In Rousseau’s (and Polanyi’s) Footsteps (Thoughts on Debt)

After writing my last post on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years I got a nice email from Keith Hart, which reminded me I still hadn’t read his long review of David’s book which I’d bookmarked back in July. I was waiting till I read the book myself as I like to read things with an open mind. But if you only read one review of Debt, this is the one you should read. Hart is himself one of the foremost economic anthropologists, and he has long been writing about some of the main issues discussed in Graeber’s book: money, the human economy, etc. His book on Money, The Memory Bank, is available online. (Keith is a long-time innovator in moving anthropology to the internet, and is also one of the main forces behind the Open Anthropology Cooperative.)

I’d really just like to leave this post here and make you all go read Keith’s piece, but it is long, and experience tells me few readers ever click on the links, so here are a few highlights for you [below the fold]:


Modern anthropology was born to serve the coming democratic revolution against the Old Regime. A government by the people for the people should be based on what they have in common, their “human nature” or “natural rights”…

For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency. His subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world. “It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities”…

Perhaps this aspect of the book may be illustrated by introducing a recent short film. Paul Grignon’s Money as Debt (2006, 47 minutes) — an underground hit in activist circles — seeks to explain where money comes from. Most of the money in circulation is issued by banks whenever they make a loan…

He shows, forcefully and elegantly, how implausible the standard liberal origin myth of money as a medium of exchange is; but he also rejects as a nationalist myth the main opposing theory that traces money’s origins as a means of payment and unit of account to state power. In the first case he follows Polanyi (1944), but by distancing himself from the second, he highlights the interdependence of states and markets in money’s origins.

A brief treatise on the moral grounds of economic relations” makes explicit his critique of the attempt to construct “the economy” as a sphere separate from society in general. This owes something to Polanyi’s (1957) universal triad of distributive mechanisms – reciprocity, redistribution and market – here identified as “everyday communism”, hierarchy and reciprocity. By the first Graeber means a human capacity for sharing or “baseline sociality”; the second is sometimes confused with the third, since unequal relations are often represented as an exchange – you give me your crops in return for not being beaten up. The difference between hierarchy and reciprocity is that debt is permanent in the first case, but temporary in the second…

The following extended reflection on slavery and freedom — a pair that Graeber sees as being driven by a culture of honour and indebtedness — culminates in the ultimate contradiction underpinning modern liberal economics, a worldview that conceives of individuals as being socially isolated in a way that could only be prepared for by a long history of enslaving conquered peoples. Since we cannot easily embrace this account of our own history, it is not surprising that we confuse morality and power when thinking about debt…

The gap between our approaches to making the economy human is therefore narrowing. Even so, there are differences of theory and method that point to some residual reservations I have about the Debt book. The first of these concerns Graeber’s preference for lumping together states, money, markets, debt and capitalism, along with violence, war and slavery as their habitual bedfellows. Money and markets have redemptive qualities that in my view (Hart 2000) could be put to progressive economic ends in non-capitalist forms; nor do I imagine that modern institutions such as states, corporations and bureaucracy will soon die away. Anti-capitalism as a revolutionary strategy begs the question of the plurality of modern economic institutions. As Mauss showed (Hart 2007), human economies exist in the cracks of capitalist societies. David Graeber seems to agree, at least when it comes to finding “everyday communism” there and, by refusing to sanitize “human economies” in their pristine form, he modifies the categorical and historical division separating them and commercial economies. Revolutionary binaries seem to surface at various points in his book, but an underlying tendency to discern continuity in human economic practices is just as much a feature of David Graeber’s anthropological vision…

For now I don’t really have anything to add to Keith’s piece, but I would be interested to read any comments our readers might have. Now I have to go read some of the many links and citations in the review…

See all articles in this series.

6 thoughts on “In Rousseau’s (and Polanyi’s) Footsteps (Thoughts on Debt)

  1. I read the review and quite liked it, but it also shows the limits of ethnography-inspired approaches. To focus on a select few cases in detail is very useful to critique conceptions of the origin of money in the discipline of economics. But then Graeber seems to have a rather cavalier approach to geography and history as a whole. I remember reading Graeber’s book and finding that he covered all of the Americas (well he didn’t claim to cover it, but there was no other discussion of indigenous cultures as such) with a single reference to Urton’s book on the Inca quipu! You can’t do that man, especially given the recent work on markets and state-finance in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Hart is surely right that the first half of Graeber’s book is more systematic.

    In order to have some systematics in terms of history and geography, surely more attention to world-systems theory and Braudel’s ideas on historical temporalities are required. This is really where Graeber goes awry and perhaps explains why his solutions appear rather unconvincing to me. The combination of ‘state of nature’ philosophical ideas and string of ethnographic cases is just insufficient. Graeber’s own notion of the cycle rests upon a very selective reading of the historical record, especially with regards to the presence of money in the Bronze Age.

    In my view this also challenges Hart’s notion that an ‘eschatology’ is not called for, in fact that is precisely what would happen. The transition to a new ‘mode of production’ has historically proven to be extremely disruptive (the emergence of the first cities globally and the first millennium BC in Eurasia being the best examples).

  2. A couple of important points from the selections you posted here Kerim:

    The first is that both Graeber and Hart (and Polanyi) argue that the origin of money is the result of interdependence between states and markets. This seems simple, but it goes against a lot of standard debates about economics–which are pretty widespread these days. Sometimes debates/discussions about economics break down into arguments for either states OR markets, and they usually can’t go anywhere.

    Second, I think it would be worthwhile to read Hart’s 2000 book on money as well here. There are a lot of similarities in the arguments put forth in that book and Graeber’s book on Debt. But as the review points out, there are also some key differences. Hart’s insistence on the “redemptive” possibilities of money and markets (see above) is one example. In my own research, I think I fall prey to the “markets and money are bad” line of reasoning a little too often, and it’s something I need to rethink if I want to get closer to an argument that isn’t just another idyllic or simple take on these kinds of issues. Hart’s argument is well worth reading, and is a good compliment to Graeber’s book.

  3. Just for clarification, I don’t actually say money emerges from an interdependence of states and markets. Maybe coinage. Definitely not money. I think money predates either states or markets – at least in any form that people are thinking of when they use the term. If a Sumerian temple complex is fixing a relation between grain and silver, for instance, to calculate internal inputs and outputs, as well as external debts, neither the state or the market would appear to be involved.

    On Marcus’ “you can’t do that, man.” comment – I’m curious: why not? That’s a strong statement. It is wrong to write a book on debt that does not include _all_ historical examples? Why? Do I ever say I am writing such a comprehensive survey? In the historical chapters I state quite clearly that I am writing a history of the alternation between credit and bullion forms of money in Eurasian history, since that’s where that alternation took place. It didn’t take place in the Americas, at least until its incorporation in the same world-system after 1492. So why am I obliged to include Andean and Mesoamerican systems even though they have nothing really to do with what I’m specifically describing? Based on some morality that says it is wrong to leave any case out? If so, was I also obliged to describe insular Southeast Asia, or Oceania, or all societies in Africa other than the Lele, Tiv, and Cross River folk that I do discuss? Or if not all of them, how many would be adequate? What about the Byzantine empire? What about Scandinavia, which is never mentioned at all? Or Russia?

    I’m just thinking you might want to reflect on the impulse behind this criticism because I strongly suspect it’s the reason no one writes broad-ranging books. Either you write a comprehensive text-book survey, giving due attention to the work of all area specialists who are academically powerful enough to object to being left out (i.e., yes Americanists, maybe not Siberianists, they’re still insignificant, etc etc), which is a very particular type of book, or you just forget it and focus on one or two examples, leaving the broad sweep of history to non-anthropologists who generally don’t talk about any non-Western examples at all. Why do we want to put ourselves in this situation?

  4. say I tried to comment on this but somehow it never posted!
    it’s not in moderation or anything like that?

  5. Hi David,

    For some reason your comment got caught up in our sometimes overly aggressive spam filter. I pulled it out. Sorry about that. Should appear above now.

    And thanks for the clarification about your argument. A good point to help keep in mind the difference between money and coinage.

  6. @ David Graeber

    You’re right of course, about not needing to include everything. I’m not saying your book needed to include the Andes and Mesoamerica, I just interpreted your mention of Urton’s book as positing some parallel between the Andes and your main thrust. My other point is that it’s possible to use world-systems theory, and its modifications for pre-capitalist/non-western contexts, so as to be able to cover large areas (there’s a push within archaeology to do that, see Kohl’s book on Eurasia). But maybe you already commented on that and I forgot, it’s not polemical but rather constructive criticism.

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