My quick Graeber 2011 review:
Unless you really haven’t considered debt critically before, the chapters to focus in on are: 1 “On the Experience of Moral Confusion,” 6 “Games with Sex and Death” and 7 “Honor and Degradation”.
In the first chapter, Graeber exposes debt as a tactic of class warfare that imposes an asymmetrical morality upon the working class. That is to say, if you are working class and the banks encourage you to take advantage of liquidity–say, to purchase a home or privatized education–you are entering into something other than a rational contract in which you pay over time for immediate access to a large sum of money. You are entering into a faustian moral system where the capitalist lender is obliged to hide the risks and costs from the working class borrower, and the borrower must pay for not just her superficial loan, plus interest, but the financial capitalists’ risks as well.
As long as they are effectively not taxed, there is no accounting of the obligations of the financial capitalists to society; but if financial capitalists lose money, the capitalist state makes the working class pick up their tab, with interest–owed to the financial capitalists. In our contemporary Western debt society, working class people have to pay not just their own private debts to capital, but also the state-socialized debts of the financial capitalists. This transfer is conceived as a sort of protection money for financial capitalists’ rule, which political-economic elites and their retainers define as absolutely necessary and beneficent.
What happens–economically and politically–when financial capital transfers its risks and costs to the working class–does not have to bear the risks and costs of its own dissimulating, profit-seeking bets?
”If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable–if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance–the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan?” Graeber 2011: 3.
When working class people (are forced by the state to) pay back misleading loans–such as bubble mortgages, and education loans where elite hoarding of productivity gains is hidden–they are in effect encouraging capital to pursue bad-faith lending. They are being forced to build and support kleptocracy and oligarchy.
Chapter 6 & Chapter 7 explore how debt is produced by and supports a violence that rips people out of their social context and isolates them.
“Up in our country we are human!…Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs” (from Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo)
The individualizing collective action of Masters (appropriating ‘surplus’ social power): How individual autonomy is forged for some through the violent, dehumanizing isolation of others
Essentially, Masters (elites) engage in a violent kind of collective action that produces what we know as ‘individualism.’
Consider that what is unique (incommensurable, unsubstitutable, ergo valuable beyond quantification and commodification) about people, a social species, is their unique location and functions in a social network, their relationships to others.
Through their relations with others, people have both a unique (social) value and deep (social) dimension to act (together, collectively, dialectically) as agents. (This is thinking about people in society like how we can think about the relationships in an ecosystem.) If you are systematically recognized as having value beyond commodification then you are seen as constitutive of the social order. In an egalitarian society, you are recognized as fully human; in an inegalitarian society, you are recognized as ambiguously human and super-human. People will support you and protect you.
“In a human economy, each person is unique, and of incomparable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others” (Graeber 2011: 158).
Quantification Requires Violence
“Human economies” are built to recognize people’s socially-embedded value, whereas inhumane economies are built to exploit this. With collective support, Masters violently separate individuals in other collectivities (eg. women, people of color, etc.) from their social networks, imposing an interchangeable, unidimensional quality upon these Slaves.
“To make a human being an object of exchange…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…This requires a certain violence” (Graeber 2011: 159).
“One becomes a slave in situations where one would otherwise have died” (Graeber 2011: 169).
The isolated, dimension-less Slaves are now both dehumanized and exchangeable (commodified, made into tools, undead servants of their murderers). Their social network is severed; their only (or main) social tie and path of action is as Slaves of their Master.
So that others can maintain or elaborate their social ties, some people are sacrificed. Once people are ripped from their social context, their qualities can be reduced to quantities. Their commodity value can be calculated.
When people are exchangeable, tradable, they are subject to the logic of debt. Women given in marriage is the start. Slavery is the logical end-point (Graeber 2011: 163). Credit and debt, the quantification or tally of morality–social contribution and extraction, as established by the most powerful people in society, is born upon systematic, violent dehumanization.
It has been burglars, marauding soldiers and debt collectors who have been the first to see the world in terms of “uniform bits of currency, with no history, valuable precisely for their lack of history, because they can be accepted anywhere, no questions asked
…Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons” (Graeber 2011: 386).
Today we see Masters as Individuals, Slaves as Zombies
“The king and slave are mirror images, in that unlike normal human beings who are defined by their commitments to others, they are defined only by relations of power. They are as close to perfectly isolated, alienated beings as one can possibly become” (Graeber 2011: 209).
In our civilization, we compulsively define ourselves as master and slave because that is how we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings, commodities, rational actors, individuals. The lineage can be seen: Romans conceived of liberty as the brute power of use and abuse (not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others), just as the liberal philosophers bizarrely imagined the origins of society “in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts” (Graeber 2011: 209-210).
Masters accrue and exchange Slaves in order to appropriate ‘surplus’ social power. This kind of surplus is zero-sum. With an army of Slaves beholden to act as their agents, Masters can achieve a sort of super-agency approaching autonomy. With this ‘autonomy’ cleared out within the complex of human society by wielding Slaves, Masters are able to function approximately as independent, utility-maximizing ‘individuals’ within the matrix of society. What we recognize as individuals are people whose augmented social power is violently appropriated from dehumanized people, who themselves are separated from their own social networks and forced to act as agents of the Master. Individualism as we know it in our civilization is Master-slave individualism, where the ‘surplus’ social power he accumulates by stripping others of their own social networks and tying them to himself allows the Master ‘freedom’ to act relatively autonomously from the broad collective–autonomously enough to coordinate with a small collective of Masters to determine production, distribution, infrastructure, institutions, politics, policies and culture (The Slaves execute the directives).
Clarification: Master-slave relations are rampant in our civilization. Modern debt peonage in the labor-as-commodity society enables lifelong wage slavery as well as classical slavery. Even though Master-slave individualism is not true surplus accumulation but simple zero-sum appropriation, capitalism supplies Masters with the power (social support, legitimized violence, legal monopoly over the means of production) to enslave (proletarianize, commodify labor) others. Wage earners and the unemployed are essentially lifelong indentured servants in capitalism.
“An ancient Greek would certainly have seen the distinction between a slave and an indebted wage laborer as, at best, a legalistic nicety” (Graeber 2011: 211).
Likewise, Master-slave ‘individualism’ (constantly secured through collective action) is necessary to the hierarchal operation of capitalism.
Heroic societies provide one example of how people are dehumanized to serve as debt tender. Militarized people (men) manufacture accounts of honor, and then use power to steal “surplus honor” from other men in the militaristic, macho, high-inequality cultural economy of honor and degradation larding ostensibly quantitative debt politics.
In order to enslave women (or anyone) for this “heroic” economy, women need to be stripped of their social networks and unique social location–made commensurable, quality-less, exchangeable like things. Humans must be dehumanized.
Honor and dignity thereby become men’s power to protect/spare their family’s dehumanized females from slavery and prostitution, by enslaving other men’s women.
“What is a debt anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence” (Graeber 2011: 391).
“As it turns out, we don’t ‘all’ have to pay our debts. Only some of us do” (Graeber 2011: 391).
Debt is a quantified assessment of extraction from the social order. Masters determine debt. Whatever the Masters (eg. Goldman Sachs) do is socially recognized as an invaluable contribution (credit) to the social order, and whatever the alienated Slaves (eg. single mothers) contribute to society will not be recognized as a contribution, but as an extraction, which the Masters will have quantified. In high-inequality societies, slaves’ satisfaction of even their own basic human requirements are regarded as extractions from society, placing Slaves in interminable debt to the social order’s creditors, Masters.
“By turning human sociality itself into debts, (militarized finance) transforms the very foundations of our being–since what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others–into matters of fault, sin, and crime, and making the world into a place of iniquity that can only be overcome by completing some great cosmic transaction that will annihilate everything” (Graeber 2011: 387).
This debt culture can be further explored by linking it to the social epidemiology literature on the production of health-depleting chronic stress in high-inequality social relations. That is, it is easy to see how the militaristic debt culture of stealing and hoarding honor induces chronic, debilitating stress.
(This debt book isn’t all fun and joy. Graeber can lay down a ladleful of anarcho/anthro- dogma overstatements–eg. “There is no such thing as societies. Life is a bowl of moral cherries!” Sigh. Hey, what about these interlocked sets of institutions, culture boy? “Property relations mean nothing! Communism = everyday sharing.” Sigh.–lavishly adorned with faintly-amusing/boring anthropological cocktail party anecdotes.)
Themes from Graeber’s Debt to discuss further:
1) Debt as tactic: Quantifying the social obligations of workers to owners (via debt) imbues society with moral claims about what different strata of people contribute to or take from society. Debt is the class-based violence of moralistic quantification.
“By turning human sociality itself into debts (quantified promises), (financial-military violence and coercion systems) transform the very foundations of our being–since what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others–into matters of fault, sin, and crime, and making the world into a place of iniquity…
Just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe” Graeber 2011: 387.
2) The possibility of a debtor’s revolt:
Problem: The class violence of debt is broadly sanctified by its moral code. That is to say, quantification via debt is a political tactic that bears a moral code supportive of exploitation.
To promote an alternative morality to debt, you need socialism, in which people are organized to recognize both unquantified working class value and class war. In other words, recognition of class war and recognition that working class people have unquantifiable value is socialism. It helps people to think and to act, to know that they’re not nor have they ever been alone.
Paraphrase of Varoufakis, Halevi and Theokarakis 2011: 18:
The discipline of economics does not so much enjoy scientific victories, as it obtains political victories. In much the same way, debt is not so much about impressive achievements in quantification (accounting, or even gambling), as about impressive achievements in class war.
Wiesbrot’s “What Everyone Should Know About the Debt Crisis.”
“Iceland’s Loud No (to debt),” in Le Monde Diplomatique.