What is debt?
It’s a subject I’ve been pondering lately as I read David Graeber’s massive tome, “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” Graeber is an anthropologist who also happens to be quite involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The book seeks to clear up some widely held economic misconceptions (such as the idea that there were ever widespread barter economies), trace the origins of debt and determine its role in history. It’s no small task.
I’ve been enjoying the book quite a bit, and it’s making me think about things I’d probably never have thought to contemplate on my own. After all, how many of us think about debt beyond our own indebtedness and the desire to leave that state? It’s generally a very personal subject for most. Except, when you really think about it, debt has far-reaching impacts on our whole society.
The White Review recently published an interview with Graeber that provides some insight into his thoughts. I thought I’d share some of it to get you thinking about debt, too. Considering the economic situation we find our world in, it’s a very good time to do so.
Debt is the perversion of a promise, a promise that has been perverted through mathematics and violence. I’m not saying mathematics is bad, but the combination of mathematics and violence is extremely bad. A debt is a promise to give a certain sum of money, in a certain amount of time, under certain conditions. It is a contract that is ultimately enforceable through the threat of force. The problem is that through a genuinely perverse historical alchemy, we’ve come to see such acts of violence as the very essence of morality.
I think that’s the situation that we see around us today, and I’m surprised that people are not more outraged by this direct assault on every fabric of their lives. It’s an assault on the very idea of community, and an assault on the commitments that we make to each other through the medium of government. Why is it that a promise made by a politician to the people that elected them—to provide free education for instance—has a less moral standing than the promise that politician has made to a banker? It seems insane. But it’s simply assumed nowadays.
Is this just the natural consequence of capitalism?
It goes back before capitalism, hence why the book is titled Debt: The First 5000 Years. Capitalism is merely its apotheosis. The vast majority of insurrections in history have been about debt. Peasant rebels tend to all have a remarkably uniform programme: first they go after all the debt ledgers, burn them, and only then usually after the tax documents or land cadastres.
If you look across human history there’s a kind of double consciousness about debt you see again and again: on the one hand a kind of acceptance that paying your debts is the essence of morality, but simultaneously, there’s this idea that people who lend money are evil. On the one hand, the language of debt is the same as that of morality, on the other hand, most actual debt relations are seen as immoral.
Debt is the most effective way to take a relation of violent subordination and make the victims feel that it’s their fault. Colonial regimes did this all the time; they would charge people for the cost of their own conquest, via taxes. However, using debt in this way also has a notorious tendency to rebound, because the subtle thing about debt relations is that, on a certain level, they are premised on equality—we are both equal parties to a contract. This both makes the sting of inequality worse, because it implies you should be equal to your creditor but you somehow messed up, but also, makes it possible to start saying ‘wait a minute, who owes what to who here?’ But of course once you do that, you have accepted the idea that debt really is the essence of morality. You’ve accepted the masters’ language.
Where would you say this idea of debt as morality originally stems from?
In a lot of world religions the word for sin is the same as that for debt. In the Lord’s Prayer, where it says ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’, the word was originally ‘debt’. It’s ‘forgive us our debts, just as we forgive those who owe us money’. We see this in Plato’s Republic: What is Justice? What is Morality? It’s paying one’s debts. We see the same thing in the Bible, and in the Hindu scriptures too. Life is a debt you pay to the Gods, sacrifice is the interest, and eventually you repay with your own life when you die. But it’s very clear that they are using this language because market relations are providing this language, and kingdoms are using it to justify taxes. The remarkable thing is in every case, they first frame morality as debt, and then say, well, actually, no, not really. It’s something else. Socrates discards the notion immediately. So do the Brahmanas, or the Bible. But what that something else is… there are endless answers. The fascinating thing is they always feel they have to start with debt, they are somehow shackled to that logic, much though they then try to shake the shackles off.
This is why I’m suspicious when people ask what is our debt to society, or nature? To the cosmos or to the gods? But we’re part of nature, we’re part of the cosmos. The very nature of imagining me and nature, or me and the cosmos, or me and the gods as equal parties to a contract is absurd.
Mainly what I wanted to point out in the book is that debt is not an ultimate value. I end it by saying that in the ancient world, it was not repaying debts that was sacred, but one’s ability to forgive or especially, cancel debts, and maybe we should learn from that. Because ultimately a debt is a promise, a human arrangement, and freedom is our ability to make commitments to each other but also, to voluntarily rearrange those commitments when circumstances change. Similarly, if democracy is to mean anything, it can only means the collective power to readjust the commitments we have to one another, including financial debts since there’s no intrinsic moral difference between an IOU and any other sort of promise.
It’s definitely worth reading the whole interview.
On a related note, I was listening to the latest CLR podcast today with Depeche Mode’s Martin L. Gore DJ-ing. Host Chris Liebing suggested that Depeche Mode’s “Everything Counts” could be the theme song for Occupy Wall Street. I think he’s on to something … “The grabbing hands/Grab all they can/Everything counts in large amounts …”
(Yes, it’s a bad 80s video. Best to just push play and browse elsewhere as you listen unless you are in the mood for some cheese.)