I keep saying that I’m going to write a book review of David Graber’s “Debt: the first 5000 years,” but I never seem to get around to it. Like most of my creative projects, I haven’t whipped myself into writing on a regular basis, and so the pace at which I produce these blog articles as fallen off precipitously. Even though I’m still dictating them.
I do think about the book quite a bit, though. It’s a very interesting read for a variety of reasons. At its root, it talks about our relationship to debt and money. The concept of money, and currency is an abstraction.
As Graber puts it, the history of money has very little to do with barter. The classical economics, Adam Smith story, tells us that people in primitive societies in small cities used to barter in exchange for goods, until one day coinage and money was created, in order to facilitate everyday transactions. Apparently this is a crock of shit, and there is no anthropological evidence to suggest that there have ever been widespread barter societies. In actuality, money and debt were created as a way to divorce material value from its social constructs. Particularly in the context of slavery.
That is to say, a human being has family, friends, and a role within society. A slave, which is a form of commodity, is divorced from all of the social relations. So is it for every single commodity that can be purchased, and indeed for money, the material which is used to make all of these abstract purchases. It makes intuitive sense, even if it is a bit of a tricky concept to nail down exactly. Graber suggests that it was slavery that created our first currencies and first monies, when human beings were ripped from their social contexts in order to fuel large, often brutal empires, such as ancient Rome.
Years ago when I was a kid, somebody asked me what was the difference between eating an animal that was livestock, and eating someone’s pet. I responded rather matter-of-factly that it was a name. You have a pet, it has a name. It has a home. There are people who love it and care for it. A chicken born bred and slaughtered inside of an assembly line has none of these. It’s a very chilling thought, but one that I figured out as early as middle school: if you rob a human being of its family and its name, is there any reason—outside of the obvious legal and theological arguments—why you couldn’t treat it like any other commodity or piece of meat, nameless and inside of an assembly line?
But yes, like I said, I’m not doing a full book review of this text, although I think more people should read it, as I found it captivating and very interesting. But it brings me back to my own thinking about the legal world, which I occupy for better or for worse. I have a very uneasy relationship with my career as a lawyer. There’s probably a whole host of reasons for that, but the one that comes to mind is my disdain for quoting prices with clients. I never really know what any of my legal work is actually worth. And there’s a lot of well-meaning pop philosophical texts about “knowing your worth,” and making sure that you don’t “sell yourself short.” But outside of that, how do you actually set a price for something intangible like legal knowledge? The Canadian Bar Association and other organizations set out a suggested price range for a lot of transactional services, and there are practices and commonly understood guidelines for hourly rates for a lot of lawyers in different regions. But this is all relational to what other people are charging, and it suggests the sort of collective mind that’s dictating what the prices will be. In a neoliberal free-market economy this idea of an “invisible hand” guiding the prices that things take certainly is very comforting, and if I actually believed it, it would obviate a whole lot of thinking about what is actually fair to charge to do a particular service.
Oftentimes I see litigators bills and think that they’re wildly overinflated, relative to the outcome that they provide. Litigators are quick to defend the work that they do, either by way of reasoning to the fact that it is the client’s fault for finding themselves in the predicament that requires litigation in the first place; or otherwise to point out that there are externalities—legal insurance, bar fees, commercial rent, etc.—that force the lawyer’s hand in charging exorbitant sums, just so they can break even and make a decent sort of living.
At an even more basic, fundamental level, why is anything that I know actually valuable? I routinely show people in my family and immediate friends how to set up things on their phone, change settings on a laptop, or interact with dozens of electronic appliances; any “old millennial” like myself has parents and grandparents who rely on him or her for tech support. It’s knowledge that I have that the other person doesn’t have. This is essentially what my legal education is. I spent three years in university, plus another 10 months as an articling student, in order to acquire and horde knowledge that others require, but don’t have. And because of this imbalance of knowledge, with information that I don’t want to freely share because I’ve got a mortgage to pay, I can then set the price for my expertise based on something that I know.
Like my other random, discursive posts on here, maybe I’m not going anywhere. Maybe I’m not going anywhere useful, at least. But the entire concept of a “knowledge-based economy” where collectively we have the answer to each other’s problems, but hide them and covet them like little treasures in order to feed ourselves, seems like a giant grotesque game. Being stuck at home during Covid times and working out of my basement is given me a lot of time to think about the ways in which we organize human society at a macro level. I would be perfectly happy to share all of my legal knowledge without any expectation of remuneration, if of course, the grocer and the landlord and the gas station attendant all did the same.
University libraries and case law reporters and scientists and medical researchers and lawyers all seem to trade in the hoarding and collecting of human knowledge. I think there are real downsides to this way of thinking, and given that less and less of us are required to do the everyday minutia of physical labour that is required in order to feed and sustain our nations, I think it behooves us to reevaluate how exactly a knowledge-based economy works, and the ways in which we can share knowledge with each other in some sort of group which organize itself on the concept of mutual aid.