Hann 2012 Review of David Graeber, Debt - The First 5,000 Years

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Hann 2012 Review of David Graeber, Debt - The First 5,000 Years
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  CSSH   NOTES David Graeber,  Debt: The First 5000 Years . New York: Melville House, 2011. doi:10.1017/S0010417512000102 It is difficult in five hundred words to do justice to over five hundred pages(including extensive notes and the bibliography) covering five thousandyears of world history. David Graeber must be the planet  ’ s most erudite anar-chist. This book is not ideally organized, but it is srcinal, highly entertaining,and could hardly be more topical (the author was a leading figure in the OccupyWall Street movement of 2011).The ostensible subject is debt, which in Graeber  ’ s analysis is the key to thehistory of money, economy, and the fate of our species. He sets out to demolishnot just the economists ’  myth that money srcinates in barter but also the entiretradition of liberal political theory. Drawing instead on anthropologicalmaterials but also on philology and an impressive range of historical sourcescovering the major civilizations of Eurasia, he outlines how money srcinatedas a unit of account in what he terms (following Keith Hart)  “ human econom-ies. ”  Its transformation into a medium of commercial exchange was a processdriven by violence, slavery, and the repression of women. Graeber moveseffortlessly around the world to illustrate the workings of   “ social currencies, ” usually just as they were about to be engulfed by expanding commercial econ-omies. He then traces the history of money as we know it as a long-term oscil-lation between the principles of bullion and credit money, from the temples of Ancient Mesopotamia down to Richard Nixon ’ s abandonment of gold in 1971.Quite early in this story, money shifted crucially from being a measure of human worth or   “ honour  ”  to being the supposedly neutral measure of every-thing that honour was not (p. 188). Concise summaries of sometimes quitearcane literature are leavened throughout the text by humorous asides as wellas penetrating insights into larger issues.This work is intended as a radical ’ s  “ wake-up ”  call to the West, an invita-tion to imagine human communities no longer in thrall to the most reactionaryelements of the agrarian civilizations. Graeber  ’ s historical syntheses areimmensely stimulating, even if experts are likely to chafe. He points out that the influential models of Adam Smith and Karl Marx are  “ as if  ”  abstractionsfrom the real world. But the same is true of his own historical ideal-types,which frequently flout received opinion. Thus he extends the Axial Age to Comparative Studies in Society and History  2012;54(2):447  –  461.0010-4175/12 $15.00 # Society for the Comparative Study of Society and History 2012 447  https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417512000102  around 800 AD and portrays it as thoroughly materialist, while  “ transcen-dence ”  is the keynote of the Middle Ages. (It is curious that Graeber retainsthis terminology, though in general he is determined to avoid European bias.) It seems pedantic to criticise such an author from the angle of parochialacademic specializations. Graeber is no more interested in carrying forward asub-field called  “ economic anthropology ”  than he is numismatics or cognitivescience. He nonetheless does so, for example by relying on canonical ethno-graphic work by Paul and Laura Bohannan and Mary Douglas in colonialAfrica to illustrate his notion of   “ social currency. ”  Some of his main themes,including his quarrel with the economists over the srcins of money, wereanticipated by Karl Polanyi and extensively debated in the substantivist school and its later offshoots. Graeber is dismissive of Engels ( “ a stalwart of the Cologne stock exchange ” ), who he seems to hold solely responsible for amechanistic perversion of Marx ’ s insights; yet Engels and Morgan were the pioneers of a take on property and patriarchy that anticipates his own. In hisfootnotes, he acknowledges profuse debts in the human economy of (almost exclusively) Western scholarship, citing among others Moses Finley, ChrisGregory, Philip Grierson, Keith Hart, Michael Hudson, Bernard Malamoud,Alfred Mitchell-Innes, Craig Muldrew, Richard Seaford, and Marc Shell. It seems consistent with his general politics that he acknowledges only individ-uals and ignores the evolved structures of intellectual enquiry (the bloggersof the Midnight Collective are a partial exception).A comprehensive critique of Western enlightenment notions of evolution-ary progress might be expected to cover a wider range of human societies.Graeber presents a typology of the moral foundations of economic relations(it resembles Polanyi ’ s main  “ forms of economic integration ” ), but does not have much to say about those egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies whichwould seem to leave most space for what he terms  “  baseline communism. ” Graeber would like to expand this sphere in our contemporary societies, but rather than show how this might work he merely points to our customs of  politeness as examples of an  “ everyday communism ”  that is essential to allsocial life, even in the neoliberal capitalist economy. Another omission con-cerns the literature on societies where a concerted effort was made in thecourse of the twentieth century to establish more humane economic orders.Why was Marxist-Leninist socialism so unsuccessful,  “ an historical blip, ”  out- performed and outlived by the hypocrisy and paranoia of capitalism?We know the anarchist  ’ s answer to this. Graeber concludes polemicallywith an eloquent plea on behalf of the  non-industrious  poor, a positiveexample to the rest of us greedy accumulators busy destroying the planet. At this point, not for the first time while reading this book, I found myself thinkingof my landlady in a Hungarian village many years ago. She would have beggedto differ. A devout Catholic who lived frugally and lost her lands when her family was classified as  kulák   by communists in the 1950s, she despised 448  C S S H   N O T E S  https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417512000102  debt and associated communists with lazy ne ’ er-do-wells. In her view, the basisof a moral community could only be respect for property and for work. Thisview remained hegemonic under socialism, though it has weakened somewhat in the last two decades. She would never have countenanced Graeber  ’ s rec-ommendation to revive Hammurabi ’ s practice of debt amnesty. In Graeber  ’ seyes, this Hungarian peasant epitomises the tragedy of our human trajectorysince Mesopotamia. But for her part, I am sure that my landlady would politelyadmire the fruits of David Graeber  ’ s own scholarly industry and wish him wellwith the royalties. So do I. Indeed, despite my quibbles, I feel greatly indebtedto this author.  ———  Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute for Social AnthropologyGail Kligman and Katherine Verdery,  Peasants under Siege: The Collectiviza-tion of Romanian Agriculture, 1949  –  1962 , Princeton: Princeton UniversityPress, 2011. doi:10.1017/S0010417512000114  Peasants under Siege  describes in great detail the collectivization of agriculturein socialist Romania. Starting in 1949, the Romanian communists tried toimplement the  “ Soviet blue print  ”  for agriculture, but, as the authors describe,they faced several serious problems. In contrast to Russia, Romanian peasantshad no tradition of communal landownership and peoples ’  social status wasdefined by their private property. The party lacked well-trained and educatedMarxist-Leninist cadres to enforce collectivization from above. The campaignsfaced the dilemma that the government had to rely on village insiders, who,though they had social ties within their communities, were also hard tocontrol. The central leadership advised local cadres to avoid coercing peasants, but at the same time set targets for them that they could only achieve by coer-cion. The collectivization process was less violent than in the Soviet Union, andin the end the  chiabur   —  the Romanian counterpart of the Soviet   kuláks  —  though discriminated against, were integrated into the collectives. Kligmanand Verdery argue that although collectivization brought the socialist state tothe villages, the state failed to establish a modern impersonal bureaucracy because cadres and peasants continued to interact through personal relations.The resulting overlap of power and personal relations corrupted friendshipand kin ties.The book is based on field studies carried out across the country and archi-val research. The authors describe how, as in the Soviet Union and Maoist China, Romanian peasants developed everyday strategies of resistance suchas stealing and underreporting of land and production. Parts of the book  C S S H   N O T E S  449  https://doi.org/10.1017/S0010417512000102
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