Monday, June 25, 2012

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Part II

Another chunk from David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years that blew my mind today:

"Legally, our notion of the corporation is very much a product of the European High Middle Ages.  The legal idea of a corporation as a "fictive person" (persona ficta) -- a person who, as Maitland, the great British legal historian, put it, "is immortal, who sues and is sued, who holds lands, has a seal of his own, who makes regulations for those natural persons of whom he is composed -- was first established in canon law by Pope Innocent IV in 1250 AD, and one of the first kinds of entities it applied to were monasteries -- as also to universities, churches, municipalities, and guilds.

The idea of the corporation as an angelic being is not mine, incidentally.  I borrowed it from the great Medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, who pointed out that all this was happening right around the same time that Thomas Aquinas was developing the notion that angels were really just the personification of Platonic Ideas. According to the teachings of Aquinas," he notes, "every angel represented a species."

Little wonder then that finally the personified collectives of the jurists, which were juristically immortal species, displayed all the features otherwise attributed to angels... The jurists themselves recognized that there was some similarity between their abstractions and the angelic beings.  In this respect, it may be said that the political and legal world of thought of the later Middle Ages began to be populated by immaterial angelic bodies, large and small: they were invisible, ageless, sempiternal, immortal, and sometimes even ubiquitous; and they were endowed with a corpus intellectuale or mysticum [an intellectual or mystical body] which could stand any comparison with the "spiritual bodies" of celestial beings.

All this is worth emphasizing because while we are used to assuming that there's something natural or inevitable about the existence of corporations, in historical terms, they are actually strange, exotic creatures.  No other great tradition came up with anything like it.

--David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 304.

I think that's how the Roberts Court see corporations -- as angels that are better than actual human beings.  That's why the Roberts Court consistently grants rights to corporations that actually exceeds the rights they grant as natural to human being.

Debt The First 5000 years, Part I

I'm working through David Graeber's Debt, the First 5,000 Years.  I'm not sure if the whole argument holds together quite yet for me (I still have 100 pages to go). But there are several sections in it that have completely blown my mind.  Like this:

Many of the specific arguments and examples that [Adam] Smith uses appear to trace back directly to economic tracts written in Medieval Persia.  For instance, not only does his argument that exchange is a natural outgrowth of human rationality and speech already appear both in Ghazali (1058-1111AD), and Tusi (1201-1274 AD); both use exactly the same illustration: that no one has ever observed two dogs exchanging bones.  Even more dramatically, Smith's most famous example of division of labor, the pin factory, where it takes eighteen separate operations to produce one pin, already appears in Ghazali's Ihya, in which he describes a needle factory, where it takes twenty-five different operations to produce a needle." 

--David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 279

For more on these topics see: Hosseini, Hamid: [you'll likely need a library or university login to access these:]

1995, "Understanding the market mechanism before Adam Smith: economic thought in Medieval Islam." History of Political Economy 27 (3)

1998, "Seeking the roots of Adam Smith's division of labor in medieval Persia." History of Political Economy 30 (4)

2003, "Contributions of Medieval Muslim Scholars to the History of Economics and their Impact: A refutation of the Schumpeterian Great Gap" in The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Economics III: A Companion to the History of Economic Thought.