Monday, October 29, 2012

Wobbly times number 157


"If you assume that there is no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, etc., there's a chance to contribute to the making of a better world. That's your choice."  - Noam Chomsky

Private property for whom?

Private personal property within a classless, Stateless, democratic society would be a given.  Common ownership would not apply to your socks, your dog, your partners or kids or to the home which you use.  Common ownership would only apply to the things we use collectively like: public transport, clothing outlets, universities, grocery distribution centres, aircraft factories and so on.

In class dominated societies, the producers of wealth remain in thrall, debt and servitude to rulers.  In a free association of producers, men and women enjoy equal political power amongst themselves.   Direct democracy has become a norm. 

Unity for what?

Harmony with what
with whom
For whose strength
do we depend 

One path leads to 
conserving human orders
of top-down power 
all hushed-up inside
so as not to disturb the 
harmonious hierarchy of the dour
for do so 
would be a sin
against human nature
according to some supernatural 
might even lead to 
bad karma
in some other way
be offensive 
to those
who would dominate 
through guilt tripping you
with claims of
moral superiority
with maybe a promise or two 
of pie in the sky 
when you die
or pair a dice 
through submission

The other way
of unity is
toward a solidarity 
for more freedom
not the freedom to do 
with your property
what you will
to be family patriarch 
as if humans and 
property objects 
in the same legally defined 
State enforced 
For freedom defined in such a way
is only freedom for one 
to have power over others' wills
and that's greed-dumb
my friend
no freedom at all

Made by humans 
freedom flows from instinct
in history's river of time
ever on 
toward an individual liberty
where the social condition for the freedom of each
is the common condition for the freedom of all
where equal political power
between all men and women
negates the negation of debt

Whereas collectively produced wealth 
as legalised 
private property
makes for
bondage & disciplines
servile bowing rituals
to the masters of the State
or workplace
or bedroom
of whatever owning class
or caste
or gender
or supposed superior 

Authorities who are ever ready to bring the whip on down
or brow beat you to injury and frown
for the sake of some power monger's
adrenal filled sadistic self-esteem
or crown

All that is done for
with common democratic ownership 
of wealth produced socially
and one forever rebellious NO! 
to domination and
YES! to unity 
for liberty and freedom's continuation

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Wobbly times number 156


Where no means no
and yes means yes
and yes is said
way more often
than no

(for Roberto Curti)

Dropped a tab
an hour
or was it a hundred years later
I went outside
to take the air
and get away from the
web making....

Maybe bread will
bring me back

Where's my shirt!

My sister wants 
to kill me

Call her now!


Shout for help
tasers blaze
What a high!
my eyes
scream out
It's God...



Wobbly times number 155

DEBT, The First Five Thousand Years 
by David Graeber
Pages544; ISBN9781933633862; 
Publication date July, 2011

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 does tell some very important tales in DEBT, pinning the need and therefore usefulness of money on ruling class desires for more wealth than they needed just to live.  In other words, in order to be rulers e.g. to pay for armed bodies of men, through the governing/enforcement structure of the political State. As a means of transferring produced wealth of the peasantry to rulers' ownership, tax systems are decreed by ruling classes which require payment in 'sovereigns'/money. Even so, the confusion accumulates when he poo-poos money itself as being a commodity.   

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.  

As Graeber reveals to his readers, the famous bourgeois economist, Lord Keynes, early on in his career made a study of Mesopotamian cuneiform texts which took years of research and resulted in his celebrated treatise on money. Like Keynes, Graeber basically dismisses labour as being the source of value when it comes to exchange.  He goes so far as identifying and trashing Adam Smith's 'labour theory of value' with a sentence early in his book. 

Why is this important for understanding the theme of the book, debt? 

Because Graeber embraces what amounts to a consumption theory of value, one which isn't tied to socially necessary labour time; but is more in tune with how price is determined i.e. by supply and demand for use-values. Mike Beggs has correctly observed in his review of DEBT, that Graeber's theory of money is related to 'chartalist' sources. In other words, it's kind of half right. Indeed, Graeber uses his anthropological wisdom to eviscerate the standard bourgeois economic notion that the clumsiness of barter brought about the need for money. 

As I said, his book is peppered with some great tales, such as the one about Keynes and his years long study of Sumerian texts concerning money, which in turn resulted in one of the good Lord's most celebrated works. But in this reviewer's opinion, it is important to know the source of the production of wealth which is represented by money. And in my opinion that source is to be found in the socially necessary labour time it takes to produce it, for that is the point where economy becomes political. Sure, the State creates money, today's States and yesteryear's States, just as Graeber says. But what does money represent? 


Sure. But what is debt, if not the promise to pay in wealth and where does wealth come from? 

For Marx there are only two sources of wealth, labour and nature. I was curious about Graeber. He's a self-described anarchist. As far as I know, he's still a member of the IWW. He's also touted as a leader of the 'occupy movement'. I wondered how he would solve the fetishism of the commodity in his work, as the commodity, IMO, is the building block of class society and class society is the foundation for the political State and yes, as Graeber says, the political State does mint what passes for the universal equivalent used to exchange commodities and pay off debts.  

Graeber's anthropological reflections are quite useful in bringing to the fore the notion that barter was rare as an historical phenomenon and money was absent in classless societies of hunter/gatherers. People basically used what they found/hunted. Trade between groups (my commodity for yours) was extremely limited. Those observations by Graeber made sense to me and so the book as a whole is not a total loss.  No, no, no.  Read the book.  In fact it's a bloody good anecdotal romp through 5,000 years of history.

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'.

"Originally, human beings lived in a state of nature where all things were held in common; it was war that first divided up the world and the resultant 'law of nations,' the common usages of mankind that regulate such matters as conquest, slavery, treaties , and borders, that was first responsible for inequalities of property as well." David Graeber writes in DEBT, The First Five Thousand Years

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? 

Maybe I'm supposed to give him a 'huss' and assume that what I'm missing is 'implied'. The problem with that is that while I may see it, others may not, as he dismisses 'the labour theory of value' earlier on in DEBT, with regard to Adam Smith, as I've already stated.  

Wealth is liberty — liberty to recreation — liberty to enjoy life — liberty to improve the mind. "Wealth is disposable time, and nothing more. " (From a pamphlet published anonymously in 1821, The Source and Remedy of the National Difficulties).  Debt certainly leads to slavery or at the very least to dependency structures woven into the social fabric via culture e.g. the 'milk debt' Graeber outlines with regard to the ongoing establishment of Hinduism in the historical time frame he labels, "The Axial Age".  But even 'milk debt' involves scads of labour time, in fact, our whole Hindu guided lives, if that's where we're at.  

Graeber provides his readers with many original source anecdotes concerning the question of slavery which go basically along these lines:  Once upon a time, the producers of wealth believed their monarchs deserved to live high on the hog while they lived lives of poverty. Once upon a time, slaves believed slavery was normal for those defeated in military conflict. All this is true.

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. 

Debt is expanded beyond economic transactions to include sin and other moral questions and while these are cogent observations, Graeber's emphasis on them turns our attention away from what is being asked of those who are indebted.  And what is that but their labour time and giving up their free time in some way shape or form up to and including becoming chattel slaves to those to whom they owed their debts.  Labour time is the source of exchange-value which is wrapped up in the social relations between those in debt and those to whom debts are owed.  And this is precisely what Graeber misses and or dismisses when it comes to his analysis of debt and his continual mystifications regarding money.  For Graeber, money is not based on embodied labour time but on the trust people have in the authorities.  Sure, there is trust; but as the old folk wisdom goes, "Where's the beef?"  Graeber's rulers seem to just decree what the value of money is as opposed to money being a universal equivalent used to trade objects with exchangeable labour time embodied in them.  

So, what is value? What is price? What is profit? Graeber continually mixes up exchange-value with a sense of debt which is based on being beholden to another person in some honourable way. I see the connection; but I find his anecdotes confusing the issue. Exchange-value is based on socially necessary labour time (snlt). Humans perceive their own labour time thusly, their own life expenditure in the exchange of commodities. This social perception is born of haggling around price until a sense of 'this is right' is established. But why is it, 'right'? It's the perception of life's labour time in the object or service which is based on the material reality of socially necessary labour time embodied therein. 

 I'm beginning to be forced to assume that many anarchists want to de-legitmate Marx so badly that they refuse to grasp or have a mental block when it comes to seeing the validity of his critque of political-economy. I saw it in Goldman. I've seen it in other anarchist thinkers e.g. Proudhon. And now, it appears in Graeber. I kept hoping as I read that I'd be wrong in my assumptions.  However, Graeber's analysis of debt is completely tied up in moralist ideology and fogged over with liberal consumptionist oriented economics which just begin to touch on the issue i.e his attachment to the Chartalists and Keynes.  Alas, even the great anarchist Proudhon had his peoples' banks and equality wages schemes for his new society.

In chapter 7 of DEBT,The First Five Thousand Years, we find a cogent analysis of honour's connection to owing interest and principle. 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.  

Nope.  The economic theory that he is most attracted to is 'chartalism'. Contemporary economists i.e. since the turn of the 20th century completely abandoned Smith's labour theory of value for political reasons, including the Chartalists. Michael Perleman's work consistently shows this as he is an astute reader of Marx and and the history of modern 'economics'. Check him out. He's well worth the read. 

Back in the mid-19th century, one could tell that U.S. President Lincoln was still influenced by the labour theory of value as exemplified in his statement, "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not .". The political consequences of a President making such a statement today would be EXPLOSIVE! 

A surplus of any commodity will bring down its price in the market and skills are commodities. What the Black Death did was to lower the supply of labour power and increase its price. Graeber acknowledges this. Ownership of the product of labour is also dependent on access to the means of producing wealth and that access was closed off by privatising what had been the commons during the latter part of the feudal era when the landlord class was riding high. Closing off the commons drove the peasantry off the land (their means of production) and into the urban centres where they were obliged to sell their skills for wages to employers who owned the factories, mines and 'satanic' mills of commodity production. The oversupply of labour power brought about by privatising the commons, brought with it a rise in unemployment, lowering of wages and working conditions and vagrancy laws like those of Henry VIII--vagrancy was a capital crime in Henry's time. 

What to do with the unemployed? 

Put them in 'workhouses', debt and pick-pockets' prison; hang them or transport them off to the colonial gulags, America first and after the anti-colonial political revolution in America, to Australia after 1788, where the labour power was needed for exploitation under the wage system. 

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.

I close this review with a powerful observation from Marx which should be kept in mind when reading the final chapter of Graeber's DEBT, The First Five Thousand Years.

CAPITAL, Volume One

Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist

The money capital formed by means of usury and commerce was prevented from turning into industrial capital, in the country by the feudal constitution, in the towns by the guild organisation. [3] These fetters vanished with the dissolution of feudal society, with the expropriation and partial eviction of the country population. The new manufactures were established at sea-ports, or at inland points beyond the control of the old municipalities and their guilds. Hence in England an embittered struggle of the corporate towns against these new industrial nurseries.
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief momenta of primitive accumulation. On their heels treads the commercial war of the European nations, with the globe for a theatre. It begins with the revolt of the Netherlands from Spain, assumes giant dimensions in England’s Anti-Jacobin War, and is still going on in the opium wars against China, &c.
The different momenta of primitive accumulation distribute themselves now, more or less in chronological order, particularly over Spain, Portugal, Holland, France, and England. In England at the end of the 17th century, they arrive at a systematical combination, embracing the colonies, the national debt, the modern mode of taxation, and the protectionist system. These methods depend in part on brute force, e.g., the colonial system. But, they all employ the power of the State, the concentrated and organised force of society, to hasten, hot-house fashion, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power."

For an extensive discussion of Graeber's DEBT from other perspectives click here