In examining debt it becomes very hard not to dwell on morality. As a promise of one party to another, the debtors obligation demands an “owning up” to that promise – or else risks being negatively valued in the community at large. This ’negative value’ clings to any extended look into the situation of indebtedness, so to conceptualize debt and any logic accompanying it must bring its value aspect along with it. The debtor, under this pervasive logic, is charged with making the creditor empty until repayment sets the relationship aright. Before the moment of re-harmonizing both creditor and the debtor, the debtors are stripped of their moral authority and rest firmly in the negative of a binary relation.
We can find help in Graeber’s definition of debt as an obligation that has not reached completion or a relationship of equality that has been skewed – to become equalized or “righted” in the future. Equality and reciprocity are clearly presupposed in the creditor/debtor relationship, which is then complicated by the duration of time between the two transfers: one from creditor to the debtor and the other from the debtor back to the creditor. To borrow from one side of an equation without setting the equation back in balance in the future would be labeled unfair; a promise extends the relationship ahead of time sometimes indefinitely and sometimes scrupulously marked off in advance. But this mathematical formulation doesn’t cover over the issue entirely. The value aspect of debt reaches even as far as the nature of individuals under consideration (sovereign individuals consistent through time): does not the very ability to repay some time in the future (and so “own” one’s debts) or demand a repayment for a past agreement (without which one will be wronged) require a valuation itself? Can one prescribe a valuation on the performative action of own up to the deeds performed in the past and project them into the future?
To put it in other words, doesn’t the ability to make the promise to repay, as the element of “ownership” of one’s contractual agreement across time, presuppose the positive valuation of consistency through the individual’s life? Is it debt that forces us to pledge ourselves to remain the same going forward into the future, or, conversely, does the consistency of the individual come first and set up the room for the contract? We tend to assume that a person be responsible for all of their deeds throughout their life, holding them in a monumental memory and etching them into the very nature of the person. A value hides under this assumption, buried by a gluttony of memories. A reversal of debt-valuation could find a key ally in “paying” attention to a perhaps deeper valuation: that one remain the same throughout their life. A different logic could be at play, one that if made explicit might sever the us from the binds of debt-morality. A newfound strength in an active forgetting – what could be more opposed to the pernicious effects of moralistic debt-logic?
Both Nietzsche and Graeber give strangely similar accounts of debt, morality, and history when examined side by side, though they diverge in a few key spots. You probably wouldn’t see it at first, because *Debt* tries to set its relationship to Nietzsche on its own terms in an isolated chapter. Graeber summons Nietzsche to briefly assist him in recounting some myths parading around as science. The chapter of Debt called ‘Cruelty and Redemption’ examines Nietzsche’s second essay in On the Genealogy of Morals titled ‘”Guilt,” “Bad Conscience,” and the Like’, but much is overlooked in that monumental essay. Highlighting the differences between the two will give us a deeper look into each’s respective normative views, while the commonalities that have been passed over by Graeber will help us to more precisely locate the logic of debt (and all of its moral and religious implications, in all of their violence). The two have basically the same approach to debt, but differ in what one could call a moral sense: Graeber is much more communally minded and has disdain for the forces of violence he believes “rips people from their contexts”, whereas Nietzsche does not shy away from the active forces of the “strong types”. Eventually we will arrive at a crossroads where humanity will attempt to be retained by Graeber and superseded by Nietzsche. Despite groundbreaking inquiries into the nature of debt on both accounts, both writers bring in opposing, not-so-subtle judgments that point in completely different directions.
Having recently uncovered the nationalistic pretensions of primordial debt theories of money, Graeber continues in his quest to dispel theories that lead into myth. When money is treated as a “debt-token” or a mere measure of debt, what we are indebted to and where debt can be extended into in our social relations becomes fuzzy. If the universal store of value that is money is determined to be nothing but a measuring device, the debts we have with each other appear to be everywhere. Again, when all that money is is a measure of value – eventually it seems like we are indebted to just about everything in our community and the cosmos (parents, ancestors, gods, etc.). Our whole lives turn out to be a long list of things that we are indebted to; a sentiment that is particularly susceptible to despotic nationalism, where the state is seen as the guarantor of all of these debts and the only entity big and grand enough to do so. This was covered in my last post on money as caught between to myths.
Graeber seems to think that Nietzsche is recounting something like this primordial debt theory when he begins musing on the creditor-debtor relationship and its place as the origin of measuring one person against another: the origin of values. This is seen as another state-of-nature story like Adam Smith’s barter economy that spawned the more efficient money based exchange system (in other words, a retrospective creation myth for money). Quoted in Debt but with a different translation than here, Nietzsche writes:
“…the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation, had its origin, as we saw, in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship, that between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor: it was here that one person first encountered another person, that one person first measured himself against another. No grade of civilization, however low, has yet been discovered in which something of this relationship has not been noticeable. Setting prices determining values, contriving equivalences, exchanging – these preoccupied the earliest thinking of man to so great an extent that in a certain sense they constitute thinking as such: here it was that the oldest kind of astuteness developed; here likewise, we may suppose, did human pride, the feeling of superiority in relation to other animals, have its first beginnings. Perhaps our word “man” (manas) still expresses something of precisely this feeling of self-satisfaction: man designated himself as the creature that measures values, evaluates and measures, as the “valuating animal as such.”” (GM,8)
In Graeber’s summary of Nietzsche’s plan with his essay, (that guilt, debt, and those sentiments that follow morality are the result of a person-to-person, buyer-seller or creditor-debtor relationship, with community developing only afterwards) what he
“is doing here is starting out from the common-sense assumptions about the nature of human beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent) – that we are rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society, that “society” itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the resulting conflict. That is, he is starting out from ordinary bourgeois assumptions and driving them to a place where they can only shock a bourgeois audience.” (Debt,p.78)
There is a split character in Nietzsche’s essay. On the one hand, he is parodying those backward-looking excursions into “primeval times” and taking them from their “origins” (about which Nietzsche is not so concerned) to their logical conclusion as nationalist myths demanding sacrifice to the great creditor-ancestors of the past. On the other hand, Nietzsche is offering the reader his own understanding of God-less forces in the course of weaving through the simple-minded and triumphalist narratives trumpeting around in his time. The primordial debt/nationalist story continues along with our indebtedness level rising in tandem with the power level of society – as though the greatness of a tribe, become a community, become a nation, become an empire had increased the debt to each of its members as it rose up to each level. To add to Graeber’s portrayal of this side of Nietzsche (the parodying side):
“The fear of the ancestor and his power, the consciousness of indebtedness to him, increases, according to this kind of logic, in exactly the same measure as the power do the tribe itself increases, as the tribe itself grows ever more victorious, independent, honored, and feared… If one imagines this rude kind of logic carried to its end, then the ancestors of the most powerful tribes are bound eventually to grow to monstrous dimensions through the imagination of growing fear and to recede into the darkness of the divinely uncanny and unimaginable: in the end the ancestor must be transfigured into a god.” (GM,19)
If the story seems coherent it is from a purely didactic viewpoint. When indebtedness is a condition that is universal across one’s society (in the market and religion alike), as well being as entrapped by a large state-apparatus, then the tendency is to imagine such a condition in one’s “pre-history” before documentation or “official history” was bestowed (perhaps by the great creditor/documenter?) into existence. The story of a debt-maximizing God’s rise to prominence through a chain of more and more powerful social arrangements (for Nietzsche) and nationalist primordial debt theories (for Graeber) is rightly labelled as creation myths and not truthful accounts for the history of any societies nor money. That the debt level rises in lock-step with the power of a community or tribe is no where in evidence (as if the feeling of indebtedness is ubiquitous across a “whole society”!). The ridiculousness of these stories is owed to the dream-land of pre-history taking the place of an historical explanation of the arrival of the present situation. In looking for the origin of money or our moral sentiments, our most analytic thoughts and well-documented studies get convoluted and confused because we are predisposed to imagine similarly to what is right in front of us or all around us.
But I would argue that the other side of Nietzsche, who weaves his own affirmations and denouncements through the fake origin stories, is missed by an author rushing on to the rest of real history and real humanity. After stating that “there is also every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the premise was insane; in fact, that this was the entire point” on one page, in the next has one, Graeber has one subtle and one giant leap that a close reading of Nietzsche’s essay will show is problematic. “It’s a worthy game and no one has played it better;” he goes on, “but it’s a game played entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois thought. It has nothing to say to anything that lies beyond that.” (Debt,p.78-79) Nietzsche is now locked up in this chapter for lack of any further evidence of these days of old. Moving on up in *Debt we will get lots of facts anthropological and historical on the road to mapping out the logic of debt across the ages, but we will also get a recurring terminology in which a humanist morality is snuck in. The values that Nietzsche puts forward are done bluntly and with great enthusiasm – a point that he wants to hammer into his readers’ heads. He writes about unavoidability of a conceptual “prehistory”: “(this prehistory is in any case present in all ages and may always reappear)” (GM,9) – suggesting that origins incessantly pop up and reassert themselves in even the most conscientious societies. Is not the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need” of a baseline communism behind hierarchies and exchange a form of foundationalism that peels away the negative systems to find a romantically good core at the heart of humanity, the origins of sociality?
But Graeber’s approach is more casual and anecdotal – he takes it as a matter of fact that people experience communism as he defines it in our everyday life and that decency between people is as common as the air we breathe. It is only through encroaching hierarchy on the one hand and the demand to make our relations equal on the other that this basic humanity becomes tarnished. New categories papered over with lots of history, however, do not prove those categories more scientific. The non-scientific compartmentalization of social forms in hierarchy, exchange, and common decency (communism) aren’t essentially provable as comprehensive throughout human history and are heuristic categories to make Graeber’s humanistic-moral point easier to grasp. This territory of morality, humanity, and religion is precisely what must be dwelt on further if we are to find our way through the labyrinth of political economy and understand the logic of debt.
Nietzsche will spend more of the space on his pages with thoughts on memory, guilt, and punishment – the violence of inscription onto the body of the individual so as to train it to behave, and behave in docility over an extended duration with a conscience. It is these physical acts of punishment, the tremendous pain inflicted on the body, and the techniques that redirected human emotion inward that will drive the critique. The violence of the state that anarchists like Graeber never tire of pointing out (rightfully) is also pointed out by Nietzsche as a clear bringer of misery:
“…the wielding of a hitherto unchecked and shapeless populace into a firm form was not only instituted by an act if violence but also carried to its conclusion by nothing but acts of violence – that the oldest “state” this appeared as a fearful tyranny, as an oppressive and remorseless machine, and went on working until this raw material of people and semi-animals was at last not only thoroughly kneaded and pliant but also *formed.
I employed that word “state”: it is obvious what is meant – some pack of blond beast of prey, a conqueror and master race which, organized for war and with the ability to organize, unhesitatingly lays its terrible claws upon a populace perhaps tremendously superior in numbers but still formless and nomad. That is after all how the “state” began on earth: I think that sentimentalism which would have it begin with a “contract” has been disposed of.” (GM,17)
As always, Nietzsche digs deeper than moralistic and pious colleagues did (and most other writers have done since he died). He tears through the glossy surface that morality places over the victories of struggling forces, but not to find a basic human existence but ever more forces. Both ethical historians (one a genealogist, the other an anthropologist) are not impressed by the justifications that predominant powers give for their existence, but Nietzsche doesn’t fall for the next myth in line: the myth that human communality was all well and good before the state bore its way into the earth. Despite the terror of the state and the cold calculating law of the markets, another technique deserves our attention in the effects of repeated punishment and the formation of memory. The processes of ingraining a conscience into people also has a history drenched in blood and torture and did not simply exist before the rise of states, markets, and nations. We do not return to a more communal and warmly uncalculating relationship with other people when we remove the state, this would be to replace one myth with another. As we will see, the greater emphasis on techniques of punishment and inflicting pain in the development of a memory will play an important role in making us stand up for or own our debts through time. We own our debts and make contractual obligations through a more subtle and less noticeable coercion than the violence of the state and the equalizing demands of the market; although the history of this coercion is also the result of similarly reprehensible amounts of pain.
The drawing up of Nietzsche’s own primordial debt theory in *Debt is done briefly, but is done solely to assist in dispelling a bad myth. But Nietzsche always takes the game farther. The imaginary, “bourgeois” play with origin mythology is not for him something that when peeled back, we will get our humanity back. Graeber asserts this much about the fun Nietzsche is having with his audience, but this wild-mustached ghost never seems to find its proper place. The “real” that Graeber turns to immediately is a humanistic one oriented by a common community standard:
“in any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.” (Debt,p.79)
That’s a lot of “reals”! We have a positively real situation, then a multiplicity of contradictory forces (all real), and finally a real question: “what is the basis of our humanity/civilization?” Humanity takes center stage now in Debt, and the history that will follow in the second part of the book is done to tell us how the baseline reality of humanity has been disfigured by exchange and hierarchy. It is actually an extremely profound geo-history of political forms, economic systems, and religious dogma that all seem to compliment each other when attention is payed to all of them. But I am not disputing historical facts here – I’m getting after some contrasting ways of understanding morality in conjunction with debt. Remaining at this phase in the story for longer than Graeber did will strengthen much of his over-arching argument if we allow Nietzsche a louder voice: both are aware of the insidious logic of debt but Nietzsche’s inquiry more carefully focuses on those “reals”. The call for debt cancellation or resistance and a clean slate to reorganize society upon (found at the end of Debt) is prescient, but without dwelling longer on morality and those unexamined “reals”, the effort could be stifled by mental roadblocks. Like it or not, that ghost born posthumously is still hanging around.
The next part of this essay will be published shortly and go into more detail the differences in the theories of Nietzsche and Graeber. The role of memory and forgetting, history and origins, resistance and progress, and morality and resentment will receive further attention.>