the world


This book, by David Graeber, is great.  Provocative, brilliant; also crankish and infuriating.

barter

Graeber is an anthropologist, and the best parts of the book are where he does anthropology. He’s devastating on what he calls the “myth of barter”. Economists love to talk about the invention of money as freeing us from the situation where Fred has arrowheads and Madge has pots, and Fred needs a pot, but they can’t trade because Madge doesn’t need arrowheads right now.

This doesn’t happen.  There was never a “barter stage”; no societies suffer from this hangup.  There’s a number of possibilities, but the basic pre-money mechanism is that Fred goes to Madge and says “That’s a handsome pot.”  Madge gives it to him.  At some later time, if she needs arrowheads, she goes and asks for some.  These may be considered tiny little debts, or they may just be considered the way social life works: people help each other out.

Once money exists, debts tend to be enumerated in units of account– but these are rarely transferred physically, and in fact the system long predates coins and even writing.  For 2500 years, Middle Eastern civilizations had markets, checks, traders, inns, interest, and debt without coinage.  Everything was done on credit.

Coins, according to Graeber, come in with large empires.  This developed out of the existing tradition that strangers are outside the credit economy.  Once you have a large standing army, you need to pay the soldiers, and they need to buy beer and horses and prostitutes.  As they’re rarely natives of the area they’re stationed in, it’s enormously useful to provide small portable bits of currency. It’s only in the last couple hundred years that this marginal coinage-based system took over the whole economy.

And then there’s debt.  As promised, Graeber gives a history of debt from ancient times, and in his telling it’s up to no good.  Debt always gets out of hand.  Ancient societies were plagued by a cycle of debt peonage: peasants would get loans; they were unable to pay the interest; they then sold off implements and furniture, then their fields, then their wives and children, and finally themselves.  Periodically, in the Middle East, kings would decree a vast cancellation of debts– all the records would be destroyed and the debt slaves would return to their restored homes.

In his telling, this process was linked to other bad things– such as slavery and misogyny.  Slavery was once limited largely to war captives, which were a limited resource; debt created a vast and increasing population who were effectively slaves.  Women in early Sumerian society were surprisingly visible and influential, and temple sex was a respected profession; the selling of wives and daughters to repay debts, and the subsequent sexual service, degraded the position of women.  And the fear of such selling-off led to the Middle Eastern focus on honor… meaning a man’s ability to protect his womenfolk, keeping them out of his creditor’s hands– and under his control.

And then there’s the moral effects.  Debt becomes a metaphor for the relationship of children to parents, or humans to gods.  We’re told to pay our debts, and yet most human cultures have despised usurers, and the first act of any peasant rebellion was to destroy the debt records.  Not infrequently kings or religious authorities took the part of the poor against their creditors, going so far as to ban interest or slavery… though these measures didn’t often last.

In the end, Graber suggests, debt– and economic theorists– blind us to how human societies really operate.  There are at least three types of human economy, which he calls communism, exchange, and hierarchy.  ‘Communism’ is the helpful, altruistic systems that underlie all human society– it’s how families work, and entire villages in many cultures, and even how corporations work internally.  Hierarchical exchanges are largely exactions by the rich and powerful, and their salient feature is precedent: a particular tax or tribute, once levied, becomes customary, which is one reason you should be wary of offering a gift to the king.  (On the other hand, it’s rare that an elite simply does nothing but take; usually it needs to attract supporters by giving things away.)

To Graeber, economists go terribly wrong in ignoring or underestimating the non-exchange portions of the world.  The whole attitude of looking at the world in terms of rational, egoistic calculation is a vast misapplication of what was originally a very narrow part of the economy– associated with debt, war, and slavery.

All of this is fascinating and eye-opening, and can be used to deepen (and darken) your view of history, or your conworld.

At the same time… well, for Graeber history is full of villains, and he’s often so busy flinging mud at them that he loses track of who’s worse and who we should be rooting for.  E.g. he talks about the rise of coinage as something of a disaster, destroying the credit economy and ultimately turning the Roman citizens into slaves.  Yet he’s already shown that debt slavery functioned with its full horribleness in pre-coinage societies, and turned the Mesopotamians into slaves.  Later he provocatively suggest that the Dark Ages weren’t so dark, as the Europeans ended slavery, resisted usury, and ended the militarism of the Roman Empire.  But the Middle Ages, as he well knows, replaced slavery with serfdom, and threw out the political and technological advances of the ancients.

The last half of the book is a breezy retelling of history which grows increasingly polemical and tedious.  A particular low point is where he talks about the Iberian traders engaging in the arms trade, the slave trade, and drug trade, and a moment later explains that the “drugs” meant coffee, tea, sugar, and tobacco.  He’s often a bracing cynic and amusing contrarian, but this is just propaganda.

The last chapter, on the world since 1971, is a weird political diatribe of the Everything Is Horrible school.  He’s mostly mad at the US, and throws everything he can at it, no matter how contradictory: the US military is overwhelming, yet is easily resisted; the national debt can’t be eliminated, except it totally could if we didn’t spend so much on the military; the US oppresses everyone economically, but it was forced to grant favorable trading terms to Europe; buying US treasury bonds is a sign of empire, except when the Chinese do it.  Or there’s a bit where the US creates “a vast apparatus of armies, prison, police” to create an atmosphere of fear and jingoistic conformity… er, sorry, Dave, but those two things are pretty much opposites; people celebrating American power are not also afraid of it.  He even inserts charts to show how things are out of control!! with the propagandist’s tool of not correcting for inflation.  Plus his frequent references to “wage slavery” only cheapen his earlier discussion of real slavery.

As an anthropologist, he’s very good at criticizing the fantasy history that economists create; it doesn’t make him an expert on economics.

He’s also an anarchist activist, and was involved with anti-globalization protests, but he’s missed the biggest story of the new century: the fact that the Third World has become far, far better off.  He keeps asserting that capitalism can’t include everyone… and yet it seems to be doing just that.

The problem with a worldview where everything is horrible is that there’s no room for progress at all, including in the future.  A contrarian can point out truthfully enough that living standards stayed the same for most people– that is, on the edge of starvation– until about 1800. But even in that period there were advances, such as the abandonment of absolute monarchy, the rise of science, and the development of a vast array of progressive philosophies.  (The thing about idealisms is that somebody eventually will take them seriously… e.g., you pass a Bill of Rights and then, a couple centuries later, courts start to make it real.)  Plus, even in Graeber’s own telling, not infrequently the authorities found it useful to cancel debts, repress usurers, or free serfs.

And after 1800, it’s hard to deny (though Graeber does his best) that the average American is better off than the average Babylonian.  Knowing more about the world helps; tamping down the claims of kings and priests is valuable; rural villages don’t seem like such paradises to the people who live in them.

Graeber likes to detail how many of our institutions arose in war, debt, and slavery.  And they did!  However, things don’t remain forever tainted because of their bad origins.  He’s fond of pointing out that governments went into debt and issued coins and taxed people largely to finance wars, and that a huge portion of US spending is still military.  But it’s now far from the majority of spending– most government spending is education, roads, social security, health insurance. and so forth.

(The problem with criticizing an Everything Is Horrible person is that some people will get the impression that I’m instead saying that Everything Is Great. It’s not, of course. I understand the impulse to think that the whole system is rotten and has to be thrown out. But sometimes our impulses aren’t so smart. Throwing the whole system out rarely goes well.)

After all that, I should emphasize that I don’t disagree with all of his cynical remarks.  He’s pretty acute, for instance, about the disaster of neoliberalism… the insistence that with every crisis, Third World governments implement “reforms” that favored First World creditors and clawed back social progress for the poor.

He doesn’t say much about what he’d like to do instead; but in his concluding section he does make a practical suggestion: cancel debts!  And he has a point.  High-debt systems generally lead to reforms that do just that; the irony is that under the current plutocratic system, rich debtors get government relief and poor debtors are screwed.  As he points out, we’re trained to say “People should pay their debts!”, and never to ask why people get so far in debt and whether we really want that to be the system we live under.

Sometimes you have to take a step back from the daily news and look at the long term trends.  This chart, by James Plunkett, does a great job of telling what’s happening in the world today:

global-income-1988-2008

What you’re seeing is what happened over the last 20 years to each percentile of income, worldwide. The two big stories:

  • The developing world has moved ahead massively.  The old picture of the well-off First World contrasted with the miserable Second and Third is out of date.  Literally billions of people are far, far better off than they were… a lot of this is in India and China, but also places like Brazil, Turkey, Malaysia, Gabon, Botswana, Chile.
  • The middle and working classes in the US and Europe have been stiffed.  The old picture of middle class countries where everyone prospers is– in these countries– no longer true.  New wealth is still being created, but it goes only to the top 10%.

To put it another way, you can’t assume any more that we’re inexorably moving toward a future like Star Trek– where prosperity just increases so steadily and broadly that traditional economics and inequality no longer matter– everyone joins the 1960s American middle class.  Instead, we’re heading more toward Snow Crash.

The second part of the story– how the US has moved from liberalism to plutocracy– I’ve addressed in more detail before.

Edit: Alert reader Alon Levy points out that the collapse of this part of the graph is also in part due to post-Soviet decline.

The first part we hear about much less.  A good place to start is this report from the Gates Foundation, which spotlights three huge stories:

  • Global poverty is on the way out.  Extreme poverty– the dollar-a-day type– is now limited to a billion people or so, and could be entirely eliminated.  Age-old diseases are being eradicated.  Even Africa is doing much better.
  • Foreign aid works, and it works better than ever.  Aid agencies concentrate on measurable gains, and they’re no longer held back by wasteful attempts to fight the Cold War with money.
  • When prosperity goes up, overpopulation ceases to be a problem.  We’ve already passed Peak Child; the earth’s population is stabilizing.  When people don’t have to have 12 children to have two survive, and when women are empowered, they no longer have 12 children.

The good news is going to engender some resistance, but I encourage you to read the linked report, which goes into far more detail.  Often people seem to prefer to think that the world is falling apart; we don’t have a place for massive good news.  (And I haven’t even gotten into the other huge secular trends to more democracy and less war.)

But global warming!  you cry.  And I’d reply: the big hangup on addressing global warming is not world development; it’s American political stupidity.  We’re the ones who deny the problem, refuse to do anything about it, and embrace sprawl, automobiles, and oil.  It’d be nice if China did more, given its scale, but we need to lead by example.  The developing world isn’t going to take the lead on this while we continue to spew out carbon.

And, of course, there’s that growing First World inequality.  A bunch of people look at the above chart and say, well of course, what we need is to stamp on the US middle class more, and give more money to the rich.  I wish I could say I don’t understand it, but I do: they’re still living in 1979; their worldview is still full of hippies, welfare, inflation, high taxes, and US domination.  Well, it’s time to update your calendars.

Let’s look at death from a conworlding perspective.

He backstabbed that chair, but he's still dead.

He backstabbed that chair, but he’s still dead.

If you took a vote, I’m pretty sure most people would be against death.  Early death is always a tragedy, and most religions offer some (more or less implausible) consolation: reincarnation, resurrection, reabsorption into Atman, or perhaps hanging around in the form of a shade or ghost.  (These are usually depicted as mentally disordered, sometimes due to their misdeeds, sometimes as just a consequence of being dead.)

Helping to take care of parents in their ’90s has given me a different view.  This will probably horrify any readers under 35, but it feels like the last years of life prepare both the person and the survivors for death.  Quality of life declines, mobility lessens, physical problems become overwhelming.  By the time my Mom died, it didn’t feel like a tragedy, more like an ending.  She certainly wouldn’t have liked to just be prolonged in the state she was in the month before she died.  And dying in old age after a fulfilling and busy life, surrounded by family, isn’t the worst thing ever.

With my Dad, of course I want him to keep going as long as he gets enjoyment out of life.  But as I mentioned, he’s declining in both body and mind.  Old folks are notorious for keeping to their habits and likes… he’s no longer interested in finding new music, trying out new cuisines, going to new places.  He’s no longer adapting to social change… he told me disapprovingly of a couple he knows that shacked up together before marriage.  That is, before their marriage which has lasted very nicely for fifty years.  He does read some new things, but there’s not much that changes his mind anymore.

Now, this is a manageable problem in the world as it is.  But what if people lived twice as long?  Or six times as long, as in the Incatena?  Would you really want most people to be conservative old cranks for 85% of their lives?

The ancient Greeks had a myth about a man, Tithonus, who was granted immortality but forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So he ended up immobile and senile.  Oops!

One futuristic approach to the problem: get yourself uploaded to a computer, so you can stay alive indefinitely.  I think it’d be horrible to give up food, sex, exercise, and the rest of our bodily experience, even if we posit that you can still somehow retain your visual qualia.  But I can see the attraction of wanting to find out what’s next.  Perhaps you could hibernate for fifty years at a time, then wake up and avidly consume all the pop culture that’s been created since last time.  Avoid Sturgeon’s Law and read just the best 10% of stuff, forever!

However, I suspect the plan would fall apart in under 200 years.  How much really grabs us from that long ago?  We do read stuff that old, of course, but it’s only a tiny fraction of our mental diet.  The past is a strange world that takes some effort to immerse ourselves in– when it doesn’t repel us with a mindset that’s now confusing, boring, or vile.  400 years ago is even harder to grok, and 1000 is an alien world.  And looking back, I’d maintain, is far easier than looking forward.  We’re exposed to the past as history and literature– we can read Jane Austen or Jonathan Swift or Molière far easier than they’d be able to understand us.

Imagine Jules Verne, for instance, trying to make sense of a Laundry novel.  The prose itself might not be too difficult.  The idea of monsters and government bureaucracies would be understood.  But he’d miss the allusions to Lovecraft and spy novels, and references to the Cold War and computers would require a whole education to follow.  Something like an episode of The Simpsons would probably produce complete befuddlement.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be done, just that it’d require quite a bit more work than it sounds like.  And just visiting the future in one-year reading binges, you’d never really fit into the culture– you’d be an increasingly alienated dinosaur.

In the Incatena, I posit that the problem is solved by people loosening up their brains once a century or two.  Basically, you lose a bunch of memories, fade out some of the more habitual neural pathways, recover some of the intellectual flexibility (and ignorance) of adolescence.  Maybe change your body type and/or sex while you’re at it.  You want to be you just enough to feel continuity, but not enough to become a curmudgeon.  (And becoming an AI, though it’s an option, is viewed as a form of death.)

Evolution, we could say, has found a simpler solution yet: reproduction.  You get new people with the genetic heritage of the species, but neotenous and adaptable to the current environment.

I’ve been reading Bruce Trigger’s Early Civilizations, which is a comparative study of Egypt, early Mesopotamia, Shang China, the Maya, the Aztecs, the Inkas, and the Yoruba. It’s a huge book and rather dry, so unfortunately I can’t say I read it all. But for conworlding purposes I thought I’d list some of the stuff that was new to me.

It's got a great beat, and you can dance to it

Early dancers were half the size of the musicians

He finds a significant difference between city-states (Mesopotamia, Maya, Aztecs, Yoruba) and territorial states (Egypt, China, Inkas). Both were governed by kings, were hierarchical, were divided into an elite and a peasantry with little social mobility. But territorial states are likely to have fewer cities (with peasants living in villages rather than the cities), government road systems, and long-distance trade run largely by the government.

My favorite historical atlases, by Colin McEvedy, are apparently out of date on the subject of early trade. Or to be precise, McEvedy gave an accurate picture of the Egyptian state, which had a command economy; but Mesopotamia had a lively trade economy even if it didn’t have marketplaces or coinage. (The picture of early traders in my story “The multipliers” is more accurate than I thought!)

None of the civilizations really valued traders, and indeed often took steps (e.g. with sumptuary laws) to signal that they were not aristocrats. On the other hand, in some civilizations, lesser members of the aristocracy could supplement their income with trade.

The position of women in all the civilizations was lower than the men, and tended to deteriorate over time. E.g. in earlier Egypt and Shang China we see female bureaucrats (often relatives of the king), later replaced by men. Traders among the Yoruba, and innkeepers in Mesopotamia, were often women.

The idea of a straightforward practical manual on anything seems to have eluded the literate societies– what they wanted to write down was magic and rites. Even practical concerns, like metallurgy in Benin and navigation in China, were conducted with rituals and superstitions.

The Tea Party view of the world– a 1% who cannot be coddled enough, the poor who need to be treated ever more badly– is as old as dirt. The social contract was always a rotten bargain. E.g. in China, there was ‘punishment’ (xing) for the lower classes, ‘etiquette’ (li) for the gentry. It was viewed as just and natural for the elite to live off the labor of the masses– and make sure the masses had no real avenues of improvement. When ordinary coercion wasn’t enough, it was always possible to invent even more pretexts for oppressing the poor, e.g. with accusations of witchcraft. Things like the admirable road system of the Inkas were not built as social services– they were for military movements and for provisioning the elite. About the one service the poor could count on was security: times of anarchy and disunion were even worse.

At the same time, management was a very difficult problem for early states. No ruler could keep an eye on everything, and the elite was both a necessity and a threat. The elite had to be kept relatively happy, and it was the only source of people one could delegate authority to, but it also took all the independence it could get. In practice, totalitarian micromanagement was impossible– even conquered groups of people were generally left to rule themselves so long as they paid their taxes.

The book is organized by topic, so you can compare (e.g.) class organization or cosmology across all seven societies. It’s very thorough, but he doesn’t have a gift for making it vivid (as e.g. Marvin Harris or John Fairbank do).

The choice of civs is just a little odd– the Aztecs and Inka were hardly early; there were the culmination of a thousand years of development. He has some excuses for not including anything from India– I think he says we know too little about early civilization there– but if you’re going to include something as late as the Inka Empire, you could certainly include Asoka’s empire.

Obama has put the ball in Congress’s court, and I kind of hope that the proposition fails, and he abides by the result.  There’s always a big ballyhoo about how Congress doesn’t declare war any more, and the truth is that it doesn’t because it doesn’t want the responsibility.  If things go south in Syria– whether we intervene or not– let Congress share the blame.

The Arab Spring was a rare unexpected thing in the world– a popular multi-country uprising against dictatorship in a region which seemed, for various tawdry reasons, immune to the global democratizing trend.  It’s pretty amazing that Syrians were bold enough not just to demonstrate but to fight, and I have zero sympathy for Assad.  And there’s no question that he’s created immense misery waging war against his own people.

The question, though, is whether US intervention would do good.  It sure seems like we ought to be able to stop the bad guys, but  look at our experience in the region– Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Somalia.  All pretty much just multiplied the suffering, failed to solve internal conflicts, and led Americans to wash their hands of the thing without making any permanent improvements.  Even if our intentions are good, we are just not good at this.

You can point to Kuwait, Serbia, and Libya as partial successes– kind of.  They were limited in scope, at least.  But I really hope that Obama isn’t looking at his own intervention in Libya as a model.  Syria has three times the population, it’s far more divided and complicated, the rebels already include some serious bad guys, and the goals are far from clear.  Plus it’s far different when we were more or less invited to help by the neighbors, vs. going it alone.  Anyway, Libya is actually still pretty out of control, and the post-Assad situation is likely to be even messier.

I read an interview with McCain today, showing he hasn’t lost his ability to expound contradictory policies.  He thinks Obama has been too weak– but he vows to impeach him if he sends troops to Syria.  Um, you can’t throw your weight around while also demanding not to get hurt.  McCain’s declarations are a formula for large-scale failure.

On a humanitarian level, it’s painful to watch Assad going to war on his people.  But there’s two things to keep in mind.  One, bombing a country is not exactly a humanitarian intervention– on the contrary, it’s going to kill thousands of people and invite retribution.  And two, the nice thing about not intervening is that it’s not us causing the problem.

I guess there is some chance that a bombing campaign will make Assad want to negotiate, or will impel some underlings to depose him.  But the chances seem low, and at this point it seems far too late to put the battle-genie back in the bottle.  There’s likely to be a low- or high-level civil war going on in Syria for several years, and very little interest in any sort of negotiated solution.

This page– “Forty maps that explain the world“– is rather grandiosely named, though any map addict should find plenty of interest there. But this map is a real stunner.

(WordPress makes a hash of it, so click here.)

I could look at that for hours. I’ve seen maps based on satellite images, but it’s the animation that really makes it.

Interesting results from a new Gallup survey of 121,000 Americans on sexual preference.  The overall number: 3.4% identify as lesbian, gay, bi, or transgender.  (The poll specifically asked about identification, rather than experience.)

But the bigger news is further on in the story: people under 30 identified as LGBT at a rate nearly twice as high: 6.4%.  (Less than 2% of seniors do.)  This surely relates to society’s increasing acceptance, and suggests that the number could be higher yet in a completely accepting society.

By a small margin, more women than men identify that way (which is opposite what some earlier surveys found).  But this effect is far stronger for under-30’s: women 8.3%, men 4.6%.

4.4% didn’t know or wouldn’t say.  We shouldn’t overinterpret that, but I’d say if you don’t know your sexual orientation, you’re probably not a Kinsey 0.

Intriguingly, there are also strong correlations by race: the overall number is 4.6% for blacks, 4.5% for Latinos, and 4.3% for Asians.  I would have expected the opposite.  The rate also goes down with income level.

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