No Interest But The Interest Of Breathing – by Clinical Wasteman

This is not in any normal sense a review of David Graeber’s book, which is erudite yet non-specialist, often brilliant and always fiercely devoted to the overthrow of present social relations. The scope of Graeber’s historical, anthropological and theoretical reference makes it impossible to gloss the whole thing here. Anyone who has not read the book and wants to see its themes articulated in Graeber’s own terms should turn to this interview and this article. In what follows here, Clinical Wasteman picks up on the author’s 5,000-year survey at the point where it intersects with nascent capital, in order to suggest that any thought of overthrowing capital as such may require quite a different standpoint, in which impersonality is not the enemy

When I tell any Truth it is not for the sake of Convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do.– William Blake

This book by an anarchist anthropologist was covered excitedly by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and plugged several times by Financial Times US editor (and ex-anthropologist) Gillian Tett, along with more conventional praise in the culture sections of what pass for serious bourgeois newspapers. Why this should be so is a question worth asking, because Graeber conscientiously avoids the usual shortcuts to liberal embrace of leftist polemics: the book is neither a catalogue of under-analysed moral outrages nor a scholarly survey keeping tactful silence on present-day social antagonism. Not only is Graeber’s formidable scholarship free of the positivistic manner that cripples peer-reviewed Human Sciences, his writing bristles with hostility to capitalism, or at least to the social order around him as he sees it, which may not be quite the same thing. A clue to the reasons for the book’s reception in the FT and FAZ may lie in Graeber’s willingness to claim authorship of the worst political slogan in recent memory. Rather than fleeing blame for ‘We are the 99%’, he has robustly defended his association with it. Of course the actual practices making up the ‘Occupy movement’ are not to be dismissed lightly or even assimilated into a single ‘politics’ at all, but actual practices were not the concern of the commentators who lavished earnest analysis both on the public statements made in the name of ‘Occupy’ and on Graeber’s book. These journalists – or some of them anyway – are not fools. Technical knowledge of debt crisis makes it hard for them to ignore the contradictions of debt, the uncontainable scope of crisis and the social confrontation involved. In slightly different ways, the Occupy statements and the Graeber book offer the Experts an irresistible opportunity, inviting them to talk all they want about social contradiction and crisis without reference to production, labour or class. The notion of the ‘unsustainability’ of capitalism slips easily into capitalist media when everything specific to capital as such is left out of the question.

All this may or may not go some way towards explaining Graeber’s popularity with respectable explainers, but it doesn’t make him liable for anything they say. To denounce a non-Marxist author for neglect of Marxist categories would be vanity worthy of tenure track. Even a book aimed straight at a niche in the ideology market (as this one is not) may carry some descriptive or critical power: Graeber’s sometime source Michael Hudson, who rather more forthrightly sets out to save capital from itself, is a good example. If some parts of Debt, the First 5,000 Years are alarming, it’s not because they might appeal to ‘reformist’ columnists, but because the most radically ‘anti-capitalist’ moments call forth a lower-case ‘communism’ barely distinguishable from ‘community’, i.e. the currently favoured excuse for the social policing the author quite sincerely deplores.

Graeber is not engaged in sectarian point-scoring. He wants to sweep aside all of western political economy (in his view of which Marx features only as a minor irritant) and set something else up in its place. Thus, towards the end of a convincing rebuttal of the ‘barter myth’ in general, and Adam Smith’s use of it in particular, he asks in passing why that myth wasn’t simply dumped by later economists along with other obviously embarrassing parts of Smith’s thought: for example, the labour theory of value. This one-liner is allowed to sink in over several ethnographic and ancient-historical chapters before the author confirms that yes, he does mean it, and will try to back it up. But the backup doesn’t involve any further discussion of labour in relation to debt, money or value. What is attacked instead is the whole materialist categorical framework in which anything like a labour theory of value could arise.

The strongest part of the book is a two-chapter description of the reciprocal determination of forms of money, state and religion/ideology across Asia, Europe and parts of Africa between 800 BC and 1450 AD, or the ‘Axial Age’ and ‘Middle Ages’. This section not only contributes to a correction of the Eurocentrism common to orthodox economic history and much of Marxism, it approaches the best materialist history in its treatment of the economic formation of culture and the cultural articulation of economies. Graeber wouldn’t like to be called a materialist, though, and he’d be right. First because his economic perspective, from before 800 BC to the present, is almost all about exchange or circulation: not a trivial category, but not one that can be detached from production and made to stand by itself for material life as such. And then because all his attention to the detail of social conjunction and upheaval across many centuries and much of the geographical world is subordinated to a single transhistorical structure, in which the ‘Cycles of History’ everywhere deliver eternally recurring alternation between economies (or rather circulation systems) of personal ‘credit’ and impersonal ‘coin’.1

The detailed description in these chapters is made to serve an explicit attack on ‘materialism’, in which the latter appears as an atrophied scientism of a kind surpassed in Graeber’s own semi-materialist historical passages. The so-called materialism which the author finds flourishing during ‘coin economy’ periods from the Axial Age onwards – associated with quantification of inert objects for sale – is rightly identified as one side of a crude matter-spirit dualism, each side of which always entails the other, whether the ideal complement is a theological construction or the ‘objective’ eye/I of the empirical observer (e.g. a social anthropologist). Graeber’s way of conveying this is at least original: instead of drawing attention to the idealism of positive science (an unfinished project in which any help would be welcome), he discovers the scandal of the secret materialism of Axial Age spirituality! Rhetorical surprises aside though, it’s disingenuous to label as ‘materialism’ the metaphysical dualism of academic, commercial and political rationality. Materialist thought and gesture has negated this dualism in its scientific and spiritual forms since before Newton or Kant and ever after (Spinoza, Milton, Marx, Iggy Pop…), shadowed by a dialectical idealism that strains to enfold rather than expel the worldly (Bruno, Hegel, Blake, John Coltrane…and Graeber?) The problem with materialism is not that it has anything to do with the technical priestcraft and spiritual accountancy that give capital its metaphysics and common sense; rather, materialist negation languishes as a culturally tolerated curiosity while the corresponding social practices of negation remain provisionally held down.

If it’s remembered throughout that what Graeber calls materialism is actually the matter/spirit dualism negated by materialists from monist scholastics to dialectical rioters, the story of this depleted science as it emerged and re-emerged along with more or less mercantile social conditions is useful. But the insistence on ‘materialism’ as a name for the ideological component of ‘cash economies’ can’t help but evoke a vernacular meaning (actually less a part of any spoken idiom than a fixture of newspaper sermons): materialism as unseemly preoccupation with mere commodities, or simply ‘greed’. As in: ‘bankers/gangsta rappers/we western consumers are shallow and materialistic and must be retrained in spiritual/community values’. Unlike the professional and amateur ideologists who actually say that sort of thing, Graeber is not preaching spiritual renewal as a substitute for satisfaction of material needs. But he clearly disapproves of materialism in the ‘vulgar’ sense to which he restricts the word: no sympathy at all for the elementary principle that proletarian greed is good.

Disdain for ‘merely’ material satisfaction aligns Graeber with many post-situationists and some (not all) theorists of ‘communisation’, who likewise presume that any revolution must be anthropological first: a collective self-curing of psychological ‘alienation’, with alienation of labour in the commodity to melt away as a second-order effect. One of the best answers to such thinking was pre-emptive, coming from a satiated bourgeois professor almost 30 years before cultural ‘liberation’ was first packaged with material retrenchment in response to ‘the events of 1968’. ‘There is tenderness only in the coarsest demand: that no-one shall go hungry any more’. Only ‘a mankind which no longer knows want will begin to have an inkling of the delusory, futile nature of all arrangements hitherto made in order to escape want, which used wealth to reproduce want on a larger scale’.2

The stakes of the polemic against ‘materialism’ become clearer when the same treatment is visited shortly afterwards on ‘interest/s’ (as in ‘self-interest’), probably a target with fewer defenders to begin with. Graeber starts from ‘self-interest’ in Hobbes, notes the etymology of interesse, as in interest on a debt, and thereafter sticks to a definition so narrow that any supply-side/rational markets theorist would approve. ‘Self’ is strictly a single individual, untroubled by contradictory desires and unbound by outside attachments. ‘Interest’ is not susceptibility in general to pain and pleasure or destruction and perpetuation, but strictly ‘the continual pursuit of profit’. This giddyingly reductive formula serves the purpose of blanket moral condemnation, but as in the case of materialism, it either excludes or slanders most of what the word in question stands for.

Graeber’s point is that the personal cost-benefit calculation called ‘self-interest’ in a tradition running from Hobbes to present-day econometrics in no way resembles the entanglement of needs, impulses and constraints that really determines human social interaction. This much is true, but there’s no reason in the first place to accept a Hobbesian/Chicago School reduction of the scope of subjective (including collective) interests to a simple profit-loss ledger kept by simple individuals. Once the caricature is admitted, then certainly almost everything lies outside it, but how is this large remainder to be understood? Graeber suggests ‘love and amity, but also envy, spite, devotion, pity, lust, embarrassment, torpor, indignation and pride’ as real human ‘motivations’. The list is not supposed to be exhaustive, but its exclusively psychological and individual content is still striking. A few pages later Adam Smith is accused of ignoring ‘the role of both benevolence and malevolence in economic affairs’. Thus a sphere of narrow, competitive individual ‘interest’ is counterposed to a disinterested sphere containing all the rest of personal morality. Such are the analytical and strategic materials left to anyone hoping to understand and change the world without attention to the contradictory, shifting, mediated interests that constitute, animate and rupture social subjects.

A dynamic conception of impersonal interests is not something peculiar to Marxism or otherwise eccentric: bourgeois political ascendancy would not have got far without it, any more than the ascendant class could have done without a world of personal morality for the edification of the lower orders. Graeber notes the transfer of ‘interest’ from bookkeeping to social philosophy in Hobbes (Leviathan, published 1651), but this was by no means an ‘opening salvo’ as he claims. The word was well established in English political vocabulary by the mid-17th century, most definitely as part of proprietor ideology, but not in anything like so narrow a sense as a ‘penalty for late payment on a loan’. Rather, foreshadowing an argument repeated against franchise extension down to the 19th century, property owners would assert – against arbitrary royal power and feckless, landless rabble alike – their interest in the country. ‘Interest’ here combines today’s financial and vernacular senses of exposure, with the second sense derived from the first. Ownership of land and/or mercantile capital amounts to something at stake, something to lose, in the political course of the state, and as such justifies the claim to a say in government. This doctrine, which contributed so much to bourgeois political legitimacy, simultaneously released the germ of its overthrow. The contradiction bursts forth in the voice of Oliver Cromwell at the Putney debates of 1647 (four years before Leviathan), where more than one future momentarily seemed within reach. ‘Where is there any bound or limit set’, he asked, if elections are opened to ‘men who have no interest but the interest of breathing?’3 The ‘interest of breathing’ is not an ironic rhetorical flourish: every successful bourgeois power since the1640s has followed the example of Cromwell’s Major-Generals in taking the merely-breathing interest seriously enough to plan some combination of its repression, division and corruption in advance.

Without a sense of the contradictory, indistinct, unstable interests of self-contradictory, indistinct, unstable ‘subjects’, it’s impossible to understand endless warfare between the merely-breathing, and therefore impossible to think of overcoming it, unless you expect this to be achieved by some supreme effort of moral will. Hence the anathema early in this article against the ‘99%’ slogan. Giving its proponents the benefit of the doubt that the percentage in question is intended as global rather than national, not 99 but 100% of the world’s population shares an abstract interest – or a concrete interest infinitely mediated – in the abolition of a value-form tending ultimately towards human annihilation. But the 99-1 breakdown disallows any innocuous dreaming of such things. It asserts a definite opposition – something that sounds like a class conflict, even – and names the sides. Yet these two sides are not really classes at all: they are not defined in terms of their material interaction, but demographically, i.e. by personal identities: whatever number (70 million, or 1% of 7 billion?) of the wealthiest individuals against everyone else in the world. Sophisticated supporters will object that ‘the 99%’ is just a slogan, neither meant as analysis nor subject to it, but when a slogan is repeated so often it’s worth considering what the exact words imply. Which in this case is, if not perfect identity of all interests within the respective ‘99%’ and ‘1%’ groups, at least relegation of internal conflicts on either side to secondary, unimportant status. So that, for example, the difference between a London lawyer with a big mortgaged house (still 99%) and a hedge fund billionaire with a property portfolio (1%) is fundamental in a way that the difference between the lawyer and a childcarer she employs on a semi-indentured temporary visa is not. And the conflict between immigrant African workers in South African townships and the local African workers who slaughtered them in the pogroms of 2008 must all have been a tragic misunderstanding, unless it was false consciousness or an explosion of individual sin. And likewise unreal is the contradiction lived by a low-paid specialist in violent enforcement – employed, say, by G4S in an outsourced policing role or by a ‘criminal’ organisation – as a proletarian and punisher of proletarians.

Once again, the point here is not to criticise the practices associated with the ‘99%’ slogan (and obviously not to propose its adjustment to 75-25, 50-50% or any other ratio). The simple-mindedness of slogans dividing the world into identity groups (whether 99-vs-1%, nationalities or ‘classes’ as hallucinated in cultural terms) is emphasised only because what it occludes is precisely the way contradictory interests cut across all such groupings. Only a dynamic conception of interests – one extending far beyond Graeber’s ‘pursuit of profit’ definition, all the way in fact to his ‘love, spite, pity, torpor’ etc., as mediated by the crudest material need – allows some understanding of the contradictory needs, stakes or exposures intersecting in any subject position and the relations of dependence binding these contradictory elements together.

Nor is attention to interests in any way pessimistic. Graeber is relentlessly hostile to ‘impersonality’, which he finds gestating throughout ‘coin economy’ episodes in world history until it becomes the defining characteristic of ‘capitalist empires’. But he fails to see why the impersonality of interests – and of the classes comprised by them – holds out the only possibility of overcoming intra-class warfare, even as the depth of conflicting dependencies makes the attempt so traumatic. A subject does not belong to its interests in the way a person is imagined (for as long as the superstition holds) to belong to categories of identity: kinship, caste, feudal station, nationality, psychological profile, etc. These latter categories also represent interests with coercive social weight of their own, of course, but once they are recognised as such – or secularised – the spell is broken. An interest bespeaks a relation, a situation, rather than an innate personal attribute. As such it may be contradicted by other relations or interests binding the same subject. And as such, unlike personal properties, it is susceptible to change, repudiation, or, in the language of identity so often superimposed on interests, betrayal.

Repudiation of interests is not a matter of inner conversion but of changing ‘external’ relations, as a consequence of which a subject position composed of interests may change. Again, this is not some outlying Marxist notion. A conception of contingent, interest-bound, internally contradictory subject positions is implied in the Realpolitik practised by the factions administering bits of capital in their dealings with each other and their private discussion of the merely-breathing-and-working class. Identity superstitions are only introduced when the administrators address their inferiors, who are welcome to maul one another in the name of ‘competition’ or ‘community’ but can’t be trusted not to turn a realistic image of contradictory interests into the wrong kind of social explosive.

A collective interest is possible in a way that a collective identity is not, because an interest doesn’t fully account for the bodies involved: it describes one shared relation to the social totality, leaving all other contradictions raging. Solidarity in a collective interest must overpower the contradictory interests of the same subjects if it is not to be destroyed by the contradictions (as, for example, in a strike defeated by the immediate threat to the strikers’ means of survival). Self-betrayal for the sake of collective or expanded self-interest may be merely momentary (as in the ‘gang truce’ reported during last year’s London riots), or otherwise slow, uneven and perpetually reversible (as in the ordeals of class formation through history). Its generalised, irreversible form is as yet unseen: Marx called it the self-abolition of the proletariat.

‘Capitalist empires’ get a dedicated chapter towards the end of the book, followed by a conclusion on the post-Bretton Woods period, somewhat surprisingly partitioned given the multi-millennial perspective. Something new is acknowledged to have happened since a ‘baseline date’ of 1700, but it amounts at most to a radical reshuffling of elements of the earlier ‘cycles of history’. A distinct mode of production would be ‘outside’, as academics like to say, ‘the scope of this study’.

A section of the ‘capitalist empires’ chapter is headed ‘So what is capitalism anyway?, although it’s not quite clear whether the answer on the next page is meant as a general definition or a narrower description of a moment known elsewhere as ‘primitive accumulation’. ‘What we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates – in practical effect – to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods’. Earlier on Graeber dismissed the labour theory of value from Adam Smith onwards in a casual quip. Now it’s spelled out more or less theoretically that the extraction of labour is a secondary consequence of the ‘financial apparatus of credit and debt’: the content of the credit and debt must be something else, even if the apparatus of collection extorts prodigious toil from the indebted. Then there’s the ‘endlessly expanding volume of material goods’: not necessarily untrue, but put that way it sounds more like overabundance of consumer stuff than accumulation of dead labour as capital for reinvestment. Graeber is free of the anti-consumption moralism that usually accompanies the myth of overabundance, but the relation between expansion of ‘material goods’ (as cause) and the pumping of more labour (as effect, then cause again, and so on) remains unexplained.

The expansion of capital is misconstrued again a few pages later when unwaged or incompletely waged labour is named as ‘the secret scandal of capitalism’. (Examples given are chattel slavery, indentured/debt servitude, the truck system4 and informal appropriation in kind; housework is omitted for some reason.) The enormous amount of wageless work converted into capital can probably never be emphasised enough, but the attempt to use it as evidence that capital has never ‘been organised primarily around free labor’ amounts almost to a statement of the opposite. If a social relation ‘organised around’ commodified abstract labour existed only in enclaves of formally free wage work, the incorporation of foreign bodies into capital would be incomprehensible except as a series of discrete miracles, and most of the world would not be capitalist today. Graeber illustrates the ‘secret scandal’ revelation with references to Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, but Linebaugh’s great book is all about the way capital ‘organised around’ formally free labour draws in and feeds on extraneous social practices, with or without full assimilation into the ‘free’ wage system. The idea that the organisation of capital reaches only as far as its formal perfection curiously mirrors the most factory-centric workerism. The scandal of capital’s perpetual unwaged component is much like that of Apple’s failure to build physical computers in an enlarged Palo Alto garage, or a mafia boss who declines to shoot people personally.

None of this means Graeber reduces capitalism to credit and debt as usual. That would be highly unlikely, given that he strongly disapproves of capital but not necessarily of credit. Because inter-personal debt, as every 16th century ‘English or French peasant’ (and since then various ethnographically observed villagers) knew, is what ‘ties communities together’. The ‘origins of capitalism’, in which this communal binding frayed, are located in ‘the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal – and often vindictive – power of the state’. This is not some claim about a ‘statist’ coup: one strength of the book is its insistence throughout on the interdependence of military/state consolidation and private accumulation. In this particular passage, the key words are ‘impersonal’ and ‘intrusion’. Throughout the ‘5,000 years’ of the title, regimes of impersonal coin are said to have alternated with ‘human economies’ of personal credit. But here ‘intrusion’ and ‘conversion’ mean something more like takeover than simple substitution: the cycles of history spin off their axis (or the spokes of the wheels are at least reordered) when the impersonality hitherto associated with instant cash transactions acquires the temporal elasticity and, under new military-state forms, the socially binding power, otherwise assigned to ‘moral networks’ of personal liability.

This impersonality is what qualifies as specifically ‘financial’ the ‘gigantic apparatus of credit and debt’ seen in capital, in contrast to earlier non-cash credit structures. Graeber insists uncontroversially that the financial apparatus chronologically precedes full-scale industrial commodity production. More surprisingly, he finds in this sequence a ‘paradox’ and ‘a genuine challenge to familiar ways of thinking’. Because: ‘We like to think of the factories and workshops as the “real economy”, and the rest as superstructure, constructed on top of it. But if this were really so, then how could it be that the superstructure came first? Can the dreams of the system create its body?’ Apart from caricaturing all talk of capitalist production as dumb base-superstructure dualism, he propounds here a shockingly simplistic theory of history, in which chronological equals ontological priority. If the financial apparatus appears earlier than other phenomena associated with ‘capitalism’, it must contain the latter’s essence. By this logic the truth of capitalism might equally be sought in feudal agriculture, absolute monarchy or the first Atlantic slave-raids, as the book’s own examples show. In fact Graeber’s own account of the persistence and transformation of ‘pre-capitalist’ social forms through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries already almost answers his pseudo-paradox, describing many elements of the historical dialectic his theory rejects, i.e. the way a pre-existing ‘apparatus’ contributes to an emerging mode of production in which that apparatus will itself be changed and messily subordinated.

Some such transformation, anyway, must be implied if the impersonality of cash/interest economies, traced in discrete local episodes back to Babylon, is supposed to have become a World System of impersonality from 1700 onwards. But Graeber’s reticence on the content of the second, ‘gigantic’ impersonality – or his reluctance to acknowledge the capitalisation of labour as more than incidental to the astonishing leap – leads to new kinds of confusion. A brilliant insight into the historical interaction between wage labour and modern slavery (‘most of the scientific management techniques applied in factories in the industrial revolution can be traced back to the sugar plantations’), gives way to speculation on an abstract ‘affinity’: both wage work and slavery are ‘in principle impersonal’. The ‘affinity’, however, is wholly spurious. While waged employment may be called ‘impersonal’ in theory (despite the recent intensification of the drive to deepen or personalise discipline, which goes back at least to Henry Ford), the word applies to chattel slavery only in the context of the slave market. The slave is a fungible commodity with a cash equivalent – like an hour of anybody else’s labour time – in the process of wholesale purchase, transportation, retail sale and any subsequent resale. But the relation between the working slave and the owner who may or may not name, feed and house or rape and kill her is strictly personal: the owner’s absolute legal rights over the slave’s person do not apply to the slave of another, nor does any other proprietor share the same rights over that particular slave. Still less, of course, could one slave slated for torture or for manumission change places with another. The structure of slavery as a function of personal identity is perhaps best explicated in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a work of compressed but violent rage that plays out the legal and logical consequences in full.

Chattel slavery, in fact, perfectly embodies one of two defining features of the ‘human economies’ which Graeber wishes to oppose to ‘commercial economies – or market economies as we now like to call them’. These ‘human economies’ are ‘concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction and rearranging of human beings‘. The plantations of the Old South and the colonial Caribbean miss out on full membership of the set inasmuch as they certainly accumulated wealth (until they began to haemorrhage it), but they stand out as radiantly ‘human’ in their direct practice of ‘the creation, destruction and rearranging’ of living, personal bodies.

The most obvious problem with this second criterion is that it excludes nothing. Graeber doesn’t use the word ‘direct’; he seems simply to believe that some economies ‘create, destroy and rearrange human beings’ while some others, somewhere, do not. (And this latter kind, remember, is supposed to be the norm today.) Of course Graeber is not obliged to accept the definition of the commodity as a form that mediates a relation between humans, but unless he forgot all about it he seems to regard it as beneath his contempt, for in the course of 453 pages it merits not even the kind of glib one-liner bestowed on the labour theory of value.

As for the non-accumulation of wealth, this is not the place to rehearse the case against ‘primitivism’, but it’s telling that Graeber’s examples of human economies, drawing on centuries of ethnographic and historical research, are all shadowed to some extent by the accumulation of poverty. One commonplace is perhaps worth repeating here: the attempt to abolish accumulation in its present form, i.e. that of capital, does not necessarily mean rejection of the social accumulation of use-values, or material ‘wealth’. However much they may enjoy camping, despisers of social accumulation should be careful what they wish for, especially when they wish on others’ behalf.

Graeber doesn’t automatically endorse every economy counted as ‘human’: he admits as soon as he introduces the category that some such systems ‘are quite humane; others extraordinarily brutal’. ‘Human economy’ qualities seem rather to be regarded as necessary but not sufficient for any desirable form of social life. Despite the all-inclusiveness of the ‘creation/destruction/rearranging of human beings’ definition as it’s actually worded, it’s fairly clear what kind of qualities are meant. ‘Codes of honor, trust, and ultimately community and mutual aid’ are identified as ‘typical of human economies’ the last time the terms appears in the book; these elements of sustained interaction between individuals personally known to one another are also essential components of the informal ‘communism’ and finally ‘love’ which the author would rescue from degradation into ‘numbers’ and the ‘morality of debt’.

It should be noted at this late stage that Graeber’s attacks on punitive debt-morality, especially in the concluding chapter, are often more powerful than any number of clumsy forays based on orthodox materialist theories of capital. In what looks at first like a casual aside on student debt, the disastrous fetish of ‘fairness’ – apparently ineradicable on the left in the Britain, where Graeber now lives and works – is properly reassigned to its prison-building role: writing off existing loans would be ‘unfair’ to previous payers to the same extent that ‘it would be “unfair” to a mugging victim not to mug their [sic] neighbors too’. More counter-consensually still, Graeber repudiates the obscene idea that anyone could ever owe a ‘debt to society’ – the slur in which economic and criminal punishment converge – along with its subsidiary monster, ‘our debt to nature’. And here he finds exactly the right words: ‘What could possibly be more presumptuous, or more ridiculous, than to think it would be possible to negotiate with the grounds of one’s existence?’ He ends the book with a slightly timid defence of ‘the non-industrious poor’ (‘at least they aren’t hurting anyone’), in a section called ‘Perhaps [?!] the world really does owe you a living’. These political intentions are consistent throughout, and the welcome rejection of the ‘morality of debt’ is not diminished by the objections belaboured in the present article. Rather, the book is criticised here in order to defend the thread of urgent and rarely stated truth running through it from annexation to a communitarian vision of ‘communism’, or a world whose local ‘networks of honour’ replace crude mathematical debt with acutely personal perpetual bonds.

In a Mute article a few years back, also called Debt, the first 5,000 years, Graeber stood out as a rare leftist writer willing to recognise the one truth Margaret Thatcher ever told: there is no such thing as society.5 In that short article the use of ‘society’ as a euphemism for ‘state’ is slapped down resoundingly, and the feat is repeated in the book in case anyone missed it the first time. But a complication that hardly seemed to matter in the shorter format is more troubling here. While the myth of ‘society’ undoubtedly serves to moralise the police powers of states, it also extends the same morality – i.e. discipline in the name of identity, disavowal of disruptive interests – beyond the reach of the law, deep into informal, everyday material life. At this point (or more often long before it, given the rise of unlegislated, personal policing) the word ‘society’ becomes interchangeable with ‘community’, as in community values, leaders, service, punishment.

Graeber is quite sparing in his use of the actual word ‘community’. Far from concealing or apologising for the patriarchy and coercive violence of particular human/communal economies, he draws attention to these aspects where they occur, distinguishing his argument from a certain kind of uncritical, romantic primitivism. But whether named as such or not, something like ‘community’ is the precondition underlying almost every case of the ‘communistic’ social interaction held up in the book as hopeful or desirable.

‘Communism’, as Graeber uses the term, refers neither to some hypothetical social structure nor to anything like a ‘real movement abolishing the present state of things’. Instead it names a ‘bedrock’ habit of sociable, co-operative personal interaction, including immediate, face-to-face sharing of material things (work tools, a village feast, etc.). This ‘foundation of all human sociability’, which ‘makes society possible’, is overlaid with equally transhistorical structures of ‘exchange’ (defined in terms of ‘impersonality’ and ‘equivalence’, as if one always entailed the other) and ‘hierarchy’ (in which ‘formal equality’ and ‘reciprocity’ are non-existent, and onto which the disasters of identity are conveniently displaced). These ‘baseline’ elements of social life are apparently eternal, or at least continuous through 5,000 years, but the relation between them is treated as something subject to change. Although the book is not set up as a platform for concrete proposals, a broad political problematic emerges early on and is deepened in the course of the trans/historical survey.6 Something like: how can the role of baseline communism in social life be expanded so that it displaces exchange and hierarchy as far as possible?

But alas, the question is unanswerable, because behavioural communism, or communitarianism, cannot, by definition, be expanded. The only example given of ‘communistic’ behaviour between strangers is that of a lighter or cigarette offered by a smoker to a passer-by who asks for it. Even here direct personal contact is required, and this is the absolute lower-limit baseline.

In large, impersonal urban communities, such a standard may go no further than asking for a light or directions.7 This might not seem like much, but it founds the possibility of larger social relations. In smaller, less impersonal communities – especially those not divided into social classes – the same logic will extend much further: for example, it is often effectively impossible to refuse a request not just for tobacco, but for food – sometimes even from a stranger; certainly from anyone considered to belong to the community.

In other words, the more intimate the community relationship, the more communistic the behaviour. Ongoing mutual acquaintance is repeatedly invoked as a prophylactic against exploitation; polite anonymous encounters belong to the world of cash, slavery and war.

Sustained interpersonal intimacy is presented as the condition of ‘communism’ through a series of loaded examples rather than a programmatic statement, but the premise is no less stubbornly clung to for that. The extension of ‘communism’ to a larger-than-local – and therefore necessarily impersonal – scale could surely have been broached if the author saw the question as valid. But wherever the contingencies of the future rather than the cycles of the past are concerned, something like microeconomic fundamentalism ‘from below’ forbids any suprapersonal, universal standpoint. A larger scale is just a lot of relationships between individuals; no other perspective is human enough.

Right from the start, Graeber identifies ‘communism’ with the axiom ‘from each according to their [sic] abilities, to each according to their needs’. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of rhetorical borrowing as such, but there is something crushing in the way the meaning is trivialised, the stakes reduced from total social upheaval to behaviour change in personal encounters. The power of individuals to decide on the taking or giving of anything – according to ability or need or otherwise – remains objectively pitiful all the way up to the wealthiest charity donor. If the logic of ‘need and ability’ is ever to overthrow that of Return On Equity, it must impose itself globally, i.e. far beyond the reach of friendly sociability, and collectively, i.e. impersonally.


The Clinical Wasteman nurses an animus.



1 No, Giambattista Vico is mentioned neither in the text nor in the copious bibliography.

2 Theodor Adorno, ‘Sur l’eau’, Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben, 1951.

3 Christopher Hill, God’s Englishman, Penguin, 1970.

4 Token wages, effectively spendable only in exorbitant and pestilential company stores.

5 David Graeber, ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’, Mute Vol 2 #12, 2009

6 The one exception is a call at the end of the book for a total debt ‘jubilee’, seconding similar, though politically disparate, proposals from Michael Hudson and writers associated with Midnight Notes and later The Commoner. Graeber’s relation to Midnight Notes is ambivalent. In his account of the non-waged component of capital he draws heavily on Peter Linebaugh’s book and on other (uncredited) work by the collective, but a mean-spirited footnote chides them for an ‘economistic’ fixation on the reproduction of labour power, missing the point that they are talking about something specific to capital, even if he is not.

7 The reference to ‘directions’ pertains not to a second case of inter-stranger communism, but to an incident in which the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard was given false directions by Nuer pastoralists in southern Sudan, for the very good reason that he was an agent of the British government.