real political economy and graeber

Jacobin has a “polemical” review of Graeber’s Debt from Mike Beggs, opposing 5,000 years of anecdotes (Graeber, according to Beggs) to something called “real political economy” (presumably what Beggs does). There are some fair points made, but they are all undermined by the tone. I assume all of Beggs’ objections are authentic and his intentions noble, but the review reads as if he has been deeply offended by the “mere anthropologist” daring to write critically about economics. I don’t think this says much about Beggs (I assume he is writing in good faith), but it does say something about the social setting in which we appraise Graeber’s work. In general, intellectual engagement can fall into not-so-mature, territorial, and hypermasculine gladiator matches. Again, Beggs has points to make, but they are presented as secondary to the polemic. Real political economy!

I don’t have the time to seriously engage with the full review but there is one paragraph that really struck me:

The reason, to be blunt, is that unlike Graeber’s critique, not much of monetary theory itself rests on the historical origins of money. Economics deals with the operation of a system. It attempts to explain the system’s stability, how the parts function together, and why dysfunctions develop. The origins of the parts may say little about their present shape or roles within the system. Modern monetary economics has been concerned above all else with explaining the value of money, and the conditions of its stability or instability. This is a problem that concerns the role of money in organizing exchange via prices. The imaginary barter economy without money but somehow still with a highly developed division of labor is a counterfactual, a tool of abstraction, which in fact the textbooks are often careful not to describe as actual history.

This passage comes in what appears to be a defense of mainstream economics. For Beggs, Graeber is sometimes right and sometimes wrong. When he is right, Beggs points out he was not the first to have that idea, or, that his being right is of no consequence. This is an instance of the latter. Ok, maybe the orthodox account of monetary history is wrong and Graeber is right. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. Why doesn’t it matter? Well the history of money doesn’t matter because modern monetary economics doesn’t think it matters. Shockingly, Beggs presents this as a critique of Graeber, and not of this wonderful “modern monetary economics…concerned above all else with explaining the value of money, and the conditions of its stability or instability.” That this narrow tradition is not concerned with Graeber’s interest in the origins of money – it is “of no consequence” – is supposed to make us stop worrying about the history. Who cares? It doesn’t matter according to my textbook.

This paragraph also marginalizes critics of modern monetary economics as naive literalists who fail to understand the difference between a “tool of abstraction” and an account of “actual history.” The joke is really on those who criticize the barter assumption, exposing themselves as simpletons. There is an obvious element of truth here. It is a terrible mistake to confuse an assumption (perfect competition or equivalent exchange) with a claim about history. But this “it is only an assumption” defense only goes so far. Economists are responsible for the consequences of their assumptions. If your assumptions frame dominant representations of the economy, shape policy decisions, and push out models with alternative assumptions (“ad hoc”) they are more than mere assumptions.

Other than his occupy economics piece in Jacobin (that gives Mankiw excessive credit for not buying into RBC theory imo), I have not read anything written by Beggs, but it all looks interesting. Also interesting, is that the author of a Historical Materialism conference paper entitled “Marx, Keynes and the central bank,” would write the paragraph I quoted. Unless this was an attack on Marx and Keynes from a neoclassical perspective, I think it is safe to assume that the author of such a piece would be sympathetic with criticisms of the barter assumption. Maybe so. Maybe no. I don’t really know. Whatever the case may be, for whatever reasons, the radical “real political economy” position for Beggs to take in appraising the anarchist anthropologist Graeber comes off as apologetic of neoclassical economics.

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