David Graeber: Debt (EBook, 2011, Melville House) 4 stars

The author shows that before there was money, there was debt. For 5,000 years humans …

How we got here and why we're stuck

5 stars

I read Debt right after The Dawn of Everything (also by Graeber), and my opinion of these two books is closely interlinked. The combination is an extensive unwinding of the sort of economic and social history I learned in school. I've had to re-imagine the ways that humanity developed our relationship with agriculture, with technology, and with the interplay of social obligations which we now categorize as money and economics.

The core insight and question isn't any of those individual revelations. What Graeber is trying to get you to think about is the stickiness of contemporary social relationships & structures, and the ways that we have lost the ability to imagine the possibility of change. No economic or political system has ever been as committed as ours is to narrowing the realms of the possible and foreclosing the ability to imagine other ways of organizing society. Historically, social dynamics have …

I'm not saying that you necessarily need to arrange a book club organized around the principles in this and The Dawn of Everything. But if I were, I'd probably suggest combining these two Graeber treatises with some inspirational fiction which allows the mind to imagine the sorts of alternatives we could imagine.

  1. The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin focuses on a protagonist from a communist society, coming to visit a capitalist one. It very much paints a picture of how sensible and natural the protagonist's home, while using their astonishment at the bizarre rituals of capitalism to show just how strange our world is when you stop to contemplate it. And it is, of course, a ripping good yarn.
  2. Walkaway by Cory Doctorow tries to help the reader imagine a near future where it might be easy to just walk away from modern capitalism, and helps to shade in some of the details about what might be needed for that to appear practical. This is one of Doctorow's classic instruction-manual-as-fiction books, and it emphasizes some of his strengths as a writer without necessarily being held back too much by his weaknesses.
  3. The Murderbot series of novels and novellas by Martha Wells are incredibly enjoyable just as stories and make no bones of the comparison between hypercapitalist space-cyberpunk visions of corporate-owned nightmares, and egalitarian alternatives people build around their edges. Murderbot also works as a thoughtful meditation on the role of violent coercive power in complex societies, and the difficulty of bringing that sort of power to bear against what could probably be described as distributed popular insurgencies.
  4. The Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer are a strange blend of ideas. At their core, they try to imagine a fundamentally different way of organizing society from the Westphalian countries. And while the political economy is a wild ride sometimes, perhaps it's easier to imagine alternatives when presented with an incomplete picture than one which has all the details straightened out. I was somewhat put off by the writing in the first novel, but the quality improves significantly through the series, and I'm glad I continued into the second novel.
  5. I hesitate to recommend A Memory Called Empire because of the author's involvement in some deeply unsavory communities. However, the novel speaks to me very deeply, and nothing I've read has ever made me feel as deeply¹ how delicate the Pax Americana really is — even within the US.
  6. And of course, How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell is a thoughtful meditation on the parameters of subtle resistance agains increasingly overwhelming social/economic pressures. Absolutely worth the read, regardless of any connection with the themes in the rest of this post

¹I wrote about this a little on Twitter a while ago. My tweets are locked now, but if you want to see, just send me a message letting me know that this post is why you're following me.