Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Debt: the seed of civilization

In these days of anti-capitalist protest, it is important to know that keeping track of debts led to the inventions of counting and writing, and eventually gave voice to art. [This is based on “Money: the seed of civilization,” an article for the Texas Numismatic Association’s TNA News, vol. 53, no. 6, November/December 2011. Other text is derived from comments posted to the Econolog and OrgTheory blogs about the recent works of anthropologist David Rolfe Graeber. Citations are at the bottom.]

 As a numismatist and an advocate for the Austrian school of free market economics, I find David Graeber’s work, fascinating. Von Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard were largely ignorant of numismatics, hence of the history, art, and science of the moneys in which they invested so much emotion and thought.  Nonetheless, Graeber’s left-wing anarchist fear of money validate the warning from von Mises that capitalists and socialists often agree on the facts; they disagree on what the facts mean.  Graeber does know the facts. 
The works of numismatists Charles Opitz and Robert Leonard on primitive money substantiate at least the broad outlines of Graeber’s conjecture. Underlying that, however, is the deeper understanding of “debt.” It begins as a social obligation: not the transfer of “stuff” but the acknowledgement of status and relationship.  Wampum was invented by Hiawatha to ameliorate conflicts in order to rally the local tribes against the French and English invaders.  Soon, those invaders, knowing money, adopted wampum as an ad hoc currency. 

Left anarchists are not alone in their fear of the marketplace. 
“The Money Masters” is a video you can watch on YouTube.  The argument is that the Rothschilds created debt-based fractional reserve banking to control the world.  This video was touted by two Objectivist websites, Rebirth of Reason (here) and Objectivist Living (here).  Like most American conservatives, Objectivists advocate for gold as the monetary standard.  Murray N. Rothbard (though purged from Ayn Rand’s inner circle) argued that anything other than 100% gold backing for currency is fraud.  Most conservatives agree with this argument.  F. A. von Hayek, a self-identified liberal, did not.  Hayek argued for complete laissez faire in banking and did not presume to predict what forms of money would compete best in which markets once the legal monopoly is removed. 
There is in fact no known example of a human society whose economy is based on barter of the ‘I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow’ variety. Most economies that don’t employ money — or anything that we’d identify as money, anyway — operate quite differently. They are, as French anthropologist Marcel Mauss famously put it, ‘gift economies’ where transactions are either based on principles of open-handed generosity, or, when calculation does take place, most often descend into competitions over who can give the most away. … [The] economists get it … precisely backwards. In fact, virtual money comes first. Banking, tabs, and expense accounts existed for at least 2 thousand years before there was anything like coinage, or any other physical object that was regularly used to buy and sell things, anything that could be labeled ‘currency’. (Graeber here.)

I agree with Graeber that ultimately money grew from ritual gift exchange, just as the turbine generator descended from the campfire.  However, it is erroneous to project ourselves on so-called “primitive” people, even by reading the reports of “early” explorers.  From your grandparent to your grandchild is five generations. Any longer period may be “forever.” Assimilation of neighbors, displacement by foes or weather, and the occasional brilliant idea are among the many factors that can be lost to time.  When European explorers, including anthropologists, first met other people, the assumption was too easy that they always lived here, spoke this language, ate these foods, married in or married out.  They may not have. 

We do have a good history of the evolution of debt to money.  Again, we too easily assume that coinage is the foundation of money.  It was not.  Sophisticated fiduciary documents are thousands of years older than the first coins.
Clay tokens were antecedents to writing

Starting about 8000 BCE, a system of small clay tokens standing for farm produce became common across the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East.  By 5000 BCE, the tokens were routinely stored in clay jars.  You cannot see into a ceramic envelope, so the tokens were also impressed on the outside to show what had been baked within.  Two thousand years later, rather than the tokens, pictographs of them were written on solid clay hemispheres.  In another thousand years, these became tablets with cuneiform writing. 
Pre-Literate Art from Catal Huyuk
Through this long development, large numbers such as 4, 5, 6, and 7 were invented.  Before about 5000 BCE they could not even be conceptualized: five was recorded as “three-one-one.” 
Also, starting about 3000 BCE, as inscribed on statues, these cuneiform characters recorded personal names. They also begged short prayers of the gods.  The first poetry only came about 2700 and the famous Code of Hammurabi dates only to 1700.  Most subtly, the ordered writing of merchants, left to right, up to down, lesser to greater, eventually gave painting and sculpture a vocabulary of space.  Before debts and contracts were invented, artistic space was open and unstructured. 

Neo-Sumerian cylinder seal
Prof. Schmandt-Besserat first published her findings in Scientific American in 1978.  Ovcr the next decade, visiting museum collections, she arrayed enough proof to fill a large two-volume corpus, Before Writing (University of Texas Press, 1992).  The essential facts and evidences were then condensed into a popular paperback, How Writing Came About (University of Texas Press, 1996).  A children’s book was published in 1999, The History of Counting.  Most recently (2007) the University of Texas Press released When Writing Met Art. 

The weakness in Graeber’s theory, like that of Marx’s communal prehistory, and even the self-sufficient yeoman of Jefferson democracy, is that there was no Eden stolen from us by the Serpent of Debt, Commerce, and Division of Labor.  We now know a direct line of development from debt to numeracy, literary, and the spatial vocabulary of art. 

Schmandt-Besserat makes clear that these early instruments were not money as indirect barter.  They were not passed from hand-to-hand.  However, they did record economic value and carried seals naming the parties.  In that, they foreshadowed the invention of coinage thousands of years later.  More subtly, this medium was like a modern bank draft because when these promises were paid and cleared, they were discarded. 
Debt led to writing by way of numeracy: inventories precede the Gilgamesh by thousands of years. We may be no more trapped and enslaved by debt than we are by literature, central heat, and the Hubble Telescope. If greed is good, then debt may be better.



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  2. And this is where Graeber goes fundamentally wrong:

    "what exactly was the point of stamping bits of the stuff with your face on it, dumping it on the civilian population, and then demanding they give it back to you again as taxes? It only makes sense if levying taxes was really a way to force everyone to acquire coins, so as to facilitate the rise of markets, since markets were convenient to have around."

    I have found that a lot of the fundamental misunderstandings that modern thinkers perpetuate relate to money; they don't understand what it is or where it comes from, or even its purpose. If this man understood the basics of money, he may not have gone so far astray. His failure to understand money leads him to build a world-view without a foundation.

  3. I agree that much is wrong with Graeber's claims. I note only that he is more correct than Marx or von Mises on the origin of money. In this assertion that coins were invented to facilitate markets, he repeats the theory of state necessity posited by numismatist Philip Grierson. In fact, in the Anabasis, Xenophon tells of coming to a village and asking them to set up a market and the villagers hiding instead. They had no idea what a "market" was and the idea that they should lay out their foods, etc., for the Greeks to take sounded like a bad idea.

    Peisistratus, tyrant of Athens, similarly forced his coins on the sellers at the Agora who it would seem were bartering among themselves (contrary to Graeber's claim, in fact).

    Again, Graeber is as wrong about much, but the basic claims are worth following up.