When the world was young and I was in grad school, many of my classmates went to Rome to hang out with Father Reginald Foster. Reggie, as they all called him, is an American priest who at that time was in charge of translating official Vatican documents into Latin. His schedule was light in the summer, so Reggie ran a summer institute in conversational Latin. Granted, there aren’t any native speakers of Latin around to converse with, but there is a substantial body of permanently interesting Latin literature, and it is easier to read the language if you can also speak it.
Reggie moved back to Milwaukee after Pope John Paul II died. He teaches conversational Latin there from time to time. No future generations of graduate students will be studying under him in Rome, but two current graduate students have revived the Rome summer program They call it the Paideia Institute. Slate magazine ran a piece about it recently.
Also of keen interest to classicists is this recent interview that economic anthropologist David Graeber granted to the website Naked Capitalism. Graeber summarizes Adam Smith’s hypothesis that money originated as an advancement on barter systems that had prevailed before its adoption. He then points out that in the 235 years since Smith published that hypothesis in The Wealth of Nations, observers have examined thousands of cultures in search of examples of pre-monetary barter economies, and that they have yet to find one. Graeber concludes that Smith’s hypothesis is thereby defeated. Societies which have not invented money do not organize markets around barter; they do not organize markets at all. Money and markets arise together, and barter becomes widespread only when currency systems collapse. Non-monetary societies distribute goods and services, not through markets, but through hierarchies in which obligations are based on force. The king or chief or whatever he is has what he has because everyone else is indebted to him for protection and status, and they have what they have because of their relations with him. When multiple authorities lay claim to the same person, they need a way of sorting out whose claim comes first and which authority is entitled to demand what deference or service. Sometimes they develop a way of sorting those claims that involves quantifying them and making them transferable. Once claims on a person’s deference or service can be quantified and transferred, there is a need for tokens to signify the quantification and contracts to enforce the transfer. That is to say, there is money, and with it the dawn of market society.
Graeber makes some remarks that are similar to points that come up in some classes I teach. For example:
Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.
Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.
And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.
When I’m talking to a class, I’m rather more emphatic than Graeber in saying that in this conclusion Aristotle was a man of his time, and that our view of wage labor as a form of freedom may be as legitimate in its own way as was the Greek view of wage labor as a form of slavery. Partly that difference in views stems from the fact that so many slaves in ancient Greek cities were paid wages, and that those who labored side by side with free people in big workshops were paid exactly the same wages as those (nominally) free people, while American slaves were generally denied access to money. Still, I do have a lecture that unnerves them when it ends with my remark that Aristotle would not have thought that we moderns have abolished slavery, but that we have abolished freedom.
I can’t resist quoting another bit of the Graeber’s interview. After he derides the idea of money as a development subsequent to a barter economy, we have this exchange:
PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?
DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.
In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.
But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.
But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.
Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.
Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.
If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.
Nietzsche may once have been overrated as a political thinker, but I believe that he is now seriously underrated in that wise. So the bit above made me happy.