Thoughts on David Graeber’s ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’

Thoughts on David Graeber’s ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’

I finally finished this book after reading it on and off for months. First, I'll say this is a very unsettling book. By this, I mean it makes you think again about things you thought you knew already, and can't be easily assimilated into an existing worldview. For that reason alone, it's worth reading.

What follows isn't really a review, but some thoughts on some of the concepts put forward and ideas raised in the book. Nor am I going to summarise the arc of the book's main arguments. If you've no idea what the book is about, there's a summary by Graeber here, an interview about it here, and a smack-down on some free-market critics here which give a pretty good idea.

This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today. - David Graeber, Debt

Communism, exchange and hierarchy

The first thing I'd like to pick up on is Graeber's claim that all societies are a configuration of three fundamental organisational/moral principles: communism, exchange and hierarchy. What Graeber calls 'baseline communism', the giving according to abilities and receiving according to needs, is he claims, the "the foundation of all human sociability", the very condition of possibility of society itself. He writes that "The surest way to know that one is in the presence of communistic relations is that not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so." I like this formulation, and it echoes a line a line of argument I made in the libcom vs parecon debate. But there's a sting in the tail. By the same token, Graeber argues that this is rarely the whole story, and there's a tendency for communism to slide into other forms of society.

These involve exchange and hierarchy. Exchange, for Graeber, implies equality between the parties. But it doesn't necessarily mean commodity exchange, i.e. the obligation isn't necessarily quantified. So in many stateless, non-commercial societies, you simply admire the thing you want ('What a lovely pig!') and the possessor makes a gift of it. You don't owe a pig in return, but an obligation of roughly equivalent status (Graeber says there are broad categories of object, e.g. everyday objects and sacred objects, which aren't commensurable with each other). So for example, Marcel Mauss' work on 'The Gift' explores this kind of exchange. Commercial, market exchange, is of course something we're familiar with. The difference between the two is the difference between 'cheers mate, I owe you one' and 'thank you shopkeeper I owe you £1'. Furthermore, the temporal disjunction in gift exchange creates 'debts'1 and therefore social bonds and solidarity, whereas the immediacy of commercial exchange creates no ongoing obligations, and is therefore the form of exchange appropriate for strangers - or enemies. So for example, stateless societies have often been communistic internally, but practised forms of gift exchange in their relations with other groups. Graeber explores this in some detail, which I won't repeat here.

Finally, hierarchy. Hierarchy is not necessarily the formal hierarchy of organised violence of the state, but may also be informal and based on status. Graeber, following Mauss, argues that gift exchange is often a competitive contest for status, with the party who gives the most attaining the highest status. It is in this sense that purely communistic societies are always prone to these alternative moral logics, which could transform a communistic society into something else if not kept in check (this is part of the role of ritual in 'primitive' societies, which it turns out, are in fact rather complex). So for example, communistic relations apply to the in-group, but that has never (yet!) been all humanity. Between in-groups, exchange arises, and this carries with it the tendency to hierarchy. There are other permutations, but this is the kind of analysis these concepts give rise to. I'm not entirely sure what to make of this, but I do think it's highly thought-provoking. I also suspect Graeber is playing a double-move given the US context: first establishing that communism is the ever-present basis of society, then playing down the idea of a communist society. In the context of 'communism' being a dirty word, this may well be a tactical move to provoke US readers (and others) into rethinking what communism is, and perhaps warming to it, without having to admit to being 'commies'.

The distinction between ‘human economies’ and ‘commercial economies’

The second thing I want to pick up on is Graeber's conceptual distinction between 'human economies' and 'commercial economies'.

Graeber wrote:
Often, these currencies [yams, shovels, pigs, jewellery] were extremely important, so much so that social life itself might be said to revolve around getting and disposing of the stuff. Clearly, though, they mark a totally different conception of what money, or indeed an economy, is actually about. I’ve decided therefore to refer to them as “social currencies,” and the economies that employ them as “human economies.” By this I mean not that these societies are necessarily in any way more humane (some are quite humane; others extraordinarily brutal), but only that they are economic systems primarily concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings.

By contrast, "historically, commercial economies — market economies, as we now like to call them — are a relative newcomer." I think this distinction is quite an interesting one, and in many ways parallels Marx's notion of 'commodity fetishism', with commercial economies being those where "the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things." (Karl Marx). In other words, commercial societies, specifically capitalism, pose a fundamental ontological inversion, where "capital subjectivizes itself through the subordination of human ends and purposes to its own self-expansion. Like a vampire, it is dead labour preying on the living." This inhuman force then governs and restructures social life (though not without resistance). Communism then, from a libertarian communist perspective, would be something like seizing back control of society from this inhuman force, and instantiating social relations based on human beings and our needs. In Graeber's terminology, libertarian communism would be a form of human economy (as well as perhaps the movement that prefigures it).

However, Graeber also makes what I imagine will be a controversial argument about Medieval Islam and free markets. Throughout the book, Graeber points out that the common sense view of 'market' and 'state' as diametrically opposing forces is false, and that "historical reality reveals (...) they were born together and have always been intertwined." Consequently, he is dismissive of the economists' idea of the free market, since markets are underpinned by state force, and historically were created by state action (typically taxation to raise armies to wage war). However, in Medieval Islam, Graeber does identify something like a true free market, that is, a market without any state involvement. But here, without the force of the state, the only guarantee for commercial activity is honour and trust. In the absence of coercion, market relations tend to be reabsorbed in the web of social relations, a 'moral economy', regulated by custom and reputation, and thus based more on co-operation than competition. Thus, paraphrasing the work of the Islamic scholar Tusi (1201-1274 AD), he writes that:

Graeber wrote:
The market is simply one manifestation of this more general principle of mutual aid, of the matching of abilities (supply) and needs (demand) - or to translate it into my earlier terms, it is not only founded on, but is itself an extension of the kind of baseline communism on which any society must ultimately rest.

This is certainly a provocative argument: markets are communist! To be clear, this is not Graeber's argument, so much as his summary of Tusi's. However, it isn't as paradoxical as it sounds. Graeber's argument is that without state power, commercial economies tend to revert to more human ones, with honour, trust, mutual aid and co-operation replacing coercion and competition (more on this below). I also suspect there's a hint of provocation here to the US right: finding the only example of functioning 'free markets' in the writings of Islamic scribes. There's also a hint of Karl Polanyi's 'double movement', where the 'self-regulating market' comes up against a counter-movement to subordinate it to social needs (Karl Polanyi, from page 88 of the pdf). I'll pick up on some of the implications of this below.

Marx, critique and utopia

David Graeber wrote:
Karl Marx, who knew quite a bit about the human tendency to fall down and worship our own creations, wrote Das Capital in an attempt to demonstrate that, even if we do start from the economists’ utopian vision, so long as we also allow some people to control productive capital, and, again, leave others with nothing to sell but their brains and bodies, the results will be in many ways barely distinguishable from slavery, and the whole system will eventually destroy itself. What everyone seems to forget is the “as if” nature of his analysis. Marx was well aware that there were far more bootblacks, prostitutes, butlers, soldiers, pedlars, chimneysweeps, flower girls, street musicians, convicts, nannies, and cab drivers in the London of his day than there were factory workers. He was never suggesting that that’s what the world was actually like.

The final point I want to pick up on is Graeber’s reading of Marx. Graeber is at pains to point out that Marx's Capital is not a critique of actually-existing capitalism, but a critique of the capitalist utopia imagined by the political economists (Adam Smith, David Ricardo and so on). He even goes as far as to claim capitalism is not in fact based on wage labour. Now, few if any posters on libcom would have a closed, economistic reading of Marx. After all, we all know that Marx was writing a critique of political economy and not 'economics': he was critiquing the claims made by capitalism's ideological supporters, not claiming to describe how capitalism actually works. Implicit in Graeber's argument seems to be the idea that Marx's immanent critique needs to be supplemented by an external critique in order to properly situate and understand actually-existing capitalism and its relationship to other social formations. An anthropological perspective, and some of the conceptual distinctions discussed above, are a way of doing that.

What does this mean for our understanding of capitalism? I contend that plenty of us on libcom, and I've certainly been guilty of this, do tend to take Marx as describing actually-existing capitalism even when we know otherwise. Now in a sense, I think this is in part because Capital does do this (e.g. Marx's lengthy quotes from newspapers and parliamentary reports into working conditions are describing real-world capitalism, not the utopia of the political economists). But to the extent we take Marx as criticising actually existing capitalism, we also implicitly accept the political economists reductive, bourgeois assumptions about human beings and society, assumptions which Marx only provisionally adopts in order to explode political economy from within. Why, for example, would we think 'the tendency of the rate of profit to fall' could explain the current crisis, unless we thought Marx's Capital described actually-existing capitalism? I think there's several implications to this, though I've yet to fully work through them all.

First, in taking Marx's Capital as a critique of actually-existing capitalism, we could well be overstating the power of capital (and thus understating our own power). For example, the arc of Marx's Capital begins with commodities and shows how commodification implies class society. There's a tendency to deduce therefore, that any time anything exchanges for a price, capitalism will be reproduced, rising vampire-like from the dead to once more suck the blood of the living. Graeber sees it very differently. In the absence of state power, market exchanges tend not to give rise to the inhuman monster of capital (markets, and even wage labour, after all, have existed far longer than capitalism), but rather tend to be re-absorbed into a moral economy of a human society, a society to which Marx's account doesn't apply (e.g. Graeber's example of Islamic 'free markets' discussed above).

The consequence is significant. Rather than seeing every exchange for a price as the seed of a resurgent capitalism, Graeber sees exchange as tending towards being embedded in social relations and a moral economy unless this is actively prevented from happening by state power. So in this sense, something like a 'free market' anarchism wouldn't resemble a commercial market at all, but something closer to a gift economy, with everyone taking what they need on trust then settling up in periodic 'reckonings', with account taken for inability to pay.

To be clear, Graeber does not advance this as his favoured society, and my description is drawn from his discussion of the village economies of Medieval England (which he cautions not to idealise). But nonetheless, the implication is that by ignoring the tendency of human society to reabsorb commercial relations into social ones, to ignore "religious ideas, ethical concepts, customs, habits, traditions, legal opinions" as well as the more familiar "political organisations, institutions of property, forms of production, and so on" (Rudolf Rocker), we overstate the resilience and durability of capitalism. In other words, without an anthropological perspective, we tend to over-state the power of 'the market' and the naturalness of capitalism, even while we think we're critiquing it (a form of capitalist realism, perhaps?). An unsettling thought.

If we accept this line of argument, it would suggest we could be worrying too much about things that look too much like commodity exchange leading to the restoration of capitalism (e.g. the various alternative currencies during Argentina's economic crisis of 2001, or the voucher systems used in parts of revolutionary Catalonia in 1936). Rather, it is state power which is pivotal in reconstituting these exchange systems into commercial, commodity markets rather than them being reabsorbed into webs of social relations based on needs, mutual aid and so on. I'm not sure what I make of this, but it's an intriguing reversal of conventional libcom wisdom. Rather than capital being the all-powerful hydra that regenerates from the smallest stumps of market behaviour, rather all societies are based on a basic communism which threatens to assert itself whenever state power recedes, re-embedding markets into webs of mutual aid which could render the commodity form obsolete, superseded by direct social relations and bonds of honour and trust.2

Second, Graeber provocatively picks up on this to explain the current crisis. He argues that only while we could imagine capitalism as a historic system that had a beginning and must have an end was it possible for the cycle of boom and bust, and particularly for speculative bubbles of credit and debt, to function. Now that capitalist realism rules, the whole economy breaks down because the idea of endless expansion of debt makes everything go nuts:

Graeber wrote:
In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons lest speculation, predictably, go haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.

This is very closely bound up with Graeber's claim that "there is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist". The triumph of capitalism has rendered it dysfunctional. The expansion of debt is only tenable if it is considered to be finite. As soon as we think capitalism will last forever, it necessarily goes into crisis. And at the same time, we're running up against ecological limits... It takes an anthropologist to draw attention to the importance of beliefs, norms, customs and so on in understanding what economists claim is the hard science world of 'the markets'. I can't say I'm convinced by Graeber's specific diagnosis of a belief in eternal capitalism causing the global economic crisis. But again, it's a provocative thesis, and forces us to think about the role of culture and beliefs in determining economic processes, in addition to the more familiar approach of doing the opposite (either approach, alone, would be reductionist).

Finally then, Graeber offers one concrete proposal, in a book which is meant more to change paradigms than set out blueprints: a debt jubilee, i.e. a mass cancellation of debts to allow the system to start up again. This is inspired by the ancient Babylonian practice, which periodically saw debts wiped clean and debt-slaves released. Graeber even points out that the first recorded word for 'freedom' means literally 'return to mother', referring to the liberation of debt slaves during periodic jubilees. Frankly, it's quite a disappointing conclusion. For one thing, Graeber proposes debt cancellation (a policy to be implemented by those in power) and not a debt strike (a tactic to be employed by the powerless). I suspect this comes from academic habit. Even when I was at university, there was a pressure on students to frame arguments in 'policy relevant' terms, i.e. aimed at making suggestions to the ruling class. I suspect this pressure is even stronger on academics. All that said, the book does not aim at concrete tactical proposals and should not be judged on this basis. 'Debt' is a wide-ranging and provocative read which manages to be both accessibly written and intellectually challenging, and is certain to make all but the most hardened dogmatists re-examine things they thought they already knew.

  • 1. The problems caused by quantifying and moneterising these debts is one of the main themes of the book.
  • 2. The caveat here is the human society and moral economy wouldn’t necessarily be one libertarian communists would find desirable. As I’ve said, Graeber’s at pains to point out human societies are not necessarily humane societies. I guess this is where the importance of prefigurative struggles comes in: establishing the norms which will rule with the supersession of the state-market complex.

Comments

Nate
Jan 30 2012 00:47

I haven't had time to collect my thouhgts on the discussion here but wanted to say about the claims made about the commodity form in some of this, I think the first 9 or 10 pages of v2 of Capital are really relevant here -- http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1885-c2/ch01.htm#1 (up to but not including "Second Stage. Function of Productive Capital"). In that passage, Marx says that it's easy to mix up money and capital. One such mix up is to attribute qualities of capital to qualities of money, or to explain capital through qualities of money. I think the claims about the commodity form verge on that kind of mix up. It seems to me in those passages that Marx is above all talking about labor markets. that has a relation to other markets but it's the existence of labor power on the market that's the real issue in capitalist society, not commodification of other stuff, which existed for a long time before capitalist society.

Redwinged Blackbird
Feb 12 2012 07:21

I just picked this book up and am about to start reading it. Look forward to it..... But $33, fucking christ. I can see why they call it "Debt", ya feel me?

Croy
Feb 29 2012 21:29
Joseph Kay wrote:
However, in Medieval Islam, Graeber does identify something like a true free market, that is, a market without any state involvement. But here, without the force of the state, the only guarantee for commercial activity is honour and trust. In the absence of coercion, market relations tend to be reabsorbed in the web of social relations, a 'moral economy', regulated by custom and reputation, and thus based more on co-operation than competition. Thus, paraphrasing the work of the Islamic scholar Tusi (1201-1274 AD), he writes that:
Graeber wrote:
The market is simply one manifestation of this more general principle of mutual aid, of the matching of abilities (supply) and needs (demand) - or to translate it into my earlier terms, it is not only founded on, but is itself an extension of the kind of baseline communism on which any society must ultimately rest.

So is this a form of anarcho capitalism that actually semmed to work (not knowing the historical details about what actually happened) ? If this is anarcho capitalism, then by the Graeber quote, it would mean anarcho capitalism is in fact communist in some regards ? I certainly am begginning to see what you mean when you say this is a challenging and un settling read Joseph !

Joseph Kay wrote:
Graeber sees it very differently. In the absence of state power, market exchanges tend not to give rise to the inhuman monster of capital (markets, and even wage labour, after all, have existed far longer than capitalism), .

The bit in brackets I take issue with. It seems to be a consensus on this site that capitalism at its core can be defined by wage labour, largely above all other defining factors. I have seen others criticsed for suggesting capitalism is at its core defined by other things like monopolies on violence, opression etc. So if this is true how, can it wage labour exist without capitalism ? This then gets back to anarcho capitalism ?

Joseph Kay
Mar 1 2012 22:12

I don't think medieval Islam was anarcho-capitalist, as from what I can tell (from Graeber) it was neither anarchist nor capitalist. There was a state, it's just that the market functioned independently of it, with religious (Sharia) law mediating contracts. And I don't think a market is the same thing as capitalism either, and I suspect trade on credit regulated by Sharia was more of a long distance inter-societal thing done by merchants than central to everyday life (i.e. not just goods but labour power being a commodity). Though I'm guessing a bit here as I'm not familiar with the period outside Graeber's book. I think he's mainly trolling the US libertarian right here, which he seems to have confirmed in the comments above.

In terms of defining capitalism, I think wage labour is central, but that's not to say its always been numerically dominant (it wasn't until the 1970s iirc; and if debt-bonded labour, payment in company scrip etc doesn't count, probably still isn't). That is to say (following Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiskins-Wood), changes in class relations in the English countryside - the development of private property in land and waged labour working it - set in motion an accumulation process which enabled the industrial revolution. The consequent huge productivity surge forced other countries to follow suit or be conquered. By imitation and conquest capitalism thus spread rapidly around the globe, incorporating or destroying other social forms.

The alternative account (I think mainly from Fernand Braudel) is that capitalism arose much earlier in trading republics around the Mediterranean and Holland. But the problem with this is it equates capitalism and the market. I think Graeber's account actually mitigates against this, since he shows things like credit weren't so much an innovation of medieval bankers but a very old form, and that market-based economies had existed throughout history (typically created by the requirement to raise money to pay taxes, to fund wars).

I think Graeber is right to draw attention to the fact that slavery and other forms of less than free labour have been a huge part of capitalist development. Any account of capitalist development which leaves these out is lacking (e.g. the plantation cotton that Lancashire's textile industry ran on for starters). But I don't think you can understand the rise of capitalism without looking at changing class relations and wage labour is a central aspect of that. I think Graeber's emphasis on the importance of state violence in creating markets fits with Marx's discussion of primitive accumulation (the end of traditional land rights, creation of a proletariat) as the basis for wage labour and capitalism here.

Indeed, capitalist development is only intelligible from this stand point imho. If it was just a question of money being invested to make a profit (which had happened in various forms long before), rather than private property employing wage labour, theni don't think the vast productive power of capitalism would ever have taken off in the way it did. Indeed, almost all the other factors were present in China centuries before, but no capitalism and no industrialisation. Sure, various institutions which developed first elsewhere (banks, stock markets) became key aspects of capitalism. But I think the key ingredient was changing social (class) relations, which brought these institutions together in the constellation we call capitalism. I hope that helps... It's a pretty big discussion even within Marxism tbh, let alone adding in anarchist anthropology!

knotwho
Mar 17 2012 03:38
Quote:
What Graeber calls 'baseline communism', the giving according to abilities and receiving according to needs, is he claims, the "the foundation of all human sociability", the very condition of possibility of society itself... "The surest way to know that one is in the presence of communistic relations is that not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so." .... But there's a sting in the tail. By the same token, Graeber argues that this is rarely the whole story, and there's a tendency for communism to slide into other forms of society.

I wonder, has anyone compared this communism with the communisation tendency?

From Sic:

Quote:
To say that the revolution is communisation means that communism is not only its aim and end result, but also its content. Capital is not abolished for communism but by communism, or, more precisely, by the production of communism. Communising measures are not an embryonic form of communism but the production of communism. Communisation is not a transitional period, but the revolution itself, which is the communising production of communism. What distinguishes communising measures from communism is the struggle against capital.

It seems like an interesting contrast. For instance, in light of his baseline communism theory, how does Graeber define revolution? Perhaps this essay, Revolution in Reverse, goes into that.

Joseph Kay
Mar 17 2012 07:24

i was actually thinking of doing a blog comparing the 'traditional' conception of communism as an antagonistic movement that negates capital with both Graeber's notion of 'baseline communism' and Holloway's 'communism of the cracks'... i'll try and pull this together when i get time.

Croy
Mar 17 2012 21:31

I would be very interested to read that Joseph

Spikymike
Jun 7 2012 11:37

Joseph,

Did you ever get round to the exercise you mentioned in your post above? Sounds ambitious to me but possibly the basis for a conference type discussion sometime (though such 'theoretical' discussions do not seem too popular at anarchist events).

Joseph Kay
Jun 7 2012 11:44

it's one of a number of blogs i've got roughly sketched out but no time to write at the moment sad

JustDumbLuck
Jul 4 2012 18:21

Is the party over? Anyone still here? Yowsers, the level of grammatical sophistication displayed here is just a tad daunting, but given my US public education level of linguistic instruction, I'll just have to do as best as I can to keep up. Seriously, the only reason I stumbled on this board was a 6 month old interview with David Graeber I heard on the local lefty station out of Berkeley, CA this morning. Finally, someone articulating much of what the muddled morass that is my brain has been pondering. And in following up on 'Debt', here I am. A question here...is a 'debt strike' the same as what I've been thinking of as a national 'Don't pay your bills day'?

Joseph Kay
Jul 4 2012 19:39
JustDumbLuck wrote:
A question here...is a 'debt strike' the same as what I've been thinking of as a national 'Don't pay your bills day'?

Hey, I was just kinda musing about how a debt jubillee is a demand on the powerful, whereas a debt strike is a concrete tactic we could take. But that said, I've little idea what it would involve or whether it's possible. And indeed you could go on debt strike to demand a jubillee.

I guess it could function something like a rent strike for people with mortgages and/or credit cards (or in the US medical debts?). On the face of it it seems hard to pull off, but if people are already falling behind on payments maybe getting together as 'debtors unions' to refuse to pay until a portion of debts are written off or something might work? Backed up with the kind of anti-eviction, anti-bailiff action that some Occupy groups have been engaged in, maybe it could work.

I'm kinda modelling this on the fairly successful resistance to the Poll Tax in Britain, which began with anarchist-encouraged non-payment and bailiff resistance in Scotland before snowballing into a national non-payment movement peaking at 17 million people, more or less bringing down Margaret Thatcher. Presumably some things would need to be done different with a different issue and in a different context, but it seems the best real life example of something of this kind.

A quick google suggests "there’s a growing call in OWS for a debt strike", so maybe we're about to find out in practice!

JustDumbLuck
Jul 6 2012 19:53

I have to say I'm not familiar with the Poll Tax resistance movement, other than to say another coordinated effort to restrict voting rights is occurring stateside as we speak. No longer is it ok, in many jurisdictions, to simply show up and give the poll worker your name and address, you will now have to produce some form of picture bearing government ID, and many are also barring student ID's use as ID, while allowing a concealed-carry permit to be used to vote.

In practical terms, I understand the difficulty in organizing the unorganized, of coordinating the fearful and disunited. And overcoming a moral obligation just adds to the task. But at some point, when enough people are there anyway, in not being able to pay all the bills, it could be done en masse. If enough people know about it. Coordination is always the toughest part of it. At least I now know that I am not alone in the idea...I didn't before I wandered in here...

kingzog
Sep 23 2012 22:58
Quote:
I think wage labour is central, but that's not to say its always been numerically dominant (it wasn't until the 1970s iirc; and if debt-bonded labour, payment in company scrip etc doesn't count, probably still isn't)

do we have numbers for this, Joesph? Also, a great number of workers are payed by piece-rate and often times the world bank does not include them in the figures for the wage/salary earners. Although Marx considers piece-work to be wage labor. [edit: on further investigation, I cannot find out if the world-bank does include or exclude piece-work, maybe someone can shed some light on this]

Also, I tend to think that being paid in company-script is a wage, it's just in a different form as opposed to a money-wage. I'm not clear on what you mean by debt-bonded labour either. is this a situation where the worker is only working to pay off debts and so his wage simply goes towards paying off that debt?

Joseph Kay
Sep 24 2012 06:20

I think Eric Hobsbawm writes somewhere that wage labour became numerically dominant in the 1970s, but I don't have a reference to hand. I think the important point is that capitalist exploitation is compatible with formal freedom ('freedom, equality, property, and Bentham' etc), even if in practice some of that wage labour is partly unfree (working off a debt, mandatory work placements), or not really waged (domestic labour, workfare). An analysis of actually-existing capitalism needs to take into account both imho. where Marx is useful is understanding what makes capitalism capitalism, where empirical work is useful is looking at the actual relations between wage labour, unwaged labour, relatively free forms and relatiively coerced forma at a given time and place.

Edit: debt bonded labour would be a situation where a workers was working for a specific employer to pay off their or their family's debts (e.g. an undocumented migrant parlaying off their traffickers), and so lacking the formal freedom to sell their labour to the highest bidder in the labour market.

kingzog
Sep 27 2012 05:53
Quote:
the important point is that capitalist exploitation is compatible with formal freedom ('freedom, equality, property, and Bentham' etc), even if in practice some of that wage labour is partly unfree (working off a debt, mandatory work placements), or not really waged (domestic labour, workfare)

I don't see how working off a debt fits into this. Also, what is a mandatory work placement?

Quote:
debt bonded labour would be a situation where a workers was working for a specific employer to pay off their or their family's debts (e.g. an undocumented migrant parlaying off their traffickers), and so lacking the formal freedom to sell their labour to the highest bidder in the labour market.

I thought a debt-bonded laborer is someone who is working for the person they owe debts to, and this is a legally recognized affair. The worker isn't forced to work for someone in order to pay of the debts they owe to someone else, technically speaking. They would still have formal freedom in this case, right? but, not real freedom. Is that correct?

Joseph Kay
Sep 27 2012 08:57

As I understand it, if you're working for someone to pay off a debt, you're not free to sell your labour power to the highest bidder. I've read this is a common situation for undocumented migrants, having to work (sometimes doing illegal stuff) to pay off the organised crime gangs that got them into the country. With compound interest, this could be years of labour, without the formal freedom to change employers.

Mandatory Work Activity is one of the workfare schemes in the UK. Strictly speaking you're formally free to sell your labour - if you can find a job. Or you can refuse to work and lose your benefits (like most proles turning down work in the absence of a welfare state). So it's not slavery, but it's also more compulsory than 'normal'/ideal free wage labour in the UK at least.

kingzog
Sep 27 2012 21:46
Quote:
if you're working for someone to pay off a debt, you're not free to sell your labour power to the highest bidder.

I don't mean to be a stick in the mud. but I still don't understand how you're not free to sell your labor-power to the highest bidder if you owe someone money. Are you not free to work for the boss who will accept you, just because you owe debt? I could see a situation where one owes money to an employer and they are then forced to work off those debts by working for that employer (on his field, factory or whatever). Or maybe the laborer simply sells themselves into some sort of servitude. But simply owing debts, be it to organized crime, or to a bank, doesn't mean you are not a 'free' wage laborer. Maybe it's worth mentioning that when thinkers in the 19th century talked about free wage-laborers it was typically in contrast to chattel slavery or serfdom.

Quote:
this is a common situation for undocumented migrants, having to work (sometimes doing illegal stuff) to pay off the organised crime gangs that got them into the country. With compound interest, this could be years of labour, without the formal freedom to change employers.

The point you make about lacking freedom to change employers is touching on something though. If the state considers your residence illegal and you do not have the right to work within it's borders, are you a free laborer? At least not so much in that country!

fingers malone
Sep 27 2012 21:57
kingzog wrote:
Quote:
if you're working for someone to pay off a debt, you're not free to sell your labour power to the highest bidder.

I don't mean to be a stick in the mud. but I still don't understand how you're not free to sell your labor-power to the highest bidder if you owe someone money. Are you not free to work for the boss who will accept you, just because you owe debt

It doesn't mean anyone who is in debt, debt bonded labourer is a specific situation, and people are not free to go and sell their labour somewhere else, that is part of the meaning of the phrase.

Nate
Sep 27 2012 22:02

Debt peonage is when you're required to stay in a location and work for the creditor and can't go elsewhere. It was widely used in the U.S. south until at least the 1940s. I believe (but am not at all sure) that in some cases the peonage could be hereditary and familial: the family owes the creditor and all family members have limits on their physical/geographic mobility and on their labor market mobility (ie, they can't move away and they can't change employers), and that if the parents die the family stays debt bonded until the debt is paid off. I'm pretty sure there were elements of this in company towns and company stores in the US as well outside the south - legal inability to leave until debts for homes were paid for or debts to company for consumer debts.

kingzog
Sep 27 2012 22:18

Oh Okay, thanks Nate and Fingers Malone. I think that clears things up! I also found some statistics on this from the wiki article on Debt-bondage(suppose I should have looked that up in the first place):

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debt_bondage#Modern_views
'Researcher Siddharth Kara has calculated the number of slaves in the world by type, and determined the number of debt bondage slaves to be 18.1 million at the end of 2006.'

so debt bondage, according to this researcher, accounts for about 18 million people in the world, as of 6 years ago.

Joseph Kay
Sep 28 2012 08:00

Fwiw, I don't think any of this invalidates Marx's analysis. Marx shows how capitalism is a novel set of social relations where class exploitation/surplus extraction is compatible with, and to an extend dependent on, formal freedom. That doesn't mean everyone is formally free.

Some Marxist-feminist analysis would argue the formal freedom of wage labourers is premised on the patriarchal unfreedom of the domestic sphere (e.g. Dalla Costa/James, Wendy Brown). Some world systems and/or uneven and combined development types argue the liberal freedoms of the capitalist core are premised on unfreedoms in much of the periphery (and historically, the slave trade). But neither of these lines of argument (necessarily) invalidate Marx, so much as expand on the analysis in Capital. I'm not sure Graeber helps much here beyond pointing out the gap between actually-existing capitalism and Marx's critique of political economy (which is mainly a matter of different levels of abstraction, imho). But mainly, reading Graeber's book set me off thinking about how this stuff fits together.

kingzog
Sep 29 2012 03:38

Joseph, I agree. it appears that all we can really reduce Capitalism to is a system of generalized commodity production through abstract, social labor. I think that there is a lot of benefit in having anthropological studies like Graebers as well. If Marx wanted to write Capital as a history book, than he would have done that so it is problematic to compare "Debt" with "Capital". Plus, Marx did write this stuff in the 19th century when archaeology and anthropology were still fairly new.

JustDumbLuck
Nov 16 2012 23:47

'Sixteen Tons and whadda ya get, another day older and deeper in debt. St. Peter don't ya' call me, cause I can't go, I owe my soul to the company store.' It's just another form of indentured servitude.

I had a thought yesterday. I reread some of the links Joseph posted in this review, and noticed the correlation between money or credit and agriculture. After thinking it over, I really don't see any other way for the idea to have taken hold, other than a population organized by agriculture. Which is maybe the tale told in so many of the genesis myths. I have no empirical evidence for this, it was just a loose train of thought, but it seems like a nomadic, or semi-nomadic lifestyle would be more of a burden on women, and so they would be more the more likely to see the benefits of agriculture, thereby precipitating the loss of freedom caused by the burdens of agriculture(taking a bite of the apple?). I'm sure I'm not the only one to have come up with that. It does sound familiar.

The thing about Capitalism, it needs stuff to do. Like dig, or cut, or build, whatever. Anything that can be done to make a profit over and above what was loaned with interest. Or sold with the promise of a share of future profits. It's not a mystery, it just needs resources and labor. What gets me when I hear economists talk about the 'recovery', as in 'when the economy recovers', or 'when the jobs come back', is they never say from where. Oh, its those overseas jobs(ok, we take them back, now they're unemployed, again), or the 'new sector something'. But the economy isn't magic. It may be governed by the idea of a magical substance, but it isn't magic itself. It's not going to materialize stuff out of thin air. There is a reason it worked when in did in the last half of the century, but they never bring that up. We(collectively, I wasn't actually there at the time) demolished a large part of Eurasia and the Pacific Island rim nations, along with some of China, and did a pretty massive redistribution of wealth to rebuild them. Sort of like upending the Monopoly board and starting over. After that ran out, corporations, in order to keep profits rising, began working on ways to reduce their labor costs. At the same time, more or less, since there wasn't much new to do, they began raiding each other of resources, initiating the LBO decade(s). After that sort of ran out, when companies either figured out how to protect themselves, or were not worth the bother, they began to merge, in order to realize additional cost savings - there's a word for it, but I can't remember it - through downsizing duplicate functions. Oh, yeah, then there's that little thing called automation, which was, in large part, the downfall of organized labor. It's tough to have any leverage when your employer makes money whether you're there or not. When the merger phase was largely over, we had the housing boom, when the capital went in search of a function, again. So now I hear the same tired line, "We just have to compete, compete smarter, build a better educated workforce, innovate, work harder than anyone else, and the economy will come roaring back." In the meantime, Mr. President, don't you think they're going to be doing the same thing at the same time? Or is that what all the foreign 'projects' are all about? Constant competition got us into this mess, do you really believe it's going to get us out?

So now we have Strike Debt with in their Rolling Jubilee project. In a way, though, it kind of annoys me. Not that people are getting their debts forgiven, nor the idea to try and make debt seen for what it really is. What annoys me is, it is, in a way, another free ride for the 'banksters', one that they themselves cannot take. That it could, in theory, make a difference in the inflation rate is a positive thing, but that's supposed to be the job of whatever central bank it is that is regulating the money supply. I realize David would surely sacrifice the continuing use of this system, before seeing a repeat of the last 'Debt Jubilee' we had, but it nevertheless ticks me off that people are still left with the task of bailing out the banks, because the banks can't admit that money is not real.

And no, don't bring up the gold standard as the solution. There is the opposite problem with using a physical substance as both commodity and means of exchange. There always need to be new supplies, otherwise as the commodity is used up, the price of everything drops to nothing as the commodity disappears. Hmmm, maybe the proponents of gold have a point, even if they don't quite realize what it is. They'd probably just come up with 'imaginary gold', though.

Looks as if I got a little carried away, there.

Malva
Nov 17 2012 09:42

A couple of points. First, the archaeological evidence shows that the move from a pre-agricultural society to an agricultural one was an absolute disaster for women. The life expectancy of women was cut in half and one can only imagine what that meant about their everyday lives. Secondly, automation is like a sword without a handle. On the one hand, it cuts costs by reducing the amount of labour, but on the other hand, value is based on the extraction of surplus labour so in the long term your profits fall dramatically and it becomes harder for capitalist wage labour to function as a total system of social organisation. I was a bit unclear as to what some of your other points were.

JustDumbLuck
Nov 18 2012 14:32

Hi, Malva, thanks for responding. I in no way meant to root my little fable there in anything resembling facts, pesky things that they are. It just occurred to me when I stumbled on some historical(well, I use that term guardedly) accounts of 18th century colonists' impressions of the Native peoples in America. One theme that ran through them was the relative burden of 'work' seemed to fall on the women of the societies. Which just led me to a wildly speculative tale of the origins of agriculture, and the genesis stories. An interesting aside from those accounts is the difference between clergy and secular impressions of native societies.

You are correct about the long term affects of automation, but that really does not enter into the picture in the short term. It's about profit and shareholder value, and the assumption that something else will always come along to pick up the slack. We all sort of sat around in the '80's and '90's, wondering if these people had lost their minds, automating endlessly, moving jobs offshore, buying up and selling off parts of one company after another, and all the other seemingly stupid things they were doing, but really, in the end, it was all to generate the increasing profit the system demands. That it was and is unsustainable, is not even a consideration. Whatever adds to next quarter's profit is all that matters.

The rest of it was just kind of a rant on the nonsense I hear coming from the 'learned economic' circles about what we need to do next. Well, what we did last time was blow up Europe and Japan, develop a huge industrial complex to rebuild them, and revalue all the currencies onto the dollar. That's what I was referring to as the last 'debt jubilee', where all the debt that was holding the world economy in thrall was destroyed, and we began it all again. Capitalism has, again, run out to things to do. I really hope the Debt Jubilee accomplishes what they have set out to do, but my comment on it was partly my fear that no one will understand what the message really is. That if debt isn't real, what does that mean for money?

ptar
Dec 23 2012 17:42

David Graeber,understandably, lacked the time to go further into the origins of money in his book. However, anyone who wants to know more about the origins of money should check out Alla Semonova's article:

'Would You Barter with God? Why Holy Debts and Not Profane Markets Created Money', American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol.70.

Semonova argues that coins originated in ancient Greek sacrifice rituals in which cooked meat was shared 'equally' among worshippers. Such rituals probably derived from hunter-gatherer traditions of egalitarian meat sharing. In other words, coined money, seems to have its origins in the degeneration of the communistic traditions of hunter-gatherer societies. This history raises numerous questions, some of which are explored in: 'Marx, Engels, Luxemburg and the Return to Primitive Communism'.

Spikymike
Apr 22 2015 16:59

For some reason I cannot make the link for this blog item and discussion work so I'm bumping this up again as I think the early part of this discussion has some relevance to the background differences between those I described as 'the critics' and 'the enthusiasts' (more particularly Connor Owen's) on a number of the highly charged threads about Kobane/Rojava and the PKK influenced social movement. The crossover is in relation to Graeber's support for the PKK inspired social movement in Rojava and comparisons with the 'Spanish revolution' and specifically the relationship between mutualism and communism. Some of the comments here may seem favourable to Owen's 'social ecology' approach but there is an important and essential emphasis by communists on a practical working class or proletarian internationalism as the means of breaking down national state boundaries and spreading a nascent anti-capitalist movement. This is not to detract from other aspects of the anarchist and marxist influenced communist critiques of the PKK and it's associated organisations or Bookchin's 'Social ecology' expressed on other recent discussion threads.

Kivie
Jun 24 2017 18:50
Joseph Kay wrote:
And I don't think a market is the same thing as capitalism either
...
The alternative account (I think mainly from Fernand Braudel) is that capitalism arose much earlier in trading republics around the Mediterranean and Holland. But the problem with this is it equates capitalism and the market. I think Graeber's account actually mitigates against this, since he shows things like credit weren't so much an innovation of medieval bankers but a very old form, and that market-based economies had existed throughout history (typically created by the requirement to raise money to pay taxes, to fund wars).

Hey, I know this is a ridiculously old thread but it's something I've been looking into lately so I'll ask anyway.

I'm curious what the essential difference between markets (or more pertinently, market economies) and capitalism is supposed to be. If wage labour only became dominant recently, or perhaps still isn't, then that can't be it. Moreover, in my reading I've found references to wages and wage labour in ancient Babylon, Rome, China, pre-colonial Africa and medieval feudalism well before the 'official start date' of capitalism (i.e. I hear people say 15th/16th century). Wage labour was never dominant but if it still isn't dominant (or only achieved dominance very recently) then it seems to be more a matter of degree than a matter of a qualitative shift.

Other factors that seem crucial to the definition of capitalism - capital accumulation, profit, money, competitive markets, economic growth etc. - have also all been attested or claimed to have been present in some earlier societies well before the 15th century.

The only thing that makes them look different, from my perspective, is the presence/absence of industry.

Noa Rodman
Jun 25 2017 21:53

I think the difference is that those wage contracts were mostly for "unproductive" (read: non-profit driven) business; paying a barber for a haircut, soldiers' pay, builders of temples, etc. Now it is true that accumulation existed, as Kautsky wrote:

Quote:
[...]the possibility for some individuals to appropriate and accumulate the means of production of many others in order to exploit them, either directly, by buying bound workers, or indirectly, by forcing free propertyless workers to hand over to them part of their production, for instance through shared tenancies.

This accumulation of wealth can become a mass phenomenon even before the appearance of the capitalist mode of production; a sort of ‘primitive accumulation of capital’, as Marx called it, through different forms of violence, especially war. Already at the beginning of historical times, with the Babylonians and the Egyptians, we find from time to time such mass accumulations. The Roman army offered the most gigantic example of this phenomenon in antiquity, as Salvioli’s book clearly shows.

Each one of these accumulations always ended up, sooner or later, with the decline of the state in which they took place. The separation of the mass of the workers from their means of production finally led to the paralysis of economic and political life, to the downfall of the state that plundered its more barbarous neighbouring peoples, living under more primitive conditions.
...

I think Kautsky here also implicitly points to the lack of an industrial reserve army of labour.

zugzwang
Jun 26 2017 15:48
Kivie wrote:
I'm curious what the essential difference between markets (or more pertinently, market economies) and capitalism is supposed to be. ...

Though he's not held in much high regard around here (nor do I -- I might watch his 'economic updates' every now and then) I think Wolff is correct in saying that markets do not define capitalism. After all, Proudhon's Mutualism and other forms of market socialism rely on markets but are not exactly capitalist because the employees themselves control the surplus value (which is what Wolff proposes as well). Of course if you're a libertarian communist you would reject markets and any form of remuneration for work done in favor of free access to goods. Self-managed enterprises in a market system, like capitalist ones, have their problems in that they're forced to act in anti-social ways to survive and not get crushed by the competition.

Quote:
However, capitalism was neither the first nor the only system to utilize markets as its means of distributing resources and products. In the slave economic systems that prevailed in various times and places across human history, markets were often the means of distributing resources (including slaves themselves) and the products of slaves' labor. In the pre-Civil War United States, for example, masters sold slaves and cotton produced by slaves in markets. Thus, the presence of a 'market system' does not distinguish capitalism from a slave system.
Quote:
So then how should we define capitalism to differentiate it from alternative economic systems such as slavery, feudalism, and a post-capitalist socialism? The answer is 'in terms of the organization of the surplus.' How an economic system organizes the production, appropriation, and distribution of its surplus neatly and clearly differentiates capitalism from other systems.
Quote:
In a socialism defined in terms of surplus organization, the producers and the appropriators/distributors of the surplus are identical; they are the same people. In such socialist enterprises, the workers collectively appropriate and distribute the surplus they produce. They perform functions parallel to those of boards of directors in capitalist corporations. Such "workers' self-directed enterprises" (WSDEs) are unlike slave, feudal and/or capitalist enterprises. WSDEs represent the end of exploitation.

http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/30678-critics-of-capitalism-must-include-its-definition