Sunday, January 22, 2012


David Graeber's Debt is a work in a kind of history of ideas; an attempt to draw out, through its involvement in and reshaping of various human practices, the part that debt and the network of ideas it sits at the centre of have played in constructing contemporary society. In order to do this well, as well as Graeber's undoubtedly extensive and often highly illuminating knowledge of the practices of debt, you would need to be a competent reader of the texts used and to have some skill in conceptual analysis. Otherwise, you will make mistakes about the content of changes in practices and when and where they occurred. Graeber illustrates this perfectly.

For example, in Graeber's discussion of how, through slavery, debt shaped ideas of freedom, he relies on a contrast he deploys elsewhere between possessing an object and being embedded in a network of human relations. Of course, though, possessing an object is being embedded in a network of human relations, relations of permissions and prohibitions of the various uses of the object by all the people who might use it, permissions and prohibitions which can be more and less rich. Equally, we can understand being embedded in a network of human relations as structuring and so specifying the set of powers you possess in much the same way as Graeber sees a focus on the things you own and so hold powers over does. Graeber is in effect contrasting something with itself. Given the way the contrast structures much of what he says - the switch from what he calls "human" to "market" economies is discussed in these terms, for example - his failure to see this is pretty damaging to his project as a whole.

Relatedly, he is pretty lazy about interpreting various figures in the history of political thought. In the course of his discussion of freedom, he refers to the "strange fantasies" of "Hobbes, Locke and Smith, about the origins of society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed [and] then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts". While I've not read any Smith, I find it hard to understand how someone who had read Hobbes and Locke could think they shared a philosophical anthropology, and particularly how they shared this kind of highly individualized one. Locke's explanation and justification of the the formation of the state in The Second Treatise (pdf) focuses on the need for adjudication of disputes between families (see Chapter 7, particularly sections 87 and 88). What Locke says may or may not be right, but given its focus on families, which for Locke included not just blood relations but servants and slaves, and on the adjudication of disputes, which could of course only occur in the context of sustained relations that it is worth trying to preserve, it could hardly be sensibly characterised as about 'some collection of thirty- or forty-year old males sprung from the earth fully formed'.

This really is a pity, since what Graeber says about, for example, the myth of the origin of money in barter is excellent, both in itself and as a critique of economics as it is practised. If that expertise could have been married to a decent background in the history of political and presumably economic thought as well as a coherent conceptual framework, the book perhaps would have been really good. It's not as if Graeber is alone in thinking that the problem with market relations being that they're conducted altogether outside of morality, in a realm of power. It's more that it's strange that an anthropologist, supposedly trained to tease out the content and rationale of the various structuring links which inevitably make up any set of human relations, would fall victim to that error.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

(Not) Ruled By Effete Arseholes

Whatever else you might think about this song, and I think it's great, you have to wonder if it displays the sort of attitude towards one's homeland likely to be the basis of a successful nation-state.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Lest We Forget

I'm glad that two of Stephen Lawrence's killers have been brought to justice. I'm uneasy both about the removal of the double jeopardy rule and about the length of time that's passed since their crime, but criminal justice is centrally about public reassurance and condemnation, and those both speak strongly in favour of their punishment. However, the reason Stephen Lawrence's murder became a public and political event, the reason it wasn't only a private wrong, was the way it, particularly once The Daily Mail got involved, and then the Macpherson report into it exposed the racist incompetence of British police forces. So in many ways, this fact (from here) is the most important thing I've seen about the coverage of their conviction today:

...those disappointed by the decade since Macpherson point at the stop and search figures. According to official statistics, in 1999-2000, a black person was five times more likely than a white person to be stopped by police. A decade later, they were seven times more likely.