Toward a Grand Narrative of Civilization

History is a curious thing. We are irrevocably tied to the consequences of events in the past, but are also walled off from it completely. The complexity of reality is so great that with our meager tools the best we can often hope for is to construct some workable model of what has happened, so that we may make better choices in the present. However, as a model tries to look at the entirety of human existence, it becomes a complete fantasy. Models aren’t our only choice.

The narrative approach is a dangerous tool, often associated with biased tales meant to draw the listener into a stupor where he will believe anything. For all its biases and flaws, it is the only approach suited for the deep questions we are asking here. While the laws of the universe are what they are, models are human tools. Calculative-rational models only exist within a grander human story; they are a product of temporarily stable relationships in an ever shifting web of complexity. A complete perspective of what we call civilization is only possible when we zoom out beyond these stable walls of social convention, and tap into deep streams of primal thought.As you calibrate your mind to a 5,000 year timescale, consider that even the questions lose some meaning at this point. The process of questioning and looking for the answers is in itself a calibration. In other words, to have any hope of overcoming the wall humanity has hit in terms of collective imagination, we must dare to have thoughts of the “depth and grandeur appropriate to the times”.

That phrase comes from the mind of David Graeber, an anthropologist and the author of an important book called Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Superficially, this essay is a review and commentary on the book, but I am also taking the first step toward building on his ideas. If you’ve read Venkatesh Rao’s TEMPO, you will also notice that I am drawing from his ideas about Narrative Rationality, within which the most powerful mode of cognition is the deep story.

Narrative rationality is the ability to think, make decisions, and act in ways that make sense with respect to the most compelling and elegant story you can improvise about a developing enactment. – Venkatesh Rao, TEMPO

Because a story is crafted to fit what you’re attempting to comprehend, the timescale calibration I invoked is perhaps the single most important step. On a 5,000 year timescale, individual lives do not even register; the rise and fall of nations will represent tiny blips on our radar. Every generation believes they are special, that the world somehow changed fundamentally just in time for their privileged place in history, and they are right. The nature of these stories is fractal, there are countless stories within stories, and by choosing your timescale and perspective correctly, you might often find a meaningful change that is taking place and making the game more complicated than it ever was before.

I attempt no less here than to make the case that we are witnessing an epochal change that represents  a fundamental shift in the organizing principle of human civilization. Graeber takes us part of the way by building a convincing case that debt is one of the most useful concepts by which we can understand human organization into large scale societies. Or, paraphrasing from his words: Not only is debt important, but society is our debts. I take this a step further by making a case that we are not just experiencing another great cycle of debt, but that the changes wrought in the past 200 years have changed the nature of human social cognition in such a way that a new idea is emerging as the primary building block of civilization.

If we are to travel down this long road together, we must jettison some intellectual baggage before we can equip ourselves for the journey. One of the first things that Graeber does quite well is demolish the pernicious myth of barter. The idea that “trucking and bartering” is some sort of base state for human interaction has done enormous harm to our ability to understand the foundations of exchange. Despite the fact that the entire edifice of Economics as a science is built on top of this assumption, Graeber picks it apart with persuasive examples of how human beings actually behave when not in the presence of markets. He observes that elaborate barter systems most often crop up in modern scenarios, with the collapse of national economies or other such situations where people that do not know each other are forced to transact without a state enforcing laws or a currency that represents an agreed upon value. In fact, the situations where barter has been regularly observed are those a hair away from violence.

Why is this myth so pervasive? Part of it is the extraordinary position that the practice of economics has come to hold in modern society. To question its basic tenets is to invite a condescending reaction or an accusation of being ignorant or misinformed.

One of the great misconceptions of economics is the understanding of “primitive money”. Now that we’ve arrived at time immemorial, before the rise of the first agrarian civilizations, we can see more clearly. The shells, whale teeth, or feathers that trade hands in the small villages that exist at this point are often not exchangeable at all for rice, barley, leathers, or anything with obvious utility. “Instead, they are used to create, maintain, and otherwise reorganize relations between people to arrange marriages, establish the paternity of children, head off feuds, console mourners at funerals, seek forgiveness in the case of crimes, negotiate treaties, acquire followers – almost anything but trade in yams, shovels, pigs, or jewelry.” These are the most essential social functions for which everything else is a means. These small communities could not scale in large part because the transactions that greased the wheels of everyday life took place in an illegible realm of primordial credit. You might know it as borrowing an egg from a neighbor.

This type of interaction assumes that the two parties know each other, relate largely as equals, and expect sustained future interactions. Now, before the economist in you tries to make the case that this is merely a matter of measuring the utility of more abstract concept, I’ll argue that the distinctive characteristic of this scenario is precisely its illegibility. As in quantum physics, to measure is to change.

While the average citizen might feel some dull stress if whatever is paid back does not have some defensible equivalence, to pay back a debt on equal terms can have a very different meaning. Graeber makes the case that in many early cultures, to pay back a debt with exactly what is owed is to imply that you seek a termination of the relationship. In other words, the web of debt obligations between the members of a community is precisely what makes them one. There is an underlying sense of socially enforced illegibility even at this level.

As with a galactic dust cloud, small clumps of particles may accumulate very slowly, but at some point the gravity imbalance becomes such that the spherical mass eventually becomes a star. The communal “dust cloud” state of humanity is fundamentally unstable. The accumulation of power in one form or another by one group of individuals is inevitable, and usually rather quick once some invisible threshold is crossed. Some societies had stronger built-in countermeasures to prevent our human impulses from destroying the fabric everyone depended on. If some baseline level of social resilience was not met, the group might vanish entirely without much consequence. Again, it is the ability to tame these parts of our behavior through subtle means that largely defined us as societies. Early forms of social organization were by no means ideal or uniform; they varied immensely and all faced their own set of problems. However, they were local phenomena that blinked in an out of existence with the shifting fortunes of the hunt, drought, and so on.

 

Mesopotamia

It was arguably technology that enabled the first great change in this dynamic. The invention of the animal driven plough changed humanity forever. It enabled our first co-opting of the natural world on a large enough scale to produce reliable surpluses. We put a yoke on nature to drive it toward our ends. In a relatively stable society, a sudden surplus is enough to change everything. Although agriculture emerged almost everywhere that humans inhabited, only in the Fertile Crescent did an ideal confluence of factors seem to enable eventual rise of empires. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

There is probably some part of our basic psychology that made the rise of civilization inevitable once it became possible. If our desire for fairness and sense of justice balanced for some time with a will to power, the introduction of predictable surpluses created an opportunity for specialization, city building, and everything else that followed. But this higher form of social organization also disrupted tribal narratives by bringing strangers together into the fold.

The city became a living thing, where temples sprouted and those seeking to enforce their will upon others had an entirely new landscape to conquer. The bargain humanity made by organizing in this fashion was the following: Our survival became less and less dependent on the whims of the natural world while in turn increasingly dependent on the human systems that acted as the glue for the first cities.

Debt was the most important of these adhesives. How do you make something that existed only by implication legible enough that it can be used to transact with strangers in a complex new setting? The answer is money. It took some time for the barrier between the “social currencies” described by Graeber and commercial money to disappear. Meanwhile, what could be observed was a slow process of increasing legibility, which in turn enabled increasingly anonymous transactions.

Only slightly removed from the ethereal realm of neighborly borrowing are some of the first money systems we know about: sealed clay tablets with written debt contracts and citizen-merchant issued currency.  Both were often traded as money though some knowledge about the parties involved was still necessary. The local beer merchant or importer of exotic goods might also stamp their own coins and use them to buy food or other necessities. The coins would then be exchangeable as credits only at their establishment.

Taxation also emerged as a more definite concept along with the larger cities. In the Fertile Crescent at least, barley was the uniform unit of account created for this purpose. The Mesopotamian temple administrators established the silver shekel as a representation of a specific weight of barley. According to Graeber, the silver did not actually circulate within cities too much, if anything it was used for commerce between cities. Peasants did not have to pay their debts in silver, they could be, and were most often paid in barley itself. Meanwhile, tabs with the local merchants and alehouses were still handled in the manner described above.

our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency. – David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (p. 40)

This is a good time to talk about the darker side of debt. Because interest bearing loans originated before writing we don’t know the details, but Graeber tells a tale of the rise of debt-peonage in the following way: Temples would finance the caravan trade between regions that produced different goods via these interest bearing loans. The practice became common quickly, with commercial loans becoming consumer loans. When inevitably someone was unable to pay, their possessions would be confiscated, beginning with grain and livestock and progressing to property and family members. Clearly, the more was confiscated from someone, the harder it became for them to pay back the loan. In some cases even the original borrower might become a perpetual debt-peon, with little hope of being redeemed.

This sort of dynamic would obviously have destructive effects on society if left unchecked. It thus became the habit of Sumerian and Babylonian kings to occasionally declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void. Land and family were restored. It is significant that the first word we know of for freedom in any human language comes from this practice.

The languages of religion and debt share many words, and debt is almost always analogous to sin. The idea of redemption also straddles both worlds. Debt between human beings who see themselves as fundamentally equal leads to the relationships discussed above, but our relationship to the universe and our ancestors is not one based on equality. It is this same recognition of a separation between the sacred and profane that seems to limit the “social currencies” I mentioned earlier to situations where there is no real way to ever pay back something.

If you accidentally killed my brother in a drunken brawl, a payment of whale teeth would clearly be no more than the acknowledgement of a transcendent debt in order to prevent a blood-feud. The notion of sacrificial animals (which also traded hands for these purposes) can also be seen through this glass. By giving up their life, we pay interest on the ultimate existential debt whose principal is only paid back upon our death. Indeed, one of Graeber’s main points throughout his book is that the course civilization has taken is largely a result of our attempt to imagine our relationship to the universe and each other in the language of legible commercial or utilitarian transactions.

In this ancient world, an alternative for someone who was about to lose their family or animals to creditors was to flee the cities and join the nomadic tribes who always surrounded them. Occasionally, strong tribes would sweep into the cities as conquerors, and thus a rebirth of the system could take place. One could also see this as strengthening the underlying logic of debt. To the degree that a city is its underlying networks of debt, it was in the interest of new rulers to leave at least some part of that in place.

The book investigates with satisfying detail the nuances of different types of “economies”. Gift, hierarchical and exchange economies emerge in different ways and possess their own internal logic. The notion of some fundamental perception of equality is necessary for exchange based relationships is important. The logic of caste emerges from hierarchy and its internal logic of custom. Another fascinating portion of the book deals with the concept of honor and its particular usefulness in understanding the evolution of debt. Graeber characterizes honor as the ability and willingness to pay one’s monetary debts and simultaneously, a dissonant condescension towards this form of exchange. In other words, it’s a vexed insistence that the truly important things are illegible, manifested within an increasingly legible environment. Honor is where Patriarchy comes from, and it is central to the societies where the dynamics of centralized power reached a new level.

 

First Age of Empires

Zoroastrianism, Prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam were all born during this time period; it is also the time during which completely impersonal coinage took prominence as the primary form of money. Until this “Axial Age”, precious metals were most often used for ritual and adornment, or alternatively for trade between disconnected groups. All of Eurasia faced an almost simultaneous identity crisis that saw the rise of philosophy and the professional soldier.

The patterns in India and China were similar to those of the Mediterranean. Though in Western tradition we often think of the Roman and Greek empires dominating this landscape, the Mauryan Empire came to control most of the Indian subcontinent, while the Han dynasty ruled China. They were all very significant and evolved in an oddly similar form.

The tectonic shifts of this age were triggered not so much by technological advances, but rather social ones. This time period saw synergistic growth between a free peasantry, large standing armies, and expansive military campaigns. The free peasantry, which had grown in response to a patriarchal resistance to debt-peonage, was the pool from which professional soldiers were drawn.

War was a prominent feature of this age and coinage had everything to do with it. While in modern times we think of markets as something that exists independently of government, Graeber argues that large scale markets were essentially created out of nothing at this point in history. People would be required to pay their taxes with state issued currency, which would then be issued to soldiers. While the purity of the gold and silver coins varied (bronze was used in China), this was the most widespread social innovation of the time. The brilliance of this is removing the need to supply standing armies strictly from state owned establishments. It should not come as a surprise then that the main business of these standing armies quickly became taking over new lands to strip precious metals from temples and enslave entire populations to send them off to the mines.  The brutality of pure slavery, where people were made into fully owned objects rather than “mere” debt-peons, fueled an intense intellectual debate.

Another way to look at this time of great conflict is as a time of calculation and equivalence. The growing influence of legible debt and its propensity for allowing humans to organize into larger groups forced humanity to begin to ask the great questions. While the legacy of debt is evident in the language of the great religions, it also influenced most, if not all philosophical inquiry of the time.

What were the consequences of assigning a precise and legible value to everything? Not only was this inquiry pointed at the moral topics of the day, but somehow our entire view of the cosmos began to conform to this powerful materialist framework. The urge to reduce everything to measurable parts also gave us the first sparks of scientific thought.

For all the glory of Rome, the “military-coinage-slavery complex” would not last forever. As money was transformed purely into a commodity rather than a debt-token, entire societies were reshaped. As the inertia from initial conquests died down, those who made it rich turned again toward manipulating government and bringing a large part of the peasantry into debt peonage. Relying on mercenaries and barbarians for protection, the empire was well on the way to collapse.

It would not be long until Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. In India, Aśoka reached his own limits and adopted Buddhism. China always seemed to move at its own tempo, and empire did not manifest in the same form there. That said, the Han emperor Wu-Ti still adopted Confucianism as the philosophy of state in this window of time. The Chinese empire endured in an ever-shifting form for two thousand years, the Roman empire fell, though the Roman church still stands, and Aśoka’s reforms fell flat on their face.

 

Going Medieval

Some of the worst damage to economic thought in the west has come from looking at the Middle Ages as a time only of barbaric feudal lords, nobility, castles, and general disorder. Graeber reminds us that what happened in the western world at this time is still instructive, but was merely a side show to what was happening in India and China.

It’s no coincidence that with the failure of empires we also saw the decline of great cities. Contrary to popular thought, nobody “reverted to barter”. In fact, accounts were often kept in the old imperial units, with the coins merely being out of circulation. This behavior required smaller villages given the technology of the time.

As state law was replaced by a more diffuse religious law, monasteries became the focal points for many of these settlements, and this happened with the most intensity in India. While the return of the credit economy saw the gradual return of debt-peonage and even the logic of caste, Graeber argues that the majority of humanity was probably at least slightly better off than during the time of great warring empires.

Even under Confucian ideology China saw numerous peasant revolts, and a large part of government’s role there became keeping rural populations under control via a combination of light taxation and a tight chain on merchants. Despite these actions, the Chinese state actively promoted markets, and those would become more sophisticated and developed than any other part of the world at the time.

According to Graeber, the key distinction one must make in order to understand this is that Capitalism and Markets are not the same thing. He invokes the French historian Fernand Braudel, who points out that they can be thought of as opposite things to a large extent. Markets are ways of exchanging goods through he medium of money, while capitalism is primarily the art of using money to get more money.

Unlike later European princes, Chinese rulers systematically refused to team up with would-be Chinese capitalists (who always existed). Instead, like their officials, they saw them as destructive parasites—though, unlike the usurers, ones whose fundamentally selfish and antisocial motivations could still be put to use in certain ways. In Confucian terms, merchants were like soldiers. Those drawn to a career in the military were assumed to be driven largely by a love of violence. As individuals, they were not good people; but they were also necessary to defend the frontiers. Similarly, merchants were driven by greed and basically immoral; yet if kept under careful administrative supervision, they could be made to serve the public good. – David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (p. 260)

None of this means China was a harmonious Utopia. Buddhism spread as the popular religion and the large temple complexes that emerged became quite powerful. At several points this resulted in minor conflicts between the peasantry and the state. This continual death and rebirth might be one reason why the empire here endured when it did not in other parts of the world.

The truly interesting events of the period were happening in the Islamic world. The law of the Prophet Mohammed was seen as something that existed almost independently of the government. The Caliphate saw government as necessary to defend the faith, but as “fundamentally exterior to society”. Oddly, this made the state militarily powerful, and resulted in a similar mode of expansion as the old empires. But due to some important differences in where the troops came from and how they were paid, the effect on society was completely different. Religion built an imposing wall between markets and the state.

One key restriction that survives even today in much of the Islamic world is the banning of usury. While Islamic thought viewed Merchants favorably from the beginning, it saw currency as solely a medium for the purpose of exchanging goods. Gold and silver made ideal currencies precisely because they were otherwise useless. Because currency was seen as having no inherent value, it followed that lending at interest was against Mohammed’s law. Money could not make money; it was only meaningful in relation to people and things.

Because the state did not generally interfere with commercial arrangements, networks of credit and trust took on great importance in Islamic society. For the first time truly expansive markets and flows of trade developed that were fundamentally separate from a warring state. In fact, Graeber builds a strong case that a lot of Adam Smith’s writings on “free markets” came almost directly from Islamic scholars.

The Catholic Church was the focal point for the European Middle Ages, and it had its own ban on Usury early on. However some schools of Catholic thought also saw all profit taking as illegitimate, instead of a just reward for a risky adventure. With moral and state authority so fragmented, various powers felt quite at liberty to do whatever they wanted and then justify it in the language of whatever strain of religious thought was convenient. This game had life and death consequences. The relationship between the kings and the Jews is another story altogether, but it’s no secret that it often ended in catastrophe and genocide.

In the Islamic world, the positive outlook on merchants and the lax role of government in enforcing commercial law (reputation was far more important) gave rise to a variety of creative financial instruments used sometimes for getting around restrictions on usury. In Catholicism, usury was made a mortal sin. While in Islam the merchant was celebrated as an adventurer, in Catholisism there was a violent squelching of any notion of free markets.

The spirit of the times would not be contained, and in the universities that had sprung around Europe there was growing debate about these principles. Of course, the debate was once again framed in the old materialist notions seen during the Axial Age. The notion of being compensated for opportunity costs, known first as interesse became the justification for usury.

Modern banking saw a spasmodic birth in Europe. From the burning of the Knights Templar to the tumultuous history of moneylenders in Italy, there was not one smooth linear progression toward where we are today. While the first bankers profited from the chaos on the continent, the seafaring powers began to engage in far-flung adventures of conquest, capturing slaves and setting up plantations. Once again military and commercial power became aligned and Europe was primed for a new age.

you can’t have cutthroat competition where there is no one stopping people from literally cutting one another’s throats. – David Graeber,  Debt: The First 5,000 Years (p. 303)

Age of the Great Capitalist Empires

In China social unrest strained virtual credit money to its limits. Formerly illegal mines were legitimized by states and bullion once again became acceptable currency for large transactions. However, Chinese mines were rapidly depleted. Fortunately for them, Europe still had a reliable demand for Chinese goods. Graeber characterizes this emerging age of armed overseas adventures by Europe as one of seeking either access to Eastern luxuries or new sources of precious metals.

In the beginning stages of this new globalized economy, gold and silver flowed from many ports, with most of it ultimately being absorbed by China. Despite these great flows, European commoners did not see much of the wealth. As in the East, states had moved toward commodity money. Taxes had to be paid in metal, but most of it never saw their hands. The great resulting inequality allowed merchants and those who controlled the metal to increasingly interfere with governance. Thus they began to outlaw any competing currencies driven by credit and trust. The impoverished masses once again were fed into a commodity money war machine, either by forced labor or being drafted into the navies. Attempts at rebellion that might have been successful a thousand years earlier were quickly and violently put down.

There existed a key difference between the Axial Age and the rise of the new empires. Graeber points out that the logic of money had decoupled from the world of politics, it was no longer merely a tool of the state. In a sort of perverse combination of the separation seen in the Islamic world and the European philosophical justifications for Interesse, Debt and Money took on a life of their own. On our grand timeline, the Axial age is when the notion of money as a concretely valuable thing first pushed against society. This new age is when it achieved full separation and took on a life of its own, violently reshaping everything around it.

If there is one concept that elegantly sums up the times, it’s that of self-interest. It’s descended from the idea of interesse and has a pseudo-scientific appeal that would only be enhanced when writers such as Thomas Hobbes used it as a central part of their philosophies. As Graeber puts it, “It is, rather, the story of how an economy of credit was converted into an economy of interest”. Debt had effectively become criminalized, at least if you did not also hold power. Let us remember that in the small villages where we started our story, everyone was in debt to everyone else in various illegible ways, this was the very basis for those human societies.

As power once again bound the fate of markets and governments, paper money could be seen as the next logical step. While society viewed debt almost as having a palpable stench when it came to the poor, money again revealed its dual nature. States quickly took a liking to bonds and all sorts of financial instruments.  But it was not until the creation of the Bank of England in 1694 that paper money became the law of the land.

Always owe somebody something, then he will be forever praying God to grant you a good, long and blessed life. Fearing to lose what you owe him, he will always be saying good things about you in every sort of company; he will be constantly acquiring new lenders for you, so that you can borrow to pay him back, filling his ditch with other men’s spoil. – Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais

It is here that a part of our story ends, and another part begins. Humanity’s relationship to debt is still plays an incredibly important role during the rise of capitalism. Graeber tells this story in a more compelling way than most. To him, the process of “dislodging people from their webs of mutual commitment, shared history, and collective responsibility” is essentially what made us exchangeable and “subject to the logic of debt”.

The past 300 years have seen this dislodging happen on a nearly unimaginable scale. The slightly tamer version of capitalism we know today is the result of a long process of curtailing its worst excesses.  Despite this, our civilizational legacy of wars, drastic speculative bubbles, alienation, and slavery has ensured that our language, our shared assumptions, our laws, and even our relationships with each other have become thoroughly shaped by the logic of debt.

The concept of issuing bank notes theoretically backed by gold was a powerful one. In one stroke, it justified the application of “debt logic” to individuals and also gave the state power limited only by its ability to project force. Especially tragic is the fact that over several generations even those who should know better are completely immersed and see no other way of thinking about the world. Graeber makes a profound observation, mirroring that of Robert Kennedy’s famous quote on GDP:

What was once an impersonal mechanism that compelled people to look at everything around them as a potential source of profit has come to be considered the only objective measure of the health of the human community itself. – David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

After the great wars of the 20th century, it became evident we were in such a new world that the grand illusion of metal currency was no longer really relevant. One can draw clear lines corresponding to specific events like the founding of the U.S. Federal Reserve or Nixon’s floating of the dollar in 1971, but these are at best points of reference. The world had simply grown up.

Perhaps faced with the prospect of complete annihilation for the first time, we realized the absurdity of our vestigial attachment to precious metals. This was the ultimate destruction of context, and threw humanity into a cloud of uncertainty from which it has not really emerged.

Unlike what happened with the onset of the Middle Ages however, we are still fully accepting of much of the logic of debt. The state remains an important actor on the global stage, with the United States able to project military force anywhere on the planet almost at a moment’s notice. David Graeber’s narrative seems perplexed as it reaches our most recent history. While he achieves something truly remarkable in his framing of our history as it relates to debt, he dares to predict or recommend very little, if anything at all.

Increased legibility of debt-money relationships allows for large but unstable centralized structures that reduce entropy internally but increase it overall (click for larger version)
 

Is it a fact, or have I dreamt it?

What Graeber does not venture to explore is the role of technology in civilization’s growth and evolution. Ignoring basic tool use, the first technology of civilization could be said to be the animal drawn plough. Vital for the establishment of the first cities, it was quickly followed by irrigation, various technologies of war, and everything else in our great history of invention. While it would be absurd to say that nothing since has been as meaningful, let’s keep our 5,000 year glasses on and explore further.

Legibility is a denial of complexity, and it was also a prerequisite for the type of mechanical thinking that gave rise to the world of debt as we know it. If technology marks the gradual advancement of civilization, then illegibility is the monster we always end up on a quest to slay under different guises. It comes from a very deep place in our psyche; it is nothing less than a projection of our own desire to make sense of the world around us in order to reduce uncertainty. It is perhaps the same place where the urge to accumulate power comes from, and what drove the Swiss social historian Jacob Burkhardt to say “The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity”.

One must understand this without necessarily attaching a value to it. Scientific progress owes a great deal to our tendency as a society to move toward legibility. A calculative-rational mode of thought depends on being able to measure things discreetly and objectively. Scientific inquiry is the exploration of the entirety of reality to the extent that it can be understood with our human brains. The tools we make with that newfound knowledge, though, are a product of their time. Just as with discovery, there is an air of inevitability with certain key developments.

Nuclear fusion and the destructive technologies that it enabled might seem grand, but some perspective (and what else do Nuclear weapons provide, if not perspective) reminds us that we were doing little more than the mythological Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods, imitating the power of the stars here on our spinning rock.

The Axial Age empires represented the first push of debt & money to bind themselves irrevocably to humanity’s fate; a similar thing is happening today with technology. A confluence of social and technological factors has once again enabled a fundamental leap in how we organize.

The Internet is the most significant human technological development in our history as a species. It was a long time coming, but paradoxically it has a tempo all its own, and it is fast. The internet became the binding force that linked all technological progress into one coherent force.

We are in the final stages of Debt as an organizing principle for civilization. It is being displaced by technology. Dislodging something set so deeply is not something that happens overnight.

At first, the Internet was seen as having a synergistic relationship with the dominant forces of global commerce. Getting reliable information quickly has long been prized by those who play with money, and miles of fiber optic cable were laid with the express purpose of facilitating trade. The 2008 financial crisis was a kind of melting point for this synergy. For years, financial firms hired the brightest minds to design, sell and trade ever more fantastic financial instruments at faster and faster speeds. It came to a point where one millisecond in the trading speed of a computer algorithm could make a firm win or lose millions. At some point though, firms were not so much exploiting technology to get ahead, but struggling to keep up with it. This is not merely a semantic distinction.

Technology’s siren song proved too strong, and our entire economic system quickly organized around the premise that these firms could create something from nothing by these means. In failing to imagine a more worthwhile use of technology than making money from money, the shared fantasy upon which the system rests was put into question and the credit of the institutions that manage it came under doubt. It was not credit in the financial sense alone that was questioned, but their very worth to society.

This crisis of imagination is largely institutional, as individuals I think more people are willing to think bold thoughts than ever before. There are still many unresolved questions when it comes to the decline of the old and the rise of the new. The institutions of debt & money will clearly not disappear entirely, some part of them is now permanent to the story of civilization. We’ve already begun to relate to one another more in the language of technology than in the language of debt. The process of transition will be long and unpredictable, but many have already made a new sort of bargain with technology and the internet: by framing their relationships in the language of social networks, they can expand their interactions with others far beyond what was ever possible before. In this way, something is lost, and something is won.

A prophet in his own time is likely to be seen as a fool, and much of the experimentation happening on this vast online frontier might seem foolish. The borders of this new land are only limited by our imagination though, and already one can feel a growing appreciation for complexity. If not a complete reversal of the legibility forcing tendencies of the old regime, then there is at least an enhanced appreciation for the fact that they don’t represent the only way of viewing the world. The politics of geography and rebellion are also being rapidly rewritten. Not only does popular sentiment snowball much more rapidly, but many have been happy to retreat entirely into virtual worlds. These virtual worlds are vast, rich, and not nearly examined enough.

If anything, this essay argues that we face an epochal shift. I cannot imagine such a thing taking place without some measure of pain. It’s always possible that technology has become more like a new religion, performing a similar role to the traditions that fueled humanity through the Middle Ages. It’s even possible that this is true, while only being a small part of the story. We can be as cynical a species as we can be creative, but we must be humble and cautious while remaining ambitious and daring if we are to thrive.

Speculation (click for larger version)

16 thoughts on “Toward a Grand Narrative of Civilization

  1. Hmm… you’re ranging over quite a lot of territory, and it’s a little hard to see which points are the crucial ones. I can vaguely sense where you are going here, but not quite. I also see some continuity with your ideas in the currency gardening piece you started with.

    The idea that repaying a debt exactly represents termination of a relationship is definitely an important one. I’ve thought about that in relation to vendettas. Relationships either seem to strengthen or weaken over time. To want them to zero out after every interaction seems strangely perverse from some points of view.

  2. Your post revolves around a commonly accepted definition of debt that is fundamentally flawed.

    If person A has certain resources and person B does not, what incentive has A to give to B? Essentially, why risk one’s own resources? A debt-centric view takes it as a given that A has a moral(?) obligation to lend and to do so at his own risk with no prospect of incentive and reward. This is absurd and has never taken place.

    It is interesting that you take the matter seriously. I hope (for your sake) that you don’t consider this sufficient reason to take yourself seriously. This is also a very common error among dedicated intelligent people.

    • With due respect, please review Julio’s summary once again or the source material. At no point is it expressed that person A has a moral obligation to extend risk to person B with no likelihood of compensation.

    • I think the self-interested notion of debt you propose is by far more commonly accepted, at least in western traditions. Two completely unrelated individuals, who come from completely different spheres of existence and are meeting in some hypothetical neutral ground for some hypothetical exchange would certainly have no incentive to leave an open debt attached to their interaction, since it is presumed that it would be terminated once they part ways. The whole point of the book is that this scenario has not represented reality for most of the history of civilization. Most interactions involving exchange have been very much embedded in the “society” that they occur and the book is an exploration of the consequences of that.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “taking the matter seriously”. Your concern is duly noted, however.

  3. Good summary, but I think you misunderstand when you say that the grounding of society is becoming technology instead of debt. Just follow @VenessaMiemis on the future of money to see just how illegible currencies and debt are getting in the age of the internet. Far from going away, I see the crises of the moment as the early birth pangs entering a new age of credit; much like the fall of the Roman Empire, it’ll get worse before it gets better, and there will have to be substantial restructuring effects. I think Detroit is an example of one possible vector of resilience in the face of economic collapse. I’m also highly skeptical that the internet will even be recognizable in 10 years, or that it will not have its own competition.

    • Hi Jordan, and thanks for the comment. I am not trying to say it will go away, but rather that we won’t have another “age of empires” organized around it. In other words, that the next “narrative cycle” of civilization will organize around something else (and technology seems like the most likely candidate to me). I bring up the internet because, using TEMPO lingo, it could be seen as the “cheap trick” of technology as an organizing principle. This is of course very speculative, but this would be true for any attempt to place something so recent on such a vast timeline. If you believe this it would mean that we’re due for a long period of sense-making when it comes to technology and a retrospective when it comes to debt-money. It would also mean that we’ve reached “peak centralization” for now.

      It’s unclear what the influence of debt will be into the future, but it’s certainly not going away. There’s definitely some new baseline of legibility that I don’t think we’ll sink under again. Whatever form it takes I think you’re right that it will look more like the “ages of credit” in Graeber’s analysis. I’ll post a graphic to better illustrate what I mean.

  4. On the question of technology’s role, it occurs to me that given both growing access to the Internet and this idea of technology kind of replacing religion, that perhaps it mightn’t be too much to hope that enough curious people get science, now that kids can look at Wikipedia…

    As I see it, we’re doomed to fall victim to unsustainabilty one way or another, until enough of us have some grasp on reality. Maybe then we’ll have what it takes to figure out how to organise ourselves.

    • The role of technology now doesn’t really map 1:1 to the role of religion in the middle ages, but you wouldn’t know it the way some business executives treat their IT advisers as priests of some mystical order.

  5. Very interesting summary of Graeber and an interesting elaboration on those initial ideas. I suggest you look at Carlota Perez’s work on cycles of technological innovation, and how they alternate with financial cycles. It’s Marxist-influenced, and (therefore) a bit simplistic, but there may be something there for you to connect to.

  6. Does Graeber discuss at all the major side-effect of debt, i.e. that by lending money into existence at interest, we become slave to the growth mindset?

    (Arguably, a growth mindset was exactly the right mindset to be in for the last 2,000+ years, but now that we’re coming to the end of the ecosystem it might be worth thinking about how to transition into a different mindset (or, to put it more generally, a different story).)

    If you like reading about money and debt I recommend Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics. He can get a little evangelical at times but in the main makes a terrible amount of sense. The book is available for free online.

    • Thank you for your comment. I don’t recall him making the explicit connection. Perhaps another way to look at the tendency to lend at interest is as a natural outgrowth of some intrinsic desire to expand or grow in influence (a la Dawkins). In other words, I’m not so sure the direction of causality is crystal clear.

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