I’m determined to bring this series to completion even if it takes me a year.
Graeber continues his historical survey with a massive chapter covering from 1450 to 1971 AD. As he describes it this period saw a swing of the pendulum back toward the economic models of the Axial Age. It isn’t a perfect mirror image. There are some innovations and such, but many of the broad patterns are there. Huge influx of bullion? Check. Destabilization of local credit economies and end of cultural/religious taboos against usury and exploitation? Check. Increase in violence, imperialism/colonialism, and resurgence of slavery? Check.
Again, it isn’t perfectly symmetrical, but as Graeber tells it, the rise of Capitalist empires was mostly a reversal of the social gains of the Middle Ages, at least from the perspective of the majority of humanity that didn’t benefit from all the wealth being stripped from the colonies.
What is particularly helpful in this chapter is how Graeber demonstrates that the pressure of debt works all the way up and down the chain of social status and power. The indigenous people that were captured and enslaved by the conquistadors were often kept in a perpetual state of indebtedness to the missions and plantations which they were made to work on. The soldiers who rounded up and enslaved them were themselves indebted to the aristocrat who funded their mission and made them “purchase” their swords and rifles and horses. Conquistadors like Cortes were usually in it for the plunder, gold, silver, and cash crops they were intent on taking to pay off their own debts to the courts of Spain and Portugal. Meanwhile the kings and queens of Europe were indebted to the bankers of Genoa, Venice, and Milan. Everyone was tightening the screws on the people below them with the result for Native Americans being genocide.
It is not hard to see that same debt slope at work in our society today. Nor hard to see how the pressure accumulates hardest on those at the bottom. Today it is Wall Street, not Genoa, that leans on our governments which lean on our military and our middle class, which in turn lean on developing nations, or vulnerable labor forces like undocumented workers. Those that end up enslaved in our globalized economy are mostly the working class of the 2/3 world, but no one from top to bottom in this scheme is free of the pressure of debt.
This quote about the power bankers have to control the world through the manipulation of debt is often attributed, probably incorrectly, to Lord Josiah Charles Stamp, director of the Bank of England in the 1920’s:
Banking was conceived in iniquity and was born in sin. The bankers own the earth. Take it away from them, but leave them the power to create money, and with the flick of the pen they will create enough deposits to buy it back again. However, take away from them the power to create money and all the great fortunes like mine will disappear and they ought to disappear, for this would be a happier and better world to live in. But, if you wish to remain the slaves of bankers and pay the cost of your own slavery, let them continue to create money.