Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

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Update: Oh yeah!

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Thoughts in the direction of a review of Graeber's Debt

probably a few of these on the way as a CT seminar is in the works and I have volunteered to contribute.

First thought is that although Graeber makes a very convincing case on "the myth of barter", the general shape of the "economists' creation myth" is that using numeraire money as a unit of account and medium of transactions is a massively more convenient way to organise things, and that this becomes increasingly more and more necessary as the economy develops complexity, diversity and specialisation. And this is not only true, but shown to be so by all of Graeber's own examples. I mean ....

"The visitors in this particular example were famous for their 'much prized serrated spears' - their hosts had access to good European cloth. The trading begins when the visiting party, which consisted of both men and women, enters the camp's dancing ground of 'ring place' and three of them began to entertain their hosts with music. Two men start singing, a third accompanies them on the
didjeridu. Before long, women from the hosts' side come and attack the musicians.

Men and women rise and begin to dance. The
dzamalag opens when two Ginwinggu women of the opposite moiety to the singing men "give dzamalag" to the latter. They present each man with a piece of cloth and hit or touch him, pulling him down on the ground, calling him a dzamalag husband and joking with him in an erotic vein. Then another woman of the opposite moiety to the pipe player gives him cloth, hits and jokes with him.

This sets in motion the
dzamalag exchange. Men from the visiting group sit quietly while women of the opposite moiety come over and give them cloth, hit them and invite them to copulate; they take any liberty they choose with the men, amid amusement and applause, while the singing and dancing continue. Women try to undo the men's loin coverings or touch their penises, and to drag them from the 'ring place' for coitus. The men go with their dzamalag partners, with a show of reluctance, to copulate in the bushes away from the fires which light up the dancers. They may give the women tobacco or beads. When the women return, they give part of this tobacco to their own husbands, who have encouraged them to go dzamalag. The husbands, in turn, use the tobacco to pay their own female dzamalag partners ...

New singers and musicians appear, are again assaulted and dragged off to the bushes; men encourage their wives 'not to be shy', so as to maintain the Gunwinggu reputation for hospitality; eventually those men also take the initiative with the visitor's wives, offering cloth, hitting them and leading them off into the bushes. Beads and tobacco circulate. Finally, once participants have all paired off at least once, and the guests are satisfied with the cloth they have acquired, the women stop dancing and stand in two rows and the visitors line up to repay them.

Then visiting men of one moiety dance towards the women of the opposite moiety, in order to ' give them
dzamalag'. They hold shovel-nosed spreads poised, pretending to spear the women, but instead hit them with the flat of the blade. 'We will not spear you, for we have already speared you with our penises'. They present the spears to the women. Then, visiting men of the other moiety go through the same actions with the women of their opposite moiety, giving them spears with serrated points. This terminates the ceremony, which is followed by a large distribution of food".

This all sounds like quite fun, in a sort of Ice Storm, car-keys-in-the-fruit-bowl kind of way, and I certainly agree that it has very little resemblance to classically described barter. But none the less, I think David Graeber would have to agree that it sounds like a fucking inconvenient way to buy a blanket. Compared to, say, pre paid debit cards.

Serious point - it is very convenient to have a numeraire for spot exchanges, and to have a unit of account to facilitate forward or noncontemporaneous exchanges, and to make that "money" item as generic as possible in order to allow it to be used in as many types of transaction as possible. Once you have a unit of account and exchanges based on that unit of account, then as far as I can see, if you combine that with the general category of "making promises" or "saying you're going to do something and then doing it", then you're well on the way to the characteristics that Graeber identifies with the social-legal institution of debt. So I think that he wins the battle and loses the war on the Myth of Barter - the very fact that so many different societies converge on something like the institution of debt-money (and that non-debt-money societies tend to adopt it quite quickly once exposed to the technology) rather militates against the kind of deep anthropological study that he wants to form the basis of the social sciences, and in favour of the functionalist black-box approach which is basically the mark of modern economics.
27 comments this item posted by the management 2/09/2012 10:10:00 AM

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