> Graeber argues that human societies are always structured (despite appearances) around three competing moral principles: communism, exchange, and hierarchy. “Communism” is the principle familiar from Marx: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Each contributes what they can and we are sensitive to the vulnerability of other members of our family or community. This is the principle governing the “camping trip” of G.A.Cohen’s recent Why not Socialism? and, ideally, the principle at work in many families and friendships. Graeber argues (101) that this “baseline communism” is the “ground of all human social life”. “Exchange”, by contrast, is governed by an ideal of strict reciprocity among free and equal persons. I give you something and you give me something in return. It is, among other things, the ideal principle of market exchange. “Hierarchy” is a principle of authority and status: we are not equal, I have the right to command and you to the duty obey, in virtue of who we are. These principles aren’t mutually exclusive, and they have peculiar ways of morphing into one another. And it can be a matter of controversy and judgement which principle (or combination of principles) is at work at any particular moment. A moment’s reflection on the nuclear family will confirm the truth of this. There’s communism there, certainly, in the community of goods. There’s hierarchy in the relations between parents and small children. And there may be exchange too as we do deals to balance paid work and housework for example. One partner’s appeal to communism may look like a violation of exchange and reciprocity to the other, and, perhaps, a tacit assertion of domination and hierarchy.
> ...
> Does Graeber find in utopian and democratic resistance to the Axial empires an historic precedent for the Occupy movement to emulate? Perhaps our best possibilities lie not in grand schemes of societal transformation but in developing the “baseline communism” and the democratic instincts that persist even in the heart of modern capitalism. The anarchist writer Colin Ward used a phrase from Ignazio Silone – “the seed beneath the snow” – to make a similar idea vivid. We cannot take the beast on in a direct assault, and nor should we, but we can work together to develop a more human society within the nooks and crannies of the commercial one.

Chris Bertram, <http://crookedtimber.org/2012/02/22/seminar-on-david-graebers-debt-the-first-5000-years-introduction/>

Francis Tseng