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Debt! How Human Beings Become Enslaved to Powerful Interests

David Graeber's "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" traces the history of debt in human relationships, exploring the complex power dynamics at play.

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The story of the poor is of course darker still. Their need to borrow is greater, and their access to credit much more difficult. The poor face punishing financial terms as they struggle to obtain shelter, clothing, refrigerators, and cars — or to pay for weddings and funerals (universal wants, according to Graeber). If the poor lack regular employment, servicing their debts weighs them down tragically. And the consequences of default are worse for the poor: homelessness, loss of society, even imprisonment.

And so, as a matter of identity, we Americans find ourselves to be either debtors or creditors. David Graeber's brilliant gift to the Occupy Movement, his slogan/manifesto, expresses this division: "We are the 99 percent!"

Debt is a larger phenomenon, of course, than our personal obligations. Our institutions are also indebted. Pity our “poor” universities, saddled by witless borrowings to pay for tony student centers, luxo-dorms, and pampered professors. Cities and towns cut back on public services as debt takes greater bites from budgets. States watch their credit ratings slide with each new social program. Indeed, a progressive’s take on the current budgetary stalemate (the proverbial Fiscal Cliff) involves a cynical embrace of public debt reduction by the “fiscal conservatives” in order to justify rollback of social entitlements.

The current financial stress has revealed all these points of weakness. And even at the highest level of social organization — the interactions among sovereign nation-states — we find debt everywhere. There is the unconscionable and unpayable debt owed by the world's poorest countries; if any debt merits a Jubilee it is certainly this. But even rich countries (the United States first among them) are significantly indebted.

The United States remains a special case — for the technical reason that its debt is expressed in dollars, the value of which the United States partly controls. And so we have the curious situation of complete fiscal and political dysfunction, while the United States continues to borrow at seductively low rates — signaling that (at least for the moment) our usual creditors are not perturbed by our antics. Graeber also explores these “higher” categories of debt — though he perhaps too easily presumes that national debt differs from common debt in degree and not in kind.

The grander perspective Graeber provides — his overview of 5,000 years of debt — demonstrates that debt is not a neutral social institution. It is first and foremost an institution allowing for the exercise of power. Debt is the foundation of hierarchy and hence much social structure. Its presence marks the divided spheres of our lives: between the “communist” family and small community domains where obligations reflect caring, resist quantification and meld into a richer cultural and moral life, and the larger, grossly more impersonal economy with its rigid demands.

Graeber begins his investigation with observations about the moral confusion surrounding debt. On the one hand, common morality instructs that one should pay one's debts. On the other, we are taught to forgive our debtors. Lenders are generally detested, now and then. The exaction of interest is frequently found to be immoral. Yet the sovereign zealously protects the lender.

We are conflicted in our experience of debt, and so we are distracted in our assessment. In a startling early chapter, Graeber argues that debt is older than money. He debunks the Myth of Barter; money is conventionally proposed to have developed as a solution to the inefficiencies of barter, but Graeber claims that there never has been — and never will be — a society built primarily around barter. Graeber also debunks the Myth of Primordial Debt: the idea that each of us is born indebted to our parents, our ancestors, our god or our nation. Notions of primordial debt run deep, but these are artifacts of cultural practices. Ordinary debt supersedes these more abstract obligations. Graeber provides rich examples across religious traditions, demonstrating the extent to which we properly and improperly express our relationships to higher powers in the language of debt. He also points to the irony contained in the Lord's Prayer: we ask God to forgive us our debts as we forgive others. There is little substance here: we know (and God knows!) that in common practice we do not forgive others' debts.

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