Even by the time one is halfway through chapter 3 of DEBT, THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS, Graeber has yet to put his finger on who produces 'value', a term he throws around quite regularly. Yes, he does tell his readers who sees 'value'--humans, obviously. People see value, they see the use-value of the commodities they trade. A commodity can have all the labour time in the world in it and if it isn't perceived as having a human use, it will have zero exchange-value. Stick a pin there.
Graeber's DEBT is all about definitions. I think he's written a very readable book with many great tales of credit. In addition, he makes definitive statements like, "Money is credit, it can be brought into being by private contractual agreements...." And so, we have a self-professed anarchist like Graeber who would like to see the end of the State and the formation of a classless society. According to Graeber, money is the creature of the State. So, without a State, there would be no money. I think one can surmise this from Graeber's ideology.
For instance, in chapters 3 and 4 of Graeber's DEBT, THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS, we read of enlightening ties between debt, sin, guilt, owing society, owing parents, ancestors and ultimately the creation of money to repay debts to the sovereign. Of course deities can never be totally repaid and many times under absolutist rule, the sovereign becomes a demi-god or even god. All good here.
I especially enjoyed the way he uses Nietzsche's GENEALOGY OF MORALS, not as dogma, but as a way to illustrate mass religious conceptual ideologies and their cultural penetration into what passes in daily life for normative thinking.
Chapter 5 is divided into an examination of each of three themes of human interaction. He starts off with 'communism' and proceeds to define solidarity. The communism that communists know as common ownership of the means of production, production according to ability, distribution according to need is poo-pooed and shelved in good anarchist fashion. In an effort to sell us Graeber-communism (also based on the ability/need axis), he brings us out of the 'communism' of the great beyond (after the State withers away) to the daily praxis of solidarity between humans (up to a point) as being bits and pieces of actually existing 'communism' throughout the ages. According to Graeber, the social revolution is already happening, with co-operation between workers within corporations to get the job done (one not charging the other handing a screw driver to the bloke who needs one to complete the company's job); giving to relatives with no expectation of being paid back but, expecting reciprocal deeds when in need and so on. I can see his point and it's good to read someone who has something positive to say about how we live our lives in communistic behaviour patterns. Of course, he does drag out the ghost of the USSR to scare us away from 'Communism' and this works into his arguing against the conception of 'communism' as any real communist/socialist would define it.
No sign of labour being the source of all wealth not found in nature at this point in the book. DEBT remains a stimulating, if often frustrating, read. It made me want to call Davey up on the phone and share ales over conversations about how to change the world.
Onward to the next of the three themes of chapter 5, 'exchange'.
No David. Private property precedes war. Nevermind--a bloody good read. Also, the State doesn't come before private property; but after its establishment in the wake of humans' discovery of how to domesticate those plants and animals capable of being domesticated. Geography has much to do with this, as Jared Diamond has pointed out in his GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL. The provision of a stable food supply, one not totally dependent on hunting and gathering what could be found in nature, was driven by our instincts for survival and freedom, IMO. Agriculture and animal husbandry began to emerge thousands of years before records began to be written in Sumer. But back to Graeber....
Debt is certainly very important in the establishment of class and patriarchal domination; but when will Professor Graeber recognise in writing DEBT the fact that wealth, to which debt is intimately related, is either a product of labour or exists before us in nature and then is merely possessed by threat of violence through the State's law enforcement hirelings?
I kept being frustrated about the questions he raised in my mind about the source of wealth. At the same time I was fascinated by his anecdotes concerning how various cultures dealt with certain kinds of debt. For example, cattle were used as currency for some transactions in pre-State Wales. Women were used in ancient Irish areas for certain forms of debt. Yet, halfway through chapter 6 and still no theory of where wealth comes from.
In chapter 7 of DEBT,The First Five Thousand Years, we find a cogent analysis of honour's connection to owing interest and principal. By using the first Sumerian texts, Graeber takes us in his anecdotal 'way-back machine' to the last social revolution's event horizon at the beginning of history as we know it from Mesopotamian writing around 3000 BC, bringing his reader through to the end of the Bronze Age in 1200 or so BC. Transition from classless hunter/gatherers to farming and animal husbandry took many hundreds of years to complete.
Priestly temple sustaining economies congregate in ancient cities, as Sumerian history unfolds. Surplus wealth is appropriated by theocratic cults thus, magnificent temple construction. Through his own interpretation of those first written texts of the Sumerians circa 3,000 B.C., Dr. Graeber opens the door on a time when women were still near political equals with men--as the social relations of power based on class ownership of wealth produced by others, began to take shape in its cradle, newborn civilisation. Patriarchy begins with debt, according to Graeber. A farmer took out a loan to make it till harvest or to get some tool needed for production. That farmer might put up his wife, daughters or sons as collateral. Usually, the debt is paid. However, when it is not paid, 'a pound of flesh' is extracted in terms of the 'collateral' having to do labour time under the lender's thumb. The more loans, the more chances of default to debt-pawn status for the wife and kids. The origins of chattel slavery can be found here. The owning of one person by another becomes normalised in the thousand year historical transition out of the Bronze Age, to the point where even slaves and former slaves endorse the notion that honour is tied to debt. It's a cultural value/norm. And, if one reads closely, one can see the hand of private property rights over class divided wealth emerging: property rights over the product of the exploiteds' labour, along with what was becoming known as his possessions: women and children, in a word, patriarchy. Graeber doesn't put it that way, but it's a valid interpretation of his anecdotal histories, anthropologies, economics, literary interpretations and anarchism as far as I am concerned.
Graeber often declares that money is the creature of the State and is usually connected with the need to pay the first ancient political State's plundering soldiers. Fair enough; but that doesn't explain what intrinsic value is embodied in money whether it is paper or gold. Gold, of course, does contain socially necessary labour time/snlt (although Graeber never acknowledges this in his assertions about fiat money and credit) and paper money is the promise of value creating labour time. But, Graeber brushes any labour theory of value creation aside early on in DEBT, The First Five Thousand Years. Money, like value, can seemingly come out of the ether of ruler decrees. David tells a thousand fine anecdotes but he doesn't explain what the substance of the universal equivalent is and how that substance leads those in positions of political power to be more or less the same people who own private property in the means of production and nature, who own slaves, who make up patriarchal rules bound up with the perceived necessity of keeping private property where it 'rightfully belongs, and to whom debt itself is owed. And how, pray tell, is debt paid off other than through labour time and objects which take snlt to produce or promissory notes promising what....labour time of the debtors.
Certainly, one should read Graeber's DEBT; but only after grasping what Marx was saying in terms of exchange-value's connect with snlt. Reading "Value, Price and Profit" can help in that regard. CAPITAL is, of course, more clearly definitive and definitely more enlightening--especially the early on in the chapter on money.
Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist
For an extensive discussion of Graeber's DEBT from other perspectives click here