Debt: The First 5000 Years - D. Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 Years (David Graeber)

Debt: The First 5000 Years - D. Graeber
Debt: The First 5000 Years – D. Graeber

Títol: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Autor: David Graeber
Editorial: Melville House
Any: 2011
ISBN: 978-1-933633-86-2

Alguns extractes del llibre de David Graeber en el qual analitza el paper del deute al llarg de la història de la huminitat.

“Surely one has to pay one’s debts.” The reason it’s so powerful is that it’s not actually an economic statement: it’s a moral statement. After all, isn’t paying one’s debts what morality is supposed to be all about? Giving people what is due them. Accepting one’s responsibilities. Fulfilling one’s obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfill their obligations to you. What could be a more obvious example of shirking one’s responsibilities than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt? It was that very apparent self-evidence, I realized, that made the statement so insidious.

As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”

The factor of violence, which I have been emphasizing up until now, may appear secondary. The difference between a “debt” and a mere moral obligation is not the presence or absence of men with weapons who can enforce that obligation by seizing the debtor’s possessions or threatening to break his legs. It is simply that a creditor has the means to specify, numerically, exactly how much the debtor owes. However, when one looks a little closer, one discovers that these two elements—the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked.

“IMF Warns Second Bailout Would ‘Threaten Democracy’ ” reads one recent headline.15 (Of course by “democracy” they mean “capitalism.”) Surely it means something that even those who feel they are responsible for keeping the current global economic system running, who just a few years ago acted as if they could simply assume the current system would be around forever, are now seeing apocalypse everywhere.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE between a mere obligation, a sense that one ought to behave in a certain way, or even that one owes something to someone, and a debt, properly speaking? The answer is simple: money. The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money.

it begins to be clear why there are no societies based on barter. Such a society could only be one in which everybody was an inch away from everybody else’s throat; but nonetheless hovering there, poised to strike but never actually striking, forever. True, barter does sometimes occur between people who do not consider each other strangers, but they’re usually people who might as well be strangers—that is, who feel no sense of mutual responsibility or trust, or the desire to develop ongoing relations.

From these examples, it begins to be clear why there are no societies based on barter. Such a society could only be one in which everybody was an inch away from everybody else’s throat; but nonetheless hovering there, poised to strike but never actually striking, forever. True, barter does sometimes occur between people who do not consider each other strangers, but they’re usually people who might as well be strangers—that is, who feel no sense of mutual responsibility or trust, or the desire to develop ongoing relations. The Pukhtun of Northern Pakistan, for instance, are famous for their open-handed hospitality.

In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.
The curious thing is that it never happened. This new history was never written. It’s not that any economist has ever refuted Mitchell-Innes. They just ignored him. Textbooks did not change their story—even if all the evidence made clear that the story was simply wrong. People still write histories of money that are actually histories of coinage, on the assumption that in the past, these were necessarily the same thing; periods when coinage largely vanished are still described as times when the economy “reverted to barter,” as if the meaning of this phrase is self-evident, even though no one actually knows what it means. As a result we have next-to-no idea how, say, the inhabitant of a Dutch town in 950 ad actually went about acquiring cheese or spoons or hiring musicians to play at his daughter’s wedding—let alone how any of this was likely to be arranged in Pemba or Samarkand.

Economies—“real economies”—are really vast barter systems. The problem is that history shows that without money, such vast barter systems do not occur. Even when economies “revert to barter,” as Europe was said to do in the Middle Ages, they don’t actually abandon the use of money. They just abandon the use of cash. In the Middle Ages, for instance, everyone continued to assess the value of tools and livestock in the old Roman currency, even if the coins themselves had ceased to circulate.

Mitchell-Innes was an exponent of what came to be known as the Credit Theory of money, a position that over the course of the nineteenth century had its most avid proponents not in Mitchell-Innes’s native Britain but in the two up-and-coming rival powers of the day, the United States and Germany. Credit Theorists insisted that money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. In other words, it is not a “thing” at all. You can no more touch a dollar or a deutschmark than you can touch an hour or a cubic centimeter. Units of currency are merely abstract units of measurement, and as the credit theorists correctly noted, historically, such abstract systems of accounting emerged long before the use of any particular token of exchange.

This is a bit of a cartoon version, but it is very clear that markets did spring up around ancient armies; one need only take a glance at Kautilya’s Arthasasatra, the Sassanian “circle of sovereignty,” or the Chinese “Discourses on Salt and Iron” to discover that most ancient rulers spent a great deal of their time thinking about the relation between mines, soldiers, taxes, and food. Most concluded that the creation of markets of this sort was not just convenient for feeding soldiers, but useful in all sorts of ways, since it meant officials no longer had to requisition everything they needed directly from the populace, or figure out a way to produce it on royal estates or royal workshops.

In fact, Chartalism has tended to be seen as a populist underside of economic theory, favored mainly by cranks. The curious thing is that the mainstream economists often ended up actually working for governments and advising such governments to pursue policies much like those the Chartalists described—that is, tax policies designed to create markets where they had not existed before—despite the fact that they were in theory committed to Smith’s argument that markets develop spontaneously of their own accord.

For state-money theorists in particular, this has been a problem. Stories about rulers using taxes to create markets in conquered territories, or to pay for soldiers or other state functions, are not particularly inspiring.

While in the ’80s, Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States made a great show of rejecting all of this, it’s unclear how much they really did. And in any case, they were operating in the wake of an even greater blow to previous monetary orthodoxy: Richard Nixon’s decision in 1971 to unpeg the dollar from precious metals entirely, eliminate the international gold standard, and introduce the system of floating currency regimes that has dominated the world economy ever since. This meant in effect that all national currencies were henceforth, as neoclassical economists like to put it, “fiat money” backed only by the public trust.

This does not mean that the state necessarily creates money. Money is credit, it can be brought into being by private contractual agreements (loans, for instance). The state merely enforces the agreement and dictates the legal terms. Hence Keynes’ next dramatic assertion: that banks create money, and that there is no intrinsic limit to their ability to do so: since however much they lend, the borrower will have no choice but to put the money back into some bank again, and thus, from the perspective of the banking system as a whole, the total number of debits and credits will always cancel out.28 The implications were radical, but Keynes himself was not.

If the king has simply taken over guardianship of that primordial debt we all owe to society for having created us, this provides a very neat explanation for why the government feels it has the right to make us pay taxes. Taxes are just a measure of our debt to the society that made us. But this doesn’t really explain how this kind of absolute life-debt can be converted into money, which is by definition a means of measuring and comparing the value of different things.

Even within the Persian Empire, Persians did not have to pay tribute to the Great King, but the inhabitants of conquered provinces did.51 The same was true in Rome, where for a very long time, Roman citizens not only paid no taxes but had a right to a share of the tribute levied on others, in the form of the dole—the “bread” part of the famous “bread and circuses.”

His notion of unlimited obligations to society ultimately crystallized in the notion of the “social debt,” a notion taken up among social reformers and, eventually, socialist politicians in many parts of Europe and abroad.62 “We are all born as debtors to society”: in France the notion of a social debt soon became something of a catchphrase, a slogan, and eventually a cliché.63 The state, according to this view, was merely the administrator of an existential debt that all of us have to the society that created us, embodied not least in the fact that we all continue to be completely dependent on one another for our existence, even if we are not completely aware of how.

One might even say that what we really have, in the idea of primordial debt, is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods that created us, paid interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and ultimately paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe it to the Nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, to offer to pay it with our lives.

This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today.

Clearly, money was not invented to overcome the inconveniences of barter between neighbors—since neighbors would have no reason to engage in barter in the first place. Still, a system of pure credit money would have serious inconveniences as well. Credit money is based on trust, and in competitive markets, trust itself becomes a scarce commodity. This is particularly true of dealings between strangers.

Why, for instance, do we refer to Christ as the “redeemer”? The primary meaning of “redemption” is to buy something back, or to recover something that had been given up in security for a loan; to acquire something by paying off a debt. It is rather striking to think that the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God’s own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be framed in the language of a financial transaction. Nietzsche might have been starting from the same assumptions as Adam Smith, but clearly the early Christians weren’t.

It’s really more a matter of destroying the entire system of accounting. In many Middle Eastern cities, this was literally true: one of the common acts during debt cancelation was the ceremonial destruction of the tablets on which financial records had been kept, an act to be repeated, much less officially, in just about every major peasant revolt in history.

Still, what is even more striking to me is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness, in this world, is ultimately impossible. Christians practically say as much every time they recite the Lord’s Prayer, and ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.” It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and the implications are similarly dire. After all, most Christians reciting the prayer are aware that they do not generally forgive their debtors. Why then should God forgive them their sins?

What’s more, those branches of social theory that make the greatest claims to “scientific status”—“rational choice theory,” for instance—start from the same assumptions about human psychology that economists do: that human beings are best viewed as self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment—curious, considering experimental psychologists have demonstrated over and over again that these assumptions simply aren’t true.

The reason is simple efficiency (ironically enough, considering the conventional wisdom that “communism just doesn’t work”): if you really care about getting something done, the most efficient way to go about it is obviously to allocate tasks by ability and give people whatever they need to do them.11 One might even say that it’s one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically. True, they don’t tend to operate very democratically. Most often they are organized around military-style top-down chains of command. But there is often an interesting tension here, because top-down chains of command are not particularly efficient: they tend to promote stupidity among those on top, resentful foot-dragging among those on the bottom. The greater the need to improvise, the more democratic the cooperation tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle: not only with things like freeware, which everyone talks about, but even in the organization of their businesses.

This element of competition can work in completely different ways. In cases of barter or commercial exchange, when both parties to the transaction are only interested in the value of goods being transacted, they may well—as economists insist they should—try to seek the maximum material advantage. On the other hand, as anthropologists have long pointed out, when the exchange is of gifts, that is, the objects passing back and forth are mainly considered interesting in how they reflect on and rearrange relations between the people carrying out the transaction, then insofar as competition enters in, it is likely to work precisely the other way around—to become a matter of contests of generosity, of people showing off who can give more away.

What marks commercial exchange is that it’s “impersonal”: who it is that is selling something to us, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant.

In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. Therefore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away. This in turn implies autonomy. Both principles sit uncomfortably with monarchs, which is the reason that kings generally dislike any sort of exchange.34 But within that overhanging prospect of potential cancellation, of ultimate equivalence, we find endless variations, endless games one can play.

The idea that there is something called “the market” is not so very different. Economists will often admit this, if you ask them in the right way. Markets aren’t real. They are mathematical models, created by imagining a self-contained world where everyone has exactly the same motivation and the same knowledge and is engaging in the same self-interested calculating exchange. Economists are aware that reality is always more complicated; but they are also aware that to come up with a mathematical model, one always has to make the world into a bit of a cartoon.

Economists are aware that reality is always more complicated; but they are also aware that to come up with a mathematical model, one always has to make the world into a bit of a cartoon. There’s nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when it enables some (often these same economists) to declare that anyone who ignores the dictates of the market shall surely be punished—or that since we live in a market system, everything (except government interference) is based on principles of justice: that our economic system is one vast network of reciprocal relations in which, in the end, the accounts balance and all debts are paid. These principles get tangled up in each other and it’s thus often difficult to tell which predominates in a given situation—one reason that it’s ridiculous to pretend we could ever reduce human behavior, economic or otherwise, to a mathematical formula of any sort.

What, then, is debt? Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality—but for whom there is some way to set matters straight. In the case of gift-giving, as we’ve seen, this requires a certain equality of status.

ONE MIGHT WELL ASK: If our political and legal ideas really are founded on the logic of slavery, then how did we ever eliminate slavery? Of course, a cynic might argue that we haven’t; we’ve just relabeled it. The cynic would have a point: an ancient Greek would certainly have seen the distinction between a slave and an indebted wage laborer as, at best, a legalistic nicety.1 Still, even the elimination of formal chattel slavery has to be considered a remarkable achievement, and it is worthwhile to wonder how it was accomplished.

If we look at Eurasian history over the course of the last five thousand years, what we see is a broad alternation between periods dominated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver come to dominate—that is, those during which at least a large share of transactions were conducted with pieces of valuable metal being passed from hand to hand. Why? The single most important factor would appear to be war. Bullion predominates, above all, in periods of generalized violence. There’s a very simple reason for that. Gold and silver coins are distinguished from credit arrangements by one spectacular feature: they can be stolen.

A debt is, by definition, a record, as well as a relation of trust. Someone accepting gold or silver in exchange for merchandise, on the other hand, need trust nothing more than the accuracy of the scales, the quality of the metal, and the likelihood that someone else will be willing to accept it. In a world where war and the threat of violence are everywhere—and this appears to have been an equally accurate description of Warring States China, Iron Age Greece, and pre-Mauryan India—there are obvious advantages to making one’s transactions simple. This is all the more true when dealing with soldiers. On the one hand, soldiers tend to have access to a great deal of loot, much of which consists of gold and silver, and will always seek a way to trade it for the better things in life. On the other, a heavily armed itinerant soldier is the very definition of a poor credit risk. The economists’ barter scenario might be absurd when applied to transactions between neighbors in the same small rural community, but when dealing with a transaction between the resident of such a community and a passing mercenary, it suddenly begins to make a great deal of sense. For much of human history, then, an ingot of gold of silver, stamped or not, has served the same role as the contemporary drug dealer’s suitcase full of unmarked bills: an object without a history, valuable because one knows it will be accepted in exchange for other goods just about anywhere, no questions asked.

1) Markets appear to have first emerged, in the Near East at least, as a side effect of government administrative systems. Over time, however, the logic of the market became entangled in military affairs, where it became almost indistinguishable from the mercenary logic of Axial Age warfare, and then, finally, that logic came to conquer government itself; to define its very purpose. 2) As a result: everywhere we see the military-coinage-slavery complex emerge, we also see the birth of materialist philosophies.

This is considered the very essence of modern banking, and it can lead to the circulation of private bank notes.75 Some moves were made in this direction as well, especially in Italy, but it was a risky proposition, since there was always the danger of depositors panicking and making a run, and most Medieval governments threatened extremely harsh penalties on bankers unable to make restitution in such cases: as witnessed by the example of Francesch Castello, beheaded in front of his own bank in Barcelona in 1360.76

We are used to seeing modern capitalism (along with modern traditions of democratic government) as emerging only later: with the Age of Revolutions—the industrial revolution, the American and French revolutions—a series of profound breaks at the end of the eighteenth century that only became fully institutionalized after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Here we come face to face with a peculiar paradox. It would seem that almost all elements of financial apparatus that we’ve come to associate with capitalism—central banks, bond markets, short-selling, brokerage houses, speculative bubbles, securization, annuities—came into being not only before the science of economics (which is perhaps not too surprising), but also before the rise of factories, and wage labor itself.88 This is a genuine challenge to familiar ways of thinking. We like to think of the factories and workshops as the “real economy,” and the rest as superstructure, constructed on top of it. But if this were really so, then how can it be that the superstructure came first? Can the dreams of the system create its body? All this raises the question of what “capitalism” is to begin with, a question on which there is no consensus at all.

By 2000, East Asian countries had begun a systematic boycott of the IMF. In 2002, Argentina committed the ultimate sin: they defaulted—and got away with it.

As it turns out, we don’t “all” have to pay our debts. Only some of us do. Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again. (…) What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, 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

At this point, however, the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. As it turns out, we don’t “all” have to pay our debts. Only some of us do. Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again. What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, 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.