UPDATE 2/9/13: A bit of a correction to the title here. I called this post “DeLong and the economists on Debt” but it should have been called “DeLong, the political scientist (Farrell), and the sociologist (Rossman) on Debt.” Apologies for that–I didn’t do my homework there. Thanks to Gabriel Rossman for pointing this out.
I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond, in which he ultimately argues that David Graeber’s Debt might be seen as the anti-Diamond (in terms of argument). Debt, Rex argues, is one of the few “big picture” books that have been written by an anthropologist since Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History, which was published more than 30 years ago (1982). Three decades is a pretty long time (and we anthros wonder why so few people seem to know what we do). Diamond gets a lot of attention from many anthropologists, in part, because he is writing exactly the kinds of books that we really do not produce anymore.
Personally, I think we give him a little too much attention and air-time when we put so much energy into combating his arguments. If anthropologists disagree with the version of world history that Diamond is putting out there, my answer (as it was when I wrote this) is to write solid books that make our case. Yes, of course that’s easier said than done–but please tell me one thing that’s truly worthwhile that doesn’t require a ton of work. Nobody said any of this should be easy. If we have different–or “better”–ideas, then we need to find ways to get them out there (through books, or blogs, or interviews or smoke signals or whatever). Going directly after Diamond every time he publishes is kind of a dead end if you ask me. It continually sets us up for claims that we’re just reacting because of jealousy or sour grapes. The way around that is to jump in the ring, take part, and produce the kinds of books that mark the way to a different explanatory path.*
Debt, argues Rex, is one of those books. And I think he’s right. The book has indeed garnered a lot of attention both inside and beyond anthropology (and academia in general). This is a good thing, since it can potentially lead to more discussion and debate. Of course, when a book or author gets more attention, “discussion” can go in some very different directions, some more productive than others (Diamond is actually a pretty good example of this sort of thing). And while Graeber’s book has received a lot of praise, it also has its critics. Nothing wrong with that…in fact, this is also a good thing. But, just as unthinking praise is pretty much a waste of time, so is baseless criticism. It all depends, and it’s the risk we all take when we step foot into more public arenas.
Anyway, what brought me back to Rex’s post was a comment a couple of days ago by economist Brad DeLong. Here’s what he wrote:
You do realize that Graeber’s “Debt” is an absolute empirical disaster when it gets to the post-WWII period, and that strikes all of us as the equivalent of the clock that strikes XIII in terms of making us suspicious of the rest of it?
Now, the first part of that statement is fair game, albeit a bit severe. DeLong argues that the book is supposedly an “empirical disaster,” and then it’s up to him to demonstrate his argument. I posted a comment asking Mr DeLong to share his assessment of the book (hasn’t happened yet). But the second part of his charge is a bit suspect. DeLong’s argument here is this: If there are indeed some errors or factual inaccuracies within any part of Graeber’s book, then this should make readers suspicious of every argument presented in the entire book. To me, this is specious argumentation, as I doubt DeLong would extend this sort of critical claim to the work of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, Joe Stieglitz, or hell, even himself. This aspect of DeLong’s argument is absolutely bankrupt, meaning that he has literally gone Chapter 11 on Chapter 12 here.**
In a follow up comment, DeLong does indeed expand on what he’s talking about, explaining that he’s always looking for better books than Diamond’s Guns,Germs, and Steel and Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History to recommend to people (kudos to DeLong for valuing Wolf’s book). He adds that he has considered assigning Graeber’s Debt to his classes because it has some “wonderful” passages. However, DeLong explains,
The problem is that Debt also contains passages like:
“Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other’s garages.”
“When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation. How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.”
“One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun…. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together.”
that are completely, 100%, totally wrong analyses of important things like employment patterns in Silicon Valley, of the origins of Gulf War II, and of why the dollar is the world’s principle reserve currency and why China holds so much U.S government debt.
And that’s the point where I asked DeLong if he’d be willing to lay out his critiques a bit more. Thanks to a helpful comment (thanks Pat!) and some time browsing on DeLong’s blog, it became pretty clear that his argument is actually based primarily in two reviews written about Debt a while back: One by Gabriel Rossman and the other by Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber. Both have a lot of good things to say about Graeber’s work: Rossman calls it “very impressive and thought-provoking” and Farrell takes the time to write about the aspects of the book he appreciated. I recommend reading both of these posts–there was a pretty good discussion on Farrell’s in the comments section that is well worth reading through, since it gets into more depth about some of the arguments and disagreements going on here. I will say that Farrell’s post does start off with a bit of an intellectual cheap shot when it calls out Graeber at the very start–the post would have been much better without that sort of thing. In fact, I think the best part of his post is actually the back and forth going on in the comments section.
There are certainly things to debate here–about the role of violence and military force in the global economy, about Graeber’s “tribute” argument, or about just how much conscious intentionality there really is behind the global capitalist system. Among other things. Graeber’s book is by no means the end all, be all when it comes to understanding things like debt, money, or the global economics system. But it does raise some pretty fascinating, insightful, and often provocative discussions about these issues, and it’s worth reading in its entirety (rather than just skimming through a few pages here and there and then jumping on one band wagon or another). Read it, see what you think. If you’re looking for a perfect book, well, good luck. I have read my fair share of books, and I can’t name any that don’t have their shortcomings, flaws, or outright mistakes. It happens. Part of the work in reading and assessing books like this is trying to take everything into account without getting lost in some of the details or side arguments. Or losing touch with the big picture (which is the point, after all). The best part of reviews and extended discussions of any book, as I see it, is when the ups and downs of an author’s arguments are really explored, taken to task, and critically evaluated. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what the whole “knowledge production” thing is all about, right?
But let’s not let ourselves get sidetracked with what ultimately comes down to cheap shots and superficial argumentation. That sort of thing is petty at best, and ridiculously pointless at worst. And it just leads us to the kind of grade-school level debate that ends up going nowhere quite rapidly. Which is, by the way, a form of “debate” that plagues the internetz. DeLong’s “well if there’s one thing wrong how can we trust the rest of the book” sort of argumentation is one form of this sort of thing. The “Apple” example (cited above) being a good case in point. Ya, Graeber got that one wrong. So what?–it’s not as if the sentence about the formation of Apple was a major beam in the overall structure of his argument. Even Gabriel Rossman added a note to his post: “Struck through the bit about Apple because I think people make way too big of a deal about this. It’s an isolated mistake in a very long book, big deal.”
Sometimes, we gotta move on. Be fair. Pick our battles.
But yes, by all means, let’s all debate Graeber’s book–and others that try to tackle the complex, interconnected, often highly political issues that he addresses in Debt. We need more of this, not less. But we also need to avoid getting sidetracked by superfluous nitpicking, petty personal battles, and the like. Frankly, I could care less about getting into some academic/personal brawl about who does and does not like who. So, my point here is this: Cut the crap, get to the substance. Because, in all honesty, I would much rather read DeLong’s actual critiques of Graeber’s work than see the drive-by, baseless critiques of the “Apple” variety that ended up on Rex’s post. We can all do better than that…but it’s definitely a two-way street.
I think us anthropologists have engaged in this sort of thing when it comes to critiquing the economists as well (yep, me too). In fact, I KNOW we have. So let’s not pretend that we’re the empirically-grounded, ethnographic geniuses sitting outside the fray with little halos around our heads. The disciplines of anthropology and economics have a long, often tense relationship with one another. This has led to some pretty interesting debates and discussions, along with less than dignified interactions. So where to next?
Here’s what I think is most interesting about what’s going on with Debt: there are a lot of people, including anthropologists and economists, reading and debating this text. All of the major arguments and disagreements aside, this is undoubtedly a success on an important level, since the book is speaking to various audiences that aren’t always in direct contact with one another. So then, what to do at this crossroads? Draw disciplinary lines in the sand and defend them at all costs? Or something else?
Here I think the anthropologists and economists have a pretty nice opportunity, if some of them are willing to take it. As I read through some of the reactions to Graeber’s book, I noticed that more than one person has expressed the view that they feel unable to assess some aspects of the book because it’s outside their area of knowledge or expertise. That’s a pretty fair point to make. For my own part, I’ll go ahead and admit that there are plenty of aspects of macroeconomics that I find perplexing, complex, and sometimes a bit confusing. I’m not a macroeconomist, so that’s pretty understandable. What this means is that when I read papers or books that delve into some of the details of economic theory or methods, I sometimes end up doing a lot of research on the side to try to pick up what’s going on. Not really a substitute for getting a PhD in econ, but hey, I do what I can. It’s basically impossible to keep up with everything, especially at a certain level. This is a long way of saying I can definitely understand the point these folks are saying when they admit they don’t know much about the politics and economics of ancient Mesopotamia. That’s why we have archaeologists, historians, and historically-minded anthropologists like David Graeber, right?
So here we are. Anthropologists and economists, together again. We each have certain strengths we bring to the table, and we each have our shortcomings and weaknesses. What are we going to do? Are we going to dig our trenches and get ready for another round of endless disciplinary warfare? Are we going to sit on the sidelines and be content with lobbing pot shots here and there? Or are we going to honestly assess our respective strengths and weaknesses, get on with it, and shift the conversation in more a open, meaningful direction? We could even consider–GASP!!!–some sort of collaboration?!? Or we can stick to the same old divisions: the economists and their mathematical models on one side of the dance floor, the anthropologists and their tape recorders and notebooks on the other. Another standoff?
Maybe not. In the end, it’s up to us whether or not we decide to maintain the sort of relationship that was wrought by our economic and anthropological ancestors. Because, no matter the distance they truly fall from the tree, there’s really no reason to let any more bad apples get in the way of the potentially meaningful–and necessary–conversations that we have in store.
Yes, this all sounds so kumbaya and polyanna and all that. But–and this should really draw in you economists out there (joke)–there is indeed some self-interested behavior going on here: I want to know a little more about your methods, your models, and what “seigniorage” is all about, among other things. So much to learn, so little time to download all of 20th century economic thought onto my Kindle. But seriously, I have a genuine interest in learning more about how economists do what they do.
All of this, of course, is assuming that we do indeed have something to talk about, us anthros and econs. It’s probably pretty clear by now that I think we do–but I am sure there are plenty of fine folks out there who disagree. In fact, if you’d asked me about this several years ago I would have probably answered “An economist? What could I possibly learn from an economist?” We all have to reconsider our blind spots and biases, myself included. So yes, I think that many anthropologists and economists could do well in comparing some notes. In other cases, however, I think some of the divisions and chasms are quite deep, and extend to a more philosophical or political level. And no amount of discussion is really going to bridge those kinds of gaps. But then, those sorts of divisions go far beyond mere academic boundaries. They have been around for a long time, they will persist, and they will undoubtedly lead to more of the same longstanding sorts of Cold War-esque statemates (about markets, states, capitalism, communism, and all the usual suspects). Some folks want to keep holding onto the same old stories, no matter where the tracks seem to be heading.
In the mean time, those of us who are willing to open things up, listen to one another, and look in some new directions will do what we can.
What else is there?
*Such an effort might also help combat some of the seriously misinformed understandings of contemporary anthropology that happen to be floating around out there, this being a case in point (although I am not sure how much rational argumentation will help in that case, since Mr Khan seems to be dealing more with preconceived opinions than facts or evidence in his assessment of cultural anthropology).
**Chapter 12 is the primary chapter that DeLong and the other
economists authors take issue with, as is explained soon after this paragraph. Sorry, these things just come to me and I can’t help but allow my bad sense of humor to escape. It’s like an evil dragon that refuses to remain in chains. Apologies if my lame attempt at humor has caused you any sort of gastrointestinal distress.
77 thoughts on “DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12”
“DeLong’s argument here is this: If there are indeed some errors or factual inaccuracies within any part of Graeber’s book, then this should make readers suspicious of every argument presented in the entire book. To me, this is specious argumentation”
My guess is that his reasoning is more along the lines of, “when he discusses things I already know really well, he’s wrong; therefore, I’m suspicious of the things he says concerning other topics that I don’t know about”, which seems to me to be a reasonable way to approximate how reliable something is?
This is what I call the “argument against Malcolm Gladwell”
Of course, DeLong can be a bit of an egotistical troll sometimes too
“Read it, see what you think. If you’re looking for a perfect book, well, good luck. I have read my fair share of books, and I can’t name any that don’t have their shortcomings, flaws, or outright mistakes.”
I have to disagree pretty strongly with this.
Two of the three statements that Graebner made are demonstrably wrong: Apple was not founded by the people he identified at the time he identified, and the decision to invade Iraq was made as a direct consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks. (The third is a more contestable argument, I’ll grant.) There is an abundance of recent scholarship on the two statements he got wrong identifying who did what where and why. It’s not unfair to wonder about Graebner’s judgement if he manages to so badly misunderstand contemporary events, especially given the close linkage of his second argument (that the switch of Iraq to the dollar in 2000 triggered an invasion three years later) with his central thesis.
More, Graebner’s book covers a vast swathe of territory and time, dealing with subjects that are much less familiar to me, as a casual reader, than the formation of the world’s largest publically-traded company for three of the four quarters of 2012 and the most significant war of the past decade. I could identify obvious errors like the ones cited in the various reviews based on my knowledge, but how can I trust that he hasn’t made similar errors in domains of knowledge that I’m not at all cognizant about?
Finally, there’s Graebner’s style of replying to fair criticisms of his book. His reply to Henry Farrell’s fair and reasonably polite criticism pointing out that the author actually hadn’t provided evidence for his claims is to attack Farrell’s article as a dishonest and politically motivated assault.
“Farrell’s work is a classic example of de-legitimization, by which I mean, it is not written in an attempt to engage an author in a serious debate about issues, but rather, to try to make a case why that author’s arguments are undeserving of debate and do not have to be assessed or considered at all. Rather than refute him point by point, which would presumably bore most readers to tears, perhaps it would be more interesting to explore how such a strategy works.”
Based on all of this, it’s fair to question Graebner’s ability to produce a fair, intellectually-sound examination on the subject of debt, at least as delivered in the book of the same name.
Glad you noticed my retraction (of emphasis) on the Apple thing, although I still remain deeply skeptical of the tribute thesis. I kind of split the difference with you on how severable these problems are from the other parts — I don’t think they’re necessarily discrediting but they do make me want to be a bit more skeptical than I would otherwise be. Also, FWIW, DeLong is an economist (macro/history) but Farrell is a political scientist (IR) and I’m a sociologist (econ soc).
Thanks for your comment.
“Two of the three statements that Graebner made are demonstrably wrong: Apple was not founded by the people he identified at the time he identified, and the decision to invade Iraq was made as a direct consequence of the September 11th terrorist attacks. (The third is a more contestable argument, I’ll grant.)”
Ok. The “Apple” example is kind of a throw away to me, basically a minor error. Not something I would take into account when assessing the value of an entire book. I believe Graeber has already acknowledged this one, and Rossman already wrote it off as “no big deal” as well.
As for the second point, September 11 was more of a pretext for invasion, or an excuse, rather than a direct cause or consequence. Read the Commission report for starters. The idea of invading Iraq–for a whole host of reasons–was around long before 2001. So viewing 9/11 as some sort of direct “cause” here is pretty far off the mark. Clearly, political and economic interests did weigh into the decision to invade–that’s no secret. Now, I think Graeber is being provocative and suggestive with his argument about the dollar/euro and invasion, and I think this stretches things a bit. But even he admits right there that it’s “impossible to know” how much [and I would add: if at all] that weighed into the decision. He is not directly arguing that this was the cause of the invasion. He hedges that statement in the end notes as well, saying that the “cause and effect” is debatable here. I think this tactic doesn’t really work out that well…but I don’t think this is something to use as an example of him being empirically wrong. It would be one thing if the main argument of this chapter was that the war was clearly caused by this switch to the euro. That’s definitely not the case, and so I think this is another instance of making a lot out of a little.
As for the third point that DeLong raises, that one is pretty debatable, and there’s a good discussion about this in Farrell’s post. Check it out.
As for bringing up how Graeber responds on websites, well, I suggest you read the book and judge it on its own merit. Unless of course you will only consider the ideas of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Adam Smith if you are dead sure they wrote nice letters to their colleagues. Good luck with that.
Thanks for your comment. Ugh, see what happens when I make assumptions? I get busted. Apologies for that–I made a correction up above and noted that you and Farrell are not economists.
I think your skepticism of the tribute thesis is respectable, and worth debating and exploring. I want to re-read your post and Graeber’s argument in fact, just to try to parse through things a bit more. To me, this is exactly what we should be doing.
And I think that maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism is always a good thing. That’s pretty much the only way to approach things. To me this is what pushes us to really understanding the strengths, weaknesses, or outright failures of an argument.
Ryan–Graeber’s behavior in that Crooked Timber seminar was, hands to heart, some of the worst behavior I’ve ever seen an academic engage in online.
Graeber does deserve credit for getting anthropological insights out there in the broader conversation. However, I’m an anthropologist and was predisposed to like Debt. And after that petulant and paranoid display even I don’t know that I’m interested in picking it up off my shelf to read. How much claim to intellectual charity does someone have if he doesn’t show any himself?
PS Randy: For the real debate about that third point, check the COMMENTS in Farrell’s post. There’s a lot in there, but it’s worth reading through what some folks have to say.
“How much claim to intellectual charity does someone have if he doesn’t show any himself?”
Well, that’s up to you. But I can say that I have a number of books on my shelf that were written by notoriously difficult or “strong personalities”. Books are books, people are people. So there’s that. I still think it’s best to assess arguments on their own merit.
I really should know better than to wade into this but I should add a few notes of clarification.
Brad DeLong is notoriously dishonest. Let me go through his claims one by one:
* The Apple passage got garbled in writing and is obviously wrong, alas I missed it in reviewing the edits. When people started repeating it, I immediately tried to get the publisher to take it out, though annoyingly it took about eight months for them to do so. It’s not in any current editions. Anyway the passage in question was not even in chapter 12. Ironically, despite DeLong’s claims, he has never identified any factual errors in chapter 12, other than one quibble over the role of Presidential appointments in the Federal Reserve (I had said only the Chairman was appointed by the President, but in fact some other members are as well.) That’s it. Despite his constant claims that it’s full of errors, in fact, ALL his other objections are differences of interpretation, not of fact.
* If you look at the Gulf War statement carefully you will observe that I do not say the euro switch was the cause of the war. In fact, I say “How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know.” As the word “really” implies, I’m not even necessarily saying it weighed in at all. But imagining it was a minor factor is hardly that extraordinary. After all, what was happening at the time was a series of back-and-forth hostile gestures, culminating in war. A US bombing, an Iraqi threat, more bombings, more belligerent rhetoric, etc etc. Hussein’s announcement he was no longer using “the enemies’ currency” to conduct his oil sales was just one of those mutually hostile gestures. When two powers engage in a series of escalating provocations culminating in war, it is normal to assume that any of those provocative gestures can be treated as a contributing factor, however minor, to the eventual outbreak of hostilities. This is precisely all I said. Honestly, it’s such a mild statement one really has to wonder what the fuss is about. Is DeLong arguing that he somehow knows this particular gesture did not weigh in to the calculations in any way at all, even to the tiniest degree, and therefore that anyone who says otherwise is crazy? That’s an extreme position! My position is anything but extreme: I said it might have been a factor, we don’t know, but it’s significant that a lot of people *thought* it was a factor and the resulting rumors couldn’t help have had an intimidating effect on anyone thinking of following suit. Again, this is kind of commonsensical. If you were thinking of doing something that would annoy the US and knew the last guy who did it got blown up by the US two weeks later, wouldn’t you at least take that into consideration? Whether or not you knew for a fact that was the reason he got blown up?
I might add in this particular case that there is no doubt a problem of the difference between traditions of anthropological writing, and those that like to claim they are engaged in science. I make it clear from the beginning of the chapter that I am interested in myths and symbols. The chapter begins by talking about conspiracy theories and mythic imagery, about how growing up in NYC I’d heard rumors of hidden gold vaults under lower Manhattan that supposed housed much of the world’s gold reserves, how later, there were rumors the 911 attacks were actually directed at them, how the latter of course was paranoid fantasy but how I was surprised to discover the gold vaults actually did exist after all. I emphasized that the US insisting on maintaining the ability to strike with deadly force anywhere in the world played a role analogous to the ability to destroy the world so crucial to the cosmic claims of superpower status in the Cold War, and it, and the circulation of paranoid rumors and conspiracy theories, form part of a single fabric of power. The response from the positivists was often “oh yeah? I demand you prove that this system of power, or these rumors, in any way effected anyone’s calculations!”—which from an anthropological perspective is just absurd. It’s like demanding proof that the Nambikwara are in any way affected by their myths. But what seems to be what really annoyed the liberals was that in describing the system, I also used a taboo word: “terror.” The combination of provocative language, and the refusal to adopt the positivist logic of “scientific” power-disciplines like Economics and Political Science, seems to be what inspired the strangely impassioned reaction.
* the statement about the tribute system is again a question not of facts but of analysis and I was, in the book, developing the theoretical approach mapped out by neo-Ricardian economists like Michael Hudson and world-systems analysts like Giovanni Arrighi, duly cited and in several cases quoted at length in the text. What we are dealing with here is not a difference in knowledge or fact, but a difference in the school of historical interpretation. My argument over the course of the book is that forms of money-creation have, particularly in periods dominated by bullion rather than credit-money, always been closely tied to forms of military power, and that it is quite the same under capitalism – noting the connection goes back well beyond the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, but that it continues to be the case today. Naturally I was drawn to those contemporary economists who argue in the same way. I find it interesting that the normal reaction of liberal centrists like DeLong is almost invariably to find no problem whatever with the idea that this connection has existed for thousands of years, but to claim that one basically has to be a paranoid lunatic in order to imagine it didn’t completely disappear with the hegemony of people like themselves after World War II. And, second, to then pretend that I somehow made up these ideas myself, refusing to acknowledge these are ordinary and uncontested assumptions within schools of analysis other than their own.
I should note in passing that the idea that the current world financial architecture – based from 1945 to 1971 by the use of a combination of gold and US treasury bonds as the reserve currency for central banks, and since 1971 pretty much exclusively by T-bonds, is ultimately a product of US military-political dominance is considered self-evident just about everywhere in the world except the US, and within certain limited intellectual and political circles in Anglophone countries that are close US allies. That tells you something. In Germany, for instance, when I even tried to make a case for why I felt this be true, I found even the most mainstream politicians and economists would cut me off to say what I was arguing was so obvious no case need be made. This is partly because outside the US, the history is much better known. After all, the system in question didn’t just emerge spontaneously through market forces: it was self-consciously created during the Bretton Woods negotiations between the main allied military powers in the waning days of World War II, with the US insisting on the T-bond system over the strenuous objections of the British delegation led by John Maynard Keynes. Ultimately, the US plan carried the day, simply because the US was obviously the dominant power. Similarly when West Germany, in the ’60s the biggest holder of T-bonds, threatened to diversify and move off from the system, the US responded by threatening to withdraw its military forces them protecting them from the USSR, causing them to quickly back down. All this is a simple matter of historical record. Anyway, it’s been true for centuries that the currency of the dominant world military hegemon has also been the dominant world currency. My argument was hardly radical. It’s DeLong’s position, that historical patterns centuries-old suddenly stopped in 1945, ushering in totally voluntary arrangements that just somehow come out looking almost exactly the same, that is actually rather radical, in that he is arguing for a major historical break. But since DeLong’s position corresponds with the official position of the US government, which he often proudly boasts of having worked for, he doesn’t feel it has to be backed up by any sort of evidence.
I should emphasize, finally, that DeLong seems to have taken it upon himself to “go after” me, often on a weirdly personal level, for some time – and on the basis of no provocation whatsoever. To be honest I had no idea of his very existence until a quarrel on a blog called Crooked Timber – a response to someone named Henry Farrell that I did not want to make, tried to squeeze out of having to write, and was ultimately coaxed into (to my infinite subsequent chagrin.) All of a sudden DeLong started posting attacks on me on his blog, sometimes two or even three in the space of a week. None engaged with the book’s actual arguments, and many had nothing to do with the book at all. Let me give just two examples of what I’m talking about
1) at one point DeLong posted a piece by someone else claiming I had made various statements about US tribute arrangements with no attribution. I replied on the blog – I think this was the only time I tried to do this – that this wasn’t true: there was a clearly marked footnote with clearly marked references the critic seemed to have missed. I added that the argument in question was not originally mine but taken directly from Giovanni Arrighi, whose work I had cited in the footnote in question. Now, DeLong’s comment section is moderated. He goes over each comment, decides whether to allow it to go up, and sometimes adds notes of his own in the text in boldface parenthesis. In this case he did put my comment up, but included, in parenthesis, an editorial comment saying that obviously my statement was false, Arrighi he said was “far too intelligent” to ever argue there was any sort of US imperial tribute system. So I found one of many passages where Arrighi said exactly that, using the words “imperial” and “tribute,” and tried to post the quotation, with reference and page number, in response. DeLong simply censored this. He wouldn’t allow the response to go up, but left the original accusation against me – one he now knew to be factually incorrect – on the blog anyway.
So that gives you a sense of how much DeLong really cares about factual accuracy. Even when he discovered that one of his claims of inaccuracy against me was itself inaccurate, he refused to either withdraw it, or allow me to respond.
2) None of DeLong’s comments on the blog engaged with my actual ideas or arguments; a few pointed to some error of fact, but most were not about the contents of the book at all but consisted entirely of aspersions on my personal character. Let me emphasize again that I had never met this person before, never tangled with or indeed interacted with him in any way. Yet he suddenly seemed to be scraping around the internet trying to find any nasty statement that anyone had made about me, or anything I’d said he could edit in such a way as to make me look bad, to post on his blog. I refused to respond. But he kept it up. Probably the weirdest example came when he put up a statement saying he had just received an email about my “doing teh (sic) crazy” as he put it “in [my] publisher’s office” – apparently as evidence of my mental instability – a statement so bizarre and inexplicable that I called my editor to ask if he had any idea what such an emailer might even be referring to. My editor said he had absolutely no idea, assumed there was no emailer but that DeLong was just lying and making things up, noting he has a major reputation as a bully, and proceeded to send a stiff email to DeLong demanding he think twice before engaging in potentially libelous activity. (I do not remember whether the statement was actually taken down. For obvious reasons I tend to avoid reading the blog.)
One might well wonder why a Berkeley professor of economics and former member of Clinton’s trade team would wish to repeatedly post, on his personal blog, character attacks on an anthropologist he’s never met. To be honest I have no idea. I mean, I have my theories. But that’s all they are. DeLong is an exemplar of the “moderate,” neoliberal left (that is, the sort of people who even 25 years ago would have been considered the moderate right), and it’s possible he considers it his business to police the borders of political acceptability, My book, both with its attacks on mainstream economic orthodoxy, and even more, perhaps, by its embrace of heterodox economic strains like post-Keynesianism, Mitchell-Innes-style credit theory, MMT, etc, might be considered a direct challenge to the Clinton-style economistic liberalism he represents and hence a threat – especially considering at the time the book was being broadly read and of course associated with a social movement. But as I say this is just speculation. I have no way to know what his actual motives may be.
Still, if it was indeed a political intervention, all I can say is: if this guy is at all typical, when liberals fight, they fight REALLY dirty. Most economists have responded surprisingly positively to the book. I’ve had strong objections to some of my arguments from the Right as well, mostly from “Austrians” (libertarian followers of Hayek, Von Mises, etc) who take umbrage at my challenge to Menger – but those challenges consist almost entirely of responses to my actual arguments, and as a result we’ve often had quite respectful exchanges. It’s only the liberals like DeLong, oddly enough, who seem to go straight for the jugular, avoid any real discussion of issues, but instead trying to use any means available to rip the opposition down.
“As for the second point, September 11 was more of a pretext for invasion, or an excuse, rather than a direct cause or consequence. Read the Commission report for starters.”
The pretext may have been there, but recent books–Eichenwald’s _500 Days_, for instance–suggest that concrete plans to invade Iraq, overthrow the Baathist regime, and try to create a new government were only activated by the American government after the September 11th attacks.
More importantly, there’s no reason to think that the decision of the Iraqi government to market Iraqi oil on international markets in euros instead of US dollars played as central a role in the decision to invade Iraq that Graeber implies. (There’s little reason to think it played any significant role, not least because of the number of Euro-using countries taking part in the invasion.)
“Now, I think Graeber is being provocative and suggestive with his argument about the dollar/euro and invasion, and I think this stretches things a bit. But even he admits right there that it’s “impossible to know” how much [and I would add: if at all] that weighed into the decision.”
That is, he’s being disingenuous. (If I highlight a particular factor as being particularly important, say, well, it might not be, and then I go on to say that factors like the one I said might not be important actually are hugely important in the world, what am I saying?)
“I don’t think this is something to use as an example of him being empirically wrong.”
No. It _is_ an example of Graeber making a sweeping claim with little evidence, the sort of thing that Farrell called him on and got abuse for in exchange.
“As for bringing up how Graeber responds on websites, well, I suggest you read the book and judge it on its own merit. Unless of course you will only consider the ideas of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, or Adam Smith if you are dead sure they wrote nice letters to their colleagues.”
It’s not Graeber’s impoliteness that matters to me nearly so much as it is Graeber’s explicit unwillingness to address the points that Farrell raised, instead resorting to personal attacks and conspiratorial arguments. (Did, in fact, Graeber criticize Farrell as supporting Bernard Lewis’ denialism of the Armenian genocide based on the say-so of an anonymous Twitterer?)
If an author keeps making bad arguments, in his books and in defending said, being skeptical of the author’s claims seems only prudent.
how annoying – because the little box interface works so badly, I wrote that last comment on a word file and pasted it in. As a result all the spaces between paragraphs somehow got formatted out, making it look like a giant run-on paragraph. Sorry! I’d repost formatted correctly but it’s so long I feel weird about doing it again.
[Fixed – SM “Staff”]
“Did, in fact, Graeber criticize Farrell as supporting Bernard Lewis’ denialism of the Armenian genocide based on the say-so of an anonymous Twitterer?”
I did not. It was a perfect example of Farrell’s disingenuousness that made me gave up engaging with him. Someone on twitter said “oh Farrell is an Armenian genocide denier there’s no point even arguing with the guy.” I replied “oh I didn’t know, I guess I’ll disengage.” All I did was respond to some guy on twitter saying “oh I didn’t know.” Then Farrell shows up on the blog saying “now Graeber is going around telling everyone I’m an Armenian genocide denier!” When I pointed out this was flagrantly untrue, he insisted that simply by replying to the guy, I was in effect making an accusation against him so it was perfectly legitimate to tell everyone that I was the one who had originally said it. At this point I just gave up because it was obvious the person had no interest in honest argument.
If you don’t believe me, check the Twitter feed. It’s all there. All I said was, “oh I didn’t know.”
“I replied “oh I didn’t know, I guess I’ll disengage.””
I’ll take your word for it.
I can understand how, coming towards the end of a heated exchange, that statement could have been read as ambiguous, as an affirmation even (perhaps something like “Oh, I didn’t know that he was a genocide denialist, I guess I’ll disengage).
It’s a shame that things were made to deteriorate to that point.
“How much claim to intellectual charity does someone have if he doesn’t show any himself?”
God knows I don’t want to revisit this but I will throw out one last point about why I reacted to Farrell the way I did. I reacted that way because Farrell wrote a piece that was both extraordinarily mean, and extraordinarily dishonest. Let me give an example. The part of the book Farrell singles out for criticism, my discussion of the role of Treasury bonds, begins like this:
“Because of United States trade deficits, huge numbers of dollars circulate outside the country; and one effect of Nixon’s floating of the dollar was that foreign central banks have little they can do with these dollars except to use them to buy U.S. treasury bonds. This is what is meant by the dollar becoming the world’s “reserve currency.” These bonds are, like all bonds, supposed to be loans that will eventually mature and be repaid, but as economist Michael Hudson, who first began observing the phenomenon in the early ‘7os, noted, they never really do:
“‘To the extent that these Treasury IOUs are being built into the world’s monetary base they will not have to be repaid, but are to be rolled over indefinitely. This feature is the essence of America’s free financial ride, a tax imposed at the entire globe’s expense.’ 13
“What’s more, over time, the combined effect of low interest pay ments and the inflation is that these bonds actually depreciate in value-adding to the tax effect, or as I preferred to put it in the first chapter, “tribute.” Economists prefer to call it “seigniorage.” The effect, though, is that American imperial power is based on a debt that will never-can never-be repaid (pages 367-68).”
The reason why I single this out is that the entire topic is introduced by a BLOCK QUOTE from Hudson, and I make it abundantly clear that I am following Hudson’s overall analysis in what follows. What was Farrell’s response? He starts his analysis by pretending that I made up the whole argument myself, and bases his entire criticism on my supposedly not providing any scholarly sources for my arguments. He even goes so far as to claim that I only mention Hudson once, not in the primary text but in a later footnote, and says I misunderstand what Hudson’s argument actually was (completely wrongly – when I mentioned Farrell’s interpretation to Hudson he laughed uproariously, but that’s another issue.) The point is this guy entire line of attack was “he’s no proper scholar, he just makes things up and doesn’t source his material.” How could he not have noticed the fact that the entire argument starts with a block quote from just such a source? I mean what’s your interpretation of that? He just somehow didn’t notice the block quote saying this is an imperial tax system, he missed that somehow, but he did catch a later footnote, and that’s why he pretended I only mentioned in a footnote later on?
I could go on with this sort of thing but honestly… how can you accuse me of being uncharitable to someone who starts his argument with a move like that, pretending a dramatically-presented citation of authority isn’t there and then basing his entire argument on claiming I don’t cite any authorities? I shouldn’t have got mad. I should have just ignored him. But the fact remains, nobody is going to react “charitably” to someone who by all appearances is calculatedly misrepresenting your work so as to attack you.
The irony is that so many have concluded that I’m somehow terribly mean, and Farrell is somehow a suffering victim. Ahem. When have I ever initiated an attack on anyone? Ever? The irony is I’m generally incredibly nice even to people who disagree with me. I’ve certainly never done anything remotely close to what Farrell did, just decide I didn’t like something and go off and misrepresent its contents to be able to slam the guy. His behavior isn’t mean?
The irony is I never go off and pick fights, in the book and in almost everything I wrote I’m actually extremely charitable to those who disagree with me (except maybe Adam Smith, but the editor pulled some of the nice remarks I made about him because he thought they’d confuse people), and I really only respond to attacks if the attack contains blatant errors of fact – and recently, not even then. But I did get mad at Farrell because there was just no way he couldn’t know that what he was saying wasn’t true. He couldn’t possibly have just missed that quote. He knew I was summarizing another scholar’s position. But he went out and pretended the opposite. And that pattern was repeated again and again throughout his essay.
It is a strange reflection on the current state of intellectual discourse that misrepresenting someone else’s work or position is considered no big deal; pointing out too aggressively that someone has done so is considered outrageous. But it sometimes does make me wonder why we think that what we are doing has anything to do with “scholarship” at all.
I don’t especially want to get dragged into this again. David Graeber is the author of a very interesting book, most of which is (as best as I can tell) very good, but the last chapter of which is decidedly not. While deliberately skirting around his various ad hominems, I responded to the substance of his reply here. Unfortunately, David Graeber is also one of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to get caught in a debate with. On his repetition of his claims above that I am dishonest, I think that he is unfortunately incapable, as even a cursory Google search will reveal, of treating serious criticism as anything other than attempted delegitimation. Clive James has a dictum somewhere about writers who “take praise as [their] due and anything less as sabotage” which has it about right. He also seems incapable of fairly representing the views of people who have gotten on the wrong side of his Feindprinzip. Those who wish to take up his invitation to go back through old Twitter arguments, should also take the opportunity to compare his back-and-forths with Gabriel Rossman with the way that he represented them in his blogpost on Crooked Timber. But that is honestly all that I have the stomach for this evening – arguing with David Graeber is a deeply unpleasant experience.
I’m sorry that David Graeber is still incapable of dealing seriously or fairly with criticisms. What he says above is demonstrably untrue. In the post he refers to, I specifically acknowledge his reliance on Hudson, saying, after mentioning his other two major sources on imperialism (one of whom is Niall Ferguson:
“Finally, he points us towards Michael Hudson, who (unless I misunderstand him badly) is interested in the opposite causal relationship to Graeber’s – Hudson is interested in how US financial privilege facilitates foreign policy adventurism, rather than how foreign policy adventurism scares people into continuing to cleave to the Mighty Dollar.
I discuss this at greater length in my response to Graeber:
“Hudson – and here I repeat myself – is arguing that US domination of the world economy is the lynchpin of its unparalleled military force. Graeber is apparently good mates with Hudson, and has talked to him to confirm that Hudson believes that “the US government’s position come[s] down to ‘adopt our version of the free market or we’ll shoot you.’” But the issue is not what Hudson believes – Hudson may believe that he knows the song the Sirens sang, and the name that Achilles took among the women for all I know, or care. The issue is what Hudson provides evidence for in the book, Super Imperialism (not ‘Superimperialism’ – a minor nitpick I know) that Graeber is citing to. And, as I read it, it is about economic forms of domination, with some discussion of how this underpins military adventurism, rather than vice versa. Nor do I read the book, or the actual history, as providing evidence that the US was pulling the Delian League Switcheroo on its allies. The mechanisms were indirect, rather than direct gathering of tributes, and there wasn’t any threat of US military intervention against allies who were unhappy that the US was using its economic dominance to force its allies to bear the cost of adjustment. The closest thing that I can find to a Graeber style argument (there may be more that I have missed, and I would welcome correction so that I can evaluate the supporting evidence) is a brief mention in the context of military aid of how the US discourages “tendencies toward developing independent military forces capable of initiating acts that might not serve U.S. policy ends,” with an example from Yugoslavia, but this is pretty weak tea for a theory of general domination.
Hudson’s own conclusions in the book as to what underpins other countries’ acceptance of US imperialism are not especially satisfactory in themselves, but don’t support Graeber either.
Only America has shown the will to create global international structures and restructure them at will to fit its financial needs as these have evolved from hyper-creditor to hyper-debtor status. It is as if European and Asian society lack some gene for institutional self-programming for their own economic evolution, and have acted simply as the mirror image of America like a dancer following the partner’s lead.
I’m not seeing much to support claims about a militarized reign of terror here, myself. Perhaps Graeber reads it differently, but if this is the empirical cornerstone for Graeber’s arguments, it’s not a very good one. ”
To be entirely clear – none of this is to say that anthropologists can’t or shouldn’t start engaging with economists, and correcting them as appropriate on the world economy. As I said in my original post, I think there’s a crying need for a new Polanyian interpretation of what is happening in the world economy, and I then expressed the hope that Graeber would be the person to provide it in later work (if this seems like an odd kind of delegitimation to the reader, it seems odd to me too). I am enthusiastic about work by anthropologists like Karen Ho who are doing rich and intelligent ethnographic work on how markets work today. I’m also in the process reading Panitch and Gindin’s recent book which is an exciting and very well grounded radical account of the workings of the world economy. My criticisms of the last chapter of Graeber’s book were criticisms of what he had delivered, not what he wanted to do, still less, as he still claims, a deliberate effort to delegitimize him.
And as for
“The irony is I never go off and pick fights, in the book and in almost everything I wrote I’m actually extremely charitable to those who disagree with me (except maybe Adam Smith, but the editor pulled some of the nice remarks I made about him because he thought they’d confuse people), and I really only respond to attacks if the attack contains blatant errors of fact – and recently, not even then.”
I really think that the evidence of David Graeber Being Angry At People All Across The Internets belies this. As I’ve said before, the ‘why do people keep on provoking me into behaving like an angry, irrational jerk’ shtick isn’t any more convincing than the famous Onion article that it so closely resembles.
love the way Farrell _always_ starts by saying how he hates, hates, to have to engage with me, and then goes on and on trying to engage with me, long after it’s clear I refuse to respond.
what I said was I don’t “pick fights,” Henry. Unlike you, I don’t go out and say “hey look, here’s an author I can just trash because I disagree with him.” I do get impatient with people who attack me if they attack me for positions I don’t hold, or otherwise misrepresent my work. No doubt sometimes excessively. I seem to hold people to a far higher standard than seems to be considered normal in contemporary internet discourse. But i challenge you to find any example of me picking a fight with someone who didn’t attack me first (or in one exceptional case I can think of, where I criticized someone for making what I though twas an unnecessarily mean attack on a third party)
Come on, Henry. Find one. Just for once, stop the insinuations and slurs and actually come up with an example.
Put your money where your mouth is. Give me an example of me writing a piece like you did where I attack someone who hasn’t attacked me first. And if you can’t, I expect an apology.
Oh God, I really shouldn’t do this, but I find it amazing that Farrell is still arguing that Hudson’s arguments don’t support my own. I actually asked Hudson, in person, at the Left Social Forum what he thought of Farrell’s claims – here repeated. Hudson laughed and said “what does he think the US military is there for, picking daisies?” and then said “actually, I’d go further than you, I _would_ say the US position is ‘adopt the economic policies we want or we’ll shoot you.'” (Since despite accusations I had never actually laid out such a position.) I asked him if I could quote him on that and he said be my guest.
“It’s a shame that things were made to deteriorate to that point.”
Yes, it really is. Thanks for saying so.
David Graeber – To repeat myself yet again – Michael Hudson’s Super Imperialism does not provide support for your claims. It makes quite the opposite causal claim – that economic domination supports military adventurism. Whether Michael Hudson is your mate or not is irrelevant – the question is whether the book that you cited to to provide evidence for your claims in fact has evidence or argument to support them. I’ve read it through, and I am pretty sure that it does not. It makes a quite different set of claims and arguments – and if you want to dispute this (I could be wrong – perhaps I missed it somewhere), provide me with the relevant passages where the book provides these arguments and this evidence.
This points to the more general problem with your style of analysis. You simply can’t jump from a set of very different claims about US imperialism (which is not being disputed here) to specific claims that we live in a very particular and specific kind of imperialism, based on tribute exacted under a reign of US military terror, without providing good independent evidence. You don’t come close to providing such evidence, and you get angry and nasty when anyone criticizes you on this. Criticizing you for making big claims without providing sufficient evidence isn’t delegitimizing you. It’s pushing you to do better. And that you interpret this – and similar criticisms (indeed, much milder criticisms and disagreements that others have offered) as vicious exercises in delegitimization is a bit of a problem.
If the moderators can fix the dodgy close italics HTML in the above comment I would be grateful.
[Fixed–SM emergency html cleanup crew]
@Graeber a couple comments up. Lots of people display a pattern of repeatedly disclaiming a desire to re-enter a fight right before re-entering it at length. Indeed, multiple people have done so in this very thread. I’m inclined to believe that both of them are sincere, FWIW. I’m sure they have their reasons for feeling compelled to engage against their wishes.
I also think there’s a valuable discussion to be had on the use of heuristics in choosing what academic work to read/trust. My two cents: It’s perfectly all right to discount someone’s work if they get your area of expertise horribly wrong, IF they have a lot of other material outside their own specialty, or show red flags like flippancy, excessive reliance on one or two sources, etc. “Horribly wrong” ought to mean more than “one botched fact,” though. As for using personality as a heuristic, it makes sense to me to bracket an author’s representations of others’ work (especially of critical interlocutors) from their own research.
“The pretext may have been there, but recent books–Eichenwald’s _500 Days_, for instance–suggest that concrete plans to invade Iraq, overthrow the Baathist regime, and try to create a new government were only activated by the American government after the September 11th attacks.”
Well ya, the concrete plans started after 9/11 because that event allowed for the green light. Again, it was an excuse for invasion–but it wasn’t THE reason why it took place. There were plenty of discussions (involving folks like Cheney etc) that pushed for the invasion of Iraq in the years before 2001. Read this, for example:
“More importantly, there’s no reason to think that the decision of the Iraqi government to market Iraqi oil on international markets in euros instead of US dollars played as central a role in the decision to invade Iraq that Graeber implies.”
But here’s the thing: Nowhere does Graeber argue that this move played a “central role” in the decision-making process.
“That is, he’s being disingenuous.”
I disagree. I don’t see this as a case of him being insincere or anything. He mentions the idea in order to get readers to think about the possibility–but then is quick to admit there’s really no way to know. To me it’s another “no big deal” issue. The whole Iraq/euro thing was clearly meant to be a bit provocative, rather than to make some definitive claim or argument. Again, I think you’re making a whole lot out of very little.
“If an author keeps making bad arguments, in his books and in defending said, being skeptical of the author’s claims seems only prudent.”
As I said in another comment: I am 100 percent for skepticism. More power to you. But I am also all for reading books and actually assessing their arguments for what they are. Just wondering: Have you read the book?
Around 1980 I wrote a book reviewing the political economy of West African agriculture: several centuries, four colonial empires, 16 countries, hundreds of ethnic groups. I was attacked by some Marxists for saying that these economies needed a dose of machine production fast, but rarely on th eempirical sustance. In fact I was treated as a savant and the book is still in print.
I realised that my knowledge of Western economic history and social theory was defective if I aspired to say something about the world that Afirca is a part of. Since I come from Manchester, I decided to revisit the social history of the industrial revolution there. Some friends said that I must be mad since “I was bound to be wrong”. I replied that I was more likely to be right, since the sources were better, but there would be many more scholars out there ready to challenge me than if I wrote about West Africa, where the sources are poor and scattered.
I have published little of that work, but when I wrote The Memory Bank/Money in an Unequal World, I made a strategic decision to focus on the varieties of Western history and theory that I had absorbed in the previous two decades at the expense of a compendious review of the anthropological sources on how people do money differently around the world.
The two books in question here are Eric’s and David’s (not Diamond’s — after all he is not one of us). Both of them have a double motivation: to show how much we can learn from non-Western peoples and to place this knowledge within an integrated vision of world history that anthropologists have lost the ability to even think about. This approach obviously can’t be reproduced by a graduate student, since it requires a synthesis of decades’ work. It is, if you like, a 19th century German model of scholarship and not well-suited to launching a precarious career in universities today.
To this David added a desire to insert his book into contemporary political debate, in which he and his publishers were brilliantly successful. He could have avoided some of his wilder generalizations about contemporary political economy, but that would have lessened the book’s impact. In fact, he made very few policy recommendations. The result was a Time magazine response from many of his readers: I think they are right most of th etime, but they are always wrong when they write about something I know.
It is not as if ethnographers are immune to this kind of critique. Remember the Australian official who wrote in Man that Trobriand teenagers are well aware of contraception? Malinowski replied by saying “I am a great professor. Who the f–k are you?” But this didn’t get the publicity David’s responses do these days. I have a different policy. I never reply to criticism for one good reason. The book is dead and I have moved on. Also defending yourself always makes you look like a wimp or worse.
I wonder how Frazer would have managed today when every missionary in the world could blog about his errors. The point of the book is the structure of its argument. And I for one find the first half more convincing than the second. I think David should let the contemporary controversy rest and wait for history to give th ebook its due. It is monumental, but his understanding of modern economic history, imho, isn’t. On the other hand I haven’t written a book as good as that and possibly never will.
In reply to the OP itself (rather than this comment-thread nightmare that’s on a years-long tour of the internet):
Ryan, one exemplary effort in trying to produce some cross-disciplinary engagement is JW Mason, who (among other contributions) has a piece at Jacobin arguing that Debt’s theory of money can be understood as supporting a major strand of thought within economics.
It is kind of a revelation as an attempt at translating arguments and concepts across disciplines, and I think resonates with your last couple paragraphs.
From my perspective, when I look at David Graeber’s “Debt” I see:
* a chapter XII that is a disaster
* a whole bunch of stuff in the first half of the book that seems to me very interesting.
And I wonder if I should tell my students that the book is (a) untrustworthy and best avoided–that since chapter XII is such a disaster the rest of it is unreliable–or (b) tell my students that the first half of the book is worth reading, and they should ignore the fact that it goes off the rails so badly at the end.
Thus when Ryan shows up to say how dare you worry about chapter XII–Delong’s “grade-school level debate… ends up going nowhere quite rapidly… a form of “debate” that plagues the internetz” I gotta conclude that Ryan is arguing for (a): that the level of argument and evidence Graeber exhibits in chapter XII (which I know very well indeed) is typical of the level of argument and evidence of the first half of the book (which I do not know well).
No offense taken, I’ve been called far worse than “economist.”
It is duly noted for the record that chapter 12 contains numerous hedges of uncertainty and partial causation in the course of stating its thesis.
Note that Farrell, DeLong, and myself all think the book has a lot going for it aside from the one disputed chapter.
very last comment re Farrell
the reason I won’t engage with the guy is he has shown, from the very beginning, that he has absolutely no intention of being an honest interlocutor. Look what he’s reduced to! Is there really a point in conducting a debate with someone who is actually arguing, with a straight face, that a book called “Superimperialism” isn’t really about imperialism, or that the fact that the author of said book has explicitly stated that my interpretation of his argument is correct, and Farrell’s interpretation is wrong, is irrelevant? What possible purpose would be served by this? Anyone who reads arguments like this and still takes him seriously has long since decided they’ve made up their mind based on some other criteria and evidence one way or the other is irrelevant.
It seems especially silly to respond to such arguments when the position ultimately being put forward – that global US military power doesn’t actually underpin the US-dominated global financial system – is one that virtually no one on the planet, outside a very narrow circle of self-interested anglophone academics, takes seriously in the first place. If such people want to sit in their bubble and make these sorts of claims to one another, fine, let them. The rest of us can get on with the business of trying to actually understand the world, and even, do something to make it better.
Well, you have managed to completely miss the point, which was not to say “how dare you worry about chapter XII.” Far from it. In fact, here’s what I wrote:
“The best part of reviews and extended discussions of any book, as I see it, is when the ups and downs of an author’s arguments are really explored, taken to task, and critically evaluated. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?”
“…yes, by all means, let’s all debate Graeber’s book”
and finally, more specifically:
“…I would much rather read DeLong’s actual critiques of Graeber’s work than see the drive-by, baseless critiques of the “Apple” variety that ended up on Rex’s post.”
So I find it rather bizarre that you managed to come to the conclusion that you did. Just to make things REALLY CLEAR, here’s a summary of my overall argument:
1. I am 100 percent in favor of critically analyzing Graeber’s book, whatever chapter. Have at it. The book has its strengths and weaknesses, that’s for sure. Let’s hear your case against chapter 12 by all means. That’s what I’m interested in hearing.
2. I think that dropping in and calling it an “empirical disaster” and then simply listing a few passages without any sort of actual explanation or argument isn’t very informative or useful. You don’t actually put forth any sort of argument, and act as if listing a couple of passages proves your case. It doesn’t. And, as has been shown in the comments here and elsewhere (read the comments in Farrell’s post), the points you raise are debatable, to say the least. So, if you have an argument to make, let’s hear it.
3. Finally, your attempt to use of the “Apple” example as some sort of indication of the quality of the book is a very, very weak tactic. My point in the post was to move beyond that level of discussion and “debate.”
Even shorter version: You think Chapter 12 is an “empirical disaster.” Great. Lets hear your argument. Thanks.
Thanks for the comment. Good reminder about Malinowski. I especially like this line you wrote: “I wonder how Frazer would have managed today when every missionary in the world could blog about his errors.”
Thanks for that link!
I suppose I should be happy that this is the last comment I feel that I have to respond to. As per John Gee’s comment above, I sincerely don’t want to get pulled into yet another iteration of these wars. So, all I will say is that again, Graeber’s interpretation of what I said above bears no plausible resemblance to what I actually did say. When I say that Hudson’s book makes the claim that “economic domination supports military adventurism” and go on to argue that the problem is that “[y]ou simply can’t jump from a set of very different claims about US imperialism (which is not being disputed here) to specific claims that we live in a very particular and specific kind of imperialism,” I am very obviously not denying that Hudson’s book is about imperialism. Indeed, what I am doing is very obviously the opposite. I am saying (which is the point that Graeber has repeatedly refused to respond to) that arguments for imperialism-in-general does not, without a lot of intermediary steps, appropriate evidence and so on, provide support for the very specific theory of imperialism (involving debt and the exaction of tribute under a reign of military terror) that Graeber is arguing for. I’ve repeatedly asked Graeber to cite the bits of Hudson that support this specific interpretation. He has to date declined to do so. But if he wants to foreswear further argument, so that he can go back to complaining about the unbearable pain of having to add all of those keynote speeches to his curriculum vitae, far be it from me to stop him. Debt is for the most part a very good book. As per the original post, people should really read it (my personal recommendation would be to just skip the final chapter). And the comparison with Diamond’s work is an apt one. What is unfortunate is that the book comes attached, for some few of its readers, to the singularly unpleasant personality of David Graeber.
The argument against Graeber’s chapter XII…
Well, I would like to endorse Henry Farrell’s take:
>**The world economy is not a tribute system:** The chapter that I like most in the book is the second chapter, which talks about how economists’ theories blind them to the realities of interactions in non-market economies…. [M]ore about the stuff I like. Chapter Two is a very nice statement of the substantivist position on how economies work, which has a lot in common (although the differences develop as the book continues) with the work of people like Karl Polanyi and Marshall Sahlins. This tradition of argument has both an empirical and a moral dimension. Empirically, it points to the viability of non-market forms of economic interaction. For long periods of history, the primary forms of economic exchange within societies have taken place via what Graeber calls communism (more or less diffuse reciprocity) or hierarchy. Morally, it suggests that something may go wrong when the third means of interaction, exchange, becomes dominant. Unlike communistic forms of exchange (which are embedded in complex social relations of reciprocity and mutual interaction and dependence), it can get out of control, becoming something that is strange, alien and quite unnatural. According to the substantivist account, we live in just such an unnatural world….
>Unfortunately, the closing chapter seems to me to be a reverse image of Chapter Two, exemplifying rather than correcting the theoretical faults that Graeber finds among economists…. When Graeber starts talking about modern markets, he does so in terms that are startingly reminiscent of the economists whom he rightly disparages in Chapter Two. He takes a very simple theory of how things work – explaining the modern economy nearly entirely in terms of debt and monetary relations – and how these relations in turn rest on a mixture of propaganda and direct coercion. He then applies this theory in ways that not only don’t really come to terms with the existing literature, but don’t fit very well with the available evidence either. The standards of scholarly literature and backing up everything with substantial detailed references take second place to a sweeping narrative that looks to me to be full of holes….
>Graeber, it seems to me, radically overestimates the extent to which monetary systems and debt arrangements are the product of conscious design. Furthermore, his apparent contention that the system rests on people’s fears, despair, and desire for conformity systematically ignores the possibility that many people like monetized relations, and that sometimes they have good reason to prefer them over the more embedded forms of interaction that Graeber thinks are preferable…. [P]eople may sometimes find disembedded relations to be more attractive than embedded ones, precisely because they are disembedded. This is arguably one of the reasons why monetarized economies have succeeded and become ubiquitous – not merely because they have been imposed, along with all of the paraphernalia of debt relations that go with them, or because people have been anaesthestized by propaganda and despair, but because (some) people genuinely prefer them (some) of the time, and would continue to do so even if their eyes were opened and the forces of repression magically vanished in a puff of acrid smoke….
>Graeber’s view of how the international economy runs is straightforward. The United States is an imperial power, which uses its military might to command ‘tribute’ from everyone else.
>>One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power There’s a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there’s a man with a gun…. The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world military system, organized around the dollar, together…
>[T]his is a big, bold claim that he’s making, one which is flagrantly missing in current discussions. What kind of evidence does he have to support it? Unfortunately, not much. He relies on timing, suggesting that the US desire to maintain dollar supremacy may explain the first Gulf War.
>>When Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000, followed by Iran in 2001, this was quickly followed by American bombing and military occupation. How much Hussein’s decision to buck the dollar really weighed into the U.S. decision to depose him is impossible to know, but no country in a position to make a similar switch can ignore the possibility. The result, among policymakers particularly in the global South, is widespread terror.
>He does provide two footnotes to support these claims, but they don’t provide the kind of evidentiary backup one might have hoped for. One footnote says that the three countries that switched to the euro – Iraq, Iran and North Korea – were exactly those countries singled out as the Axis of Evil, but acknowledges in qualification that “we can argue about cause and effect.” Indeed we can – although there is a lot of evidence out there to support the contention that these countries abandoned the dollar because they and the US heartily detested each other, and none (at least that I am aware of) to support the contention that the US came to detest them because they had abandoned the dollar. I’d have expected Graeber to provide at least a little evidence to support his suggestion that the bombing and occupation were a result of the decision to move away from the dollar. After all, if the intention was to inspire terror in the global South at the very thought of moving away from the dollar, you’d have expected that the US would have hinted at this threat in public pronouncements. But no such evidence is provided. Graeber goes on to claim that it is significant that the core-euro using states – France and Germany – opposed the war, while the U.K., a euro skeptic did not. This not only ignores countries such as Italy, but also begs the rather obvious question of why the US permitted (and indeed effectively assented to) the creation of the euro in the first place, given that the new currency was specifically intended to challenge the US dollar’s reserve currency status. This directly contradicts Graeber’s account of what global monetary politics involves. The US had plenty of levers, up to and including bases in Germany and elsewhere, with quite a lot of troops, aircraft and the like. It didn’t use them. Why?
>The sentence on how the Iraq war inspired ‘widespread terror’ among policy-makers in the Global South gets its own footnote – but this footnote does not provide any specific discussion whatsoever of the evidence supporting Graeber’s contention…. His suggested ‘neoclassical’ source for further reading is Niall Ferguson in full pith-helmet pontificator mode…. [H]e points us towards Michael Hudson, who (unless I misunderstand him badly) is interested in the opposite causal relationship to Graeber’s – Hudson is interested in how US financial privilege facilitates foreign policy adventurism, rather than how foreign policy adventurism scares people into continuing to cleave to the Mighty Dollar…. A couple of pages later, Graeber brings the one important recent case of default – Argentina – into his story. But again, his claims seem based on nothing very much in the way of solid facts.
>>By 2000, East Asian countries had begun a systematic boycott of the IMF. In 2002, Argentina committed the ultimate sin: they defaulted – and got away with it. Subsequent U.S. military adventures were clearly meant to terrify and overawe, but they do not appear to have been very successful: partly because, to finance them, the United States had to turn not just to its military clients, but increasingly, to China, its chief remaining military rival.
>This theory of the reasons behind U.S. military adventurism from 2002 on – that it was all intended to scare the bejasus out of debtor countries in case anyone else was inclined to pull an Argentina – has the virtue of originality. But that’s about all the virtue it has. It certainly doesn’t have any obvious evidence to support it. Graeber doesn’t even give us with a footnote here…. [T]here are lots, and lots and lots of other plausible reasons why the US went to war in Iraq that do not have very much to do with the politics of seignorage and debt repudiation. I’m not even going to get into the ways that he shoehorns the China-US relationship into his framework, since Gabriel [Rossman]’s post talks to this, but suffice to say that it is not any more satisfactory (a longue duree theory about how China has traditionally dealt with the barbarians through cleverly using tribute as a means of civilizing them, which is very long on assertion, and very short on facts).
>In short – if there is evidence to support Graeber’s rather sweeping claims about the nature of the global economic system, he doesn’t provide it to the reader. Perhaps this evidence is buried in his sources somewhere. Perhaps not. But when one self-consciously makes grand claims that everyone else is wrong, one should have good evidence, and be prepared to produce it up front. Graeber, unless he’s keeping it very close to his chest indeed, has no strong evidence at all. This doesn’t seem to me to live up to the (admittedly high) standard that Graeber sets for himself.
>So how does this relate to the second chapter, the one that I really liked? It seems to me that what Graeber has done in his concluding chapter is precisely to recapitulate the economists’ error that he rightly tossed scorn upon at the beginning of the book. He has let his own pet theory get in the way of the evidence. Graeber comes up with a theory which (like economists’) starts from a very simple claims – that behind the ubiquitous relationship of creditor to debtor lies the coercive power of the state. Unfortunately this theory, again just like the economists, doesn’t work very well outside the context where it was developed. It doesn’t explain state motivations – the evidence suggests that the US is motivated by many factors other than its desire to maintain the predominance of the dollar. It doesn’t explain the relevant relationships – seignorage, contra Graeber is not really a form of tribute, and thinking of it as same doesn’t really get us very far. Finally, and most crucially, it doesn’t explain the kinds of coercion that both the US and market actors can exert. Greece is not suffering today because the US will invade it if it defaults, or even because Panzers are going to start rolling towards the Aegean. It’s suffering because of a combination of more subtle forms of coercion, including the usual anodyne formulation of ‘market forces’ (which are not, contra Graeber, conditioned on the military might of powerful states such as the US, but exercise an influence all of their own).
>I’d genuinely like to see Graeber tackle these more subtle questions, and come up with a better account of the role of debt and money in the international economy. It’s an important set of issues, and even if I doubt I’d agree with him much, I think he would have a lot of interesting things to say. I don’t think that he says them in this book in any very satisfactory way. Doing this right that so doing would require the kind of good scholarship that Graeber commends in his blogpost – perhaps a better engagement with the very extensive literature on these subjects, both from traditional sources (some of the more historically minded mainstream economists have interesting things to say) and non-traditional ones (I was surprised that James Buchan’s extraordinary and beautiful book on the history of money, Frozen Desire, isn’t in the bibliography – it is quite as harsh as Graeber, but written by someone with a much clearer understanding of the world economy). This would make for a pretty good book, if he were up to it – but it would also require a lot of new work in rethinking, and, where necessary, tossing out, old ideas that don’t really explain what he thinks they explain.
@Brad (and anyone else who’s interested):
As for the question about whether or not you should assign the book to your students, well, that’s always [a] tough question. A lot of books have certain chapters or aspects of their arguments that are stronger than others, and the question I suppose is whether students should assess them on their own, or if they should be spared the time and effort. But let me ask you this: You said that you assign Diamond’s GGS for your classes. And that book certainly has it’s detractors and critics. Does this make you suspect of the whole book, and wonder whether you should assign it to students? I ran into this very issue with GGS during my undergrad in anthro. One prof said it was a terrible book, don’t read it. Another said it was a great book, definitely read it. Part of the issue there was a bit of a philosophical/methodological difference of opinion. Ever since then, I have leaned toward encouraging students to read various books and arguments that span a range of perspectives, then discussing the shortcomings and strengths, and finally letting students learn to hash things out a bit for themselves.
So, let’s say you assign Debt, but not chapter 12, and some of your students come back to you and tell you they read it anyway and found something valuable in there. Then what? How would you respond?
PS: I see that you have endorsed Farrell’s critique of Graeber’s book. Rather than get into all of that here, I think I’ll start another thread to tackle some of Farrell’s points etc, maybe one by one or something.
Just to give a little context here, it might be useful to point out – as any future historian, say, certainly would in the unlikely event they consider such a debate worth recalling – that the parties to this debate are not simply disinterested scholars, but active participants in events. Brad DeLong served in the Clinton Administration and was one of the architects of NAFTA. I, in turn, present myself in the book as someone who was politicized in the Global Justice Movement, which was kicked off with the Zapatista revolt, in reaction to NAFTA, and was generally opposed to the very “free trade” policies that DeLong was at the time designing and promoting – and which he still supports. So when he attacks me as wildly misrepresenting the real intentions and effects of American government policy, we should remember he speaks as someone who has had a role in designing at least some of those policies and putting them in place.
I guess you could argue that means that he would deny my most serious claims against US policy no matter what the circumstance, because (a) if any such claims were untrue, he would be in a position to know it, and (b) if any such claims were true, he would be the last person to admit it. So the fact that he takes the position that he does, doesn’t really tell you anything, one way or the other.
OTOH, the fact he always has to be goaded into dealing with the content of the arguments at all, but if left to his own devices always focuses on personal character attacks, does rather suggest to me bad faith.
“Just to give a little context here…that the parties to this debate are not simply disinterested scholars, but active participants in events.”
That’s a good point to keep in mind. I tried to hint at this in my conclusion above in the original post, but I think I was far too subtle about it.
Subtlety gets you nowhere in this kind of circumstance. You could say the whole problem here is that I tried to be subtle in constructing chapter 12: weaving together tales of myths, rumors, paranoid conspiracy theories, and images of absolute and arbitrary power, into what I thought was a rather subtle argument that empire works in part precisely because nobody completely understands how it works – even perhaps those ostensibly in charge. You’ve seen what kind of reaction it got!
If there’s anything I’ve learned here is DO NOT BE SUBTLE ON A TOPIC WHERE PEOPLE HAVE MAJOR AXES TO GRIND.
Graeber is correct. Farrell is wrong. While I don’t know Hudson personally, I move in the same circles from time to time and Superimperialism is about debt-relations backed by US military supremecy. There’s very little doubt about that outside of the minds of some of the participants in this discussion.
It’s also simply the truth. Keynes wanted to initiate a Bancor currency under Bretton Woods but Harry Dexter White wanted control over the suplus recycling mechanism because he knew that this would have sway during the Cold War, so he made the US dollar the world reserve currency and constructed a plan to set up the international monetary system accordingly. Much of the developing world’s economic history after WWII can be read through this lens. Again, most historians I know would agree with this.
Personally, while I’d have preferred the Bancor, I don’t have as much of a problem with the Bretton Woods/post-Bretton Woods system as some on the left do. It’s certainly not ideal but with the right policies I believe it could work a lot better. However, at its base it is a power relationship. And it was set up as a part of US military/geopolitical strategy. In that sense it is imperialist. And to argue otherwise is simply to let your historical judgment be clouded by ideology. That, to me, comes off as rather juvenile.
Philip – I’ve read Super Imperialism, and if your interpretation is as you’ve said it is, I’d really be grateful to be pointed to the bits where the book, in fact, makes these arguments about the reliance of economic domination on the fear of military intervention, the existence of some form of a tribute system etc. If you’re right, they shouldn’t be too hard to find. However, I certainly couldn’t find them myself (and indeed, the book’s lack of a very good explanation of why Europe etc follow the lead of the US, apart from a handwavy suggestion about the lack of a gene for institutional self-programming, is imo one of the flaws of an otherwise interesting and entertaining book). In the meantime, I would suggest that readers who are looking for a good and provocative radical interpretation of US imperialism, by people who have really done the careful and painstaking groundwork of finding and marshalling evidence in support of their theoretical arguments, should try Panitch and Gindin’s book instead.
Instead of the final chapter of Debt I should clarify – I think that Hudson’s book is a very interesting read.
Henry — I don’t have a copy of the book at hand and I won’t be home for a day or two, but I think there’s already some confusion here. The overarching argument of the book — which is substantially correct in my opinion — is that the post-war financial system was set up in such a way that the US could use it to ensure that they were able to maintain control over the economies of many developing countries (and the economies of the ex-Axis powers). This was done so that the US could present a unified front against the Soviet Bloc.
The manner in which this system was put into place was through diplomatic pressure. The US had more diplomatic leverage at the Bretton Woods conference (as against, say, Keynes and the British) because the US was the dominant power in WWII who had used their military capacity to win the war when no one else could. So, to say that the US would just point a gun at someone and tell them to do something is misleading. This had more to do with military capability and the sway that this gets you behind the scenes.
Is this imperialist? Of course! How do you think Africa was carved up? Why in the boardrooms of diplomats who used their military strength to pressure one another to give up claims, of course. This is what imperialism IS. It’s not always the naked brandishing of a gun in the face of the conquered, but the control over other countries through a variety of means. And it is almost always undertaken in the boardrooms rather than on the battefield.
“Imperialism, as defined by the People of Human Geography, is the creation and/or maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship, usually between states and often in the form of an empire, based on domination and subordination.”
“the policy of extending the rule or authority of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.”
“Debt is for the most part a very good book. As per the original post, people should really read it (my personal recommendation would be to just skip the final chapter). And the comparison with Diamond’s work is an apt one.”
Thanks for your comment. First of all, I am glad you noticed the comparison with Diamond here. It wasn’t meant to compare the books in any substantive sense, but to highlight another “controversial” book that sparks a lot of not-so-productive debate. I should have made that one a bit more explicit, but part of my point there was that some of strong opinions among anthros (in particular) stem from some deeper philosophical/political differences about how we should approach the study of anthropology, history, the global economy, etc. Hence my anecdote from my undergrad days, when one prof said the book was great and another said it was garbage. What did I do? I read it and tried to figure out how two of my best profs could disagree so much about one book.
Ya, Diamond gets some things wrong. Fine. Should people read his books? My argument is yes, they should–and they should learn how to assess his arguments instead of relying on the opinions of scholar a, b, or c to do that work for them. Now, this sentiment comes from hearing lots of people tell students not to read certain books, for various reasons, whether we’re talking about Marx’s Capital or Smith’s Wealth of Nations or many others. And then, invariably, we end up with legions of students who are critics of Marx, or Smith, or Karl Polanyi, etc, without ever actually reading the books or actually knowing what the authors were really saying. Some of this boils down to politics (and let’s face it: ideology), some is a matter of disciplinary learning, traditions, habits. But this is what I don’t agree with when it comes to DeLong’s underlying argument–he’s literally questioning the value of the whole book based upon what I would call some debatable critiques. The “Apple” example, to me, isn’t even worth addressing. Part of my point with the OP was to encourage people to read the book (Debt) and assess it for themselves. So I appreciate your call for people to take the time to actually read the book. I think it’s absolutely worth reading, faults and all.
When it comes to Chapter 12, sometimes it appears that certain folks involved here are talking past one another a bit–or at least coming from some very different interpretive/analytical perspectives. That’s not exactly a shocker, since econs and anthros and political scientists and sociologists all have their ways of approaching things. You know, last night I re-read your post (and the comments), and then re-read DG’s Chapter 12, and finally read through Rossman’s stuff. Oh, and some of DeLong’s responses as well. And it seems to me that some of these “disagreements” are somewhat blown out of proportion. It also seems that we have some mutual “missing the other side’s point” going on. But many of the discussions break down before we can figure some of that out, unfortunately.
Up above in the comments section, Graeber writes: “I might add in this particular case that there is no doubt a problem of the difference between traditions of anthropological writing, and those that like to claim they are engaged in science.” Now, maybe this is because I am coming from the “anthro” side of the table here, but I do think he raises a point that might be worth thinking about. I think those couple of paragraphs are worth reading through, just to add another layer of context, all past arguments between everyone aside. Especially the part where Graeber explains how he set up the last chapter: “I make it clear from the beginning of the chapter that I am interested in myths and symbols. The chapter begins by talking about conspiracy theories and mythic imagery…”
Again, I do think it’s worth reading through what he’s saying there. I read his chapter again, and while I think there are aspects that stretch his thesis a bit, I definitely don’t think the chapter is exactly the “empirical disaster” that DeLong claims it is. In fact, that charge still comes across as a little odd to me, if not just a bit overstated. Now, you raise points (about tribute, the role of violence and force in the global economy) that are worth debating, and I am 100 percent in favor of doing just that. As with any book, there are aspects of the argument that are stronger, and others that are weaker, and it’s definitely worthwhile to point those out. There are others, including folks from within anthropology, who have expressed similar assessments of the overall scope/success of the book.
However, there are some points under discussion here–the Iraq/euro switch and it’s relationship with the US decision to invade, for example–in which the terms of debate are pretty skewed from the start. That point, to me, is hardly worth getting into, mostly because Graeber isn’t coming close to making the direct causal argument that some folks insist he is. And it’s right there in the quoted passage. But there are some other quite fascinating points that I would like to see debated and explored quite a bit more (like the one about how much intentionality there really is behind our current political-economic system, or your argument about whether or not people prefer a monetized economy). Good stuff to think through. And I’d much rather get into that sort of stuff than letting the discussion get sidetracked by stuff of the “Apple” level of engagement.
Anyway, thanks again for the comment. I am planning on discussing some of the issues you raise in your post in the near future, and if you’re interested in sharing your thoughts here that would be great.
Philip – very briefly, since I am on childminding duty. I have absolutely no problem with the claim that US hegemony is usefully thought of as a kind of imperial rule. My criticism has always been that the specific theory of imperialism offered in the chapter in question is not a useful one. The metaphor of tribute is useful insofar as it draws attention to underlying power relations, but not so useful insofar as it suggests that it suggests a specific form of exchange relations, relying on direct military threat, that doesn’t seem to me to capture actually-existing-imperialism. This is one of the reasons why Panitch and Grandin’s account seems better to me – it is better at capturing the indirect way in which power is often exerted, as well as the ways in which firms as well as the state play a key role in asymmetric power relations.
Ryan – I would be happy to respond (as time permits and all of that) – it would be nice to have a discussion of this which didn’t start off poisoned by the personal relations involved.
Ya, I agree with you about the subtlety issue. I hinted at the fact that part of the issue here might be that we’re seeing some deeper political/ideological differences…but that got kind of lost I think.
You have, much more elegantly than me, put forth what I thought was the essence of my argument. The whole point of the disputed passages is that empire works in often subtle, murky ways, sometimes ways that nobody completely understands, but that none of it would ultimately happen were it not for the presence of overwhelming military force. It’s not like you actually have to point the gun at people if everybody knows you have it. The response seems to be to insist that we have to pretend that the most powerful military system the world has ever known has no influence on world affairs at all, unless, in any given case, one can specifically prove that some individual decision-maker was personally threatened by it!
Just to clarify, the reason Farrell’s remark about people preferring monetized economies annoyed me was because if he had read the book, he must have been aware I never made any claims of the sort. The passage he cited was about the maintenance of neoliberal orthodoxy, which states that the very specific contemporary form of financialized capitalism is inevitable. To respond to this by saying this neglects to take into account that sometimes people like money, and then refer at length to Malagasy farmers, is just bizarrely dishonest. If he’s read the book he had to be aware that
a) I was referring in that passage to a specific form of capitalism
b) I make it clear that I do not think that the mere presence of markets means the existence of capitalism
c) I make it clear that I do not think that the mere presence of money means the existence of markets
d) I make it clear that I do not think money or markets only exist when imposed on people. I note they often are, but I also make a great point of observing the emergence, at several points in world history, of market populism, where markets instead come to be seen as embodiments of human freedom
Now, given all this, how can pointing out there are people in rural Madagascar who sometimes prefer monetized relations possibly be taken to contradict my point that current neoliberal capitalism imposes itself on people by making them think nothing else is possible? Either Farrell just didn’t read the book and was faking it, basing his attack on what he thought someone like me probably *would* think, or, alternately, he had read the book, and just didn’t care that he was misrepresenting its argument. Either way he has to know by now what I really said in the book, since it’s been pointed out to him repeatedly, so if he’s sticking to his original argument anyway – well, that rather tells you something too.
Comments are closed.