So I’ve been reading David Graeber’s book about debt. He really has quite a few interesting and, I would say, wonderful points in his book, among them:
1) Debt came before money, often in the form of gift giving (you can read about this in his interview with Naked Capitalism)
2) In ancient cultures, and even in more recent cultures before the introduction of money, there were typically two separate spheres of accounting: the first was for daily goods like food and goats, which worked on the credit system, and the second for rearranging human relationships. Here there were things like dowries and symbolic exchanges of gold, meant to acknowledge the changing human relationship, but not as a “price” per se – because it was understood that you couldn’t put a price on a human.
3) Money as we know it is intricately tied in with slavery because it was when a person became a thing that could be sold for profit that we had a sense of price and when these two separate spheres were united. In particular the existence of money also implies the existence of a threat of violence. Moreover, it is this “decontextualizing” of people from their homes, their communities, and families who are forced into slavery that allows us to measure them with a dollar value, and in general it is only through pure decontextualizing that we can have a money system. It is this paradigm, where everyone and everything has no context, that economists rely on to describe the standard game theory of economics.
4) There are three social structures that people come into contact with in their daily lives and in which they give each other things: communistic, reciprocal, and hierarchical. For example, among parents and children, it is communistic; among a CEO and his workers it is often hierarchical, and among two strangers at a market it is reciprocal.
Even though I could (and might) write a post on any of the above points, because I find them each rich with stimulating and challenging concepts (and I haven’t even finished the book yet!), I want to first describe something Graeber mentions about the last one. Also, if someone is reading this that thinks I’ve misrepresented Graeber’s points then please comment.
Namely, Graeber mentions that, although we each have experience, and maybe lots of experience, in the three different social structures, when we tell the story of economics and exchange we invariably talk about reciprocal exchange. So, for example, I have three sons and I spend way more time hanging out with my sons, attending to their needs and making sure their infected toes are treated and helping them find their raincoats, then I spend at any market. In other words, if I were tallying up my contributions to things, my kids would be a far greater drain on my resources than groceries. But our “story” of how we give things and take things is inevitably about buying stocks or negotiating for a house price. In other words, we have been trained (by economists?) or we have trained ourselves to define exchange as a reciprocal, Austrian schoolish, “be selfish and take advantage whenever possible” endeavor, even when in the face of it we can’t claim to be like that.
Since I’m unwaveringly interested in how one tells the story of oneself, this fascinates me. It’s a really excellent example of how we are blind to the most obvious things. It also makes me think that economic theory has a loooong way to go before it can really explain meaningful things about “how things work”. After all, when you allow yourself to include “personal feelings” in your definition of giving and receiving, you realize that the reciprocal exchange part of your life is actually pretty insignificant, and in fact if that’s all that economists can even hope to explain (and it’s not clear they can), then there is more left unexplained than explained.
Moreover, the fact that we don’t see this as a failing (or at least a major hole) in the economic theory, because we are blind to it in ourselves, also immediately points to the possibility that we have overemphasized this aspect, the reciprocal exchange sphere, in our current economic system. In other words, if we had a healthy understanding of how the other two systems work (communistic and hierarchical) we may have developed them in parallel with the reciprocal system, and we may well be better off for it. We may even have an economics system that doesn’t reward rich people and punish poor people, who knows.
By the way, ridiculous and ignorant critique of Graeber’s book here (as in he didn’t read the book) with rebuff in comments by Graeber himself. Thanks to a commenter for that link!