Addendum on Graeber’s Debt

»It is pro­bable that the majo­rity of the dif­fi­cul­ties of con­tem­porary eth­no­logy and anthro­po­logy arise from their approa­ching the ›facts‹, the ›givens‹ of (descrip­tive) eth­no­gra­phy, wit­hout taking the theo­re­ti­cal pre­cau­tion of con­struc­ting the con­cept of their object: this omis­sion com­mits them to pro­jec­ting on to rea­lity the cate­go­ries which define the eco­no­mic for them in prac­tice, i.e., the cate­go­ries of the eco­no­mics of con­tem­porary society, which to make mat­ters worse, are often them­sel­ves empi­ri­cist. This is enough to mul­ti­ply apo­ria.« (Althusser/Balibar, Rea­ding Capi­tal)

»The habit of always say­ing ›please‹ and ›thank you‹ first began to take hold during the com­mer­cial revo­lu­tion of the six­teenth and seven­teenth cen­tu­rie­sa­mong those very middle clas­ses who were lar­gely responsi­ble for it. It is the lan­guage of bure­aus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hund­red years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much lar­ger phi­lo­so­phy, a set of assump­ti­ons of what humans are and what they owe one ano­ther, that have by now become so deeply ingrai­ned that we can­not see them .« (Gra­eber 2011, 124)

David Gra­eber pres­ents his book »Inside Occupy« / CC-Lizenz/Tine Nowak

I had alre­ady writ­ten an adden­dum for the Ger­man ver­sion of the review I wrote of David Graeber’s Debt for the news­pa­per ak – ana­lyse und kri­tik. Some points had only been tou­ched upon; in the case of others, my intent was known only to those fami­liar with cer­tain deba­tes (allu­ded to bet­ween the lines). For that rea­son, I wrote a short, sum­mary adden­dum.1 For this trans­la­tion, I have revi­sed the adden­dum, in order to more pre­ci­sely address some points after David Gra­eber hea­vily cri­ti­ci­zed me for my review. The hea­ted reac­tion, also from and toward other indi­vi­du­als, was and is dis­tur­bing for me and can hardly be attri­bu­ted to dif­fe­ren­ces con­cerning mat­ters of sub­stance. It’s also pro­bably not a mere coin­ci­dence that only men had their say. Also, a stac­cato in 140-character tweets and com­men­tary at various pla­ces on the Inter­net (instead of where the text ori­gi­nally appeared) were not very encou­ra­ging for a mea­ningful debate based upon mutual under­stan­ding. In the mean­time, the debate on Graeber’s debt has advan­ced. A very inten­sive dis­cus­sion is still going on, for example with regard to Mike Beggs‹ review in Jaco­bin maga­zine and on the blog Crooked Tim­ber. Unfor­t­u­na­tely, I was not able to take any new aspects or argu­ments ari­sing from this dis­cus­sion into consideration.

Just one more preli­mi­nary note, since the battle lines of »Mar­xist« vs. »Anar­chist« were all too quickly drawn. Many points of my cri­ti­que of the con­cep­tual and theo­re­ti­cal approach of Debt also apply to the his­to­ri­cal work of Mar­xists. In their case, the forces of pro­duc­tion or class struggle are the trans-historical con­stants. For that rea­son, they are also »ahis­to­ri­cal«, des­pite their his­to­ri­cal self-conception. More on that shortly.

For these rea­sons, and in the hope for bet­ter under­stan­ding, I have reques­ted that the adden­dum also be trans­la­ted. So I’d like to here say »many thanks«.

The debate around my cri­ti­que of Graeber’s book led ine­vi­ta­bly away from the book its­elf to an under­stan­ding of how the theo­re­ti­cal and metho­do­lo­gi­cal pre­con­di­ti­ons look. A dif­fe­rent under­stan­ding of Marx will also be evi­dent, for example on the basis of the refe­ren­ces in the Grund­risse to history and con­cep­tual pre­sen­ta­tion and ana­ly­sis. Marx argues in the so-called »chap­ter on method«: the popu­la­tion is an abstrac­tion, alt­hough it appears to be some­thing con­crete, if one does not speak of the clas­ses of which it is com­pri­sed. Howe­ver, these clas­ses are also an »empty phrase« (Marx) if one does not name the ele­ments upon which they are based. Against this back­ground, Marx even asserts that »labor« is a modern cate­gory, because it expres­ses indif­fe­rence against a par­ti­cu­lar type of labor. To put it more poin­tedly: one can­not say that »labor« occur­red in pre-capitalist socie­ties, this is inex­act or incor­rect. Rather, car­pen­try, for­ging, etc. occurred.

»This example of labour shows strikin­gly how even the most abstract cate­go­ries, des­pite their validity—precisely because of their abstractness—for all epochs, are nevert­he­l­ess, in the spe­ci­fic cha­rac­ter of this abstrac­tion, them­sel­ves like­wise a pro­duct of his­to­ric rela­ti­ons, and pos­sess their full vali­dity only for and wit­hin these rela­ti­ons.« (Marx, Grund­risse, 105)

Terms like popu­la­tion, class, or even money and credit, are the­re­fore only con­cre­tely deter­mined if they have been theo­re­ti­cally pene­tra­ted as expres­si­ons of mul­ti­ple deter­mi­na­ti­ons and rela­ti­onships. That’s import­ant to Marx because other­wise the his­to­ri­cal spe­ci­fi­city of capi­ta­list rela­ti­ons is pro­jec­ted onto the past, and only the rela­ti­ons of modern capi­ta­lism are per­cei­ved there. Thus Adam Smith per­cei­ves the human »pro­pen­sity to truck, bar­ter, and exch­ange« ever­y­where in history (or Mar­xists always per­ceive the deve­lop­ment of the forces of pro­duc­tion and class struggle). But exch­ange is not a basic human need; rather, it is a form of social inter­course which is the expres­sion and result of the reign of the capi­ta­list mode of production.

Marx gene­ra­li­zes this metho­do­lo­gi­cal approach in that he points out that »bour­geois eco­nomy thus supplies the key to the anci­ent, etc.«, and that »one can under­stand tri­bute, tithe, etc., if one is acquain­ted with ground rent. But one must not iden­tify them.« Against this back­ground, it makes sense to say that money is not sim­ply money, but rather that it has spe­ci­fic his­to­ri­cal and social pre­con­di­ti­ons. That is not scho­las­ti­cism, of which Gra­eber accu­ses me, but rather the attempt to anchor the wri­t­ing of history in terms of social theory.

My cri­ti­cism that Graeber’s approach is »ahis­to­ri­cal« should be under­s­tood in this con­text. Of course Debt is a his­to­ri­cal book. It is ahis­to­ri­cal in the sense that it pro­claims a social rela­ti­onship (pro­mise) in its abstrac­tion to be a trans­his­to­ri­cal pheno­me­non, its his­to­ri­cally dis­tinct gui­ses are only descri­bed, not ana­ly­zed. A break only seems to occur with money. With money, pro­mi­ses become trans­fe­ra­ble and impersonal.

Now to deal with two points in which the dif­fe­rence might be made clea­rer with the help of the his­to­ri­cal material.

Gra­eber con­cen­tra­tes upon a clas­si­cal ques­tion of poli­ti­cal eco­nomy: what is money? He shar­ply cri­ti­ci­zes the main­stream and in the first part of the book he cri­ti­cally picks apart eco­no­mic theory – justi­fia­bly so. Main­stream eco­no­mics usually pro­ceeds from the assump­tion of unhis­to­ri­cal and fic­tio­nal socie­ties in which people pur­sue their natu­ral incli­na­ti­ons, among which is their »pro­pen­sity to truck, bar­ter, and exch­ange.« Gra­eber cor­rectly cri­ti­ci­zes that eco­no­mics text­books always begin with bar­ter, a sim­ple exch­ange of pro­ducts wit­hout money.2 In his argu­ment, Gra­eber dis­cus­ses Smith, Men­ger, Jevons, Keynes, Knapp, Samu­el­son, Aris­totle, and Agli­etta, among others.

The per­son that Gra­eber doesn’t cri­ti­cize or dis­cuss at the begin­ning is Marx, even though the lat­ter also begins with com­mo­dity exch­ange – or so one would think. And it is exactly here that Graeber’s fun­da­men­tal pro­blem beco­mes appa­rent. He amas­ses a lot of his­to­ri­cal and anthro­po­lo­gi­cal mate­rial, but does not pene­trate it theo­re­ti­cally and con­cep­tually. To do so requi­res a theory of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion, cri­te­ria for what cha­rac­te­ri­zes capi­ta­lism – an ana­ly­sis and cri­ti­que of social form.

It is pre­ci­sely such an ana­ly­sis and cri­ti­que that Marx for­mu­la­tes in Capi­tal, where at the begin­ning, by means of a con­cep­tual con­struc­tion of a rela­ti­onship bet­ween com­mo­di­ties, that com­mo­di­ties can first be rela­ted to one ano­ther as values by means of money.3 It is money that allows a uni­ver­sally valid, social rela­ti­onship bet­ween dif­fe­rent acts of commodity-producing labor. It is money that con­sti­tu­tes the total labor of society wit­hin the con­text of a society of inde­pen­dent pri­vate pro­du­cers. Marx con­ti­nues this ana­ly­sis not only to trace the con­sti­tu­tive rela­ti­onship bet­ween com­mo­dity and money, but also in order to arrive at fur­ther cate­go­ries (among others, capi­tal, inte­rest, etc.).

This sys­te­ma­tic approach makes it pos­si­ble for Marx to dis­tin­gu­ish bet­ween the rela­ti­onship of eco­no­mic cate­go­ries wit­hin the frame­work of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion on the one hand and in history on the other.4 Marx empha­si­zes a num­ber of times that the his­to­ri­cal sequence (or appearance) of cate­go­ries does not coin­cide with their rela­ti­onship to one ano­ther wit­hin capi­ta­lism. This ana­ly­sis and cri­ti­que of cate­go­ries makes it pos­si­ble to reconstruct the his­to­ri­cal pro­cess of the con­sti­tu­tion of capi­ta­lism and to point out dif­fe­ren­ces bet­ween social for­ma­ti­ons. This can be more exactly demons­tra­ted by means of a few points.

The Mar­ket and the Emer­gence of Capitalism

The his­to­rian Ellen Meiksins Wood (1999) demons­tra­tes (with refe­rence to the so-called Bren­ner debate on the his­to­ri­cal emer­gence of capi­ta­lism) that the logic of capi­ta­lism deve­l­o­ped in the English coun­try­side, as an eco­no­mic impe­ra­tive emer­ged from the mere pos­si­bi­lity of the mar­ket. Even before the final expro­pria­tion of the direct pro­du­cers, as descri­bed by Marx in Capi­tal, the increase in the pro­duc­tivity of labor (and the­re­fore of com­pe­ti­tiv­en­ess) became for the pro­du­cers as well as for land­lords more import­ant than forms of »poli­ti­cal exploi­ta­tion«, mea­ning the extrac­tion of sur­plus labor by means of direct force.5 Eco­no­mic forms, such as com­pe­ti­tion, incre­a­sin­gly came to domi­nate the non-economic ones and initia­ted a dyna­mic of growth that ulti­mately dis­pla­ced many small pro­du­cers and thus freed up pro­du­cers. This was con­sum­ma­ted against the back­ground of the spe­ci­fic con­di­ti­ons in England.

Other aut­hors have shown in turn that it was first the pres­sure of eco­no­mic com­pe­ti­tion from Eng­land that impo­sed the capi­ta­list logic upon other coun­tries.6 Neit­her mass pro­duc­tion for sta­tes waging war, nor expan­ding trade (in the Ita­lian city-states or later Hol­land) were decisive for the impo­si­tion of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion.7 This is also the case for pre-industrial mass pro­duc­tion, mea­ning the material-organizational side of work orga­niza­tion, which Gra­eber alre­ady iden­ti­fies with capi­tal. More on that in a moment.

The State and War

Gra­eber does not tell any any false or non­sen­si­cal sto­ries. That can be seen in the example of the role of money in con­nec­tion with the emer­gence of armies of mer­ce­na­ries. Rather, the his­to­ri­cal mate­rial pre­sen­ted by Gra­eber rai­ses the ques­tion of how history should be examined, and what con­clu­si­ons can be drawn from the exam­ples.8 Marx also asserts the con­nec­tion bet­ween money and mer­cenary armies cited by Gra­eber. His fri­end Fried­rich Engels wrote the entry for the word »Army« in 1857 for the The New Ame­ri­can Cyclopæ­dia, and sent Marx a copy. After rea­ding it, Marx wrote to Engels (Sep­tem­ber 29th, 1857):

»… the history of the army demons­tra­tes the right­ness of our views as to the con­nec­tion bet­ween the pro­duc­tive forces and social rela­ti­ons. Alto­ge­ther, the army is of import­ance in eco­no­mic deve­lop­ment. E.g. it was in the army of Anti­quity that the salaire [wages] was first fully deve­l­o­ped. Like­wise the pecu­lium cast­rense in Rome, the first legal form accor­ding reco­gni­tion to the movable pro­perty of others than fathers of fami­lies. Like­wise the guild sys­tem in the cor­po­ra­tion of the fabri. Here too the first use of machi­nery on a large scale. Even the spe­cial value of metals and their use as money would seem to have been based ori­gi­nally […] on their signi­fi­cance in war. Again, the divi­sion of labour wit­hin a branch was first put into prac­tice by armies. All this, more­over, a very striking epi­tome of the whole history of civil socie­ties. If you ever have the time, you might work the thing out from that point of view.« (MECW 40, 186)9

So even before Wer­ner Som­bart (1913) and Gra­eber, these his­to­ri­cal facts were known to Marx. But what do they mean theo­re­ti­cally and ana­lyti­cally and for the ques­tion (con­cerning social domi­na­tion) of the capi­ta­list mode of production?

Alt­hough the mili­tary and mer­ce­na­ries brought forth many ele­ments of the later bour­geois society, these ele­ments are not a suf­fi­ci­ent rea­son for the fact that the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion could impose its­elf as the domi­nant mode of pro­duc­tion. Nor do they, as indi­vi­dual pheno­mena (or in total) con­sti­tute ele­ments of capi­ta­lism.10

Marx exp­li­ca­ted this idea in a let­ter to Otjet­schest­wen­nyje Sapi­ski, in which he points out that the for­merly free peasants of Rome (Ple­be­ans) were con­fron­ted with (after the expro­pria­tion of their means of pro­duc­tion and sub­sis­tence) a newly emer­ged lan­ded pro­perty and large money for­tu­nes. »Thus it appears that the para­dig­ma­tic situa­tion has been crea­ted which in Wes­tern Europe led to the his­to­ri­cal con­sti­tu­tion of the spe­ci­fic rela­ti­ons of wage-labor and capi­tal« (Wolf 2006: 172).11 And yet, the »Roman pro­le­ta­ri­ans became, not wage labou­rers but a mob of do-nothings« and the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion was unable to impose its­elf.12 The rea­son was not the state of the pro­duc­tive forces, but rather the dif­fe­rent his­to­ri­cal milieus (environ­ments), which des­pite simi­la­ri­ties led to com­ple­tely dis­tinct deve­lop­ments (ibid.).

A fur­ther example would be the Athens of the 5th Cent­ury [BC], where The­tes mana­ged to avoid com­plete wage-dependency »through the demo­cra­tic impo­si­tion of their public assis­tance with daily allo­wan­ces and work assi­gn­ments«. Or China, where the bureau­cracy preven­ted a situa­tion where land­less peasants con­fron­ted exploi­ta­tive capi­tals (Lorenz 1977: 67f. u. 70ff.)

Against this back­ground, it can be esta­blis­hed that it is not suf­fi­ci­ent to assert that cer­tain pheno­mena (such as money, indus­trial pro­duc­tion, credit, etc.) alre­ady exis­ted »ear­lier«. What is decisive is rather how their rela­ti­onship to one ano­ther is con­sti­tu­ted, whe­ther this rela­ti­onship is gene­ra­ted by the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion, and which spe­ci­fic form these pheno­mena have accor­din­gly assu­med. That is ulti­mately the pre­con­di­ton for a situa­tion in which pro­fit (as the imme­diate aim of pro­duc­tion) impo­ses a dyna­mic and rela­ti­ons that can be descri­bed as capi­ta­list. Pre­ci­sely if one wis­hes to learn from history whe­ther and how there can be a life after capi­ta­lism, the ques­tion of how one regards the pre-history of capi­ta­lism is not at all irrelevant.

The Worker Free in a Dou­ble Sense

Gra­eber empha­si­zes par­ti­cu­larly that the worker free in a dou­ble sense only plays a domi­nant role in Marx’s »as if« theory – as oppo­sed to rea­lity. Of course rea­lity is dif­fe­rent, since Marx’s object in Capi­tal is not empi­ri­cal rea­lity any­more than it is the English capi­ta­lism of the 19th Cen­tury. Michael Hein­rich wri­tes:

»What Marx depicts in Capi­tal are the capi­ta­listic aspects of capi­ta­lism, that is, that what dif­fe­ren­tia­tes this mode of pro­duc­tion from all pre-capitalist modes of pro­duc­tion. One of these is that exploi­ta­tion can be brought off wit­hout a direct rela­ti­onship of force having to exist bet­ween those who exploit and those who are exploi­ted. Force can con­fine its­elf to the ›force wit­hout a sub­ject‹ (cf. Heide Gers­ten­ber­ger 2007) of the bour­geois state, which forces bour­geoi­sie as well as pro­le­ta­riat to obey the same rules: every per­son is free and equal, pro­perty is secu­red, the usual form of asso­cia­tion is the con­tract, and a failure to observe it is threa­tened with sanc­tions. Rela­ti­ons of exploi­ta­tion bet­ween unequal par­ties and exploi­ta­tion of the non-free exist in all pre-capitalist modes of pro­duc­tion. But the fact that there is no necessary con­tra­dic­tion bet­ween per­so­nal free­dom and juri­di­cal equa­lity on the one hand and exploi­ta­tion on the other is prin­ci­pally new. But his­to­ri­cal capi­ta­lism does not coin­cide with this ideal aver­age, and is rather an agglo­me­ra­tion of capi­ta­listic and non-capitalistic ele­ments. But in order to ana­lyze these con­nec­tions, rather than merely describe them, one must have a con­cept of that which is ›capi­ta­listic.‹«13

For Marx, wage-labor is the gene­ra­liza­tion of sla­very in the form of the com­pul­sion to labor – wage-labor. This is a deper­so­na­li­zed com­pul­sion, which at the same time gene­ra­tes a spe­ci­fic appearance of free­dom, but not in the sense of »ideo­logy« as Gra­eber wri­tes. The con­trast bet­ween free and unfree labor mis­ses the point of Marx’s inten­tion of working out the form of exploi­ta­tion, and is its­elf the result of the impo­si­tion of wage-labor as the hege­mo­nic form of exploi­ta­tion. Cli­ni­cal Was­teman also points this out in a review of Graeber’s Debt in the maga­zine Mute:

»Gra­eber illus­tra­tes the ›secret scan­dal‹ [the exis­tence of unfree labor] 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.«14

In her book Hegel, Haiti, and Uni­ver­sal History, Susan Buck-Morss takes up this ques­tion and agrees with Linebaugh/Redeker (The Many-Headed Hydra) and David Brion Davis (The Pro­blem of Sla­very in the Age of Revo­lu­tion). The act of dis­tan­cing from unfree labor was con­sti­tu­tive for the eta­blish­ment of wage-labor and amoun­ted to a defeat for the workers‹ movement.

Cri­ti­ci­zing Marx for neglec­ting »unfree« labor mis­ses the point. In Capi­tal, he demons­tra­tes how fluidly and chan­ge­able the various forms of exploi­tai­ton shade into one ano­ther: the ens­la­ve­ment of child­ren, the use of patri­ar­chal vio­lence for women’s labor, etc.

Wage labor mana­ges to give forced labor a hege­mo­nic form – which is demons­tra­ted in the case of the slave upri­sings (above all in Haiti), and which cau­sed Eng­land, in its drive for hege­mony, to become a »cham­pion« for the for­mal aboli­tion of sla­very, for eco­no­mic rea­sons among others.

With the impo­si­tion of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion and wage-labor, sla­very also under­gos a meta­mor­pho­sis.15 It obtains a new role from the domi­na­tion of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion. The domi­nance of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion leads to a new pat­tern of legi­ti­ma­tion (accom­pa­nied by a change in the nature of racism) and poli­ti­cal and eco­no­mic repro­duc­tion of unfree labor. This is again demons­tra­ted early on in Saint Dom­ingue (present-day Haiti) , where more than 3/4ths of food­stuffs were not cul­ti­va­ted by the sla­ves them­sel­ves, but impor­ted as com­mo­di­ties from France. In clas­si­cal anti­quity, sla­ves still pro­vi­ded for their own repro­duc­tion. The asser­tion that unfree labor remains domi­nant blinds one to the new con­fi­gu­ra­tion of social rela­ti­ons of domi­na­tion and exploitation.

Good Old Money

Money is also not always »money« in all socie­ties, and does not always assume a con­sti­tu­tive role for society or the socie­tal divi­sion of labor to the same extent. The his­to­rian Jac­ques Le Goff demons­tra­tes this in an exem­plary way with regard to the Middle Ages. The éminence grise of Medi­eval rese­arch empha­si­zes that until the Middle Ages, there was no »no uni­fied term« for money. Yet exactly that is what Gra­eber sug­gests. He thus pro­jects a modern con­cep­tion of money into the past, and thus flat­tens out dif­fe­ren­ces and distinctions.

»Money was a rea­lity with which the society of the Middle Ages incre­a­sin­gly had to reckon, and which began to take on the forms uni­que to it in moder­nity, but the people the of the Middle Ages, inclu­ding the mer­chants, cle­rics, and theo­lo­gists, never had a clear, uni­fied con­cep­tion of what we under­stand today by this term.«

But if money as a social rea­lity and as a uni­fied con­cept can­not be »applied« to pre-capitalist socie­ties, the same must be valid for credit, which is Graeber’s most import­ant con­cept. And it is against this back­ground that Graeber’s cen­tral the­sis begins to crum­ble, namely, the idea that credit pre­ceeds money.

Bor­ro­wing, Len­ding, and Credit

Graeber’s the­sis that credit rela­ti­ons are prior to money also con­tra­dicts the eco­no­mic his­to­rian dis­cus­sed by Gra­eber, Karl Polanyi. Money can first become a means of pay­ment, mea­ning a pro­mise of pay­ment (credit), when it is gene­rally accep­ted as a means of exch­ange (183). Money must be able to con­clude a pro­mise to pay. A »status-free money« is requi­red for this. What does that mean? Only when »money« does not fol­low the logic and struc­ture of a society pre­di­ca­ted upon per­so­nal rela­ti­onships of domi­na­tion and depen­dency can we speak of money in the modern sense, which expres­ses a spe­ci­fic social qua­lity.16

This is where Polanyi meets Marx. A quan­ti­fi­ca­tion (through money) has to have an under­ly­ing com­mon qua­lity. This com­mon, that is to say, uni­fied social qua­lity first exists only with the domi­nance of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion. It is com­mo­dity pro­duc­tion that first equa­tes all human labor, and only in com­mo­dity pro­duc­tion do they count as soci­ally equal – money media­tes this equa­liza­tion and is at the same time its objec­tive expres­sion. In turn, the pre­con­di­tion for this is the »labor free in a dou­ble sense« of wage-labor, which is sub­su­med to the com­mand of capi­tal.17

This is also why credit in pre-capitalist socie­ties can­not sim­ply be equa­ted with capi­ta­list credit.18 Accor­ding to Polanyi, in pre-capitalist socie­ties »obli­ga­ti­ons are as a rule, spe­ci­fic, and their ful­fill­ment is a qua­li­ta­tive affair, thus lacking an essen­tial of pay­ment – its quan­ti­ta­tive character.«

Polanyi con­ti­nues:

»Infrin­ge­ment of sacral and social obli­ga­ti­ons, whe­ther toward god, tribe, kin, totem, vil­lage, age-group, caste, or guild, is repai­red not through pay­ment but by action of the right qua­lity. Woo­ing, mar­ry­ing, avo­iding, dancing, sin­ging, dres­sing, feas­ting, lamen­ting, lace­ra­ting, or even kil­ling one­self may occur in disch­arge of an obli­ga­tion, but they are not for that rea­son payments.«

So a social obli­ga­tion is not credit, and even credit is not credit. Marx also worked this out in the Grund­risse: »There was bor­ro­wing and len­ding in ear­lier situa­ti­ons as well, and usury is even the oldest of the ante­di­lu­vian forms of capi­tal. But bor­ro­wing and len­ding no more con­sti­tute credit than working con­sti­tu­tes indus­trial labour or free wage labour.« What does Marx mean by this? Just as manu­fac­tu­ring or indus­tri­ally orga­ni­zed labor, or the divi­sion of labor, does not esta­blish or assume free wage-labor and thus the capi­ta­list logic and form of pro­duc­tion, bor­ro­wing and len­ding also do not equal credit.19

Now What?

Graeber’s book has hit like a bomb – espe­cially in Ger­many. Accor­ding to Gra­eber, the English-language ori­gi­nal sold 60,000 copies bet­ween July 2011 and May 2012. The Ger­man trans­la­tion alre­ady sold 30,000 copies in its first week and has had its seventh prin­ting alre­ady. In 2012 alone, four books by Gra­eber were trans­la­ted into German.

The Ger­man press is beside its­elf.20 The only per­son to beat up on Graeber’s book so far has been Rai­ner Hank in the Frank­fur­ter All­ge­meine Sonn­tags­zei­tung of May 13th, 2012.21 Nobody has yet defea­ted Adam Smith, accor­ding to Hank. This con­fi­dent tone shows one thing above all: the bour­geois class in its self-confidence infor­med by neo­clas­si­cal eco­no­mics, does not see its­elf as being cal­led into ques­tion. After all, Marx was not the last to cri­ti­cize Smith’s theory and pre­mi­ses.22 Hank’s review is cute pri­ma­rily because it does not leave out a sin­gle cli­ché of bour­geois phrase-mongering: humans are cha­rac­te­ri­zed by a natu­ral ten­dency to truck, bar­ter, and exch­ange, they are sel­fish, and money was deve­l­o­ped as a means of sim­pli­fy­ing bar­ter.23

After Graeber’s book was not only repea­tedly dis­cus­sed in the FAZ, but an excerpt was even prin­ted, Frank had to leave an odor mark: he accu­ses Gra­eber of a »hat­red for credi­tors«; he attacks the left anthro­po­lo­gist, but his actual tar­get is the radi­cal left in Greece around Alexis Tsi­pras. Gra­eber sup­po­sedly instru­men­ta­li­zes his »sour­ces ideo­lo­gi­cally (in the ser­vice of a world­view) and not in a scho­larly man­ner« accor­ding to Hank.24

In the lef­tist weekly Frei­tag, Stef­fen Vogel sees things dif­fer­ently: Graeber’s book »is the enligh­te­n­ing as well as enga­ged book of a poli­ti­cal thin­ker as well as the pain­sta­kin­gly docu­men­ted work of a scho­lar who takes the his­to­ri­cal bird’s-eye view, in order to shed light upon urgent con­tem­porary pro­blems.« Oh, how opi­ni­ons con­cerning »scho­lar­ship« can diverge.

Also in Frei­tag, Flo­rian Schmid even sees »the front con­dem­ning all radi­cal lef­tist posi­ti­ons« slowly crum­bling. Whoever reads an arti­cle by Graeber’s »teacher« Michael Hud­son (also publis­hed in the FAZ) nonethe­l­ess has a sus­pi­cion of what this debate actually expres­ses – a con­flict con­cerning how capi­ta­lism should and can be re-regulated – an effect that Gra­eber surely did not intend. That has less to do with the fact that bour­geois forces are beco­m­ing anti-capitalist or have sud­denly dis­co­vered an affi­nity with com­mu­nist ideas. Rather, they are enga­ging in a pro­cess of dis­cus­sion among them­sel­ves, as a bour­geois class, con­cerning how capi­ta­lism can have a future.25 This con­flict has been con­duc­ted openly in the pages of the FAZ its­elf for months – in the eco­no­mic sec­tion and the life­style sec­tion. The left has not­hing to gain from this con­flict if it does not its­elf seek a cri­ti­cal enga­ge­ment with cri­tics of capi­ta­lism like Gra­eber who have been ele­va­ted by bour­geois forces to pop-star sta­tus. The left has to come to an under­stan­ding of where things are going and what a con­tem­porary cri­ti­que of capi­ta­lism should look like. The life­style sec­tion of the FAZ won’t per­form this task for us.

That does not mean Graeber’s book should be put aside. Quite the oppo­site. It means cri­ti­cally appro­pria­ting Gra­eber for a left debate con­cerning debt and capi­ta­lism. When the bour­geoi­sie dis­cus­ses Graeber’s book, it has dif­fe­rent ques­ti­ons than the left, which wants to abolish bour­geois rule. Howe­ver, a cri­ti­cal appro­pria­tion also means arguing with and about Graeber’s book, con­cerning what »rule« means and what the rule of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion means. It is pre­ci­sely the spe­ci­fi­city of capi­ta­list rule and its forms that makes resis­tance and enligh­ten­ment so dif­fi­cult. Under­stan­ding this domi­na­tion is a pre­con­di­tion for cri­ti­ci­zing it, and this is not accom­plis­hed by refe­ren­ces to the long history of the human community.


- Bran­don, Pepijn (2011): Mar­xism and the ›Dutch Mira­cle‹: The Dutch Repu­blic and the Transition-Debate, in: His­to­ri­cal Mate­ria­lism, 19.Jg., H.3, 106–146.
– Com­ni­nel, Georg C. (1987): Rethin­king the French Revo­lu­tion. Mar­xism and the Revi­sio­nist Chal­lenge, London-New York 1990
– Gers­ten­ber­ger, Heide (2007): Imper­so­nal Power. History and Theory of the Bour­geois State, Lei­den
– Gra­eber, David (2011): Debt. The First 5000 Years, New York
– Hein­rich, Michael (1999): Die Wis­sen­schaft vom Wert. Die Marx­sche Kri­tik der poli­ti­schen Ökono­mie zwi­schen wis­sen­schaft­li­cher Revo­lu­tion und klas­si­scher Tra­di­tion, Müns­ter
– Hein­sohn, Gunnar/ Stei­ger, Otto (2006): Eigen­tums­öko­no­mik, Mar­burg
– Le Goff, Jac­ques (2010): Geld im Mit­tel­al­ter, Stutt­gart 2011
– Lorenz, Richard (1977: Die tra­di­tio­nale chi­ne­si­sche Gesell­schaft: Eine Inter­pre­ta­tion sowje­ti­scher For­schungs­er­geb­nisse, in: ders. (Hg.), Umwäl­zung einer Gesell­schaft: Zur Sozi­al­ge­schichte der chi­ne­si­schen Revo­lu­tion (1911–1949), Frankfurt/M, 11–93.
– Polanyi, Karl (1968): Pri­mi­tive, Archaic, and Modern Eco­no­mics, Bos­ton
– Rei­chelt, Hel­mut (2008): Neue Marx-Lektüre. Zur Kri­tik sozi­al­wis­sen­schaft­li­cher Logik, Ham­burg
– Som­bart, Wer­ner (1913): Krieg und Kapi­ta­lis­mus (Stu­dien zur Ent­wick­lungs­ge­schichte des moder­nen Kapi­ta­lis­mus, Bd.2), München-Leipzig
– Sie­gel­berg, Jens (1994): Kapi­ta­lis­mus und Krieg. Eine Theo­rie des Krie­ges in der Welt­ge­sell­schaft, Kriege und mili­tante Kon­flikte, Nr.5, Münster-Hamburg
– Stützle, Ingo (2011): The order of know­ledge: the state as a kno­eledge appa­ra­tus, in: Gal­las, Alexander/ Brett­hauer, Lars/ Kann­an­ku­lam, John/ Stützle, Ingo (Eds.): Rea­ding Pou­lant­zas, 170–185, Lon­don.
– Teschke, Benno (2003): The Myth of 1648: Class, Geo­po­li­tics, and the Making of Modern Inter­na­tio­nal Rela­ti­ons, Lon­don
– Van der Lin­den, Mar­cel (1997): Marx and Engels, Dutch Mar­xism and the ›Model Capi­ta­list Nation of the Seven­teenth Cen­tury‹, in: Sci­ence & Society, 61.Jg., H.2, 161–193.
– Wolf, Frie­der Otto (2004): The »limits of dialec­tical pre­sen­ta­tion« as a key cate­gory of Marx’s theo­re­ti­cal self-reflection, Capi­ta­lism Nature Socia­lism, 15:3, 79–85.
– Wolf, Frie­der Otto (2006): Marx’ Kon­zept der ›Gren­zen der dia­lek­ti­schen Dar­stel­lung‹, in: Hoff, Jan/ Petrioli, Alexis, et al. (Hg.): Das Kapi­tal neu lesen. Bei­träge zur radi­ka­len Phi­lo­so­phie, Müns­ter, 159–188.
– Wood, Ellen Meiksins (1999): The ori­gin of capi­ta­lism. A lon­ger view, Lon­don – New York, 2002
– Wood, Ellen Meiksins/ Wood, Neal (1978): Class Ideo­logy and Anci­ent Poli­ti­cal Theory. Socra­tes, Plato, and Aris­totle in Social Con­text, Oxford

  1. Whoever has not read my ak review should read it first. I do not exp­li­citly deal here with some points that are alre­ady addres­sed there.
  2. On this, see Heinsohn/Steiger (2006), who mock simi­lar things in clas­si­cal and neo-classical eco­no­mics and attempt to deny their sta­tus as theo­ries. Rei­chelt (2008, p. 275) has for­mu­la­ted an accu­rate cri­ti­que of their approach.
  3. That only has to do with class rela­ti­ons to the extent that Marx assu­mes that the com­mo­dity form is domi­nant, has become gene­ra­li­zed, as soon as labor-power cir­cu­la­tes as a com­mo­dity. For that rea­son, my posi­tion is not that »form and mea­ning of capi­ta­list money emer­ges from this rela­tion«, mea­ning that »capi­ta­lism is based on the rela­tion of pro­duc­tion bet­ween free wage labo­rer and the owner of capi­tal«, as Gra­eber incor­rectly sum­ma­ri­zes my posi­tion. On the debate con­cerning Marx’s theory as a mone­tary theory of value, see Michael Heinrich, An Intro­duc­tion to the Three Volu­mes of Karl Marx’s Capi­tal (Monthly Review Press, 2012) and the same author’s The Sci­ence of Value (Brill/Historical Mate­ria­lism, forth­co­m­ing).
  4. Marx also does not ana­lyze »capi­ta­lism« as such. He ana­ly­zes the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion (at its ideal aver­age) and its domi­na­tion. That is some­thing dif­fe­rent from an »as-if theory« that Gra­eber ascri­bes to Marx.
  5. In Empire of Capi­tal, Meiksins-Wood shows that direct force, extra-economic power, was con­sti­tu­tive for the Ita­lian city-states as well as for the Dutch repu­blic. The Dutch repu­blic plays a cer­tain excep­tio­nal role, as Bran­don (2011) has recently empha­si­zed (also see van der Lin­den 1997). One can­not howe­ver speak of a domi­nance of capi­ta­list logic with regard to the Dutch repu­blic. This argu­ment is direc­ted (making refe­rence to Robert Bren­ner) pri­ma­rily against the argu­ments of world-systems theory.
  6. Thus Com­ni­nel (1987) and Gers­ten­ber­ger (2007) demons­trate that the French Revo­lu­tion can­not be under­s­tood as the impo­si­tion of the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion, and cer­tainly not explai­ned by its logic.
  7. The same applies to the role of the state (and the con­sti­tu­tion of the modern tax-based state), which pro­cee­ded in very dif­fe­rent ways, as his­to­ri­cal rese­arch has shown.
  8. For that rea­son, there is a lot to be gai­ned from rea­ding Graeber’s book, pro­vi­ded one keeps Marx’s cri­ti­que of poli­ti­cal eco­nomy in mind.
  9. Marx was wri­t­ing the Grund­risse at the same time he wrote this let­ter.
  10. The form and con­tent of ›war‹ also chan­ges, as shown by Teschke (2003), Gers­ten­ber­ger (1990), and Sie­gel­berg (1994).
  11. Wolf’s essay has only been publis­hed in abridged from in English.
  12. This is the back­ground against which Marx for­mu­la­tes the the­sis that workers »must first be forced to work wit­hin the con­di­ti­ons posi­ted by capi­tal. The pro­per­tyless are more inclined to become vag­abonds and rob­bers and beggars than workers. The last beco­mes nor­mal only in the deve­l­o­ped mode of capital’s pro­duc­tion.« (Grund­risse)
  13. Gerstenberger’s book has been publis­hed in English as part of His­to­ri­cal Mate­ria­lism book series.
  14. The funny thing about this review is that on the one hand it asserts that »To denounce a non-Marxist aut­hor for neglect of Mar­xist cate­go­ries would be vanity wor­thy of tenure track«, but at the same time it does exactly that. For example: »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.«
  15. A sum­mary of the debate can be found in the third volume of Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System.
  16. That is why one must speak of a his­to­ri­cal deter­mi­na­tion of the abstrac­tion. Howe­ver, Marx did not examine this, nor did he engage with this more con­cre­tely.
  17. Gra­eber con­stantly refers to the cha­rac­ter of imper­so­nal domi­na­tion. Howe­ver, to Gra­eber this is neit­her cha­rac­te­ristic of capi­ta­list society, nor does he esta­blish why domi­na­tion takes on an imper­so­nal cha­rac­ter. After he insists upon the import­ance of unfree labor to capi­ta­lism, it is unclear to me which role imper­so­nal power thus plays.
  18. The same is true of state debt, which I have exp­li­ca­ted else­where.
  19. »Here it should be recal­led that for Marx, ›indus­try‹ means not­hing other than the sys­te­ma­tic app­li­ca­tion of sci­en­ti­fic know­ledge as tech­no­logy to the pro­duc­tion pro­cess, and not, for example, a spe­ci­fic mate­ri­ally deli­mita­ble field of human pro­duc­tion« (Wolf 2006, p. 184)
  20. Fur­ther reviews can be found in die tages­zei­tung, Die Zeit, Die Welt, Ber­li­ner Zei­tung, Tages­spie­gel, Deutsch­land­Ra­dio Kul­tur I, Deutsch­land­Ra­dio Kul­tur II, ttt of the public tele­vi­sion sta­tion ARD. Lef­tist cri­ti­ques are rare up until now. In Jungle World, the book was alre­ady pre­sen­ted in Febru­ary. Kon­kret, which offers the book as a sub­scrip­tion pre­mium, was sur­pri­sin­gly also enthu­si­as­tic. Also see the reply to Rai­ner Hank on the Kri­sen­blog and
  21. The Frank­fur­ter All­ge­meine Zei­tung (FAZ) and its sun­day edi­tion the FAS is one of the big­gest and most influ­en­tial con­ser­va­tive daily news­pa­pers in Ger­many and plays a very influ­en­tial role.
  22. See my essay on Keynes.
  23. Once again Marx, since the for­mu­la­tion is so nice: »they then per­sis­tently regard bar­ter as a form well adap­ted to com­mo­dity exch­ange, suf­fe­ring merely from cer­tain tech­ni­cal incon­ve­ni­en­ces, to over­come which money has been cun­nin­gly devi­sed«.
  24. Frank Schirr­ma­cher had alre­ady reviewed the English edi­tion in 2011. Rai­ner Hank fol­lo­wed, then Wer­ner Plumpe, and Frank Lüb­ber­ding com­men­ted upon Graeber’s appearance on the talk­show hos­ted by May­brit Ill­ner.
  25. The field of know­ledge of poli­ti­cal eco­nomy is among the cen­tral enti­ties of social self-reflection: »In poli­ti­cal eco­nomy, bour­geois society obtains a view of its­elf« (Hein­rich, The Sci­ence of Value)

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Ein Kommentar

  1. Economicadvisor
    Am 30. September 2012 um 16:44 Uhr veröffentlicht | Permalink

    Having read this review I feel that Graeber’s accu­sa­tion of sco­las­ti­cism was quite to the point. Two examples:

    Money is also not always »money« in all socie­ties, and does not always assume a con­sti­tu­tive role for society or the socie­tal divi­sion of labor to the same extent.

    So a social obli­ga­tion is not credit, and even credit is not credit.

    Both are things which Gra­eber is well aware of. At least he does not claim other­wise as far as I can see, nor has he any­where crea­ted the impres­sion on my part that he thinks other­wise. So it is not clear exactly where the cri­ti­cism here resi­des and the whole exer­cise indeed some­what resem­bles a rene­wed attempt to esta­blish the cor­rect hier­ar­chy of angels. Cer­tainly an intel­lec­tual chal­lenge, but at first glance not ent­i­rely a use­ful one. So what is the point of this cri­ti­cism then?

    On the other hand, two more things:

    1) Even his­to­ri­cally dis­tinct forms of credit are also always forms of credit. And I believe that it is here that Mar­xism easily beco­mes a bit mis­lea­ding, and one should take the as-if inter­pre­ta­tion seriously: Because the his­to­ri­cal change from one »mode of pro­duc­tion« to ano­ther is not a total dis­con­ti­nuity but a mix­ture of direct con­ti­nuity, modi­fi­ca­tion of preexis­ting ele­ments and novelty. So in fact many con­ti­nui­ties per­sist. And the attempt to cri­ti­cize a pro­jec­tion of modern forms of credit back into the past is only fea­si­ble inso­far as there is a real his­to­ri­cal dif­fe­rence in these two forms of credit which is being obfu­sca­ted. But not in so far as there are import­ant simi­la­ri­ties. Of which there are many.

    2) The notion of the »capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion« easily beco­mes a new source of con­fu­sion about real social rela­ti­ons. Or in Mar­xian dic­tion: It beco­mes a form of fetis­hism. Espe­cially since the idea of this mar­ve­lous unity cal­led »the capi­ta­list mode of pro­duc­tion« »domi­na­ting« or »con­sti­tu­ting« anything easily leads to nume­rous false con­clu­si­ons. One example: If Graeber’s got his history right, the legal sys­tem did not arise out the mode of pro­duc­tion in anci­ent Meso­po­ta­mia, but quite the reverse. Any mode of pro­duc­tion based on the com­mo­di­fi­ca­tion of social rela­ti­ons in the form of credit alre­ady requi­res a pri­mi­tive form of legal rela­ti­ons. So the lega­liza­tion of debt is a kind of pri­mor­dial com­mo­di­fi­ca­tion — which is by no means sim­ply »con­sti­tu­ted« by the pre­vai­ling mode of production.

3 Trackbacks

  • Von Ingo Stützle on David Graeber, Part 2 « communism am 4. September 2012 um 13:53 Uhr veröffentlicht

    […] here. […]

  • […] cer­tain deba­tes (allu­ded to bet­ween the lines). For that rea­son, I wrote a short, sum­mary addendum.1 For this trans­la­tion, I have revi­sed the adden­dum, in order to more pre­ci­sely address some points […]

  • Von Recommended reading, 8 am 18. Oktober 2012 um 22:04 Uhr veröffentlicht

    […] David Graeber’s “Debt” is mis­sing an ana­ly­sis of capi­ta­lism Ingo Stützle “Before we can think about revo­lu­tion, we should agree first on what exactly is sup­po­sed to be revo­lu­tio­ni­zed. Debt can­cel­la­tion is indeed a cor­rect demand, but only when the social rela­ti­ons that con­stantly bring about indebted­ness are abolis­hed as well. It seems dif­fi­cult to reach an agree­ment with Gra­eber on exactly what those social rela­ti­ons are.” [also see Stützle’s follow-up Adden­dum on Graeber’s Debt] […]

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