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Saturday 29 December 2012

Review: David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

I think this has to be my Book of the Year for 2012. It is extraordinary in its scope, lively and original in its treatment, and displays an open-minded radicalism in the conclusions it draws or suggests. There is so much here that I never knew and so much that I had never before thought about.

The Library of Congress catalogues its subject matter as "1 Debt - History. 2. Money - History. 3 Financial Crises - History." The evidence is drawn world-wide from archaeology,  the founding texts of the world's religions, anthropology, the work of economic historians and much more. There must be a life-time's reading distilled here. Credit and money emerge in the context of social organisations and political and religious power - and violence. They take different forms as their context changes. The starting point is what Graeber calls "baseline Communism":

the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost reasonable enough, the principle of 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs' will be assumed to apply (page 98)

From this context, systems of credit emerge with most people most of the time creditors and debtors. The formalisation of such credit arrangements into calculable balance sheets takes different forms but pretty soon gets mixed up with organisations of power, which create more-or-less permanently indebted classes of people. Religious thought takes many of its metaphors from this world of credit and debt: debt and sin are closely linked and redemption is both the forgiveness of debt and the forgiveness of sin.

Money comes later and in non-friendly contexts: you need money to trade with people you don't trust and who don't trust you. It spreads when rulers discover that they can create coinage to pay soldiers who are then able to buy from people they don't know and who may have cause not to like them. They simply trade with them. Money does not emerge from previous barter systems - Graeber is scathing about the fairy stories told in Economics textbooks - nor does it replace credit systems. It's a qualitatively different phenomenon.

Graeber is fascinating on the early history and on the empires which developed in India and China and later in the Islamic Middle East, and on the empires in Latin America destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

When it comes to later periods, his most insightful thinking is to distinguish sharply between free markets, both in goods and in labour, and capitalism. And his most challenging claim is that :

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labour. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery and "indentured service" (page 350)
Much of the later discussion hints at ways we should think about recent financial crises - about Greek debt and about mortgage repossessions, which in the long perspective Graeber adopts are very much repetitions of  stories already repeated  many times in history. But unlike a Marxist (say Terry Eagleton) who would point at his Book and say, "See, see Marx was RIGHT!" Graeber is both more the scholar and more the open-minded (liberal, anarchist) thinker who is always more interested in digging deeper than in announcing a final Truth.

At various points reading this book, I thought how much a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist would enjoy it. Feelings of indebtedness, of irredeemable sin and guilt, are things which lead individuals to the therapist's consulting room. Here we have such feelings set in the largest possible historical context.

And now, of course, I feel indebted to David Graeber ...

Thursday 20 December 2012

Review: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War

This book was originally published in 2005 with this American (Pegasus Books) edition appearing in 2007. I picked up a copy in a Bargain Bookstore. You can see why it might have been remaindered: though the binding and paper are of good quality, the text is reproduced by some kind of filmsetting and at times it wobbles disconcertingly.

It may also have been remaindered because it's not an exciting book. It's perfectly well-written but it's not much more than a solid military history of the three years 1918 - 20 narrating what happened on each of the (many) fronts between Bolshevik and White forces. There is no attempt to convey the feel of those years - the cruelty, the suffering, the sheer carelessness of human life - much of it simply continuing the story of World War One but now with civilians rather than uniformed soldiers as principal victims.

 In his Conclusion, Mawdsley (a Professor of History at Glasgow University) devotes a few pages to totalling up the deaths and injuries. Whenever you see a figure which says that soldiers were more likely to die of disease than wounds then you know are you looking at a conflict in which it was nightmarish to be involved.

The book has some use as a work of reference but since it is so much concerned with dates, it really should have included a time line Chronology as a separate Appendix.

As for Mawdsley's judgements, I found  most interesting the idea (picked up from Roy Medvedev) that had the Bolsheviks not introduced their Maximalist programme, but instead adopted something like the 1921 New Economic Policy back in 1918 and at the same time accepted the strength of the SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries] in rural areas, then they could have secured overwhelming popular support and much reduced the miseries of both the Civil War and of War Communism.

Monday 10 December 2012

Review: Douglas Smith, Former People

This is an important and interesting book. It focuses on just two Russian families (large clans, really) - the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns [Galitzines] - to tell the story of what happened to those Russian nobles who remained in Russia after 1917.  It is not a study of emigrĂ©s though they occasionally appear.

The best chapters are the early ones. Smith depicts a Nobility frustrated and disillusioned with Nicholas II - weak, incompetent, obnoxious. For the most part, the Nobility rallied to the Provisional Government after Nicholas's abdication. There was no serious movement to restore the Romanovs.

At the same time, the rural aristocracy was already under pressure from the peasantry. The peasants wanted land and, by 1917, they were willing to use any method to get it. In the year before the Bolshevik seizure of power, peasants were already burning, looting and killing in rural Russia - and rural Russia was most of Russia.

In response, the Provisional Government did not move fast enough. It made the mistake of pressing on with the unpopular war against Germany and it put off the question of Land Reform. But the peasantry was in no mood to "Wait for the Constituent Assembly". And the Provisional Government could not feed the cities.

During this period, violence was often extreme and deaths horrible - and it did not for the most part involve the Bolsheviks. As I read Smith, the Bolsheviks simply picked up and ran with the violent disorder of 1917, but channeling it and focusing it in the period of War Communism (beginning 1918 - beginning 1921).

Smith's narratives for the period of War Communism are some of the best parts of the book: there is detailed texture which gives a real sense of how the urban nobility began to be picked apart with arrests, executions, confiscations - and the rural nobility subjected to further - and now Bolshevik organised - repression. Likewise, Smith creates a vivid picture of what it was like to try to move about Russia - to escape from West to East, for example - during the period of War Communism when Reds and Whites and Czechs and psychopathic criminals like Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg all fought for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

From the beginning of the New Economic Policy [NEP] in 1921 until Stalin's consolidation of power at the end of the 1920s, the nobility in Russia enjoyed a period of respite - many of them finding jobs within the system and returning to former homes (or parts of homes). Their children began to orient themselves to the new order, not the old one.

But the 1930s brought renewed repression. Here Smith's chapters are less interesting because the story is less dramatic: it is about individuals being picked off, one by one, often repeatedly and eventually with fatal consequences whether before an execution squad or in the Gulag. By the end of the War, it is really all over for the nobility.

Despite his close focus on two families, Smith avoids sentimentality - as do most of his characters. I do have the feeling that there must have been more Bad Apples than he identifies - he has only one noble who denounces others to the Soviets and he has no plotters (perhaps there really were none). But these are quibbles in relation to a body of work which opens a new field in histories of the Russian Revolution.