David Graeber’s Debt Reading Group – Session Two

Notes to the discussion of Chapters 3 & 4

Graeber’s main issue with mainstream economics so far is with its opportunistic and disingenuous proliferation of the barter-myth. The problem, as Graeber sees it, isn’t simply that there is no evidence for the often-repeated claim that money was the solution to the problem of the double-coincidence of wants problem supposedly characterizing barter societies. The real problem is rather that it becomes difficult to imagine an alternative to the naturalisation and perpetuation of the view that human relationships are mere matters of economic exchanges, with our minds so monetarily predisposed.

It’s money that had made it possible for us to imagine ourselves in the way economists encourage us to do: as a collection of individuals and nations whose main business is swapping things (45).

The barter myth has become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy and so, in his attempt to topple it, Graeber is involved in a myth-busting exercise which has its eyes on a prize higher than the rewards of disenchantment. For Graeber, the toppling of myths concerning money is simultaneously the clearing of the way for a re-imagination of what human relationships could be like. The nature and scope of Graeber’s project is indeed becoming clearer and by the time Chapter 3 opens, the barter myth, at least, should no longer hold sway. Much of these two Chapters consider alternatives to the barter-myth and also finds them wanting.

In particular, Graeber considers the claims made by State and Credit Theories of money – roughly speaking the notion that money is not a commodity but a unit of account generated and guaranteed by the state. Such theories fly in the face of  mainstream economics, obviously, which would have money as a spontaneous and natural development by insisting upon the inherently planned, inherently managed, inherently artificial, birth of money. So which is it to be? Money as an inevitable response to everyday human interaction, or money as a state enforced and state sanctioned institution?  Arguments for the former view – the barter myth – persevere. And they persevere, according to Graeber, largely because anthropologists have been unable to replace it with a better one. Graeber hence gathers myths from the other side by considering how Keynes addressed the question of money and of how, guided as much by Keynes as by Comte and Durkheim, the ‘primordial debt theorists’ Michel Aglietta and Andre Orelans, produced ‘primordial debt theory’. Myths abound, then. But for what purpose?

Are primordial-debt theorists describing a myth, have they discovered a profound truth of the human condition that has always existed in all societies, and is simply spelled out particlarly clearly in certain ancient texts from India – or are they inventing a myth of their own? Clearly it must be the latter. They are inventing a myth (62) 

One myth in place of another, then – which story should we believe? According to Graeber,  this very dichotomy between a state theory of money and a market theory of money is precisely the  problem. We have become so accustomed to thinking of debt either in terms of the state, or in terms of the market, he argues, that we have become fundamentally incapable of narrating it along any other line. Both views of money, however, have to be seen as 2 sides of the same coin – pun intended – it isn’t the case that money is either state or market, it is rather the case that money is both state and market.

States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we  would recognise today (71).

Chapter 4 proceeds to topple yet another myth – the Nietzsche myth – the idea that the economic notion of debt is nothing other than a pacification of mankind’s inherent capacity for cruelty – it is cruelty masquerading by other means. Graeber accuses Nietzsche of simply taking up Smith’s ideas about the naturalness of economic exchange relationships – the bourgeois account of the human subject – and putting them into a mythical historical context. Nietzsche, on this reading, doesn’t so much question economic relationships as much as he reactively presuppose their naturalness. Since at this stage we are no longer supposed to be convinced by the idea that economized human relationships are actually natural, it presumably follows that we are supposed to read Nietzsche with scorn, or at least as a mythologist.

At this stage, Graeber is still stacking his straw men onto the bonfire. What, we speculated, is likely to flourish after the earth has been scorched? Perhaps Graeber is giving us a hint for where he wants to get to when he argues the following:

Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place (68).

We’ll find out over the next few weeks, no doubt.

2 thoughts on “David Graeber’s Debt Reading Group – Session Two

  1. I understood Graeber’s book and enjoyed it but I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. “inherently planned, inherently managed, inherently artificial, birth of money” is that another name for the housing Ponzi schemes that are operating throughout the world?.

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