The absence these days of what I regard as high-quality critiques of my writings on the internet poses me a substantial intellectual problem, since I have this space and this feature on my weblog: the DeLong Smackdown Watch. What should I do with it? I have decided that, until and unless my critics step up their game, I'm going to devote the Monday DeLong Smackdown space to a close reading of chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. And to telegraph the conclusion: yes, like chapter 12, chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt: The First Five Thousand Years is itself in chapter 11, if not chapter 7:
And so we get to the beginning of the text of chapter 11 of David Graeber's Debt:
Here we have one thing we must note immediately:
- Graeber writes, of his own title and subject matter in this chapter. that it seems "odd to frame [1450-1971] as just another turn of an [ongoing historical cycle". He is correct. It is odd. It is very odd indeed.
Note that he can give no explanation of why he does it. He waves his hands about how it fits the "perspective [he has] been developing". But he does not state or even provide the slightest inclueing as to how it does so. All that he can say is: "that is what it was".
Was it, really?
And he immediately follows it with a bunch of clear historical errors: five of them, in fact, in these few words:
The amount of bullion and precious-metal coinage in Europe did not undergo any sort of inflection point in 1450. That had to wait for 75 years or so--until after the 1521 conquest of Mexico and the 1533 conquest of Peru. 1450 was not the start of anything monetary.
When an increasing amount of gold and silver in coinage and bullion did begin to slosh around Europe after the American precious-metal flow started, the consequences was not a reduction in credit. The consequence was a rise in the price level. And, given that most of the precious metal inflow was then traded away to China and India, the consequence was a surprisingly large rise in the price level and in the nominal flows of spending. Increase in gold and silver? Yes. "Turn away from virtual currencies and credit economies? No.
The Medici Bank in 1500 was larger and more sophisticated than the Medici Bank in 1400.Credit banking was more sophisticated and larger in volume in 1500 than in 1400 or 1300: The web of credit that the Fuggers wove around Charles V Habsburg in the sixteenth century was much larger than the web of credit that the Bardi and the Peruzzi had woven around Edward III Plantagent. The funded, liquid, traded debt of the Dutch Republic in 1600 as it fought off Spanish-Habsburg conquest vastly exceeded the debt that Philippe IV Capet could issue in 1300.
When Graeber writes of "the 1400s... [as] a century of endless catastrophe: large cities were regularly decimated by the Black Death" he has it wrong. The big Black Death came in 1346-1348. The decimation and shrinkage of Europe's cities came over 1315-1380. The 1400s, by contrast, saw a very substantial rebound in urban life. Indeed, as best as we can judge Europe's largest cities in 1500 were half again as large as they had been in 1400. Contrary to what Graeber claims, the fifteenth century 1400-1500 saw faster urban growth than had been seen before in Europe in any century in at least 1000 years.
Has Graeber simply confused "1400s" with "fourteenth century"? I do know that I have to remind some of my undergraduates that the 1400s are not the fourteenth but the fifteenth century. Did nobody ever teach this to Graeber?
When Graeber writes of how in the 1400s "the commercial economy sagged... whole cities went bankrupt, defaulting on their bonds..." he once again simply does not know what he is talking about. The commercial economy did not sag: this was a commercial golden age for northern Italy, for the low countries, and for much of France and Spain. Once again, it was the 1300s--the fourteenth century--not the 1400s--the fifteenth century--that saw the sagging of the commercial economy in plague-ridden Europe.
When Graeber writes of how in the 1400s, as "the commercial economy sagged", "knightly classes squabbled over the remnants, leaving much of the countryside devastated by endemic war..." he once again simply does not know what he is talking about. As best as we can tell, the 1400s saw no more endemic warfare than the centuries on either side of it had. It was the 1300s that had the bulk of the Hundred Years War. It was the 1500s that had first their French-Spanish struggles over Italy and then their Wars of Religion. Wars, yes, and burning out of the countryside as a way to get the opposing knights to come out of their castles, yes, but only such as was par for the medieval course. The 1400s did not see any peak in chivalric chevauchee.
The simplest explanation for all this is that David Graeber knows no more about late-medieval European history than he knows about late-1970s Silicon Valley--that he thinks that because people say that the Bubonic Plague came in the fourteenth century, he thinks it came in the 1400s. But what's a century or so between friends?