Debt: The Possibilities Ignored
It’s no secret that economists and libertarians have developed a bad habit of assuming things about history and other societies on first principle without actually checking archaeological or anthropological findings. On occasion the divide can be quite stark. David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years gets a lot of momentum by attacking a widely circulated economic fable purporting to explain the origin of currency wherein coinage precedes credit. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the “I need a blanket and all I have to barter with are five chickens but everyone in my village likes cowry shells” dilemma at the start of elementary economics textbooks has no clear historical basis; there’s little evidence small tribes or villages needed to invent physical currency to facilitate market exchange internally because reputation and credit are far more natural and flexible.
To say this is sympathetic territory for me would be an understatement. In my longest essay in Markets Not Capitalism I emphasized the role reputation and goodwill play in relationships as more fundamental and foundational than property titles and critiqued the recurring assumption that property titles are inherent to all societies. Even though my conclusion was a full-throated defense of property titles, albeit repositioned as a looser, less absolute, second order derivation from goodwill and reputation, you might be forgiven for expecting a strictly positive review of Graeber’s breakout book. Certainly many of my colleagues did. And there is a lot to be found of value in Debt for libertarians and anarchists of all stripes. It is a refreshingly audacious work hearkening towards the kind of grand theory building radicals used to do and I’ve found myself handing it out to young activists hungry for something of more audacity and scope than Gelderloos or Bonanno. It’s been far too long since a work of anarchist theory topped bestseller lists. And anything that so flusters and discombobulates liberals, marxists, and vulgar libertarians alike is surely of value.
However Debt is not without its flaws, some of them quite vexing. Perhaps the greatest thing about anthropology is its capacity to demonstrate that often unexamined norms we consider universal are but a tiny sliver in the phase space of cultural and societal configurations that have existed throughout human history. Anthropology helps serve as a reminder of the paucity of our imagination. Yet it is important not to blindly take history as a constraint. Two hundred thousand years of homo sapiens is simply too few iterations, too tightly correlated to truly explore the expanse of what is possible.
Sadly, if there is one underlying failure coursing through Graeber’s bestseller it’s his reactionary instincts in the face of such possibility.
Debt sets out a long and winding exploration of how notions of the interpersonal or economic obligations characterized as “debt” have morphed over the last five thousand years and how these changes correlated to the presence of state violence and the development of currency.
Graeber suggests that the first currencies were direct markers of honor, status, or social goodwill only incidentally exchanged for goods and commodities. Coinage and specie currency were sharp deviations from this norm, invented so religious institutions could keep internal accounts of goods but quickly adopted by states to quantify penal codes, collect taxes, and pay marauding soldiers. Coinage, Graeber argues, was an invention imposed by the state to dissolve the complexity of informal bonds between individuals into relations as universal and interchangeable as its own scope. In this context debt tended towards outright slavery and the specific game theoretic dynamics that characterize statism grew increasingly hegemonic. When your honor or the value you held to others was simplified to the widely interchangeable gold in your pouch, throat-slitting became suddenly quite appealing.
Surrounding this historical transition the wild array of dynamics and social mores at play in various societies became increasingly framed in terms of person-to-person exchanges (theoretically repayable) rather than standing before the community or as matters of hierarchically ritualized benefaction. And in turn, through its persistent creep as a metaphor to frame human relations as exchanges (implicitly between equals or should-be-equals), debt came to signify an unnatural perturbation of baseline equality. While on the one hand the word “freedom” has its roots in Sumerian debt-cancellation, that same moralistic language of obligation to one’s debts was frequently adopted by the oppressed and those with grievances. Amid all of this communities on the periphery played games with notions of perpetual debt to denote and enforce ties of fraternity, but on the whole debt increasingly came to connote a sinful state of inequality and injustice. …Except with things so tangled that exactly who is in the wrong is never entirely clear and consistent rules never really hashed out. Thus, Graeber concludes, we arrived at the ridiculousness of our present situation where for instance plutocratic plunder and the vast subsidy of historical violence are seen as prompt for charity, but the notion of cancelling the supposed debt incurred to one’s explicit oppressors is unthinkable.
Though certain chapters are resplendent with crowing at the repeated close confluence of money, markets and the atrocities of state power, to his credit as an intellectually honest academic Graeber doesn’t flinch away from recognizing situations where state power has withered and markets blossomed.
There have, certainly, been times and places when a kind of free market populism has emerged, where markets began operating independently of governments, at least to some degree – Medieval Islam is one famous example, and later, Ming China—but in such cases, they tended to operate in very different ways than the kind of markets we’re now familiar with, less about competition, much more about creating and maintaining relations of interpersonal trust, or for instance, profit-sharing operations instead of interest, etc etc.
…History shows that you basically need a state to create a situation where people are willing to sign on basically as rent-a-slaves to other people.
That many observers, some with horror, have read these asides as validation of left market anarchist theory is unsurprising. We are of course totally right. About everything. Obviously. But Graeber is less than enthused to see these confessions extend beyond proving the unsustainability of capitalism in the absence of state violence. Free market populism, in his framework, is still an ultimately confused state of affairs, championed by the well-meaning but insufficiently far-seeing. Useful perhaps as a half measure for the US and a few other contexts where anarcho-communist alternatives are beyond culturally alien, but not an ideal goal. For Graeber markets and currency cannot shed the incredibly suspicious stain of their inception through state violence. Currency in particular.
Lest we get too lost in the default rhetorical devices of radicals, let us remind ourselves that if Hitler popularized consensus process or the refrigerator it wouldn’t invalidate either. But in fact history and prehistory are almost certainly more complicated than the selection Graeber presents in his tale. Mass societies have been around for a hell of a long time and so has trade in obsidian, grain, cattle and copper. Things weren’t nearly as simple as one day villages and the next day Mesopotamian scribes keeping accounts in silver; we know there’s a ton of history lost before the proliferation of writing. Gift economies are empirically known to scale poorly, and it’s obvious that when there’s too many people to personally keep track of the approaches that work for villages and tribes start to break down. If cities nine thousand years ago like the famous Çatalhöyük weren’t characterized by intense statism–and there’s less than no reason to suspect they were–folks very likely faced double incidence of wants on a regular basis. In particular the five thousand years of mass society before Graeber starts his account saw many profound social changes, my favorite tale of which is this:
On a certain day 9200 years ago the manorial houses at the north side of the large square in Çayönü were burnt down, and this happened so fast that the owners were not able to save any of their treasures. The temple was torn down and burnt, and even the floor was ripped open, the stone pillars around the free space were taken down and the taller of them were broken up. The place itself – previously maintained and kept meticulously clean for more than 1000 years – was converted into a municipal waste dump. After a short chaotic transition all houses had been torn down. The slums in the west disappeared for good, but only a few steps away from the spot where the ruins of the manorial houses had burnt the new Çayönü was erected. The new houses were comparable in size to the old manors but there were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard. In all houses, work was done and all hints to social differences were erased.
…Not only did the revolutionaries of those remote times succeed in overthrowing a regime thousands of years old, bloody and exploitative – moreover, they also succeeded in developing their own alternative society, devising and realizing it. An egalitarian, classless society arises in which women and men are equal, a society which rapidly spreads over the whole of Anatolia and almost simultaneously over the Balcans and which endures for 3000 years.
When Mesopotamian scribes finally pick up the pen to give us more direct accounts we are not glimpsing the first steps, but a very particular product of a richly storied past we have only fleeting access to.
Sure, when credit is feasible there’s no need for the convoluted dance of boots into obsidian or grain and then back into chickens, but when there’s thousands of teeming people–when people have options outside a tightly controlled tribe, neighborhood, or caste–credit frequently becomes less secure and/or efficient than spot transactions. We know from the North American Great Plains that even when the land won’t support it longer than a few weeks, people will still often struggle to form mass societies when and where they can to take advantage of the benefits such provides in novelty, culture and general opportunity.
Here’s an alternative postulate to Graeber’s: Early mass societies arose and iterated through very different forms and there were many avenues by which they tackled the limits of gift economies. Some mass societies simply preserved the village model internally by subdividing (or remaining divided) into neighborhoods, clans and castes where gift economies could be retained internally while they continued to trade with one another externally, but the danger of losing excommunication as the ultimate sanction required these divisions to still be policed relatively tightly lest individuals start abandoning their ties and debts for greener pastures. Some mass societies with more idealic roots, either as cultural loci or the result of slave uprisings that shrugged off ruling castes leaving behind a single relatively unsubdivided mass of individuals, were obliged to turn more strongly to barter. Lastly still other mass societies, possibly where the maintenance of clans, castes or even polycentric associations had become problematic, resorted to the sort of centralized arbitration and accounting that eventually fueled the fires of empire seen thousands of years later in Mesopotamia where Graeber blithely starts his tale.
But even after his launching point there are systemic biases against anarchistic mass societies in the historical record that he should be damn well aware of. No, in the absence of pharaohs and emperors we don’t tend to erect giant edifices to our glory or stamp millions of coins, but that doesn’t mean freer societies left no trace. By focusing on the classical states of antiquity and then, upon arriving at more recent ages, pointing out that the more free market societies that arose afterward arose afterward, Graeber occludes numerous points any other anarchist historian would place front and center. The gist of which is that freer societies have certainly existed in a great multitude between the gaps in the statist’s saga of war and empire. Some, like the Harappans, major contemporaries of Mesopotamian tyranny, left no signs of priests or leaders, no palaces, temples or monuments. A flourishing trader and artisan society they likely had a spectrum of social respect or at least a diversity of focuses (visible through differences in adornment) while at the same time capital was egalitarianly distributed. They led advancements in the purity of metallurgy, docks, wheeled transport and adopted uniform weights–testaments to how central trade and quantified exchange were to their society. Despite their intense noteworthiness in size, accomplishment and impact, popular history has largely dismissed them for not making reference in any major wars. (And, most deliciously, certain scholars have dismissed them as obviously having a state because they had plumbing.)
I think it’s intuitively obvious that credit and debt preceded currencies focused on coordinating goods. And the introduction of universal metal coinage has both the unmistakable scent of the state’s drive to universalize and the gangster’s need for contextless cash. But the notion that the concerns found in widespread barter only arose as an occasional byproduct of the statist imposition of markets and central currencies as means of accounting is simply unsubstantiatable. Neither Graeber nor I have a time machine and the most relevant particulars to that kind of claim take place before he even begins his story. In the absence of young upstart mass societies just developing in the wilds of Brazil, say, the evidence is scant. Thankfully we can at least get somewhere modeling these kinds of things and that is precisely what economists have done with extensive consideration and mathematical modeling.
Which brings us to a particularly irksome current in Debt. If the book’s systemic failure is not recognizing the breadth of the possible, Graeber’s weakest and at times most embarrassing arguments by far stem from his assertion that a critical distinction between good obligations and bad ones is whether or not anyone’s gotten rigorous or considered about it. In his worst moments he blames mathematics, and indeed elevates it as a comparable evil as you know, loan sharks bludgeoning people to death:
Debt is just a perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.
Of course what’s actually happening is not an issue with mathematics or even arithmetic and quantification, it’s an issue with violently imposed universal simplifications of richly complicated or localized dynamics. The problem is the state and the legalistic impulse that underpins it here, not the innate tendency of human minds to geek out and analyze shit in pursuit of precision and efficiency. Mathematical analysis unto itself in no way implies oversimplification or misrepresentation. And while there are often limits to what we can know and calculate in a given context, especially when dealing with other minds, such limitations are themselves mathematical dynamics. There is just as much to be gained from augmenting our interactions with awareness of these limitations as there is from using mathematical modeling directly when and where it can clarify dynamics and expand our agency.
Distinctions between what can and can’t be quantified substantively in different dynamics and contexts have long been core to modern libertarian analysis, both in the pragmatically mathematical Hayekian sense and the more analytic Praxeological sense. Certainly the legal codification of remuneration for honor violations in units of Irish slave girls, as per one example from Debt, fails virtually every economic and libertarian precept imaginable. That said, there is something quite interesting and fresh in Graeber’s implicit attack on the valuation of gold as a near-universal mediator of social debts. The loss of nuanced social information happening when you can exactly ‘repay’ a friend for their kindness in precious metals is surely stark. Or at least it is when such repayment isn’t a trust-building exercise and a product of their subjective desire via some fresh negotiation that validates both parties as human beings with unknowable subjectivities, but an exchange in which one or both parties can merely default on static universal standards with little to no consideration of the other as a complex individual. The very notion of going back to “square one” strangerhood through repayment, of erasing the accounts containing the context of prior interactions, is only possible when tracking and conveying a particular person’s trustworthiness is impossible, where there are no true currencies available, just dumb commodities like gold that don’t even have a public ledger.
Yet it should be obvious that such situations are not a product of quantification! The impulse seen in the use of coinage to dismiss rich context or make declarations about the objective comparative value of incredibly complex and situational things like favors is clearly sloppy at best and dangerous as hell at worst. But that’s completely different from using a measuring cup when loaning your neighbor rice (or gold) so there’s no lingering misperceptions, disagreements or wasteful default biases. Artificially simplifying universal norms are only sustainable when there’s coercion backing them on some level. The issue is whether debts are enforced through the violent suppression of contextual awareness or the voluntary maximization of it through reputation, trust networks, and risk conveyance. By the time there are kings, chiefs, governments, oligarchs, or central committees remotely capable of revoking debt, things have obviously gone too far and the whole system can be assumed rotten. But the imposition of universal simplifications certainly doesn’t satiate anyone’s drive for precision and informed agency save the rulers, indeed it acts to suppress precision and complex analytic depth at play in our relationships and calculations with regard to one another. The sort of debts Graeber conveys are not, as he puts it, the collaboration of violence and math but rather the suppression of math by violence.
You may ask why I dwell so strongly on this theme within Debt. The misuse of something as richly descriptive and human as mathematics to refer to arithmetic and artificially simple quantification is irritating to be sure, yet I feel this framing belies something deeper than mischosen words. Graeber makes quite a lot to turn on the distinction between quantified and unquantified interactions but in his writing he rarely stays content with such, expanding this theme to decry the “impersonalism” of mathematics and reason. Now one might say math and reason are defined by their search for global symmetries in a world of messy particulars, something that can momentarily disregard those particulars, but in application math and reason have infinitely rich descriptive capacity. I can’t help but smell an anti-intellectual current in Graeber’s language that’s sadly all too common among the left wherein intelligence or analytic rigor is implicitly conceded as inherently sociopathic at high values. Where measuring, modeling or keeping accounts of things inherently implies hostile or untoward intent. In this inversion of any sane or coherent ethics vigilance itself becomes suspect. We cannot afford to examine, measure or analyse our social or interpersonal dynamics too closely because that way lies sociopathy! I’m well aware that through centuries of misappropriation math and reason now strike many as the devil’s sign. But I shudder to think of what it must be like to live in such a world, that openly swallows the premise of our enemies that humane relations are only possible through ignorance and then reacts by embracing ignorance!
Of course I doubt that Graeber is so quite explicit with himself–and we are all sometimes subject to cognitive dissonances–but Debt contains so many arguments or implications from association (even just loose etymology) it risks Glenn Beck territory at points. And, as such, it poses dangers within the wider left and radical discourse. While the scattershot explorations can be enjoyably bracing, it’s embarrassing to see the most powerful and popular anarchist work of this century get mired in weak arguments. Leaping from historical association to causation is the same shit pulled by primitivists to critique refrigerators. Indeed many of Graeber’s fans would be shocked to stop and actually dwell on lines like this:
not only do existing technologies necessarily mean a society based on alienation and oppression, which is hard to deny, since existing technologies have been developed in that context
I mean that is just some pretty extreme faulty reasoning.
For example the more significant dynamic contemporaneous with the advent of large scale states and widely accepted currency is not quantification but writing. Let us remember that bureaucratic account keeping and laws imposing universal prices are direct result of the technology to save memories to papyrus or stone and convey them. We know that the introduction of persistence, of nonnegotiable historical accounts, is always a huge cultural event in any society. Further at the time writing sharply pushed back against prior diseconomies of scale, enabling the growth of cancerous social hierarchies in China, India and the Mediterranean. Until full-fledged alphabets were invented by Semetic slaves in Egypt writing retained a steep learning curve that was critical alongside the sword in preventing the technology’s diffusion to the periphery. The major event contemporaneous to the downfall of Çayönü? The nearby invention of writing in the form of the Vinča signs.
Yet aside from John Zerzan and the occasional wingnut no anarchists reject writing as inherently implying “a society based in alienation and oppression”. We correctly realize that despite its sharp and profound dangers in certain contexts, writing’s even sharper positive potential outweighs them. …Just as the danger from Einstein’s insights making possible nuclear bombs is profound, but the value to better understanding the world around us is even greater still.
In exactly the same sense markets and dastardly evil of measuring cups can be extraordinarily useful.
While priorities vary wildly between each person and over time, human beings have always sought precision in their crafts and interpersonal communications. Even determining what one’s priorities or preferences are in a situation is a calculation, often requiring extensive consideration and measurement. Freed from the oppressive tensions of capitalism we would surely prefer to turn such focus on say crafting baskets or writing poems rather than neurotically calculating and re-calculating the week’s remaining expenses or the quickest trip across town, but even in a world where our everyday stopped being a hustle to merely survive there would still be necessary calculations. The abolition of the artificial scarcities that plague our world does not imply the triumph over scarcity in general. You could no more triumph over entropy. And many of the passions we develop free of survival concerns involve a great deal of complexity and coordination of scarce goods. So long as human beings have dreams and desires in a finite environment there will be coordination and calculation problems to be solved. While the extent of the possible is vast there are limits; you can’t shuffle around loaves and fishes under some cups and magically end up with more loaves and fishes. Sure, much of modern economics is infected with neoliberalism, but there are nevertheless strong mathematical constraints to our interactions with the material universe and each other. Markets provide an array of extraordinarily useful tools for solving these coordination problems; indeed they denote the only phase space where solutions can be found for problems past a certain complexity. Whereas the inherency of subjective knowledge, experience, and desire in our individual brains and the tiny bandwidth of human language place strong limits on communist alternatives, decentralized or not.
While there’s much to critique on many levels to current norms of currency (and the surrounding economic, political, and cultural context), double-incidence of wants is a real phenomenon with important implications. The value of currency of some form in facilitating the cosmopolitan mass society we so desire clearly outweighs the dangers.
Indeed setting our sights slightly further, there’s a very potent point only somewhat obscured by Graeber’s instincts in his own pages, which is that the evidence doesn’t show prohibiting usury makes for positive markets, but rather merely the violent enforcement of usury. “Under genuine free market conditions loans at interest will become effectively impossible to collect,” Graeber writes, but while they would surely be much harder to collect, I highly doubt all instances will disappear because there are occasionally quite valid reasons to ask for and accept it. Instead, defanged of the threat of violence one would expect quantified debts to collapse more directly and organically to the full human relations and contexts that underpin them… including risks and opportunity costs. My British syndicalist friends obsessed with policing the borders of mutualism and individualist anarchism might gasp to hear me suggest it but, in the absence of physical violence or a broadly coercive context like capitalism, voluntary agreements should be free to involve interest in recognition of subjective costs. Because when reputation is the only enforcement mechanism the state’s mercenary coinage is not positioned as the ultimate good, instead goodwill is. To remove violent enforcement from the equation puts an immediate release valve on any potentially metastasizing power relations and grounds people directly in their social context. The main benefit and promise of mass society is having more degrees of freedom with which to respond to cancerous social forms. If usury or wage labor were to completely overrun a society and catalyze a shift from centrifugal tendencies on wealth to accumulative ones we’d surely consider that society a failure. But interest, like credit, often reflects and models important realities of uncertainty and subjectivity that we’d be likewise insane to always ignore.
The problem in all these situations isn’t modeling, but cognitive simplicity and/or the wrong models. Our tools should not simplify or ignore dynamics but give us more awareness of, options in, and leverage over them.
It is precisely through not simplifying our desires into a form parsable by CEOs, politicians, and general assemblies, but instead embracing their infinite diversity and potency that we can begin to make traction against the forces that need visibility and human interchangeability to control us. Yet our desires will always map onto material realities in one way or another–with ordinal preferences–and scarcities of elements, energy, etc. will always exist. Coordinating their allocation with any remote efficiency is not always hyper important, but for desires and considerations of any complexity they will be. I hear tell it’s hard to build a good radio telescope without at least rounding up both string and coconuts. Hayekian calculation problems are no trivial concern and as hardbaked into the universe as entropy or cryptography. Social forms that don’t prioritize individual agency in the allocation of goods that affect them will lose tons of information. Conversely no matter how complex individuals’ subjective desires, autonomous direct action can maximally convey the relevant underlying information through revealed preference. Unless we all retreat to the most tame of land projects and meditation regimes anyone seeking to build a freer society will need to adopt market forms to some degree.
At the same time anarchists should also be the first to point out the dangers in simplifying these motivations. Problems arise when we lose sight of the roots of our reasons for utilizing markets. One of the most fascinating considerations in Debt is the way popular frameworks of ethics have changed over time as religious, ideological or radical movements got knotted up appealing to the dominant language in their society.
When people start fetishizing the act of exchange as a foundation for ethical analysis–internalizing strategic oughts as full blown motivations unto themselves–danger arises.
Graeber has a complicated and tumultuous affair with the notion of reciprocity throughout Debt‘s pages. On the one hand he wants to point to debt as the source of positive currents in societies, lending weight to his abhorrence for quantification by showing how some use a mesh of debts that are never precisely resolved to build ties of community and brotherhood. On the other hand he wants to reject that in favor of the “Everyday Communism” of community members giving to one another (whether salt or accurate directions) without a second thought. Where accounting is never undertaken and human relations are artificially assumed to be permanent:
the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” will be assumed to apply.
I sympathize strongly with the impulse here, but not the terms of the solution Graeber presents. In trying to seize the pragmatic high ground by abandoning foundational conceptual considerations and speaking instead in terms of groupable existing cultural practices, Graeber inherently blocks himself from anything more robust or potent than the most mundane casual kindness.
“From each according to their abilities to each according to their needs” is nice as a very abstract guiding light but when applied to any non-trivial particulars it rapidly falls apart. Human needs are simply unfathomably complex. Aside from some base considerations like food, water and shelter that could be easily universally assured by merely toppling the state and capitalism, the vast majority of our needs or desires are in no sense objective or satisfyingly conveyable. Measuring exactly whose desire is greater or more of a “necessity” is not just an impossibility but an impulse that trends totalitarian. The closest we can get in ascertaining this in rough terms is through the decentralized expression of our priorities via one-on-one discussions and negotiations. The market in other words. Communism through praxis rather than the attempted omniscience of committees and general assemblies. But a communism in which individuals must proactively stand up for themselves and give voice to the desires and complexities that only they have access to. A communism in which whenever our knowledge of another person’s needs and preferences grows hazy we solve the calculation through a conversation of comparisons with our own. A communism in which we are constantly looking for opportunities to build trust (through tests like exchange and loans) outside our immediate circles so that our conversations can spread wealth faster and dynamics of distrust can be countered.
(Don’t be distracted by the fact that sociopathic wars of all against all can likewise take place in a decentralized one-on-one fashion of hostile discussions and negotiations. In a different environment with different cultural instincts and different, more advanced social organisms, intentions that slide towards the sociopathic can be recognized and organized against before such contagion gains the strength to seriously self-compound.)
In contrast to the communist potential of the market Graeber’s notion of Everyday Communism in which “no accounts are taken” is capable of sliding by in only a tiny region of possible circumstances. I don’t know about you but a communism that’s only maintainable through our ignorance of details sounds awfully unsatisfying, and certainly unstable. Granted, we all instinctively relax a bit at the prospect of any relief from the constant stressful calculations we’re forced to preform under capitalism, where precarity disrupts our thoughts with a blaring hyper-awareness of every last penny, every last contact, every last risk. But that trauma shouldn’t lead to overreaction in blind pursuit of carthesis. The problem is not that accounts are taken, that relationships are mapped, or trust flows established more rigorously, but that we are forced to pay constant attention to a small and crude subsection of these. That our other desires and preoccupations–some involving extraordinary attention to detail–are suppressed. The problem is not the availability of tools and knowledge, but the infrastructure that denies us a choice in them. Keeping accounts of all the details of our interactions with extraordinary degrees of precision, or merely being able to, do not equate always paying attention to those details. As active minds with desires we will always geek out and stress out about things, and the coordination of goods will always remain one. Similarly Graeber’s exhalation to delude ourselves into assuming infinite persistence (in relationships, in societies, etc) is obviously incredibly dangerous and conducive to oppressive situations. Moralizing in favor of ignorance is a dumb strategy for communism and certainly not pragmatic. The dynamics at play in trivial situations like passing the salt to one another and not giving people false directions, while positive, are not scalable blueprints for a better world.
I want to be absolutely clear here. By rejecting Graeber’s “everyday communism” I am not advocating the secondary moral framework he implicitly sets up as competitor or fallback. There are deep issues with ethics built on notions of exchange. Indeed my greatest critique of “everyday communism” is that it doesn’t go far enough in rejecting the ethic of reciprocity. The internalization of the useful strategy of exchange or tit-for-tat into a core motivating obligation is a cognitive error with nasty consequences. In short reciprocity would be recognized and denounced by millennialist rebels throughout history as a respecter of persons; it differentiates the world according to who has done what for us personally rather than who could best benefit. This is fine for many strategic considerations but awful as a motivational framework. Empathy and compassion are not strategic, they are prior to strategy. They’re what set the goals. The oughts of ethical motivations arise when our identity, our selfhood becomes blurred across time and space. To future versions of one’s “self” who’d be irritated if today one didn’t take out the trash, but also to other fountainheads of creativity and inquiry embedded in different contexts, different bodies. It’s not that we in some sense owe them, it’s that we in some sense are them. Albeit subjectively closed from their full context. Such oughts are not external obstacles or dynamics but direct expressions of our selfhood. Our communist motivations precede the realm of strategies and market exchanges, and will on occasion overwrite the heuristics we adopt in those contexts. As in the case of “intellectual property” where there’s no reason to persist in strategies adopted to deal with actual scarcities.
Graeber is not unaware of the dangers to reciprocity as an idea and he tries to stretch it as far as the concept can go without breaking, but what he conjures as an idealic reciprocity in a broad sense is still not enough:
What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the other person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will.
This falls dramatically short of empathy as a foundation for an ethical outlook in two respects, 1) it requires knowledge of the other person’s motivations and 2) it restricts my obligation to merely those who share the same ethos as me. Now I’m not saying that those aren’t strategically important considerations. But most of us would fight to save people from genocide regardless of whether our ethnic or social circles overlapped enough for us to know a damn thing about their motivations. And we’d fight to save them if even we knew they wouldn’t do the same for us.
Indeed, as anarchists putting our lives on the line to fight oppressions that the vast majority of the world silently tolerates or endorses, this is no rarefied academic issue. It’s one that anarchists have grappled with for as long as there have been anarchists. Tensions between egoist theory and altruistic consequentialist practice rivet every single nook and cranny of our movement’s history. Yet as bad as this supposed dissonance has been, many of the grand solutions we’ve flirted with have been even worse. If Kropotkin’s attempt to play realist by embracing mutual aid as “human nature” condemned the anarchist movement to a century of luddism and the natural fallacy run rampant, Graeber is on the verge of canonizing the present generation’s mistakes in which the anarchist decides to play realist by valorizing anti-intellectualism, social capital, and reciprocity.
There are major problems lurking here. We are not “national anarchists” content with a retreat to tribes, with smaller states more attentive in their oppression. Rwanda proved that just as decentralization is always more efficient than centralization, decentralized fascism can be more efficient than centralized fascism. Informal power dynamics matter and must be countered. As do material constraints. A society incapable of complex economic calculation is a society that will leave Einsteins stifling in the fields and the blind without restorative implants.
It’s not enough to merely identify that there are currents of a better world coursing through our veins. We’ve long known this. What should preoccupy us is less what has worked in the past, but what else is possible going forward. Graeber, like all academics, trapped in the land of liberals and sneering marxist dinosaurs, is loathe to commit or substantively consider beyond the most shallow of prescriptions: Abolish the debt. Well of fucking course. Even Chomsky starts to look radical from that position.
Engaging with what is possible–and how to work backward from there to attacks on the existing–requires an analysis deeper than clustered associations from anecdotes. I would love to see left market anarchists and radicals more broadly seriously take up the challenges raised in Debt.
What would currency look like in a freed society? We don’t know, but it’s safe to say it would no more look like the current economy with US treasury notes replaced by silver coins than businesses in the absence of the state would look like Walmart.
There’s been a paucity to our imaginations here too. And mapping out the possibilities, much less learning through praxis which best array meet our situational needs, is sure to be a huge task. I’ve been studying, writing and having conversations about this since 2003 and so too have many mathematicians, economists and computer scientists (“currency” obviously sitting within a much wider phase space of trust and protocol dynamics). There’s interesting work being published on the arXiv, in books and monographs by activist economists like Thomas Greco, and amid the deluge of cryptocurrencies. Indeed the popular explosion of cryocurrencies immediately following the publication of Debt is perhaps one of the most interesting examples of convergent historical pressures, and has seen both truly out there proposals as well as studiously primordial experiments like Ripple and Etherium.
Amusingly a good many libertarians are still kicking themselves today for disregarding Bitcoin thanks to Austrian orthodoxy pretty much rooted in a cobwebbed few paragraph aside by Mises in Human Action. If only they’d paid attention to the man considered by far to be the most likely creator of Bitcoin, Nick Szabo, who wrote extensively on the history and nature of money as a social relation a decade before Debt. Szabo launched off Dawkin’s summary that “money is a formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism” and expanded it into a more rigorous examination, explicitly laying out many of the motivations for Bitcoin:
Collectibles augmented our large brains and language as solutions to the Prisoner’s Dilemma that keeps almost all animals from cooperating via delayed reciprocation with nonkin. Reputational beliefs can suffer from two major kinds of errors — errors of about which person did what, and errors in appraising the value or damages caused by that act. Within clans (the small and immediately local kin group, or extended family, which formed a subset of a tribe), our large brains could minimize these errors, so that public reputation and coercive sanctions superceded the limited motivation provided by the counterparty’s ability to cooperate or defect in the future as the main enforcer of delayed reciprocation. In both homo sapiens neanderthalis and homo sapiens sapiens, with the same large brain size, it is quite likely that every local clan member kept track of everybody other local clan member’s favors. The use of collectibles for trade within the small local kin group may have been minimal. Between clans within a tribe both favor tracking and collectibles were used. Between tribes, collectibles entirely replaced reputation as the enforcer of reciprocation, although violence still played a major role in enforcing rights as well as being a high transaction cost that prevented most kinds of trade.
To be useful as a general-purpose store of wealth and means of wealth transfer, a collectible had to be embedded in at least one institution with a closed-loop cycle, so that the cost of discovering and/or manufacturing the object was amortized over multiple transactions. Furthermore, a collectible was not just any kind of beautiful decorative object. It had to have certain functional properties, such as the security of being wearable on the person, compactness for hiding or burial, and unforgeable costliness. That costliness must have been verifiable by the recipient of the transfer — using many of the same skills that collectors use to appraise collectibles today.
Of course as a vision of an ideal world Bitcoin is problematic in many respects. The environmental cost of the energy consumption is nowhere near as high as has been insinuated but is still arguably unnecessary. The trust model has insufficiently examined weaknesses when it comes to the proliferation of future protocol updates–even just the ratio of core developers to users inherently introduces weaknesses the government has been eager to pressure. And the implicit goal of One Big Currency is just as unreasonable as One Big Union. Any flat global currency will radically fail to match the topologies of trust, reputation, and other diverse human realities it floats on top of – lurking instabilities are inherent. Introducing parallel competing currencies all modeled on the dream of a universal standard hardly solves the problem. My own inclination is that exchange facilitating human reputation systems will trend towards a rhizomatic federative model with every community, collective or congealing association floating their own “currency” in a sense, built to be dynamically recognfigured, and with routing protocols fluidly negotiating the network topology on the fly for individual transactions while retaining far more directed information regarding lines of trust and repute. And indeed Bitcoin has already set off a vast cornucopia of such developments from things like color coins, side chains, and meta coins, to communities like the Lakota nation and Catalonia launching their own alt coins (Catalonia even working on a scheme to bake in basic universal income). Of course it’ll be a while before this development process or praxis achieves everything we want. But in the meantime, in the non-prefigurative actually-existing world of violence distorted markets, we’re having a hard time holding onto even the precondition of a decentralized internet. It’s not just an analogy to note that while the anarchist ideal may be a rich ecology of mesh networks, we’re anemic enough that net neutrality is better than DisneyComcast. And in that context Bitcoin and its variations, must be acknowledged as holding immense practical utility when compared to the current regime. The CNT was a clusterfuck but it did get some good shit done.
And there are a number of things Bitcoin gets right. Whatever sloppily imposed tale of grand historical cycles Graeber cares to conjure, many of the attributes of specie currency are of great utility to resistance movements. If we are to make a serious push back through direct action against global power structures we need the same fungible currencies that gave (and give) lifeblood to pirate utopias and enable millions to hustle out survival under the table. At the same time Bitcoin is caught in a tension with prefiguration by quirk of mathematics which forces every transaction into a public ledger to its satisfy proof of work scheme. This trait was seen as a bug rather than a feature by many Libertarians (and there are a few elaborate schemes in progress to overcome it), but history arguably shows that public ledgers are the more natural framework for currency, from necklaces to clay tablets to marked sticks. The most famous and direct example being the islanders of Yap who carved giant stone coins hundreds of miles away, rafted them home and then simply publicly declared changes of ownership without ever moving them. When a coin was accidentally dropped into the sea on its way to Yap the islanders shrugged and continued to exchange title to it since its physical location was ultimately unimportant. Bitcoin has merely used mathematics to extend the number of parties to such consensuses while freeing our brains to remember and think about other things. (Interestingly this ease has also facilitated an explosion of social gifting which currently constitute the majority of Bitcoin transactions.)
Of course even when it’s possible there can be problems with simply scaling up tools and approaches that work well on the tribal level, just because we can get around Dunbar’s limit on some dynamics doesn’t mean we can for all interrelated dynamics, and to grab onto solutions that have worked before ignoring changes in context is dangerous in the extreme. If a technology–like a currency–can facilitate a liberatory mass society it should be built around enhancing agency and giving folks broader and more fluid choices.
That said, while a great number of problems can be solved by automating the grunt work involved in protocol negotiation, routing, map-learning, stock predictions, etc., even the most furturist general AI will still be starkly limited by Hayekian subjectivity. Unless we buy into the capitalist and state communist vision of limited, controllable desires we will still have to at some point, at some level engage. Even the most advanced tool can’t intuit our needs, or, for example assume a threat or trust model for us. We have to declare our ever changing preferences and contextual considerations, we have to make decisions, we have to actively judge. And it’s here that the issue of what exactly do we want to pay attention to arises. Markets can exist only wherever attention is placed. And some people feel deeply annoyed when huge amounts of attention is placed in areas by others that they don’t want to likewise pay attention to. What should we have markets in? What should we calculate with precision? How can we, in wildly varying situations, mediate between those who for various reasons want to obsess over a dynamic and those who would rather not give a fuck? These are questions often cloaked in combative, reactive rhetoric, but are worth bringing to the fore.
Obviously we shouldn’t just retire human inquiry away at some level of awareness, start some land project and seek no further, but we do occasionally reach plateaus in human computational capacity with diminishing returns. In the absence of a higher-bandwidth language or telepathy, micromanaging our relationships can become counterproductive. When I was a teen I felt horrified and betrayed to overhear a cluster of anarchafeminists bitterly complaining about their sensitive partners checking in about consent on every little action in bed, but the point is actually valid. Over-resolution in a specific realm when it becomes normative can be constraining to those with other priorities in exploration. That said there is of course, ultimately no such thing as over-resolution in our collective striving for understanding in every arena. There’s no area or level to which we all should flinch from examination–regardless of whether we decide we want to live at that granularity in our everyday lives with boring old non-transhuman homo sapiens brains.
We have many problems to solve, from the feedback loops in social capital that drive informal power relations to means for survivors of secret rapists to find one another and coordinate in an untrustworthy environment. A wishful longing for ignorance of historical accounts is not a productive or workable ideal. If there’s one thing I hope readers take away from Debt it’s a calling to geek out on particulars and tackle these dynamics. This isn’t unchartered territory, there’s a lot of really great work going on and tools being forged by heroes. The next chapter on debt, in which many of its forms aren’t abolished from on high but dissolved from below, has still yet to be finished.
So what then to say in conclusion?
I think this summary of Graeber’s is supremely illustrative of the mistakes creeping into his account:
All human interactions are not forms of exchange. Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human relations. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It’s precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.
Yet there are no such thing as unseparated human beings! Every human relationship is deeply predicated upon separation. Until brain-to-brain technology matures and radically scales up the bandwidth of our potential communication even the closest of lovers face strong limits from the subjectivity inherent to individual existence. For some relationships and situations Gift of the Magi style catastrophes are a tolerable bullet to bite, but only ever to a certain degree. And as we shake off the shackles of capitalism and let our desires stretch such confusions and logjams will become even less cute.
Further, the notion that “equality is restored” wildly ignores what social currency was about imperfectly declaring: standing and trustworthiness, realities that don’t have to be hierarchical and assessments thereof that don’t have to be collectively managed. When the neighbor returns precisely one cup of rice and maybe a little more as agreed on, that doesn’t have to cancel the relationship, it can enhance it by proving trustworthiness. I am freeing you to have agency in your association with me, so that our friendship might be richer for the knowledge that we are not bound by material considerations. Only with such knowledge can we be capable of developing real affinities. A consensual society should be built off knowing we can reconfigure our social relations at any moment. That their substance lies not in ossified roles or identities but in empathy.
In an understandable but dangerous rush to paint a clean picture David Graeber ignores a host of other possibilities and paints an all-too-cute historical progression and taxonomy in which all human societies mix different degrees of hierarchical, communistic, and market oriented dynamics. But markets, in his tale, are primarily a confused state of affairs in which any permanence or substance to human relations is dissolved and everything is quantified. And the unquantified, unexamined, unmapped ignorance of communism is bliss.
Whatever moralistic language may sometimes cling to them, markets themselves are not rooted in cultural confusion but in inescapable material and game theoretic realities. Currency resolves an important issue in mass societies and while it can have problems they can be solved with more mathematical nuance not less.
We should be incredibly suspicious of valorizing alternatives like Maussian gift economies that embrace interpersonal power dynamics rather than working to negate them. And Graeber’s communism-as-a-deliberate-state-of-ignorance hardly serves any better. If we really care about one another, if we really want to build a freer world from an orientation of empathy and compassion, if we’re really concerned about the crystalization of hierarchies, we owe it to ourselves to be maximally vigilant, to seize every tool at our disposal and remain unpetrified of exploring root dynamics.
It is the interplay of desire and math that ultimately shapes what is possible, not sweeping historical impressions or awkward taxonomies of cultural dynamics. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is an exhilarating storm of anecdotes and with many insightful themes, but it flounders in many respects when it seeks to draw lessons from history.
The past is no cage for the future.
Demagoguery Not Anarchism
You know what I love most about the milieu? The level of our discourse.
Magpie Killjoy’s lobbed a short trollish broadside at Markets Not Capitalism calling it “racist” and “disgusting.” Of course he’s couched his hodgepodge assembly of emotionally-charged misreads with a few notes about how he has no fundamental objection to market anarchism per se and that many of the views inside Markets Not Capitalism are legitimately anarchist, but nuance doesn’t bring the pageviews and rallying the troops against teh ancap scourge–tendrils to be found in your very collective!–does.
There’s not much to work with here but I’ll throw down for the heck of it, if only because there’s a thread of reasonableness to his objections, however inaccurately they fit his target. (more…)
Trust Feedback Loops In Situations of Forced Consumption
The spontaneous emergence of oligarchies from egalitarian markets is a reoccuring fear to communists of all stripes and while the historical prompts of this fear can be easily shown to be horribly misinterpreted, the concern itself is not entirely without merit. Every so often a mathematical model comes along that bears some metaphorical resemblance to actual markets under certain conditions/assumptions and demonstrates a disturbing emergence of oligarchal tendencies. Markets, like ecosystems, are richly dynamic systems and the dangers exposed by toy models can speak to real ones, but they also tend to ignore emergent meta-complexities to the market that are in reality fundamental mechanisms of course-correction. Markets work precisely because they’re not simple and can evolve around problems by taking into account more context, moving into a higher-dimensional phase-space and generating new feedback loops to suppress lower level ones.
Today’s big hit is a cute little paper by a couple econophysicists in Bremen. They built a toy model where a whole bunch of limited agents each have two types of interactions: they decide a ‘trustworthiness’ value for themselves [0-1] as well as who all to contract with, and strategize to maximize the number of folks contracting with them times those folks’ trustworthiness and minimize their own trustworthiness in the contracts they initialize with others (each agent is forced to initiate said contracts/interactions with a set number of people per round). This asymmetry between initiated interactions and responsive interactions is intended to mirror a distinction between selling and buying and I’ll stick to that metaphor from here on out although it’s not unproblematic. Who to buy from in this model is decided by a straight comparison of prices while sellers set prices (quality/trustworthiness) by comparing the immediately preceding prices and resulting payoffs of their competitors. Long story short there were three major environmental variables, the set number of people the buyers were forced to buy from, a randomness factor localized to a single agent each iteration and the relative speed at which buyers updated their strategies versus sellers. The resulting system behavior revealed that this market had only two stable points: extreme competition (selling with next to no profit above marginal costs) or extreme cartelization (sellers get ridiculous profit).
No freaking duh. Said runaway cartelization is a direct result of the defining obligations imposed upon buyers. The number of sellers one’s obliged to sell to [K] is explicitly recognized as a big one, if the whole market is raising prices like crazy and one person deviates a little to undercut their competitors they don’t get appropriately flooded with payoffs from buyers because those buyers are obliged to buy from K sellers (of which the undercutter is just one). But most importantly K isn’t a strategic choice that can be set to 0 (through savings, austerity, DIY, etc) for extended periods by the buyers or lowered via model-external tradeoffs. Essentially what’s being modeled is forced consumption. It should be intuitively obvious that forced consumption will have a tendency to drive up prices as if sellers were operating as a cartel, if only because whatever’s artificially forcing buyers to buy no matter what IS usually in reality a cartel. The authors repeatedly emphasize gas prices as the best example and it doesn’t take unusual knowledge of history or political economy to recognize the role the state has plated in establishing the fixed demand there.
Predictably, coverage of this paper has largely played to the popular myth that free markets inexorably lead to oligarchies, which is a little sad because the best part of the paper is the quantitative analysis of response time in determining the critical point between competition and cartelization. How fast sellers and buyers pick up on market changes and adapt their strategies relative to one another is obviously of huge importance in the fight over what emerges. And this is actually a left-libertarian point: insofar as situations arise where smaller market actors are forced to consume rigidly they can leverage their well-known calculational advantages against larger more sluggish actors (usually the ones responsible for the situation). And in the other direction, where larger firms typify the position of buyer and individuals typify sellers (as with labor), such “cartelization” effects would be positive. Whether through solidarity unionism or more diffuse mechanisms like RateMyBoss.com, we want to drive them out of business after all.
Of course while this provides further impetus for the development of information technologies empowering consumers, there are obvious difficulties in practice for unrestrained market mechanisms alone when our existing “market” is already so far gone to cartelization (precarity, etc), but that’s what molotovs and pikes are for.
Markets Not Capitalism
The notion that capitalism exemplifies a free market is akin to the notion that a few wilting geraniums in a greenhouse constitute an ecosystem. Markets are useful tools for an egalitarian society — properly defined they are of unparalleled potential — but explaining this utility has become as difficult as explaining the utility of ecology to residents of a hermetic space station who only remember the upsets caused by runaway fungus in their food vats. We cannot expect our abstract proofs to spark the imagination of radicals until the cancers and catastrophes of our near-terminal society are properly contextualized. And boy are there are a lot of them.
Markets Not Capitalism is a powerful and long-overdue compilation of Market Anarchist thought. And although editors Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier seem to have made the farcical mistake of including a couple of my pieces they have done an amazing job on the whole.
Quoth Charles in his excellent introduction:
Market anarchists believe in market exchange, not in economic privilege. They believe in free markets, not in capitalism. What makes them anarchists is their belief in a fully free and consensual society — a society in which order is achieved not through legal force or political government, but through free agreements and voluntary cooperation on a basis of equality. What makes them market anarchists is their recognition of free market exchange as a vital medium for peacefully anarchic social order. But the markets they envision are not like the privilege-riddled “markets” we see around us today. Markets laboring under government and capitalism are pervaded by persistent poverty, ecological destruction, radical inequalities of wealth, and concentrated power in the hands of corporations, bosses, and landlords. The consensus view is that exploitation — whether of human beings or of nature — is simply the natural result of markets left unleashed. The consensus view holds that private property, competitive pressure, and the profit motive must — whether for good or for ill — inevitably lead to capitalistic wage-labor, to the concentration of wealth and social power in the hands of a select class, or to business practices based on growth at all costs and the devil take the hindmost.
Market anarchists dissent. They argue that economic privilege is a real and pervasive social problem, but that the problem is not a problem of private property, competition, or profits per se. It is not a problem of the market form but of markets deformed — deformed by the long shadow of historical injustices and the ongoing, continuous exercise of legal privilege on behalf of capital. The market anarchist tradition is radically pro-market and anti-capitalist — reflecting its consistent concern with the deeply political character of corporate power, the dependence of economic elites on the tolerance or active support of the state, the permeable barriers between political and economic elites, and the cultural embeddedness of hierarchies established and maintained by state-perpetrated and state-sanctioned violence.
Markets Not Capitalism will be available in print on the 5th of November from Autonomedia, AK Press and the Distro of the Libertarian Left. It’s also available online to read at Scribd or download directly because that’s how real anarchists roll.
From Whence Do Property Titles Arise?
Many market theorists take property titles as axiomatic and then develop coercive apparatuses to enforce them — justifying such coercion by appealing to notions like implicit consent and/or the justness of contracts that sell off part of one’s agency in the future. This rightfully bugs the crap out of many anarcho-communists. Left market theorists in turn tend to write off these apprehensions as a contention over differing ideal systems of property — ie differences over what constitutes abandonment and the general viability of collective property.
But this, as I’ve argued time and time again, is a profoundly limited understanding of the criticisms being lobbed against them.
First off, not every system of mediating between different people’s desires or uses for objects is describable in terms of property titles. Property titles are claims by discrete agents to absolute veto power over the use of an object; they’re a construct used for negotiating between the justness of uses by individuals with competing intentions for an object. Property titles solve the problem by determining whether A or B then gets to personally make the decision between direction 1 or 2 for a given object.
But this clearly isn’t the only way to approach such situations.
When anarcho-communists talk of societies without the concept of property they often mean a social system where decisions over how to use any specific object or resource are never limited to a discrete body of select individuals but are rather discussions open to anyone and everyone with a stake, desire or idea to contribute. There the critical economic entities are directions rather than veto-titles, concepts rather than individuals. The mediation processes possible can be incredibly complex and dynamic. So on a protozoic level you might have simple discussion or unchallenged focus (I specialize in the use of a single toothbrush and consequently, given that toothbrushes’ historical context, not many people are going to have a more useful proposal for its use). While aggregate systems of more advanced mechanisms are visible in the open source development. In short where the most scarce resource is personal time and the weight of one’s voice is the nearest thing to currency. At the same time there are often scarcities in space (functionally identical to material) for widely varying projects and in response entire ecosystems of discussion open up. It’s worth noting that under many systems of property-titles if the legal experts cannot reach consensus on who is the legitimate owner of an object nothing is done with the object in the meantime. Those involved in contending differing uses for an object in a property-less society are directly capable of far more diverse means of negotiation, but so to, if they can’t reach consensus, then nothing is done with the object. Because literally everyone in the world has the capacity to veto.
To some this might appear — while a philosophically coherent counter-proposal to property, and even briefly workable on a small level — completely batshit insane. And maybe so. But in practice such external-to-property approaches are often workable enough. The lone immature interjecting troublemaker, or any other conceivable exploit of consensus, simply doesn’t exist after a few social iterations. Because everyone is dependent upon everyone else, no matter how distant a community they come from and thus its in their interest to maintain, develop and convey goodwill.
Obviously however, just because such differing economic approaches might make better software for a fraction of the energy Microsoft spends doesn’t mean that it can do things like move goods between locations to satisfy demand efficiently or signal all the costs of one consumption versus another. Without the capacity to assign value to spatial/physical relationships (as with the realm of actors and objects) one can’t concretely mediate between those relationships. And whatever the dominant dilemmas might be in primitive cultures of plenty or posthuman hives of nanobots, it shouldn’t be particularly controversial to assert that the placement of material objects is the central calculational problem in the world today. Some form of property titles seems called for, however sticky, however collectively or individually managed.
The point is that’s a debate over fitness. While it may be undesirable, it remains entirely possible to construct a society outside of property altogether.
Following the popular slogan “Everything for Everyone” the stubborn market theorist might still proclaim that such a society would still count as a system with property title expanded to everyone. While practically meaningless this wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But as a theoretical framework in such instance property titles would be missing the point. No one in that society would think in anything approaching such terms.
Which leads us to a second critique of property.
It’s not hard to come to the conclusion that the very adoption of property titles in our minds leads toward a worldview of increasing compartmentalization and taxonomy. Indeed this is a popular assumption. By progressively chopping up the world around us, the notion goes, we become inclined to view the world solely as a tally sheet of ownership.
Forgive the digression to my 90s Nickelodeon childhood, but in illustration I am reminded of an episode of Angry Beavers in which the brothers suddenly discover that they each have a musk pouch capable of marking items with a colored personal stench that repels everyone but themselves. This quickly sets off a war of personal claim until the entire world is divvied up with one stench or the other, each brother more and more completely obsessed with the tally until they can think of nothing else.
This is perhaps the most classic criticism of capitalism — one of simple psychology — and yet it seems to be a critique market theorists are incapable of parsing. To many an anti-capitalist the problem with the capitalist framework is its inherent bent towards materialism, ultimately to the point of treating human beings as objects. But this is incomprehensible for Libertarians because they see respect for property titles as entirely stemming from a respect for personal agency. In practical, everyday terms respect for another person’s agency often comes down to a respect for the inviolability of their body. Do not shoot them, do not rape them, do not torture them. Because humans are tool using creatures like hermit crabs there is often no clear line between our biomass and our possessions (we use clothes instead of fur, retain dead mass excreted as hair follicles, etc.), and so a respect for another’s person seems to extend in some ways to a respect for things that they use. Begin to talk of Rights and these associations must be drawn more absolutely. And sure enough we already have a common sense proscription often enforced in absolutist terms that matches this intuition; do not steal.
Yet the anti-capitalists are clearly on to something. Even setting aside the evolutionary cognitive biases of homo sapiens, we as individuals have limited processing. We can’t think everything at the same time. If some of the thought processes necessary to succeed and flourish under in a given system run out of control and take up more and more space, others — like those behind why we adopted that system in the first place — will get pushed to the periphery.
If a certain metric is set as the alpha and omega of a society, whether it be the acquisition of a specific universal currency or simply aggregate atoms, its status as the requirement or key to any pursuit or desire can end up having an effect upon those pursuits and desires.
Anti-capitalists often disingenuously blur the distinction between wealth and coercive power — wealth and/or disequilibria in wealth do not inherently have to grant any capacity for social control — but it’s certainly true that direct pursuits of power and wealth share the same form. Singlemindedness is progressively rewarded, until the inertia of this approach crowds out of mind the reason we originally assigned value to wealth or power.
Consequently, rather than focus on accumulating property titles or money as a gateway to opportunity, anarcho-communists argue, we should focus on accumulating goodwill.
I don’t disagree.
But once you characterize this focus on goodwill in market terms, a la something similar to Doctorow’s reputation markets, the path out of all these tangles becomes apparent. It seems pretty damn clear that property titles are a tool with incredible utility in the world as it exists today and the technical challenges we face. As such it stands to reason that those within a goodwill focused anarcho-communist society stand a comparative advantage to negotiate and adopt a second-order system for developing and recognizing property titles. Regardless of precisely how their market ends up dynamically mediating this, goodwill would remain the primary good capable of being turned into, among other things, selective veto use titles to physical objects. As such we can clear the psychological hurtle: without a state coerced enforcement system underpinning property titles or centralized banks and currency, property titles are not as stable or universally applicable an investment as goodwill. And goodwill, as opposed to property titles, is directly, methodologically tied to appreciating and respecting people as agents.*
This suggests a way to tackle fringe conditions in ownership. Rothbard readily recognized, for instance, that a world in which one man held title to everything would clearly be indiscernible from tyranny. Expand the number of owners and you’d still have an oligarchy. Even granting a token amount of wealth to the rest of the populace wouldn’t necessarily jump start the market and allow it to drift back in a more dynamic and egalitarian direction, because said wealth may simply be insufficient as capital.
However, if property is a second-order good derived from market institutions based in reputation/goodwill/credit, then if one class systematically fucked over their credit with all of another class the underclass would no longer have any incentive to respect their title claims because no individual within it would fear even marginal sanction or loss of goodwill for occupying and appropriating their wealth. Simply put, if before anyone else can do anything on a new colony I create robots to till the entire surface of the planet, that doesn’t inherently create an incentive among the rest of the colonists to respect a veto-use claim on my part to the entire planet. If others admire and derive value from my mass-tilling project (or from the potential products of it) then my voice is more likely to be respected in discussion over its uses, but if I want to obtain acceptance of a veto-use claim, it would have to derive from the desire of others’ desire of social conditions of respect conducive to undertaking their own projects and having their own stuff respected. One gravitates towards adopting property titles because through their exchange one can much further maximize the satiation of one’s desires (agreeing to butt the hell out of other people’s decisions when it comes to the use of certain objects in exchange for them butting the hell out of your decisions with other objects). Accepting my ownership of literally everything would make that impossible.
Not only does this cope with such boundary conditions, but it also addresses old marxist paranoia about the runaway accumulation of wealth through usury.
Viewed in the light of a reputation market, Jeremy Weiland’s old point is even more apt: without the state the more wealth you control the more ridiculously you stand to risk having to pay through the nose to secure against theft and betrayal from those you’re paying.
It’s easier to steal a million dollars from the bank, or a vault, than to rob a thousand or so common people. … It may be that in a free market there will exist a natural, mean personal wealth value, beyond which diminishing returns enter quickly, and below which one is extremely disposed towards profit and enrichment.
It’s a distinction between information and objects; ultimately you can’t steal good credit. People’s trust, goodwill and their whole panorama of intention towards you exists within them internally. It’s accessible by anyone anywhere, but they’re the only ones capable of changing it. There are no banks it can be kept within, only distributed collective or institutional relay points through which it can be conveyed. And trust critically underlies all material transactions.
Incidentally this renders the entire debate over proposed systematic prohibitions of wages, rent, and interest moot. Obviously all will be, in some contexts, however fringe, desirably or neutrally regarded by all parties. But even if they crop up as large phenomenon, that’s not reason to panic, flip the fuck out and organize shit like armed roving ‘homesteaders’ with ideologically precise definitions of legitimate property. Instead the market will already be ready to grind down or impede any vast swathes of accumulated wealth because it will be the market that negotiates the acceptance of said wealth. Not necessarily through malicious crime, but through higher-level market mechanisms that ultimately give rise the extent and strength of claim.
As a market it might not look much like the idealized American myth of our simplistic contemporary ‘market.’ But then we knew it wouldn’t.
* There is a point to be made here about the problem of manipulation, but I think it’s a much broader point that no structural system can address directly, because on such a level we can’t dictate intent, we can only recognize and work around biases. So it’s no more a fundamental problem than it is for anarcho-communism. That said, I think intent and psychological issues of control are rightfully at the very core of the anarchist project. It just falls outside the purview of this discussion.
Calling All Haters Of Anarcho-Capitalism
Roderick T Long has a wonderful article on Market Anarchism and Anarcho-Capitalism that you absolutely need to read. But if I just put it in a link, chances are you won’t follow it. So I’m going to make things even easier for you and quote the whole friggin article here so you won’t even have to go anywhere.
It’s fun, interesting and short, I promise. And afterward I’ll savage it so you won’t have to.
Okay? Here goes [emphasis mine]:
Consider the following two lists of names:
Group 1 Group 2 Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
Stephen Pearl Andrews
Francis D. Tandy
John Henry Mackay
Voltairine de Cleyre (early)
Gustave de Molinari
Herbert Spencer (early)
Rose Wilder Lane
Samuel E. Konkin 3.0
It’s obvious what the two lists have in common: all the names on both lists belong to thinkers who have favoured radically free markets and the abolition of the state – hence, one might infer, market anarchists.
But it’s quite common in left-anarchist circles to insist that while the Group 1 thinkers are genuine anarchists, those in Group 2 are not true anarchists at all – on the grounds that true anarchists must oppose not only the state but also capitalism. Group 1, we’re told, is commendably anti-capitalist and so authentically anarchist; but the members of Group 2 exclude themselves from the anarchist ranks by their advocacy of capitalism. (I’m not sure into which group geolibs like Albert J. Nock and Frank Chodorov, or migrating thinkers like Karl Hess, are supposed to fall, so I left their names off.)
I am not a fan, needless to say, of this putative distinction between “true” and “false” market anarchists. I plan to criticise the case for the distinction in fuller detail on a future occasion; for now I’ll limit myself to two major points.
First: those who draw this distinction are hardly ever market anarchists themselves. They are more often anarcho-communists or anarcho-collectivists who regard both Group 1 and Group 2 as making unacceptable concessions to economic individualism. (Indeed they often dismiss even their favoured Group 1 – apart from Proudhon, anyway – as “Stirnerites,” even though most of the Group 1 thinkers developed their views independently of Max Stirner; in fact even Tucker, the clearest “Stirnerite” of the lot, was already a committed market anarchist before he’d ever encountered Stirner’s ideas.) When anti-market anarchists propose to decide who is and who isn’t a genuine market anarchist, it’s a bit like Christians demanding the right to adjudicate the dispute between Shi’ites and Sunnis. (One suspects that some of the anti-market folks would really like to purge both groups of market anarchists, but the anarchist credentials of Group 1 are too well-established for that to be a practical solution.)
Rather than inquiring as to the opinions of anti-market anarchists, then, it would seem more relevant to know whether the Group 1 thinkers regarded Group 2 as fellow-anarchists or not. And in fact such Group 2 luminaries as Molinari, Donisthorpe, and the early Spencer were indeed all hailed in the pages of Tucker’s Liberty (the chief American organ of individualist anarchism, which published most of the Group 1 writers) as anarchists – and Herbert as a near-anarchist. (Donisthorpe even wrote both for Liberty and for the journal of the Liberty and Property Defence League – thus bridging a supposedly unbridgeable ideological gulf.) Thus America’s leading Group 1 spokesman, while certainly critical of Group 2 thinkers on various points, apparently had no problem recognising them as fellow-anarchists. (Compare also the largely favourable attitude today of Tuckerite Kevin Carson toward Rothbardians and Konkinites.)
Nor was this because Tucker was especially generous with the term “anarchist.” On the contrary, Tucker withheld the term from anarcho-communists like Johann Most, Pëtr Kropotkin, and the Haymarket martyrs; from Tucker’s point of view, it was they, not the Spencerians, who were “false” anarchists. Needless to say, I don’t advocate following Tucker’s example on this point; one parochialism is no improvement over the other. But the fact that the editor of Liberty – who always called his position “consistent Manchesterism” – felt less close to contemporary anarcho-communists than to the forerunners of “anarcho-capitalism” (for surely Tucker’s views on Molinari and the radical Spencerians seem like the best guide we could have to what his views would most likely have been on Rothbard, Friedman, etc.) tells against the simplistic division of market anarchists into socialistic sheep and capitalistic goats. (Indeed the contributors to Liberty cited Spencer as often as they did Proudhon; while, for that matter, Karl Marx complained that Proudhon himself was more respectful toward quasi-anarchic classical liberals like Charles Dunoyer than toward revolutionary communists like Étienne Cabet.)
Second: it’s thoroughly unclear by what criteria Group 1 and Group 2 are supposed to be distinguished. Defenders of the dichotomy insist that Group 1 is “anti-capitalist” while Group 2 is “pro-capitalist”; but in order for this to be a useful marker it needs to be substantive, not merely terminological. The fact that Group 1 thinkers tend to use “socialism” as a virtue-word and “capitalism” as a vice-word, while Group 2 thinkers tend to do the reverse, by itself means little; because the two groups clearly do not mean the same things by these terms. Most Group 2 thinkers use the term “capitalism” to mean an unregulated free market, and use the term “socialism” to mean government control; most Group 1 thinkers use those terms differently, but agree with their Group 2 counterparts in favouring free markets and opposing government control, by whatever names they may call them. In Thomas Hobbes’s words: “Words are wise men’s counters, they do but reckon by them; but they are the money of fools.”
Given the enormous variability in the use of the term “capitalism,” then, it will hardly do to base a crucial distinction among antistate thinkers on their attitudes to some undefined abstraction called “capitalism.” We need to know what specific positions are supposed to divide Group 1 and Group 2. But it’s awfully hard to find positions that divide the two groups in the desired way.
Is it their stand on the labour theory of value? Except insofar as that translates into policy differences, what difference does that make?
Is it their stand on the wages system and the exploitation of labour by capital? By that standard, Group 2 thinkers Spencer, Konkin, and Friedman, who favoured abolition of wage labour, all belong in Group 1, while Molinari and Donisthorpe, who favoured reforming the wages system to shift the power balance in workers’ favour, fall somewhere between the two groups.
Is it their stand on land ownership and rent? By that standard Spencer, in rejecting land ownership entirely, is more “socialistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 1, while Spooner, in endorsing absentee landlordism, is more “capitalistic” than Tucker and so belongs in Group 2.
Is it their stand on protection agencies and private police as quasi-governmental? By that standard Tucker, Tandy, and Proudhon, who all favoured private police, belong in “pseudo-anarchistic” Group 2, while LeFevre, who rejected all violence even for defensive purposes, would have to be moved to Group 1.
Is it their stand on intellectual property? By that standard, IP fan Spooner would have to be assigned to the “pro-property” Group 2, while most present-day Rothbardians, as IP foes, would need to be shifted to the “anti-property” Group 1.
Is it their stand on the legitimacy of interest? Well, perhaps in the abstract; but both sides tend to predict a drastic fall in the price of loans as the result of free competition in the credit industry; and both deny that it will fall to zero. Group 1 thinkers tend to call this nonzero residuum “cost” while Group 2 thinkers tend to call it “interest”; ho-hum. This seems a weak reed to burden with so weighty a dichotomy.
None of the criteria I’ve most often seen appealed to, then, seem to divide the two groups in the desired manner based on concrete positions. I suspect what actually drives proponents of the purported dichotomy is no specific policy dispute but rather a general feeling that Group 2’s pro-market rhetoric is a cover for a rationalisation of the power relations that prevail in existing corporate capitalism, while Group 1’s likewise pro-market rhetoric – however misguided it may appear in the eyes of the dichotomists – is not. And that perception in turn is based, I suspect, on the fact that Group 2 thinkers are more likely than Group 1 thinkers to fall into what Kevin Carson has labeled “vulgar libertarianism,” that is, the error of treating defenses of the free market as though they served to justify various features of the prevailing not-so-free order.
Now it’s true enough that Group 2 is more liable to this unfortunate tendency than is Group 1. But:
a) few Group 2 thinkers commit the error consistently;
b) some Group 2 thinkers (e.g. Konkin, or 1960s Rothbard – or Hess, if he counts as Group 2) don’t seem to commit it much at all;
c) vulgar-libbin’ seems no worse an error, no stronger a reason to kick somebody out of the anarchist club, than, say, Proudhon’s egregious misogyny and anti-Semitism; and
d) if confusing free markets with corporate capitalism isn’t grounds to disqualify anti-market anarchists (who often seem to commit the same error in the opposite direction), why should it be grounds to disqualify vulgar-libbers?
Hence I see no defensible grounds for accepting any dichotomy between Groups 1 and 2. They are all market anarchists – with various virtues and various flaws, but comrades all.
Okay. Still with me? Cool. Now I said I would savage Professor Long’s underlying point –that is to say the inclusion of group 2 as valid anarchists– and I will, but first let’s stop and have a look at what he’s saying because he makes some very valid points along the way.
1.) The sacred, blessed division between individualist anarchists and the dread anarcho-capitalists is a distinction largely invented and arrogantly imposed by Kropotkin followers who have absolutely no understanding, experience with or connection to market anarchism.
2.) Using opposition to the term “capitalism” as a litmus test for inclusion in “anarchism” is a slimy, underhanded decades-old tactic on the part of the reds to ideologically center the movement on their own tradition and purge divergent perspectives. And furthermore it bears little or no reality given the obvious fluidity of the term and the deep intermingling of both groups. (Voltairine herself wasn’t afraid to associate with the label of capitalist.)
Both of these points are absolutely right on the money. And they lay out how and why Social Anarchists crusading against Anarcho-Capitalism often come off as such assholes. (If not immature stalinists.)
Plain fact of the matter is a good number of the people in Group 2 –that is to say “anarcho”-capitalists– are obviously, plainly and resoundingly not anarchists.
That’s non-negotiable. We may be pretty loose and encompassing on some things… But we’re not an open tent for every wayward anti-state fascist to come in and shit all over the floor just because they feel like it. (I would direct you towards postmodernism.)
Professor Long addresses a whole bunch of academic criteria, but they’re all beside the fucking point. “Anarchy” –in one of the most brilliant, clear and crystalline etymologies available in political ideology/idealism– is defined by its opposition to rulership. All forms of rulership.
Insofar as you begin to oppose all forms of rulership you move towards anarchism.
One can whine and wheedle all one likes about Spooner’s support for intellectual property or Bakunin’s anti-semitism –and let’s not even begin on Proudhon!– but you can’t compare today’s vulgar-libertarian excusists for privilege and corporate power with our fledgling predecessors. Even if there ever was an excuse for the failings of such proto-anarchists, there certainly exists no such excuse today.
We have moved on.
Moved closer to anarchism. Adopted a stronger rejection of rulership. And that progress –that fervent and passionate pursuit– is clearly not mirrored within the libertarian tradition.
“Race-realists,” social-Darwinians, corporatists, classists, misogynists, homophobes and plain authoritarian bastards abound in the “anarcho”-capitalist movement.
And certainly we too have our share of assholes and stalinists –as our abhorrent handling of anarcho-capitalism so clearly demonstrates. But we’re working on it.
We don’t and haven’t ever seen our present condition to be adequate or acceptable. We’re perpetually self-critiquing, always looking for ways to grow. To be better anarchists. To be more anarchist.
And that’s something that’s plainly not apparent or important in anarcho-capitalist circles. The buzzword is stagnation. Anarcho-capitalism as a political philosophy and as a social movement has grown around the self-justification of power and identity. Of privilege and psychosis. They already have all the answers —abolish the US government– in a neat, clean packaging that comfortably strokes the rest of their identity.
Because the abolition of the Westphalian nationstate system magically frees them from all moral quandaries. Don’t like something, well then that’s your fault. It’s an instant get-out-of-empathy-free card, a quiet euthanasia for their pesky conscience. With socialism as the all-purpose big baddie, they can divorce themselves from all connection to their humanity… all under the rubric of resisting Soviet Death Camp Evil.
But here’s news for yah: Anarchism has as little to do with anti-statism as it does with anti-capitalism.
That’s not the point.
Such minor details are byproducts of our underlying morality. …And almost inconsequential in our day-to-day lives.
As an Anarchist my first and foremost priority is the abolition of power structures and blind faiths. And the most powerful, most pressing, of these are in the daily interpersonal relations and frameworks we all associate within. Racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, these are no more abstract platonic forces than the battered-child psychosis that moves a cop to raise his truncheon. They are products of our minds.
Acquiescence to authority, to the ‘state’ of social power structures in our world. To domination, subjugation and victimization. To the irrational calculus of hatred and greed. These are the viral roots –the radis– of rulership. Of what is known alternatively as authority, hierarchy and sociological power. And our unflinching pursuit of these roots, our inability to accept blithe abstractions or simplifications is what makes Anarchism the most radical realization of political philosophy.
I harp on a lot about anarcho-capitalism and market anarchism to my friends within the social movement. But what drives my distaste with the scene’s inquisition against ancaps is not the equal or acceptable nature of the anarcho-capitalist movement compared to our own, but horrified outrage at the manner, the behavior and conduct of those I expect better from. I could give a shit if David Friedman’s a homophobe. I’ve never been given any reason to consider him an anarchist and I don’t. But when social anarchists start behaving like stalinist goons I get seriously upset.
Because interpersonal forms of power, of coercion, of violence… of rulership are not acceptable. And yes, that damn well means the subtle stuff. You can’t extract the cruel words spoken from husband to wife from the whole fucking system of inequalities (in opportunity) and domineering psychological coercion backed up with centralized, structured physical force. You want to tell me that psychological forms of control are less important than some direct and showy physical instrumentation? It’s all psychological! The gun or the schoolteacher’s blackboard, the BET music video, that’s a bullshit distinction. And every time an ancap makes it –spewing their aloof privilege all over the place– their economic ideas are taken a lot less seriously.
Let me tell you, every time I get social anarchists to put aside their immature hate-mongering of anarcho-capitalism and have a serious discussion it’s not the historically fluid definition of capitalism that concerns them, it’s the nature of the anarcho-capitalist movement. Okay, fine, they eventually smilingly cede, they may have some interesting or semi-valid anti-authoritarian economics, blah, blah blah. But come on Will, do you seriously think they’ve got the interpersonal down? Have you ever been to their websites?! Sure, they may be anti-state but even if I grant that they’re effectively anti-kapitalism, does that really add up to a hill of beans? Come on.
And every time I’m forced to cede that yeah, okay, so they’re not really anarchists by and large. Anymore than we’d consider those old dead white male proto-anarchists were they to suddenly be resurrected. But, hey, let’s stop being dicks to them.
Well… because there are some good ones. Some. Okay, they may not have been part of the dozens you’ve interacted with. But I swear to you they do exist. No it’s not like some rare bird.
And if I really persist they’ll end the conversation like so: When they do something anything, anything. Besides sit behind a computer screen, act like assholes and maliciously dilute the definition of anarchism to meaninglessness. When they organize a single factory with an individualistic alternative to union collectivism. When they start a project to feed the homeless. When they take up arms in a campaign against a fascist government. When they do more than talk. Or even just address the racism, sexism and assorted bullshit rife in their movement and start seriously working to self-improve. …Then maybe I’ll consider your points. But until then. Dude. CAPITALISM.
And then we drop the issue and walk on. Talking about how beauty is hierarchy. How patriarchy may in fact make it impossible for males to indicate interest without breaking some measure of consent. How the singularity might impose new hierarchies through energy-matter concentration. How relativity will make post-earth societies equalize towards anarchism. How Stirner’s authoritarianism came from his unwillingness to fully explore individualism. How symbolic logic is the root of all alienation. How anarchist parenting circles have begun to incubate justifications for ever-so-slight forms of authoritarianism. Who’s becoming a rockstar personality within the scene. Where the best Hummus can be dumpstered. And what’s the latest from the comrades we know in Greece/Argentina/Mexico/Ireland/Palestine/Turkey/Denmark/Korea…
And we don’t talk about market economics. We don’t exchange examples and models of Rothbardian solutions to organizing problems. We don’t apply the subjective theory of value to more fluidly and organically back up our criticisms of economic authoritarianism. And at the end of the day they don’t move beyond the same old creaking Marxist bullshit.
The Freed Market
One of the tactics I’ve taken up in the anarchist economics wars is to refer to our modern corporatist/mercantilist/lovecraftian mix of economic systems as “Kapitalism” and when referencing Ancaps go out of my way to use “Anarcho”-Capitalist and Anarcho-“Capitalist” as distinct labels.
These have proved decent if not pretty effective ways of kicking a wedge into their thinking and forcing a degree of nuance into the discussion. But they’re distinctions primarily aimed at the willfully ignorant bullying Reds who – while certainly annoying – are nowhere near as atrocious as the out-and-out Vulgar Libertarians. The corporate apologists who actually approve of the modern cesspit the Reds call “Capitalism.” You know the ones. The contrarian brats who consider Somalia a utopia. The ones that fit the Reds’ stereotypes so hardcore that all intelligence is immediately sucked into an event horizon of “poor people obviously deserve to starve to death, screw ‘em” and “yeah, well after the Revolution we’ll put your family in death camps and expropriate all your stuff.”
Well, by blessed typo I’ve stumbled across a very effective counter to them. Instead of referring to the behavior and dynamics of the free market, I refer instead to “a freed market.”
You’d be surprised how much of a difference a change of tense can make.
“Free market” makes it sound like such a thing already exists and thus passively perpetuates the Red myth that Corporatism and wanton accumulation of Kapital are the natural consequences of free association and competition between individuals. (It is not.)
But “freed” has an element of distance and, whatsmore, a degree of action to it. It becomes so much easier to state things like: Freed markets don’t have corporations. A freed market naturally equalizes wealth. Social hierarchy is by definition inefficient and this is particularly evident in freed markets.
It moves us out of the present tense and into the theoretical realm of “after the revolution,” where like the Reds we can still use present day examples to back theory, but we’re not tied into implicitly defending every horror in today’s market. It’s easier to pick out separate mechanics in the market and make distinctions. Also, have I mentioned that it makes an implicit call to action?
I don’t know if anyone else has stumbled over this before, but it’s been useful and I felt I should share.