David Rolfe Graeber (born 12 February 1961) is an American anthropologist and anarchist who is Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths. In addition to his academic work, Graeber has a history of both direct and indirect involvement in political activism, including membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World, a role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002, and support for the 2010 UK student protests movement. He is co-founder of the Anti-Capitalist Convergence.
Army of Altruists (2007)
Harper's Magazine, January 2007, pp. 31-38
- Egoism and altruism are ideas we have about human nature. Historically, one has tended to arise in response to the other. In the ancient world,for example, it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. If one sets aside a space and says, "Here you shall think only about acquiring material things for yourself," then it is hardly surprising that before long someone else will set aside a countervailing space and declare, in effect: "Yes, but here we must contemplate the fact that the self, and material things, are ultimately unimportant."
- In societies based around small communities, where almost everyone is either a friend, a relative, or an enemy of everyone else, the languages spoken tend even to lack words that correspond to "self-interest" or "altruism" but include very subtle vocabularies for describing envy, solidarity, pride, and the like. Their economic dealings with one another likewise tend to be based on much more subtle principles. ... The work of destroying such ways of life is still often done by missionaries—representatives of those very world religions that originally sprang up in reaction to the market long ago. Missionaries, of course, are out to save souls; but they rarely interpret this to mean their role is simply to teach people to accept God and be more altruistic. Almost invariably, they end up trying to convince people to be more selfish and more altruistic at the same time. On the one hand, they set out to teach the "natives" proper work discipline, and try to get them involved with buying and selling products on the market, so as to better their material lot. At the same time, they explain to them that ultimately, material things are unimportant.
- The right's approach is to release the dogs of the market, throwing all traditional verities into disarray; and then, in this tumult of insecurity, offer themselves up as the last bastion of order and hierarchy, the stalwart defenders of the authority of churches and fathers against the barbarians they have themselves unleashed.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
- Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it.
- Chapter One, "On The Experience of Moral Confusion", p. 4
- Before we can apply the tools of anthropology to reconstruct the real history of money, we need to understand what's wrong with the conventional account.
- Chapter Two, "The Myth of Barter", p. 22
- In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around.
- Chapter Two, "The Myth of Barter", p. 40
The reason that economic textbooks now begin with imaginary villages is because it has been impossible to talk about real ones. Even some economists have been forced to admit that Smith's Land of Barter doesn't really exist.
The question is why the myth is perpetuated anyway.
- Chapter Three, "Primordial Debts", p. 43
- Exchange implies equality.
- Chapter Three, "Primordial Debts", p. 63
- Thus money is almost always something hovering between a commodity and a debt-token. This is probably why coins—pieces of silver or gold that are already valuable commodities in themselves, but that, being stamped with the emblem of local authority, became even more valuable—still sit in our heads as the quintessential form of money. They most perfectly straddle the divide that defines what money is in the first place. What's more, the relation between the two was a matter of constant political conversation. In other words, the battle between state and market, between governments and merchants is not inherent to the human condition.
- Chapter Four, "Cruelty and Redemption", p. 75
- It is rather striking to think that the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God's own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be framed in the language of a financial transaction.
- Chapter Four, "Cruelty and Redemption", p. 80
- To tell the history of debt, then, is also necessarily to reconstruct how the language of the marketplace has come to pervade every aspect of human life—even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 89
- "Communist society"; in the sense of a society organized exclusively on that single principle—could never exist. But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 95
- One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 96
- In fact, communism is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 96
- Exchange is all about equivalence.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 103
- If we insist on defining all human interactions as matters of people giving one thing for another, then any ongoing human relations can only take the form of debts.
- Chapter Five, "A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Moral Relations", p. 126
- All societies based on slavery tend to be marked by this agonizing double consciousness: the awareness that the highest things one has to strive for are also, ultimately, wrong; but at the same time, the feeling that this is simply the nature of reality.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 167
- Slavery is the ultimate form of being ripped from one's context, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 168
- Honor is a zero sum game.
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 175
- Honor is the same as credit; it's one's ability to keep ones promises, but also, in the case of a wrong, to "get even".
- Chapter Seven, "Honor and Degradation", p. 193
- The moment we begin to map the history of money across the last five thousand years of Eurasian history, startling patterns begin to emerge.
- Chapter Eight, "Credit versus Bullion", p. 212
- The attentive reader may have noticed that the core period of Jasper's Axial age—the lifetimes of Pythagoras, Confucius, and the Buddha—corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented.
- Chapter Nine, "The Axial Age", p. 224
- Indeed, India has become notorious as a country in which a very large part of the working population is laboring in effective debt peonage to a landlord or other creditor.
- Chapter Ten, "The Middle Ages", p. 256
- Medieval corporations owned property, and they often engaged in complex financial arrangements, but in no case were they profit-seeking enterprises in the modern sense.
- Chapter Ten, "The Middle Ages", p. 305
- To take what might seem an "objective", macro-economic approach to the origins of the world economy would be to treat the behavior of early European explorers, merchants, and conquerors as if they were simply rational responses to opportunities—as if this were just what anyone would have done in the same situation. This is what the use of equations so often does: make it seem perfectly natural to assume that, if the price of silver in China is twice what it is in Seville, and inhabitants of Seville are capable of getting their hands on large quantities of silver and transporting it to China, then clearly they will, even if doing so requires the destruction of entire civilizations. Or if there is a demand for sugar in England, and enslaving millions is the easiest way to acquire labor to produce it, then it is inevitable that some will enslave them.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 314
Even human relations become a matter of cost benefit calculation. Clearly this is the way the conquistadors viewed the worlds that they set out to conquer.
It is the peculiar feature of modern capitalism to create social arrangements that essentially force us to think this way.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", pp. 319–320
- The criminalization of debt was the criminalization of the very basis of human society.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 334
- The man who won the argument, however, was John Locke, the Liberal philosopher, at that time acting as advisor to Sir Isaac Newton, then Warden of the Mint. Locke insisted that one can no more make a small piece of silver worth more by relabeling it a "shilling" than one can make a short man taller by declaring there are now fifteen inches in a foot.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 340
- A legitimate enterprise had to have some moral basis, and the only morality the company knew was debt.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 350
- It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 350
- Karl Marx, who knew quite a bit about the human tendency to fall down and worship our own creations, wrote Das Capital in an attempt to demonstrate that, even if we start from the economists' utopian vision, so long as we also allow some people to control productive capital, and, again, leave others with nothing to sell but but their brains and bodies, the results will be in very many ways barely distinguishable from slavery, and the whole system will eventually destroy itself.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 354
- We could no more have a universal world market than we could have a system in which everyone who wasn't a capitalist was somehow able to to become a respectable, regularly paid wage laborer with access to adequate dental care. A world like that has never existed and never could exist. What's more, the moment that even the prospect that this might happen begins to materialize, the whole system starts to come apart.
- Chapter Eleven, "Age of the Great Capitalist Empires", p. 355
- One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of military power. There's a reason why the wizard has such a strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him there is a man with a gun.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 364
- Meanwhile, the U.S. debt remains, as it has been since 1790, a war debt: the United States continues to spend more on its military than do all other nations on earth put together, and military expenditures are not only the basis of the government's industrial policy; they also take up such a huge proportion of the budget that by many estimations, were it not for them, the United States would not run a deficit at all.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 365
- The essence of U.S. military predominance in the world is, ultimately, the fact that it can, at will, drop bombs, with only a few hours' notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capability. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", pp. 365–366
- By the end of World War II, the specter of an imminent working class uprising that had so haunted the ruling classes of Europe and North America for the previous century had largely disappeared. This was because class war was suspended by a tacit settlement. To put it crudely: the white working class of the North Atlantic countries, from the United States to West Germany, were offered a deal. If they agreed to set aside any fantasies of fundamentally changing the nature of the system, then they would be allowed to keep their unions, enjoy a wide variety of social benefits (pensions, vacations, health care …), and, perhaps most important, through generously funded and ever-expanding public educational institutions, know that their children had a reasonable chance of leaving the working class entirely. One key element in all this was a tacit guarantee that increases in workers' productivity would be met by increases in wages: a guarantee that held good until the late 1970s. Largely as a result, the period saw both rapidly rising productivity and rapidly rising incomes, laying the basis for the consumer economy of today.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 373
- There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist—most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it's impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn't seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing any other planets. Yet faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction—even from those who call themselves "progressives"—is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn't be even worse.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", pp. 381–382
- What I have been trying to do in this book is not so much to propose a vision of what, precisely, the next age will be like, but to throw open perspectives, enlarge our sense of possibilities; to begin to ask what it would mean to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 383
- The one thing that's clear is that new ideas won't emerge without the jettisoning of much of our accustomed categories of thought—which have become mostly sheer dead weight, if not intrinsic parts of the very apparatus of hopelessness—and formulating new ones. This is why I spent so much of this book talking about the market, but also about the false choice between state and market that so monopolized political ideology for the last centuries that it made it difficult to argue about anything else.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 384
- Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely he can only have been a thief.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 386
- What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.
- Chapter Twelve, "1971–The Beginning…", p. 391
The Utopia of Rules (2015)
- Everyone knows how compromised the idea of bureaucracy as a meritocratic system is. The first criterion of loyalty to any organization is therefore complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit but on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when in fact they are often deployed as an instrument of arbitrary personal power. ... As whole societies have come to represent themselves as giant credentialized meritocracies, rather than as systems of predatory extraction, we bustle about, trying to curry favor by pretending we actually believe it to be true.