Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Wattys 2018 Longlist

As the above banner subtly conveys, I have just made the longlist for the 2018 "Wattys"--the awards given out by Wattpad to qualifying, posted content. This is specifically for my novel, Tales From the Singularity, which you can read here. (Or if you would find it convenient, on Kindle, with a copy ordered from Amazon or other outlets. A paperback edition should also be available very shortly, while in the meantime it can also be found in print form in the Paris in the Twenty-First Century collection of stories set in the same universe, which you can get here.)

I am, of course, honored and grateful for the unexpected recognition--too few of us get any at all in this age in which the writer-to-reader ratio has so exploded--and hereby congratulate all of those who have made it this far.

The shortlist is due out in mid-September. In the meantime, I encourage anyone not already familiar with the site (and those who are) to go and take a look at the full list. (You can read it here.) And again, congratulations all.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Remembering the Kosovo War

The Wars of the Yugoslav Succession (1991-1999) are little remembered today in the United States, and this may seem to go especially for NATO's intervention in the Kosovo War, which began twenty years ago (on March 24, 1999). Part of it would seem to be that they did not fit in with the more general focus on the Middle East, the larger, more intense, more precedent-breaking conflicts in which overshadowed them (the 1991 Gulf War fought just a few years earlier, the near-continuous action against Iraq ever since, the wars that followed from 2001 on); did not involve the boots on the ground that raise the specter of high U.S. casualties and public questioning; did not ever command much enthusiasm among the American public.

Still, in hindsight, the conflicts seem a watershed, in ways extending far beyond the war's hugely important local consequences. The wars in the Balkans, along with the contemporaneous wars in Central Africa (Rwanda, and the two Congo Wars), sounded the death knell for those short-lived, early '90s, post-Cold War visions the mainstream held of multilateral humanitarian interventions setting the world to rights.

Looking back, the conflict between the West and Russia over the action, which entailed the denial to it of United Nations authorization, and a measure of nuclear saber-rattling many would seem to prefer not to remember, and the confrontation between their forces at Pristina airport that came so close to a shooting war (one of the odder legacies of which is the idea some have that singer James Blunt SAVED THE WORLD FROM WORLD WAR III), seem less a last gasp of the Cold War than a foreshadowing of NATO's disregard for Russian opinion bumping up against a renewed Russian assertiveness--of what we have since seen in Georgia (2008), in Ukraine (2014-), in Syria (2015-). Likewise, the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by a B-2 bomber during the campaign was also far from the last worrisome incident in Sino-American relations, which have similarly become more adversarial.

It also seems that the manner in which the 1999 war was fought--that style of slow-motion, drawn-out, gradually escalating, all-aerial warfare campaign conducted in support of one side against another in another country's internal conflict without the American public paying much attention to it--has been routinized in the years since. Libya is perhaps the most obvious case, but one can say the same of Syria as well, and Somalia, and Pakistan, and wherever else the drones fly.

This past not even being the past, we overlook it at our peril.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Cowardice of Consumer-Bashing; or, Neoliberal Environmentalism

The environmental movement has taken numerous forms, and indeed, just about every conceivable form with regard to ideology, so much so that one must be careful in generalizing about it. But it seems safe to say that mainstream environmentalism, like mainstream everything else today, emerged in the neoliberal era, and accommodated itself to that era. Despite the unavoidable clash between the demands of environmentalism and the prerogatives of capitalism (not least, the impossibility of infinite economic expansion on the basis of a finite resource stock), it has been neurotic about appearing even mildly critical of the socioeconomic system, let alone engaging in radical critique and proposing large solutions to large problems.

Instead it has preferred to couch its criticism of society's thrust in terms of a vague "we"--as in "We failed to heed the warnings," or "We went on with our wasteful ways"--that blurs together all of humanity, drawing no distinction between the chief executive officers of ExxonMobil and BP and starving children in the Sahel. This explicitly asserts the "sociological nonsense and political irresponsibility" that "we all possess equal powers to make history," making them accessories, often quite knowing accessories, to the irresponsibility of those who actually hold the levers of power.1 Only the most obtuse, ill-informed or shamelessly dishonest can claim that the key political decisions regarding energy and climate, for example, were made by the public, or even represented it--when these institutions went to such great lengths to lie to the public, to confuse and distract it, to combat even the principle of its having a say (what neoliberalism, after all, has been about in the end), and then when that public voted for sane policies, overrode it. (In 2008 Americans voted for a President who promised an end to fossil fuel subsidies, cap-and-trade, a Green Jobs Corps. Instead they got the "all-of-the-above" energy policy that put into practice his opponent's running mate's cry of "Drill, baby, drill!")

Indeed, where it has been more targeted in its criticisms, mainstream environmentalism has emphasized the subjective and individual--looking away from the fact that over seventy percent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the operations of just one hundred corporations, thinking about which not only takes us far closer to the root of the problem given those corporations' practical control over what gets made and how, because of their size, organization and means better able than anyone else to change all that, and in the small number of organizations involved an excellent focus for thought and action about solutions; in preference for talking up the carbon footprint of seven billion individuals. It is, they make very clear, incumbent on the individual consumer to sacrifice by choosing carefully, paying more--rather than incumbent on the manufacturer to provide the greenest products available at any given price (and the thought of regulation to that end, anathema), ignoring the realities of power, and equity. The consumer has already lost a major option when, the political system having failed them by refusing to provide adequate public transport, they are forced to buy a car and drive many, many miles in it just to have a job. When buying that car they are restricted to buying what they can afford from the models that an oligopolistic car industry is prepared to market--something it has done in line with its preference for selling not just old-fashioned gas-burners, but more vehicle per customer. But it is the consumer that it lambastes.

In it all one can see a retreat of environmentalism into an austere, misanthropic, religiosity which thunders against the consumer, "You have had it too good for too long!" (especially naked where it seems to positively gloat over the idea of civilization's crashing down and a Great Die-Off taking most of humanity with it and taking the rest back to the Dark Ages). The attack on the consumer, too, can appear a sort of compensation for their failure to influence the genuinely powerful--or shabbier still, their taking their frustrations out on those in no position to resist. It bespeaks real failure. Hopefully, rather than bespeaking it, it will admit it, abandon what has not worked, and think of what might--intellectual and moral courage rather than cowardice, in a readiness to admit that realizing its goals may make the ultra-rich unhappy, and a preparedness to think big. I, for one, am convinced that at this late stage, nothing less than a 100 percent-renewable-energy-and-large-scale-geoengineering moonshot can save us from catastrophe, and the sooner we see the obvious taken for granted, and properly acted upon, the better.

1. The words are from C. Wright Mill's The Power Elite.

Why I Am Sick of Hearing About Cowspiracies

It seems that today meat-eaters can hardly go a day without being subjected to a moral harangue about how their dietary preferences and nothing else is dooming the planet.

Anthropogenic climate change is an indisputable fact; so is the rapidity with which it has been unfolding; and the same goes for the necessity of serious action on it. Additionally no reasonable person denies that meat production is a less efficient use of our resources than other forms of food production, or that it contributes to the accumulation greenhouse gases. Yet, the actual scale of its contribution to the problem, and the possibility of palliative, are open to question. Where the oft-cited documentary Cowspiracy claims that this alone is responsible for over half of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture altogether (of which meat-raising is but a component) is rated by the Environmental Protection Agency as responsible for under a tenth of the total.

Someone is clearly wrong here. But surprisingly few people seem to be taking the trouble to work out who it is, critical assessments that might establish the validity or invalidity of the Cowspiracy analysis strangely lacking--as a Google search, and still more a Google Scholar search, will demonstrate (one having to make do with a handful of pieces from comparatively marginal sources). Indeed, outright climate change deniers taking their position on the most dubious of intellectual grounds have infinitely more media access than those who question the Cowspiracy analysis.

In short, the intellectual basis for the assertions of Cowspiracy is problematic--even as those haranguing the meat-eaters automatically go to the most extreme solution. Virtually no one claims that we must respond to the problem raised by the greenhouse gas emissions transportation generates by abolishing the movement of people and things. Few even suggest doing very much to rationalize our use of transportation, most solution-purveyors settling for promoting alternative technologies that would permit people to more or less go on living as they do (like the electrification of vehicle fleets). However, abolition is exactly what those placing the stress on meat production, without preamble, insist upon--apparently uninterested in the reality that not all meat production is equally problematic (a substantial difference existing between, for example, the environmental impact of chicken and beef); and not all methods of meat production are equally problematic, either (evidence existing for grass-fed beef as actually a possible offset to other emissions). Indeed, where one might expect that those who are most insistent on the destructive effects of meat production would be champions of investment in, for example, the cellular agriculture methods beginning to show real promise, just as they champion renewable energy, they do not speak of it at all.

It is a remarkably categorical attitude, which can easily give the skeptic the impression that vegans have simply found outsized claims about meat production's contribution to climate change a useful addition to their list of arguments. That, perhaps, the fossil fuel industry that has fought so long, hard, dishonestly and successfully against curbs on its activity, or even the reduction of the colossal subsidies it enjoys ($5 trillion a year, if one counts externalities!) finds it convenient to have the heat turned on someone else . . .

And of course, that all this fits in with the tendency to, in typically bourgeois fashion, trivialize every aspect of economic life into a "lifestyle choice," and what is more, the disinterest in equity that mainstream environmentalism has too often and too long reflected. This sort of argument tells the well-off that it is not their mansions and Hummers and jet travel that is the problem (implying that they can go on indulging in all this without guilt), but the beleaguered prole who at the end of the day finds a burger more tempting than the plate of beans they want to hand him (not incidentally, in a country where it is the "elites" who turn up their noses at red meat meating as gauche); these lower class types they regard as so backward and reactionary as to justify any callousness or contempt.1

Rather than turning the fight against the real issue of climate change (and contemporary agriculture's genuine contribution to it) into an attack on the dietary choices of have-nots, one ought to acknowledge that our food production (of which meat production is a big part, but even there, still not the totality) is one of many dimensions to the problem, while as in other areas of life, the emphasis should be on meeting people's needs (I must admit that I am not convinced that a vegan diet really is best for each and all through the entirety of their life spans) in sustainable ways. Even if one accepts the extravagant claims about meat production's contribution to climate change (and as yet, there seems to me much room for doubt), the imposition of veganism on seven billion people in response is a last resort, not Plan A.

1. For a discussion of such sensibilities, see Owen Jones' interesting book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class.

Review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones

London: Verso, 2011, pp. 352.

As the rather charged and frankly offensive title of Owen Jones' book, Chavs, implies, his concern is with the recent social history of the British working class, and the ways in which that class has been depicted and understood by British society at large. In particular Jones concerns himself with the alleged disappearance of the "respectable" working class--the image of working class people as gainfully employed, law-abiding, functional contributors to the society in which they lived--and its replacement by the image of working class Britons as "chavs"--vulgar, bigoted, anti-social louts, apt to be drunk, violent, criminal.

In considering this transformation Jones, to his credit, gives due to quite concrete facts of social history, with the catastrophe of Thatcherism playing its part in the story--for the neoliberal turn she pioneered and each and every one of her successors continued to promulgate (not least the "New Labor" she regarded as her greatest achievement) did in a manner of speaking wipe out the old working class. The collapse of the British industrial base amid the worldwide Volcker recession and homegrown monetarism, and the privatization of the housing stock, and all that accompanied and followed them, eliminated the enterprises and institutions that provided the working class with both steady, remunerative work and the benefits of a community--the factories and coal mines, the labor unions that organized those who worked in them, the council estates. What remained in their place, casual, temp, ill-paid--and atomized--work in the "service" economy, and at the same time fantasies of soaring to the top in a world where celebrities and the like are richer and more exalted than they ever were before (for instance, becoming a soccer player like superstar "chav" David Beckham), was no substitute in either monetary or social terms. All of this did undeniable, considerable damage to that class's members individually and collectively, as many were turned from, one might say, proletarian to lumpenproletarian.

However, as Jones declares in his extensive overview of the treatment of this strata by the typically reactionary British media, much of this was a matter of rhetoric, propaganda--the declaration that "We are all middle class now," only one of the illusions fostered was that the worthier element of the working class had "moved on up," leaving outside that class only the incorrigibles who had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Underscoring this was the lavish, sensationalized attention paid to the evidences of the dysfunction of the non-respectable working class that remained. Much of this was superficial--whining about their dress. ("What ever happened to working class men wearing suits and ties?" right-wing social critics whine.) Some of it was more serious. (The alleged propensity of the working class to neglect its children is an obvious example.)1

As always, it is comforting for the privileged to think that the comfort they enjoy is wholly and unimpeachably earned and deserved by them and not enjoyed at the expense of anyone else; that those who are not so privileged are, when one cannot shrug off their deprivation so easily, the authors of their own miseries. It is more comforting still to think of them as not contributing at all, but as parasites, scrounging off the taxes of "respectable people," dragging down the economy, while debasing the quality of urban life with their anti-social behavior--for one can still less make claims on behalf of a parasite than they can of people who merely made a muck of their own lives.

It is comforting, too, for them to make much of working class bigotry. Comforting to say that the more affluent--enlightened--segments of society are indeed as "post-racial" as they flatter themselves they are, and that the only reason society as a whole may not be so is the lower orders. It is convenient, additional proof of the crudity and backwardness that condemns them to their place at the bottom of the heap, that adds to their discomfort with their obvious and severe dysfunction--while being yet another excuse for deflecting any claim on their behalf. That they think they should be living better--why, that is mere "entitlement," and a racist entitlement at that. Besides, when they so clearly have no empathy for others, why should anyone care about them?

Reading it all I found Jones' case to be as robust and lucid as it was depressing. And as tends to be the case with worthwhile books, it left me thinking a good deal about its implications--not least, how a shallow and sanctimonious and commonly hypocritical parody of anti-racism becomes an excuse for a vicious classism that, ironically, has worsened the problem of racism. Because when right-wing populists (read: fascists) court the votes of the working people abused and exploited, snubbed and insulted, by the mainstream parties of the liberal/left as well as the right, they can say, no, their appeal has nothing to do with our abandonment of working class people and their interests in favor of catering to the super-rich, and everything to do with their racism. So that it is only right and fair that we continue along the path of woke neoliberalism--which only worsens the problem in a vicious cycle. In that, it strikes me, Jones' book offers insight into much more than just Britain's working class at the time, but the trends in British life generally since then (e.g. Brexit), and the destructive ascendancy across the Western world and beyond.

1. Altogether reading the criticisms of this strata I got the impression that those who traffic in the "chav" stereotype simply took an exhaustive list of racist stereotypes about inner city African-Americans in the United States, scratched out whatever epithet the list maker used for African-American and wrote in "English working class" instead.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Three Reviews: David Graeber's Debt, The Utopia of Rules and Bullshit Jobs

I have only recently discovered the work of anthropologist David Graeber--and wish I had done so earlier. Books written for general audiences about social science subjects that read like anything more than a drawn-out magazine article are rare these days, but Graeber certainly delivers the goods in the three titles I have just reviewed, Debt: The First 5,000 Years; The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy; and Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (the latter, I was pleasantly surprised to find, issued by publishing giant Simon & Schuster!). Rich in original, bold, conventional wisdom-smashing ideas that turn upside down much of what we (falsely) think we know about our social world (from the moral significance of debt to the efficiency of capitalism), they are not merely of intellectual interest, but relevant to our present day troubles, and like all really worthwhile research, a basis for a great deal of further thought and inquiry. It's a nice bonus that they manage to set forth their ideas as lucidly, as readably, as they do.

Besides the books I also recommand Graeber's essays for Thomas Frank's magazine, The Baffler, freely available here. Of particular relevance to his line of argument in these three works, it seems to me, is "Flying Cars and the Falling Rate of Profit" where Graeber makes it very clear that, contrary to the dismissals of Silicon Valley cheerleaders and the like, that we never got the future symbolized by the flying car does reflect something unhealthy and deeply consequential--a fear of change as destabilizing, combined with a bureaucratization and privatization of scientific research, which the Cold War's end actually encoureaged). I specifically recommend, too, his piece "Despair Fatigue: How Hopelessness Got Boring", which makes the case that, perhaps, the day of the "end of history" conservatives and postmodernist pseudo-leftists is drawing to a close, and a great movement for positive change in the world lies ahead of us.

Review: The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Joys of Bureaucracy, by David Graeber

David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a densely written, densely documented, conspicuously scholarly (if also highly readable and colorfully written) study, with four hundred pages of densely packed main text followed by sixty, twin-columned pages of even more densely packed footnotes and another forty pages of bibliographical entries after that, befitting its ambitious object--a thorough revision of a very large part of our understanding of the history of human civilization. By contrast, his book The Utopia of Rules, weighing in at less than half the earlier book's length, more sprightly in tone and "think piece" in feel, brings together three previously published essays with new material in what is not a scholarly reconstruction of a big chunk of human economic history and history more generally, but rather a series of meditations tending toward the ideal, the symbolic, the abstract, which merely share certain themes--bureaucracy, and its relations with violence (especially "structural" violence), imagination and rationality.

The introductory piece, "The Iron Law of Liberalism and the Era of Total Bureaucratization," points to the oft-overlooked contribution of the private sector to bureaucratization (it was the U.S. Federal government which was shaped by the corporations, not the other way around); the limitations of the left's critique of bureaucracy (alas, leaving this ground to the growling right-wing populist); and the tendency to underestimate the role of violence, overestimate the role of technology and misrepresent rationality as an end rather than a means in considering the issue of bureaucracy.1 "Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity" considers the bureaucracy-violence-"stupidity" nexus, and what he regards as the curious aversion of contemporary social science to the study of bureaucracy; "Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit," the failure of "tomorrowland" to arrive as expected, the overhyping of information technology, and the connections of these with the neoliberal project he argues was about preserving the status quo through quashing alternatives, rather than efficiency, technological innovation or growth; and "The Utopia of Rules; or Why We Love Bureaucracy After All," which stresses the human need for regularity and transparency, which bureaucracy promises (even if it rarely delivers them in ideal fashion). Finally the book includes in an appendix "On Batman and the Problem of Constituent Power" which is, actually, about comic book superheroics (particularly Christopher Nolan's 2012 The Dark Knight Returns, which he watched in the wake of the "Occupy" movement with which he had been involved), and their connections with the preceding themes.

By and large, the themes struck me as well worth exploring, and the case he made for his principal ideas for the most part persuasive, and in cases even necessary. (Too often the complex relationship of private to public is simplified into the tidy opposition existing only in libertarian fantasy. Too often the degree of coercion involved in the minutiae of daily life is overlooked. Too many commentators are intimidated by the ridicule that cheerleaders-for-things-as-they-are heap on those who ask why we aren't living more like the Jetsons, and exalt their cell phone as the telos of the universe from the Big Bang forward.) They were also enriched by numerous smaller observations, sufficiently so that the supporting arguments, the offhand observations, the anecdotes (recollections of his field work in Madagascar, for example), provided much of the book's interest--enough so as to make forgivable his tendency to go off on tangents, and his misses as well as hits. (In his frequent resorts to pop culture for explanations, I found him more convincing when writing about Batman than Star Trek, for instance.) That said, much of what he had to say here (regarding the corporatization of finance and financialization of the corporate, the fusion of public and private, the thrust of information technology, etc.) has been further developed in Bullshit Jobs, so that a reader interested in a fuller exposition of his analysis of bureaucracy and its implications would do well to look to that book, but the wealth of material here is more than ample to justify a look from those already familiar with his other works.

1. As Graeber already noted in Debt, just as states called markets into being, they must also sustain them in being, "an army of administrators" required "to keep them going"--and cites Von Mises on this. Where the case of the U.S. specifically is concerned the bureaucratized corporation preceded the expansion of the Federal government, and corporate functionaries played a significant role in building up the New Deal bureaucracy; while the masses of regulation imposed by government are, after all, largely designed by and lobbied for by business.

Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber

New York: Melville House, 2012, 534 pp.

David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years does precisely what its title promises, offer a history of its titular subject, and in a broader sense than this reader might expect--not least, because of how much more the word can mean than they might guess, which is in fact Graeber's starting point, as Graeber goes on to show. The first half of the book is a meditation on the idea of debt itself--both how deeply the idea suffuses our moral and religious ideas, our social relationships and language, all around the world; and at the same time, how varied and how (to modern people) strange the thinking about it has been. Indeed, much of it consists of lengthy discussions of comparatively exotic cultural notions about it, and in particular the idea of a "human economy" as manifested in societies ranging from the Irish to the Tiv.

Still, rather than just cataloguing this variety Graeber does advance a number of bold theses. Particularly important among them is that indebtedness, rather than the unfortunate and disreputable position we now think of it as being, may have been regarded as a normal, natural condition, and even a cement holding society together by connecting individuals together, an attitude reflected in the protections traditionally afforded debtors--like the Biblical "Year of Jubilee" which periodically canceled debts. Important, too, is his subversion of the most basic thinking about markets, money, debt. Where conventionally (in Adam Smith, for instance) a "natural" human tendency to exchange for comparative advantage is held to have made markets intuitive, and these are supposed to have led to money, and money to debts, with states generally outside the process, he contends that it was the rise of large, complex institutions--the temple complexes of ancient Mesopotamia identifiable as its state structures--that led to debt. By way of the need for units of account debt led to money, rather than the other way around, while it was states that fostered markets for the sake of mobilizing economies behind military endeavor, and the same rationale led to the transformation of by that point long familiar precious metal-based money into coinage--the standardized little pieces of those metals being handy for paying soldiers on the move.1

The second half of the book, building on many of these ideas, shifts to a systematic history of the development of debt across what might be thought of as the Eurasian "rimlands" over the past three millennia--the Mediterranean region, southern Asia, China, and eventually Western Europe. As noted earlier, Mesopotamia, and southern Asia more generally, were crucial scenes of the development of thinking about debt, and provide early examples of its abuses (like debt slavery) and the revolt against such abuses (in the form of the flight or rebellion of the victims, with profound implications for personal relations, quite observable in such works as the Bible).

That conflict between rapacious creditors and more humane policies, came together strikingly in the "Axial Age" (which he treats as roughly extending from 600 BCE to 600 CE). Conventionally thought of as an era of moral progress, because of its foundational ethical and religious developments (this was the crucial formative era for the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths, from the Biblical prophets to Buddha, as well as the speculations of Greek and Chinese philosophers), Graeber emphasizes that this was in substantial part a reaction to another dimension of the era, its ruthless materialism, in economic matters above all, where society shifted away from a reliance on credit, toward "hard cash," commodity, typically metallic, money. This was epitomized by the vast empires that prevailed across most of the continent's more densely peopled spaces--the Roman, Mauryan and Han Empires especially--which functioned as expanding military-slavery-coinage complexes (where armies were used to make conquests and capture slaves and mines, the former to work the latter, to pay for more armies and more conquests in an ongoing cycle). Unsurprisingly this period saw creditors obtain substantial legal and political advantages relative to debtors, on whom debt burdens weighed much more heavily; and whose disadvantages were at times moderated by reformers (often, a matter of the spoils of empire relieving the poorer members of a dominant group, like Rome's citizens) but never eliminated.

Such a change awaited the end of the period, and of its empires. As these exhausted the possibilities of their expansion within the limits set by geography and their technological bases, they simply collapsed, eventually resulting in less militarized societies where slavery was of less economic importance, with the same going for metallic money--increasingly, a virtual matter in what were in general less materialistic, more idealistic societies (in the epistemological sense of the term, of course). Emblematic of the shift was the way in which much of Eurasia saw usury banned outright in what he characterized as not merely the Western, but the Eurasian, "Middle Ages."

However, if the Medieval era was not exclusively Western, the West was an outlier in important respects--in the depth of its imperial collapse (this was no Dark Age elsewhere), and the extent of its embrace of the "corporate" type of institution in the aftermath--pioneered a return to the old stress on tangible, metallic money; and on imperial military-slavery-coinage complexes designed to maximize the supply of it. The very rationale underlay the era's mercantilism and associated voyages of discovery and colonization efforts, which once more produced a worldwide system of empire. This was, of course, the Europe-centered colonial system, turbo-charged by the emergence of full-blown, labor time-commodifying, M-C-M-circit-running capitalism that defined Modernity.

This prevailed until what had become the leading Western and world power, the U.S., abandoned the gold standard in 1971, which Graeber identifies as a return to virtual money. Curiously the era has so far seen creditors retain their advantage, and indeed, become central to the system, their trading in debt and their use of debt forcing governments to accept their program at the core of the neoliberal project dominating the last half century (ironically, as the bailing out of insolvent financial institutions testifies to the extraordinary leniency toward the biggest debtors of all), with the contradictions all too apparent in the confusion, unease and dissent of the moment.

As the description just given shows, Graeber sets the nature and implications of debt and indebtedness, the advent of those most basic economic concepts and institutions, the significance of the Axial Age, and our grasp of the ancient-Medieval-modern division of history, all on their heads. Often I was reminded of Karl Polanyi's classic debunking of the "myth of the market" so beloved by free-market theorists, but Graeber's work is grounded in a far greater wealth of data, and its argument is more intricate and wider in scope (while along the way, enriched by numerous, fascinating smaller theses--like the idea that the chivalric knight-errant in seach of fortune and glory was a Medieval sublimation of the merchant's activity into that of the feudal warriors it sung).

In fairness, much of Graeber's reconstruction of the politico-economic history of Eurasia and the world struck me as counterintuitive. However, that our ingrained assumptions about such matters are historically contingent is partly Graeber's point--the reason why he spends so much of the first half of the book lingering on (to contemporary Western readers) obscure and bizarre customs and beliefs, past and present; while on continued reflection I saw nothing to show the basics of his argument were really implausible, or inconsistent with the known facts. In fact, some of his more seemingly radical statements fit quite well with what we know. (For instance, while I reserve judgment on the matter in regard to China and India, whose histories I know less well, the Roman Empire, as described by Joseph Tainter, among others, accords well with his model of a military-slavery-coinage complex.) And the longer I thought about his case, the more, not less, sense it made.

All this is a very great achievement, enough so as to amply justify the work, though as might be expected given the note on which the history ends--that strange and uncertain phase into which we have entered in the past half century--Graeber is not merely explaining the past, but explicitly interested in the implications of this reading of history, this understanding of economic and social life, for the economic and social life of the early twenty-first century. That extends as far as the harsh and punitive conventional wisdom regarding the repayment of debt as one of the most basic moral obligations, in the name of which politicians have in recent decades inflicted enormous misery on populations from Mexico to Malaysia.

Reflecting on all this Graeber makes clear that an older way of understanding and living in the world is, if you will forgive the unintended pun, bankrupt, but a new one yet to emerge. Indeed, he suggests that contrary to the much maligned and yet (in the mainstream) virtually uncontested "end of history" school, we may be looking at the end of not just a particular attitude to debt, but capitalism itself, perhaps within a generation. That a book presenting this thought, so heretical to orthodox opinion that it has not had a real mainstream hearing for generations, is getting the attention it has (even contemptuous attention from the guardians of that orthodoxy) would seem to say a great deal about how the range of ideas that can be spoken in public has widened. By and large, it has been the right that has been more conspicuous, raising the profile of overt racism within the mainstream as talking heads treat the likes of Steve Bannon with deference on their shows. Still, however resistant elites remain to the ideas of the left, it is undeniable that much of the public does not regard the word "socialism" as the anathema it seemed such a short time ago.

That said, one need not accept Graeber's position regarding our contemporary political and economic life to find interest or value in his understanding of the past. However, those willing and able to at least engage with his ideas about them may be interested to know that in discussing our present discontents in this book he introduced an idea he developed at geater length in an article in Thomas Frank's The Baffler, "Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit,". Specifically he holds that neoliberalism has not been about a more efficient, fast-growing capitalism, but mere preservation of that system's social relations--an idea he has since developed even further in his essay collection The Utopia of Rules (reviewed here), and further than that in his more recent Bullshit Jobs (reviewed here).

1. Lest the simple-minded get confused--as one reviewer of this book who (clearly devoted to the old myth of the market) foamed at the mouth with hostility and intent on treating Graeber's argument as a straw man did--money, and its use as a unit of account, is one thing; and physical money handled and transferred by one to another as a matter of course in daily economic transactions still another thing; with the advent of coinage still not necessarily implied in even the latter. Equally, it is one thing to speak of barter or exchange, another to speak of private exchange in markets as a central organizing principle in economic life.

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