Wildcat have written an interesting critical review of Graeber’s Debt.
They make this point well:
‘A section of the ‘capitalist empires’ chapter is headed So what is capitalism anyway?, although it’s not quite clear whether the answer on the next page is meant as a general definition or a narrower description of a moment known elsewhere as ‘primitive accumulation’. “What we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates – in practical effect – to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods”. Earlier on Graeber dismissed the labour theory of value from Adam Smith onwards in a casual quip. Now it’s spelled out more or less theoretically that the extraction of labour is a secondary consequence of the “financial apparatus of credit and debt”: the content of the ‘credit and debt’ must be something else, even if the apparatus of collection extorts prodigious toil from the indebted. Then there’s the “endlessly expanding volume of material goods”: not necessarily untrue, but put that way it sounds more like overabundance of consumer stuff than accumulation of dead labour as capital for reinvestment. Graeber is free of the anti-consumption moralism that usually accompanies the myth of overabundance, but the relation between expansion of “material goods” (as cause) and the pumping of more labour (as effect, then cause again, and so on) remains unexplained.
The expansion of capital is misconstrued again a few pages later when unwaged or incompletely waged labour is named as “the secret scandal of capitalism”. (Examples given are chattel slavery, indentured/debt servitude, the truck system4 and informal appropriation in kind; housework is omitted for some reason.) The enormous amount of wageless work converted into capital can probably never be emphasised enough, but the attempt to use it as evidence that capital has never “been organized primarily around free labor” amounts almost to a statement of the opposite. If a social relation ‘organized around’ commodified abstract labour existed only in enclaves of formally free wage work, the incorporation of foreign bodies into capital would be incomprehensible except as a series of discrete miracles, and most of the world would not be capitalist today. Graeber illustrates the ‘secret scandal’ revelation with references to Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged, but Linebaugh’s great book is all about the way capital ‘organized around’ formally free labour draws in and feeds on extraneous social practices, with or without full assimilation into the ‘free’ wage system. The idea that the organization of capital reaches only as far as its formal perfection curiously mirrors the most factory-centric workerism. The scandal of capital’s perpetual unwaged component is much like that of Apple’s failure to build physical computers in an enlarged Palo Alto garage, or a mafia boss who declines to shoot people personally.
None of this means Graeber reduces capitalism to credit and debt as usual. That would be highly unlikely, given that he strongly disapproves of capital but not necessarily of credit. Because inter-personal debt, as every 16th-century “English or French peasant” (and since then various ethnographically observed villagers) knew, is what “ties communities together”. The “origins of capitalism”, in which this communal binding frayed, are located in “the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest; of the gradual transformation of moral networks by the intrusion of the impersonal – and often vindictive – power of the state”. This is not some claim about a ‘statist’ coup: one strength of the book is its insistence throughout on the interdependence of military/state consolidation and private accumulation. In this particular passage, the key words are ‘impersonal’ and ‘intrusion’. Throughout the ‘5,000 years’ of the title, regimes of impersonal coin are said to have alternated with ‘human economies’ of personal credit. But here ‘intrusion’ and ‘conversion’ mean something more like takeover than simple substitution: the cycles of history spin off their axis (or the spokes of the wheels are at least reordered) when the impersonality hitherto associated with instant cash transactions acquires the temporal elasticity and, under new military-state forms, the socially binding power, otherwise assigned to “moral networks” of personal liability.
This impersonality is what qualifies as specifically ‘financial’ the ‘gigantic apparatus of credit and debt’ seen in capital, in contrast to earlier non-cash credit structures. Graeber insists uncontroversially that the financial apparatus chronologically precedes full-scale industrial commodity production. More surprisingly, he finds in this sequence a “paradox” and “a genuine challenge to familiar ways of thinking”. Because: “We like to think of the factories and workshops as the ‘real economy’, and the rest as superstructure, constructed on top of it. But if this were really so, then how could it be that the superstructure came first? Can the dreams of the system create its body?” Apart from caricaturing all talk of capitalist production as dumb base-superstructure dualism, he propounds here a shockingly simplistic theory of history, in which chronological equals ontological priority. If the financial apparatus appears earlier than other phenomena associated with ‘capitalism’, it must contain the latter’s essence. By this logic the truth of capitalism might equally be sought in feudal agriculture, absolute monarchy or the first Atlantic slave-raids, as the book’s own examples show. In fact Graeber’s own account of the persistence and transformation of ‘pre-capitalist’ social forms through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries already almost answers his pseudo-paradox, describing many elements of the historical dialectic his theory rejects, i.e. the way a pre-existing ‘apparatus’ contributes to an emerging mode of production in which that ‘apparatus’ will itself be changed and messily subordinated.’
Read the rest of it here.