Agglomeration Economies and Industrial Policies
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Colin Danby: Don't Take David Graeber as Representative of Analysts of Modern U.S. Imperialism

Because: Imperialism! — Crooked Timber: Colin Danby:


  1. Again, I invite you to meditate on the question of what would be disconfirming evidence for Graeber.

  2. Chapter 12 has an extremely thin scholarly apparatus, and standard sources are unmentioned. It is also sprinkled with howlers about central banking and money—the more Graeber purports to explain stuff e.g. fn9, the worse he gets. He hasn’t done the basic homework to understand how these institutions work. (Indeed, he seems to mock himself, beginning the chapter with a couple of word-salady pages about gold and conspiracy theories.)

  3. Nonetheless the chapter is long on big claims e.g. that credit money rests on military power (364). (He footnotes Braudel a few lines down, but if he actually read Braudel he would find ample evidence of credit money emerging in merchant-and-finance circuits that circumvented state power.)

  4. Key claims like the Iraq-dollar theory were defended by Graeber as being mere rumors, free of substantiation—a wholly circular argument that if enough people suspect something, their belief is grounded.

  5. The discussion on 372 is symptomatic of the relations between evidence and assertion. We get in succession a weird claims that only certain U.S. “tributaries” were “allowed to catapult themselves out of poverty and into first-world status.” (what countries are we talking about? no evidence, not even names) and then “after 1971, as U.S. economic strength reltive to the rest of the world began to decline, they were gradually transformed back into a more old-fashioned sort of tributary.” I’m trying to think of any countries for which that might be the case, or whom even this sequence of events applies. But no referencing. What Graeber is doing, however, is clear: China (then and now) represents several obvious counterarguments to his glib claims about how U.S. power works. So he’s doing a bit of hand-waving around the idea of “tribute” to try and contain this.

  6. So yes, the text of chapter 12 tells us that this is a deductive rather than inductive account, enlarging on Graeber’s pet ideas (some of which are good) and ornamenting them with a few details about international finance and the U.S. financial system, some of them wrong. This is not an account that starts by mastering the relevant literature or evidence, it is not even an account that takes the time necessary to get basic stuff right.

  7. I would again invite you to read Block (1977) and indeed at any of the classic works of Amin, Frank, Furtado et al. because they are not just “theorizing” but actually attend to evidence about the world. I do hope people realize that Graeber’s shoddy drive-by is not typical of the lit on imperialism.