Friday, February 17, 2012

Debt The First 5,000 Years

Having read 1493 by Charles Mann, I've turned to the other "must read" book from last year: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. Some links about that book and its author:
Debt is a “big book,” in other words, because he wants to re-open a set of questions that had come to seem closed “for a very long time,” the questions of “what human beings and human society are or could be like—what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.” To be more specific, Graeber’s starting point is the Grand neoliberal orthodoxy that regards Debt as the worst possible thing, the argument, for example, that austerity measures like an end to state subsidies of public libraries in California are preferable to the moral crisis of going (deeper) into debt. This has been a bipartisan consensus that dominated the Anglo-American political and media discourse up to somewhere around the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, and which still dominates – perhaps a little more quietly, now – our political class’s actions. It may not be desirable to cut pensions or eliminate what used to be essential social services – goes the argument – but it’s better than going into debt.

This species of helplessness is particular to neoliberal policymaking, whose core ideological attribute is a cynical acceptance of (what is taken to be) “reality,” the declaration that There Is No Alternative, and the command that we must therefore be realistic, lie back, and resign ourselves to the inevitable. And in that precise sense, the very writing of Graeber’s big book – the very “bigness” of its ambitions – is a cognitive dissonance within this perspective, an attempt to argue that other possible answers and possibilities exist and are always available. It’s an invitation to read the world differently, to see different possiblities in the here and now, and to argue not only that “another world is possible,” as the slogan/cliché has it, but that other worlds are present.
Debt: My First 5,000 Words
"If economists are high priests, then isn't it the role of the priest to preside over some fundamental mystery? No system of unquestioning authority can really work unless there's something at the core of it that nobody could possibly understand. The effectiveness of this approach can be measured by how difficult it is for critics of the current economic system to come up with a convincing alternative. This is crucial because those defending capitalism have long since given up arguing that it is a particularly good economic system, in the sense of one that has any possibility of creating widespread human happiness, security, or even broadly shared prosperity. The only argument they have left is that any other system would be even worse, or, increasingly, that no other system would even be possible. The challenge is always: tell us exactly how a different system would work. This is especially difficult when we don't even know how this one works."
David Graeber: Note worthy: What is the meaning of money?
DG: One reason I thought all the history helpful is because there are these simplistic moral arguments and the second line of defense for the people who are defending the existing system is to say, “All right, fine, it’s not just. We’re not saying the existing financialized version of capitalism is a good system. But it foments technological change in such a way that, even though it creates vast inequalities, the poor are still better off than they would be under another system.”

DJ: Steven Pinker just came out with his book, with a similarly optimistic picture of liberal capitalism.

DG: And that’s very unusual, actually, that Pinker is still trying to come up with these lines, because most defenders of capitalism are not doing the Pinker approach—“Yes, it’s actually better.” They realize that they can’t. They’re just saying “All right, it’s not the best system in the world, but no other system is possible anyway.”

The instinct of the people now in power is to figure out how to change things as little as possible.

What we’ve seen over the last 30 years is a war on the human imagination. That’s the other starting point for this book—that in 2008 we had this crash, and all these assumptions we’ve been told we’ve had to accept for 30 years came crashing to the ground along with the market. One of them is the assumption that markets are actually self-sustaining. Obviously not true. Another one was that the people running them are competent. For years we were told that they aren’t very nice people—they’re greedy bastards, actually—but they know what they’re doing. All other systems just don’t work. These guys are incredibly bright, they’re incredibly competent. No, it turns out actually that they don’t even understand the working of their own financial instruments, or as far as they do, they’re engaged in scams. They trashed the entire system.

Assumption number three is that all debts ought to be repaid. Actually, no, debts don’t really need to be repaid, because AIG, who owes money, can wave a variety of different magic wands and debts can be made to disappear. Once you understand that the narrative we’ve been handed has been false, you’d think this would be the moment when you start thinking about larger questions: Why do we have an economy? What is debt? What is money? How could these things be organized differently? What do we need to keep and what do we change? You would think this would be the moment for international discussion about the basic assumptions that we’ve been making, and it seemed for about two weeks that it was going to happen.
“It used to be they excused student loans. For example, if you went into education, even if you became a professor, let alone a teacher, they would just waive it. You could say that at one point the system was viable. But I don’t think that the idea of a privatized education system paid for by loans is in any way a reasonable way to run a public education system in a country. Education should be free. Most civilized countries have come to that conclusion.”
In other words, anthropological research like Graeber’s can offer a kind of evidence-based idealism, a utopianism that’s hard headed and founded firmly in observations of diverse communities, not contrived in a sheltered cloister or from untested principles. When apologists for our own current situation offer excuses or tell us that we shouldn’t seek greater justice, equity or governance, because ‘It can’t be any other way but the way it is,’ anthropological research can show that this is not the case. Perhaps few other areas of contemporary life beg for this reality-based imagination more than economic activity.
David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst (Energy Bulletin)

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