Volatility

August 30, 2011

Time Banking Within the Natural History of Debt

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Anthropological research has established what philosophers knew for thousands of years – money and monetary debt arose not out of any economic necessity, but as instruments of domination. Their source was in violence and they comprise the sublimation of violence, which is the nature of all government/corporate power. This is part of what I’ve meant when I call today’s forms of money command currencies. By its empirical definition, money is created and enforced by a command economy.
 
So it’s not only false that today’s financialization performs any constructive social function. It’s false that finance in any form ever performed any necessary function. (Acting to maintain and manage an unnecessary structure is obviously not to do anything necessary.) It’s never been anything but the tool of empire, the better to subjugate its own populace and force these to serve as the fuel of empire.
 
Anthropologist David Graeber has researched this and recently compiled his findings in his book Debt: the First 5000 Years. He featured his basic idea in this post at Naked Capitalism.
 
It goes: First, and for the vast majority of humanity’s natural history, organic communities based themselves upon close social networks, moral relations, and the sense of community obligation, including in transactions among individual community members.
 
Then, nascent elites, previously basing their power on direct violence and plunder, saw how they could accelerate class stratification and magnify their power by sublimating this violence by formalizing exchange and debt. To do this, they came up with money, and began measuring transactions and recording debts based upon it.
 

How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, “traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!”

Money, in the sense of exact equivalents, seems to emerge from situations like that, but also, war and plunder, the disposal of loot, slavery. In early Medieval Ireland, for example, slave-girls were the highest denomination of currency. And you could specify the exact value of everything in a typical house even though very few of those items were available for sale anywhere because they were used to pay fines or damages if someone broke them.

But once you understand that taxes and money largely begin with war it becomes easier to see what really happened. After all, every Mafiosi understands this. If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. “You owe me, but I’ll cut you a break for now…” Most human beings in history have probably been told this by their creditors. And the crucial thing is: what possible reply can you make but, “wait a minute, who owes what to who here?” And of course for thousands of years, that’s what the victims have said, but the moment you do, you are using the rulers’ language, you’re admitting that debt and morality really are the same thing. That’s the situation the religious thinkers were stuck with, so they started with the language of debt, and then they tried to turn it around and make it into something else.

 
Thus we have top-down formal money, formal credit, formal debt, as opposed to the bottom-up vernacular manifestations of these, as the organized crime outgrowth of much less organized direct violence. This command economy is embodied violence.
 
Then, at the opposite end, where this system starts to break down, we start to find the popular conception of “barter” – the direct exchange of goods on a mercenary basis. But this is just the aftertaste of the money-driven market, not a primal inefficiency that money once improved upon way back when. That popular conception is simply a lie told by today’s economic elites.
 

So really, rather than the standard story – first there’s barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that – if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow” type of barter systems, it’s usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason – as in Russia, for example, in 1998 – the currency collapses or disappears.

 
(This also refutes the scam of plunking the idea of barter into the middle of an otherwise globalized, “capitalist” environment, and then triumphantly declaring it unworkable. Well yes, but that’s because barter is the attempted continuation of that same framework, not because that framework works.)
 
In the same way that Somalia is not “anarchy”, but the result of the collapse of capitalism, so the inefficiencies of barter as we know it are just the inefficiencies of the market and its mores, carried over to a post-money environment. The true primeval exchange was enfolded within ongoing community relations, and could function perfectly well under community debt auspices. Today co-production and time banking constitute an attempt to develop a new version of that ancient socioeconomic network.
 
We have a vicious circle of money/debt backed by violence. This dominates all human relations and disintegrates community, civil society, and democracy. The liquidation of these in turn tends to generate ever more mercenary and nihilistic attitudes which then intensify the horrors of money/debt servitude and accelerate money’s assault on all human relations. This is the circle.
 
(We see how debt inevitably compounds to the point that it destroys civilization. At this point jubilee, one way or another, is the only possible outcome. It’s similar to how capitalism naturally stagnates and must repeat the primitive accumulation, i.e. the massive plunder grab to provide the seed capital, or else break down completely.
 
We also see how taxes serve no economic purpose but are only weapons to enforce this command economy of money and debt. The MMTers, who wish to continue with all this but in a “reformed” version, are at least honest about using taxation as a mode of social control.)
 
One possible way to break free of the whole viciousness is by renouncing money and monetary debt (which ought to be common sense, as the amount and preponderance of money we have available plummets ever more steeply). One alternative is time dollars and time banking.
 
Time banking is a formal framework for organizing the true economy (everything devalued by the money/debt system, including what’s written off as the “informal economy”) along the lines of reciprocal gifting of work. It’s especially versatile for the exchange of services, but can be used for goods as well with a version of the labor measure of value. Goods can be valued according to the time that goes into manufacturing them.
 
This framework is enfolded within the concept of co-production, which is a transitional concept between capitalism and full economic democracy. Time banking as a framework and time dollars as a measure are part of this transition to such consciousness of economic community and freedom that we can dispense with formal measurement completely and restore the wholesome primal system of social credit which originally preceded money for tens of thousands of years.
 
As Graeber describes:
 

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

…in my own way I think of myself as working very much in the Maussian tradition. Mauss was one of the first anthropologists to ask: well, all right, if not barter, then what? What do people who don’t use money actually do when things change hands? Anthropologists had documented an endless variety of such economic systems, but hadn’t really worked out common principles. What Mauss noticed was that in almost all of them, everyone pretended as if they were just giving one another gifts and then they fervently denied they expected anything back. But in actual fact everyone understood there were implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.

 
So the natural history of debt, as documented by the evidence, is that exchange was naturally enfolded within networks of social bonding and mutual obligation. State money and the formalization of debt only arose later as instruments of domination.
 
Since time banking and co-production seek to create new networks of such bonding and obligation, they’re basically an attempt to reconstitute primal modes of reciprocal community exchange. Time banking is a transitional framework between formally quantified mercenary exchange and this primal quasi-reciprocity. So there’s the context of time banking within the natural history of humanity.
 
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13 Comments

  1. Very nice! Liked your comments on NC too.
    David

    Comment by David Graeber — August 30, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    • Thanks, David, and for the interesting and creative discussion. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m getting it now. One of the regular commenters here has read it, and he’s discussed parts of it in previous threads.

      Comment by Russ — August 30, 2011 @ 11:42 am

    • Hi David,

      As Russ notes, we’ve been discussing your book here for a little while now. It was really good, I enjoyed it a lot, and I think it’s provided exactly the kind of coherent historical narrative of the interplay between debt, economics, and societies that we need. I also would like to thank you for actually engaging with the hoi polloi here, at NC, the WSJ, and elsewhere, I appreciate that. In that spirit, I was hoping to pick your brains a bit wtih regard to some of the topics we’ve been discussing here, and how your work (and that of other anthropologists) can inform that discussion.

      Much of the discussion here revolves around what sort of world we would like to live in, and how we might transition to something closer to that from where we are now (“we”, being, for the most part, North Americans and Europeans, at least on this blog, from what I gather). You indicate, at the end of your book, that we have entered a new phase in your schema of “ages”, one that has just begun over the last 40 years. The current socioeconomic dispensation is obviously in flux, due in large part to the crisis of the creditor-protection-racket style of the neoliberal debt-capitalism model you describe. For those of us who want to live in a more just and sane society, this seems to present our most significant opportunity, even as our room for maneuver as a whole is constricted by climate change, economic turmoil, peak oil/phosphates/whatever, etc.

      Your survey of the anthropological literature on debt provides us with a lot of options for ways in which we might proceed. Is there any particular form of credit which you thought, in your survey, was particularly amenable to the sort of federated small, local, egalitarian, human-centric economies that we want to foster? The community credit systems of 16th-17th century England that you mentioned seem like good candidates, but they also seem to present the danger of being taxed and coopted by the state. I guess we’re looking for things that might be describable as state- and hierarchy-resistant. Can you describe how a transition to such a system might work (purely as speculation, no prognostication or prescription necessary!), or maybe elaborate on how such transitions have worked in the past?

      Also, your work turned me on to James C Scott’s stuff, and I’ve just finished “The Art of Not Being Governed” and am getting into “Weapons of the Weak”. Both seem relevant to this discussion, particularly as this blog is often concerned with agriculture and food sovereignty. Scott describes a number of state-evasion and state-prevention strategies among Zomian hill societies, which seem to emphasise (a) physical distance (“friction”) from neighbouring state-making projects, (b) mobile, distributed, non-propertarian, and taxation-illegible forms of subsistence (hunting, gathering, swiddening), and (c) malleable social/ethnic identities and hierarchy suppression mechanisms. He indicates that sedentary monocroppers (usually, I guess, with some form of hereditary freeholding property) are spectacularly vulnerable both to external cooption by states, as well as the establishment of internal hierarchies and states. Scott doesn’t talk much about the economic systems employed by these groups, but they seem to have “human” internal economies, while at the same time remaining externally integrated with other hill groups and with neighbouring states (on credit? hard currency?). There also seem to be some notable exceptions, like the Hani, who are egalitarian edentary monocroppers. Do you have any thoughts on where we might start in trying to put together state-evading and state-preventing socioeconomic “complexes”, including both credit/debt mechanisms as well as agricultural techniques and constructed identities? How does this interact with, say, population density (from your and Scott’s work, it would seem that cities, as the citadels of finance capitalism and as concentrations of labour dependent on sedentary monocroppers, are not likely to be fertile ground for our transition to something more just- but we urban left/anarchists seem unable to let them alone)?

      In any case, if I end up getting arrested for slashing-and-burning in the Canadian bush and trading on trust-based token money, I will blame anthropologists, so it is in your professional interest to help us synthesize these ideas!!

      Comment by paper mac — August 30, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

      • Oh, I also wanted to ask whether you had any suggested reading on the School of the Tillers- I’ve got AC Graham’s paper from “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies” but haven’t been able to find much else of use. Are there any contemporary peasant movements in China that you’re aware of that reference the Nong Jia? Thanks for your time!!

        Comment by paper mac — August 30, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  2. Paper mac, based on your recommendation I’m getting, in addition to Graeber’s book, Scott’s Art of Not Being Ruled (as well as Seeing Like A State, the one cited in the original link; which is the one on modern peasant resistance?). To reply to a few of your earlier points:

    What do you mean when you say it caused you to rethink the urban-rural interface? When I read these books I’ll be thinking in terms of how things can be adapted to today’s struggle. Clearly distance from State structures is not possible for the time being. Any large-scale movement will have to mean relocalizing in place. Similarly, given our lack of any social cohesion at all, let alone one suited to nomadism, I’m assuming our attempts at community-building must start where we are.

    So geographically we’re largely stuck where we are, until we can organize ourselves for land-redeeming democratic assertions, from organized squatting to versions of Latin America’s Landless Workers’ Movement. The front line is everywhere, so our first requirement (psychological and strategic, the two working to reinforce one another, but also in some dialectical conflict, as perceived deficiencies in one are often taken as an excuse to not work on the other) is to find the frontier everywhere. That’s certainly true morally and rationally – the existing political and property dispensation has zero legitimacy. It has proven practically an incompetent failure and morally odious.

    In the meantime, you diagnose the city issue. Structurally it’s not redeemable, but there still remain the vast majority of people who live there. How to liberate and feed them? By basic answer has always been democratic agroecology. They’ll liberate and feed themselves by returning to the land off of which they were criminally driven. So let’s say that’s where we need to go – how do we get there? How do we get the idea into the mass consciousness, and how to make it look both necessary and attractive once it’s there? (I think once enough people believe in it and are ardent to act upon it, then actually doing it will be the relatively easier part. The system has very little legitimacy left, if a measure of legitimacy is that people would idealistically, as opposed to on a purely mercenary basis, fight for it. It seems to me that the main things which keep the zombie propped up and perambulating are resignation, fatalism, ignorance, cowardice, path dependency, but not affirmative support.)

    And what do we do in the meantime? I’ll need to rewrite my Basic Movement Strategy

    https://attempter.wordpress.com/2011/05/23/basic-movement-strategy/

    this time giving a sample list of actions for each number, from stuff we can and should be doing right now up to possible future transformations.

    Comment by Russ — August 31, 2011 @ 3:05 am

    • Paper mac, based on your recommendation I’m getting, in addition to Graeber’s book, Scott’s Art of Not Being Ruled (as well as Seeing Like A State, the one cited in the original link; which is the one on modern peasant resistance?).

      Weapons of the Weak is the one on modern peasant resistance. It’s an ethnography of a rice-paddy growing village in Malaysia just after the onset of the “green revolution”. It’s mainly focused on the ways in which peasants construct ideology and perform ordinary, non-revolutionary acts of resistance against exploiters. I’m not sure I’d recommend it at this point (context is highly specific, not sure how generalisable the analysis is yet), I’ll let you know how it is when I finish it.

      What do you mean when you say it caused you to rethink the urban-rural interface?

      Scott talks about a gradient in “Zomia” (basically Southeast Asia and Southwest China, although I think you could easily extend this analysis up through Afghanistan at least) from basically urban agglomerations at the core of agrarian valley-states, up to the periphery of “state space” (marginal agriculture, foothills), into basically regions of contested/marginal/non-state sovereignty (into hilly regions) and finally non-state space itself (fairly inaccessible mountain passes, mangrove swamps, open ocean, etc). The cores of agrarian valley states are basically defined by local food economies- it doesn’t make sense to transport grain more than 3 days, as you’re spending more on feeding pack animals than you’re getting from transporting it. He describes how people move across these spaces in response to developments, mostly, in the agrarian cores. So for instance, a group of sedentary rice padi-growers in a valley is subsumed by a state project (e.g. by group of Burman or Thai state-makers). Requiring additional labour for this project, the state enslaves peripheral people, concentrating them into an urban/sedentary monocropping area (this enables corvee labour as well as agricultural taxation, the two main hallmarks of state building). If the state project is prosperous, this may draw in some voluntary settlers from the peripheral regions, as well as non-state hill peoples who want to take advantage of trading/raiding opportunities. As the state project inevitably fails, the flux of people across the gradient reverses, and in a collapse, large chunks of the population splinter off and rush to escape increasing coercion, violence, famine etc at the agrarian cores, sometimes driving existing populations of hill people ahead of them. This process repeats for a few thousand years and you end up with a quiltwork of basically state-fleeing refugees in these state-periphery and non-state spaces- a “shatter zone”. (As a side note, of personal interest to me, Scott notes that Ontario was, during the colonial wars between the English and French, likewise a “shatter zone”- the agrarian core and outlying bush make this model highly locally relevant, YMMV).

      As you note- Clearly distance from State structures is not possible for the time being. Any large-scale movement will have to mean relocalizing in place. I agree. Indeed, Scott states at the end of the book that there is no longer any real “non-state” space- his analysis deliberately ends ~1950 with the advent of all-weather roads, off-road trucks, helicopters, etc in SEA which finally enabled those states to actually extend something resembling coercive control into the hills and other naturally non-state spaces. In the case of Canada, it’s worth noting that the last effectively non-state actors (the Inuit) were forced into “settled” life by police power around this time (their children were abducted and fixed in settlements, they were told they could come settle or lose their children). Scott doesn’t get into this, but the implication of peak oil is that the ability of states to impose coercive control over these spaces (Zomia, the Canadian bush) is transitory and will almost certainly decline over the next century to something resembling his pre-modern agrarian valley states. We can expect at least, over the coming decades, it to begin contracting and becoming temporally variable, I think.

      OK, so what does this mean? I think for one thing it means that “relocalisation” in urban cores is probably basically illusory. Urban areas are artifacts of state-building projects, intended to facilitate taxation and the differentiation and specialisation of a labour base for the state (in our case, for corporations, the elites, and other hierarchies as well). I think we can argue about the impact of urban food production or whatever, but my feeling is that we basically have in urban cores the most extreme hierarchy possible, and that undermining this by state-evasion mechanisms (ie reversing the flux from state cores to spaces of less state control) is going to be far more effective than contesting it. I think that has real implications for the kinds of things we need to do and prepare for if we think that maybe people might try adopting some of the same strategies that Scott’s Zomian state-fleeing groups did, during the inevitable decline of our corporate state into something like neofeudalism. The decline of urban prosperity, increasing coercion, dragooning of the lower classes into something like serfdom/corvee labour all have modern parallels, which is why I find the model compelling.

      Similarly, given our lack of any social cohesion at all, let alone one suited to nomadism, I’m assuming our attempts at community-building must start where we are.

      I agree with you on the social cohesion bit, but I think the amount that I can accomplish as a resident of an urban core is pretty limited- that’s a function both of the fact that my monetary and labour resources go less far here than outside the core, and also the fact that I can’t meaningfully practice and develop the techniques which are going to be necessary to relocalize while living in a concrete box. My feeling is that, given my personal situation, it makes more sense to set up a smallholding in a location which is likely to be in a state-peripheral or non-state space as the restrictions of peak oil set in. Scott notes that an open frontier seems to be necessary for external state-evasion as well as internal state-prevention- I wonder whether an “open frontier” (no frontier is infinite, after all) can be created in miniature on, say, a hundred acres with a dozen or two dozen families. I need to look into this more, but the Hani/Akha seem to be a significant exception to the open-frontier rule. Could it be possible to build the core practices and group cohesion/identity that underly state-evasion and state-prevention in such a laboratory, in order to have them in place when people really need to get out of the cities? I don’t know. But I think this is a complementary strategy to relocalisation-in-place, at least to extend the range of options we have available.

      They’ll liberate and feed themselves by returning to the land off of which they were criminally driven. So let’s say that’s where we need to go – how do we get there? How do we get the idea into the mass consciousness, and how to make it look both necessary and attractive once it’s there?

      I think this is what I’m describing, basically- setting up the cultural infrastructure, as it were. Scott has some interesting stuff on hill groups constructing cultural identities that might be relevant to this point. My feeling is that establishing a distinctive “identity” for the people practicing relocalisation will be necessary, but I don’t know what this means yet. In any case, prefiguring movements is a tricky business, but I think Scott’s model is a powerful one that can give us some clues as to how relocalisation might proceed, and how genuinely anarchist, local groups can form and develop in the cracks of the corporatist state, as they show up and widen (these cracks/spaces may not be limited to geographical areas- I need to think about this more).

      Comment by paper mac — August 31, 2011 @ 12:17 pm

      • Thanks, I’ll hold off on Weapons of the Weak, although my expectation of a book like that would be to look for ways to generalize its exemples.

        The “Zomia” process is fascinating. I don’t know how likely history is to rhyme in Ontario. The Great Lakes will obviously be highly contested. I fear that the most likely outcomes over the next century or so are either a regional strong State (vestigial from the collapse of the general kleptocracy) or else Somalia-style chaos and petty warlordism. Anarchism, by contrast, is still going to have rough sledding in places where such a precious resource is pretty much abundant for the taking. (I expect democracy to do best where resources are not truly scarce but still require significant work to effectively use them.)

        Scott doesn’t get into this, but the implication of peak oil is that the ability of states to impose coercive control over these spaces (Zomia, the Canadian bush) is transitory and will almost certainly decline over the next century to something resembling his pre-modern agrarian valley states. We can expect at least, over the coming decades, it to begin contracting and becoming temporally variable, I think.

        Yes, I think that’s the most likely chronic trend.

        I also agree that urban relocalization (to continue using that as a term of expression for now) will primarily inovlve evasive tactics rather than contesting ones. I guess that means my idea of organized squatting might not be tenable, if the idea is to hang on indefinitely. (I’ve always assumed it needed at least the benevolent neutrality of local powers, and probably needed to take power itself as much as possible. But I’ve also always figured that the local PTB, if they did go along with this, would primarily be thinking in terms of subsequent gentrification. So maybe the whole thing’s a bad idea, as far as exploring it as a primary tactic? I’m still not sure.)

        In addition to the obvious parallels between today’s increasing debt indenture and past sharecropping and serfdom (as well as flat out slave labor in the prisons), we can see the rudiments of a corvee in things like work requirements for recipients of public assistance. This is nothing but giving corporations free labor, at public (but below minimum wage) expense. Just yesterday at NC I saw what I think was a well-meaning “progressive” advocating this. It’s of course more normally a conservative idea, but we see how things are with the liberals by now.

        I agree with you on the social cohesion bit, but I think the amount that I can accomplish as a resident of an urban core is pretty limited- that’s a function both of the fact that my monetary and labour resources go less far here than outside the core, and also the fact that I can’t meaningfully practice and develop the techniques which are going to be necessary to relocalize while living in a concrete box.

        Yes, I didn’t mean each individual. I was talking about groups, which aren’t likely to be readily able to migrate anytime soon (if only for psychological reasons). Another quantum particle-vs.-trend dispute. 🙂

        I need to look into this more, but the Hani/Akha seem to be a significant exception to the open-frontier rule. Could it be possible to build the core practices and group cohesion/identity that underly state-evasion and state-prevention in such a laboratory, in order to have them in place when people really need to get out of the cities? I don’t know. But I think this is a complementary strategy to relocalisation-in-place, at least to extend the range of options we have available.

        I’ve often thought about such possibilities. In my conception, there would arise such larger-scale zones. But I admit I’m not sure how to get them started, at least in Western countries.

        My feeling is that establishing a distinctive “identity” for the people practicing relocalisation will be necessary, but I don’t know what this means yet.

        I don’t know precisely what it is either, as far as the affirmative identity. No doubt it’ll mostly arise organically, including in some ways we didn’t foresee.

        We previously discussed this question, especially the negative aspect.

        https://attempter.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/the-paradox-of-a-broad-relocalization-movement-consciousness/

        Comment by Russ — September 1, 2011 @ 5:34 am

  3. So the natural history of debt, as documented by the evidence, is that exchange was naturally enfolded within networks of social bonding and mutual obligation.

    To be slightly more specific: It’s not just mutual obligation, but also a mutual willingness to trust. Now, compliance with promises can of course also be enforced, either through (threat of) violence, or via punishment afterwards, but in either case trust is central to the possibility for interaction. I tried to point this out to dear Philip last night, and he immediately started sputtering about how trust was a ‘sociological’ issue. This follows directly from Graeber’s discussion, but for some reason (perhaps because competition is dearer to him than cooperation?) he didn’t want to accept that it is fundamental.

    Comment by Foppe — September 1, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    • Thanks for specifying trust. I include it within the concept of community and sometimes neglect to explicitly mention it.

      but for some reason (perhaps because competition is dearer to him than cooperation?) he didn’t want to accept that it is fundamental

      Yes, I think that’s precisely the reason. The Pilkster is clearly an obscurantist who wants to exalt capitalism and all its values by an indirect, misdirectional route.

      I saw that you cracked the same joke I did, asking him if he read the Graeber post which had his name on it.

      Comment by Russ — September 1, 2011 @ 5:45 am

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  5. […] part of how money systems were first imposed on what were previously organic economies. As I wrote here:   First, and for the vast majority of humanity’s natural history, organic communities based […]

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