In Rousseau's footsteps: David Graeber and the anthropology of unequal society

A review of David Graeber Debt: The first 5,000 years (Melville House, New York, 2011, 534 pages)

Debt is everywhere today. What is “sovereign debt” and why must Greece pay up, but not the United States? Who decides that the national debt will be repaid through austerity programmes rather than job-creation schemes? Why do the banks get bailed out, while students and home-owners are forced to repay loans? The very word debt speaks of unequal power; and the world economic crisis since 2008 has exposed this inequality more than any other since the 1930s. David Graeber has written a searching book that aims to place our current concerns within the widest possible framework of anthropology and world history. He starts from a question: why do we feel that we must repay our debts? This is a moral issue, not an economic one. In market logic, the cost of bad loans should be met by creditors as a discipline on their lending practices. But paying back debts is good for the powerful few, whereas the mass of debtors have at times sought and won relief from them.

What is debt? According to Graeber, it is an obligation with a figure attached and hence debt is inseparable from money. This book devotes a lot of attention to where money comes from and what it does. States and markets each play a role in its creation, but money’s form has fluctuated historically between virtual credit and metal currency. Above all Graeber’s enquiry is framed by our unequal world as a whole. He resists the temptation to offer quick remedies for collective suffering, since this would be inconsistent with the timescale of his argument. Nevertheless, readers are offered a worldview that clearly takes the institutional pillars of our societies to be rotten and deserving of replacement. It is a timely and popular view. Debt: The first 5,000 years is an international best-seller. The German translation recently sold 30,000 copies in the first two weeks.

I place the book here in a classical tradition that I call “the anthropology of unequal society” (Hart 2006), before considering what makes David Graeber a unique figure in contemporary intellectual politics. A summary of the book’s main arguments is followed by a critical assessment, focusing on the notion of a “human economy”.

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Comment by Elaine Forde on July 26, 2012 at 10:51pm

Of course! I have read Sian's piece, but it had slipped my mind, thanks for the reminder Keith. Also thanks John for your recommendation

Comment by John McCreery on July 26, 2012 at 4:13pm

Allow me to recommend Robert Zaretsky and John Scott (2010) The Philosophers' Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Human U...a lovely brief introduction to the two philosophers' thought and a lot of very interesting social and personal context. An interesting and not altogether positive review can be found in the Guardian. Another more positive one can be found here.

Comment by Keith Hart on July 26, 2012 at 9:36am

Thanks for the observation, Elaine. The issue you raise was addressed in an OAC online seminar and working paper by Sian Sullivan Banking Nature: the financialisation of environmental conservation. She shows comprehensively the corruption and illogic of this process, in which "debt" is not the main issue. David does refer to the history of colonial and postcolonial exploitation in Madagascar in his book, but he emphasizes how its peoples have always had to pay for the privilege of being taken over. For him the current financial crisis is an extension of the Third World debt crisis of the 80s. The fact that it currently sometimes takes an environmental twist is interesting, but not central to his argument.

Despite the length of my article, I too had priorities for my own argument which were perhaps closer to his than yours. The anarchists would link his work to a tradition whose founder could be said to be Proudhon. I hoped to place him in an anthropological tradition whose founder was Rousseau. We all have our axes to grind. I agree however that one handicap when it comes to getting a response is that everyone has heard of Rousseau (usually negatively), but no-one reads him. If my article encourages some to take a look, that would suit me.

Comment by Elaine Forde on July 25, 2012 at 12:51pm

I enjoyed this review, Keith, though I had to take some time out to read it fully before replying (probably why replies are scant), but I will offer some feedback.

I take the point about actually reading Rousseau. I admit I haven't directly read much Rousseau, but seem to feel that I know what he was about due to other syntheses- a dangerous assumption! And while I have read some of what Graeber has written, I haven't completely read the debt book, so again it is a leap of faith, but I hope you'll allow the following observation.

I noticed that David did not mention the idea of a "Debt for Nature" swap in the book. As I understand it, the arrangement- run by an arm of the World Bank called the "Global Environment Facility" (GEF)- allows indebted nations to swap large tracts of "habitat" in lieu of the money/ interest which they owe on IMF loans. This has taken place extensively in Costa Rica, and Madagascar. Maurice Bloch has spoken out against the practice,   (, and I am surprised, given his expertise, that Graeber omitted this.

Debt for Nature swaps are considered a "Good Thing" (!) because, of course, ecology is important, however the idea of a Global Environment, critiqued excellently by Ingold (2002, Being Alive) among others, is problematic. The idea of a global tally sheet, whereby I can sustain my lifestyle because "habitat" is acquired in Madagascar sounds, I think ludicrous, however, this is exactly how ecology is being reckoned, since late 1980s/ early 90s, Brundtland Commission and Rio Earth Summit. It is a dangerous precedent to add to this mix large-scale debt, as Bloch points out succinctly, it is only the elites who take the money (and, usually) use the money, however it is the poor who pay. If Graeber believes that the Global Justice Movement took on the IMF and won, I ask- are you sure? Although apparently these deals are in the decline, the model and mechanisms still exist, nevertheless it is an important part of the story of debt. I think this situation perfectly exemplifies the freedom/ slavery honour/ indebtedness themes which Graeber explores, and therefore I wonder why he didn't include this?

As I said, I haven't read all of DEBT, but I have looked thoroughly for mentions of GEF or debt for nature swaps, and now I see no mention of it in your review, so would like to ask what is going on here? In the online seminar with David some time ago, he did say (and I paraphrase) that the idea of a "debt to nature" was problematic for him as it assumed nature as an agent in some sort of deal, it was not something he had tackled, or intended to. Neither, seemingly, is the idea of "debt for nature" on his agenda. I therefore extend a friendly challenge to David to tackle this one!

Finally, thankyou for alluding to the original meaning of a jubilee. I find this deliciously ironic at present writing from the UK where we are saturated in bunting and "new" twists on coronation chicken at every turn.

Comment by Keith Hart on July 9, 2012 at 9:23am

John, you have given me a chance to say something about the mixed provenance and destiny of an unfinished piece of writing. It was above all intended as a serious piece of writing, not as a blog post and certainly not as propaganda in building a social movement. It started out as a review for an academic journal, but it grew too big for that. It evolved into an assessment of my own relationship to David, who has become in many ways my closest and most stimulating colleague. Nevertheless I stuck with the form of a published academic article. Yet I also wanted feedback, since I don't consider it finished. You may be right that I shouldn't expect much of that in this form. But I also wanted readers. Feedback comes in several forms, a lot of it private, not posted as public comments.

I have had comments on my personal blog, in Facebook and by email. It is a sign of the low level of interaction here that I have just had a meta-commentary from someone who appears to find nothing new or interesting in its contents, but writes anyway, perhaps out of habit. Elsewhere, the anarchists take issue with my Rousseau analogy, preferring Proudhon as a predecessor for David. Although the historical vision of anthropology I present here is familiar, this is the first time I have tried to place David within it. I have tried to give an uncontentious, but informative description of the book for those who haven't read it or are unsure about what they have read. But clearly the main point of the article is to explore ambiguities in the ways he and I use the term "human economy", a term that is beginning to attract considerable attention. In private correspondence, I have already had some fascinating exchanges about this with David himself.

Some readers, whether or not they want to post comments, might find that the mixture of textual exegesis, world history, intellectual history, anthropology, politics and economics opens up questions rather than closing them off. But since posting the piece here, I am now clearer about what to do with it. I will extract 2,000 words for publication as an academic review and will explore the possibility of writing an article for Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory that will be presented not as a review (which they don't publish), but as a discussion piece CA style. In that context your admonitions will bear quite heavily on my mind and I thank you for them.

Comment by John McCreery on July 9, 2012 at 4:52am

Keith, I observe that your review has attracted a large number of views and has been shared on other sites but attracted no comment here. I wonder why this is and offer two speculations. The review is both (1) familiar and (2) overwhelming. It is familiar because, man with a cause that you are, you repeat many things you have said before. It is overwhelming because of its erudition. No one without a comparable store of knowledge at his or her fingertips can imagine a response that would not seem utterly shallow. As a result, it attracts readers and, at least speaking for myself, stimulates private thought. It does not encourage conversation. The care and thoroughness with which it is constructed are, I observe, rhetorical devices for closing off debate.

This line of thought leads me to Henry JenkinsConvergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Jenkins' observation that the art of the mass market hit now eschews the framing and closure that the image of a painting, the argument as picture, complete in its frame, suggests. Instead hits are created by cleverly leaving unresolved questions and undeveloped subplots that invite fans to find their own answers or add their own story lines. These modes of seduction build an active fan base that multiplies the value of the original work (something, I note serendipitously, that Walter Benjamin comes close to anticipating in "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). 

These comments, then, are not a critique of what you have written, in the classic manner of pointing out flaws and holes, a style of criticism that assumes a finished whole as the ideal to which a work aspires. They point, instead, to a possible new form of discourse, in which leaving openings for others to continue the conversation may be a vital move—especially if the aim is to build a movement of active supporters.

Just brainstorming....

Comment by Stacy A A Hope on July 8, 2012 at 4:21pm

Hi Keith,

I have placed an announcement on the Book Reviews Site with a link to your review.


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