Debt, Stories, & The Violence Of Silence

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 help & advice as well as 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.


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The Circle and the Street

By Johnny Rapture

Photo by George Hodan; Public Domain
Photo by George Hodan; Public Domain

Reflections on marches, May Day, and the possibilities of Pagan theology.

Marching in rain and starlight

As I write, my fingers hesitate. My side aches. My hip aches. The grey matter behind my eyes feels lost in hazy, pain-killer-induced lethargy. And yet… isn’t this melancholia exactly that state prescribed by the sages for the best reflection, prayer, and appraisal of purpose? I can feel my own spine shimmering…

One week ago tonight, things were different. Cold sweat ran down my shoulders as I marched elbow-in-elbow with activists from across Chicago in solidarity with the #BaltimoreUprising. Black, Brown, and white, mostly young and smiling, fatigued by the chill but stepping in time to singing on all sides – we came walking down from Police Headquarters on 35th Street through neighborhoods lit and unlit, poor and well-off. We marched past darkened apartment windows and past buzzing street lights zapping flies. We passed my own apartment. We passed within shouting distance of Obama’s Southside home (but were diverted by police bikes). We came down through the city like flood waters until we stood looking south toward the blinking lights of the University of Chicago. Rain wanted to start falling, but didn’t. Our voices rained down instead in three staccato syllables:

                Come. Out. Side!

                Come. Out. Side!

With each shout we welcomed the people in the brick, three-story buildings all around us to come out and join our marching river.  I could see young people and old people and students and parents and people I knew and people I didn’t know all peeking through their window blinds, some rubbing sleep from their eyes but most just turning away from grey-blue screens for one moment, made curious by the rising tide of us. They peeked and they opened their doors and came out onto their porches and onto the streets and they clapped and cheered and smiled, and so did we. Someone added verses to our syllables:

                Come. Out. Side!

                                (We love you!)

                Come. Out. Side!

                                (We need you!)

And we did. We loved each other, and we needed each other.

We loved each other because there, in the clammy night, we clung to each other’s body heat while we clutched our purpose close to heart. What was remarkable – what I remember most vividly— were the smiles like starshine that lit our way, smiling down on us from covered porches and wooden fire-escapes. Constellations of smiling faces blinked on and off, twinkling while the people sang. My spine shimmered in that glow.

Dissonance

It wasn’t quite May 1st, but the crocuses were peeking out at us like those onlookers through their blinds and it felt like Chicago’s wet and clammy springtime was upon us. Still, this march – one of the largest and most vocal in the city since the height of #BlackLivesMatter activity over winter – was my May Day.

I’ve been a Neopagan for over a decade – more or less, off and on. There are statues on an altar in my apartment (Aphrodite could surely hear our step-stomping on the sidewalks nearby), but to be honest they are bare instead of heaped with regular offerings – I never stand before the table and light the incense and clap my hands. Not anymore. Why?

In a Beltain article, Crystal Blanton touched on something that resonated powerfully with me. She writes:

I still believe that life has purpose and I still celebrate the cycles of the wheel as it transitions every 45 days, but my spiritual core has shifted. I am no longer content with the story as I use to be, the world around me doesn’t match the simplicity of the theology.

Listen, I am not saying that this theology is inaccurate. I am just saying it is no longer enough for me, it does not serve me in the same way that it use to because I am walking through the trauma of the society that I breathe with.

While my altars gather dust, my shoes grow soggy with sweat and coated in grime off the street. Instead of lighting candles I am stenciling signs. The hymns go unsung but my throat is hoarse and dry.

If I can speak a little more about Mx. Blanton’s article, I would like to point out something else; to do so I’ll need to mention James Lindenschmidt’s article, also published on May 1st, which I found both hyperbolic (“untold thousands”) and  anachronistic (“Pagan ethos”). In these two pieces I find two different perspectives on the relationship between contemporary Pagan thought and the fight for justice. Equating contemporary Pagan practices with the thought and practice of generalized ancient cultures, Lindenschmidt asserts that Pagans (and he goes out of his way to include the whole spectrum of people who might today identify with that label, and more) do now and have always had theological perspectives that are anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-nationstate, etc.

On the other hand, Blanton suggests (according to my reading) that this is not the case. Instead, she describes a detachment, or dissonance, between – to put it one way – the circle and the streets. Instead of relying on generalizations about “Pagan values” from the past (as I think Lindenschmidt does, to his argument’s detriment), Blanton takes the opportunity of her own dissonance and her dissatisfaction with the lack of robust justice theology in contemporary Paganism and furrows new theological fields. Taking up her contemporary understanding and tools, she creates:

Today justice became the seed within the Goddess’s belly.

New Theology

This Beltaine, and for many days before, I have felt the dissonance Blanton describes, or something like it – not only because of the state of American life but also because of that aching hip I mentioned, and for the debt collectors calling, and for other reasons, too. I don’t approach my altars because, though beautiful, they seem hollow and wanting. I ask myself: Athena, where were you the night Rekia Boyd was shot? Hestia, where is your sanctuary when it comes to Black folk? Asklepios, what new ailment is this?

But I think today of the songs we sing in circle and I think of the songs we sing in the street, and I think of fields we could furrow and of what a new Paganism – not an anachronism – could look like, watered both by offerings of milk and water and by hymns chanted in staccato syllables.

Come. Out. Side!

(In the East we call to Justice, golden-haired and weary!)

(And the people looked out!)

Come. Out. Side!

(In the South we call to Love, rosy-cheeked!)

(And the people smiled, teeth like stars!)

Come. Out. Side!

(In the West we call to Compassion, whose face is wet with tears!)

(And they sang together a flood of healing and of power!)

Come. Out. Side!

(And in the North we call to Mother Earth, bedrock beneath our feet!)

(And their feet, though sore, marched on.)

And I wonder if my hip will still hurt or if my brain will think with clarity, and I look to the smiling stars and hope to feel the sweat-sweet-rain-love on my shoulders and to link elbow-to-elbow with comrades in struggle and in circle.

This melancholy (melanc-holy) doesn’t lead me to answers like bezels of wisdom under the paving stones… but I am at uneasy rest, mind a-flutter.