Reading: David Graeber — Debt: The First 5000 Years

This is one I haven’t been able to pretend I wouldn’t eventually get hold of, having been greatly discussed on quite a few blogs I read. From anthropology to science-fiction, David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years has been peculiarly unavoidable in a way that’s usually not seen outside book launches in specific fields that gets everyone in that field excited, and elsewhere no one’s heard of it.

Crooked Timber even devoted a substantial online seminar to it, in addition to the many posts and vast comment threads, and Charles Stross said he rewrote much of his upcoming Neptune’s Brood because of it. This in addition to seeing it mentioned across feminist blogs, language blogs, and even astrophysics blogs.

Graeber is an anthropologist, who incidentally (according to Wikipedia) is an anarchist (yay!) and was involved in the beginnings of the Occupy movement. Three good reasons alone to consider reading him, even if I hadn’t seen a blog onslaught of him in the past several months.

I’d planned to grab a copy for the train back from Brussels, but was thwarted by Belgium’s national day holiday, and had been pretending St. George’s didn’t exist out of a combination of 30º days and a large pile of books waiting for me (Books! Buy all the books!), so yesterday I finally split open the red cover.

This isn’t a review; I feel compelled to say this often when I write about what I read. The original idea was just to document what I read with no remarks, and then it became a few sentences on how I came to be reading whatever, before I started it. Now it’s often part-way in before I write a contorted mess of that into a crypto-non-review/unreview; I can’t not write on what I’ve read because I can’t unread it.

So. It’s very easy to read. Which is good because I have now three exceedingly dense anthropological works on China I’m suffering under at the rate of single pages per day, and wouldn’t want to add more anguish. There are a lot of endnotes, which are worth reading, even though they inevitably break the flow of the argument. 1/5th of the way in, perhaps the most concise thing I can say is that it’s made me reevaluate my entire political outlook as completely too narrow (which in light of the 1% having been found to have stashed $21 trillion in tax havens is probably self-evident for all of us).

I could probably stop there, but I do have some criticisms thus far. The generalist nature of the work given the scope of the subject — 5000 years and most civilisations getting at least a mention — means there is some oversimplification of either arguments or the examples cited. While this is understandable, and necessary if the book is to remain readable, I sometimes have the sense that this oversimplification misses some crucial points. I notice this sometimes when the discussion turns China-ward, particularly in combination with the next criticism.

There are some assumptions in the language Graeber uses (which perhaps reflect the habits of the intended audience), which for me imply a slightly more serious problem: There is something of a lack of women.

Possibly this will change in the remaining 4/5ths, however, both the example Graeber continually refers to (Henry and Joshua), and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ in the universal sense (cf. ‘mankind’), is oddly old-fashioned. When the appearance of women tends towards as chattel objects for exchange (marriage, alliance etc), and seemingly without agency or subjecthood, I wonder perhaps if something has been missed.

Certainly my recent reading, Susan Mann, Gail Hershatter, Rosemary Joyce, all working somewhat in anthropology, shows unequivocally that any argument which fails to consider women (explicitly, not merely as an aside) is at best only part of the story, more than likely to have missed something crucial, and should be treated as potentially misleading at best if not outright suspect.

Joyce herself shows that it is the inherent bias in researchers which results in the apparent lack of evidence for women and their contribution, rather than any real absence, and Mann also, specifically in the heretofore ostensibly male-dominated and -centred world of Qing Dynasty.

There is a tendency to think, “Oh well, it’s a big topic, debt, and he can’t cover everything,” which is obviously true. However, to say that advancing a discourse which is significantly absent of women is missing something fundamental is also obviously true.

Hopefully this is something of an artifact of the first fifth of Graber’s argument, and not a general theme, as I would hope a book like this does more than merely stir some conversation, because if we — collective we, all of humanity — don’t do something, it’s plain we’re fucked.

an excuse

The last two weeks since I returned from Adelaide have been trying, and without wanting to spend too much time dwelling on it all, blogging has suffered majorly. I do enjoy writing every day, but between the torture of funding applications, of which there are more than the number of the beast, and some on-going shittiness that I think I’m about to write about, the silence here has been gnawing at me.

As a part of a broader problem with trying to make dance in Melbourne, I stopped applying for funding early last year as it was doing my head in and really, I thought after five years this approach obviously wasn’t working and it was time for something different. Unfortunately in Australia there is no something different. If you want to make work, you have to suckle the unclean goat, so I got back on the carnival ride.

But for Melbourne though, after so long away and not really part of whatever is going on here, coming back has always been not so celebratory. This, I used to think was just an Australian attitude, but my ignorance was exposed after spending so much time in Adelaide and – I’ve had many conversations on this with dance friends – while I may be prone to a bad attitude in Melbourne, there’s certainly something in the dance scene here that just doesn’t suit me.

This amounts to a lack of work here which is unbearable not simply because I don’t like being poor, but I have the stomach-churning sensation of career-passing-me-by/talent-wasted when I get maybe two or three months in the year to make new work if I’m lucky. Also this engenders no small amount of bitterness, and I really don’t enjoy feeling that way.

Perhaps if I didn’t have my own personal issues to deal with this would be largely more bearable, after-all if all your expenses amount to eating, subsistence and paying for dance classes, getting by on the dole is possible. But lets be under no illusions that being a transsexual, or more accurately, doing something about it is one incomprehensibly expensive chore.

Being unemployed has meant I’ve also been sucked through the Centrelink wringer, that besides being a waste of time (as in how can I get a job in my career if there are no jobs?) has been more than occasionally humiliating. All of which led me to sitting in my doctor’s office earlier this week talking about counseling, which in turn led to repeatedly having to talk about stuff I generally refer to as “stuff I don’t talk about”, and subsequently feeling completely fucked over and eating huge amounts of crappy Cadbury chocolate because no one seems to be selling Lindt anymore.

So, blogging has been scant.

More to the point though, I’ve been coerced for a number of weeks to do the unthinkable, and despite my abject terror at maybe making the wrong choice and finding myself in a months time thinking, “Weeellll, that wasn’t so smart, was it?” and wondering if peddling my ass behind the railway station was the best possible career move I could think of, I haven’t been able to find any decent reasons for not moving to Adelaide. Even Becky thinks it’s a good move.

John Jasperse is coming back to Melbourne at the end of the month and I’ll stay for a few of his classes, and then it’s back to airportland and on to Adelaide.

Unemployed given nice uniforms

Xinhua and Channel News Asia reported a White Paper has been released today on the situation of the 161 million unemployed and surplus workers in China by the Information Office of the State Council. Faced with a ballooning workforce and massive pressure to provide social security, the report pledged to keep unemployment under 4.7% of the nations 744 million workers.

Canada.com today said

That figure excludes, however, many workers who no longer have jobs but who remain on factory “payrolls,” and those employed in temporary or part-time work. The official figure is considered by most experts to be well below the number of actual jobless.

Figures carried in the report illustrate a steady decline of employment in state-run factories and agriculture. The number of workers employed in state factories plunged by 34.7 million, or one-third, between 1990-2003, to 69 million people.

By the end of last year, China had 256 million urban workers, or 34 per cent of the total, and 488 million rural employed, or 66 per cent, the report said. In 1990, about three-quarters of all Chinese still worked in agriculture.

It is these 150 million rural disemployed whom the report imagines will become the urban drudge workers joining 11 million urban unemployed by pushing them into low-paid city jobs, as the economy rapidly expands but job creation fails to keep up.

As for the funky uniforms:

In Shanghai, some of those laid off have been issued brown uniforms and whistles and stationed at busy intersections to act as “crosswalk guards,” policing pedestrians and bicyclists. Some drive taxis. Others are assigned to do landscaping or clean sidewalks.

Sadly, the report only paid scant attention to the national crisis of workplace safety, the human detritus of which amounts to thousands of dead and tens of thousands maimed and forced into unemployment annually.