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Here's the Graeber review I couldn't find before.
It's a hard book to review, though, because it's doing several irreducibly different things at once (which I'll try to lay out in as logical a fashion as I can manage). Despite the singularity of its title, Debt is more like James Frazer's Golden Bough than one of those books on How Cod Explains History or whatever; it's a dazzlingly syncretic, coherent, and multi-faceted effort to re-narrate virtually the entirety of human history, by starting from a concept and opening outward to include everything else.


f this is an obvious point, forgive me; I make it again because the first line of the New York Times' review of his book observes that "David Graeber has a strong claim to being the house theorist of Occupy Wall Street," and you find this sort of statement being made all over the place. Some people attribute the coining of the "We are the 99%" formulation to him, and since Graeber was involved with Occupy Wall Street since the beginning, he sometimes seems to be a kind of spokesperson for the movement's "anarchist roots."

But what would it mean to say that an anarchist (or at least radically horizontal) movement has "roots," a spokesperson, or a house theorist? Can a slogan like "We are the 99%" have a person who "coined" it? With a tiny bit of effort one finds that Graeber himself not only avoids such claims but is quick to disavow them; instead, the attribution of personal prominance tends to be made on his behalf, by institutions like the New York Times or in Bloomberg Businessweek (God help us). This should give us pause. What, after all, could it mean for Graeber to be able to claim that privilege, that position, that prominence? What does the movement owe him, the person who "coined" their slogan? How would he claim it? And why is it claimed for him, on his behalf?

Words like "claim" and "coin" are not innocent, and the power of Graeber's book is that I can't, now, read a phrase like "David Graeber has a strong claim" (or use a phrase like "coined the slogan") without feeling the need to think more carefully about the deep logic of those terms. A "claim," as he shows in excruciating etymological detail, is literally the token that proves you to be a creditor, that proves someone or someone else to be in your debt: having given tht other person a loan, a gift, or a reprieve, a "claim" is the physical manifestation and residue of that person's promise to recipricate. More than that, it's the means of forcing or at least coercing them to do so, and of legitimizing that force. Behind a "claim" is the social force (and threat of violence) that enables you to force payment. To talk about "claims" is to talk about power.

by gk (gk (gk quattro due due sette @gmail.com)) on Thu Feb 9th, 2012 at 04:00:04 PM EST

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