The anthropologist in an economist world

In tribute to David Graeber, 1961-2020

Image credit: Rachel Megawhat

In this edition of ASOMC, I wish to pay tribute to the beautiful and brave voice of that most incredible anthropological oddball, David Graeber, who recently and tragically died. David for a long time was an inspiration to me, and was - in the last year - becoming a friend. One thing we shared was the difficulty of being an anthropologist in a world dominated by economists, so this is a topic I’d like to briefly touch on.

What’s different about economic anthropology?

David was an anthropologist who wrote about economies, and this was the first reason why I resonated with his work. People sometimes think I come from an economics background - because I write about finance and money - but I actually have a degree in anthropology, a discipline that often has an antagonistic relationship to economics.

Different people give different reasons for why this antagonism exists, but this is how I describe it.

Anthropology starts from the recognition that a person - in the first instance at least - cannot exist apart from a group. Put differently, anthropology assumes that a human network always precedes its individual members, and that care and reproduction precede any form of solo heroics. Human babies don’t survive long if they are left to fend for themselves, and - even if they miraculously survived without others - they would not be able to speak language, which would make all future social interaction, relationships and trade near-impossible (see, for example, feral children).

As children grow up into adults and gain in confidence, it’s true that they become aware of their marginal differences and might entertain the idea of being autonomous ‘individuals’, but for much of early human history this could never be a primary orientation. The idea that you could just walk off on your own out into the horizon was not realistic for most people, and there was no independent ‘self’ that existed out in the wilderness without close connection to a band, clan, or tribe.

Anthropologists, thus, were among the first to realise that this term - ‘individual’ - which is used extensively in our modern world, is not so much a description of reality as it is an ideological concept that emerges from within certain groups, under certain conditions, in certain times and places. More specifically, it’s a concept that flourishes in the presence of vast nation state systems that remove the need for close kinship.

Within large-scale nation states you indeed can leave your place of origin and walk around as a total stranger among other strangers, whilst all being held together under a common meta-rule system (with legal systems, monetary systems and abstract national ideologies and flags to give some loose sense of connection to these strangers). The heretical thought that emerges amongst many anthropologists is that perhaps the modern individual is a product of states. This is also why modern anthropology has connections into left-leaning anarchism: anthropologists were amongst the first to sense that capitalism is catalysed by states, rather than existing in antagonism to states.

This orientation places many anthropologists into opposition to many standard economists (I say ‘standard’, because obviously there is diversity and nuance among different economists from different branches). Standard economics grew up in the context of modern states, and focused its attention on the populations of those states. Thus, while anthropologists were shocked out of their comfort zones by immersing themselves in clan-based societies like Papua New Guinea, economists were so immersed in modern states that those states blended into the background, so omnipresent that they were near-invisible.

And, once you forget about the state, you simply see the social results of its presence. You see strangers, disassociated from each other, floating about, trading. It’s in this context that you begin to imagine that the world is one of autonomous free-floating individuals. You might even come to loosely believe that individuals precede human networks. This is because - within a state setting - they sort-of sometimes do: precarious workers from all over a country float into association with a group of managers who have raised money from scattered investors, all operating under a common state infrastructure, and voila, a corporation exists.

An economics textbook often begins with supply and demand curves, representing the terms upon which fully grown adult individuals will walk into markets to contract with each other. This mentality behind this model is often then implicitly expanded and used to describe all social relations as stemming from the rational utility calculations of individuals, and this is where it all gets circular.

It’s tendency to ignore the state underpinnings of markets means the economics discipline has long harboured an implicit belief that groups are merely ‘collections of individuals’, as if in the back of the collective mind of Economics there’s a vision of people with an option to just walk off and leave society if it no longer suits them.

And this - to the eye of various anthropologists, and also feminist economists - is a deep-level structural flaw, somewhat like having a bug in the deepest layer of your discipline’s foundational code. This imagination of the ‘self’ floating alone in a market enables the discipline to create caricatures of human behaviour like ‘self-interest’ (self focusing on itself) and ‘altruism’ (self focusing on others), whereas for many early pre-capitalist societies there was no clear distinction between those: self-interest and group interest were aspects of each other, like chicken and egg. Modern capitalist rituals, like the staged panel discussions at the World Economic Forum, where hedge fund managers discuss whether pursuing self-interest enables altruism through philanthropy, would be absurd to anyone with a basic understanding that survival is not an individual endevour.

David versus the Econ Goliath

At its worst, then, mainstream economics has had a very bad habit of taking a historically specific economic system - based around capitalist monetary exchange and unleashed by large-scale states - and generically labelling it as ‘Economics’, and then universalising it and projecting it backwards in time into situations where it never existed. (As an analogy, imagine a music professor claiming that classical music is the only form of music, and then proceeding to use Western classical music notation and scales to transcribe Indian ragas).

This colonising tendency has generated attrocious theories like the barter theory on the origins of money, in which a post-money mentality is projected into a pre-money world and then used to argue for why money must come into origin. That’s a big topic I can cover in another piece, but David was famous for dismantling this intellectual abomination in his book Debt: The First 5000 Years. He wasn’t the first to do this - the barter theory has been attacked for over a hundred years now - but his book was much wider than this. It was Anthropology charging the gates of Economics, revealing the hidden political dynamics behind supposedly scientific principles and unassailable moral judgements like ‘debts must be paid’.

David was a master of a style of anthropology that opens your eyes to the fact that the pallette of economic options is far wider than you might think. While conservative econ departments attempt to naturalise the mentality that accompanies capitalist monetary exchange, economic anthropology - at its best - is like a rebel holdout in our collective subconscious, keeping alive knowledge of other ways of being (many of which still exist under the shadow of our dominant economic system, and which are parasited upon by it).

We find ourselves stuck in these systems, and they pose constant contradictions. I, for example, have had a long and difficult relationship with the idea of… well… monetising my work on alternative money, asking people to transfer to me digital bank deposits in exchange for my thoughts on alternative economic systems. In my first encounters with David I sensed the same struggles. He, like me, believed in solidarity networks, and wasn’t there measuring his time and putting a monetary price on it. Where some well-known writers refuse to appear at events unless they are paid five figure sums, David would appear at the most humble events staged by passionate activists with no money at all.

He was often introverted, but was committed to helping others, which meant he was constantly at risk of being drained of his energy by eager believers in his work. The first time I met him was at the 2012 Anarchist Bookfair in London, where he’d been speaking. I tried to approach as he rested in the hallway afterwards - I wanted to try impress him with some point about his talk - but he looked at me with such tiredness that I backed away.

The first time I truly spoke with him was a couple of years later, at a dinner with debt campaigners. He told me how tough it was trying to help out all the groups that needed support, but he nevertheless kept at it. This is why David was an anthropological hero to me, because he explicitly politicised and lived his anthropological knowledge. He was acutely aware of how societies bulldozed by colonialism often had - and have - entirely different customs to apportion labour and energy, and was well-versed in the ambiguities of those customs (such as the ‘shell money’ I will discuss in my next DFMM video - see below). He believed, though, in our ability to rework this knowledge to challenge the oppressive structures of finance around us.

With David and Nika at the 2019 Church of Burn

Most of all, I remember him being deeply uncomfortable about being seen as above others. Last year I was waiting in line with him alongside my friend Julio Linares, who was his student. We were trying to get into an overcrowded event where everyone knew his face, and where he would have been treated as a VIP. He could have easily walked in, but refused to skip the queue. The hall filled up, and we never got in. We sat outside the event and began discussing building a collective called SPECTRE - the Secret Political Economy Consortium.

And, during lock-down we piloted the first trial episode of SPECTRE TV. It was my first ever attempt to edit a video. It was on basic income, and it was the last time I ever spoke to David.

David was like a quirky poker hand. His political views were well known - like the upturned cards in a game of Texas Hold-em - but I feel incredibly lucky that I got a few occasions to see him show me a personal card or two, eccentric, hilarious and warm. I, and many others, will miss that deeply.

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DFMM No.2: Cere-money vs. money in Papua New Guinea

I’d like my conversations with David to metaphorically continue though, by continuing to politicise the past, present and future of money. That’s why in the forthcoming Dispatches from the Frontiers of Modern Money (DFMM) I’m going to take on the topic of the resurgence of ‘shell money’ in Papua New Guinea (long a favourite location for anthropologists) in the context of Covid-19. It’s a story I first became aware of on the 21st August, when the Guardian ran a story called “The return of shell money: PNG revives old ways after Covid's blow to economy”. To catch my in-depth take on that story, and my deconstruction of how it’s typically represented, please do subscribe.