This is one of those centrally interesting books that not only deliberately intends to entirely reshape your worldview, but is worthy of doing so. 1491, and to a lesser extent 1493, both fall into this category. Unlike those, Debt is written from a foundation of a recognizable modern political perspective, one related to Occupy and the related anti-globalization protests (though as it points out the "anti-globalization" movement is entirely mislabeled). Having some sympathy with those movements myself, I spent the whole book on the edge of hair-trigger skepticism whenever David Graeber came near them. For the most part, though, the book is nuanced, thoughtful, and deeply embedded in real economic history. papersky's lovely review, much more thorough than this one, gives several examples--places where he tears apart economic myths through reference to anthropology.
For example, contra every Intro Econ text ever, money doesn't arise from barter economies that look exactly like modern trade but without an intermediary symbol, and credit isn't a recent invention. Money usually comes out of favor economies where tokens are used to track changes in human relationships (marriages, symbolic recompense for crimes, etc.). And economies take a much wider range of forms that modern economists like to think about. (The culture that negotiates inter-tribal trade through complicated orgies--why yes, we do share most of our genes with bonobos, why do you ask.) This is already infecting my worldbuilding, and I strongly recommend the book to any writer of speculative fiction.
But Graeber does have a thesis, and it always comes back to the sustainability, or lack thereof, of modern capitalism. About 3/4 of these claims he substantiates with solid evidence, and about a quarter seem to come out of nowhere, leaving me thinking hard, but extremely doubtful. I think he's harder on capitalism than on other economic systems. I also think that he sometimes defines capitalism in ways that are narrower than necessary, in order to support his thesis. So there were the wild claims with solid evidence:
- Yes, it does seem like monetary economies get screwed up right at the beginning, when some sort of token that's only been used to mark human relationships starts to get used for everyday market trade, and people start being frightened by the implication that they're for sale.
- Yes, this is often because it leads to people actually being for sale. And yes, a good definition of slavery does seem to involve people becoming isolated from their social context so completely that they can be seen as fungible. And yes, it does sound like our modern property law is so screwy because it still contains many pieces drawn verbatim from Roman laws around slavery. We should do something about that.
- Yes, student loans do seem to be turning into a form of debt peonage. Yes, our morality about having to "pay our debts" is full of contradictions, both historically and in modern society.
- Ah, that explains it. The Jubilee, which is in fact a brilliant idea, inevitably gets legislated out of existence, which is why we don't have it any more. And he makes some sensible suggestions for making a modern one work.
Towards the end of the book, Graeber also makes a set of claims that he doesn't support with evidence, and that I don't (so to speak) buy.
- That capitalism is somehow more apocalyptic than other economic systems--yes, it contains the seeds of its own destruction, but it's not like we can point to any economic systems that don't. We've even seen anthropogenic environmental degredation under other systems. I will buy that capitalism is partly responsible for our current ability to do that at scale, but only partly.
- That it's impossible, under capitalism, for everyone to have fair wages and fair treatment. True, we haven't managed it, but we haven't managed it under any other system either. I don't see any intrinsic reason why such wages and treatment would cause the system to break down, and he doesn't provide them. I think he's defining the term so tightly that, if everyone did have fair wages and treatment, he would use a different term.
- That capitalism necessarily undermines human relationships by monetizing them. I will acknowledge that it tries, at least in its current form. But I see too many human relationships succeeding in spite of that, too many gift economies and webs of favor exchange flourishing in the margins, to believe that it's even possible for it to succeed.
I have spent the last month being reminded of what a remarkable web of family--chosen, blood, and extended through marriage--I have managed to build around myself. The drive from Louisiana was part of an effort to get two dear friends, along with their newborn daughter, out of a town where they had been stuck for eight years by economic necessity, and back into the heart of their own chosen family where they could raise a kid in safety. The move eventually drew on the willingly shared resources of six households other than their own, ranging from time and logistical expertise to throwing a little extra money into the rescue pot. This is what Graeber, in a vain attempt to redefine inflamatory terms, calls a communist economy, and I would call a communal one. I'm not blind to the pressures trying to prevent it from flourishing. But it's hard to believe, settled comfortably in the heart of it, that it's as near-impossible to nurture in the shadow of capitalism as Graeber says.