I recently finished reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and I hope to start a series of posts inspired by this book. Not so much reviewing it, as in dialog with it. For my first post I wanted to highlight what I understand to be the Marxist underpinnings of Graeber’s methodology. To do so it is useful to look at a recent critical review of the book in Jacobin by Mike Beggs, one of the journal’s editors. It is useful because Beggs get things very wrong, but wrong in a particularly interesting way.
Beggs seems eager to prove is that Graeber creates a straw man out of economic theory, but in doing so he himself makes a straw man out of Graeber. He starts by conceding that some forms of economics are overly individualistic:
The most simplistic renditions of neoclassical economics may reduce all human interactions to self-interested exchange.
He then promptly points out that this critique is not new, and that the importance of social structure “could almost be seen as a constant in social theory since the classics.” Here is where it gets interesting:
But most of these other approaches to grand socio-history differ from Graeber’s in treating these levels as structures, and not simply as the practices that create them. They are made up of complex, evolving patterns of relationships that cannot be reduced to or derived from deliberate individual or interpersonal action. They emerge, as Marx put it, “behind the backs” of the very people who collectively create them. They become the social contexts that frame our actions, the circumstances not of our choosing within which we make history. They are collective human products, but not of ideological consensus – rather, they are the outcome of often competing, contradictory pressures.
Graeber, in contrast, stays mainly at the level of conscious practice and gives a basically ethical vision of history, where great changes are a result of shifting ideas about reality.
Whether or not you agree with Graeber’s overall argument about the history of debt, this is a laughable characterization of what Graeber is doing in this book which is precisely to highlight the “competing, contradictory pressures” which have shaped human history. Moreover, in doing so, Graeber deploys a concept of ideology based “complex, evolving patterns of relationships that cannot be reduced to or derived from deliberate individual or interpersonal action.” A model I will argue is directly drawn from Marx.
Let us start with those “competing, contradictory pressures”… Here’s a quote from the end of Chapter 3:
This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today.
So, according to Graeber we simultaneously see ourselves as individuals who owe each other nothing (Romney’s “we built that”) and in debt to the state till we die (Obama’s “they didn’t build…that”), but this is a “false dichotomy” which presents us with two sides of the same coin.
Or how about Graeber on Christianity (Chapter 4)?
One of the things that makes the Jesus of the New Testament such a tantalizing character is that it’s never clear what he’s telling us. Everything can be read two ways… This is a vision of human life as inherently corrupt, but it also frames even spiritual affairs in commercial terms: with calculations of sin, penance, and absolution, the Devil and St. Peter with their rival ledger books, usually accompanied by the creeping feeling that it’s all a charade because the very fact that we are reduced to playing such a game of tabulating sins reveals us to be fundamentally unworthy of forgiveness.
He goes on to show many of the same contradictions exist in other world religions as well. But over and over again he emphasizes that (as in this quote from Chapter 5) “we are not talking about different types of society here…but moral principles that always coexist everywhere.” What he is talking about is what he sees as a fundamental set of “competing, contradictory pressures” universal to all societies, which take different forms depending on the particular balance of power. And different societies use different means to prevent their society from changing from one form into another.
communistic relations can easily start slipping into relations of hierarchical inequality… Genuinely egalitarian societies are keenly aware of this and tend to develop elaborate safe guards around the dangers of anyone–say, especially good hunters, in a hunting society-rising too far above themselves; just as they tend to be suspicious of anything that might make one member of the society feel in genuine debt to another. A member who draws attention to his own accomplishments will find himself the object of mockery. Often, the only polite thing to do if one has accomplished something significant is to instead make fun of oneself.
There are plenty of quotes like this from every chapter, so that anyone who has actually read the book is likely to wonder whether Mike Beggs wasn’t writing based on a pre-defined narrative in which Graeber = anarchist = “has no theory of social structure”? Or, perhaps, he is simply mired in an outdated view of structuralism unsullied by later, processual, approaches such as that of Bourdieu? Graeber’s approach certainly seems influenced by Bourdieu and he quotes approvingly of Bourdieu’s description of gift giving as requiring “infinite artistry.” As Bourdieu says in his critique of structuralism, “timing is all-important.” In pointing this out, Bourdieu was not reducing structure to human agency, but simply pointing out that structures are always incomplete and that these gaps (such as the gap in time between receiving and returning a gift) offer space for human agency.
Let us now turn to the second point, Graeber’s concept of ideology. In fact, I think that much of the above discussion already goes a long way towards disproving Beggs’ account of Graeber’s theory of ideology, but since Beggs evokes Marx, it is worthwhile to look at Marx’s theory of ideology. Even better, let’s look at Graeber’s account of Marx’s theory of ideology since it happens to coincide very closely with my own.
I draw the following from “The Political Metaphysics of Stupidity,” the introduction to a special issue The Commoner. (You can download the PDF here.)
But what sort of theory of symbolism, exactly, is Marx working with? The best way to think about it, perhaps, is to say that, like his theory of productive action… Money has meaning for the actors, then, because it sums up their intentions… However, it can do so only by integrating them into a contrastive totality, the market, since it is only by means of money that my individual actions and capacities become integrated as a proportion of the totality of everyone’s.
Marxist ideology is not some kind of “false consciousness” which is simply imposed upon people by the media, it is the product of their lived experience within market based societies. Markets make us see the world in a certain way because markets involve us in certain forms of social action that lend themselves to see the world in a market-oriented way. Marx argues that we suffer from commodity fetishism in seeing our own labor as simply another commodity, bought and sold on the market like any other, when in fact the sale of labor in the marketplace is dependent upon a set of hierarchical power relations in which some people (the working class) must sell their labor to other people (capitalists) in order to survive.
One of Graeber’s great triumphs in Debt (building on his earlier work) is to apply this essentially Marxist notion of ideology to pre-market economies. Although I feel that Graeber has done himself a disservice in the strident tone he has frequently used in replying to critics online, I feel sympathy for him because critics seem to continually try to fit him into a predefined conception of “anarchism” that misunderstands the analytical depth of his argument. He sees these misunderstandings as intentional, but I think it just comes from their own ignorance of certain intellectual traditions which are well established in anthropology but less so in other disciplines; especially economics and political science, which is a shame since this book is partially an attempt to bridge the gap between those disciplines.
His anarchism, it seems to me, lies not in a rejection of social structure or the importance of markets, but in shifting the location of ideology from markets themselves to the state violence he argues is essential to preserving markets, even in pre-capitalist economies. I don’t know if I fully accept this argument, but it deserves to be discussed for what it is. It is, first and foremost, a theory of “the social contexts that frame our actions, the circumstances not of our choosing within which we make history.” Too bad Mike Beggs couldn’t see that.
UPDATE: After posting this I realized I’m not entirely satisfied with the formation I used in the last paragraph: “shifting the location of ideology from markets themselves to the state violence he argues is essential to preserving markets, even in pre-capitalist economies.” This isn’t right. It would be better to say that Graeber focuses on the ideology associated with the rise of money, as opposed to the rise of market based labor relations, and that money has risen in many different ways in pre-capitalist economies, under many different forms of labor relations. The role of violence is essential for his argument, and is tied closely to slavery and debt bondage, but I think I’d like to wait for another post to talk about it. Till then I’ll leave it at that.