Book: Debt

Feb. 1st, 2013 12:10 pm
liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
[personal profile] liv
Author: David Graeber

Details: (c) 2011-12 David Graeber; Pub Melville House 2012; ISBN 978-1-61219-181-2

Verdict: Debt: the first 5000 years is readable and informative, though not wholly convincing.

Reasons for reading it: I've seen various references to it in online discussions and it sounded interesting.

How it came into my hands: Birthday present from my most excellent brother.

Graeber is an anarchist anthropology professor, apparently; I expected to find his political views annoying, but I also think it's good for me to read arguments by thoughtful, scholarly people with very different politics to mine. And in fact I found some of Graeber's arguments worth considering; I think reading the book has probably shifted my opinions to some extent.

I found the book very easy to read, in spite of being very long and sustaining more or less a single thread of argument over 400 pages. Graeber has a lively, engaging style, and a lot of the examples he brings to support his case work well as just fun pop-anthropology anecdotes. I admit I'm a complete sucker for stories of how different societies organize themselves and how human beings behave, especially non-WEIRD ones. I appreciated Graeber's attempt at a very broad synthesis of all of human history and at least a creditable effort at a non-eurocentric view. I mean, obviously he doesn't actually cover literally all of world history for 5000 years, but at least he gives a sensible level of prominence to China and India and has useful material about pre-colonial Africa and the Americas which doesn't assume that everybody was "primitive" until the Europeans came along. As he gets into the early Mediaeval era I definitely liked his take that what later became the "West" was predominantly a Muslim empire, with weird little bits of Christendom tacked on at the far western edge with very little influence until really very late in history. And I think his anthropologist's read of the Bible in the historical context of the ancient Near East is very good.

As you might expect from popular writing with a very broad scope, Graeber gets a lot of the details wrong when he talks about subjects I happen to know something about. I wasn't horribly offended by this, though; I think there is value in synthesis, and some of the topics Graeber covers I didn't even know existed as possible topics I could read more specialist accounts of! In this respect Debt reminds me very much of Diamond's infamous Guns, germs and steel; Graeber clearly has an agenda, and takes a really huge canvas, while being very fluent and capable of sounding convincing if the topic is completely new to you, but is liable to annoy a more knowledgeable reader. I appreciated Graeber's habit of noting when he's summarizing the scholarly consensus versus when he's taking a non-standard angle on something, but at the same time I don't have any way of knowing what evidence he left out altogether because it didn't suit his argument.

Partly because of this, I was less interested in the material towards the end that covers post-Enlightenment northern European / American culture. I mean, that's the one aspect of the book that I already know something about, because most of my education and lots of popular culture just assumes that that's the important bit of history! Graeber very reasonably confines most of his direct polemic to the final chapter, which is pretty much a manifesto for the Occupy movement he is heavily involved in. I'm broadly in favour of some of the Occupy stuff, but Graeber and others have already been successful about getting some of those ideas out into the public arena (apparently he invented the we are the 99% slogan), so it didn't come across as particularly new. And I didn't find the arguments particularly more convincing in the light of the more factual sections of the book.

There wasn't as much that really irritated me as I might have expected from Graeber's author bio. I think that's partly because over the years I've become more left wing than I think I am, influenced by hanging out with much leftier people. But also because Graeber makes a pretty moderate case, he is wily enough to know that his readers aren't likely to be sympathetic to outright anarchism. He comes very close to asserting that in a capitalist society all employees are effectively wage-slaves, which I don't have much time for, it's like trying to convince me that sex with men is always rape under a patriarchy. The other thing that was a constant niggle throughout the book is that Graeber writes all the time as if there are default humans and sometimes you have to consider the ways that women are different from normal people. I mean, when he remembers that women exist at all, he's against sexist discrimination, but I found it irritating the way he does things like exhorting his presumed male reader to exercise a miraculous feat of empathy to imagine the situation of such an exotic creature as a woman in a given presumed male social context.

In some ways Debt is as much a history of slavery as it is a history of debt. I don't know if Graeber is right, but I felt he provided a useful framework for thinking about how the Atlantic slave-trade fits in to a more global historical context, and also how it's unpredecented and uniquely evil.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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