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Ann Leckie on David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5000 Mistakes": Handling the Sumerian Evidence Smackdown

B7e jpg 460×333 pixels I am once again out of DeLong Smackdowns of sufficiently high quality...

That means that it is time to (shudder) read the next page in chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt: My First 5000 Mistakes.

But I cannot face it.

However, a correspondent sends me a piece from an extremely sharp observer--Ann Leckie, author of the devastatingly-good Ancillary Justice.

She worries that the rot in the book begins much earlier than chapter 11:

Ann Leckie: Debt: "So a while ago I made a try at reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years...

...But I have this thing about nonfiction–if I run across one or more glaring inaccuracies I find it impossible to trust the rest of what the author tells me, or the honesty of their arguments. The sort of thing that puts me off is generally the sort of thing that five minutes with Wikipedia would clear up. In this case, I ran across this sentence:

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who ran twice for president on the Free Silver platform–vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold.

Okay, so. This is mostly only recognized by people who have their pareidolia turned up way too high, and also a fine disregard for Baum’s stated purpose (and what the actual point of a parable is to begin with). I read that sentence and said, out loud, ‘Are you shitting me, Graeber?’ and closed the book and sent it back to the library. But a friend of mine suggested maybe I’d been too hard on him and maybe I should give him another chance. So I got it out again and paged past the offending spot, and dove back in. And some of it is interesting and I find myself going ‘yes, that makes a great deal of sense.’ But every couple pages I feel like he’s making logical leaps–small ones, but still. Not enough to make me put the book down. Then I run across a sentence where he seems to conflate a commentary on a source with the source itself. I raise my eyebrow. And then I hit this:

To the contrary, insofar as prostitution did occur (and remember, it could not have been nearly so impersonal, cold-cash a relation in a credit economy), Sumerian religious texts identify it as among the fundamental features of human civilization, a gift given by the gods at the dawn of time. Procreative sex was considered natural (after all, animals did it). Non-procreative sex, sex for pleasure, was divine...

The footnote at the end of this passage just cites two books, it doesn’t give any explanation or amplification. Now, I’m not an expert in this area, I’m only a hobbyist. But I know what ‘religious texts’ he’s talking about here, that describe the ‘fundamental features of human civilization.’ He’s talking about the mes. Which are–oh, let’s let Wiki tell us:

In Sumerian mythology, a me (Sumerian, conventionally pronounced [mɛ]) or ñe [ŋɛ] or parşu (Akkadian, [parsˤu]) is one of the decrees of the gods foundational to those social institutions, religious practices, technologies, behaviors, mores, and human conditions that make civilization, as the Sumerians understood it, possible. They are fundamental to the Sumerian understanding of the relationship between humanity and the gods...

So, if the gods gave us these social institutions, religious practices, technologies, etc. they must all be good things, right? Divine gifts from the gods? It’s not necessarily a bad assumption, but go look at that list. Lots of good things and then you get things like the destruction of cities, lamentation, and falsehood. So, ‘prostitution is on the list of mes’ isn’t really a very good argument for the ancient Sumerians holding a positive view of prostitution. I don’t say they didn’t, understand, just that you couldn’t necessarily know that from its presence on this list. (Or for that matter, from its apparently religious nature, at least in some cases, which is his other support for his claims about Sumerian attitudes towards prostitution. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

But Graeber is basing part of his argument on the attitude of ancient Sumerians towards prostitution (vs later attitudes), and this is his evidence for the attitude he says they had.

And so the question for me is: did he not actually look at the list of mes?

There are plenty of Sumerian texts that are mentioned or summarized in books but hard to find in translation, but this one, as I mention above, is easily available. So if he didn’t read the actual list of mes, he did sloppy research and I’m bound to wonder where else he skipped research he ought to have done. Or did he know what was on the list, and that things like destruction of cities and troubled heart and fear and terror were there (they are) but went ahead anyway because darnit he was sure he was right and how many of his readers would question it, or had ever actually seen that list? Cause it’s pretty obscure.

Either way I can’t really trust him anymore–if he’s ignoring or eliding things in areas I know something about, surely it’s happening elsewhere in the book and I just don’t see it because how could I? And now it’s increasingly difficult to go any farther without going: ‘No, really? Can I believe any of this?’ Which is a shame, because I’m interested in understanding his arguments, and I think his takedown of the ‘myth of barter’ is spot on–I’m just having trouble following him much farther because I keep seeing moments like this that speak of either ignorance (which means some arguments, no matter how logically composed, won’t stand because they’re based on inaccurate premises) or dishonesty (which means he knows some facts won’t support his thesis but he’s going to deal with that by eliding those things).

Ugh. I hate when that happens.

My bet is on ignorance and laziness: there are just too many mistakes, and they are too obvious to too many people who know more than squat. He can't have (realistically) calculated that they all would have gone unnoticed. And he does have the typical anthropologist's disease of talking s--- because, after all, when you report your fieldwork you were there and your listeners weren't, so how can they possibly challenge you? (Economists and sociologists don't have that disease--they do, however, have their own, other, typical diseases...)

Plus Noah Smith has smart things to say:

Noah Smith: Book Review: Debt: The First 5000 Years: "Many times throughout the book...

...Graeber rails against the fact that the morality of 'paying one's debts' functions as a mechanism for keeping debtors in bondage to creditors. But a few times, Graeber actually reverses the equation, and laments the power that debtors can sometimes exercise over creditors, quoting the old saw that 'if you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you; if you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank.' In other words, whether debt gives power to creditors or debtors, power is the bad thing, and debt is merely the mechanism by which power is expressed.

Now, this may sound a little silly - if someone wrote a book called 'Metal: The First 5,000 Years,' and then filled that book with stories of war and bloodshed, never failing to remind us after each anecdote that metal was involved in some way, we might be left scratching our heads as to why the author was so fixated on metal instead of on war itself. And in fact, that is indeed how I felt for much of the time I was reading Graeber's book. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Graeber continually talks around the idea of debt in other ways, mentioning debt crises (without reflecting deeply on why these happen), the periodic use and disuse of coinage (which apparently is just as bad as debt in terms of enabling the capitalism monster), and any other phenomenon related to debt, without weaving these observations into a coherent whole. 

In other words, I am now angry at myself for paraphrasing the book, and trying to put theses into Graeber's mouth, because this is such a rambling, confused, scattershot book that I am doing you a disservice by making it seem more coherent than it really is.

The problem of extreme disorganization is dramatically worsened by the way that Graeber skips merrily back and forth from things he appears to know quite a lot about to things he obviously knows nothing about. One sentence he'll be talking about blood debts and 'human economies' in African tribes (cool!), and the next he'll be telling us that Apple Computer was started by dropouts from IBM (false!). There are a number of glaring instances of this. The worst is not when Graeber delivers incorrect facts (who cares where Apple's founders had worked?), it's when he uncritically and blithely makes assertions that one could only accept if one has extremely strong leftist mood affiliation.... Graeber delivers absurdist sentences... with the same calm assurance with which he tells us about when coinage first became popular in the Mediterranean. Not only does this have the effect of diminishing Graeber's credibility as a narrator (what if he's wrong about the blood debts too?), but it makes a careful, critical reading of the book nigh impossible.

Now if you have strong leftist mood affiliation - i.e., if you've already bought into most of the background ideology that suffuses Graeber's book - then you will probably nod your head as you read this rambling mess of a book, and come away with the feeling that debt, in some way or another, is another star in the constellation of nasty concepts that you associate with the capitalist machine...