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Blowing the Ram’s Horn

A Review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

by George Caffentzis

Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).

Book Cover (Fair Use–Review).

Few issues are attracting so much attention in our time, and not just in social movement circles, as the question of debt. Student debt, mortgage debt, household/personal debt, governmental debt: it is hard today to find anyone in North America or worldwide not affected by the hook indebtedness plants into our flesh. Thus David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is more than timely, and this is certainly part of the reason for the response it has generated. It is also a genial book, generous with bold hypotheses, interesting facts, telling anecdotes, and insightful jokes. From the opening pages, I felt I had come on a Gargantuan carnival of thought. Graeber’s many syncopated voices speak from its pages. As I enjoy his poly-vocal discourse, I found Debt to be a fruitful and exciting read.

Jubilee & Debt Forgiveness

Debt is a political book clearly intended to provide arguments in favor of a “Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt” (390). As Graeber writes: ”Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again” (391) than to impose a Jubilee, presumably in the style of the Ancient Hebrews who mandated the cancellation of debts and the freeing of those held in debt bondage every seven years. Debt echoes a popular sentiment, amplified after the great bailout of 2008, “If the government could buy up these banks’, corporations’ and firms’ bad debt, why can’t it cancel my infinitely smaller one?” But as the Jubilee 2000 movement of the 1990s discovered, there are serious obstacles in the way of such a move — including a foundational moral principle — that the book addresses.

The first and most important obstacle is the mass sense that paying back what one owes is the right thing to do and any refusal to accept debt obligations amounts to an egregious violation of ethical standards. The second obstacle is the futility of debt payment refusal felt by even those people who have managed to reject the morality of repayment given the many instruments of terror banks (with government collaboration) unleash on a debt refuser. Graeber is well aware a Jubilee may be proscribed as immoral or impossible. I read the first half of Debt (Chapters 1-7) as confronting one horn of this dilemma (the assumed immorality of defaulting on one’s debts). I read the last half of the book (Chapters 8-12) as confronting the other horn of the dilemma (the assumed political impossibility of refusing to pay one’s debts). In sum, the overall political aim of Debt is to show that a Jubilee is both moral and possible.

The Morality of Debt

Graeber’s first aim in this process is to challenge “the moral sanctity of the debt,” a sentiment expressed by creditors throughout the ages. He does so by showing that debt repayment has been made sacred because morality itself in our society has been modeled on the debt relation and is its mirror image. Drawing on a large body of linguistic, anthropological and historical evidence, Graeber explores how the nexus of debt, guilt and sin has ruled the commercial world, from China to the Roman Empire, codified in religious texts and legal doctrines dating back thousands of years.

As Graeber tells the story behind the identification of morality with paying back one’s debts, Debt allows for other moral principles to come to the fore. Graeber gives us two options here. One is based on communal expectations of mutual aid, on “base-line communism” as he calls it, where the adage “to each according to their need, from each according to their ability” is dominant. The other is based on the principle of hierarchy that presumes one party in a relation is superior to the other and consequently no “fair” exchange is possible between them.

Why has morality been identified for eons with debt and the rest of the concepts in its immediate semantic territory (credit, default, interest, etc.)? Graeber’s answer is that when the monetary world of buying and selling (especially of human beings in slave markets) gripped a society, older forms of hierarchy and of mutual aid (or communism with a lower-case “c”) imploded. The resulting chaos led to a morphing of morality into debt repayment categories that has never been reversed. Older forms of communism and hierarchy persisted and newer ones developed even after the rise of “pure” monetary exchange but, to this day, they have been indelibly marked by the centrality of the money-debt nexus.

Graeber contests the reduction of morality to debt repayment, noting we need not “insist on defining all human interactions as matters of people giving one thing for another,” for in this case “any ongoing human relations can only take the form of debts” (126). He shows us that there have been other social arrangements relying on radically different principles — heroic societies, human economies, baseline communism — that we can use to forge models of moral behavior sans exchange. Once we are alive to these possibilities, the hegemonic conceptual power of the “exchange model” vanishes and we can acknowledge that repayment of debt leading to harmful consequences can be legitimately and morally opposed, especially if it creates slave-like conditions on a mass scale and social polarization (as denounced most recently by the Occupy Wall Street movement). Graeber’s Debt, then, is like the blowing of the ram’s horn announcing the ancient Hebrew Jubilee — it lays the logical foundations for our liberation from a self-destructive prejudice attributing moral sanctity to “honoring one’s debts.”

The Fluidity Of Money

Having proven that a Jubilee is moral, since morality can and should be based on a non-exchange principle, Graeber proceeds to demonstrate its feasibility. Crucial here is his claim to have discerned a social/historic law operating for the last five thousand years: a long cycle of monetary oscillations between periods of virtual credit money and periods of coinage and metal bullion.

He notes that at the end of each oscillation the dominant economic systems become more vulnerable. In the course of these transitional periods, especially those from coinage/bullion to virtual credit money, empires crumbled and prohibitions against debt-enslavement intensified. The last transition from coinage and bullion to virtual credit money, for example, occurring in 600 CE, resulted in “a widespread movement to control, or even forbid predatory lending” (251) with both Christianity and Islam moving to forbid usury at that time.

This long wave cyclic theory of money forms has relevance for the prospects of a Jubilee according to Graeber who draws an analogy between the transition from coinage/bullion to credit money that occurred in the early Middle Ages and the change initiated by President Nixon’s 1971 decision to end the direct convertibility of the US dollar into gold, which returned the world economy to virtual credit money. If it is true that collapsing empires are less capable of resisting the demand for liberation from debt, we might be in a better position (runs the argument), in our emerging credit money world, to break from the capitalist imperative to “never [allow] anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts” (391). Hence, Graeber argues that the tide of monetary history makes a Jubilee possible.

Debt stimulates our sense of possibility by breaking with neo-liberal concepts and sentiments that have dominated the discourse of debt and money in the financial crisis. It also presents fresh arguments in support of a debt Jubilee. However, the book stops short of examining what a Jubilee in our time could look like. Graeber’s case (along with the arguments of others) convince me that Jubilees are both moral and possible, but he does not clarify why they should top our political agenda, nor does he distinguish between reformist and revolutionary Jubilees. The main purpose of the ancient Mesopotamian and Hebrew Jubilees, after all, was to preserve hierarchical social systems by means of periodic reforms that literally dispersed the pressure put on ruling classes by mass opposition to debt repayment. Debts were cancelled in these Jubilees, so that the oppressive machine could keep grinding on.

There can be, however, Jubilees that have a revolutionary impact and mark the beginning of new forms of social organization. What might this new social organization be in our time? Debt does not say, but let me propose that Graeber might follow it up by considering the concept of the commons. Indeed, for his next project I suggest he direct his prodigious energies to writing on the commons with a lower-case as well as a capital “C.“

In conclusion, let me once again commend David Graeber for the labor he put into producing this very useful book at the moment when the anti-capitalist movement is organizing around and against the politics of debt. In the spirit of Debt’s argument, building a movement capable of imposing a Global Jubilee would be the best way to repay him for his labor.

George Caffentzis is a philosopher of money. He is also co-founder of the Midnight Notes Collective and the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. He has taught and lectured in colleges and universities throughout the world and his work has been translated into many languages. His books include: Clipped Coins, Abused Words and Civil Government: John Locke’s Philosophy of Money, Exciting the Industry of Mankind: George Berkeley’s Philosophy of Money; No Blood for Oil! and In Letters of Blood and Fire: Work, Machines and the Crisis of Capitalism. His co-edited books include: Midnight Oil: Work Energy War 1973-1992; Auroras of the Zapatistas: Local and Global Struggles in the Fourth World War; A Thousand Flowers: Social Struggles Against Structural Adjustment in African Universities.

5 Comments »

  1. I’m wondering if there was mention of the culture and theology of economic theories of atonement in the book? Christian soteriology is riddled with references to debt, cost, and other terms of economic exchange. This would feed right in to the development and language of Western capitalist morality.

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  2. In the modern era of diminishing compensation for many first-world workers, debt also fulfills the function of staving off deflation. The 1% thrives on arbitrage of first-world labor against third-world labor costs, but needs to convince the first-world consumer to accept debt (either in the form of personal or future-tax obligations) in order to maximize the profits reaped from moving production off-shore. Under these conditions, there is an argument that the debt has been passed off to the citizen through political and economic manipulation, rather than through personal choice, and thus morally the debt should be repudiated.

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