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.

Literature

– 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 wobblies.de
  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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  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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