I spent the weekend in Tübingen at a conference organised by John Weisweiler on Debt: the first 3500 years, exploring different aspects of the ideas presented by David Graeber in Debt: the first 5000 years within ancient contexts, from early Babylonia to the early Islamic period; programme can be downloaded here, or follow my attempts at pithy summary on Twitter under #Debt3500. My initial reaction to the idea was that it’s amazing no one had thought of doing this before. It’s not just that Graeber’s book offers some provocative ideas about the roles of debt and money in shaping human relationships (above all, different forms of dependence) that seem well worth exploring in the context of antiquity, but also that the periods we ancient historians are concerned with play a significant role in his overall schema of historical development – this is the Axial Age, in the phrase he borrows from Karl Jaspers, where world-changing intellectual developments went hand in hand with far-reaching economic and social changes, with dramatic implications for everything that then followed up to the slow-motion car crash of contemporary capitalism.
Further, Graeber’s account of ancient history is not based on taking a few out-dated narrative accounts at face value, as happens all too often in such ambitious attempts at interpretative synthesis by specialists from other fields, but on well-informed but critical reading of some reasonably cutting-edge scholarship. At any rate this is true for the Greeks; Rome gets, in my view, surprisingly little attention in his account, all things considered, and my hypothesis remains that this is because Graeber found a lot less scholarship on the Roman economy that was sympathique for his approach, whereas for the Greeks he can draw on Seaford, Humphreys, Kurke and von Reden. In brief, in this book ancient history is seen as important, and ancient historical scholarship is turned to productive uses in an ambitious project engaged with vital contemporary issues, which has been an international success. From our point of view as full-time scholars of antiquity, what’s not to like?
Well, on reflection, perhaps rather a lot; if it’s surprising that no one has organised such a conference before, maybe it’s also surprising that it has happened at all, and we owe John a debt of gratitude (see what I did there) for getting together the funding to put it on. Firstly, Graeber’s book adopts an avowedly theoretical and social-scientific approach; it aims to explore broader concepts and ideas about long-term developments, not just historicised miniatures or a collection of data for its own sake – it positively incites plaintive cries of “yes, but it’s much more complicated than that” from conventionally-minded colleagues. Further, his choice of approach is out of step with the dominant trends among those historians who are committed to social scientific approaches, namely the ideas of NIE and the Stanford School; in at least some respects, it looks rather like a return to the Bad Old Days of Finley and Polanyi, the stale and unprofitable incantations of substantivist and culturalist interpretations of economic phenomena which we’re all supposed to have got out of our systems by now – which is great for those of us who never much liked the NIE turn in the first place, but that does seem to be a minority view.
Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s an overtly political project; it originated, Graeber explained in his keynote lecture, in his efforts to think about the proper role of the intellectual within radical activist movements, once the idea of vanguardism is discarded. Historians have only interpreted the past; the point is to change the world. The Axial Age matters not in itself, but in its continuing effects in the present; we need to understand it in order to grasp the real conditions of our current situation, to break the tyranny of inherited conceptions and to learn to imagine new possibilities. Or at least, for those of us who may currently be hovering on the edge of despair (homophobic massacres in the US, ten days before Britain drives itself off a cliff, and then there’s November to look forward to), to grasp why we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine as it bleeds to death.
It seems fair to say that this conception of the purpose of academic endeavour may not be widely shared within the classical profession. It isn’t that we are unwilling to sign up to campaigns – though there are certain colleagues towards whom I may feel distinctly resentful if the UK does indeed end up leaving the EU – but that’s a fair way from actually committing to activism and orientating one’s work towards a wider cause. Graeber’s work suggests not just that we could be doing something more with our knowledge of classical antiquity, but that we should; that academic engagement and impact should be about far more than self-preservation and persuading more children to develop ancient interests, and should be genuinely engagé.
One of the most striking strands in Debt: the first 5000 years, which was picked up by a number of speakers at the Tübingen conference, is the appearance in different cultural contexts of the idea that humans are born already laden with debt. In pre-modern contexts, this debt is a sacred one, owed to the gods or to the cosmos, to be paid back through sacrifice and/or right living. In the early twenty-first century, its most obvious forms are all too tangible: the societal indebtedness and inequality that leave the majority of younger people even in prosperous western countries facing a poorer and more insecure existence than their parents, and the credit drawn by earlier generations on the environment that may prove impossible to repay.
But we can also hang onto the more constructive idea that we are all bound up in a complex network of ties and obligations with everyone else, that need not be understood solely in terms of market exchange or calculation. Those of us whose primary ability to contribute anything useful to society lies in the realm of ideas need to be as generous as possible in producing and disseminating those ideas, in a kind of intellectual potlatch – but preferably focusing our efforts on things which might actually benefit others. Even if, in the case of the EU Referendum, some of them might not realise it, or want to accept enlightenment…