It’s a classic underdog tale: David, a young shepherd armed only with a sling, beats Goliath, the mighty warrior. The story has transcended its biblical origins to become a common shorthand for unlikely victory. But, asks Malcolm Gladwell, is that really what the David and Goliath story is about?
When I was a teen I was taken to the country to play with some boys who lived on a farm. A ten year old had a sling and asked if I wanted to see him hit a building in the distance. Off on the horizon I could see a galvanized grain storage building – a long rifle shot. The boy selected a chunk of concrete about the size of a fist, spun it, let go and then we waited and waited. Then – CLANG! At that moment the David and Goliath story changed in my mind.
I never saw David as an underdog. When I grew up hearing the story and they told how he defended his flock and I knew he was no one to mess with. Maybe it’s because I was raised around animals and know their capabilities when hungry or stressed. They are very fast, agile and sneaky. In order for David to be able to kill an hungry animal he would have to have a skill compatible to a trained warrior. Yes he was young but back in those days children didn’t just sit around all day they too had responsibilities. It dismays me that from the start people don’t give David the credit he is due. Youth doesn’t mean incapable.
I played with such a sling as a youngster of 10 or 11. At that time I weighed maybe 65 or 70 lbs. With such a sling I could throw a 12 Oz can full of wet sand the length of a football field. I wasn’t very accurate, but you can be sure that that 12 Oz can was a deadly projectile. I’ve know most of my life that Goliath never had a chance even if he had been a champion Gladiator.
- Seeing patterns that no one else sees
- People who get to the point.
- History and understanding the past
- Seeing people achieve something they struggled to acheive
- The power and beauty of nature
- Abandoned buildings and ruins. The idea of what might have been.
- Discovering new things. Open minded problem solvers.
- Being understood. Feel different, don’t fit in, and feel misunderstood.
- Having deep conversations about life, the universe, and everything: not the weather or celebrity gossip. Constantly thinking about life and its mysteries
9 Things ALL Sigma Males Love. If you know the sigma male traits and sigma mindset, you’ll find out that there are many things sigma males love. If you enjoyed this video, hit the like button and make sure to subscribe! I really do appreciate your support. 🙏 The world is full of different types of people; it takes all kinds to make the world go round. But there is a personality type that just seems to have it all together, and that’s the Sigma Male. The Sigma Male is the guy who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone else; he’s confident, successful, and always seems to know what he’s doing. He’s the man that other guys want in their teams, and the man that women can’t help but be attracted to. Sigma men are the rarest and most misunderstood type of men out there. They’re the ones who march to the beat of their own drum and don’t really fit in the traditional alpha male mold. They are also fiercely independent and strongly dislike anything that smells of conformity or routine. But there are some things that all Sigma males love; here are 9 of them.
Question: “In today’s dollars, each slave in 1860 cost about $17,000. Wouldn’t whipping decrease work output and decrease resale value?”
You misunderstand how the system of slave based production on cotton and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South worked.
The work load for each slave laborer per day was set by the slave owner based upon the maximum output that could be achieved by the best hands with the most experience under the best conditions. Each slave was given an output quota that was a percentage of that…a quota that was the maximum that that hand could achieve based upon their experience.
Those maximum production figures were well known, being published in Planters’ Journals , Southern Slave Owners’ Newspapers subscribed to by the slave-owning classes. These journals described and promoted methods designed to get the greatest possible productivity out of the enslaved labor while spending as little as possible on their care and feeding. For some time those journals promoted the idea of feeding the enslaved workers on cotton seed waste. Cotton seed waste cost nothing. But it had NO nutritive value and as a sole source of nutrition would cause a man to starve to death.
The primary mechanism for increasing productivity on the slave plantations of the Deep South was the systematic application of violence and torture.
ANY slave who for any reason failed to meet their essentially arbitrarily assigned quota was whipped. These whippings were extremely painful. They were ordinarily administered by a sadist using a heavy braided stock whip intended to be used on animals. The whipping always resulted in torn and bleeding skin and were accompanied by loud uncontrollable involuntary screaming that could be heard hundreds of yards away. The diaries of the landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmsted who spent a year on Southern Plantations notes that one of his most vivid memories from those plantations was the screams of men and women being whipped. Those whippings often caused men used to brutal conditions to lose consciousness from the pain.
The whippings were a management technique. They were purposely administered sadistically and publicly. The other slaves, exhausted from their labors but still required to fetch their own water and gather their own cooking fuel and spend hours preparing their own food before sleeping and being woken before dawn, were required to watch them.
Systematic whippings were used to increase productivity. Once the hands were generally able to achieve the set quota, the quota for everyone would be increased. Those who could not achieve the new quota would be whipped.
The Southern Slave-Owning Classes were both sadists and perverts. There was an obvious sexual sadism involved in these whippings. Southern men, who bragged to each other in their letters and journals of the number of female slaves they had raped, would whip the females when they were staked to the ground on their backs naked with their legs spread and whipped across their bellies and thighs.
Southern brutality was so extreme that both male and female slaves died in agony while being whipped. But Southern law specifically allowed a slaver to kill his own slave. There were no penalties for doing so. The only restriction on killing a slave applied when the murderer was not the slave’s owner. In such a case the killer was NOT guilty of or tried for murder. Rather he was required to make a cash payment to the dead slave’s owner for depriving him of his property.
When all of the hands could achieve the new higher arbitrary production quotas, the Best Hands, who were the most experienced and therefore had the highest productivity, would themselves be whipped to encourage them to achieve a super-human output. Then the quota system would be adjusted upwards based upon the output of these Best Hands and the whippings would continue.
How effective was this system of obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture? We have three objective indicators that this systematic torture greatly increased the wealth of the Southern Slave-Owning Classes.
- Picking cotton is a skilled task that is difficult to learn, requires eye-hand coordination to do well and quickly, and under the best conditions will result in bloodied hands. Believe me, you can’t do it. Yet many Black slaves learned to quickly and simultaneously pick cotton on two rows using both their right and left hands ambidextrously. This takes an almost impossible level of concentration, skill, and dexterity. But it was done by tired nearly-starving beaten people working from before dawn to dusk in the hot southern sun. The slaves learned to do the impossible to avoid being whipped.
- Before the Civil War these Slave Labor Plantations increased their productivity 2% each year, for 17 consecutive years, without any increase in capital investment or any change in production methods. This continuous increase in productivity without investment over that long a period in time is, from the point of view of a capitalist-investor, astounding! This increase in productivity was achieved through the systematic use of torture and violence by Southern White Slave Owners.
- After the Civil War and the Emancipation of the Slaves Southern White Planters resorted to using Paid White Labor for planting and picking cotton. That Paid White Labor was not able to achieve even ONE THIRD the average productivity of Black Slave Labor during the pre-war years.
As for the argument that the Slave Owners might not want to diminish the resale value of their enslaved brutalized human property and would, therefore, refrain from whipping them: NO. there are two reasons why that was not true.
- The most productive slaves, those who worked on the First Gang, were strong-bodied healthy males aged between 16 and 27. After that because of the onerous nature of their work and poor diet and lack of medical care their productivity decreased markedly. It was, therefore, determined by the Southern Planter Class that the most economically rational course was to work a man to death. The average life expectancy of a healthy male, who by our standards would have the body and stamina of a pro athlete (!), on the First Gang of a cotton or sugar cane slave farm was at best 17 years.
- The slaves were NOT actually owned. On the slave plantations in the Deep South all of the slaves were mortgaged. Fractional shares of each slave were owned by investors. The Southern Slavers were extremely poor businessmen who routinely lived beyond their means and were perpetually in debt…for their unpaid-for land, for their mortgaged slaves, to the merchants, and to factors to whom they had sold their crop before it had been harvested.
Southern Slave Agriculture was unspeakably evil and incompetently managed. Its main feature was obtaining productivity increases through violence and torture.
I truly hate to show this picture. It sickens me. But THIS is how Southerners treated slaves.
The Militant South 1800–1861, John Hope Franklin
Without Consent or Contract-The Rise and Fall of American Slavery, Robert William Fogel
Slave Nation, Alfred W. Blumrosen & Ruth G. Blumrosen
Spying on the South, Tony Horowitz
Confederate Reckoning, Stephanie McCurry
Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
Lynching in the New South, Brundage
Fush Times & Fever Dreams-A History of Capitalism and Slavery, Joshua Rothman
Slave-based production was very profitable…as long as one was willing to accept systematic violence and torture. Towards the end of the Civil War slavery was being used by the South in industry and mining as well as agriculture. Slaves had already been colateralized and fractionally sold as bonds which were traded on the international market. In the pre-Civil war decade enslaved Blacks were the single biggest capital investment in the United States and cotton produced by slave labor was by far America’s most valuable export product.
In the decade prior to the Civil War a Black male slave between the age of 16 and 27 used for violence-based slave cotton or sugar production gave the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) of ANY investment.
Because of that I can see, lacking the American Civil War and Government Forced Slave Emancipation, violence-based slave production having continued into and through the 20th century not only in agriculture but in heavy industry and mining.
There is a problem with the $17,000 figure cited in the question. No economist or historian would use that. It is a grossly misleading figure based upon a conversion of a different currency in a different age with a different pricing structure and different commodities and a completely different distribution of income and effectively no taxation. The only useful comparative figure would involve the number of hours of labor needed by a person of a given social class to obtain a needed commodity that had equal utility/desirability in 1855 and 2019.
The planter class in the Deep South was generally composed of the dissolute spoiled sons of planter/slavers on the Chesapeake. They were speculators who competed with each other for a valuable commodity, e.g. slaves, and had by the mid-1850s bid the price of a young male slave up to absurd levels.
They were able to do this because slaves were collateralized and, like American home buyers in the decade prior to 2008, borrowed money wildly thinking that the value of slaves would continue to rise forever and they could always refinance their debt. They only needed easily obtained credit, not cash, to buy slaves.
Nevertheless, the market determined a price for slaves that was always far less than the money that could be made by owning slaves, especially if you were base enough to barely feed them (slaves had to grow for themselves or hunt and then cook almost all of the vegetables and protein they consumed), clothe them in hand-me-down rags, and work them to death.
Without getting into arcane detail, we can at best say that by the 1850s the price of young males slaves in the Deep South had been bid up to high levels but that the market still thought that the price still had the greatest ROI (Return On Investment) available in the United States.
may uh thei’m seeing with a little more claritythat all these moments ofyou know reactionary apparelthe sociological parallel is that youhave or a political parallelis that you have a reactionary minoritypartythat has a parliamentaryand a paramilitary wingand the republicans are just reproducingthis pattern with with just you knowelegance right and if you look at thejanuary 6uh investigation you know they’reproceeding on two tracks and the twotracks are the majority literally themajority of senators and house representhouse members who tried to overturntheir elections using their votesas outside the gates you have you knowpeople kind of messing you know withwith truncheonsrightandyou have to kind of follow that threadyou know in 2020 you know you talk aboutyou know the movement you know for blacklivesat the same time asi think it was about a dozen states wereindemnifying people for the crime of umdriving their vehicles vehicularhomicide into crowds rightand if you look at the statistics ithink there was something like you knowlike there were there there were nearlya hundred vehicular assaults you knowthis is terrorism right the automobileas a weaponuh uh and you know kind of pushing backyou know movements for democracy andequalityandyou justyou know we we we need to be and youknow i thinkand then as we look at this january 6investigation you have this housecommittee that seems to be doing veryaggressive work and this justicedepartment that seems to be you knownowhere to be found because they’requote unquote institutionalists that’swhere you get into the democratic partyfecklessness where we have this attorneygeneral whoum you know hopefully is building thesecases from the ground up but we don’tknow we haven’t heard anything right sowe have no kind of organized voicewithin the democratic partywho is saying you know really kind ofnaming the stakes with any kind ofuh clarity and aggressivenessumthat has the power to do something aboutit or maybe not and that’s why we’rekind of on the the precipice you knowumand you know you still have this kind ofadlai stevenson kind of obama strain inthe democratic partythat says the problem ispolarization and we’re saying too manymean things about the oppositionrightumand that’s a real problemand billyeah so um
see first of all i think i i’m going to
say two things that will sound perhaps
one is that i think this moment was
the second is
i do not think that the outcome
so i think that this moment was was
inevitable because this is the result of
racial settler colonialism
this is the result of
the failure of the civil war
part of the question
and it was also the result of the fact
that during this great democratic or
small d moment in the south called
native americans were being annihilated
in the west
right so yeah these contradictory things
are going on so in in so i think that
the the failure of the united states to
ever come to grips with its own past and
with the question of a genuine democracy
um even within the context of capitalism
made this inevitable this clash
and and i think that when i talked
before about right-wing populism as the
herpes of capitalism it’s because the
virus is in the system
it’s not outside of the system and
periodically like a stomach bug hitting
you right it’s in the system
so the system needs to be cleansed
um and and and so the outcome of this
is not inevitable
we have at least
of the population that has not lost its
i mean that’s very significant
and and i think that what is critically
important mark you and i have talked
is that people have to organize at the
and and it can’t be relying on
the eloquence of barack obama or the
feistiness of of biden in order to stop
when the right shows up at school board
we need to be there
when the right attacks
uh or tries to
stop the vaccine
we need to be there
when they come after election officials
we need to be there
now i realized the implications of this
i realize that that may lead to physical
altercations but in general i have found
the right to be quite cowardly
this is true not just in the united
states but in other places they are
and they they often think they can get
away quite literally with murder
until and unless progressives stand up
no pass iran
we’re not playing this game yep
um and and we should remember just
historically the spanish fascists in
could have been defeated in a matter of
months had it not been for the nazis and
the italian fascists
intervening we can actually stop this
thing from happening so i think it’s
really important that we do not fall
prey to fatalism which i see certainly
in the liberal media
but also in segments of the left and one
final thing mark there’s also segments
on the left you and i have discussed
that really downplay this danger from
right wing authoritarianism and continue
to think that the main enemy are
i want to go upside people’s heads and
ask them what what are you smoking what
is it is it like alcohol and herb or
you’re adding some other stuff
what is it that that you think is going
on here yeah so i think we just have to
grapple with that
so let me let me jump in here for a
minute and this is we so we brought us
youtube just brought us to this moment
let’s talk about this moment what that
what what you just said um uh really
means bill and what you were saying
earlier rick that so so how does that
happen though let me posit something
that may sound negative but let me just
pause it anyway and you can tear it
so i’m watching the right
and i see a right wing
appears to be
than progressives of the left or anybody
and well-armed i might add
in all these complications that we
talked about whether it was hitler in
1930 germany 1932 or
or or 1877
or right now a lot of it is being fueled
by no no don’t take that back that part
of it is
people who have been in the military
are upset and angry and on the right
as my two grandsons who now serve in the
united states army said to me
that almost all the guys they meet
in the combat units are on the right
as opposed to units they’re in when
they’re much more open-minded
because they’re in the space core and
all that kind of stuff so they’re in a
very different kind of place but so so
they so so that reality exists
and the fact that
the right wing inside the republican
literally control of 26 states in the
union and in 41 states they’re put in
legislation to diminish voting rights
and to control the vote so they can
control the elections coming up
and that means that they could possibly
for numerous reasons including the
failure of bodies and others to take
over in 2022 the the federal legislature
which is significant
and the left is kind of and progressives
are kind of embedded inside the
democratic party and i’m not saying here
go start another party that has no power
at the moment but that are embedded
inside the democrats with very little
power within them
and the unions are now struggling to get
back on their feet and you see strikes
taking place and people organizing
but the power of the unions are not what
so what do we mean
and what do you mean but when you say
now it’s time to kind of stand up i i
mean i understand standing up to them
even in my even if even in my if my
dotage here i’m willing to stand up
against these fools
but but the question is what does that
mean if we are not organized to really
polls or in the community in the
elections in school boards and more
so that that so so what is it going to
take to really stop them
is the question i’m asking the two of
you well mark the democratic party
didn’t organize the civil rights
the democratic party didn’t organize the
chicano moratorium in 1970 right right
democratic party didn’t organize
right i mean so i think it’s really
important that people
break with passivity and start thinking
how do we organize
uh like like i’ve been talking for years
about the necessity to organize
democracy brigades and my critical image
was the union leagues of the 1860s and
1870s that were organized based
particularly among african americans but
also among poor whites to fight to
reconstruction the problem
is that they didn’t take the necessary
to ultimately smash the terrorists the
white terrorists but i think that we
need to be thinking at the local level
of building brigades of people
that are engaged in this fight for
and i think that the longer that we sit
back and we wait
for something to come out of congress or
out of the white house it ain’t gonna
happen and i agree with you rick about i
i keep hoping that the justice
department is working something up and i
actually think that they probably are
but man are they quiet
yeah you know and and and so i think
that that’s necessary i mean you know i
want to see
at a school board meeting
when these lunatics show up i want to
see our forces there
right and basically saying to these
lunatics do you want to debate about
critical race theory let’s have the damn
but you are not going to bully this
board into some ridiculous stuff like
these different uh pieces of legislation
are being uh passed in in various state
legislatures but we have got to we we
can’t we are our own liberators we’re
the ones that are going to have to
constitute these organizations and so it
might not be entire national unions it
might be local unions it might be naacp
chapters it might be immigrant rights
groups right that come together even if
on an ad hoc basis
and say one of the things we’re going to
take up making sure to protect these
election officials making sure that
people can vote making sure that
uh making making sure to protect the
right to abortion right that we’re gonna
do this and we’re gonna do it in the
rick you want to jump in on that
but another thing is you know i’m a big
fan of um
a socialist thinker carl palani who
points out that um
society is organized around market
values always create you know basically
and that there are always people within
basically the the ambit of capital in
the ruling class who grasp this
and so we have allies within the ruling
class like you know the Rockefellers who
you know in the 1860s and 70s you know
built a school system in the south for
african americans right which was a very
radical thing to do
so we have allies and we have to search
them out uh because these people grasp
that um if you know we’re uh talking
about a republic of of insects and grass
um uh you know who was it the great
writer about nuclear apocalypse you know
they they don’t win either
you know when after but you know power
yields nothing without a demand and you
know after the urban rebellions of the
60s one of the things that happened was
you know employers were like holy crap
you know if you read the harvard
business review they’re like we need to
bring african-americans into you know
corporate america right
we have to find all sorts of pressure
points right all sorts of pressure
points because you know we’re talking
civilization or barbarism and
uh we might have allies that um
you know um
are not our usual allies because we’re
talking about whether the thing you know
basically human life can
be sustained on the planet
and um so bottom up top down inside out
outside in you know we got a you know we
got to build a real popular front for
i i want to just add to that i just
agrees 100 rick and and uh just point
uh something that uh your comment
in in response to the 50s and 60s
there was what you described
and but there was also
the response from the right the the the
what become becomes a right-wing
and this this this politics of revenge
yeah uh that we see
germinating in the late 60s and and and
then spreading out
and i um i thought about that a lot
because we had this historic post-george
uh uh movement around the country right
we had demonstrations uprisings
so there were two responses part of
corporate america and the political
establishment responded with greater
attention to so-called diversity
to re-examining u.s history et cetera et
but then there was equally this
that i would argue that the black lives
matter movement as a whole was
completely unprepared for
because that right-wing backlash was
organizing it wasn’t just protesting
they were organizing and the george
floyd black lives matter movement
was protesting but did not create
lasting organizations and points of
it was predictable
it’s what we saw in 1968
nixon didn’t appear out of nowhere
george wallace didn’t appear out of
nowhere it was a particular response
that we have to always keep in mind it’s
of the the this virus
in the u.s system
that’s an interesting analogy i i think
that’s that’s true i mean i
as someone who was in the midst of 1968
i think about all the failures of 68
that those of us who were too busy in
the streets battling as opposed to uh in
the community organizing and i think
that’s that’s part of part of the issue
um but i’m gonna be getting this in kind
of a positive note that there is
there’s light at the end of this tunnel
and there’s room for there’s room to
the right and to build something new and
i think that’s really the kind of
message that we that we need to kind of
push really hard
that’s right um and and i and i you know
we in the conversation they both have
been really great and kind of describing
why we’re here and also what we have to
do to get there um and i do want to
thank both of you for joining us today
um uh and rick palestine and bill
fletcher this has been a really good
and i want to tell all the folks out
there who are watching listening to us
today um that we’re going to continue
this conversation that bill fletcher and
i will be producing a whole series of
conversations not just about oh woe is
me but what can be done why we’re here
and what can we do
um and we’ll also be also talking to
organizers from across the country the
poor people’s campaign and other
organizations who are actually
organizing on the ground there is a way
to stop this and that’s what we’re going
to focus on
uh and we are uh in the middle of a
battle for the future and i think
we’re all here and for me who has
children and grandchildren and waiting
and even great grandchildren which is
kind of scared to say but i do
that it’s for them
not we’re going to let them inherit a
better society not something that the
right can control
uh and again thank you both so much both
for the work you do and for being with
us here today on the steiner show on the
real news it’s always good to talk to
both of you i mean it’s really important
to do that thank you so much
and uh i want to thank you all for
listening here today
with uh and loving hearts like like
these we can’t fail
amen to that and i want to and all of
you out there remind you that to hear
the real news you can still go to
realnews.com forward slash donate
continue your donations real news to
keep these things alive uh and look at
to our reports on the rise of the right
and uh other projects we’ll be doing i’m
gonna thank dwayne gladden and stephen
frank for editing and monitoring this
broadcast and thank you all for watching
today and listening to the i mean and
being part of the mark steiner show here
on the real news thank you take care and
keep on fighting stay the course
Professor David Graeber, anthropologist and author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” discussing the history of money and credit. The economics profession tends to teach that money arose from barter. However, anthropologists have been searching for 200 years and found absolutely no evidence for this. Instead, it seems that early human societies were had reciprocal gift exchange, whereby one person would gift something to their neighbor, and that person would be tacitly indebted for something of similar quality. Barter has only been observed between groups that didn’t frequently come into contact, and sometimes between outright enemies, or among people that are already used to money but for some reason have no access to it. Watch the whole talk here: https://youtu.be/CZIINXhGDcs
The radical anthropologist was that rare figure: a scholar who was also an activist.
In the third edition of the college-level textbook Macroeconomics, the economists Andrew Abel and future Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke blithely assert that “since the earliest times almost all societies … have used money.” They say that money arises from the inefficiency of barter—of trading one good for another—because “finding someone who has the item you want and is willing to exchange that item for something you have is both difficult and time-consuming.”
The evolution from barter to money is an old story in economics, repeated down the centuries in one form or another, to the point that even children are aware of it. It also happens to be only that: a story, and one with precious little evidence to back it up outside the heads of those who tell it.
While some economists imagine primordial villages and basic agricultural systems where birds are exchanged for flowers to illustrate the history of money, Abel and Bernanke come up with something much more immediate: The economist is hungry.
Barter systems would indeed make it difficult for an economist to eat lunch. Would a restaurateur exchange his goods for a lecture on monetary policy? Perhaps not, and the meal goes unsold and the economist goes hungry. Thankfully, the economist has students to whom he can sell his knowledge for dollars, which then function as a medium of exchange with which he can purchase his meal. The restaurateur is paid, the economist is satiated, while the students have learned something worthwhile.
But the only people who pay Ben Bernanke directly for his thoughts are investors. Students do not. Perhaps instead they borrow money to pay for the lecture, along with other lectures, a place to live, and the associated administrative costs of providing lectures to students. The interest on the debt eats up most of the students’ subsequent income from the job market, leaving them with no chance of ever paying off the principal in a reasonable timeframe. The debt will stick with them forever, even shaving off dollars from their Social Security checks, and make the normal mileposts of adult life—marriage, children—difficult or impossible to achieve. Fed up with their narrowed prospects, they join a group of activists who have taken up space, literally, in the shadow of New York’s financial institutions and they start talking about what they have in common: their debt. And they decide to do something about it.
Now this story, like the one the economist tells about the origin of money, is a stylized one used to illustrate broader truths about the world. But unlike what economists have said about money, it largely accords with known facts, and for that we have to thank the radical anthropologist David Graeber, who died earlier this week at the age of 59.
“We owe David so much,” the filmmaker and debt organizer Astra Taylor told me, noting immediately how he would have disapproved of using the language of obligation to encapsulate his life’s work.
Graeber had a long and distinguished career as both an activist and academic when the publication of his magnum opus, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and his work helping organize Occupy Wall Street in 2011 made him that rare thing: a serious scholar and organizer who garnered respectful profiles in Bloomberg Businessweek and the Financial Times. He spent the last decade-plus at Goldsmiths and the London School of Economics after Yale controversially cut him off from tenure, which he suggested was due to his being “quite active in the Global Justice Movement and other anarchist-inspired projects.”
“The thing to understand about David is that he really was someone who equally had a foot in social movements and intellectual scholarly production,” Taylor said. “There are people who are known as leftists through their writing and the internet and never do anything that qualifies as organizing.”
Graeber was a link not just between grassroots movements and the academic world, but between generations of leftist social movements. He was a veteran of the anti-globalization protests in the 1990s who helped start Occupy, one of the facilitators of a debtor movement that would influence the policy agendas of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. He was a supporter of the United Kingdom’s anti–tuition fee protests in 2010, which would be the seed of the Momentum movement and Jeremy Corbyn’s ascendance to the leadership of the Labour Party.
The question Debt sought to ask was one that seemed natural in the wake of a debt crisis that would claim millions of homes and thrust much of the industrialized world into first a sharp economic crisis, then a self-destructive series of austerity measures designed to stem the tide of sovereign debt.
What was debt? What was its history, where did it come from, and how did it take such a central role in our personal and economic lives? Why was our language of obligation and morality the same as the one used to describe our credit card bills? Why does the Lord’s Prayer ask God to “forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”?
To even begin to answer this question, Graeber had to start with money and the bad history used to explain it. Generations of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians had tried to find the origins of money (John Maynard Keynes referred to his own studies of money as his “Babylonian Madness”), but economists, especially in their textbooks, resorted to fancy.
These just-so stories about how money emerged from barter can evoke a kind of childish primitivism (“You have roosters, but you want roses,” one textbook says) or use imaginary historical examples. Even the stalwart progressive Joseph Stiglitz uses “what appears to be an imaginary New England or Midwestern town,” Graeber writes, to explain how money can replace barter, in the form of farmer Henry selling his firewood to “someone else for money” and then buying shoes from Joshua.
Graeber, in contrast, identifies the origin of money as “the most important story ever told” for economists, tracing it back to Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and even to Aristotle. This was “the great founding myth of economics,” he writes, that money was not in fact the creation of governments. It followed that economics was its own form of inquiry, separate from other ways of thinking about social life.
Graeber points out this account “has little to do with anything we observe when we examine how economic life is actually conducted, in real communities and marketplaces, almost anywhere—where one is much more likely to discover everyone in debt to everyone else in a dozen different ways, and that most transactions take place without the use of currency.”
Whereas the traditional account puts barter before money and money before debt, Graeber reverses this, noting that barter tends to only emerge in pre-industrialized societies when exchange happens outside of a familiar cultural context.
In the historical record of ancient societies in Mesopotamia, for example, there are prices of things that may be denominated by “money” (what an economist would call the “unit of account”). But merchants “mostly did much of their dealings on credit,” and “ordinary people buying beer from the ‘ale women’ or local innkeepers did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they had on hand.”
Where debt emerged in Sumeria, so did novel forms of social domination, whose eventual effects were so dire as to necessitate harsh management of its lenders. Those early Sumerian loans to peasants quickly led to peonage, with farmers “forced into perpetual service in the lender’s household.” Fields would go unsown or not be harvested as farmers would leave their homes in order to avoid collection. The result was periodic debt amnesties.
The book covers everything from Neil Bush’s divorce to speculation that the major world religions were responses to the coin-using great empires of the “Axial Age” of 800 B.C.E. to 600 C.E. (“It would be foolish to argue that all Axial Age philosophy was simply a meditation on the nature of coinage, but …” runs one especially expansive passage.) There is a reexamination of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs being spurred on by his own debt, and vignettes about the functioning of debt and money in Madagascar, where Graeber did field anthropological research.
Debt’s deep dive into the whole history of civilization had a paradigm-shifting political point. Graeber wanted to show that “war, conquest and slavery … played a central role in converting human economies into market ones,” and that “historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.”
He wanted to show that not only did money not arise from barter but also that states and markets worked hand in hand in its creation. And more than that, he wanted to interrogate an economic and historical worldview that tried to “reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined on the terms of a business deal.”
He ended Debt with a call for “some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt.” This would not only
relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also … would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.
Thanks to Debt’s almost absurd good timing, as well as his own involvement in Occupy, Graeber became one of the most prominent leaders in the post-Occupy anti-debt movement. Or rather, in the spirit of an anarchist activist, he enabled others to take the lead. Graeber’s efforts in helping start what would later become the Debt Collective were more like being “a facilitator or putting a band together,” Taylor, one of the group’s leaders, said.
The initial group that Graeber helped organize, Strike Debt, instituted a “rolling jubilee,” buying up medical debt and forgiving it. The group evolved to organize challenges to student loan debt incurred at for-profit colleges and has claimed to have helped eliminate over $1 billion of debt. Its efforts garnered the respectful attention of The New Yorker, which described the jubilee as “one of the few Occupy offshoots that has had a tangible effect on people’s lives.”
The ideas in Debt also have been picked up by the Keynes-inspired thinkers that make up the school of Modern Monetary Theory, who see the state as a tool to mobilize the economy’s resources for the common good, unlimited by its ability to tax or take on debts and deficits. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez referenced MMT when it came to funding the Green New Deal, and a leading MMT thinker, Stephanie Kelton, worked with Sanders. One of the brightest stars in the MMT firmament, Nathan Tankus, is an avid reader and admirer of Graeber.
“If we end up winning the fight over debt, money, and deficits and manage to fundamentally reshape this society it will have been in no small part of because of Graeber’s work,” Tankus said.
And while he is credited with coming up with the slogan “We are the 99 percent”—perhaps Occupy’s most enduring rhetorical legacy—he claimed that he could only be held responsible for “the 99 percent,” while “two Spanish indignados and a Greek anarchist” were responsible for “We,” and only later did a “food-not-bombs veteran put the ‘are’ between them.”
This impulse to go beyond himself, to submerge himself in the collective, wasn’t foreign to his scholarly work, either. At the time of his death, Graeber was working with archaeologist David Wengrow on a history of social inequality. It’s supposed to cover the last 42,000 years.