Liveblogging World War II: February 10, 1943
Republican Grifters Gotta Grift: Ron Paul vs. Edition

No, China Is Not Paying Tribute to the U.S.: Henry Farrell vs. David Graeber, Part CXXVII

Screenshot 2 10 13 8 26 AM

Needless to say, I score this for Farrell 6-0, 6-0, 6-0. The incoherence of the argument of Graeber's Debt is perhaps best highlighted by noting that he says that (a) fear of US airstrikes is forcing China to lend the US money at exploitatively-low interest rates, and yet (b) the way to cure the problems of debt is to forgive it--and thus lower the real interest rate on the debt the US has borrowed from China from 0% to -100%. If China is being exploited, lowering the interest rate it receives from 0% to -100% does not solve the problem.

An aside: from my perspective, when I look at David Graeber's Debt I see:

  • a chapter XII that is a disaster; and
  • a whole bunch of stuff in the first half of the book that seems to me very interesting.

I wonder if I should tell my students that the book is (a) untrustworthy and best avoided--that since chapter XII is such a disaster the rest of it is unreliable--or (b) tell my students that the first half of the book is worth reading, and they should ignore the fact that the book goes more-or-less completely off the rails at the end.

I am coming to the conclusion that I cannot say that--that I have more and more reason to believe that the pre-chapter XII parts of the book are a dog's breakfast as well.

Now comes Ryan from Savage Minds to say how dare you worry about what is wrong with chapter XII--that Delong's "cheap shots and superficial argumentation… grade-school level debate… ends up going nowhere quite rapidly… a form of 'debate' that plagues the internetz"

I gotta conclude that Ryan is arguing for (a): that the level of argument and evidence Graeber exhibits in chapter XII (which I know very well indeed) is indeed typical of the level of argument and evidence of the first half of the book (which I do not know well). Not that I am certain that (a) is correct, mind you, but that Ryan thinks the parts of the book are all on a level…Ryan

DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12 | Savage Minds: I was reading through some of the comments to Rex’s latest post about Jared Diamond…. [J]ust as unthinking praise is pretty much a waste of time, so is baseless criticism…. Farrell’s post does start off with a bit of an intellectual cheap shot…. Graeber’s book… does raise some pretty fascinating, insightful, and often provocative discussions…. If you’re looking for a perfect book, well, good luck…. But let’s not let ourselves get sidetracked with what ultimately comes down to cheap shots and superficial argumentation.  That sort of thing is petty at best, and ridiculously pointless at worst.  And it just leads us to the kind of grade-school level debate that ends up going nowhere quite rapidly.  Which is, by the way, a form of “debate” that plagues the internetz.  DeLong’s “well if there’s one thing wrong how can we trust the rest of the book” sort of argumentation is one form of this sort of thing…

And some comments:

DeLong and the economists on Debt, Chapter 12 | Savage Minds: Randy McDonald: Graebner’s book covers a vast swathe of territory and time, dealing with subjects that are much less familiar to me, as a casual reader, than the formation of the world’s largest publically-traded company for three of the four quarters of 2012 and the most significant war of the past decade. I could identify obvious errors like the ones cited in the various reviews based on my knowledge, but how can I trust that he hasn’t made similar errors in domains of knowledge that I’m not at all cognizant about?

Finally, there’s Graebner’s style of replying to fair criticisms of his book. His reply to Henry Farrell’s fair and reasonably polite criticism pointing out that the author actually hadn’t provided evidence for his claims is to attack Farrell’s article as a dishonest and politically motivated assault

Farrell’s work is a classic example of de-legitimization, by which I mean, it is not written in an attempt to engage an author in a serious debate about issues, but rather, to try to make a case why that author’s arguments are undeserving of debate and do not have to be assessed or considered at all. Rather than refute him point by point, which would presumably bore most readers to tears, perhaps it would be more interesting to explore how such a strategy works.”

Et cetera.

Based on all of this, it’s fair to question Graebner’s ability to produce a fair, intellectually-sound examination on the subject of debt, at least as delivered in the book of the same name.

Henry Farrell:

I don’t especially want to get dragged into this again. David Graeber is the author of a very interesting book, most of which is (as best as I can tell) very good, but the last chapter of which is decidedly not. While deliberately skirting around his various ad hominems, I responded to the substance of his reply here. Unfortunately, David Graeber is also one of the most toxic people I’ve ever had the misfortune to get caught in a debate with. On his repetition of his claims above that I am dishonest, I think that he is unfortunately incapable, as even a cursory Google search will reveal, of treating serious criticism as anything other than attempted delegitimation.

Clive James has a dictum somewhere about writers who “take praise as [their] due and anything less as sabotage” which has it about right. He also seems incapable of fairly representing the views of people who have gotten on the wrong side of his Feindprinzip. Those who wish to take up his invitation to go back through old Twitter arguments, should also take the opportunity to compare his back-and-forths with Gabriel Rossman with the way that he represented them in his blogpost on Crooked Timber. But that is honestly all that I have the stomach for this evening – arguing with David Graeber is a deeply unpleasant experience.

Henry Farrell:

I’m sorry that David Graeber is still incapable of dealing seriously or fairly with criticisms. What he says above is demonstrably untrue. In the post he refers to, I specifically acknowledge his reliance on Hudson, saying, after mentioning his other two major sources on imperialism (one of whom is Niall Ferguson:

Finally, he points us towards Michael Hudson, who (unless I misunderstand him badly) is interested in the opposite causal relationship to Graeber’s – Hudson is interested in how US financial privilege facilitates foreign policy adventurism, rather than how foreign policy adventurism scares people into continuing to cleave to the Mighty Dollar.

I discuss this at greater length in my response to Graeber:

Hudson – and here I repeat myself – is arguing that US domination of the world economy is the lynchpin of its unparalleled military force. Graeber is apparently good mates with Hudson, and has talked to him to confirm that Hudson believes that “the US government’s position come[s] down to ‘adopt our version of the free market or we’ll shoot you.’” But the issue is not what Hudson believes – Hudson may believe that he knows the song the Sirens sang, and the name that Achilles took among the women for all I know, or care. The issue is what Hudson provides evidence for in the book, Super Imperialism (not ‘Superimperialism’ – a minor nitpick I know) that Graeber is citing to. And, as I read it, it is about economic forms of domination, with some discussion of how this underpins military adventurism, rather than vice versa. Nor do I read the book, or the actual history, as providing evidence that the US was pulling the Delian League Switcheroo on its allies. The mechanisms were indirect, rather than direct gathering of tributes, and there wasn’t any threat of US military intervention against allies who were unhappy that the US was using its economic dominance to force its allies to bear the cost of adjustment.

The closest thing that I can find to a Graeber style argument (there may be more that I have missed, and I would welcome correction so that I can evaluate the supporting evidence) is a brief mention in the context of military aid of how the US discourages “tendencies toward developing independent military forces capable of initiating acts that might not serve U.S. policy ends,” with an example from Yugoslavia, but this is pretty weak tea for a theory of general domination.

Hudson’s own conclusions in the book as to what underpins other countries’ acceptance of US imperialism are not especially satisfactory in themselves, but don’t support Graeber either.

Only America has shown the will to create global international structures and restructure them at will to fit its financial needs as these have evolved from hyper-creditor to hyper-debtor status. It is as if European and Asian society lack some gene for institutional self-programming for their own economic evolution, and have acted simply as the mirror image of America like a dancer following the partner’s lead.

I’m not seeing much to support claims about a militarized reign of terror here, myself. Perhaps Graeber reads it differently, but if this is the empirical cornerstone for Graeber’s arguments, it’s not a very good one. ”

To be entirely clear – none of this is to say that anthropologists can’t or shouldn’t start engaging with economists, and correcting them as appropriate on the world economy. As I said in my original post, I think there’s a crying need for a new Polanyian interpretation of what is happening in the world economy, and I then expressed the hope that Graeber would be the person to provide it in later work (if this seems like an odd kind of delegitimation to the reader, it seems odd to me too). I am enthusiastic about work by anthropologists like Karen Ho who are doing rich and intelligent ethnographic work on how markets work today. I’m also in the process reading Panitch and Gindin’s recent book which is an exciting and very well grounded radical account of the workings of the world economy. My criticisms of the last chapter of Graeber’s book were criticisms of what he had delivered, not what he wanted to do, still less, as he still claims, a deliberate effort to delegitimize him.

Henry Farrell

The irony is I never go off and pick fights, in the book and in almost everything I wrote I’m actually extremely charitable to those who disagree with me (except maybe Adam Smith, but the editor pulled some of the nice remarks I made about him because he thought they’d confuse people), and I really only respond to attacks if the attack contains blatant errors of fact – and recently, not even then.”

I really think that the evidence of David Graeber Being Angry At People All Across The Internets belies this. As I’ve said before, the ‘why do people keep on provoking me into behaving like an angry, irrational jerk’ shtick isn’t any more convincing than the famous Onion article that it so closely resembles.

Henry Farrell:

David Graeber – To repeat myself yet again – Michael Hudson’s Super Imperialism does not provide support for your claims. It makes quite the opposite causal claim – that economic domination supports military adventurism. Whether Michael Hudson is your mate or not is irrelevant – the question is whether the book that you cited to to provide evidence for your claims in fact has evidence or argument to support them. I’ve read it through, and I am pretty sure that it does not. It makes a quite different set of claims and arguments – and if you want to dispute this (I could be wrong – perhaps I missed it somewhere), provide me with the relevant passages where the book provides these arguments and this evidence.

This points to the more general problem with your style of analysis. You simply can’t jump from a set of very different claims about US imperialism (which is not being disputed here) to specific claims that we live in a very particular and specific kind of imperialism, based on tribute exacted under a reign of US military terror, without providing good independent evidence. You don’t come close to providing such evidence, and you get angry and nasty when anyone criticizes you on this. Criticizing you for making big claims without providing sufficient evidence isn’t delegitimizing you. It’s pushing you to do better. And that you interpret this – and similar criticisms (indeed, much milder criticisms and disagreements that others have offered) as vicious exercises in delegitimization is a bit of a problem.