“…a society that punishes people for trying to be decent human beings is profoundly inhuman.”

An interview with David Graeber over at Naked Capitalism.

He’s talking mainly about economic disincentives to doing good in the world that appear to be a feature of our “capitalist” economy.

I can’t agree with a lot of Graeber’s verbiage – you know, “power structures”, things like that – and like the founding fathers I don’t care much for “democracy” either.  In other words, the democracy leaning to anarchy that characterized the Occupy movement and Graeber’s thinking about what to do at this point doesn’t strike me as being much of a solution to anything.

But in terms of identifying what’s wrong now, Graeber and I are in complete agreement.  While of course I approach all this from a different and somewhat less scholarly position – more ‘lawyerly’ than scholarly – the basics of the issue are the same for both Graeber and me.  In fact, I identified the debt problem – and a solution (updated here) – publicly before his most recent magnum opus (Debt – the First 5,000 Years) came out.

Graeber’s insight that the debt game has altered the role of government (“…which is increasingly becoming the legal cover and muscle behind debt and rent extraction”) is also important, but the solution to that is not so much to turn all of government and society upside down, which is the constant temptation of the revolutionary, but rather a return to first principles by the third branch of government (the judiciary) in general, and the legal profession in particular.

To take just one example, evictions are judicial processes.  As I have noted before, they are ridiculously easy to do, not to mention the fastest existing judicial process by far.  This is a reflection of a lot of what is wrong, true, but the solution is so simple:  change the law.

Do we have to change hearts and minds as well?  Certainly, and especially in the legal profession and the judiciary.

The anthropological approach to these issues is academically interesting and has a lot to offer, but it still amazes me how little regard there is for the legal profession and by extension – and somewhat distressingly – the rule of law.  The problems Graeber is speaking about fit very neatly – and pretty much entirely – into the ‘law’ category, much more so than the ‘anthropology’ category, but no one talks to lawyers about it.

That’s strange, I think, and maybe even a big part of the underlying problem:  a pall of despair over the rule of law and lawyers.

We’ve probably brought it on ourselves.



Filed under financial crisis, Media incompetence/bias, Striking lawyers, wrongful convictions

4 responses to ““…a society that punishes people for trying to be decent human beings is profoundly inhuman.”


    Well if you think you can make some headway by legal means by all means go ahead. I’ll be rooting for you.


    • David, thank you for stopping by. At the moment I’m doing what I can, which is pretty much putting the idea(s) out there. I don’t seem to have any control or even influence beyond that. Of course that could change at any time. Meanwhile, I’ll be rooting for you, too.


  2. Are you familiar with the work of Christine Desan? (Apologies if you’ve written about her, new to this blog, followed from Naked Capitalism). She’s a professor at Harvard Law, her work reminds me of Graeber’s but from a legal history, rather than anthropology, perspective. I had an opportunity to film one of her lectures recently, you may be interested:

    The other two talks in the video are also relevant, and very worth watching.


    • Rebecca, hi, thanks for the comment.

      I watched Prof. Desan’s part. Very bright lady, of course. The “creation myth” analogy is apt. Seems she studied religion at Princeton. Who says that’s a useless area of study?

      It’s no wonder she reminds you of Graeber, since he essentially provides anthropological evidence for Desan’s preferred money creation myth, which appears to be in line with the “chartalist” position. Near as I can tell, anyway, and I don’t have a good handle on chartalism, although from what I can glean it’s a school of thought that believes that money is a government creation arising from its power to tax.

      I may have said elsewhere that I think there is some truth to this, but not too much. We ignore, say, Aristotle at our peril. If the government’s taxing power is the very substance of money itself, you’d have a hard time explaining why gold and silver became important parts of monetary history at all. What would be the point?

      All that aside, I’m glad there are a few more people who realize that this is an extremely important conversation. And I thank you for introducing me to Prof. Desan. I had never heard of her, but I’ll be following her activities in this area now and look forward to reading her upcoming book.


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