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Debt: The first 5,000 years - The Ex-Communicator

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March 8th, 2012


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09:17 pm - Debt: The first 5,000 years
I am reading a wonderful book - Debt: The first 5,000 years by anthropologist David Graeber (I'm actually listening on audio). It's a book about subjects I have often ranted about here, and it is great to read the same material dealt with in a more measured and methodical way. Also, this is a rare economics and ethnography book which has me laughing out loud with delight as I listen to it. Graeber is a left wing anarchist and his work is a criticism of capitalism, libertarianism, right wing economics, and just general violent and repressive human relations. It's also quite funny and sexy, surprisingly. Well, the bit I read was.

I can hardly summarise all that he has written about, and I've only just started the book. But I think the fundamental idea is that the Market is not primal, and money is not simply a replacement for barter. Thousands of different types of pre-monetary economy have been described by anthropologists, but none which are based on barter. His argument is that early economies are based on mutual obligation and kinship systems - for good or ill - and monetisation of obligation creates different social interactions, rather than simplifying interactions which already exist. Then the language of money - indebtedness, payment, redeeming, investing, exchanging - permeates the religious and philosophical systems of societies which adopt money. Until we act as if payback was a real unavoidable thing, like gravity or time.

Like I have been saying, he discusses how bizarre it is that people stopped working, that ships stopped sailing, that construction sites stopped building - all over the world - because 'the money ran out'. It's an indication of how hypnotised we are by our own fictions that people all over the world did stop planting crops and repairing roofs and doing operations, because of some social fiction. It's madness, and people use it as an argument: 'we can't have medical care because there isn't enough money'. It's literally meaningless to say that.

In a way I think that the financiers, at some level, understand this like the political radicals do. I compare them to mediaeval popes. At some level they know it is all nonsense, because if they believed they wouldn't be able to screw the believers over. If they actually believed in money, they'd treat it with more respect. But I think given that, they are very reckless to push their luck as far as they have, and they must kind of know that eventually it's all going to go badly wrong for them. But then, cocaine is a hell of a drug.

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Comments:


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From:altariel
Date:March 8th, 2012 09:30 pm (UTC)
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I love David Graeber! Is this kindleable?
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From:communicator
Date:March 8th, 2012 09:58 pm (UTC)
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yes i was going to get that until I saw it on audio
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From:decemberleaf
Date:March 8th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC)
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"...[Graeber] discusses how bizarre it is that people stopped working, that ships stopped sailing, that construction sites stopped building - all over the world - because 'the money ran out'. It's an indication of how hypnotised we are by our own fictions that people all over the world did stop planting crops and repairing roofs and doing operations, because of some social fiction. It's madness, and people use it as an argument: 'we can't have medical care because there isn't enough money'. It's literally meaningless to say that."
This is fascinating. Ah, yes! But I hadn't thought of it this way before.
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From:communicator
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:02 pm (UTC)
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He describes going to sociology conferences in 2006 and 7 where people said that the new financial models were creating new ways of thinking about time and quantity. But in the end they were just simple con tricks
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From:happytune
Date:March 9th, 2012 09:42 am (UTC)
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I know an economics professor who /stopped/ going to conferences in those years because he felt like he was the child in the Emperor's New Clothes story, and had these deep urges to jump up and shout loudly that it was all formulaic trickery, and couldn't they all see what was about to happen, but couldn't (he's also massively introvert, and to do something like that would probably destroy him).
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From:communicator
Date:March 9th, 2012 11:30 am (UTC)
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I wish the economists who were sounding the alarm five years ago had received some recognition since, but no
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From:del_c
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
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I'm going to have to read this book whether I like it or not, just because it's what everyone's reading (which probably means I have to get and read it before Eastercon, like I have the time)

On the stopping work thing, it's globally bizarre, but it makes prisoner's-dilemma sense, when you have people who own assets, and people who do work, and they're not the same people. The people who owned the assets told the people who did the work that they weren't going to pay them to come to work today, so the workers didn't come in. Meanwhile the assets sat there unworked, which the owners clearly find preferable to paying a wage they aren't 100% sure they'll make back in profits.

It's why I say recessions are nothing but mass asset-owner freakouts, when the rich people suddenly realize they can't trust each other to be telling the truth about what their assets are worth in %/annum.

(Mrs Bennet says "My dear, he has ten thousand a year!" Well no, he has land he hopes his tenants will pay ten thousand a year to use, who in turn hope they can get that for their produce. (But then this was when the Ricardos and Says were still saying there could be no such thing as a recession, as nobody could possibly be trying to sell everything for more than they were willing to buy everything))
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From:del_c
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:27 pm (UTC)
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shame LJ doesn't seem to recognize the <small> tag, or any of my attempts to make text smaller

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From:communicator
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:35 pm (UTC)
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it looks small on my phone
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From:nancylebov
Date:March 8th, 2012 11:49 pm (UTC)
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It looks small on my PC. The final parenthesis are different sizes.
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From:communicator
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:34 pm (UTC)
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I totally agree. It seems to me that when an economic system can't mobilise productive work it's got a problem.
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From:del_c
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:41 pm (UTC)
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Recessions would just be amusing if we workers didn't need food on the table every day. We can't simply wait a recession out, and we can't conveniently disappear because the asset owners don't require our services this year.

(there's a science fiction idea: workers going into cold sleep, to be woken when the bonds that their payroll has disappeared into mature, and the bondholders are ready to invest in labour again. Sending people as well as money into the future!)
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From:zornhau
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:16 pm (UTC)
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Autopope was talking about this book. Now I've read your review, I think I shall have to get it.
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From:communicator
Date:March 8th, 2012 10:25 pm (UTC)
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I have only read a little but I know other people liked it too. It's nice to read an old fashioned lefty anarchist.
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From:kerravonsen
Date:March 8th, 2012 11:22 pm (UTC)
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It's madness, and people use it as an argument: 'we can't have medical care because there isn't enough money'. It's literally meaningless to say that.

That kind of argument is like saying "We can't share the pie until the pie is bigger." I've thought that was silly for a long time.

A similar fallacy is "I don't have enough time to do X." No, you have just as much time as everyone else: 60 seconds a minute. What you don't have is a high enough priority to do X.

It's all about choice: choosing to do one thing rather than another.
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From:communicator
Date:March 9th, 2012 12:13 am (UTC)
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Yes, absolutely. And how did we get to these choices? I don't know.
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From:gair
Date:March 9th, 2012 01:36 am (UTC)
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Oh, this sounds great! Thanks for the rec, I hadn't heard of it.
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From:communicator
Date:March 9th, 2012 09:24 am (UTC)
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There was an online seminar on Crooked Timber about the book This is the introductory post. It was what convinced me to read it.
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From:tehomet
Date:March 10th, 2012 11:48 pm (UTC)
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he discusses how bizarre it is that people stopped working, that ships stopped sailing, that construction sites stopped building - all over the world - because 'the money ran out'. It's an indication of how hypnotised we are by our own fictions that people all over the world did stop planting crops and repairing roofs and doing operations, because of some social fiction. It's madness, and people use it as an argument: 'we can't have medical care because there isn't enough money'.

It's like the bubbles (such as the tulip bulb one), or at least the crash of the bubbles, are the only times that people actually see the financial system clearly, which is a bit of a head melter. *adds David Graeber's book to to-read list* Thank you.
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From:communicator
Date:March 12th, 2012 02:33 pm (UTC)
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It is a bubble of nothing, and yet we take it so seriously that people literally starve because they can't afford food. He talks a lot about how the developing world's resources are siphoned off to pay 'interest' on loans taken out by dictators like Idi Amin. The dictators are long gone, but the populations have to pay and pay.

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