Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The End of Economics



I've been having a hard time thinking any thoughts about anything relevant other than what's happening in Congress, which is far too noisy at this point for me to think I understand anything, and my "ideas" about money, which nobody likes, too intangible and abstract for most regular readers but raw and downright backwoodsy from the standpoint of more refined visitors, and I meant my promise that the previous post would be the last one.

But I did bump into a kind of back door, which I'll get to below, to a part of the discussion that's more or less concrete and interesting, the ancient history part where, as you may or may not remember, the theory of the origin of money I hammered together out of old bits of scrap metal out in the shed turned out to be awfully similar to the brilliant and highly controversial theory developed by the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber in his 2014 Debt: The First 5,000 Years, except his had vast amounts of exemplification, archaeological and documentary (some of it reputedly wrong), backing it up.  

Revising and extending what I was saying last spring with what I've been learning since then, there are basically two traditional ideas of where ancient money came from: as a technology for improving the efficiency of a primitive barter economy, as most economists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx and beyond believed, or as a technology of the primitive state to enable people to pay taxes to maintain their warfighting capacity ("Prime Minister, how am I going to feed the army?" "I know, Your Majesty, let's invent money! We can give it to the peasants and then make them give some of it back, and then we'll be able to buy food!"), which is said to be the view of the early 20th-century chartalist movement which influenced John Maynard Keynes and from which Modern Monetary Theory is said to descend, even though it seems to assert that tax money started off paying for government programs (though only, to be sure, after government created it in the first place). 

So, Graeber's alternative idea descends from work of the 20th-century structural anthropologists, especially Marcel Mauss and his student Claude Lévi-Strauss, who were fascinated by the universal phenomenon of human gift-giving, exchanges for which there is no simple material reason. Why, Lévi-Strauss wondered, for example, when two strangers find themselves sharing a table in a provincial French restaurant, and the waiter brings each of them a carafe of the local red, does each of them fill the glass of the other guy rather than his own? Their answer was to call it culture: it is a universal feature of human culture that people just like to exchange things. It is a value in its own right. (Now there's research suggesting that a drive to social reciprocity is neurologically baked into the human genome, which I think doesn't obviate the point at all; Mauss and Lévi-Strauss weren't looking for some kind of spiritual reality that would conflict with material reality.)

Let me say I started wondering about the same broad issue back in the 1980s, as a young linguistics graduate student and on a sociolinguistics topic: Why do people even have conversations, exchanging information like gossip that is totally unimportant to survival? There's a common idea that language comes from the need for people to alert each other across a distance to danger or opportunity, but hardly any human language use is like that—most of it is completely trivial. What did that evolve from? I was seeing all kinds of evidence that exchange was an essential feature of human language—as in, you always exchange the message for another message, even if it's just an acknowledgment (Roger! or Ten-four!)—as if it was neurologically baked in in that sense.  I eventually got a lovely piece of the answer from a British anthropologist with a lot of primate expertise, Robin Dunbar: gossiping is like primates grooming each other, picking out mites and smoothing the fur, an expression in symbols of something all of us apes do in one medium or another. Gossip, the exchange of trivial information rather than something more physical toward the building of social solidarity, probably really is neurologically built in, since we share the fundamental form with so many closely related mammals.

Money, then (in my formulation—I'm afraid I still haven't read Graeber's book), arises from the pleasure we innately seek from exchanging things, and the case where somebody gives you a gift and you don't have something comparable to give them back: you give them a token instead, a shiny piece of metal or a cowrie shell, and if you get hold of the thing you wanted to give them, they can give you the token back. Or, alternatively, they can save it to use in the same way you used it, as an acknowledgment of indebtedness. A fungible acknowledgment of indebtedness, you (playing "Sous le Ciel de Paris" on your accordion as I walk down Broadway) getting a dollar from me. I owe you something, accordionist, but maybe you can get something better from somebody else with this piece of paper. 

And then I suppose the alienating uses of money, the uses economists are primarily interested in—as capital, or as a vehicle of state power—proceed from the alienation itself, of class (between owners and workers) or political status (between ruler and ruled).

But the new news is there's a new book coming out from David Graeber, in spite of the fact that he died, too young (he was 59), 13 months ago, coming out in November, which is reviewed or swooned over by Wiliam Deresiewizcz in the current Atlantic, putting the five thousand years of debt in a still broader context. Literally: The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, written in collaboration with the British archaeologist David Wengrow, expands the perspective to 30,000 years, and represents an extraordinary attack on the whole picture we inherit from Hobbes and Rousseau, of which conventional economics is a part, of the March of Progress narrative of human cultural evolution driven by the struggle for material survival and fed by developing technology, pushing inexorably from small to big, simple to complex, "primitive" to "sophisticated". 

Instead, Graeber and Wengrow propose a more ecological picture, in which progress isn't the point (you shouldn't be looking for a point, as Darwin tried to explain), in which diversity is an intrinsic element from the beginning, big coexisting with small, and simple with complex, because humans are always free to choose, and, both on individual and group basis, keep making different choices:

Homo sapiens developed in Africa, but it did so across the continent, from Morocco to the Cape, not just in the eastern savannas, and in a great variety of regional forms that only later coalesced into modern humans. There was no anthropological Garden of Eden, in other words—no Tanzanian plain inhabited by “mitochondrial Eve” and her offspring. As for the apparent delay between our biological emergence, and therefore the emergence of our cognitive capacity for culture, and the actual development of culture—a gap of many tens of thousands of years—that, the authors tell us, is an illusion. The more we look, especially in Africa (rather than mainly in Europe, where humans showed up relatively late), the older the evidence we find of complex symbolic behavior.

That evidence and more—from the Ice Age, from later Eurasian and Native North American groups—demonstrate, according to Graeber and Wengrow, that hunter-gatherer societies were far more complex, and more varied, than we have imagined. The authors introduce us to sumptuous Ice Age burials (the beadwork at one site alone is thought to have required 10,000 hours of work), as well as to monumental architectural sites like Göbekli Tepe, in modern Turkey, which dates from about 9000 B.C. (at least 6,000 years before Stonehenge) and features intricate carvings of wild beasts. They tell us of Poverty Point, a set of massive, symmetrical earthworks erected in Louisiana around 1600 B.C., a “hunter-gatherer metropolis the size of a Mesopotamian city-state.” They describe an indigenous Amazonian society that shifted seasonally between two entirely different forms of social organization (small, authoritarian nomadic bands during the dry months; large, consensual horticultural settlements during the rainy season)....

The overriding point is that hunter-gatherers made choices—conscious, deliberate, collective—about the ways that they wanted to organize their societies: to apportion work, dispose of wealth, distribute power. In other words, they practiced politics. Some of them experimented with agriculture and decided that it wasn’t worth the cost. Others looked at their neighbors and determined to live as differently as possible—a process that Graeber and Wengrow describe in detail with respect to the Indigenous peoples of Northern California, “puritans” who idealized thrift, simplicity, money, and work, in contrast to the ostentatious slaveholding chieftains of the Pacific Northwest. None of these groups, as far as we have reason to believe, resembled the simple savages of popular imagination...

(Those Pacific Coast chiefs practiced a kind of inversion of the chartalist scenario, practicing warfare to gather real wealth, not money, in the form of food, blankets, copper implements, and captives for enslaving, and then massively passing it out to their subjects in periodic potlatch feasts often marked by the large-scale destruction of their own wealth, burning blankets and wooden objects and breaking up coppers and even sometimes killing slaves—collecting a sort of "tax" from enemy groups and using it to dominate the group they lived in, literally deleting what they didn't give away.) 

In the context of all this extraordinary diversity, I wanted to say, there's no room for an economist's deterministic account of money, as a fixed step in a universal progression from archaic to modern. It may be true that it has finally taken over all of us, but that doesn't show us becoming less primitive and more complex—it constitutes a reduction in human diversity.

But there's room for an invention of money to have taken place very early, and hundreds or thousands of times, as well as being rejected by some societies, with or without the existence of an authoritarian state or any state at all (many very large settlements of between three thousand and ten thousand years ago seem to have practiced no distinctions of dominance through monopolies of violence or wealth at all), but it was never necessary, and could have had a range of different purposes; what they'd have to have in common would just be that broadest and simplest feature, the symbolic representation of actual or potential debt.

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