Wednesday, December 7, 2011

David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years"

This is an excellent speculative historical review of how debt, money, slavery, coinage, and government arose. It is chock-a-block full of obscure but interesting facts. The analysis is fresh and thought-provoking. I'm not in a position to assess the scientific validity of his reconstruction of ancient societies, but it rings true to me.

If you want a new perspective on how economic forces shape us and our societies, this is a "must read" book.

Here is just a tidbit from his chapter on the Axial Age (800 BC to 600 AD):
This is the key to Seaford's argument about materialism and Greek philosophy. A coin was a piece of metal, but by giving it a particular shape, stamped with words and images, the civic community agreed to make it something more. But this power was not unlimited. Bronze coins could not be used forever; if one debased the coinage, inflation would eventually set in. It was as if there was a tension there, between the will of the community and the physical nature of the object itself. Greek thinkers were suddenly confronted with a profoundly new type of object, one of extraordinary importance -- as evidenced by the fact that so many men were willing to risk their lives to get their hands on it -- but whose nature was a profound enigma.

Consider this word, "materialism." What does it mean to adopt a "materialist" philosophy? What is "material," anyway? Normally, we speak of "materials" when we refer to objects that we wish to make into something else. A tree is a living thing. It only becomes "wood" when we begin to think about all the other things you could carve out of it. And of course you can carve a piece of wood into almost anything. The same is true of clay, or glass, or metal. They're solid and real and tangible, but also abstractions, because they have the potential to turn into almost anything else -- or, not precisely that; one can't turn a piece of wood into a lion or an owl, but one can turn it into an image of a lion or an owl -- it can take on almost any conceivable form. So already in any materialist philosophy, we are dealing with an opposition between form and content, substance and shape; a clash between the idea, sign, emblem, or model in the creator's mind, and the physical qualities of the materials on which it is to be stamped, built, or imposed, from which it will be brought into reality. With coins this rises to an even more abstract level because that emblem can no longer be conceived as the model in one person's head, but is rather the mark of a collective agreement. The images stamped on Greek coins (Miletus' lion, Athen's owl) were typically the emblems of the city's god, but they were also a kind of collective promise, by which citizens assured one another that not only would the coin be acceptable in payment of public debts, but in a larger sense, that everyone would accept them, for any debts, and thus, that they could be used to acquire anything anyone wanted.

The problem is that this collective power is not unlimited. It only really applies within the city. The farther you go outside, into places dominated by violence, slavery, and war -- the sort of place where even philosophers taking a cruise might end up on the auction block -- the more it turns into a mere lump of precious metal.

The war between Spirit and Flesh, then between the nobile Idea and ugly Reality, the rational intellect versus stubborn corporeal drives and desires that resist it, even the idea that peace and community are not things that emerge spontaneously but that need to be stamped onto our baser material natures like a divine insignia stamped into base metal -- all those ideas that came to haunt the religious and philosophical traditions of the Axial Age, and that have continued to surprise people like Boesoou ever since -- can already be seen as inscribed in the nature of this new form of money.

It would be foolish to argue that all Axial Age philosophy was simply a meditation on the nature of coinage, but I think Seaford is right to argue that this is a critical starting place: one of the reasons that the pre-Socratic philosophers began to frame their questions in the peculiar way they did, asking (for instance): What are Ideas? re they merely collective conventions? Do they exist, as Plato insisted, in some divine domain beyond material existence? Or do they exist in our minds? Or do our minds themselves ultimately partake of that divine immaterial domain? And if they do, what does this say about our relation to our bodies?
I heartily recommend that you read this book.

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