Communicator (communicator) wrote,

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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