Friday, February 27, 2009
Any day that Graeber puts up some writing is a good day. Apparently in order to understand what the fuck is going on, you have to understand the anthropological history of money. Who knew?
There seems little doubt that history, widely rumored to have come to an end a few years ago, has gone into overdrive of late, and is in the process of spitting us into a new political and economic landscape whose contours no one understands. Everyone agrees something has just ended but no one is quite sure what. Neoliberalism? Postmodernism? American hegemony? The rule of finance capital? Capitalism itself (unlikely for the time being)? It’s even more difficult to predict what’s about to be thrown at us, let alone what shape the forces of resistance to it are likely to take. Some new form of green capitalism? Knowledge Keynesianism? Chinese-style industrial authoritarianism? ‘Progressive’ imperialism?
One of the traditional roles of the economic anthropologist is to point out that the standard narrative set out in economic textbooks – the one we all take for granted, really, that once upon a time there was barter; that when this became too inconvenient, people invented money; that eventually, this lead to abstract systems of credit and debt, banking, and the New York Stock Exchange – is simply wrong. There is in fact no known example of a human society whose economy is based on barter of the ‘I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow’ variety. Most economies that don’t employ money – or anything that we’d identify as money, anyway – operate quite differently.