Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence

"The Rake's Progress," painting #7 by William Hogarth, depicting the protagonist in a debtor's prison. Public domain.

by James Lindenschmidt

Lately, I’ve been reading Debt: The First 5000 Years by anthropologist David Graeber. I recommend the book wholeheartedly for anyone who wishes to understand the theory, history, psychology, and ethics of debt. This is not a review of the book, but look for a review by George Caffentzis coming soon to Gods & Radicals. Graeber’s book has been food for thought to say the least, and has me thinking about the function of debt under capitalism. It pervades the stories we tell ourselves, and each other, about not only our individual places in society but also the structure of society itself. One of the main themes of Graeber’s book is that debt functions as the primary arbiter of morality in society; many contemporary religions speak in terms of debt repayment in their cosmologies, often in terms of the afterlife. Debt can also function as “fate,” in the sense that with debt, one can accumulate restrictions that limit the potentialities of one’s existence, further chaining us inside the capitalist workforce. As Graeber shows us, these stories about debt are worth further attention.

The Tiv Flesh-Debt & The Society of Witches

Graeber reminds us repeatedly that these questions of debt and economy are, above all, human stories, and as such are well served by his anthropological approach. One of the human stories he tells is of the Tiv flesh-debt and the society of witches, a story worth quoting at some length:

“The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eating human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim’s food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a “flesh-debt,” and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.

Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh….

If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a “strong heart”—the potential to become a witch—you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screetching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. “You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you. Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat.”

There’s only one way out, and that’s to pledge a member of your own family as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.

The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming.”
–David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, emphasis added

Interesting, but more than a little morbid, right? This story of debt & cannibalism is useful precisely because it horrifies our western minds, and yet it reveals the arbitrary construct of the psychology of debt as it operates in our consciousnesses. A few points about the above passage:

Trickery & entrapment as foundational recruitment practice. The “society of witches” are “always looking for new members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people.” This is a political organization, in the sense that they have a certain amount of power in the Tiv culture. This political organization reproduces itself through trickery, bonding its new members after the trick to use their “terrible new powers” in service to the group.

An ability to ignore one’s conscience and act in ways that are normally repugnant. New members of the society of witches must have “a strong heart,” which means that they are able to overcome their distaste and disgust for the group’s cannibalistic activities which are repugnant to the core. It is interesting that an ability to shut off one’s conscience is seen as “strength.”

Blame-shifting & corroboration of a lie benefiting the conspirators. The deceptive recruiter then confronts the new recruit: he “pretends to be tortured” which shifts the blame for murdering, cooking, and eating another human away from the very person responsible for the deed. Instead, everyone already invested in the society of witches pretends that there is nothing at all unusual about the arrangement, and that the flesh-debt is the fault and responsibility of the person tricked into cannibalism. They not only tell the story & believe it, but also behave as if the story is true. The society of witches, after all, ensures that “flesh debts are always paid.” As always, the repayment of debt is always seen as sacrosanct and legitimate, no matter how abhorrent the story of any specific debt might be.

Debt is now a tool of capitalism

All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org
All Our Grievances Are Connected. Image from strikedebt.org.

These structures of the debt relationship repeat themselves through many of Graeber’s examples of how debt works. I invite the reader to take a look at how the above structures of debt relationship manifest in our culture, indeed in many of our lives, since the amount of debt people carry these days is greater than ever. Indeed, as Jacques Laroche pointed out at strikedebt.org, debt might be the single unifying factor in all the various struggles going on against capitalism.

Debt is arbitrary, and not always tied to the value of specific things that have been purchased. As an example, one needs only look at the story of student debt and the “deal” between the capitalists and the working class of my generation, growing up in the 80s. This deal was reinforced in our young minds, and continues to be reinforced in schools across the nation. The story is something like this: “hire education” is mandatory for those who wish to work at well-paying jobs. Those who don’t achieve this hire education are fated to mop floors or flip fast food burgers — a story accepted as axiomatic by millions despite the fact many successful capitalists are not college educated. Furthermore, even more so than debt in general, student debt is completely arbitrary. My wife and I have the exact same degree from the exact same educational institution. One of us managed to get this degree without incurring any debt, whereas the other one accrued tens of thousands of dollars in debt, again, for the same degree from the same institution. I will leave it to you students of kyriarchy to determine which of us was saddled with the debt (hint: it wasn’t the straight white male).

Debt is not the same thing as capitalism, having been around at least 10x longer than capitalism has. Debt is now a prime mechanism by which the working class is kept under control, giving millions of people no other choice but to sell the only thing they have left to sell: their labor power in order to survive. Debt underlies all aspects of class struggle. Since the destruction of the Commons, there is no other possibility for most people to subsist and reproduce their lives.

Robert Anton Wilson had a great thought-experiment, where instead of using the term “money” (which also is not the same as debt, by the way, despite their close relationship) he suggests using the term “survival tickets.” This thought-experiment shows that money and debt introduce an abstraction into the most basic survival impulses in the most primitive parts of our consciousness. We humans evolved with “fight or flight” instincts to protect us from imminent danger, such as being eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. Now, few of us are in danger of being consumed by a wild animal, yet these instincts remain with us. The “survival ticket” concept illustrates this fear beautifully, as these completely arbitrary and abstract tickets are the way we survive, and the fear of their lack drives many of our actions.

Most of us, of course, don’t really have enough money, at least not to live the way we wish to live. Most of us will use our limited “survival tickets” to buy food and shelter, meeting our most basic needs for survival, while in the meantime the spectre of unpaid debt keeps growing in the back of our minds, gnawing at us, creating fear that eventually men with guns will come and take away our limited survival tickets and our home. This fear keeps us willing to engage the capitalist system, so that we can struggle for more survival tickets, showing how powerful this story of debt is in our culture.

The importance of stories & violence of silence

“When you begin to believe in your own B.S., you enter the state that I call self-hypnotic ideational trance, and pretty soon you’ve got a headful of S.H.I.T.”
Robert Anton Wilson

Wilson also had some other fabulous ideas about the ideas we hold in our minds. He warned us to be mindful of our B.S. (belief systems), and to make sure we don’t operate with destructive S.H.I.T. (self-hypnotic ideational trances) that we aren’t deliberately cultivating for ourselves. I would call this process decolonizing the mind. Graeber’s book can certainly help us see through some of the constructs lurking below our everyday awareness, that help push capitalism forward and reproduce itself. This leveling process of capitalism requires us to lose sight of stories, whether it be the debt-stricken person being thrown into the street, or the ecosystem being raped and its inhabitants destroyed, because capitalism cannot operate under the nuances of existence:

“To make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence.”
—David Graeber, from Debt: The First 5000 Years

We must refuse to be silent. We must insist on stories, both in telling our own and hearing those of others. Don’t believe the same old B.S. that capitalism sells, and get that S.H.I.T. out of your head. We are Pagans, and we are (or should be!) sensitive to the stories that lurk, undiscovered, in the corners of consciousness and the forest. It is these stories that will transform & re-enchant the world.