Monday, May 20, 2013

A ramble on an LSE Democracy talk with David Graeber & Craig Calhoun

I went to see David Graeber and Craig Calhoun talk at the LSE Democracy event at the end of April.

It was the first time I'd been back to the School since I left in 2000 and I was a little apprehensive. Stupid, I know. But I'd relaxed by the time I took my seat the Hong Kong theatre, always my favourite LSE venue. It's actually a bit naff ; a grand mock-Grecian hall with water stains on the flaking plaster and very uncomfortable seats. Plus a projector that points directly at the speaker's face so the whole time they have ghostly images of the great and the good flickering across them. You enter the theatre through a corridor, then an anti-room and then you're met with an airy, light, high ceilinged space. The contrast makes for a TARDIS-like effect. The impact of the room itself - imperfect but optimistic - seems very well matched with with its function.

Anyway, David Graeber has a new book out The Democracy Project. A table in the anti-room was piled high with them. It's a personal perspective on the Occupy movement in which David was a leading light.


But you know me well enough by now, to have a good guess at my real motivation for going.

No, not to check out cute hippy chicks who were out in force at this event and, in my student days at least, seemed gather in the LSE's Anthropology department as if it were their spiritual home. The department will soon be welcoming Mr Graeber through its doors, too. The lucky blighter. (I say this in an ironic post-modern way, of course).

No, I went because I wanted to see/hear David talk about Money and Debt in the flesh. Although this talk wasn't about Money directly, it was a fair bet it would crop up. And it did.

First though, Craig Calhoun.

Craig is the new director of the LSE. A big and important job. Craig looks as though he's spent many years riding Harleys along winding California coast roads. He got the Kris Kristofferson thing going on. He showed us the scar he'd got from the Pigs back in '68. He's COOL. He says Universities should give space to revolutionary social movements. They had, by and large, failed to provide this for Occupy (at 57.20 in the podcast).

Funnily enough on the tube into town I was finishing off Keith Hart's Money in an Unequal World (review and ramble to come). Here's what jumped out at me;
"The American sociologist Thorstein Veblen once wrote a book in answer to the question of how capitalist societies could permit the pursuit of truth in their universities [The Higher Learning in America - A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities]. He concluded that  the solution was to persuade academics that they belonged to the elite, while paying them the wages of artisans (who earned a lot less than they do now). They consequently compromised themselves pursuing whatever sources of additional income might help them to maintain a lifestyle they could not afford. (p269)
and a little later....
We [academic intellectuals] cannot bear to admit that others, through control of resources that we have so little of, have marginalised our ability to influence society through our ideas. (p272)
I have sympathy with Keith Hart's views. Compromise, careerism and politics seem an inevitable part academic life. So it's heartening to hear Craig - a big boss man - make a strong statement about something so fundamental. I've a feeling that Craig is going to be very good for the LSE. When I was there, the Director was Anthony Giddens. He and Tony Blair were basically lovers. All that Third Way stuff, that was Giddens. I'm not saying Giddens wasn't brilliant sociologist, but steer a course so close to centre of power and something like the Saif Gadaffi affair is sure to come along and scupper you sooner or later. Providing a safe space for people to talk freely in the pursuit of Truth - to know the causes of things - is ALWAYS what universities should do.


Now where were we? Oh yeah, cute hippy chicks. Near the end, during the audience Q&A a cute hippy chick* raised a great question - the best of the entire evening. It's at 67.20 in the podcast.

She tells us that the word Charity originally came from Justice. Jubilee - the forgiveness of debt and the manifestation of Justice - disappears, as Justice is transformed into Charity during the time of Constantine. We forget too easily that charity is a means to achieve justice, not an end in itself. You may remember that I have an unusual attitude to charity. I'll come to that in a moment. I found this interesting essay online by a 'Liberal Roman Catholic' whose site is actually called It provides many examples of Catholic leaders reminding us that charity should never replace justice. As for Constantine himself.....
...Constantine did plant the seed of one historic notion - that the Christian religion was compatible with politics. Christ himself had categorically rejected political involvement; and prior to Constantine, Christians had not sought to assume power as a means of furthering their cause. After Constantine Christianity and high politics went hand in hand. This in the eyes of the purists, was the moment of corruption.
Norman Davies Europe A History (1996) p.212

The American writer, politician and political economist Henry George had this to say about the substitution of charity for justice:
But worse perhaps than all else is the way in which this substituting of vague injunctions to charity for the clear-cut demands of justice opens an easy means for the professed teachers of the Christian religion of all branches and communions to placate Mammon while persuading themselves that they are serving God. Had the English clergy not subordinated the teaching of justice to the teaching of charity -- to go no further in Illustrating a principle of which the whole history of Christendom from Constantine's time to our own is witness -- the Tudor tyranny would never have arisen, and the separation of the church been averted; had the clergy of France never substituted charity for justice, the monstrous iniquities of the ancient regime would never have brought the horrors of the Great Revolution; and in my own country had those who should have preached justice not satisfied themselves with preaching kindness, chattel slavery could never have demanded the holocaust of our civil war.
Henry George The Condition of Labor (1891)

Cute Hippy Chick's question then, is about how charity squares with the morality of 'one must pay one's debts'. Because originally Justice was realized not through Charity but through the forgiveness of debt.

David said it was interesting how these things became polarised. He says that the rise of world religions coincides with the invention of coinage. Coinage gives people the chance to engage in exchange removed from relationships. At the same time religion - in a new association with the state - transforms Justice (the way God's work is done on earth) into Charity.

David cites Mauss claiming he is often misread. Mauss is famous for his work The Gift. Some read Mauss as stressing gift giving as an ideal selfless act, and so a morally superior way of organising exchange. But this incorrect. In essence, Mauss's argument is that there is no such thing as a pure gift. In gift exchange the motivations of the giver and receiver are wrapped up in a social relation. In market exchange Money becomes that social relation. In this way, the institutions of Charity and money sustain the polarities of selfless and selfish behaviors more so than their respective antecedents Justice and Debt.

In other words, in David's & Mauss's view, as individuals none of us is either totally selfless, or totally selfish. That doesn't describe our real existence. It is only through institutions that these extremes of behavior are actualized.

Although I don't believe like David that Money is Debt, all of this struck a chord with me. Derrida and his idea of pure forgiveness popped into my head - I posted on it a while back. Mauss and the pure gift (and its impossibility) is something that has stayed lodged in my mind since my Anthropology classes.

[And of course, Freud was in my mind too, raising his eyebrows to let me know he's thinking 'Ambivalence!' The Mind is a place where absolutely opposing thoughts, feelings and emotions can exist simultaneously. We can be selfish and selfless at the same time.]

Cute Hippy Chick opened a big old can of worms.


As I said, I have an unusual attitude to charity. I wrote a polemic against it a few years back. The basic point I made is that charity actually reproduces the very social structures that 'the act of charity' wants to subvert. The giver's power is actually enhanced and reborn through the act. Charity, in other words, cannot by its nature be purely selfless. I compared this to the act of money burning. And over the years I've come to the conclusion that money burning is pure forgiveness - it is the selflessness that is supposed to reside at the heart of of charity. (At least, money burning is the thing I've done that is closest to the idea of pure forgiveness).

I have a strange way of thinking about things at times. A bit top-trumps and childish, maybe. But in thinking about pure forgiveness I can't help myself but wonder what the biggest greatest act of pure forgiveness could be. Beyond even burning a million quid like the KLF did. I think to allow yourself to be willingly sacrificed to the Gods would get you the highest 'pure forgiveness' score. There must be many innocent children in ancient (and not so ancient) times who, perhaps even at the moment of their death, willingly forfeit their life for the greater good. Not in battle, not in a struggle, but in a ritual to honor or appease the Gods. They were the price demanded, and they forgave those who decided to pay it.

Of course, this is heinous and criminal to our minds. We have killed God. At least we've killed ones that demand such a price. But the resonance of those moments of pure forgiveness are still with us. With us in the story of Abraham and Isaac, and of Jesus himself, of course. We've twisted the stories in various ways to sustain them, and to make them more palatable. But this offering of life - moreover, of innocent lives - as a price paid to the God(s) is a real thing. It happened. And in some dark corner of the world probably still happens today. It's odd to think that with the horrific, despicable act of sacrificing a child to some imaginary God, there exists - within the child itself - the possibility for the purist act of forgiveness. In the darkest moment, the brightest light shines.

[In a corner of my mind now, Freud is taking a puff on his cigar and saying through the smoke "I told you so. Guilt, sacrifice, redemption. These are the things from which civilisation arises".]

You'll note that word, price.


I get the feeling that, at first glance, people regard my view of Money as just a rather eccentric Austrian one. That I objectify Money rather than see it as a social relation. This is wrong. Money is neither subject nor object to me. It is involved in the bridging the gap between those two worlds - it is in them, but not of them.

More specifically, I agree that the chronology of Money is VALUE - MONEY - PRICE. This is what Modern Monetary Theorists (& Keynes etc) say. And they're right. Hayek and the Austrians think it goes VALUE - PRICE - MONEY.

Essentially my position agrees with Ingham's statement:
"The very idea of money, which is to say, of abstract accounting for value, is logically anterior and historically prior to market exchange."
Geoffrey Ingham The Nature of Money (2004) p.25

I think that Regression Theorem (the Austrian explanation for money) is a partial one, and moreover it offers an explanation for currency, not Money. Regression Theorem is a materialist excavation of mental landscape. Sacrifice offers a better explanation of how money enumerates relations through currency (in line with what Ingham, Desmonde, Knapp, Laum et al say). Life and Death are surely the primary parameters of any idea of a 'unit of account'?

[Freud's ears prick up at the mention of Life and Death. He mumbles to himself about saying all this years ago and no-one listening.]

I don't agree with Nietzsche's view of value, but the following Nietzsche quote taken from Marc Shell's The Economy of Literature illustrates the confusion over this notion of chronology. Austrians may agree with Nietzsche's subjectivist idea of value (that it is we who bestow value upon things), however Nietzsche seems to say here that Price doesn't arise from markets, it arises from mind (PRICE - VALUE - MONEY).
"the mind of early man was preoccupied to such an extent with price-making.... that in a certain sense this may be said to have constituted his whole thinking."
Friedrich Nietzsche trans F Golffing The Birth of Tragedy and the Genealogy of Morals (1956) p.202

Markets don't make prices as the Austrian's imagine. What they do is relieve us of the greater part of that task. Markets are an unconscious projection of the aspect of mental life that Nietzsche identifies. The unit of account function of money - as economists like to refer to it - is in fact, primarily a mental event that is amplified via the markets. It doesn't originate with them.

Our mind's primordial prices have to do with life, death and sex. In those shared human events lies the true source of Ingham's "abstract accounting for value". The abstraction of life and death in the form of ritual sacrifice (totem) is the start of currency. Totem is the first symbolic representation of a life. Concomitant with totem is taboo. Sexual rights and wrongs are established via taboos and are beginnings of law; Law, which will eventually specify our relations with things through property rights. Both totem and taboo have a profound effect upon and are the manifestation of profound changes within, our mind's conception of subject and object.

[Freud shuffles over to the bookshelf just to check that Frazer's The Golden Bough, and his own Totem and Taboo and Civilisation and its Discontents still on the shelf in that order, left to right]

So, if you're confused as to which came first currency or price you're not alone. After all, in just this short piece I've already said most definitely that the story goes VALUE, then MONEY, then PRICE. But I've also suggested that price - in the sense of abstract accounting, or Nietzsche's price-making - precedes currency. In a way it must do, because the idea of a totem must surely exist prior to the totem itself. We're in danger of opening up a huge can of (Platonic Form) worms here - do ideas precede actions? Is thought ontologically prior to matter? How can we make any sense of price, currency and Money?

For me, the only way is by thinking about what we mean by these terms - what do they actually describe? I'll come back to it after a quick diversion, but briefly put, I see currency and price as manifestations of the the same essence, namely the enumerative capacity of Money (specifically, its ability to create a dualism from the monism of value). In fact, it's much better to think of currency and price as the same, than it is to think of Money and currency (as the social relations people do) or Money and price (as the commodity folks do) as the same. At a push I would say that currency is form of price. And if my life depended on it, I would stick to my guns and say that all of the above can be comfortably accommodated within the description of Money as an aspect of reality that enumerates certain relations through currency.


Anyway, let's take a step back from the brink of our metaphysical meltdown and head back to this idea that our primal currency, the primary unit of account, the most primitive of price-tags, was a life.

If you think that odd or implausible consider the word livestock. From our C21st century perspective currency is about dollars. Before this it was about Gold and silver. But across the span of human evolution currency is about livestock (including slaves). Traces of this are still found in our language.
"The English word "fee" originated from the German word vieh (cattle) through the intermediary of the Anglo-Saxon word feoh, meaning cattle, property, treasure, price, reward, levy, tribute, money."
Paul Einzig Primitive Money (1948) p.259

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that because currency is fundamentally about something as tangible as a cow, or a goat, or a slave, that corporeality is what is most important to currency. That a coin represents something real. But such a view ignores context. In our relations with things both totem AND taboo have a role. It is not only about demarcating the life of a cow as an object, it is also about our relationship through the cow to the cosmos, the outward projection of our subjective inner world. Where there is Owning there is Owing, and where there is Owing there is Owning.

There is an interesting idea (originally from Philippe Rospabe) put forward in David's book Debt - the First 5000 Years that currency arose as recognition of a 'debt that cannot be paid'. David puts it like this;
"The only appropriate payment for the gift of a woman is the gift of another woman; in the meantime, all one can do is to acknowledge the outstanding debt." (p. 132)
This idea - and similar ones described broadly as Primordial Debt Theory - don't offer a full explanation for the genesis of currency in my view. But they do challenge orthodox economic views which tend to focus squarely on Owning (property rights) rather than Owing (debt) in their explanations of Money and currency. The defense of capitalism focuses on the pleasure of possession, whereas criticism of capitalism focuses the pain of debt.

Debt (Owing) has lived in the shadow of property rights (Owning) for far too long in economic thought. David did the world a great favour by refocusing our attention on it. However Debt does not offer a full explanation of currency. Money is not Debt, as David claims.

Debt is an amplification of of currency. Its a way of expanding the reality of Money through promises. David claims that we can reconstitute Money; that we can reform the social relation of money to better serve the Good.

I think we can reconstitute currency but not Money.


This might seem like I'm splitting hairs. Really, I'm not. Really, really.

Currency is susceptible to technology. Its form determines its capacity and capabilities in its use.

Money is "an aspect of reality that mediates Value and enumerates certain relations through currency".

Confusing Money and currency is something I've written about often in this blog e.g.. Nearly every book I've read on Money does it. It is possibly the biggest block to our understanding of money.

Those who describe 'Money as social relation' make many sound arguments, as I've briefly tried to demonstrate above. However, their ultimate conclusion that Money is "nothing really" is wrong. Despite the weaknesses of the 'Money as commodity' view (which is shared by both Marx and the Austrians) their conclusion, or perhaps their core belief, that Money is "something actually", is in accord with the evidence of our senses.

For me, the issue of Money's materialism (or not) is largely irrelevant. It is an aspect of our reality. And there is no reality, other than our reality. Ergo currency is real. People really die through poverty. Occupy really protests the injustices it thinks debt/currency creates. I really have to drive a van to earn currency to live so that I can write this stuff. The reality of currency is our day to day experience. You might as well claim that my fist is just a soup of quantum possibilities, it's still going to hurt if I hit you. You can understand how Austrians - and people generally, especially creditors - are exasperated to hear it said that "money is nothing really".

This next bit might seem like quite a leap. What this is, is the old battle for reality between the Truth and the Good. I hope the next few paragraphs give at least an idea of what I mean.
"Phædrus reads further and further into pre-Socratic Greek thought to find out, and eventually comes to the view that Plato’s hatred of the rhetoricians was part of a much larger struggle in which the reality of the Good, represented by the Sophists, and the reality of the True, represented by the dialecticians, were engaged in a huge struggle for the future mind of man. Truth won, the Good lost, and that is why today we have so little difficulty accepting the reality of truth and so much difficulty accepting the reality of Quality..."
Robert M Pirsig Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) p.371

On the one side, you have those who think Money is social relation denying currency its reality. They believe this because of their arguments about Money and their sense of the Good.

On the other side, you have those who think Money is commodity convinced of its reality. They believe this because of the evidence of their senses and their ideas about Truth.

And so we are stuck. Stuck between one set of people (the social relation folks) who are largely talking about Money and projecting conclusions onto currency, and another set of people (the commodity folks) who are largely talking about currency and projecting their conclusions onto Money.

I tweeted this, which says pretty much the same thing.


So what does all this mean for the Cute Hippy Chick? How do we square charity with the morality of 'one must pay one's debts?'

The answer in short is that we don't. David doesn't side with charity in his answer, rather he takes a position against debt. In fact, he claims that we will have some form of mass write-off in the near future. And he thinks it would be better to do this out in the open, rather than behind closed doors. This he claims will 'clear out our conceptual baggage' around money and reveal it to be a 'social relation'.

Of course, I disagree. But there is something in his answer which chimes with my thoughts.

[Freud says getting things out in the open, bringing them to consciousness can be beneficial, but you have to be careful and gentle. We can be fragile and fearful creatures.]

Charity is a neurosis. It is not a solution to the trauma of injustice. Its way of avoiding dealing with it, whilst mustering a feeling - at least temporarily - of resolution. In the long run the neurosis is not good for us. It blinds us to injustice. But we remain drawn to Charity because it contains an echo of the Good. An echo the forgiveness and rebirth that were so much more obvious in the ancient debt jubilees.

Believing fervently in the righteousness of 'one must pay one's debts' is a psychosis. Sometimes you just can't pay your debts. It doesn't matter about your motivation, or your morality, you just can't pay them. At the heart of the psychosis is the self-referential belief, a narcissism, of 'I pay my debts, so you must pay yours' or, in other words, 'I keep my promises, you must keep yours'. And in capitalism of course, the game is about squeezing the other guy so much so, that in the end he can't keep his promises. It's a self-reinforcing system that serves and maintains dominant ego's sense of itself and its moral superiority.

What chimed with me in what David said, was the idea of bringing things into the open, of making things conscious. It'd be nice to resolve the neurosis of charity and the psychosis of debt. It'd be good for us to realise that both these ways of being are aberrations. They are manifest in the powerful archetypes Princess Diana on the one side and a Mafia boss on the other. And they resonate deeply within us. But they are perversions of Grace and Honour. Perhaps David's idea of a conscious debt jubilee might resolve these perversions. Perhaps the human spirit will then shine and Grace and Honour will be our guide to Justice, rather than Charity and Debt.

Or perhaps not.

There is a common misconception that Freud said that repression was bad for us (a misconception shared believe it or not by Hayek). What Freud actually said was that civilization was built on repression. Ultimately the neuroses and psychoses that result from repression, although they are 'disorders', may also be necessary for our survival. We inhabit a mentally imperfect world. And that imperfect inner world is projected outwards to create our society.

So my fear would be, that a conscious debt jubilee wouldn't cure the neurosis of charity and the psychosis of debt. It wouldn't send Charity back to its roots of Justice, nor would it promote less psychotic behaviour from creditors. In fact it might fracture the delicate balance of our mental life. It might make us schizophrenic. The dividing line between creditors and debtors would become a vast fissure. Each side would become more entrenched in their own position, more absorbed in its own sense of righteousness.

I remember back in 2008 when the banking crises was at its peak. I was listening to the radio in my van. The DJ had decided to play 'party tunes' because he, and the listeners who called in, felt like it was an 'end of the world party'. That all the troubles, fears and worries they had over money were somehow now meaningless. If the biggest banks in the world can go bust, why should I worry?

A institutionally sanctioned forced forgiveness would be a perversion of the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness can only ever be given, never taken.

In short, a conscious debt jubilee is the psychoanalytical equivalent of Freud standing over you shouting 'YOU WANT TO FUCK YOUR MUM AND KILL YOUR DAD!'

And, at the risk of extending this little simile too far, that's a bit like Money and currency too. 'Fuck your Mum, Kill your Dad' is the currency of Freud. Freud's Money is what lies behind the Oedipus complex. Its the idea that mental life is made up of life and death forces. 'Fuck your Mum, kill your Dad' is how he imagined those life and death forces played out human evolution. Think about it this way and its not too hard to believe that something like it must have happened.

A conscious debt jubilee won't prove that Money is "nothing really" and a 'social relation'. It might convince debtors of that, but creditors will literally experience a reformation around the ideas that Money is "something actually" and a 'commodity'. The world will be reborn more divided than it is today.


[Freud *facepalm*]
[Graeber *facepalm*]

I guess this is not the answer Cute Hippy Chick wanted to hear.

You might interpret what I've said as arguing for the status quo, for the maintenance of Keith Hart's 'unequal world'.  It could all sound like an excuse to do nothing, rather than take action. What's the point in protesting over money? You might as well protest about atoms. My arguments might even seem pointlessly esoteric (or at least, as having pretensions to esotericism); trying to imagine the essence of Money when people don't even have clean water to drink.

But none of that's right. At least not to my eyes.

David's hope is that a debt jubilee would 'clear our conceptual baggage' around money and reveal it as a social relation.

I'm all for the clearing of conceptual baggage. But for me a debt jubilee is not the way to do it. Cute Hippy Chick should just burn her money, instead. That way she can offer a very personal form of pure forgiveness. Money is so very close to who we are that it needs personal rather than political actions to reveal itself. Burning it will help to disconnect Money from currency in her mind. Rather than limiting the capacity of our understanding - as a debt jubilee would - burning offers the possibility of expanding and deepening that understanding. And it offers hope. That was important to our ancestors. It was their reward for sacrifice. It's important to us now, too. All of us, debtors and creditors.


It's great that the LSE, Craig and David put effort into doing these evenings. I know there's a book to sell, but that's fine. I thoroughly enjoyed the event and clearly, it set me thinking. I have come to the conclusion that I should go to more of them.

[I'm gradually letting Freud out to play. I know he's not a popular child now, but has was the apple of our eye once and I think it's about time he had a bit of fresh air.]

* Actually, I have no idea if she was a cute hippy chick, or not. I couldn't see her. But I'm going to call her 'Cute Hippy Chick' anyway.

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