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Debt: What It Is and Why We Fight It

David Graeber, Mike Konczal, Sarah Jaffe and Brian Kalkbrenner discuss debt--what it is, why we're drowning in it, why it's a political issue. Moderated by Astra Taylor.

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Graeber: OK, you want me to take that—

Taylor: Go.

Graeber: Oh, wow, OK—

Taylor: Seven minutes!

Graeber: Ahhh! All right, where do I start? I was thinking—this paralysis that you face when you’re in debt, the feeling that this is something I did terribly wrong—it’s a deeply personal thing. But maybe the best way to contextualize this feeling is to consider the fact that over the course of human history, it’s probably true that most people who have ever lived have been debtors. Think about that for a moment. Could they all have done something terribly wrong? It’s almost certainly the case, because the densest populations are usually in big empires, and in such situations, somehow or other it always seems to happen that a very small percentage of the population ends up creditors to everybody else. And, in fact, if you look at world history—and when I started researching debt, it was quite remarkable—you see the same thing, over and over again, across Eurasia, certainly, and China, and India, the Middle East: everybody’s a debtor. And that debt is identified with morality in the sense of moral obligation. What you owe to other people, as it were, is seen in terms of debt. So often you find the language of debt, guilt, and sin—it’s the same word. It’s true in a lot of different European languages. It’s true in Sanskrit; it’s true in Aramaic. The famous “Forgive us our trespasses, just as we forgive those who trespass against us”–it’s actually debt, in the original. “Forgive us our debts,” just as we forgive those who owe us money. Except, of course, we don’t. That whole point is like, “See, you’re a bad person. God forgive you.” So that’s the kind of paradox of debt: on the one hand, that it’s morality; on the other hand, people who lend us money are universally recognized as being evil. It’s almost impossible to find any positive image of a moneylender anywhere in human history. I guess until the Grameen Bank came along—it was a heroic feat. 

So there’s this obvious profound moral ambivalence going on. It’s especially so if you look at world religions where almost invariably they kind of start by saying debt and morality are the same thing, except they say, “Of course, not really.” In the beginning of Plato’s Republic, they start by saying, “Well, what is justice?” And someone throws out: “Justice is just paying your debts.” And Socrates says, “That’s ridiculous, of course it’s not.” And then they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out, if not that, then what. They never quite figure it out. 

It’s the same with most religious traditions. In the Hindu tradition, they start with, your life is a debt you owe to the gods. And then they say, except, well, no—ultimately it’s recognizing that you and the cosmos are the same, then you’d realize there is no debt. Biblical tradition is the forgiveness of debts, cancellation of debts. So it seems like these people feel like they have to start with this language of debt as morality, but then get rid of it again. Why? It’s because this very idea of shame, of sin, that is associated with debt makes it this incredibly powerful ideological mechanism, so that any time you have violent inequalities of power—and mass inequalities of wealth and power have to always be maintained by violence of some kind or another—the first move is to try to convince the people on the bottom that it’s somehow their fault, and debt is the easiest way to do that. The easiest, most obvious example is, if you conquer people, you say, “OK, you owe me your life because I didn’t kill you. So obviously, I expect you to pay up. I’m going to be a nice guy and let you off the hook for the first few months but after that, c’mon.” So suddenly you’re the nice guy and they’re running around, scrambling, feeling bad about themselves. It works amazingly well, except it also has this remarkable tendency to blow up in people’s faces. 

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