difference between asset appreciation and inflation.
posted by valkyryn at 11:49 AM on August 28, 2011


Inflation is a pretty bitter pill for those who did things "right" and paid their debts / avoided debts.

Inflation is what happens when the ants let the grasshopper inside for the winter. They never tell you this part of the fable: the grasshopper eats the ants' food and in the end they all end up starving to death.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:50 AM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


They never tell you this part of the fable: the grasshopper eats the ants' food and in the end they all end up starving to death.

Either that, or a whole bunch of showbugs end up getting recruited by an ant with a heart of gold and together they not only manage to drive off the grasshopper once and for all, but he also wins the hand of the princess.
posted by hippybear at 11:53 AM on August 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


I think you missed a critical element in empath's comment [...] (though that would only work, of course, if everyone agreed to at once, and there were enough people doing it to choke the court system)

What only works once? Everybody's kid gets cancer at the same time? Everybody's car explodes at the same time? Everybody's roof caves in at the same time? You're only going to get people to care enough to do something drastic after it affects them personally. But usually those kinds of problems only strike sporadically. It's all "got mine" until a personal catastrophe hits, then it's "I thought this was supposed to be a civilization!" Like this fucking hypocrite.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:00 PM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


I do wonder if the banking sector has discreetly encouraged media figures to rail against inflation. After all, economists mostly see moderate inflation as pretty benign, and certainly far better than deflation. But ask an average Joe and he'll say that inflation is the number one threat to the economy -- after all, his money is worth less! (He ignores the fact that he gets paid more by the same amount.)

It's certainly in the banks' interest to support the Glenn Becks and Ron Pauls of the world who spread this irrational fear...which makes it harder for the Fed to increase the money supply, even when it's necessary.
posted by miyabo at 12:04 PM on August 28, 2011


Well yeah in practice you're right: it's unlikely that enough people would just decide to overturn the debtor/creditor institution out of a shared anarchist sensibility. :) But the way things are going, I can see it happening. We've had a tech bubble pop, followed by a housing bubble. The Atlantic is predicting that the higher education bubble will be popping before too long. Unless the economic trends in the West are reversed significantly and for a sustained period, there's a good chance that the public will collectively refuse to accept the legitimacy of their debt load. That's not a moral statment on my part about the legitimacy of debt. That's just a pretty reasonable (I think) inference from history.
posted by jwhite1979 at 12:11 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just stop paying.

Yeah, that's great until they garnish your wages.
That's great until your roof caves in
or your kid gets cancer.

Then what, Mister Off-the-Grid?

I think you missed a critical element in empath's comment. He also says:
(though that would only work, of course, if everyone agreed to at once, and there were enough people doing it to choke the court system)


Except our economy works on the principle of debt. The farmer who needs money for seed? What's he gonna do? The kid who wants to go to college? The stocks owned by many, such as Apple, who are owed money? People aren't going to lend money if there is no chance of return. And that would be bad.

This isn't to say there aren't abuses in our economy related to credit and debt. But the idea that some with can lend to some without is a good one. It allows for resources to flow to where they can be used. Throwing it all out can seem emotionally satisfying, but its childish and incredibly counter-productive.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:11 PM on August 28, 2011


Unless the economic trends in the West are reversed significantly and for a sustained period, there's a good chance that the public will collectively refuse to accept the legitimacy of their debt load. That's not a moral statment on my part about the legitimacy of debt. That's just a pretty reasonable (I think) inference from history.

What example in history supports this conclusion?
posted by Ironmouth at 12:13 PM on August 28, 2011


a whole bunch of showbugs end up getting recruited by an ant with a heart of gold and together they not only manage to drive off the grasshopper once and for all, but he also wins the hand of the princess

I'm sorry, but that's not what history has taught us. By hiring the foreign showbugs to do their dirty mercenary work with the promise of ant citizenship, they cheapen the power of ant nationalism such that that no ant feels any tie with their parent colony and, when the opportunity comes to pack up and move east to the new ant empire, they do so with aplomb. The central defenses severely hampered by the lack of domain knowledge from long-term, career Army Ants leaves the colony's defenses down and ripe for conquest from neighboring Termite vandals and Waspigoths.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:14 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


About a dozen pre-Constitution rebellions in the U.S., and I guess you could throw in the French Revolution too. That's just off the top of my head.
posted by jwhite1979 at 12:15 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry, but that's not what history has taught us.

Well, you're talking about the effects after the ants have, indeed, won their day. The story doesn't have to play out in the cynical way you describe. Anyway, the ants also participated with the showbugs in the victory, and it left everyone with a stronger sense of community in the end.

I know, cause I saw it happen. I also saw it happen in Japan, and again in northern Mexico.
posted by hippybear at 12:28 PM on August 28, 2011


"Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up. "

This confuses me. Why should we assume that social relations are either predicated on morals or debt? Isn't that a little limiting? What about sex and prestige, or evolutionary impulses that don't correspond so well to abstract institutions that we have names for? I don't think baboons have societies because of morality or economics.
posted by jwhite1979 at 12:31 PM on August 28, 2011


Material accumulation is wired into our species, but so is empathic identification with the other (mirror neurons), and so are tribal affiliations that tend to objectify the other - and so on.

All of these factors - and others - come into play when talking about debt, dominance, slavery, etc. Another factor that enters is sociopathy. There is a survival value to sociopathy, and even though we don't overtly honor it in most modern contemporary cultures, we all-to-often honor its end-result, which all-too-often shows up as material accumulation, and "victory", with the victors writing history, and legislation.

There's a lot to think about in considering the behaviors noted above, along with their combined impact on how the world works; they all come into play in very complex ways, always - and often result in various initiatives that appear on the surface to be world-changing in an empathic way, to turn out far from that.

That said, what we are now creating is a choke point of debt and opportunity in human culture. I have no data to support this, but I think we are heading for a tipping point that will force major adaptations, and the creation of new paradigms around the idea of debt. Mind you, new paradigm creation can be messy, and the dying dinosaur or an exploding supernova can always be more insistent and violent in it's dying throes, taking everything in proximity along with it, to oblivion. In a way, I think that's what we're going through right now, and have no way of knowing how violent the death throes of our current paradigm of debt and obsessive ownership patterns will get.

This is not going to "pop" as a cork off a bottle; it's going to be a slow, steady realization that social cost needs to be a line item on the spreadsheet. We're far from that. I hope our species gets to the other side of this dysfunctional paradigm - to a place where we begin to rewire our brains - and our collective behavior - with an appreciation of the massive social and fiscal debts we create with the current paradigm - because there are times when a dying beast can slay everything in its near proximity.

There are no formulas in this, other than doing one's best to change things for the better, as each one of us defines "better". And, there's the rub. Politics and economics begins at our front door. Hang on.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:38 PM on August 28, 2011


About a dozen pre-Constitution rebellions in the U.S., and I guess you could throw in the French Revolution too. That's just off the top of my head.

The only debt issue in the French Revolution was the debt of the state and the attempts to deal with the effects of an incredibly regressive taxation system on the economy. There was no large-scale repudiation of debt or with the legitimacy of debt.

As for minor uprisings, these aren't things that can be sustained.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:45 PM on August 28, 2011


In other words, we'd all be better off as subsistence farmers.
That's trollin'! We'd all be better off knowing who grew our food, or knowing people who know who grew our food, not as farmers ourselves. Distance and anonymity is also a pitfall of capitalism: Adam Smith's "invisible hand," according to some interpretation, was not price discovery, it was the force (which never seems to have materialized) that keeps investment where it ought to be, local.
posted by relooreloo at 12:50 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


What this is going to be about is the realization by individuals that consumer debt isn't worth it for them. Not a long-term repudiation of debt as a principle.

The result will be continued deflation. So we'll need to prop up the currency.

People who can't wait to see a revolution paid for with other's blood (i.e mass debt repudiation) are almost as bad as people who think such circumstances will have minimal negative effects.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:51 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


jwhite1979 : This confuses me. Why should we assume that social relations are either predicated on morals or debt? Isn't that a little limiting? What about sex and prestige, or evolutionary impulses that don't correspond so well to abstract institutions that we have names for? I don't think baboons have societies because of morality or economics.

I don't entirely agree, but think of it this way...

I don't know you. I have no particular reason to like you or hate you or trust you or distrust you, or care what you think of me. I can find suitable mates amongst "my own" social circle.

I therefore have two reasons, on encountering you, not to try to kill you before you see me. One, I consider that "wrong" (a concept that "the law" merely extends and codifies). And two, you may represent an opportunity for trade that benefits me.

Or put another way - The baboons that bother with socializing know each other. And ones that don't know each other primarily just fling feces at each other.
posted by pla at 12:53 PM on August 28, 2011


that keeps investment where it ought to be, local.

Where's it written that investment ought to be local? Are we to depopulate mass areas where agriculture can't work? Are we to stop making coumputers, mining silicon for our iPads, iPhones, computers, EKG monitors, ultrasound scanners and the like? The idea that a population of our size is going to revert to subsistence farming is laugbhable. Who lives and who dies in this "paradise?"
posted by Ironmouth at 12:55 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


The obvious precedent of a populist movement to end debt is, well, the original Populist movement. In the late 1800s debtors tried to elect a government that would legalize silver as currency, thus massively inflating the currency and making their debts go away. It didn't work, but it came very close.

The modern Tea Party has a lot in common with the Populists in terms of rhetoric, but of course it's advocating pretty much the opposite idea (switching to a gold standard, which they believe will end inflation forever).

It's possible that in 30 years, when there are millions of mid-career professionals toiling under the burden of hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans that they incurred in their 20s and can never hope to pay off or discharge, that we'll see a new kind of borrower-lead populism. But it's not happening yet.
posted by miyabo at 1:08 PM on August 28, 2011


relooreloo: A principle of anarchism, as I see it, is that communities ought to function at scales where there are personal repercussions for acting un-socially.

valkyryn: In other words, we'd all be better off as subsistence farmers.
One can see why a lot of people might disagree.


Huh? Why would we have to be subsistence farmers to have a society composed of small units?

I work in a team of about 6, in an division of about 100, in a company of about twice that. Next week I'll live in a building of about 80 residents, on a block with about a thousand.

In my building (I haven't yet moved in) everyone is accountable to a landlord. In my company, I'm accountable to a team leader (a straw-boss, as he doesn't hire or fire), who is accountable to a project manager, who is accountable to a CEO, who is accountable to one or two big clients.

So some of these groupings are already around the size social anarchists or left libertarians would envision, the power structure is just inverted. Instead of workers self-managing from the ground up where I work, a handful of owners calls the shots and those below them are given progressively less discretion to carry out that mandate.

In my new apartment building, if it's anything like those I've lived in before, the situation will be much the same - decisions about maintenance, construction, usage, etc. are all dictated by the landlord, and it is to the landlord to whom all of us tenants are supposed to feel ultimately responsible. We don't get a say in who lives with us, in what sorts of norms there should be regarding noise or use of communal areas.

I think it's accurate to say that the libertarian socialist ideal (which I sympathize with) is for workplaces and communities to be organized into groupings small enough that "there are personal repercussions for acting un-socially". As to how those groups should interact, well, I'll quote the fairly good Wikipedia entry:

In lieu of corporations and states, libertarian socialists seek to organize themselves into voluntary associations (usually collectives, communes, municipalities, cooperatives, commons, or syndicates) that use direct democracy or consensus for their decision-making process. Some libertarian socialists advocate combining these institutions using rotating, recallable delegates to higher-level federations.[35] Spanish anarchism is a major example of such federations in practice.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 1:13 PM on August 28, 2011 [11 favorites]


Where's it written that investment ought to be local?
Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations. He, at any rate, predicted investment would be local (so it could be safeguarded), but that, fortuitously (invisible hand), also provides the greatest social benefit. The guy was a huge moralist, not nearly a libertarian.
Who lives and who dies in this "paradise?"
You're the only one who has said paradise. Thinking that one set of rules (the law) can be applied to every conceivable situation is far more utopian than admitting that different circumstances require different reactions, and that (as I believe) an involved and liable local human community is the only decent arbiter of human affairs.
posted by relooreloo at 1:21 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's accurate to say that the libertarian socialist ideal (which I sympathize with) is for workplaces and communities to be organized into groupings small enough that "there are personal repercussions for acting un-socially".

I'm confused. How would one force people to organize in this way? Seems to conflict with the libretarian part of the name.

And if you would not force people, wouldn't certain large, less local groups outcompete the local groups in certain situations?
posted by Ironmouth at 1:30 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Except our economy works on the principle of debt.

That's a major failing of capitalism, yes.

So, back in intro macroeconomics, my professor for the course tried to tell us how great lending was: someone puts their $100 in a bank, the bank lends (a percentage of, theorized to be less than 100%, but apparently over 100% in some cases from the recent credit bubble) that $100 out to someone else, and voila, money is created - now there is $200 in the economy where before there was only $100!

Except that there's also a debt, which eventually has to be re-payed, generally with interest. Okay, so the creditor gets a job and an income with which to re-pay their debt. Except where does their salary come from? The company that employs the creditor probably has a line of credit for payroll purposes, which means that they are borrowing $100000 (say) per pay period. Of course, them may pay it back in the relatively short term, but in the mean time, that debt accumulates interest. Where does the money to pay that interest come from? Well, the company has to sell some products or services. Say they sell cars. Say that it's a pretty stable car company (not Chrysler), and gets lots of people to buy its cars. Okay, great, but where do all of those people get the money to buy their cars from? Generally they take out car loans. And cycle back around to our original single creditor.

So, we've generated new money in the economy by banks giving out loans, but eventually those loans become due, with interest. If only a very small proportion of actors in the economy are borrowing, this might work out with some redistribution of money/wealth. If interest rates are generally less than or equal to inflation, this might work out with some redistribution of money/wealth as well. But there's two columns that we have to keep track of here: (i) the amount of money in the economy, and (ii) the amount of debt in the economy. And if interest rates are generally higher than inflation, it seems to me that the debt column will grow faster than the money in the economy column. Which is fine if we don't all freak out about continually increasing debts on the books, and if we start transferring the debt around as kind of an alternate currency, and people believe in it in the sense that they accept cash because they believe that it will continue to have exchange value in the future. I don't see that happening, though.

Furthermore, all human processes are finite. (i) Human lives are finite, so what happens to one person's debt when they die? (ii) World resources are finite, which means that economic growth is finite; as well, loan terms are generally finite (i.e. must be re-payed by a certain time). So what happens when physical reality catches up to economic growth and puts the breaks on, making it impossible to make enough money to re-pay all the debts in the time frame in which they are due.

Basically, as I see it, the entire system of banking and lending (where interest rates are generally above inflation - the relative rates of growth here are pretty imporant) is a giant pyramid scheme that can only and inevitably lead to concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists. And that's even if people don't stop believing in the value of owning debt, as happened in the recent housing bubble collapse, causing the pyramid scheme to break down even sooner.

(Yup, also a flavor of anarchist here, though I'm probably more in the socialist to anarcha-syndicalist camp than the libcom camp; not that it makes a huge difference - same basic values, I'd say. Btw, I found "Anarchism and its Aspirations" by Cindy Milstein to be a very good overview for anyone who wants more info about anarchism in an easy-to-read little book/long pamphlet.)
posted by eviemath at 1:31 PM on August 28, 2011 [12 favorites]


Also, on the original topic of debt: Margaret Atwood's Massey Lectures, "Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth" is a good read.
posted by eviemath at 1:34 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


I therefore have two reasons, on encountering you, not to try to kill you before you see me. One, I consider that "wrong" (a concept that "the law" merely extends and codifies). And two, you may represent an opportunity for trade that benefits me.

Why would there have to be a reason not to try and kill me? If every time you encountered someone they tried to kill you, then I guess preemptive murder might be the impulse. But in that case would the desire to trade or an abstract moral principle be sufficient to overcome that impulse? That model doesn't really make sense to me.
posted by jwhite1979 at 1:37 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm confused. How would one force people to organize in this way? Seems to conflict with the libertarian part of the name.

Your workplace is scheduled for collectivization next month, stand by. :-)

Key to the whole idea is that people would prefer this form of organization. It hasn't really been tried extensively, and the favorite example of some - the CNT-FAI collectives during the Spanish Civil War - was put down by force.

One relatively popular ideology within anarchism, which is distinguished by it's answer to your question, is anarcho-syndicalism. In short, the idea is that working class people who can't go off and start cooperatives (read: the vast majority) form directly democratic unions (e.g. The IWW) to give themselves a say in the workplace. These unions are federated in exactly the way workplaces would be in the ideal described above, thus "building a new world in the shell of the old", as an old slogan goes. The hope is that by aiding other such democratic workplaces, the movement would marginalize capitalist forms - who would work for a boss if there were another option? I don't personally believe in any sort of "revolutionary" action, just slow social change.

I'd be a bit surprised if you weren't aware of this current in the labor movement, given that you're a labor lawyer, but it's not exactly taught in schools. Out of curiosity, do you see your work in terms of class?
posted by elektrotechnicus at 1:52 PM on August 28, 2011 [6 favorites]



And if you would not force people, wouldn't certain large, less local groups outcompete the local groups in certain situations?


Oh, and I assumed this was addressed to eviemath - I don't have any particular preference for "local" groupings in the way he describes.
posted by elektrotechnicus at 1:56 PM on August 28, 2011


Er, this^ quote seems to be from before my posts?
posted by eviemath at 2:00 PM on August 28, 2011


the way she describes - my bad. Which quote?
posted by elektrotechnicus at 2:06 PM on August 28, 2011


(" And if you would not force people, wouldn't certain large, less local groups outcompete the local groups in certain situations?" from your last comment? Looking back... the quote is from Ironmouth, who was responding to... aha, to you!)
posted by eviemath at 2:16 PM on August 28, 2011


Real world checking in here.

Literally nothing in a modern economy would exist without credit. Places that lack effective means of borrowing, collateralizing, and collecting upon debt are, without exception, third-world basket cases.

Equity markets are not able to fund any consumer economic activity, any government activity, or most commercial activity that is bigger than a lunch cart or smaller than a big company. In most big capital structures, between long-term debt and working capital, credit is at least as important as equity.
posted by MattD at 2:18 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


The only debt issue in the French Revolution was the debt of the state and the attempts to deal with the effects of an incredibly regressive taxation system on the economy. There was no large-scale repudiation of debt or with the legitimacy of debt.

As for minor uprisings, these aren't things that can be sustained.


You're probably right. The agrarian class was crippled by a season of catastrophic weather, and that lead to widespread defaults among farmers in the lead-up to the revolution, but I don't know how significant the repudiation of debt was in that case or to what extent the farmers stoked the revolution.

And I agree that the uprisings--although I wouldn't call them minor--can't be sustained as long as the government can put them down by force. I'm not ready to give up on my idea that populations revolt when debt loads become extreme, so I'll call it a hypothesis and hit the books.
posted by jwhite1979 at 2:20 PM on August 28, 2011


I don't know how significant the repudiation of debt was in that case or to what extent the farmers stoked the revolution.

Common people were a significant cause in starting the Revolution. Bastille Day started as a grain riot.

But this wasn't a repudiation of consumer debt. Consumer debt didn't really exist until the twentieth century on a level more sophisticated than running a tab at a local merchant.

Which is sort of a problem with Graeber's whole thesis. Sure, debt has existed just about forever, but consumer debt hasn't.
posted by valkyryn at 2:37 PM on August 28, 2011


But to respond to Ironmouth's concern, the whole point is that economic sustainability is not predicated on competition, or out-competing others, in a socialist model.

MattD - I think you mean "neoliberal capitalist economy" not "modern economy," since there have been a couple different economic systems attempted in modern times. So, places that try to have a capitalist economy without all of the systems to support such an economy indeed have economic troubles - probably no big surprises there. This says nothing about other economic systems.
posted by eviemath at 3:02 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


Which is sort of a problem with Graeber's whole thesis. Sure, debt has existed just about forever, but consumer debt hasn't.

I started to realize that after reading Wikipedia articles for an hour or so.

My initial comment about how people tend to revolt when debt loads get too extreme was based mostly on my reading of Unruly Americans. It's partly about how Revolution veterans had to sell off the bonds they received as payment for service for a tiny fraction of the face value in order to buy arable land and storefronts, and how these former soldiers ended up indebted to the people who bought the bonds from them. Of course it wasn't indebtedness to a bank, but indebtedness to the government which payed off the bonds at face value by levying a huge tax burden on the working class. This led to rather significant revolts that required military intervention.

I've assumed that similar creditor/debtor relationships existed in other places before major revolts occurred, such as in the years before the French Revolution and in 1930s Spain. From what I have read it seems likely, but it's still a big assumption on my part. Is it incorrect? Is it fair to think of modern consumer debt as analogous to the kinds of regressive tax structures that did lead to rebellion?
posted by jwhite1979 at 3:21 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it fair to think of modern consumer debt as analogous to the kinds of regressive tax structures that did lead to rebellion?

I'm not convinced that it is. Graeber's whole thesis is premised on the conflation of taxation and debt, and he bases this on the idea that taxation is, in essence, the sovereign's extraction of something owed because the sovereign holds the power of life and death.

I'm just not sure that's at all comparable to the sorts of arguably voluntary transactions which make up the bulk of consumer debt today. Taxation is the government saying "You owe this much on this date whether you like it or not, and there will be bad consequences if you don't pay up." Consumer debt is only incurred when the consumer makes two choices, i.e. the choice to buy something, and the choice to finance that purchase rather than pay cash.

It's one thing for the government to demand its pound of flesh and citizens to say "Hell no!" It's something else entirely for consumers to incur debt, consume the goods and services for which said debt was incurred, and then refuse to pay.

And the argument that people are "forced" to take on debt rings kind of hollow to me, with the possible exception of student loans, which really do look like a form of indentured servitude. But historically if one could not afford something, the vast majority of people simply did without rather than borrowing money to finance their choices. Granted, this meant a lot of people were pretty hard up a lot of the time, and many did without what many modern Americans would consider to be necessities. That's as may be. But the fact is that this is the first time in history when any significant percentage of the population has had significant access to credit. And it doesn't seem like it's working very well.
posted by valkyryn at 3:54 PM on August 28, 2011


On the other hand, no one forced the banks to lend, either. The possibility that people won't repay (either because they can't, or because they refuse) is supposed to be part of the logic of collateral and interest. Part of what is novel about the current situation is (as Graeber rightly notes) that lenders want to establish a situation in which, increasingly, no one can ever default, without sacrificing the profit that used to be their compensation for taking on that risk.
posted by gerryblog at 4:10 PM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


employers are beginning to check the credit rating of prospective employees.
posted by Shit Parade at 4:16 PM on August 28, 2011


And the argument that people are "forced" to take on debt rings kind of hollow to me, with the possible exception of student loans, which really do look like a form of indentured servitude.

I really try to be reasonable and a good anarchist at the same time. But this is where I get hung up. You point out that student loans are virtual slavery, and I think the same can be said of home mortgages and automobiles. We aren't allowed to build our homes near a river and plant a garden and live the way people did a couple hundred years ago. You have to have an inspected vehicle, and you have to have a home that is up to code. In order to have those essentials you must work for somebody else, or else be smart enough and daring enough to try and make it on your own (generally by taking out another loan). This entire system seems not just predatory, but a state-sponsored form of predation that ensures a certain direction of capital flow.

So it's not like we (or people like me) are arguing that people who take out huge irresponsible loans are somehow being cheated by having to pay them back. It's that people are obligated to take out loans to buy what they need despite the fact that they probably have no job security or even the income necessary to pay their way.

All that looks a lot like different way of shuffling money around with essentially the same results. Debt is debt is debt, whether you're buying your sustenance from the state or from Bank North. Really, I'm trying to be reasonable. Does all this sound absurd? Am I insane?
posted by jwhite1979 at 4:30 PM on August 28, 2011 [5 favorites]


Graeber's whole thesis is premised on the conflation of taxation and debt

Er, no. His thesis seems to be something about the relationship between money and debt, and the mutual history of both (I haven't read the book yet; it's hard to say for certain from an interview, because interviews kind of focus on the questions that the interviewer asks). Taxation seems to enter into it, but secondarily.

From the description on amazon:
Before there was money, there was debt

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it.

Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.

Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.

posted by eviemath at 5:09 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you've got more capital than debt, and most of it is in fixed-income assets like bonds, than you're a capitalist, not a middle-class person, and inflation (potentially) reduces your capacity to seek rents on that capital.

Actually, I'm a 28 year old who has been working 80 hours a week since 18. I don't have a mortgage because I don't want to stuck doing this forever. I want to transition to a more pleasant lifestyle, so I live well below my means and save lots of money.

To me inflation means that the sacrifices I made in my youth mean less and less.
posted by rcdc at 5:31 PM on August 28, 2011 [4 favorites]


To me inflation means that the sacrifices I made in my youth mean less and less.

This depends, inflation typically means that the same amount of money buys less material goods. So if the sacrifices you made as a youth meant you didn't spend cash and instead stuffed it into a mattress or put it into a savings account (they are about the same these days) than yeah, inflation will be eating away at the value of your savings. But by sacrifices you mean consumption that was put off and instead put towards investments then inflation will be a great boon to you -- under the assumption that your investments are keeping up with inflation -- because you can buy or "consume" as much or more goods now then you would have been able to otherwise. Deflation would be much more damaging to you, as your investments will lose value.

In general inflation is good for those with investments, deflation are good for those who are paid in wages and vs versa. Again this is under the assumption that investments are some sort of material good, if you invest in unsecured debts like student loans then inflation will be bad for the creditor, good for the debtor.
posted by Shit Parade at 5:45 PM on August 28, 2011


It's one thing for the government to demand its pound of flesh and citizens to say "Hell no!" It's something else entirely for consumers to incur debt, consume the goods and services for which said debt was incurred, and then refuse to pay.

Yet, these scenarios grow far more similar when the government forcibly extracts payments that impact the needs hierarchy and/or persist beyond any reasonable term. In particular, we've learned from the recent crisis that some European countries like Spain have abysmal bankruptcy protections.

There are still vaguely reasonably bankruptcy laws in the U.S. despite the lobbying by the credit card companies, meaning they approach the matter with more finesse. How do you feel about credit card lobbyists killing a federal law requiring credit card bills to state the amount of time required to pay off the balance by making only the minimum payment?
posted by jeffburdges at 5:50 PM on August 28, 2011


Aren't Graeber's assertions that debt precedes currency kinda the Occam's razor explanation? Ain't no way you'll invent the abstraction of money unless you've serious experience with delayed transactions.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:03 PM on August 28, 2011


Does anyone but me recall this model of lending and debt?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_banking

Granted, it originated with building societies and agrarian purchasing combines, but it seems like a far more democratic model for personal/family/small business/community transactions than the globalized corporate model.

It's unfortunate that after the savings and loan mismanagement of the 1980's and the lobbying efforts of the conglomerates, this model is currently in decline.
posted by patience_limited at 6:26 PM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Self-denial, the denial of life and of all human needs, is its principal doctrine. The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theatre, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume -- your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life and the more you store up of your estranged life. Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth, and everything which you are unable to do, your money can do for you: it can eat, drink, go dancing, go to the theatre, it can appropriate art, learning, historical curiosities, political power, it can travel, it is capable of doing all those thing for you; it can buy everything it is genuine wealth, genuine ability. But for all that, it only likes to create itself, to buy itself, for after all everything else is its servant. And when I have the master I have the servant, and I have no need of his servant. So all passions and all activity are lost in greed."
posted by anotherpanacea at 6:42 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]



Does anyone but me recall this model of lending and debt?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cooperative_banking


I was actively involved in this model up until this year in a credit union. One problem I found is that in order to compete with the existing banks, credit unions end up doing more or less the same bankish things. They're not immune to shoddy lending practices, flogging credit card products, high-leverage mortgages and mutual funds.
posted by storybored at 6:54 PM on August 28, 2011


So if the sacrifices you made as a youth meant you didn't spend cash and instead stuffed it into a mattress or put it into a savings account (they are about the same these days) than yeah, inflation will be eating away at the value of your savings. But by sacrifices you mean consumption that was put off and instead put towards investments then inflation will be a great boon to you -- under the assumption that your investments are keeping up with inflation

So the only way you get to keep the product of your labor is if you continuously risk losing it all through "investments." Otherwise you are penalized through inflation, which is just political-sanctioned robbery.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:58 PM on August 28, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's that people are obligated to take out loans to buy what they need despite the fact that they probably have no job security or even the income necessary to pay their way

One of the reasons why we're in trouble now is that many people took out loans for what they wanted, not what they needed. Do you really need a new car every five years? Do you really need a 2000 square foot home? Do you really need to have a new kitchen?
posted by storybored at 6:59 PM on August 28, 2011


One of the reasons why we're in trouble now is that many people took out loans for what they wanted, not what they needed. Do you really need a new car every five years? Do you really need a 2000 square foot home? Do you really need to have a new kitchen?

I live in a really poor part of Maine. Once you get a ways away from the coast, you find yourself in mill towns where there haven't been mills for about twenty years. They are filled with the children and grandchildren of laid-off mill workers, many of whom were fired outright during the strikes of the early 80s. These are the people I see everywhere. I'm one of them. We make minimum wage or barely more than that. We have to take out loans at 12% interest and get credit cards to pay for car repairs on 15 year old cars and fill our porch with firewood.

There are more and more of us. As factories close down, we're becoming a larger sample of the American economy. In all fairness, we're probably the ones who are most likely to default on our loans. The guy down the street in the rich house--the one who just remodeled his kitchen--he's going to pay his loan off just fine. The guy who bought a new John Deere on credit, yeah, he's probably going to pay off his loan. The pregnant pizza delivery woman who just borrowed $3500 to pay off her electric bill and fix her car for work--chances are pretty good she's going to default. I think it's the fact that so many people are in this position that our economy is imploding.
posted by jwhite1979 at 7:12 PM on August 28, 2011 [16 favorites]



One of the reasons why we're in trouble now is that many people took out loans for what they wanted, not what they needed. Do you really need a new car every five years? Do you really need a 2000 square foot home? Do you really need to have a new kitchen?
posted by storybored at 6:59 PM on August 28 [+] [!]


This is a lie, this is wrong, this is an idiot wind.

Real middle class wages have been stagnant for 30 years but GDP and total American wealth has been sharply increasing. What next, are we going to hear about how lower taxed will stimulate the economy. What complete and utter rubbish.
posted by Shit Parade at 7:15 PM on August 28, 2011 [10 favorites]


he gets paid more by the same amount./em>

Nope.

posted by adamdschneider at 7:32 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


If he doesn't, it's not inflation -- it's a real rise in prices.
posted by miyabo at 7:49 PM on August 28, 2011


Yes, real middle class wages have been stagnant for several decades, on the other hand they have not decreased significantly. If we look at consumer debt, the totals show astounding growth just from 1999-2008. During those years debt rose from $5 trillion to $12.5 Trillion, an increase of 150%.

Most of that increase looks like it's due to mortgages as people piled into real estate even though the price-to-rent ratios indicated that what they were buying was historically overpriced. People wanted those houses but they didn't need them, because renting would have been much cheaper.
posted by storybored at 8:51 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


>One of the reasons why we're in trouble now is that many people took out loans for what they wanted, not what they needed. Do you really need a new car every five years? Do you really need a 2000 square foot home? Do you really need to have a new kitchen?

>>I live in a really poor part of Maine. Once you get a ways away from the coast, you find yourself in mill towns where there haven't been mills for about twenty years. They are filled with the children and grandchildren of laid-off mill workers, many of whom were fired outright during the strikes of the early 80s. These are the people I see everywhere. I'm one of them. We make minimum wage or barely more than that. We have to take out loans at 12% interest and get credit cards to pay for car repairs on 15 year old cars and fill our porch with firewood

I want to clarify what i said, jwhite. There are clearly many people who have been pushed against the wall through no fault of their own and are trapped in a debt spiral. I want to emphasize that I said "many people" went overboard with debt imprudently, I don't mean "everyone". I'm looking at the "guy in the rich house" that you mentioned who remodeled their kitchen. Plenty of those guys are culpable imo. The delinquency rate on prime mortgages has been over 10% as has the delinquency rate on jumbo mortgages (>$417,000).
posted by storybored at 9:02 PM on August 28, 2011 [1 favorite]


ople wanted those houses but they didn't need them, because renting would have been much cheaper.

another lie, another falsehood.

When people were being offered ninja ARMs it wasn't cheaper to rent, it was, on paper, free to own a house. These were predatory loans which fueled a gigantic housing bubble and caused financial free fall.

Are you so naive to believe that the poorest Americans caused our economy to collapse? How dumb do we assume the "masters of the universe" are? You know, those people who are referred to as our "best and brightest". The lenders ought to have a moral hazard as well as the borrowers.
posted by Shit Parade at 9:06 PM on August 28, 2011 [3 favorites]


Are you so naive to believe that the poorest Americans caused our economy to collapse?

See the post just above yours.
posted by storybored at 9:15 PM on August 28, 2011


The lenders ought to have a moral hazard as well as the borrowers.

Absolutely. The whole idea of packaging mortgages into a game of musical chairs was a farce and a disaster waiting to happen. Lenders were negligent as were regulatory authorities.

Borrowers, those who intentionally and fraudently applied for loans are also responsible as well. Not all subprime borrowers were innocent victims.
posted by storybored at 9:27 PM on August 28, 2011


Aren't Graeber's assertions that debt precedes currency kinda the Occam's razor explanation?

That isn't what I'm disputing. I'm disputing the mechanism whereby currency was invented. His story seems a bit light on historical evidence and a bit heavy on politically clever inferences. I'm pretty sure that the reason money was invented was not to permit a twenty-first century pseudo-anarchist to score some rhetorical points.
posted by valkyryn at 3:47 AM on August 29, 2011


Y'p, just like I thought when ya brought it in here...Here's y'r problem ma'am: You want stuff you cn't afford

Fix that and she'll stop break'n down on ya's.
posted by AndrewKemendo at 5:19 AM on August 29, 2011


It sounds like a lot of people aren't giving Graeber a fair hearing for reasons having more to do with who he is than what he's saying. Valkyryn makes some great arguments (although the Reformed tradition in Protestantism shouldn't be taken for anything approaching normative in Christian history, IMHO), but his apparent disdain for Graeber as a human being is distracting at best and, at worst, calls quite a bit of what he's saying into question.

Oh, and about the "realism" card that's been played a lot here: it's funny how supposedly secular people hold on so desperately to originally religious ideas. Original sin, total depravity - their most passionate proponents aren't in a pulpit these days. Why? Maybe to justify their own behavior. If human beings are truly the greedy, selfish, damnable creatures people from the original (John) Calvin and (Thomas) Hobbes to Ayn Rand say they are, then they just can't help themselves from getting theirs. The near-collapse of the world economy? Causing the sixth great extinction and putting the future of the human species at risk? They just can't help it, and anyone who thinks they can is just a silly, stupid idealist. The interesting thing is that quite often, real-life researchers find humans to act quite differently than the model the realist proposes. The only people who really fit the simplified mathematical model of self-interested behavior at all times, waiting to betray friends and enemies alike for a moment's advantage are economists and psychopaths.

Human beings are better than people think.
posted by jhandey at 5:40 AM on August 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


his apparent disdain for Graeber as a human being is distracting at best

Excuse me?
posted by valkyryn at 5:49 AM on August 29, 2011


me: his apparent disdain for Graeber as a human being is distracting at best

valkyryn: Excuse me?

He makes some noises about being an anthropologist, but doesn't actually point us to the research on which this idea is based.

I'm just annoyed by the fact that the guy seems to be completely bullshitting about his history and then expecting us to just go along.

I'm pretty sure that the reason money was invented was not to permit a twenty-first century pseudo-anarchist to score some rhetorical points.


In non-Metafilter reality, this would go beyond a forceful critique into pretty obvious disdain for something more than just the ideas you're taking issue with.
posted by jhandey at 6:06 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


pretty obvious disdain for something more than just the ideas you're taking issue with.

Say, his methodology? The somewhat transparent nature of his project?

But yes, the material I've read of his so far seemed insufferably smug.

Why is this a problem? His writing annoyed me and I said so. This is, as you point out, MetaFilter. People do that all the time.
posted by valkyryn at 6:42 AM on August 29, 2011


It's amazing how oblivious some people can be. Who is this valkyryn person?

You are talking about an interview - a genre in which one cannot, by definition, load on any sort of academic references. But of course I do "point to the research on which this idea is based." The title of the interview is "David Graeber talks about his book, 'Debt: The First 5000 Years" Don't you think that might have been a bit of a give-away? Anyone with even elementary research skills should have been able to go to Amazon, check "look inside this book," and check out the research for themselves: ascertain, for example, that in fact the book in its 540 pages contains not only numerous case studies but almost a hundred pages of notes, references, and bibliography.

As for his assertion that consumer debt is relatively recent - history shows him to be spectacularly wrong. Consumer debt crises go back to Mesopotamia, and early clean-slates usually didn't apply to commercial loans, only to consumer loans. Similarly the condemnations of usury in the Patristic literature or similar documents from other parts of the world pretty much invariably address consumer loans, not commercial ones. He's the one just making up history to suit his predispositions. My findings, while certainly contestable, since all findings are, are based on long intellectual traditions (consult Phillip Grierson, for example, on the origins of money) and endless detailed historical and ethnographic research.
posted by David Graeber at 10:48 AM on August 29, 2011 [96 favorites]


jhandey: Oh, and about the "realism" card that's been played a lot here: it's funny how supposedly secular people hold on so desperately to originally religious ideas.

Hobbes is hardly an example of a religious thinker!

I can't speak for all realists, but in my case, my belief that human beings aren't as reasonable and decent as we like to think is based on the history of the 20th century. It's a history of tremendous scientific and technical progress, combined with unbelievable violence and brutality. For some recent examples, see Mark Danner's reporting on the wars in Yugoslavia during the 1990s.
posted by russilwvong at 10:52 AM on August 29, 2011


Welcome to MetaFilter, David.

I'd suggest that you try to avoid insulting the people you're talking to.
posted by russilwvong at 10:54 AM on August 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


russilwvong: I see Hobbes as having "de-baptized" total depravity, an emphasis on orginal sin and other "people suck"-type doctrines that the Reformed tradition specifically had promoted during the Reformation. I don't think anyone can deny the influence of Europe's wars of religion on his writing, but I think it's wrong to look at only the dark side of human nature as true.

Also, I'll see your Yugoslavia and raise you San Francisco, Halifax, Mexico City, New York City and New Orleans. Monkeys (well, technically, apes), too, since monkeys make everything fun.

That's just for starters.
posted by jhandey at 11:05 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd suggest that you try to avoid insulting the people you're talking to.

I see no insults. Combative? Perhaps, though I would say justifiably so in this instance. Insulting? No.
posted by adamdschneider at 11:09 AM on August 29, 2011 [21 favorites]


Combative? Perhaps, though I would say justifiably so in this instance. Insulting? No.

I concur, for FWIW.
posted by valkyryn at 11:17 AM on August 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Welcome aboard, David.

I've actually ordered your book and plan to read it in the next few weeks, so there's that.
posted by valkyryn at 11:19 AM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


MeTa
posted by zarq at 11:38 AM on August 29, 2011


This is a website, not an interview. If you want to copy and paste your bibliography or a short passage from the book here, you can. The fact that you appeal only to your own authority and demand that we buy your book before questioning your claims is a little disappointing. In this community, we strongly prefer that commenters respond and refute individual claims rather than dismiss critics blithely, even when the commenters are experts in their fields. In this, Metafilter has much in common with other anonymous Internet communities, like Wikipedia.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:47 AM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Um, anotherpanacea: David makes the perfectly reasonable point that you can "look inside" his book on Amazon for free and see the references for yourself. There are 38 pages of them; I really don't think dumping them into this thread (or anywhere else for that matter) would be helpful to anyone.
posted by pharm at 11:54 AM on August 29, 2011 [13 favorites]


(Oh, and personally I might get a little shirty with people who started questioning my research and criticising my lack of references when a complete bibliography was a mere three clicks away for anyone with access to the Internet and the knowledge of how to use a search engine. Cut the guy a little slack people.)
posted by pharm at 11:58 AM on August 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Actually, no, I didn't demand you buy my book. I quite clearly said that (a) the person accusing me of bullshitting without evidence was referring to an interview, a format in which references by definition cannot be provided, and (b) the original is browsable FOR FREE on Amazon, so he could easily have ascertained, for no cost, that his accusation of my making things up with no evidence was not true.

That's what I said. Check the original post. Amazon "look inside this book." Free.

What's with the poor reading skills?
posted by David Graeber at 12:20 PM on August 29, 2011 [14 favorites]


Incidentally, were you honestly suggesting I paste in my bibliography? I mean, I could. But I wonder if it'd be appreciated. Counting the spaces, it's 162,382 characters long.
posted by David Graeber at 12:22 PM on August 29, 2011 [10 favorites]


Philip Grierson, The Origins of Money (a 1970 lecture).
posted by russilwvong at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, Russel. Still around, and still playing exactly the same game!
It doesn't work the second time. I know now to ignore you.
posted by David Graeber at 12:27 PM on August 29, 2011


David, honestly, don't bother getting into a back and forth. For some reason a couple of people want to pick a fight and its as obnoxious to everyone else reading this as it is to you.
posted by empath at 12:28 PM on August 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


the original is browsable FOR FREE on Amazon, so he could easily have ascertained, for no cost, that his accusation of my making things up with no evidence was not true.

I'll admit this is a fair cop. I hadn't thought to look there, as I've found that most monographs are lacking in this respect on Amazon. I hope to absorb the full version and respond before this thread gets closed up, and if I need to make a retraction, I will.
posted by valkyryn at 12:37 PM on August 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


valkyryn: "Check-cashing outfits are the worst of the worst. "

No. They aren't. That would be the mafia, which the check-cashing outfits more or less put out of business.

I'm not necessarily defending these businesses, but the fact that they exist above-ground, and operate under the scrutiny of the law is almost certainly a good thing.

"EZ Check Cashing" might repossess your house, but they won't break your kneecaps and throw your body into the river.

The market for low-tier financial services is vast enough that black markets are virtually guaranteed to form if it's not possible for legitimate businesses to provide the same services. (Fighting black markets is an exercise in futility. See also: The War on Drugs.)

Killing the check-cashing businesses, or regulating them out of profitability would be unlikely to have any of the positive effects that you envision. The best route would be to tackle the problem from the other direction, and make sure that people don't need to utilize a shady bank.
posted by schmod at 12:42 PM on August 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Though posting the Grierson essay was considerate!

Oh yes and it seems a nice person called pharm was posting something clarifying in much more temperate terms at the exact moment I was typing mine and I didn't notice. Thanks Pharm. Yes. I was about to give up on metafilter entirely after that fellow answered my original post by claiming I'd said people had to buy my book. Maybe now I won't. But I'd better not post the bibliography, I guess, because it might crash something from sheer bulk!
posted by David Graeber at 12:43 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think that's the first time anyone has called me a nice person on the Internet. I'll have to watch my back...

(Welcome to Metafilter David, do stick around. Just try and remember the adage about pigs and wrestling in the mud! Also, if you click on the "X more messages" link that pops up whilst your composing your next vicious takedown / flamefest / on topic comment you often find that someone else has got there before you, or at least I often do. Perhaps that's why I don't comment all that much!)
posted by pharm at 12:47 PM on August 29, 2011


Building on pharm's advice, you can also click "preview." Can't tell you how many comments I haven't made thanks to "preview."
posted by miss-lapin at 12:56 PM on August 29, 2011


Hey, all this talking about the site is great and clarifying and very nice but also off-topic and should be taken to MetaTalk, where we discuss the site and it's, uh, everything. In progress!
posted by carsonb at 1:04 PM on August 29, 2011


Don't give up on MetaFilter!

Don't make the wrong seem right.
We're still worth one more try.
Lord knows, we've come this far.
We're still worth one more try.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:20 PM on August 29, 2011


Yeah, I'm quoting David Soul. So what?
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:21 PM on August 29, 2011


It seems that the folks here who are questioning Mr. Graeber's integrity are the ones who are coming across as smug and insulting, and more than a little obtuse. wtf is a "pseudo-anarchist"? This is unquestionably one of the most important issues of our era, and here is someone who is bringing a new and broadened perspective, which has obviously pushed a few buttons. Any chance of returning this discussion to the actual content of the post? here, I'll start:

if we look at money as a simply an accounting system, as a measure rather than a store of value, it's possible to imagine a financial system which is not rigged by a few insiders. For example, the many variations on the LETS system. This line of reasoning may point toward an "open source" interest-free financial system, which may help us transition away from the compound-interest exponential curve runaway train that is threatening to send civilization-as-we-know-it off a cliff. In any case any attempt to demystify our view of the subject should be more than welcome, here or anywhere else.
posted by dinsdale at 1:57 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


> an "open source" interest-free financial system

Bitcoin!
posted by bukvich at 2:05 PM on August 29, 2011


um, maybe not :)
posted by dinsdale at 2:15 PM on August 29, 2011


LETS systems can suffer from the same problems as any other currency dinsdale. Indeed, there's a story Krugman likes to quote about a baby-sitting co-operative in the 70s which suffered a recession for essentially monetary reasons.†

They used a scrip to exchange 'baby-sitting tokens' with each other in return for acts of baby-sitting & the amount of scrip in curculation dropped so much that people started hoarding scrip, only using it for special occasions, which of course reduced the opportunity for the members to actually earn the scrip in the first place, pushing the scrip economy into a downward spiral: a classic recession caused by lack of demand feeding on itself.
posted by pharm at 2:18 PM on August 29, 2011


Actually, no, I didn't demand you buy my book.

Fair enough: I misspoke, and I apologize. However, what I meant to suggest is that you could simply share some of your reasons and evidence with us, as you would during a lecture, rather than simply pointing us elsewhere. You're here, we're here, and there are apparently some misunderstandings beyond the ad hominem. (With which I had nothing to do.) Why not clear those misunderstandings up, as you would when an attendant at a lecture misunderstands a point you've made?
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:28 PM on August 29, 2011


interesting story pharm, but it doesn't apply to a LETS system. according to Michael Linton (original founder in Comox BC) the main problem is almost the exact opposite one - anyone can go into "debt" at any time, by giving someone else a "surplus", so the crisis instead came when the 'high-functioning' individuals accumulated surpluses that they couldn't actually spend (ie. nothing much that others had to offer that they actually needed, being high functioning after all.) Anyway I don't have a horse in this race, I just think its obvious that the "experts" are just blowing smoke at this point, and nobody has any real idea of the way out of this mess.
posted by dinsdale at 2:54 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


dinsdale: money-as-accounting system actually points towards modern monetary theory, chartalism etc. It actually doesn't have to be a state, but the system administrator has to understand how to regulate aggregate demand or the whole thing blows up....see any failed MMO economy for examples.
posted by wuwei at 2:59 PM on August 29, 2011


(oh I was about to post this before the furniture issue arose)

(but after this I really have to run)

Thanks, valkyryn. I have no problem with people disagreeing with me - who'd want everyone to agree with them? how boring would that be? -but no one likes to spend two years digging around in libraries when they could have a life and then be accused of just making it all up!

About the actual topic - as in any interview, I was simplifying and schematizing a great deal. It's kind of unavoidable. For what it's worth, I think that money in its broadest definition - as any system enabling one to compare proportional values - can't possibly have one single origin, any more than, oh I don't know, boats, or dance, or the square knot. I suppose it's even possible that on a few unusual occasions in human history, currency systems emerged from inter-group barter systems - though it's hard to imagine how these could have been anything but extremely limited in scope let alone came to be generalized within the group as well as a means of exchange for everyday items with neighbors. Human history is very long. However, the logical problem with the barter story remains...

(was going to write: problem with barter version of origin of money is if it's presumed to happen between neighbors, there's no reason to assume the spot trade, and anyway, no society in which barter of this sort was the normal mode of transaction between neighbors has ever been documented. If on the other hand you are talking about barter between strangers, then the problem of people not wanting what you had would not likely come up at all, since normally people aren't bartering with strangers at all unless each side knows they have something the other wants and such exchange will typically create a system of conventional equivalences, not the use of some third item as currency. But I can't go any further at this point. Dinner calls.)
posted by David Graeber at 3:16 PM on August 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


Combative? Perhaps, though I would say justifiably so in this instance. Insulting? No.

Yeah, I love being called amazingly oblivious and spectacularly wrong.
posted by John Cohen at 4:22 PM on August 29, 2011


Amazingly oblivious and spectacularly wrong. See, the trick is to only pay attention to the adverbs in a putdown; I started doing it and I've been blissfully ever since.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 4:34 PM on August 29, 2011 [15 favorites]


What's with the poor reading skills?

Axe to grind.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:59 PM on August 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just speaking for myself.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:07 PM on August 29, 2011


Metafilter: I've been blissfully ever since.
posted by ericost at 9:23 PM on August 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


300 for the oil>overturn moneylending table>betrayed for 30
posted by clavdivs at 12:24 AM on August 30, 2011


David, on "barter money": I watched Neil Oliver's BBC series on prehistoric Britain recently and one of the things that was mentioned in passing was that archaeologists had found large caches of bronze axe heads. They contained many, many more axe heads than could possibly have any use value and many of them were pretty poorly cast. The hypothesis was that the axe heads were being used as a store of value & in trade, something which it seems would arise naturally out of any kind of barter system.

(The axe heads looked like they'd been dumped, possibly due to being made obsolete by the arrival of iron.)
posted by pharm at 12:50 AM on August 30, 2011


Also relevant: L Randall Wray's articles at Credit Writedowns, which seems to take a similar line to David on the origins of money.
posted by pharm at 2:52 AM on August 30, 2011


Yeah, I love being called amazingly oblivious and spectacularly wrong.
posted by John Cohen at 16:22 on August 29 [+] [!]

But, hey, John, come on. You so often are.

jes' kiddin' ya, man!

I mean, it's not all THAT often...

posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:02 AM on August 30, 2011


Post hock ergo proctor hock? The efficiency argument for eliminating the need for a double coincidence of wants is pretty compelling. Any reason to think that the original reason(s) for the development of money are particularly informative regarding the ongoing advantages and dynamics of the system?
posted by ~ at 7:20 AM on August 30, 2011


Any reason to think that the original reason(s) for the development of money are particularly informative regarding the ongoing advantages and dynamics of the system?

Maybe. History is weird like that. For example, I'm sort of picking away at a project about the original justifications for copyright. I'm learning that 1) we have moved away from those justifications to a significant degree, 2) the current uses of copyright are significantly incompatible with these justifications, 3) the things that copyright was originally invented to prevent are still really problems, and 4) because we've moved away from the original purpose, we're losing ground on some of those problems.*

Maybe there's a similar thing to be learned about the development of currency and the role of debt in human culture. Either way, it's a fascinating question, and I know why Graeber is interested in it, even if I remain skeptical about the way his preferred narrative serves his preferred political agenda. It's the reason I ordered the book before he showed up in the thread.

*I'll publish the paper one day, I swear!
posted by valkyryn at 12:13 PM on August 30, 2011




Oops! How did that happen?
posted by slogger at 1:23 PM on August 30, 2011


[we do not bring people's personal information into threads, please do not do that, thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 4:37 AM on August 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Endgame: When Debt Is Fraud, Debt Forgiveness Is The Last And Only Remedy
Systemically, all debt that charges a percentage ("usury") originates in delusion. Debt grows exponentially indefinitely, growth (income and otherwise) cannot. This leads to a widening condition where the fruits of productive "growth" devoted to interest payments increase until those fruits are entirely consumed...

This problem is compounded by a private Federal Reserve that lends money into circulation at interest, and then allows the multiplication of this consumer debt-money liability through fractional reserve banking. The money in circulation today could pay only a small fraction of the total private and public debt. That fact alone is evidence of a kind of systemic fraud...

This is why debt forgiveness makes not only moral but rational, mathematical sense. Finances require balancing to be coherent. There must be some way to redress systemic imbalance. One has to be able to "zero the scales" to get an accurate weight of value and to re-establish healthy value creation... The only "real wealth" here revolves around ability to produce real and needed goods (to allow us to survive), and the ability to create something that increases one's quality of life (to promote our thriving).

Take our financial junk out of the global attic in boxes, put them out on the front lawn, and see if anyone wants to pay a few bucks for the various items, give away the leftovers to anyone interested passing on the sidewalk, and recycle, donate, or dispose of the rest. It's a moving sale, and if our economy is going to get moving, maybe we ought to have one...

[S]ubtle debt extortion creates a system of never-ending debt-slavery for a vast majority of the population. When this "manageable" slavery is aggravated by a desire to use hardship to extort ever greater assets from the overburdened at ever cheaper prices (what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism"), by open and unapologetic widespread fraud, and by the unjust offloading of risk and liability to taxpayers who had nothing to do with poor decisions of private banks, then the systemic abuse is revealed in the daily lives of citizens.

Debt creates scarcity, which stimulates fear, which drives manic competition, which favors opportunism, collusion, and concentrations of power, which translates to abuse, which results in a collapse of legitimacy for the economic system. Overreach causes a breaking point, and we are getting close to it. Will the response be warfare, taxpayer revolt, political upheaval, mass default, debt forgiveness, something other, some combination?
also btw A Critique of Pure Gold: "For a solution to this instability, Hayek himself ultimately looked not to the gold standard but to the rise of private monies that might compete with the government's own. Private issuers, he argued, would have an interest in keeping the purchasing power of their monies stable, for otherwise there would be no market for them. The central bank would then have no option but to do likewise, since private parties now had alternatives guaranteed to hold their value. Abstract and idealistic, one might say. On the other hand, maybe the Tea Party should look for monetary salvation not to the gold standard but to private monies like Bitcoin." cf. The Denial Of Money*

the greater problem tho i think (marx too! speaking of 'capitalism' ;) "is that technology is constantly allowing us to do more with less..."
From a resource perspective this is vital if we're to continue to maintain economic growth in a world of finite resources. However, this same innovation is also allowing us to be more productive with less employees. We have factories full of robots to build our cars and computers. Who needs a secretarial pool when you have e-mail, copy machines, and printers?

Up through roughly the 1980s, if you had a minimal education, you could still find gainful employment that could provide a middle class income. That is less and less the case now, and it will only get worse in the future. So how do we, in a capitalist democracy, address the fact that some people will be incapable of a meaningful contribution to productive output? ...

This disparity of opportunity is one of the main reasons we have such a polarization in US politics today is because this issue has continued to go unaddressed. The tea party is not angry at government as such, but rather angry about getting screwed by the system. But their right leaning politics assumes that the target of their ire should be the government. The left, similarly angry, blames large corporations...

Of course as poverty rises, wages stagnate, and unemployment remains high for less educated workers, politicians are all too happy to demagogue, blame the other side, and make the situation even worse. So we wind up with a self-reinforcing problem where greater inequality leads to greater polarity and makes real solutions more difficult to achieve. In the end, this is unsustainable.
---
*"Few myths are as persistent as the idea that Keynesian and monetarist thinkers fail to appreciate Frédéric Bastiat point about broken windows... When Bastiat wrote that, 'money' meant, in France, a commodity of which there was limited supply. Specifically, the so-called 'Germinal Franc' contained 290.32 mg of gold. The modern economy isn't like that. The quantity of money and credit are policy variables... Everyone understands that we don't have a barter economy operating or a gold standard operating purely with cash-in-advance, but people often fail to see that this is important. But it makes a ton of difference. Among other things it means that if your argument about why something can't be done turns at some key point on an alleged scarcity of money that something has gone awry."
posted by kliuless at 2:48 PM on September 1, 2011 [4 favorites]




David Graeber on Democracy Now: The Debt of the American Poor Should Be Forgiven
posted by homunculus at 9:29 AM on September 19, 2011


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