Friday, December 09, 2011
David Graeber Interview: Anarchism, Debt, and Militarism
The White Review has a far-ranging interview with David Graeber, economic anthropologist and OWS theorist. Here he talks about how US overseas military arrangements and foreign debt amount to empire under a different set of names (paragraphing mine):
Since 1972 when Nixon went off the gold standard, the world reserve currency has been the US dollar, but what ultimately backs the US dollar? People say nothing, it’s ‘fiat money’ but I don’t think this is true. It’s a credit system based on the circulation of debt.
Of course the US has the enormous advantage of being able to write checks that are never actually cashed: US treasury bonds have become the basic reserve currency for the central banks and as Michael Hudson originally pointed out, most of these American treasury bonds are never really cashed in. They’re rolled over year after year to buy new ones, and these holders are taking a loss on them as they pay interest lower than inflation. So why are they doing that?
Well, if you look at the size of US deficit it corresponds almost exactly to the real saw [sic] military budget. If you look at graphs showing the growth of the US deficit, and the percentage of it held overseas, and the US military spending—basically, you see almost exactly the same curve. So basically, foreign governments and institutional lenders are buying US treasury bonds and paying for this enormous military spending.
So, who are the guys doing it? Well during the cold war it was especially West Germany, now, apart from China, the most important are places like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Gulf states. What do these states have in common? They’re all covered in US military bases, or under US military protection. The US is borrowing the money to create these military bases from the very countries that the US military is sitting on top of.
In the past, such arrangements were called ‘empires’ and the money sent over was referred to as ‘tribute.’ Now apparently your not allowed to use that language, so it’s called a ‘loan.’ Nonetheless, that link between the military and the core of the financial system remains, it’s the thing we’re not supposed to think about.
Here’s a nice review of Graeber’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by Daniel Little. From the review:
He pulls out “materialism” as a thread in the philosophical systems that emerged in the Axial Age—China as well as Greece—and suggests an analogy between the idea of an abstract fundamental physical substance that is the substrate of everything physical, and the idea of an abstract unit of measure of all commodities, money (245); but it’s hard to see a consistent and compelling idea here about the intertwining development of philosophy and economics. Here is the closest he comes to a statement of the nature of the connection he finds:
What we see then is a strange kind of back-and-forth, attack and riposte, whereby the market, the state, war, and religion all continually separate and merge with one another. (248)
Where does it all lead? After a walk through the Middle Ages (major improvement in quality of life over the Axial Age, according to Graeber), we get to capitalism:
Starting from our baseline date of 1700, then, what we see at the dawn of modern capitalism is a gigantic financial apparatus of credit and debt that operates—in practical effect—to pump more and more labor out of just about everyone with whom it comes into contact, and as a result produces an endlessly expanding volume of material goods. (346)