Thursday, 22 December 2011

Graeber Debt Jubilee

Earlier this autumn I was reading Graeber's Debt: The First 5000 Years (Melville House, 2011). Seeing the euro crisis unfold in real time while reading was a awesome experience, giving me a weird feeling of experiencing the end of the world with a voice-over.

As an aside, let me confess that the news coverage of the euro crisis right now is giving me feelings of suffocation. Everywhere panic is stirred up, as if the big catastrophe that needed to be averted at all cost would be a break up of the euro-zone. But isn't the genuine catastrophe what is happening right now: whole populations sentenced to austerity without a trace of democratic process, and a power grap by the few, conveniently legitimated by the "crisis"?

Graeber's book is brilliant. It simply should be read. Like always with his works, it is never boring. He's always generous, letting the reader feel smart and come to startling new understandings on almost every page. He writes well, and explains well.

Here it won't be possible to summarize the book. So let me just gesture towards some of the things I liked: first, there are the wonderful first pages about the Garden Party in London, where Graeber gets the innocuous comment: ”Surely, one has to pay one’s debts” - a statement one might say that the entire book tries to problematize. From there the big arguments unfold: the idea that virtual money is the original kind of money (not cash or bullion), the criticism of the myth of barter, the distinction between communism, exchange and hierarchy as the three basic forms of economic morality, and the suggestion that history alternates between epochs of bullion and epochs of credit. Among the titbits are things like the claim that Europeans never "reverted to barter" after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the speculation that patriarchy originated in the horrified reaction against the Mesopotamian credit economy, the portrayal of the corporation-like Buddhist monasteries in China, or the startling account of the origin of the Bank of England.

Along the way, an anthropology of economic relations is built up which is used to show that barter, taken as the prototype of the "market" by classical economics has historically only been typical of relations between enemies or strangers, people who had no interest in building long-term relations with each other. Barter is a behavior close to war. Members of the same community have practically never used barter to exchange things; they share them or give them away, saying "I owe you one". In other words, they live in a credit economy.

Money existed in so-called "primitive" communities too, but was embedded in human relations, functioning as approximate credit units. Even when existing in material form, it was seldom used in daily transactions, tending to be reserved for special occasions – such as marriages, funerals or alliances – when there was some important rearrangement of relations between people. This kind of money Graeber calls ”social currencies” and the economies in which they are employed ”human economies”. What happens when such economies give way to commercial ones – when obligations turn into debts? The result can be debt peonage, as in Mesopotamia, or slavery, as in ancient Greece or Rome.

An important argument is about the role of the state and especially of military force. Money is credit money, i.e. IOUs or, basically, debt. It functions as money as long as it is redeemable. In principle, an IOU can be issued by anyone (such as the "tally sticks" used in medieval England or the scraps of signed paper that circulated as notes in China), but usually they only become recognized as money when they're backed by the state. Even when issued by the state, money remains debt. When states first issued coins it was to pay for their armies. But how could states ensure that this money would be redeemable, that there would be markets where the money would be accepted? By demanding the money back in taxes, ensuring that markets would grow up around the armies. The ability to raise taxes in turn rested on the ruler's means of coercion. Armies, then, were crucial to the creation of money and markets. Ultimately, it is the state's ability to back its IOUs with military force that underlies its ability to create money.

Graeber broadly divides history into three epochs of credit and two epochs of bullion. The most ancient economies were credit economies. In Sumer and the Mesopotamian empires, a typical pattern emerged whereby conflicts over debt were resolved or mitigated through periodic “Jubilees”. Credit led to debt peonage, which in turn provoked resistance in the form of indebted peasants joining the nomads – like in the Biblical “exodus”. Institutionalizing the “Jubilees” was a way for the empires to avoid losing their populations and to minimize their vulnerability to nomad attacks. This early credit age, however, were succeeded by the gruesome Axial age (the age of the Roman, Maurya and Han empires) when coins dominated. During the Middle Ages credit again became dominant in Europe, India and China. This was followed by the age of modern bullion-based capitalist empires, which lasted until 1971, when the Nixon shock inaugurated a new age dominated by credit. According to Graeber, it matters a great deal what kind of epoch it is. Bullion-dominated epochs have generally been warlike. Coin or cash is tailor-made for hostile relations, when you will never see each other again. Credit, by contrast, is more suited to peace and stability, since it presumes the possibility of reliable long-term relations.

A seemingly paradoxical fact, repeatedly stressed by Graeber, is that usually in the past, the ages of virtual credit money were accompanied by institutions designed to protect debtors (such as the Jubilee), but the most recent such age is different. Today institutions like the IMF instead function to protect the creditors. Graeber doesn’t really present a solution to this riddle, merely suggesting that the new age of credit is still rather new and that things are still up for grabs. With a little effort, we might still make this an epoch in which debtors rather than creditors will be protected. ”It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee” (p390).

Here’s my one objection to the book. The fact that we live in a credit-based economy today is indisputable, but that is hardly ground for hope. Credit economies only need to be “humane” to debtors so long as the state or system of coercion is weak. Only then must they must presume some basic trust or faith in the debtor. Today, however, states have developed to such an extent that trust in debtors can be dispensed with. Credit cards are accepted and loans are granted, not because of any trust in the debtors, but because the system will guarantee repayment. Debtors can no longer escape to the desert, but will be tracked down electronically. Even if they can’t pay, banks are too big to fail. What matters is not whether one lives in an epoch of cash or credit, but the strength of the system, its general growth prospects and its apparatus of coercion. This suggests that the idea of epochs of credit and of bullion is just a surface phenomenon, hiding more crucial processes going on elsewhere.

Just look at Greece, which is caught in a cage. The recipe of slashing growth prospects to reduce debt is about as reasonable as robbing a worker of his tools and then tell him to work until he has repaid his debt. To me it seems this is neither an age of bullion nor credit, at least not if credit is supposed to mean trusting each other, being humane, and caring for the long-term relation. Credit today means trust in coercion. It means: I trust the jailors above all, and if I trust you, it's because I trust your fear of the jailors and the strength of the fetters in which you will be caught.

So we see: the catastrophe is not the potential default or a break-up of the euro zone. The catastrophe is that a system has already come into being which we think is so important that we are sacrificing whole populations to ensure its functioning.

But there is one weak spot in the system. Unlike mutual trust, trust in coercion is a one-sided trust that is found above all in the creditor. It needs to be complemented by fear and anxiety on the part of the debtor. Fear of the crisis and of failure, panic at the prospect of default and of a rebuke from the rating agencies. This anxiety and fear is part of the catastrophe.

Part of the cure could be that we ask ourselves: do we really need to feel so anxious and fearful? Humane societies don’t need growth. To be humane and civilized means to behave decently and kindly even in hard times. Often these qualities are most real and strongest among so-called losers and failures. True barbary is strongest among those who strive to be on top or who struggle to avoid losing. If you want proof, just look around the world, or even just at Europe.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Making things public (according to Latour)

I'm not well read in Bruno Latour, so I write this not to assert any standpoint, but more, really, to clarify my impressions to myself and to test them against any criticism they might invite. 

I've just read “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik: or How to Make Things Public”, Latour's introduction to an exhibition catalogue edited by himself and Peter Weibel (Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, Karlsruhe: Center for Art and Media / Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2005). It's an intervention in political philosophy, written as an essay in the good old style - stimulating, well-written, erudite. He criticizes mainstream political philosophy – from Hobbes to Habermas – for neglecting "things" - and pleads instead for an "object-oriented democracy”, a Dingpolitik.

He points out that the old word ”Thing” originally designated a type of archaic assembly, as in Icelandic Althing (suitably located on a desolate site in the middle of a fault line). ”Thus, long before designating an object thrown out of the political sphere and standing there objectively and independently, the Ding or Thing has for many centuries meant the issue that brings people together because it divides them” (p13). The central idea is that what creates a public is not shared values or principles or any basic shared agreement, but the existence of a pressing concern that divides us: "we don’t assemble because we agree, look alike, feel good, are socially compatible or wish to fuse together but because we are brought by divisive matters of concern into some neutral, isolated place in order to come to some sort of provisional makeshift (dis)agreement” (p13).

So disagreement unites. As he points out, demos and demon share the same root, the Indo-European da-, to divide (p14).

At this point, one might ask if a public or a people are united only by disagreement, or if they also have something else in common. While the overall thrust of Latour's argument is certainly to stress the constitutive role of disagreement, he does add one more factor, which is crucial - the sharing of territory. ”Hence, the people, the demos, are made up of those who share the same space and are divided by the same contradictory worries” (p16).

Despite the concession to territory, Latour's conception of the public is thin, building on little but mutual disagreement. Rather than a unitary assembly, such politics would be an assembly of assemblies, by necessity constantly on the verge of dissolving into parts (an "assembly of disassembling"). As he points out, the difference between following the way of the "demon" - multiplying difference and disassembling - and that of the "demos" - multiplying occasions to agree, assemble and share - is thin as a knife (p30). One way to deal with the inconclusive nature of public deliberation is to be modest and acknowledge our insufficient cognitive capacities. ”The cognitive deficiency of participants has been hidden for a long time [...]. We were told that all of us – on entering this dome, this public sphere – had to leave aside in the cloakroom our own attachments, passions and weaknesses” (p20). Hence Latour's slogan: ”Disabled persons of all countries, unite!” (p19f).

A public tolerant of diversity needs to avoid the dream of unity and totality which he associates with "the phantasmagorical spheres, globes, common good and general will that the Leviathan was supposed to incarnate” (p24). Instead, he argues, it needs to be "phantom-like" (an expression derived from Lippman's "phantom public"). To illustrate what this might mean, he refers to an artwork, The Phantom, designed by Michel Jaffrennou and Thierry Coduys:
It’s activated by the movements of the visitors throughout the show so that each spectator is simultaneously an actor in the show and the only screen on which the whole spectacle is projected. By moving through the various exhibits, the visitors will trigger various captors that will be used as so many inputs to trigger outputs which will give a vague and uneasy feeling that “something happens” of which the bystanders are responsible but in a way that is not directly traceable. Politics will pass through you as a rather mysterious flow, just like a phantom. (p24)
If we compare to Jürgen Habermas, a striking trait of Latour's conception of the public is that it has no need for any underlying agreement, no shared language rules and no shared orienation to consensus. Apart from territory, it seems constituted by nothing by disagreement. This is at least formally a similarity to Jacques Rancière's conception of the public as a polemical place for the manifestation of disagreement. At the same time, the differences to Rancière are both striking and instructive.

Latour's demos or phantom public
would not be a "body politic" 
For instance, behind Latour's stress on disagreement one senses his concern with globalization, the global multitude of voices who no longer comprehend democracy ("Listen to the Japanese tradition... Listen to the Jivaros... Listen to the jihadists", p25). The global is what cannot be united under one roof. "Where would you assemble the global? Certainly not under golden domes and kitsch frescoes where heroic senators and half-naked Republics are crowned by laurels descending from clouds" (p20). Thus he discards the old metaphors for the public, the "spheres" or "domes". Yet, whether we like it or not, today the shared territory that brings people together is the global. Demonstrations against globalization show how a divisive issue brings people together, even if they wish to differ. The globe is where we all co-habitate: "we are all in the same boat" (p27).

To Rancière, by contrast, disagreement has nothing to do with global diversity. It springs from the injustice of the social order. This is why he, unlike Latour, presents the Ding, the cause of disagreement, as something that is visibilized only with the disruptive political act of those who have no part in the established order. Latour, by contrast, tends to present it as a pregiven and shared object of worry. This difference explains their radically different visions of politics. In Rancière the political event that constitutes the public is a rupture of the order. Latour, by contrast, presents dissent as constitutive of a new kind of phantom-like regular politics. Rancière's vantage-point is that of the excluded part, while Labour takes the perspective of the already, at least more or less, included, who only need to admit of their own weaknesses and insufficiences. Vantage-points are important. To theories too one should pose the question: cui bono?

Let me move to a theoretically more central point. Does Latour present a tenable, persuasive account of how publics work? To me, he vastly overestimates the role of disagreement. Whenever we see people assemble or gather together, it is usually on the basis of the existence of shared norms. To use his own example of the Althing, among Icelanders this shared basis was provided by custom; there was implicit agreement about where to go and how to deal with divisive issues, where to seek allies, how to present one's cause and what compensations were reasonable to claim for damages. Iceland, then, does not at all illustrate how the existence of a pressing divisive concern is enough to force people together. Would more contemporary examples - like the climate crisis - be more persuasive? Hardly. A climate summit too procedes along certain formal, agreed upon rules. Disagreement alone is not what constitutes the gathering.

Latour acknowledges that there are matters of global concern that inspire actions not based on shared rules - as when fundamentalists resort to violence out of resentment at the injustice of existing forms of representation (p25). But here the question arises: why does the Ding sometimes bring us together to fight and sometimes to talk? Why do some people talk, rather than resort to violence? Surely, there are many more factors than mere disagreement that play in here and that make people constitute publics.

A final point of disagreement with Latour concerns the role of norms needed to create egalitarian forms of interaction. In classical conceptions of the public - e.g. in Habermas or Arendt - publics are arenas where people are able to interact on the basis of an "egalitarian semblance". In old Iceland, this semblance was vouchsafed by custom and by the fact that it was already a relatively egalitarian society, lacking both king and state, in which the "thingmen" were independent, wealthy peasants. In today’s more stratified societies, the semblance of equality is instead created by a systematic bracketing of real inequalities in status, wealth and power. People are expected to behave "as if" equal when engaging in public discussions, regardless of actual inequality. Latour says nothing about how his phantom publics would deal with inequality. To the extent that these too depend on an egalitarian semblance, I would argue that they too need to rely on shared norms for bracketing - and, if so, they cannot be constituted solely by disagreement. There has to be some normative common ground.

Of course, it's quite possible to conceive of publics without egalitarianism. Nancy Fraser, for instance, argues that "subaltern counter-publics" shouldn't opt for maintaining the semblance of equality, which in fact conceals real exclusions and hierarchies, but for a strategy of "unbracketing". Only in the disruptive effect such "unbracketing" has on the mainstream public sphere - effect similar to those of "politics" in Rancière's sense - do real chances appear for the empowerment of excluded groups. Latour's slogan about the disabled persons of the world and his argument that we all ought to be more open with the weaknesses, attachments and passions that we for so long have hidden away as ”private” suggests that he too conceives of the public as something that ought to dispense with bracketing. Formally, in terms of a typology of publics, he would belong with Fraser and Rancière. Unlike them, however, he does not conceive of unbracketing as provocative or aggressive. To him, unbracketing is not needed to challenge social injustice, but in order to direct attention to our own weaknesses. He never touches on the issue of injustice, the very reason why Fraser and Rancière focus on unbracketing. So how would a Latour-inspired public deal with injustice? How would aggressive forms of unbracketing that challenge the privilege of the included be viewed and managed in such a public? Can such calls be managed by an ethics of mutually respecting our disabilities? Or by letting them pass through us as a  "rather mysterious flow, just like a phantom”? What appears to me to be left out - or am I misreading him? - is the question of how people not only react to an issue, to a "thing", but take it upon themselves to make it an issue, into a "thing" which the general public can no longer afford to ignore. This act of creating the divisive issue seems to be the core of politics.
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