Debt, its history and morality

by Robert Teitelman  |  Published February 10, 2012 at 11:34 AM
Debt-its-history-and-morality.jpgSo many issues, so many opinions, so many books. I'm losing ground. Yesterday I posted on an essay written by Francis Fukuyama in Foreign Affairs, speculating about what the next animating ideology of the populist left might be. This is a fascinating, if incredibly speculative, subject, and in the end I found Fukuyama's outlining of requirements for such an ideology to replace communism (which by itself is a remarkably simplistic view of the left) too rigid and too programmatic, too focused on what he can dig up in the past to match the sheer unpredictability of the future. Powerful ideologies don't emerge from formulas. They begin with some vision of the world that somehow breaks with conventional assumptions, that re-imagines the world in a new way. That gestate; they evolve.

For several months now, I've been meaning to write something about David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years." Graeber, a former Yale University anthropologist now at Goldsmith's University, London, is best known for his role in the Occupy Wall Street movement: He's long been active in the anarchist movement and was named a "leader" of it all by Bloomberg Businessweek last fall -- a characterization he has downplayed, including the notion that he came up with the "We are the 99%" slogan. That's fair; OWS clearly had a very strong anarchist theme, which eschews "leaders." And picking Graeber out of the group does suggest the reflexive bias of a media that desperately wants to fit OWS into that of a traditional political movement, a left Tea Party, with policy positions and an organized hierarchy: someone to call, photograph and blame. But it's pretty clear OWS wasn't -- isn't -- like that.

"Debt: The First 5,000 Years" is a complex, fascinating, occasionally confounding, often elusive book. I will admit that I haven't yet written anything on it because I'm still not quite sure what to say; it sits there staring at me. The book has been reviewed a bit, but not nearly as much as it deserves; The New York Times tackled it in early December, but as Aaron Bady points out in a long review on the New Inquiry blog, it did so mostly for the light it casts on OWS. Bady and some of his commenters share my sentiment: The book is challenging not only because the underlying argument is nuanced and unfamiliar, but because judging the extensive anthropology, which he employs to critique long-accepted notions of economic history, is, as Bady quips, "beyond my pay-grade." He could be making it up for all that I know. Although I don't agree with everything in Bady's review, it does represent a serious effort to understand what Graeber is getting at. And Bady is honest enough to admit that 5,000 words is barely enough to scratch the surface of Graeber's ambitions here, which is to rethink basic notions of debt that have prevailed at least since the capitalist age began.

I'm not going to try to summarize the book here. I'm also not going to say that Graeber is right, that this book is necessarily convincing (many of its arguments may not be), or that arguments about the evolution of debt constitutes a new set of ideas for a new ideological platform, in the way Fukuyama suggests. Despite OWS's popularity, his is not a text that will be read and understood widely. It is, in the end, a way of reinterpreting certain fundamentals of morality and behavior, and no practical, take-'em-to-Congress policy prescriptions naturally emerge. In fact, it's difficult to see how such a fundamental transformation will occur, at least quickly. That's something it does share with OWS and its bubbly optimism that it represents a new way of consensus-style democratic politics that will transform the rotten system in place. But ideas do have a way of emerging, submerging, evolving, cross-fertilizing, simplifying and either taking hold or fading out. There's plenty of time; the future is an open highway. There's no predicting the twists and turns.

A final note on another book on debt that I've meant to review but never got around to it: Louis Hyman's "Debtor Nation: The History of America in Red Ink." This is very different from "Debt: The First 5,000 Years." Hyman has produced an extremely detailed history of consumer finance since the '20s. Some of it is slow going, but the details are also revelatory. Alas, it's difficult to get a full sense of what Hyman really thinks about the evolution of debt in this democratic wonderland of ours. In other words, I'm not sure he's going to change anyone's mind on the subject. Roger Lowenstein recently wrote a review of "Debtor Nation" in The New Republic, which I recommend. And now that I've paid off a few bookish debts, I feel much better. - Robert Teitelman