All posts by david

David Graeber is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He has conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Madagascar, and among American anarchists, and has written extensively on ritual, debt, exchange, politics, bureaucracy, magic, social movements, and value theory,

Can We Still Write Big Question Sorts of Books?

[Savage Minds is very happy to welcome guest blogger David Graeber.]

About a year ago, I gave my old friend Keith Hart a draft of my new book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, and asked him what he thought of it. “It’s quite remarkable,” he ultimately replied. “I don’t think anyone has written a book like this in a hundred years.”

The reason I’m not embarrassed to recount the incident is because I’m still not sure it was meant as a compliment. If you think of most books of the sort people used to write a hundred years ago but no longer do—Frazer’s Golden Bough, Spengler’s Decline of the West, let alone, say, Gobineau’s Inequality of the Human Races—there’s usually an excellent reason why they don’t.

But in a way, Keith had it exactly right. The aim of the book was, indeed, to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate, but at the same time, without any sacrifice of scholarly rigor. History will judge whether it’s still possible to pull this sort of thing off (let alone whether I’m the person who will be able to do it.) But it struck me that if there was ever a time, the credit crisis —and near collapse of the global economy in 2008—afforded the perfect opportunity. In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” It seemed like it would suddenly be possible to have a real conversation, to start asking not just “what on earth is a credit default swap?” but “What is money, anyway? Debt? Society? The market? Are debts different from other sorts of promises? Why do we treat them as if they were? Are existing economic arrangements really, as we’ve been told for so long, the only possible ones?”

That lasted about three weeks and then governments put a 13-trillion dollar band-aid over the problem and started the usual chant of “move along, move along, there’s nothing to see here.” Continue reading