Crooked Timber is having a discussion on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years with posts by John Quiggin, Henry Farrell, Barry Finger, Neville Morley, and Malcolm Harris thus far. Neville Morley:
David Graeber’s Debt is, in the most positive sense, rather an old-fashioned book, in its conception and approach if not in its matey and approachable style. It ignores disciplinary boundaries within the human sciences, especially those between economics, history and social studies, in a manner that recalls polymaths like Max Weber or the free-wheeling early years of political economy with figures like Smith and Malthus. In its search for the connecting thread between an astonishing diversity of cultural practices and texts from across time and space, it resembles the early classics of speculative anthropology – not Malinowski but J.G. Frazer. In its ambition to offer an account of the trajectory of the whole of human history, it undoubtedly runs the risk of being confused with the likes of Jared Diamond or Niall Ferguson, but it strikes me rather as in the vein of Arnold Toynbee, not least in the weight of scholarship that underpins this work of imaginative reconstruction. I feel the need to stress again that I don’t offer these comparisons as a criticism.
Above all, the book’s starting position comes straight from nineteenth-century critical historicism: a sense of the importance of the past in shaping the present. Graeber’s evocation of Nietzsche and his provocative fantasies about debt and sacrifice in Chapter 4 seem to be a deliberate nod to this tradition. In Nietzsche’s account of the modern historical sense, humans are understood as being conscious of themselves as beings within time, who tell stories about the past and its relation to the present as a means of making sense of the world. Such stories, whether primitive myths or modern historiography, are never neutral or value-free descriptions of reality, but are shaped by our desires, and in turn – because we inherit and take for granted most such stories, rather than constructing them ourselves – they shape our conceptions and behaviour. Above all – and this is a point emphasised also by Marx (who plays a conspicuously minor role in Graeber’s book) – these stories serve to legitimise the present, to present it as a natural and inevitable state of affairs.