Graeber’s Marxism (Thoughts on Debt)

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.

For instance:

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.

13 thoughts on “Graeber’s Marxism (Thoughts on Debt)

  1. Thanks Kerim – yes, the role of violence in maintaining markets, and what precisely happens to them in the absence of state coercion, and what it means for political strategies now… that was the kind of thing I was hoping to be debating about.

    One reason I’ve been impatient with some reviewers is that I expected to have arguments like that, not have to write endless “no I didn’t say that”s over and over again. I’m sure you’re right that some of it is people who have some prefab conception of what sort of wrong things a person like me would think, and then read the book only to find evidence that I do in fact think those things. In fact that’s pretty much what I said in many cases. Many Marxist critics for instance, seem to decide I must be a Proudhonian Mutualist who likes markets, and even state outright that I have proposed a future based on market exchange and private ownership of the means of production! Such claims are only possible if you are already carrying around a list of, say, ’17 positions that a radical thinker could possibly take,’ and read only long enough to decide which one to plug me into. But it’s also true that a few interlocutors are simply dishonest – i.e., take passages where I make it clear I’m just summarizing some other thinkers” ideas and claim I’m proposing it myself, without citing sources (Farrell did this systematically); take passages I quote from other authors and pretend they’re quotes from me (Beggs did that). But let’s not get into all of that. Or they continue to insist I hold a position even after I’ve replied and explicitly said that I think the opposite.

    But no need to go into all of that.

    Thanks, Kareem, for the post. Yes, you are right. My conception of ideology – influenced by people like Terry Turner here, but also, in my own way Mauss – is that it’s emergent from but always embedded in practice, and always pulling in contradictory directions at once. The Mauss influence is the idea that on some minimal level, all social possibilities are available simultaneously, and the main thing ideology does is to highlight a certain form of practice – usually typical of predominant defining social activity of a certain class fraction – and propose it as the essence of humanity. Hence the “we are human” quote, but also, the way the aristocratic gift can come to be seen just as much the key to what humans are really about in one social formation as rational self-interested calculation can in another Okay, I’m being jargony now. Usually I don’t indulge. But you get the idea.

  2. Thanks Kerim. This is a useful and productive analysis. It puts words to the sensation i got reading the Beggs of how he was incorrect in his interpretation.

  3. Fascinating review, with a couple great sentences that may help me in teaching Marx in the future, thanks. I haven’t had a chance to read Debt yet but I am increasingly eager to.

  4. I’m looking forward to more of these posts. I think Graeber refers to himself in fragments as something like a practice-oriented libertarian marxist. While that’s a mouthful, I’m not sure many people have preconceived notions of what exactly that position implies, whereas all sorts of baggage comes in with “anarchist”.

  5. Meant to include the following in my previous comment/question to David Graeber: I found the ‘debt we can never repay’ passage Kerim excerpted interesting, especially in relation to the labor nannies provide (including and especially love/affection/care), of interest because such domestic work is simultaneously being constructed via both discourses: rational choice and unplayable gift. The nanny is supposedly ‘freely choosing’ to sell her labor–and it is valuable (even if often poorly compensated, and certainly NOT viewed as a high-status, high-prestige job) precisely because the nanny is supposed to be a surrogate parent providing surrogate parental love, against the backdrop of broader societal understandings of parenting as itself a debt that can never truly be repaid.

  6. Thanks for that post Kerim. I think that one downside of the speed of the Internet news cycle is that everyone gets very excited for books, articles etc. that are announced… and then no one then goes on to the next step of reading them carefully, or empathetically. So good on you.

  7. Thanks for starting this series, Kerim —

    I also finished Debt recently and have been thinking about the best approach for reviewing it, in my case from the standpoint of modeling. I hope to have time to write some myself, and I will look forward to your future installments.

  8. One of the joys of reading Debt is that it throws away so many calcified ways of looking at this question (capitalist/communist, individual/social, etc.). At its heart, Debt for me made the very simple (but no less profound for its simplicity) statement that it’s not about theories — it’s about people. To see people as an abstraction is to see them in terms of a market and to define them narrowly. As the human population grows, it becomes ever harder to maintain sight of the individual. Like McLuhan noted, most of the violence we see around is a search for identity.

    Part of the challenge for Graeber (one he explicates well) is that very few people within large-scale societies can grasp the kind of interrelationships he’s showing us we’ve lost through this sort of thinking. It reminds me of something I read last year — Being and Place Among the Tlingit — which has this quote to refer to their sense of belonging to the group: “Who is an outsider among us?” Or even Eliade’s “Eternal Return” … fewer people all the time seem able to imagine something like that.

    Like Occupy (which I know he’s been involved with), I’m glad David’s pushing against the definitions. Confounding the status quo seems to be the only way to be heard anymore.

    In the meantime, people will continue to argue by the old definitions. It’s great that people like you will continue to call them on it.

    Really thought-provoking post–thank you!

  9. My comments here, made with a variety of addresses, usually go directly into spam. But the triumph of hope over experience…

    Beggs is an extreme example of a contemprorary trend. It is not so much that he pigeonholes David, but that his only concern is with what is between his own ears. There may have been a time when a reviewer would ask if the author achieved what he set out to do. But now th eonly question is: How would I have written this and how can I punish the guy for doing something different? David takes it personally — and I have never responded to public crisiticism because defending yourself always loses — but this is also his point. The impersonal is always personal.

    David has always claimed to combine Marx and Mauss (Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value passim), as I do, but rather more inconsistently. We have learned a lot from each other because of this shared base. It is worth pursuing what the main similarities and differences with Marx are.

    The quote on states and markets above could have been taken from my 1986 article. But they are both impersonal institutions in theory. Marx thought the state would wither awat as a result of urban commerce and its contradictions. David doesn’t. Whether you want to draw inspiration from Bourdieu (who is a French version of Talcott Parsons c. 1937), Mauss or someone else, the challenge is to show how people relate to and may even generate them. Marx nor any political economist, didn’t address that question, while his followers put their faith in the state. They could only do so because he didn’t conceive of an effective alternative.

    Another difference is how Marx and Graeber construct the great divide. They both think modernity has been going down hill (Rousseau and countless others). David contrasts commercial with human economies. Like Polanyi, he acknowledges the presence of markets in the latter, but not as a central feature. Money, however, is a universal (at least for the last 5,000 years) and here he is with Mauss and me, not Marx. The object of these human economies is people, but they are not necessarily humane, since people may be rendered impersonal objects in them.

    For those of you who find taking on a book of 500 pages daunting, David wrote a sketch of the argument in a book of essays on Polanyi that I edited with Chris Hann, Market and Society (2009).

  10. Great post Kerim! a welcome relief from the polarised discussion and debate that ‘Debt’ seems to attract. A few thoughts on your thoughts (in light of those outlined in comments above):

    I think most would agree the Beggs’ piece was more about policing the application of Marxist theory than it was about the content of ‘Debt’. The review was notable for what Beggs didn’t see and didn’t appreciate as much as anything else – which was pretty much the entire body of ethnographic data that David presented (historical and otherwise).

    After reading your post I was thinking that this is, perhaps, a reflection of a broader issue and one that goes some way to explaining the polarised nature of the debate about ‘Debt.’

    I agree that this kind of reading is, in part, the result of Graeber’s critics ‘continually try to fit him into a predefined conception of “anarchism” that misunderstands the analytical depth of his argument.’ I also think it’s a case of political scientists reading ‘Debt’ for the application of political theory whereas anthropologists tend to be reading it for the ethnography (in dialogue with their own) and considering/engaging with the broader political implications only after and in light of.

    Perhaps this difference of ‘readings’ is inevitable to some degree, but I think the narrower readings are kind of ‘hyper-facilitated’ by the use of analytical categories/concepts drawn from classic political theory – the analytical categories/concepts (like ‘ideology’) become Tetris blocks, and data the negative space. (It’s a challenge to fit them all in ‘just so’ to resemble the consistent political whole! [OR ELSE YOU HAVE COMPLETELY MISINTERPRETED MARX! etc etc].)

    This is not to suggest that anthropologists cannot or should not draw on political theory (which would be silly), but it does seem possible and useful to describe the phenomena that these categories/concepts refer to or ‘represent,’ rather than employing categories/concepts drawn from the metalanguage of political science – in the same way that it’s possible to describe ethnographic phenomena (e.g. particular beliefs and practices), rather than employ or impose categories/concepts drawn from the anthropological metalanguage. e.g. as I’ve ranted before re: ‘totemism’ – it seems not inaccurate (if I can use a double negative) to suggest that the ‘ototeman’ (odoodeman) are simply collective social bodies – culturally recognised forms of a ‘collective self’ – not all that dissimilar to corporations, and the way corporations are considered/treated as ‘bodies’ of a collective socio-political/economic ‘self’ etcetera, etcetera.

    I’m not sure how I’d describe what it is that ideology refers to though, maybe ‘thematic, and often implicit cultural understandings that have come to be shared by a large section of a population [probably], learned, explicitly taught and thus reproduced in the course of child socialisation and sociality in everyday [adult] life.’ (?)

    As for David’s ‘anarchism,’ I’m not sure that it necessarily ‘lies’ anywhere in particular in his works; as an author I have always read Graeber a critically engaged ethnographer with a keen interest in culturally recognised forms of morality and value and a well founded suspicion of centralised power/authority and hierarchy – not least because it leads to the monopolisation and imposition of exclusive, often institutionalised and ‘policed’ [read: violent regulation of] forms of both.

    As for Debt, I’m really enjoying reading about different stuff in different parts of the world at different times throughout history, and how they seem to be coalescing into a common historical theme not dissimilar to the morality+story above. My only gripe is the fact that I am a slow reader! I’m [still] only on the fourth chapter but very much enjoying it. It’s great material to think ‘through’ and ‘with’ as much as about.

    Thanks again for opening up the discussion – really looking forward to future posts!

  11. p.s. Weyher’s recent (2012) paper on Marx is brilliant, and kind of beautiful for anyone interested: ‘Re-reading sociology via the emotions: Karl Marx’s theory of human nature and estrangement’ (in) Sociological Perspectives, Vol. 55, Issue 2, pp. 341-363.

  12. Actually reading the critique now. “….highlight again Graeber’s aversion to economic analysis.” I think this is very nearly the definition of begging the question.

    Bad David. You’ve been transgressive!


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