Monday, 11 February 2013

David Graeber and Brad DeLong (etc)

The most remarkable comments thread I've seen in a while has just been going down on Savage Minds.  David Graeber has been trying to defend his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, from sceptical economists and sociologists, and the whole thing has descended into farce, with Berkeley economist Brad DeLong turning up, ad hominems flying about the place, and accusations of lying and misreading showing up in nearly every comment.

For the record, I have little problem with Debt in principle.  It's a thought-provoking book, and as long as that is all it is taken to be, I actually rather like it.  On the other hand, Graeber clearly used some very out-dated sources for his Chinese and Indian history - he uses the Wade-Giles romanisation of Chinese ("Wu-ti" instead of Han Wudi), puts Kautilya at around 500 BCE (he was, at the earliest, alive in the late fourth century BCE, and may have been much later than that), etc.  These are not signs of having read the latest and most accurate scholarship on these matters.  I noticed the same standards employed in his (also thought-provoking) talk, Money, Bodies, Materialism, and Virtuality, which has a wanky title but intriguing content (if you have a spare hour, do give it a listen).

The economists and sociologists were arguing about chapter 12, in which Graeber outlines his views on the modern world in the context of his earlier discussions of the origins of money, and I, like many people, found his ruminations more than a little suspicious (I'm not an anarchist, and in fact I rather like states).  But I found the ancient history slightly troubling as well, if only because it looked like early-twentieth century scholarship on display (for some reason).  I wouldn't like to poison the well; if you get the chance, read Debt and see what you think.

Anyway, head to SM to see what happens when academics get their claws out.


  1. Henry Farrell says that Neville Morley--who knows his stuff well--does like the ancient history parts of "Debt"...

  2. It's incredibly interesting stuff, and Graeber gets the important stuff right, especially about the Mediterranean. The bits on the Presocratics, and other topics like that, were fascinating. There were just a couple of things in there about non-European civilisations that reminded me that Graeber is not an expert in those fields.


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