About a year ago, I gave my old friend Keith Hart a draft of my new book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, and asked him what he thought of it. “It’s quite remarkable,” he ultimately replied. “I don’t think anyone has written a book like this in a hundred years.”
In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” It seemed like it would suddenly be possible to have a real conversation, to start asking not just “what on earth is a credit default swap?” but “What is money, anyway? Debt? Society? The market? Are debts different from other sorts of promises? Why do we treat them as if they were? Are existing economic arrangements really, as we’ve been told for so long, the only possible ones?”
That lasted about three weeks and then governments put a 13-trillion dollar band-aid over the problem and started the usual chant of “move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here.”
Still, it strikes me this is likely to be only a temporary hiatus. Just as the true crisis shows every sign of having been merely postponed, so has the conversation been put on hold. Someone has got to try to start it up again, and who better than anthropologists—those scholars whose appointed role, at least in the past, has been to remind everyone that social possibilities are far more rich and wide-ranging than we normally imagine—to try to kick it off?
David Graeber: the first 50 years
Graeber brings his own unique combination of interests and engagements to renewing this “anthropology of unequal society”. Who is he? He spent the 1960s as the child of working-class intellectuals and activists in New York and was a teenager in the 1970s, which turned out to be the hinge decade of our times, leading to a “neoliberal” counter-revolution against post-war social democracy. This decade was framed at one end by the US dollar being taken off the gold standard in 1971 and at the other by a massive interest rate increase in 1979 induced by a second oil price hike. The world economy has been depressed ever since, especially at its western core. Graeber says that he embraced anarchism at sixteen.
Graeber and Rousseau both detested the mainstream institutions of the world they live in and devoted their intellectual efforts to building revolutionary alternatives. This means not being satisfied with reporting how the world is, but rather exploring the dialectic linking the actual to the possible. This in turn implies being willing to mix established genres of research and writing and to develop new ones. Both are prolific writers with an accessible prose style aimed at reaching a mass audience. Both achieved unusual fame for an intellectual and their political practice got them into trouble. Both suffered intimidation, neglect and exile for their beliefs. Both attract admiration and loathing in equal measure. Their originality is incontestable, yet each can at times be silly. There is no point in considering their relative significance. The personal parallels that I point to here reinforce my claim that Graeber’s Debt book should be seen as a specific continuation of that “anthropology of unequal society” begun by Rousseau two and a half centuries ago.
Our world is still massively unequal and we may be entering a period of war and revolution comparable to the “Second Thirty Years War” of 1914-1945 which came after the last time that several decades of financial imperialism went bust. Capitalism itself sometimes seems today to have reverted to a norm of rent-seeking that resembles the arbitrary inequality of the Old Regime more than Victorian industry. The pursuit of economic democracy is more elusive than ever; yet humanity has also devised universal means of communication at last adequate to the expression of universal ideas. Jean-Jacques Rousseau would have leapt at the chance to make use of this opportunity and several illustrious successors did so in their own way during the last two centuries. We need an anthropology that rises to the challenge posed by our common human predicament today. No-one has done more to meet that challenge than David Graeber, in his work as a whole, but especially in this book.
Almost every institution in America—from our corporations to our schools, hospitals, and civic authorities—now seems to operate largely as an engine for extracting revenue, by imposing ever more complex sets of rules that are designed to be broken. And these rules are almost invariably enforced on a sliding scale: ever-so-gently on the rich and powerful (think of what happens to those banks when they themselves break the law), but with absolute Draconian harshness on the poorest and most vulnerable. As a result, the wealthiest Americans gain their wealth, increasingly, not from making or selling anything, but from coming up with ever-more creative ways to make us feel like criminals.
From the perspective of those living in Europe, North America, and Japan, the results did seem to be much as predicted. Smokestack industries did disappear; jobs came to be divided between a lower stratum of service workers and an upper stratum sitting in antiseptic bubbles playing with computers.
Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time.
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