(Non Sequitor/Wiley Miller via GoComics.com)
“Tell people they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased, but this surprisingly rarely leads to armed revolt. Tell people that they are potential equals who have failed, and that therefore, even what they do have, they do not deserve, that it isn’t rightly theirs, and you are much more likely to inspire rage… For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors — of arguments about the rights & wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestoring of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records — tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place… ” — David Graeber, Debt: the First 5,000 Years
Via Ken Layne at Wonkette, Bloomberg Businessweek has an excellent profile of “the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street“:
… It would be wrong to call Graeber a leader of the protesters, since their insistently nonhierarchical philosophy makes such a concept heretical. Nor is he a spokesman, since they have refused thus far to outline specific demands. Even in Zuccotti Park, his name isn’t widely known. But he has been one of the group’s most articulate voices, able to frame the movement’s welter of hopes and grievances within a deeper critique of the historical moment. “We are watching the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt,” Graeber wrote in a Sept. 25 editorial published online by the Guardian. “Is it really surprising they would like to have a word with the financial magnates who stole their future?”
Graeber’s politics have been shaped by his experience in global justice protests over the years, but they are also fed by the other half of his life: his work as an anthropologist. Graeber’s latest book, published two months before the start of Occupy Wall Street, is entitled Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It is an alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. Looking at societies ranging from the West African Tiv people and ancient Sumer to Medieval Ireland and modern-day America, he explores the ambivalent attitudes people have always had about debt: as obligation and sin, engine of economic growth and tool of oppression. Along the way, he tries to answer questions such as why so many people over the course of history have simultaneously believed that it is a matter of morality to repay debts and that those who lend money for a living are evil.
Graeber’s arguments place him squarely at odds with mainstream economic thought, and the discipline has, for the most part, ignored him. But his timing couldn’t be better to reach a popular audience. His writing provides an intellectual frame and a sort of genealogy for the movement he helped start. The inchoate anger of the Occupy Wall Street protesters tends to cluster around two things. One is the influence of money in politics. The other is debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers have been treated in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis…
Both links are well worth reading in full, and the Wonkette comments aren’t bad either. Sounds like Graeber’s book might be another good choice for the Balloon Juice Book Chat readers, too (it’s a pricey hardcover, but Amazon’s offering a pretty good discount right now).
As someone who minored in Anthro and found it pretty interesting (why would I minor in it, right?), I’m thinking I might really enjoy this book.
Villago Delenda Est
The problem is not getting into debt, it’s rigging the game so it’s simply not possible to get out of it.
This is where tumbrels and other, erm, “extreme measures”, begin to look more and more appealing.
The financial magnates have to give some on this. Either provide a way to work the debt off, or forgive it. Before they lose their heads. For real.
Speaking of the comments, this one deserves, I think, a wider viewing.
From Negropolis (which is pretty awesome, as e-names go)
“No snark, this David Graeber offends what I believe to be my ‘liberal’ sensibilities, by revealing them to be no such thing. He makes me feel uncomfortable and challenged – I find that to be a good and helpful thing.
In fact, on a related note, it’s been pulling me into reality. For instance, I’ve heard a lot of so-believed and so-called libeals bashing the OWS protestors, because their very apperance (i.e. “Dirty Fucking Hippies”) offended their sensibilities of what the movement should be, and it’s got me to see how shallow we can be. Here these men and women are, of all ages and persuasions and backgrounds literally using their bodies to physically occupy the public (and sometimes private) sphere, when they could be sitting comfortably in their living rooms like myself bitching and moaning about all the bad things in the world, and what do some of us give them? Criticism because they are “too hippyish” for our mainstream sensibilities. If you got a problem with these folks representing you (and you shouldn’t), then get the fuck down to the squares, yourself, for just STFU. Really. Actually. Only “liberals” sit back and consicously and willfully self-sabotage over the silliest and shallowest of details.
I’m no anarchist – at least, I don’t think I am – but we should listen to more voices than we are currently listening to. I know that I don’t want to be on the outside when the world comes falling down. I think we’re finally being asked in a very real way to choose very real sides, and I hope I’m ready to answer the questions when it’s put to me directly, whenever and wherever it may be.
You know, I see people still incredulously asking “what do they want?” and I honestly think that if you haven’t figured it out, by now, I’m not sure you’ll get it, because you don’t want to get it.”
Amen to that.
The book sounds interesting. And it might be very topical.
Speaking of OWS, Occupy Oakland is actually going to get their strike.
They decided a few days ago that a strike would be a good thing and published this decision. They didn’t confer with the unions or the workers. They just said they wanted one. In response, some unions are joining in. The longshoremen stated that they cannot legally strike but they aren’t required to cross a picket line. [:-)] At least one school will be closed. Other teachers are talking about teaching for a half day and then joining the protest.
et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
I am amazed. Go for it!
150pp in, it’s a good read.
Challenges many of my economics-degree-based assumptions.
Pricey for Kindle, too; which is totally fine, I’m just tapped out this month.
However, I would be glad to discuss in a general way.
It’s my contention that we 99% are being rendered down for our net worth, as meat scraps are melted for their tallow. Usurious interest rates result in the victim scrambling to keep up; until they can’t anymore. Then the fall to the bottom, lurking without a bank account, living under the radar. There’s plenty of employers who will pay under the table.
Bill E Pilgrim
That is actually a great book. By a pretty well-respected anthropologist by the way, in addition to all the organizing and anarchist sides. Myths exploding left and right on every page, going back to prehistory. Much more needs to be explored in this direction if you asked me.
Don’t know if you guys saw this from across the pond but St. Pauls has dropped its proposed legal action against the OWS peeps around them and are now promising to work with them to spread their message.
Dude. Use your credit card. Then when Tyler Durden does his thing you will have a clean slate AND a copy of the book.
It is a win-win.
Three priest working at St. Paul’s, including the dean, had already resigned rather than be involved in evicting OWS. It was getting a bit problematic for the CofE. Wonder if those who resigned are asked to reconsider.
J. Michael Neal
I haven’t read the book, but what I will say is this: yes, you have an obligation to repay your debts. However, banks have a responsibility not to make stupid loans. Sometimes, both parties do irresponsible things, leading to both of them getting hosed. In theory.
Actually, if the game is so rigged that you can never repay your debts, then you don’t really have an obligation to destroy yourself by trying to do so. That’s what Citigroup et al would have you/us believe, but it ain’t so. We needn’t suicide for Citi’s bottom line. Nor BofA’s, for that matter.
Slightly OT: Tired of getting junk mail and want to protest but can’t? http://shoqvalue.com/keep-wall-street-occupied-send-them-your-love-letters
Short Bus Bully
Anyone ever heard of that art movie “Fight Club”?
Take away Brad Pitt’s abs and it’s the EXACT SAME ending we’re talking about here.
@J. Michael Neal: I view debt the way I would view any contract between parties. For example, issues of adhesion and unconscionability apply. Also, it is perfectly appropriate for a party to look at the deal and decide it isn’t worth and walk away. At that point, the nonbreaching party would be entitled to damages-often in this case the return of collateral. I say if it is a better deal to walk away and pay whatever consequences in terms of repos and hits to credit ratings, then it is probably foolish to stay with the deal. Businesses do it all the time.
10 people are on an island, they all work to build huts, make paths, dig wells, channel water, get things to eat — they stay alive.
At some point, they start comparing the importance of their efforts, and setting values. Then they decide that shells will represent those values.
Eventually, one person ends up with all the shells, and he starts bossing everyone else around. But he didn’t make all the huts or paths, or dig all the wells, or channel all the water, or get all the things to eat.
So the rest put him on a log and push him out to sea. They’ve still got the huts, the paths, the wells, the channels, and the ability to get things to eat.
Does it matter if he took the shells with him when they put him on the log?
David Graeber, before he got (deservedly) famous:
Didn’t the ancient Hebrews have a Jubilee year every 50 years or so when all debts were forgiven? Maybe we can get some of the fundies behind legislating THAT.
Those were the “so-called” Hebrews. Things were simpler back then.
@J. Michael Neal: I think you missed the point. The problem is with a system that forces people to take on unbearable debts if they want to pursue economic opportunity. Think of, for example, indentured servitude as the tradeoff for passage to the New World. Even though indentured servitude might, in fact, be a beneficial transaction for both parties, we no longer view such arrangements as acceptable.
As a society, we’ve been progressively moving in the direction where you need more and more education to get a good job, and the only way to get that education (unless you’re already in the privileged class) is to take on more and more debt, debt that most people will spend the better part of their lives struggling to repay. Logic tells us that this state of affairs is capable of getting far, far worse before it gets better. It doesn’t hurt to think about whether this is really the way we want to arrange our society.
There are a few books on my wish list that I think are important
Keynes Hayek: The Clash that Defined Modern Economics
Retirement Heist: How Companies Plunder and Profit from the Nest Eggs of American Workers
Ellen E. Schultz
Bill E Pilgrim
@Steve: In his book Graeber talks about how debt was always a matter of what society owed its members as much as the other way around, originally at least.
He also goes into the entire history of money, beginning with the fact that “before we had money, people had to barter” is entirely a myth, despite being repeated and taught and written in textbooks even now. Money was there from the start, and was really just an accounting device to keep track of mostly material goods that the group had, and doled out as needed.
The whole idea of bartering required the modern concept of money to already have developed first, despite the fact that people keep trying to imagine it existing before the idea of money did, the point being that once you had goods and money linked, instead of goods and the needs of the community, you were on to a different arrangement from what money originally was all about.
Paraphrasing and that’s just a fraction of what’s in it but absolutely fascinating and well worth a read. And timely, yes.
Villago Delenda Est
I’m still a firm believer in the utility of the labor theory of value, but Graeber gives you a lot to think about in relation to the true evolution of money. It appears that economics is the tail, rather than the dog.
re having to pay debts: One of the most shocking things I’ve heard about the behavior of the banksters is the way they jack up interest rates to stunning numbers on people who have been conscientiously paying back a credit card debt, apparently wishing to drain every penny from the victim rather than wait for the gradual repayment. When the banks unilaterally change the amount and terms of the debt then most of the obligation of the debtor vanishes, I think.
One of many stories I heard is that a woman who had put a remodeling on one credit card and was paying it back with a perfect record of on-time payments had some small irregularity on a different card from a different bank, the first bank tripled the interest rate on that card so that debt just got bigger and bigger until there was no way she could pay it.
Minor inaccuracy: the Bloomberg Businessweek profile describes Graeber as having “made his name with innovative theories on exchange and value”. Actually, these theories were largely the work of Nancy Munn and Terry Turner, two supercool Marxian anthropologists whose work appears in obscure Finnish journals, handouts of hand-pencilled diagrams, etc. (They’re a bit like the Velvet Underground of cultural anthropology.) This doesn’t diminish his work at all: it’s a great public service.
Nope. Ever read a credit card agreement carefully?
If the free market worked the way it is alleged to work, there would be a credit card issuer that, in exchange for a reasonable fee, would give you a card on terms and conditions that are symmetrical and fair, instead of the borderline-unconscionable agreements that the vast majority of us are parties to. When you find that issuer, please let me know.
The legal obligation remains, true.
The moral obligation of repayment that a lot of people like to talk about goes right out the window, though.
What moral obligation is that?
Omnes is totally correct. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no morality in contract law. If breach is economically rational and you can live with what will happen, by all means go for it.
I’m sorry to be so frivolous, but I’ve always thought “Wapshott” was a wonderful surname.
Also too, “Wagstaff.”
One example would be the bankers who manipulate survivors into paying off their deceased relatives because it’s the ‘right’ thing to do.
I remember Donald Trump going on about the immoral deadbeats not paying their underwater mortgages, too.
It’s a common attitude.
Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value is less wide-ranging but covers its (closely related) topics in more depth, with (I thought) a better flow in the presentation. I recommend them both.
Just finished it last night. It’s terrific. It’s one of those books that convinces you that everybody else is wrong (ok, economists are wrong) but doesn’t have the answers. I don’t have a problem with that.
Also, you want an anthropologist to give you lots of surprising cross-cultural examples and he delivers.
@J. Michael Neal:
Until Jubilee comes around.
The Christians picked up the concept of debt forgiveness in 1300 (courtesy of Wikipedia).
Solon, the great law giver of the Athenian Republic, had debts forgiven and abolished the custom of enslaving debtors.
The founding documents of our civilization include debt forgiveness, which select modern debtors, the banks, have taken advantage of through TARP.
Baron Jrod of Keeblershire
@burnspbesq: For fuck’s sake, burns. Are you just utterly incapable of looking at anything, anything at all outside of a legal perspective?
I’m just imagining a scenario in which your significant other says, “Hey love, it’s your turn to empty the dishwasher,” to which you respond, “Oh, and which statute is it that requires me to do so? Did we sign a contract which compels me to do this?” to which ze responds, “I just think it’d be nice if you emptied the washer this time,” and you respond, “Nice? I know of no definition of “nice” in Black’s Law Dictionary, what are you talking about?”
@glasgowtremontaine: To be fair, he synthesised their work in text that is much more accessible then added a dollop of cross-cultural relevance.
[true fact, he was a lecturer of mine when I was a UG. Incredibly weird, but incredibly influential – his anthropology deeply informs my own archaeology]
Paul in KY
@Bill E Pilgrim: Bill, isn’t he talking about 12,000 or more years ago? I know we have had money for a very long time, but did cavemen have money?
@TheMightyTrowel: Oh, hell yeah. Innovation is overrated anyway: what the world needs from cultural anthropology is not more excellent theories, but more consolidation, distribution, and practical relevance of our excellent theories.
What course did you take from him?
May I make a strong request for a different Graeber book to be in the book club?
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology is an excellent, short book that Graeber has made freely available as a PDF on the internets, because anarchism: http://www.abahlali.org/files/Graeber.pdf
One can of course pay a giant corporation like Amazon for access to a physical copy of the book instead if that’s how you roll.
Fragments is absurdly relevant to #OWS. It is also less about an overarching argument and more about presenting a bunch of fascinating but arguable ideas; a perfect format for a book club discussion, I think.