Mon
Apr 16 2012 5:00pm
The Best Science Fiction Ideas in any Non-Fiction Ever: David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years

The thing that best sums up the experience of reading David Graeber’s Debt: The First Five Thousand Years is something that isn’t really in the book at all. I’ve mentioned here before that it’s my habit to read at night until I am asleep and then put the book down and take off my glasses and turn off the light. I did this one night while reading Debt, and the last couple of pages I read (while actually asleep) were about two races of aliens with really different ideas about debt and obligations, and how this affected their relationships with each other and with humanity. Needless to say, in the morning it turned out that these pages had disappeared, but it made the book only very slightly less science fictional.

Graeber is an anthropolologist and social activist, and he wrote Debt in an attempt to look at historical economies and ideas about debt and what people owe and to whom. To do this, he examines the whole planet across the whole of recorded civilization. It’s a fascinating journey, and full of strange customs and beliefs and re-examinations of familiar ones. Who would have guessed that there are people for whom saying “Thank you” is an insult because it suggests that you might not have done it? Who could have imagined the Tiv people and their terrifying beliefs about magical cannibalism? This is one of those books where you want to read bits aloud to everyone around you.

One of the problems with writing science fiction and fantasy is creating truly different societies. We tend to change things but keep other things at societal defaults. It’s really easy to see this in older SF, where we have moved on from those societal defaults and can thus laugh at seeing people in the future behaving like people in the fifties. But it’s very difficult to create genuinely innovative societies, and in genuinely different directions. As a British reader coming to SF there were a lot of things I thought were people’s amazing imagination that turned out to be normal American things and cultural defaults. And no matter how much research you do, it’s always easier in the anglosphere to find books and primary sources in English and about our own history and the history of people who have interacted with us. And both history and anthropology tend to be focused on one period, one place, so it’s possible to research a specific society you know you want to know about, but hard to find things that are about the range of options different societies have chosen.

What Debt does is to focus on a question of morality, first by framing the question, and then by examining how a really large number of human societies over a huge geographical and historical range have dealt with this issue, and how they have interacted with other people who have very different ideas about it. It’s a huge issue of the kind that shapes societies and cultures, so in reading it you encounter a whole lot of contrasting cultures. Graeber has some very interesting ideas about it, and lots of fascinating details, and lots of thought provoking connections.

It doesn’t matter at all if you agree with any of Graeber’s points, the experience of reading the book is to widen your perspective. It’s also bursting with story ideas. I think I’m going to be recommending this book to people who want to write SF for years. And whether or not you write SF, if you read it and if you like reading about strange societies and people who do things for reasons that are not like modern western reasons, you’re going to enjoy this book.

I picked it up because I read Graeber’s piece talking about the origins of money and the myth of barter, linked to from a blog I was reading:

Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person—basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return—but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.

I’ve always felt like this about economics. And it’s a fun fluid read. As soon as I finished reading that article I ordered Debt from the library.

There are certain non-fiction books that often come up in conversations among fans. Debt is already one of them, and I think it’s only going to become more so. It doesn’t reach any staggering conclusions, but it’s hard to see how it could have any answers that are as interesting as its questions and illustrations about how people live.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

28 comments
Clark Myers
1. ClarkEMyers
A couple more books chock full of story ideas - some have been used and even acknowledged - are The Silent Language by Hall and Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Goffman. No idea on the legality and morality but each is currently available no charge on the web perhaps free of qualms.
Evan R
2. Evan R
Very worth reading, I agree. Among other things, it shows how amazingly complex financial arragements are a lot older than you might think. But Graeber's got a big problem, which is that he's politically reactionary. I'm sure he doesn't think he is.

But he's always saying, we've gone off track in the modern world, we can no longer imagine life where everything isn't about money, and so on. The problem with this is, life is better now than in any of the other times he refers to. Hey, maybe even the myth of Homo Economicus and the sphere of economic life as abstracted as possible from every non-economic motive are actually good things.

I agree 100% that a big problem in SF is future societies imagined to be basically like the present....but future societies imagined to be like the past are just as overdone.
Evan R
3. Chris J
T Evan R If, as you say, "life is better now than in any of the other times he refers to," you must be referring to how life is experienced by Americans, Western Europeans and the elites of the second and third world. Most if not all of the luxuries we enjoy are only possible because of the economic subjugation of huge portions of the world.

If Graeber is a reactionary, it's not the toys and comforts he opposes, but the means we have used to obtain them.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
I don't think "the future, like the past" is necessarily better than "the future, like the present" as a way of writing SF, but I think looking at the different axioms of other cultures in the past or the present can offer more options for kinds of ways of thinking about the things people do. People universally have children, but the kinds of marriage customs and economic arrangements for children examined in Debt vary vastly more than anything I've seen in future societies in SF. And there's the fascinating idea of a society arranged entirely around the concept of pawns with everyone being a pawn at some point in their lives.

I don't think Graeber is advocating a return to medieval Madagascar or anything like that, and I don't think it would be particularly interesting if he were. I don't think he's advocating anything as such -- his conclusions are the least interesting part. What I think is fascinating and what I think SF readers will enjoy is the huge mound at the heart of the book of "look at these other ways of doing things". I don't think he's meaning us to add "Weird, or what?" or "Let's try this at home!" so much as "Ours is not the only way could possibly work!"
Evan R
5. a1ay
T Evan R If, as you say, "life is better now than in any of the other
times he refers to," you must be referring to how life is experienced by
Americans, Western Europeans and the elites of the second and third
world.

No he mustn't. It's better to be a poor Thai farmer now than it was in 1700. The benefits of modernity have largely gone to the rich, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world has seen nothing of them.
René Walling
6. cybernetic_nomad
It's better to be a poor Thai farmer now than it was in 1700.
Are you speaking from experience? Because if not, allow me to get some salt.
John Adams
7. JohnArkansawyer
The benefits of modernity have largely gone to the rich, but that doesn't mean that the rest of the world has seen nothing of them.
True, but it comes with an awareness of the increasing income gap and corresponding power differential. What does that do to a living mind?
Daddy tell me another story
Tell me about the lows and the highs
Tell me how to tell the difference between what they tell me is the truth or a lie
Tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don't go mad
With the same skin stretched over their white bones and the same jug in their hand
Some of the politics of that song, which I love, are, I think, a bit confused, but that part is a shot straight to the heart.
Evan R
8. a1ay
it comes with an awareness of the increasing income gap and corresponding power differential

Income inequality was probably worse, not better, a few hundred years ago. It was in most countries for which there are good recocrds. And power differential too, given that we're talking about a quasi-slave state ruled by an all-powerful god-king.
Evan R
9. a1ay
Are you speaking from experience? Because if not, allow me to get some salt.

Your school history teacher must have really dreaded teaching your class. "Excuse me, Ms Krabappel? How do you know about what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg? I mean, were you there?"
Alayne McGregor
10. alaynem
Thanks for the review, Jo: definitely a topic I'd like to learn more about. It contrasts interestingly with Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money where Ferguson was arguing from a very-market-centric view that the development of markets saved us all.

There must be a huge number of people who read your reviews in my city, because the hold list at my library for this book is quite long now. I was also a bit boggled to see that, although this book came out in hardover in 2011, the trade paperback isn't scheduled until January 2014 (according to amazon).
Evan R
11. Evan R
JohnArkansawyer has an interesting point - inequality often increases with total wealth (more room at the top), and steep social hierarchy has major negative effects psychologically and socially. But the times Graeber writes about were often more nakedly and brutally hierarchical, particularly in regard to debt.

Debt servitude is some places is an improvement on debt servitude everywhere. Personal bankruptcy law is an improvement over the periodic "jubilee" debt forgiveness Graeber writes about - you can have your jubilee anytime you think things are bad enough. In the first world, even wage garnishment has usually been replaced by just reporting you to a credit bureau. Annoying and arbitrary and no-appeal as the credit bureaus are, it's reputation-based not violence-based.

About other responses, on the other hand: It's amazing to me that so many people who probably think of themselves as progressive feel obligated to deny that the world is improving over time. That is what progress means. Let Republicans wax nostalgic over the good old days. In reality, they were a lot like "Game of Thrones". Rwanda 1994 used to be more like the rule, now it's the exception.

For the statistics on this, there's three good recent books: "Better Angels of Our Nature" and "Winning the War on War" and "Famine: A Short History".
René Walling
12. cybernetic_nomad
@a1ay: I'll be getting my saltshaker.

@Evan R: I'm not denying anything, I just want to see evidence before being convinced. Will be looking those books you mention up.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
13. tnh
Okay, so imagine me, Charlie Stross, Bruce Schneier, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden at Boskone this year. There was never an actual gathering where we were all in the same room at the same moment, saying "Debt! OMG! Amazing book!" to each other; but we came close.

It beats out Charles Mann's 1491 and 1493 for sheer transformative illuminating otherness, and woah, is that ever saying something.

Read all three. Your brains will explode, in the coolest way possible.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
14. pnh
Part of what's good about vigorous, wide-ranging books like Debt, 1491, and 1493 is that they throw some long-overdue grains of salt on the idea that everything about modern life everywhere is 100% better than everything about life in the past everywhere. I am a big fan of many aspects of modern life, including but not limited to painless dentistry and widespread disapproval of infanticide. But visible in this very thread is a kind of rhetorical overreach that simply isn't credible.

History is obviously not a smooth, unbroken ascent of "progress" at all times and in all places. There are points in the human past where people have been happy in ways we don't quite grasp. Life is complicated. Just to make a single point that I don't think arises in any of these three books: It seems to me entirely possible that historians a few centuries hence will regard the period from the late 19th century to sometime in the 21st century as "that horrible period during which much of the human race went half-mad with sleep deprivation, because they'd invented the electric light but hadn't yet figured out how profoundly it affected every aspect of their mental state."

The belief that everything is constantly working out for the best and that human civilization is on a train to an inevitable glorious destiny of free markets and representative democracy ... once had a derisory name. It was called "whiggism", and even libertarians had the wit to recognize it as a fallacy. It's distressing to see it popping up again.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
15. tnh
Evan:
It's amazing to me that so many people who probably think of themselves as progressive feel obligated to deny that the world is improving over time.
I don't think they feel obliged to deny that. The ones I know are just more finicky than average about distinguishing real from apparent improvements. Some of them overdo it, by which I mean they're more finicky than I am.

Are there improvements? Certainly there are. Sennacherib in all his glory never drove across the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge at sunset with the car stereo turned up to eleven, blasting out Spem in Alium.

Q. What do some of the earliest human remains we have, like Turkana Boy, or the "Kabwe" specimen of Homo heidelbergensis, have in common with 15th C. Londoners? A. They died miserably from septicemia brought on by tooth and gum infections. Turkana Boy was luckier than Kabwe; his first major dental infection killed him. Kabwe, poor bastard, survived a whole string of badly abscessed teeth before one finally brought him down. Among the Londoners studied, death from septicemia following dental infections was second only to the Plague as a cause of death.

Today I had a two-hour dental appointment, part of a larger project to repair and reconstruct some of my damaged teeth. (Bad teeth are a side effect of drugs I take for a chronic medical condition.) Needles were involved. There were moments when I felt quite sorry for myself. I nevertheless had a pretty easy time of it, compared to some of my ancestors.

You betcha life gets better.

On the other hand, I remember when people used to tidy up their desks, turn out the office lights, and go home at the end of the working day. Over the course of the 1970s, the average overall loss of disposable time per (adult) person was around twenty percent. What was weird was how little anyone talked about it. Over the last few years, I've noticed that any time I or one of my co-bloggers writes about being able to commute or run errands via bicycle, in the comment threads there's a strange, almost incoherent outpouring of bitterness and disappointment from people who can't. They do not love their cars, or the suburbs, or their long commutes. I don't get any sense that they wanted their lives to turn out like that; and yet they're unable to see how to escape that pattern.

I can't call those improvements.

Personally, I have no faith in the inevitability of social and material improvement for all. When you examine European social history, you can find the roots of the 14th C. popular revolts and many later disturbances in the gap between rich and poor that started markedly widening in the 12th C. (Once upon a time, "peasant" wasn't a pejorative title. Wild, huh? Who knew?) Pretty-sounding concepts like nobility and gentilesse were code for the creation of a hereditary ruling class that deliberately cultivated fashions in clothing, manners, speech, and other customs and values that were distinctly different from those of the lower classes. This eventually yielded a class of nobility that had more in common with nobles in other countries than they had with their own non-noble compatriots.

That division has never really gone away. It's why I get cynical when I hear members of the 1% trying to persuade us to do something dumb by invoking our common Americanism. If instead they invoked our constitutional system of government in which they and I both have a role and a vote, they might get somewhere with me. But our shared national boundaries? GMFB. This very night there were little kids in the United States who went to bed hungry because of an economic collapse that funneled an awful lot of money to foreign investors.

I remain committed to the idea of improving people's lives. I really do. But that commitment is no one's blank check.
Elise Matthesen
16. LionessElise
pnh:
Just to make a single point that I don't think arises in any of these
three books: It seems to me entirely possible that historians a few
centuries hence will regard the period from the late 19th century to
sometime in the 21st century as "that horrible period during which much
of the human race went half-mad with sleep deprivation, because they'd
invented the electric light but hadn't yet figured out how profoundly it
affected every aspect of their mental state."

Reminds me of the gin years! Takes a while for a population to settle in with a new technological advance.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
17. tnh
Do you mean Prohibition, or the Danish centuries-long bender when distilled spirits were introduced?
Jeff Schweer
18. JeffS.
Something apropo to the current discussion is the much repeated quote from William Gibson. "The future is here, it's just unevenly distributed."

Now, let's take a look at this. I see improvements all the time, and yes, I do happen to live in the Western world. The improvements are more tangible here than in other places, I grant that. That doesn't make them unreal. In my personal case, if I had lived at any time prior to the discovery of Penicillin, I would have died prior to age 12 on any of 3 occasions.So would half of my high school graduating class.
I work in a field that didn't really exist before 1950. But my expertise isn't in use everywhere nor can it be at the present time. Wish it was.

I would say that what really needs to happen is to make an effort to get the future more evenly distributed. As tnh mentions above, the chasm between the world view of the "haves" and the "have nots" is what skews the distribution. And let's face it, this won't really progress until looking out for number 1 becomes an outmoded concept.
Jeff Schweer
19. JeffS.
I thought LionessElise meant the years that Gin and Tonic saved the British Empire from malaria. Although I think the Brits may have learned that lesson a bit too well at times. 8^D
John Adams
20. JohnArkansawyer
Or the opium years, when English parents routinely drugged their children into daylong sleep so they could go mind the Satanic mills.

No surprise this--I'm going to mention John Barnes a second time here today. His "Two Cheers for Ned Ludd" essay is pretty clear on how miserable a time the industrial revolution was for the masses. Nice for those on top, and not a bad deal for the great-great-grandchildren of the masses, but sheer hell for those who turned the cranks.

We're in a time like that now, where progress isn't progressing, and maybe the distant future will be a lot better for the great-great-grands, but between continuous partial attention, the surveillance state, and state violence by remote control, my daughter's future looks bleak.

@Evan R: You're right that things are, in some ways, improving. But the rate of improvement is rising much more quickly for those on top than those on bottom. What happens when they no longer need us huddled masses, yearning to be free?

As to this:
Personal bankruptcy law is an improvement over the periodic "jubilee"debt forgiveness Graeber writes about - you can have your jubilee anytime you think things are bad enough.
neither student loan nor credit card debt are easy to discharge through bankruptcy. Student loans in particular are effectively impossible to leave behind by any process short of death. And bankruptcy, unlike jubilee, comes with serious individual personal repercussions.

(Among the things that made jubilee special was that it was a mass phenomenon, not an individual salvation. I would be quite happy to see student loans forgiven for everyone younger than me. What a wonderful world that would be, even if I were still stuck with my debts.)


Stir all this in with the systematization and industrialization of mass psychological manipulation and then tell me the next century is certain to be onward and upward. Even the terminally optimistic Robert Heinlein saw this possibility, way back in his earliest writings:
"They've studied for years how to saddle a man and ride him. They started with advertising and propaganda and things like that, and they perfected it to the point where what used to be simple honest swindling such as any salesman might use became a mathematical science that left the ordinary man helpless." He pointed his finger at Stokes. "I tell you that the American citizen needs no protection from anything--except the likes of him."
And that was before the rise of big data. Now Mister Google can calculate the exact effect of a targeted advertisement. And like so many other IT professionals, I spend a considerable amount of my time reimposing social hierarchy onto the internet.


I could go on, but if I haven't made my point by now, more examples won't help.
Elise Matthesen
21. LionessElise
I was thinking of the gin epidemic in England, which is probably much more complicated than I know, but it might also apply to our mutual ancestors, those tipsy Danes.
Evan R
22. NicoleF
Jo, I'm curious to know what were some of the things you thought were SFnal but turned out to be American.
Jo Walton
23. bluejo
NicoleF: The universal presence of showers, cleansing method of the future. Air conditioning. Liberal Arts Education -- going to university to study piles of things instead of just one subject. I thought Zelazny was a genius coming up with that one. Places where you could eat ice cream in the middle of the night. Worse than that, I first came across the sixties sexual revolution in Larry Niven. "Drug Stores" where you could buy soft drinks from fountains as well as prescriptions -- honestly I thought that was really clever worldbuilding. Loads and loads of things.

And I have similarly seen North Americans in Britain freaking out over the most ordinary things, which they had assumed imaginary. The funniest was a friend stopping outside a simple chemist shop, pointing at it and saying loudly "You may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's peanuts to space!"
Evan R
24. a1ay
"Drug Stores" where you could buy soft drinks from fountains as well as prescriptions -- honestly I thought that was really clever worldbuilding.

Me too. And it seemed credible because it was illogical - there's just no obvious reason for the same shop to be selling soft drinks and prescription drugs. It's like all those places in London that cut keys and repair shoes. Where's the synergy? At least barber-surgeons had "needs steady hand with very sharp steel things" in common.
Evan R
25. a1ay
And I am slightly distressed that so many people are confusing "life, for most people, is better now than at most points in the past" with "life for everyone is better than ever before, as the result of an inevitable monotonic process that will continue forever".
René Walling
26. cybernetic_nomad
But you never said it before post 25, so how can we confuse it?

I'd amend the statement to say "life, for most people in the first world, is better now..." as that is pretty clearly true.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
27. tnh
a1ay, if I've helped bend the conversation too far in that direction, I apologize. Please don't be distressed.
Evan R
28. KenMacLeod
It's like all those places in London that cut keys and repair shoes. Where's the synergy?

Rotary machinery, I think.

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