Friday, 21 August 2009

Link of the Day: Graeber on Debt, Slavery, Money

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker's Weblog

‘Debt: The First Five Thousand Years’ by David Graeber in Eurozine.

Graeber is an academic anthropologist and left-anarchist activist. I’m not in favour of anarchism of left or right, or any other variation, but I sometimes find that anarchist thinkers are very good at getting at the violence in the evolution of social institutions. That applies to anarcho-capitalists like Murray Rothbard as much as socialist anarchists like Graeber, though the tendency to see institutions as purely the instrument and outcome of unjust violence has its disadvantages as well. I believe Michel Foucault, particularly in his later years, adopted a good approach on these issues, but I will be discussing that great thinker and activist on other occasions.

Graeber goes back to the earliest societies in which money was used, going back to pre-urban societies where some objects have a privileged exchange role, but really gets going on the emergence of metallic currency under the earliest city based monarchies. Graeber suggests that this is entwined with issues of debt and slavery. These societies have slavery for two main reasons: unpaid debts and capture in war. This kind of organised war emerges from, and reinforces, monarch centred states. The people under a monarch are all considered to be in a state of infinite debt to him, justifying the payment of taxes. Graeber sees slavery as the origin of paid labour and the demand for currency. The point Graeber wants to get out of that is to equate capitalist wage labour with slavery, which is not something I would go along with. In recent posts on Adam Smith, I’ve discussed what the difference is and the advantages wage labour give to labourers in a competitive market economy. There is a slightly different point on which I think Graeber, in my inexpert view, is probably right. The more slavery there is, the more the slave owner may find money useful as a way of giving incentives to slaves beyond physical coercion. Smith explains why an employer should find wage labour more economically advantageous than slavery, that may not have been such a pressing issue in stages of history where economic growth and changes in the organisation of labour, are very slow compared with modern economic development. Smith’s argument does explain why at any time slavery might become a contractual relation most effectively realised with currency.

On the state level, Kings may have considered their subjects to be in infinite debt to them because of their role in providing law and state defence, that is protection form internal and external coercive violence. Currency is a way in which people can pay towards that debt. Kings can just extract goods, but Graeber argues that kings early on realised that an economy with money generates more wealth, so there has always been some element of capitalism. Silver and god for money was mined by slaves, and people who could not pay money debts became slaves, so at that time the money based economy was very compatible with the unfree labour economy.

Graeber ends up trying to establish continuity from the ancient world to the world now, with the suggestion that the extreme poverty of much of the Third World, can be equated with ancient slavery. I find this highly misguided. Slavery does not mean poverty, slaves could be privileged people in ancient societies. In the Ottoman system, the government chiefs were slaves of the Sultan. In pre-Civil War American, African-American slaves had a a higher standard of living than Irish immigrants of the time. Ancient slave economies may have had a mutually reinforcing relation with early elements of capitalism, and that continued up to the slavery of the 18th Century. It is the development if capitalism, as a direct economic force, and less directly through the emergence of organised public opinion in bourgeois civil society, which led to the end of slavery. The extreme poverty of the ‘bottom billion’ in the Third World comes from failed attempts at alternatives to capitalism, stories about IMF/World Bank conditions to financial rescue packages give some people the impression that capitalism has been forced on undeveloped countries, and this creates a slavery to debt and financial institutions. The reality is that the poor countries do not have free market economies, and those who have made most progress towards such economies have done the most to lift their people out of poverty.

Despite these reservations, I appreciate the way that Graeber looks at a genealogy of money in capitalism in highly unfree social relations. The point of genealogy in Nietzsche and Foucault is that it recognises that the origin(s) and the contemporary outcomes are not the same thing.

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