I’m a participant in an online seminar in David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years, a book that I heartily recommend. I also heartily recommend the debate, at http://crookedtimber.org/, but since it is primarily focused on economics and politics I thought I would also reproduce my contribution – I assume I was asked primarily as an ancient historian to comment on the historical dimension of the book – here.
David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style. It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus. In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer. In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism… Above all, the book’s starting position comes straight from nineteenth-century critical historicism: a sense of the importance of the past in shaping the present. Graeber’s evocation of Nietzsche and his provocative fantasies about debt and sacrifice in Chapter 4 seem to be a deliberate nod to this tradition. In Nietzsche’s account of the modern historical sense, humans are understood as being conscious of themselves as beings within time, who tell stories about the past and its relation to the present as a means of making sense of the world. Such stories, whether primitive myths or modern historiography, are never neutral or value-free descriptions of reality, but are shaped by our desires, and in turn – because we inherit and take for granted most such stories, rather than constructing them ourselves – they shape our conceptions and behaviour. Above all – and this is a point emphasised also by Marx (who plays a conspicuously minor role in Graeber’s book) – these stories serve to legitimise the present, to present it as a natural and inevitable state of affairs. They present the values of our society as either universal or as the logical end point of development, or – and this isn’t entirely coherent, but the advantage of stories is that they’re not bound by rules of logical consistency but by the demands of narrative – as both.
In either case, such stories represent the present state of affairs as inevitable and right, or at least as inevitable; as Graeber puts it, they shape our vision of the alternatives, frequently by denying the possibility of any realistic alternatives. The aim of the critical historical account is to undermine such stories and so disrupt their effects on people’s conceptions, and this is precisely the aim of the first part of his book: to demolish the myth of ‘primitive barter’ and other such economic genealogies that have the effect of presenting markets, exchange and the like as natural objects, objects which serve, in Smith’s words, the ‘propensity in human nature…to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another’. Graeber argues that a historically specific and contingent form of behaviour and set of values has become embedded in our common sense as a universal principle of human nature, so that the idea that one should pay one’s debts, and the idea of debt itself, are taken entirely for granted, and alternative approaches – whether historical or visionary – seem absurd. He shows how the myth of primitive barter is founded on the tendency for people to view the past through their own unquestioned values and assumptions, and then to claim the past as proof of the universal nature of those values. He shows how alternative modes of thought and behaviour make perfect sense not only in their own terms – a standard trope of substantivist economic anthropology – but actually in our terms as well, if we could only focus on our capacity for social relationships rather than our sense of self-interest.
If capitalism is not the telos of human development and is not a perfect reflection of natural human instincts – if earlier societies were capable of living and thinking differently – then the future is also opened up. Graeber carefully avoids offering concrete suggestions or proposals for what an alternative future might look like; his primary goal is simply to insist that it could be different and almost certainly will be different. However, his book is much more than just a critique of existing economic narratives and their role in legitimising modern economic thinking; he wishes not only to demolish problematic myths of human development, but then to replace them with a better story, which will show how we actually ended up in our present position, prostrating ourselves before ‘the market’ as if it were a force of nature or a divinity rather than a human creation. From the origins of money, credit, slavery and the state in the bronze and early iron ages to the emergence of commodity markets in the so-called ‘axial’ civilisations of the classical era, then a second cycle from the birth of capitalism in the later middle ages to the present state of crisis, the chaos and complexity of historical development are shown to have an underlying order, which ties together and makes comprehensible a range of apparently disparate phenomena from the invention of philosophy to the surprising capitulation of the Aztecs.
Academic historians tend to be deeply suspicious of such grand narratives, and generally dismissive of them; they purport to explain too much, erasing complexities and differences, ignoring the detail of the evidence and the hard-won insights of the specialists in favour of broad-brush generalisations and simplistic assertions. Since I imagine I was invited to contribute to this seminar in the capacity of a historian of the ancient economy, I should record that I did indeed spend much of my time tutting to myself during the sections on Greece and Rome, and muttering things like ‘yes, but it’s rather more complicated than that’ – the historian’s traditional mantra. Some serious questions could be raised about Graeber’s account of ancient slavery, about his neglect of Sparta and his habit of taking Athens as representative of an entire era, about his assumptions re the high level of literacy in this period and his account of the history of the Roman Republic (very compressed, hence tending to conflate events that were centuries apart). Actually, though, I was impressed with how well he knows the relevant scholarship (much better on Greece than Rome, admittedly, perhaps because there is more of a tradition in that sub-field of the sort of ‘culturalist’ approach to economic history that’s amenable to his own project); compared with some of the atrocities committed by economists and business historians seeking to reclaim ancient economic history from the ancient historians (something of a trend in recent years – which seems to call for an explanation) this is a credible and sophisticated interpretation of the subject.
More importantly, these occasional mis-steps and arguable interpretations presented as undisputed fact do not necessarily undermine the credibility or usefulness of the overall narrative and interpretative framework – unless, like many historians, you reject the idea of any such over-arching framework on the grounds that they’re too literary and rhetorical and don’t conform to our experience of history as somewhat erratic and contingent (which is of course only another narrative…). That’s not to say that I’m yet convinced by the account itself, but from a purely parochial perspective it’s important, and ought to be read by all historians of pre-modern economies: it offers a sophisticated alternative to mainstream economics as an interpretative framework for pre-modern economic behaviour, it raises a new set of ideas about how to think about ‘economic thought’ and what texts and institutions should be considered under that heading, and it gives an added impetus to the enterprise by showing how the past might indeed illuminate the present, as the roots of our current condition are located thousands of years ago rather than in the relatively recent birth of ‘modernity’ or ‘capitalism’.
I do wonder, however, how far Graeber may be fully signed up to a Nietzschean project of self-consciously creating a new myth for us to live by. After all, the problem with establishing that a misconceived view of the world originated in the distant past is that such a view may prove almost as hard to shift as if it were actually a reflection of a universal human nature. The task of opening people’s eyes to the possibility that things could be different calls then for the whole range of tools, not just rational argument but the power of narrative (the morally satisfying rise and fall of civilisations – albeit without overtly resorting to the organic metaphors beloved of Spengler or Toynbee) and the arts of rhetoric (the association of debt and markets with violence, slavery and state power at every opportunity; the regular use of paradox to startle the reader out of complacent assumptions). A ‘better’ narrative may, for Nietzsche, be judged superior on moral grounds, in terms of its ends and its effects, rather than on mere factual plausibility, given that different stories could always be told about the same events. But it may be that Graeber’s account is more Marxian in its intent, demolishing the ideological myths of the economists in order that a true, non-mythological account of human history can be presented. In which case one might wonder whether he is wholly in control of the narrative forms he has inherited and adopted, or has rather been seduced by the power of the tragic plot structure and the grandeur of ‘decline and fall’…