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Archive for September, 2011

For a while now, I’ve  been wanting to start a side project of digitizing obscure and hard to locate texts from the history of the Marxist movement.  What else are Marxist grad students good for, right?  Well, the first installment has finally arrived, in the form of A.P. Pouyan and M. Mani’s Iran: Three Essays on Imperialism, the Revolutionary Left, and the Guerilla Movement, which I first found referenced when chasing down Fred Halliday’s footnotes about a Soviet republic set up in the north of Iran in Arabia without Sultans.  I haven’t been able to find much about the authors, who appear to have been participants in the guerrilla movement fighting the shah.  Pouyan in fact died fighting the shah’s police in urban guerrilla warfare in 1971.

Iran – Three Essays

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In NYC yesterday.

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I’ve always liked the way the hard left has described ideological differences as ‘deviations.’  There’s something almost sexy about it, either from the near-homonymy with ‘deviant’ or the way the language seems to slide easily into a Freudian diagnosis.  Alas, as a Marxist of at least what I like to imagine as near-Jesuitical orthodoxy, I have been something of a late bloomer in developing my deviations.  Recently, however, I’ve been doing some experimenting, and I think I’ve found one at last, in an intellectual infatuation with the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber.  What follows may simply be the result of over-excitement, but I wanted to get some initial thoughts down before diving into his big new book.

I’ve known about Graeber for some time, first encountering him in this piece at Lenin’s Tomb.  Recently, his book on debt has been getting a lot of press, and I noticed his spat with (really, thorough demolition of) Austrian economists posted at Naked Capitalism.  From there, I’ve been watching a number of pieces of his on youtube, and just yesterday I went to his event at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where the impeccably yuppy crowd tittered predictably upon his introduction as ‘an anarchist.’

Graeber’s presentation there was something of a precis of his new book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years.  Graeber argues that debt has played a whole variety of complex roles in human societies, and that our current understanding of debt as an inviolable, calculable obligation, while not exactly new, is at least somewhat peculiar.  In fact, debt structured human sociality in a multitude of ways long before the rise of money, and thus before the rule of any sort of quantifiable principle.

You can get a sense of the antiquity of debt, and its importance, in its presence in early religious discourse.  Graeber notes that in many ancient religions, the word for sin or guilt was the same as that for debt.  The Lord’s Prayer originally went ‘forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.’  This is because debt played a crucial role in structuring human relations, which in many pre-capitalist societies formed a complex and subtle web of mutual obligations.  Indeed, in some societies, one habitually paid either slightly less or slightly more than own owed – to pay your debt exactly was to signal to your creditor that  you desired no further relationship with her.

This structure of debt changed with the rise of money, which is at the center of the debate at Naked Capitalism.  Graeber argues that, contra Adam Smith and basically every other economist, money did not arise out of a previously existing barter economy.  Such a thing never existed.  Instead, money first arose as a means of exchange between people coming into contact at the edges of societies, such as long distance traders who only came into contact intermittently.  As Graeber argues, such socially incidental practices could hardly serve as the basis for the emergence of a full-blown money economy.  Instead, precise quantifiability seems linked up with the threat of violence.  If someone commits violence against someone else, the penalties tend to be enumerated precisely, introducing practices of quantification previously absent.  Additionally, money seems to come from the practices off non-state bureaucracies, such as temples, in accounting for the needs of their workers – in other words, it comes from practices that are the opposite of the kind of barter system predicted by economists of various stripes.  For Graeber, these two institutions – the law regulating violence, and non-state bureaucracies, are the key to understanding the emergence of money.

However, money economies were not a done deal once they emerged.  Graeber argues that history has seen an oscillation between what he calls a ‘virtual credit economy’ of the type described earlier and a money economy.  Most recently, the key turn came in the early modern era.  At this time, non-monetized credit was the animating force behind about 95% of all transactions.  As a new round of imperial wars got under way, however, the state turned to money to pay its soldiers, and money became a more important feature of social relations.  Correspondingly, the law concerning debts became more precise and punitive, and suddenly debt became a weapon everyone could use against everyone else.  Graeber calls this ‘the Hobbesian moment,’ and argues that the resulting chaos helps explain the ambivalence early political economists felt towards debt.

Moving forward a bit, Graeber argues that neoliberalism represents in some ways a new social role for debt.  While the Keynesian social contract of the postwar years had tied rising productivity to rising wages, and the social struggles of  that era largely concerned the extension of this contract to excluded groups, under neoliberalism workers were promised not raises but credit.  Debt thus replaced the social wage as a force for social pacification.  Of course, as the last few years have amply illustrated, this arrangement contained within it the seeds for even greater social chaos than that of the postwar years.

Though Graeber is deliberately non-prescriptive in much of his argument, he does argue for a certain broad political orientation towards debt.  All debt is, he says, are promises we make each other, and if democracy means anything at all, it surely means the ability to continually renegotiate those promises.  After all, we’ve seen that certain people and institutions are quite easily able to renegotiate their debts if they suddenly find them onerous.  If AIG can write off its loans, why can’t I?

As a point of critique, this seems to me unassailable.  But I think it falls somewhat short of being able to provide a strategic orientation.  For while Graeber emphasizes that most of us live our daily lives in ways that are closer to the virtual credit economy than to neoliberal man (he likes to joke that if you took Milton Friedman out to a nice dinner, he’d probably feel obliged to do something nice for you, even though his economic theory says he should just take the lobster and run), it remains true nonetheless that there are powerful social groups in our society who will do everything in their power to stop us from achieving our Jubilee.  If we are to have any hope of actually clearing our books, we have to have a serious accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of these groups or institutions, as well as our own.

There’s another point at which a semi-orthodox Marxist such as myself could find something to question in Graeber’s argument, and that’s his emphasis on state and non-state bureaucracies in the rise of money.  It seems to me that this argument could be presented in an extremely anti-Marxist fashion, emphasizing the causal primacy of institutions and processes not related to social relations of production, and vindicating a sort of Weberian explanatory pluralism.  Though I haven’t read Debt yet, I doubt very much Graeber takes this path, though I would not be surprised to see others use his work in such a way.  I want to suggest, though, that Graeber’s emphasis on these points does not necessarily contradict Marxist hypotheses about the causal primacy of social relations of production.  After all, as Ellen Meiksins Wood, amongst others, has argued, it is only under capitalism that ‘the state’ and ‘the economy’ become separate realms of social life (paging Dr. Lukacs).  In pre-capitalist modes of production, the state and non-state bureaucracies are intimately connected to the process of production, even if they are not organizing the labor process itself (though sometimes they are).  Thus, the centrality of these institutions is not necessarily a refutation of historical materialism.

I realize this is a somewhat hamfisted attempted to deal with an argument I don’t even know that anyone is making.  But people always say silly things about their crushes.  I’m looking forward to getting to know him better.

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