19 December 2014

Eisenhower and the Origins of Money

Following the sequence of items read over the past eighteen months, next are two books of secular history:

Eisenhower in War and Peace, by J.E. Smith — During my first year of graduate school, I embarked on a search for an honest man.  I was looking for modern men of heroic virtue.  For whatever reason, one of the first possibilities that occurred to me was Winston Churchill.  I didn't much like the sense of him I got from skimming a volume of his letters, so I searched a little more, and decided to try Eisenhower.  J.E. Smith is a very readable biographer.  After finishing his book, I think I can safely say that it was written for middle-aged men interested primarily in the facts of Ike's military and political careers and much less in the facts of his personal life or psychological development.  There is a lot of information about the former, and relatively little about the latter in this book.  One huge disappointment is the fact that Ike's childhood and adolescence are covered in only a dozen pages or so.  One has very little sense of the man's origins, and from everything said in this volume, it would seem that Ike did not have a very rich interior life.  He was an egocentric workaholic whose life was focused on getting things done in the context of the boys club that was the US Military in the first half of the 20th century.  His wife would seem to have been similarly superficial, though she clearly suffered on account of his distance and lack of care.  The man portrayed here is a highly effective bureaucrat with great management skills, little military genius, and little time for ideas.  Unfortunately, the psychological depth of Smith's account is, as mentioned, so thin, that one can't really tell what was going on in Ike's head in the meanwhile, if anything at all.

Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber — A friend had harassed me about reading this book for about two years before I finally picked it up.  I said above that it is a work of secular history, but primarily it is an anthropological analysis of the nature of monetary systems in different epochs of human history and the way the emergence and development of these systems of debt and exchange relate to the organization of power structures within society.  The title of the book does not serve it well, because it suggests a sweeping history of debt, when in fact what we find are a series of case studies combined with a very brief thematic survey of general historical developments in major world civilizations.  In the course of the book, Graeber offers a few piercing insights into the nature of exchange that illuminate the arbitrariness of things that are ordinarily, in Western society, taken as necessary facts of economics.  One example:  he points out that in the middle ages (whether in the West or elsewhere), coin was rarely used in commerce.  Instead, exchanges were made on credit and quantified using an abstract (but practically unseen, in its physical species) debt-reckoning currency.  The maintenance of credit relationships between different members of society guaranteed (and was guaranteed by) the stability of local economic communities: personal credit worked because economic exchanges were generally personal exchanges between people known to each other, whose names were at stake in the interaction.  The use of coin or actual currency in exchanges, the elimination of personal credit, coincides with the de-personalization of commerce and the atomization of society.