Tag Archives: david graeber

Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years — Crooked Timber

25 Feb

In his magisterial Debt: The First 5000 Years David Graeber mentions numerous debt jubilees in the ancient world, always with the qualification that it is individual debt that is forgiven, not commercial debt. This is a review the examines that point.

So it is noticeable that the concept of “too big to fail” has grown up hand in hand with the concept of the debt relation for the entire traceable history of debt. Although the parallel track of debt as obligation, religion and morality has certainly been there, and is described expertly in the book, from day one it has been recognised among merchants and men of commerce that the point of the debt relation is to serve the organisation and arrangement of commercial need.

To my mind, this fact rather colours one of the central theses of Debt – the idea that debt has from its origins been entwined with slavery, military tribute and imperialism. I’d advance the suggestion that of course the first people to start codifying the debt relation were the first emperors and rulers; they were the first people who ever came across the problem of organising a productive economy larger than a small village or subsistence farming community. The fact that debt has its origins in the creation of tax-collecting, military societies seems to me to be equivalent to the fact that NASA invented Teflon – they had to do it, in order to solve the problems put in front of them.

via Too Big To Fail: The First 5000 Years — Crooked Timber.

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

23 Feb

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

As I’ve all ready noted, Crooked Timber is running a symposium on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years. Contributions so far:

All are worth reading, as are many of the comments. I’ll end with the last paragraph from Bertram’s introduction:

Does Graeber find in utopian and democratic resistance to the Axial empires an historic precedent for the Occupy movement to emulate? Perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” and the democratic instincts that persist even in the heart of modern capitalism. The anarchist writer Colin Ward used a phrase from Ignazio Silone – “the seed beneath the snow” – to make a similar idea vivid. We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.

Sounds a bit like a plug for the Transition Movement, which originated in England and has since spread around the world.

The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

13 Feb

And Its Application to the Current Mortgage Disaster

I’ve been reading David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. In the chapter, “Cruelty and Redemption,” he recounts the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35). As an exercise you might want to read the story as one about the recent mortgage mess in the United States. In this version the king is the Federal Government and the first servant, the unforgiving one, corresponds to the investment bankers who sold those bought, packaged, and sold risky mortgages as fancy derivative instruments. The second servant, then, would be all those homeowners to took out those risky mortgages and are now losing their homes. In this reading, there’s lots more work to be done to fill out the Biblical model.

Here’s the parable as it’s quoted from the World English Bible in the Wikipedia, which also has some useful interpretive remarks:

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?”

Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven. Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king, who wanted to reconcile accounts with his servants. When he had begun to reconcile, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.

“But that servant went out, and found one of his fellow servants, who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him, and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’

“So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ He would not, but went and cast him into prison, until he should pay back that which was due. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told to their lord all that was done. Then his lord called him in, and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt, because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him. So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”