A brief remark from Foucault on Anarchism. On January 30th 1980, in the College de France lecture publication titled On the Government of the Living, Foucault again sought to distance himself from an ideological form of analysis and insists that he is doing an analytics of power. It’s a kind of love/hate relationship though. He will reference his own work as an “anarcheology”, adding the ‘an’ prefix in a kind of playful way to denote an edgy critical stance, as well as referencing Paul Feyerabend’s book Against Method, in which Feyerabend describes a history of science in which there is no common structure to the development of scientific knowledge and “anything goes.” His resistance to the label ‘anarchy’ comes from a resistance to ideology as a way for explaining phenomena and interpreting history. Anarchy is about resistance to power if it is anything, but Foucault resists the term itself for not going far enough in its understanding of power, namely, that there is different kind of power working upon or within us that ideological attachment cannot resolve. Continue reading “Foucault Talks Anarchism”
In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation. Continue reading “‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy”
Another must read from Edmund Berger. A quick outline:
From Guattari’s (and Deleuze’s) Ecosophy – to Cybernetics – to anarchic war machines – to animism and aboriginal cosmology.
WILD ECOLOGIES - Featured Post #3: Edmund Berger with an in-depth analysis of Guattari's 'ecosophy' and possible points of connection, overlap and divergence from anarchist thought.
How does one begin to broach the question of linkage, passage, and reflexivity to be found in the theories and practices of anarchism, the radical post-psychoanalysis of Felix Guattari, and the ontological framework that has been ushered in the necessity of acknowledging the forces that we label “the Anthropocene”? The overlaps between each are undeniable: in was ecological concerns that late in his life Guattari turned his mind to; the field that his work is commonly situated – the school of post-structuralism – is often affiliated with anarchism of the so-called “post-left” variety. That Guattari was closely aligned with the Italian Autonomia, which the post-left anarchists owe much of their discourse to, is no passing coincidence. We can also note the presence of “green anarchism”…
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Very nice. This thought about ‘oneness’ and ’emptiness’ being something the Lacanian constantly must fill up vs. a Deleuzian fictional accompaniment with the one is a thought that I carry around with me. The full-empty or true awakening – dreamland, polarity retains a fixation on subjectivity while proclaiming to surpass it. Once people see through the Cogito (and really, who is a Cartesian today?) do we end up in the land of the unconscious that our self representations cover over, mysteriously requiring The Other to unveil it for us? The Spinozist-Deleuzian world of capabilities, actualities, multiple force fields, and singular intensities gives us a much richer array of terms to describe our experiences with an ever-expanding access to new observations (largely via science). So much comes down to the conceptual terms we have at our disposal.
In his short book, How to Read Lacan (2007), Slavoj Žižek writes, as I’m sure he does in several other places,
According to the standard view, the dimension that is constitutive of subjectivity is that of phenomenal (self-)experience: I am a subject the moment I can say to myself: ‘No matter what unknown mechanism governs my acts, perceptions, and thoughts, nobody can take away from me what I am seeing and feeling right now.’ Say, when I am passionately in love, and a biochemist informs me that all my intense sentiments are just the result of biochemical processes in my body. I can answer by holding onto the appearance. ‘All that you’re saying may be true, but, nonetheless, nothing can take from me the intensity of the passion that I am experiencing now . . .’ Lacan’s point, however, is that the psychoanalyst is the one who, precisely, can take this…
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Brian Holmes navigates global cybernetic capitalism with the help of Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies.
or, the Pathic Core at the Heart of Cybernetics
[This text was developed through a large number of improvised presentations. Thanks to all who listened and responded. The very first, in Chicago at the invitation of Jon Cates, is archived here. – BH]
A desiring mind seeks infinity, and finds it today in a proliferation of signals: electromagnetic waves beaming down from the skies, fiber-optic cables emerging from the seas, copper wires woven across the continents. The earthly envelope of land, air and ocean – the realm of organic life, or biosphere – is doubled by a second skin of electronically mediated thought: the noosphere. It’s a vast, pulsating machine: a coded universe grown complex beyond our grasp, yet connected at every pulse to the microscopic mesh of nerve cells in our flesh.
Such is the contemporary circuit of communication. Its existence raises two basic questions. What…
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The second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals begins tellingly as we immediately get a reflection on the act of promising, memory and forgetfulness. Before the topic of guilt, morality, the bite of conscience, and even the blunt trauma of punishment, Nietzsche writes:
“[t]o breed an animal with the right to make promises – is not this the paradoxical task that nature has set itself in the case of man? is it not the real problem regarding man? … Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in the strictest sense positive faculty of repression… a little quietness, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for the nobler functions and functionaries, for regulation foresight, premeditation… that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette: so that it will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present without forgetfulness… Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!” (GM,1).
The ownership of one’s future and the ingrained memory of oneself throughout the course of dynamic time are here the conditions of possibility for the contractual relationships in legal and business matters. The problem pinned down right at the outset of the essay is that of memory and forgetting – how could we have attained such complexity in economics and exchanging goods (as well as continually run into “the individualist” problem in theorizing) without first remaining stable inside of one’s person, one’s name? The problem of humanity in distinction with the rest of the earth animals is how we could come to be seen as the same over time, as individuals, when clearly we undergo changes, learn new tricks, and generally grow and decay in the course of our tumultuous lives. To fashion a memory and a running narrative along with it, closely connected to the body but not necessarily so, is the opening problem that leads us to guilt, bad conscience, and resentment but also the act of promising that brings us into the world of equivocal relationships and indebtedness. In forgetting, Nietzsche allows a moment of tranquility and respite amidst the maze of confusion surrounding business calculations, and the morality of debt. The act of forgetting, active forgetting, is a glimpse into the strong forces emerging from the bounds of the text, joyfully casting off the burden of duty towards one’s past.
What follows is gruesome. From here on, after section one, the second essay of The Genealogy of Morals will take the reader through a long narrative about the emergence of God and feeling of guilt (bad conscience) He brings along with him: a narrative that is mostly a parody of histories of morality that abounded in Nietzsche’s day and which he fought vigorously against. He plays along with the idea for twenty-or-so sections, interjecting every so often to remind us that violence, force, and subjugation are at the root of the order of things. As written above, when tracing a history and giving an account of how we arrived at the present composition of things there is an overwhelming tendency to project the order of the day backwards and export the common, victorious terms of one’s predominant discourse into the past. The contractual relationship viewed from both Nietzsche’s society and ours could not have had an origin in moral sentiments – this notion of reciprocity, the equivalence between two individuals itself is a moral notion and does not persist throughout all times. This would lead us to posit a universal standard across all cultures and societies without much evidence for the inner workings of these people’s or their environments, a standard essentially and undeniably conjoined with immoral and destructive institutions of harm (here the bourgeois, European imperial history and its systemic plundering). The demand to “right” a situation by bringing to a common level the relationship between disputing individuals is no pre-given; it takes a highly active and critical perspective shared by both Nietzsche and Graeber to wade through the axioms and assumptions lingering in the air of one’s culture to provide a counter-narrative.
There is a constant equivocation of origins with violence. Throughout the second essay, legal terminology is dotted with coarse words evoking brutal pain and torture: “it was in this sphere then, the sphere of legal obligations, that the moral conceptual world of “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” “sacredness of duty” had its origin: its beginnings were, like the beginnings of everything great on earth, soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time” (GM,6). The moral feelings that bind us to harmony have a perverse underside: the pain and trauma inscribed into the memory of the body directly. The origins of moral concepts have are in this passage legal issues and obligations, but just a few pages later he switches to the creditor/debtor business relationship:
“…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.” (GM,8)
Bear in mind Nietzsche’s ambivalence concerning origins. This is the parody side of the essay, the one which Graeber correctly identifies as playing along with a bourgeois audience only to shock them with the necessary horrors that they would not have acknowledge in their elegant theories, sitting in the quiet rooms of study where they wrote their treatise. Seeking the origin of a phenomenon like morality or debt is only to mislead and confuse the reader, even when done rigorously and scientifically. To do so anyways would neglect an incomprehensible amount of forces vying for their subsistence and growth; the only way to avoid this is to play along with the attempts of others and use their reasoning against them in an ironic distance. The emphasis on violence, destruction, and assault is a ploy to link together those cool, calm, and collected observations into the essence of things with that which they forget: the forces we must tarry and battle with constantly. This excessive memory of secure individuals writing books, the memory that recollects so much of the fine details or holds an idea firmly and dearly throughout the wide length of their lives, is unable to perform the act of forgetting – an active forgetting. Origins reappear constantly in all ages (as we already posited with Nietzsche in part 1) and stick into the memory of its actors. Just consider the endless repetition of nationalist beginnings and their moments of triumph, their grand significance that lives on in the cultural memory. What bloody battles and rampant slaughter they leave out! Nearly every “great” historical moment has an obscene underside with violent undertones that we parse out for the sake of a comfortable narrative. The teaching of this narrative coupled with the mandatory schooling for a nation’s youth means a institutional replication of a memory of origins. The “grim realities of war” line that accompany these histories spotted with dates of wars gloss over the suffering and deep misery they bring to the people caught up in them.
Both Graeber and Nietzsche understand this, but morality is tricky; Graeber employs this unveiling technique in his great-grand historico-anthropological treatise of his own with disdain. The essential goodness of communities is always contrasted with the violence of the state and the violence of cold financial transaction. Nietzsche keeps a extremely acute eye on the subtleties of morality and develops a style that is critical of its inner-workings, all the while maintaining a creativity that is essentially positive and non-judgmental. Tellingly, the next chapter in *Debt after dealing with On the Genealogy of Morals is “A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations”, where a new theory of human relationships (the real question of foundations) and their grounding in humanity is asserted “from scratch”. In the next essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, the religious ascetic life is closely examined and the ascetic emerges not in shambles but transformed into a boiler-room of creativity in a hope for the “man of the future” that will overcome it. To merely denounce violence and take a moral stance against those things that Nietzsche makes abundantly clear that he despises would be to get caught up in the logic of that which plagues him so. Challenging Christianty by moralizing would not escape the moral logic he wishes to get rid of; to escape we cannot simply negate but must launch out from that which we are forced to endure. The vital energies that these abhorrent systems and logics have imbued in us are the places from which to transform ourselves and create something anew.
But the tension between these two writers can be heightened even further: Nietzsche takes shots at the anarchism that Graeber ascribes to for shrinking away from the power implicit in the will, the ever-expanding will that dominates and without remorse. Having come from the common place of brutality behind origins, the divergence is sharp:
“…the cause of the origin of a thing and its eventual utility, its actual employment and place in a system of purposes, lie worlds apart; whatever exists, having somehow come into being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves a fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.” (GM,12)
Breaching origins and causes does not bring us back to a baseline communism here; the disruption of origins and the deconstruction of treatise on the nature of economics, morality, and the like are themselves manifestations of a new interpretation taking shape, a new force burgeoning outward. Beneath or behind these origins and statements here lies a contested ground. On the one hand, there is the common decency of people together sharing; what is untouched by laws, contracts, and money; or Graeber’s communal humanity “refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom” (Debt,79). On the other hand, there are bare forces mixing and jockeying in a basically non-human contest for power. Ever the astute historian, Graeber will point to the dominant quality of societies to explain why hierarchies and embattled parties engage in struggle for power: heroic societies of honor and commercial societies with their markets have “slipped” into their respective class relations. The social arrangements are depicted as the cause for leading astray the basic, common, human element. These societies could only ever appear as aberrations – a mistake in the development from “the foundation of our humanity”.
What a great number of mistakes there have been throughout the coarse of humanity! A comprehensive collection of examples of the ways humanity has been corrupted by deviant social organizations would be staggering (a discussion on anti-civilization primitivism will have wait for now) and Graeber’s book does come off in many instances as a very long series of travesties staining a core humanity. One might wonder if man is more commonly conniving in its history and whether we should take Nietzsche’s opposite parody version of man as the “calculating animal” as more sound. Man for Nietzsche is something that must be overcome rather than retrieve from the immoral structures that have laid their “terrible claws” upon it; it is in this sense that what comes after man and the state must be more intense, more affirmative than what history has provided hitherto. But what of man’s pre-history? there pretender origins appears again! Historians surely select there topics according to their wishes and their social training (and so the values of a particular society are drawn out of them), as Nietzsche would agree. But could this not be explained as a force willing itself into the past to triumphantly assert its existence as either the culmination of the story or as its own hidden, untold greatness? How are we to think of pre-historical humans or even the neighboring species of chimpanzees from which we evolved but from the present moment in which we now conduct our research? The thought of “origins of the human” must dominate any look into pre-history considered by anthropology but not, for instance, biology or ecology – for ’human’ is right there in the name (anthro-) and therefore presupposes its common attributes. It becomes hard not to imagine the forces pushing back on these (perhaps non-human or not-yet-human) communities fearing for their survival and the solidarity born out of the difficulties of tribal-level reproduction.
The will expressed in Graeber is clearly a critical spirit actively preventing logics of domination imposing themselves all around it. Actively engaged in political organizing himself, his grand work has anchored many seeking another world (forcefully). A work like this is an extremely potent force, but one that can sink into moralisms that reintroduce an ideal into an otherwise brilliant work of historical anthropology. Take this passage for example:
“Sometimes people’s “abilities” and “needs” are grossly disproportionate. Genuine egalitarian societies are keenly aware of this and tend to develop elaborate safe-guards around the dangers of anyone – say, especially good hunters, in a hunting society – rising too far above themselves…
Communes or egalitarian collectives in the United States often face similar dilemmas, and they have come up with their own safeguards against creeping hierarchy. It’s not that the tendency for communism to slip into hierarchy is inevitable – societies like the Inuit have managed to fend it off for thousands of years – but rather, that one must always guard against it.” (Debt,115-116)
The activity of safeguarding an ideal is something that Graeber seems to be almost explicitly endorsing. Vigilance toward conformity is itself a powerful force: a reactive force that sees the actively dominant force pouring outside itself and quickly cuts it down (to employ Nietzsche-speak). “Keeping things commie” must entail checking the forces of growth that sprout up one at a time; a leveling force is required to counter act the repeated transgression. This seems to have functioned smoothly in a few societies on the earth – a few. The repetition of preserving a social form and actively preventing others from disrupting that form must be thought as just that: an active that is performed over and over again to keep it in place. The only thing that stops us from calling such a conformity oppressive at this point is by alerting people to the “fact” that our very essence as human is being threatened. The force of dogmatism functions in ways beyond that of simply the state, organized religion, the market, racism, and patriarchy. Keeping a lid on deviancy could be described this way, especially when an ideal is attempted to be held in one’s securely hand – trying to escape.
One could argue, on the contrary, that this Nietzschean force-philosophy is merely the product of a deranged man reared in a social environment of austerity and militancy. The question then would be if this reduction of the work to the surrounding society from which it came is not reemploying the idea of origins as a cause, whether the philosophy is over-determined by its time and place. This brings us to one of the big differences in their style: while the social forms determine the type expressions a culture will take in Graeber, a more intensive forces/power play is operating in Nietzsche. One observes the social-historical with more scientific research at his disposal, the other collapses nature and culture into a single plane of cosmic or planetary fluctuations of power. This seems a legitimate decision one must make regarding just how much one’s social structures define the possibilities and limitations of one’s imagination, and how much is dependent upon more physical forces of the earth/cosmos: a decision that cannot be merely spontaneous but must be a matter of degrees.
Moving along with expanding the tension between the two, Nietzsche makes his own attacks on the spirit of reactive safeguarding impulse very obvious:
“The democratic idiosyncrasy which opposes everything that dominates and wants to dominate, the modern misarchism (to coin an ugly word for an ugly thing) has permeated the realm of the spirit and disguised itself in the most spiritual forms to such a degree that today it has forced its way, has acquired the right to force its way into the strictest, apparently most objective sciences; indeed, it seems to me to have already taken charge of all physiology and theory of life – to the detriment of life, as goes without saying, since it has robbed it of a fundamental concept, that of activity.” (GM,12)
That hatred of rule in “misarchism”, its gaining entrance to science by acquiring the “right” is something despicable for the way in which it subverts the will to power – life’s penchant for activity. The “essence of life” for Nietzsche is primarily about (he will say later in the same paragraph) the “spontaneous, aggressive, expansive, form-giving forces that give new interpretations and directions” (GM,12) during its brighter moments. But does the essence of anarchism necessarily run opposite of this active force? Do they not, and Graeber among them, work tirelessly at creating action-events by willing themselves ever forward against monumental odds and fighting oppression with a counter-force of their own – wherever it rears its ugly head? The impossible demands and slogans of direct action participants like “another world is possible” seem to perfectly suit Nietzsche’s criteria of making new interpretations and expanding the vitality of the scope of the imagination. This is undeniably so in the moments of contention with the state and its “terrible claws”, but also in the networking or solidarity building activity that “grows the movement”. What Nietzsche is railing against is not this em-powering work but the use of back-door strategies of obtaining rights and hearings from the big-bad state. When the tide is diminished and activity wanes, the reactive forces that get sucked into the comfortable subordination of the state or the marketplace machine are the type that are so deplorable. Appealing to dominant power’s inner-moral-feelings and accruing concessions is exactly the result of an approach that focuses on “rights” and the contractual relationship. The two writers considered here understand this very well: human rights and reciprocal fairness remain within a logic of ethical conduct that presupposes the religious institutions set up inside of the state/market form. This is the direct action strategy that Graeber endorses and practices: setting up alternative structures to the state/market model and then ignoring the state, standing guard against capital circulating through it (Capitalist-free zones). The difference is that Nietzsche resists the humanism that fits within that state-market-morality form as well, with Graeber retaining a primal humanity he believes exist apart from it. I add the primal to his more explicit humanism, considering the anthropological nature of his investigation into the common threads found in humanity as a whole and the basic congenial relatability he posits in it.
Looking back to Graeber’s Debt with this covert morality of primal humanism in mind, we’ll next come to some of the insightful findings of the ethnographic study and infuse Nietzsche’s emphasis on active forgetting and forces so as to refine Graeber’s anarchism.
The idea of a common communal humanity in baseline communism coursing throughout Debt is an alternative moral foundation to the ’rights’ discourse, which it ruthlessly uproots – particularly in in the chapter “Honor and Degradation: or, on the foundation of contemporary civilization”. Here we get definitions of slavery (“the ultimate form of being ripped from one’s contexts, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being.”), and honor (“surplus dignity” p.168). These definitions are contestable. But the real clincher in this chapter that is worth spending the most time on is the discussion of how ancient civilizations and their discourses on legal and religious norms have persisted, coloring our own talk in the vast majority of the public realm. From the heroic societies like Greece and Rome that passed down their terminology and social structures underpinning them, we have received dilemmas that last to this day: property rights and, more generally, the idea of possessing rights at all. The ethical conundrums that rise from this (and these issues, it should be noted, arise in market and war based states) have defined entire subsequent traditions that make up both the convoluted system of laws that are supposed to mete out justice and the roots of patriarchy.
Here again the assertion of the nature of a society – it’s covering-over of communism with some selection of debt logics, equalization, hierarchies, and violence – produces a more-or-less well categorized type of people and set of issues with which the society must struggle to find solutions to. The social forms that overtake the community indicate the moral problems that take shape. Cultures of war and commerce tend to become confused and concerned by the rising indebtedness of large amounts of its population and the powerful individuals inside of it tend to feel threatened by money, taking drastic measures to make it publicly known that there honor is beyond the equivalences brought on by the universal value of money. Graeber argues convincingly (with plenty of footnotes and scientific backing) that the phenomenon of money and debt, together with the organized violence of the state and its warriors, prefigures the emergence of a tradition of ethics/morality found in the academies, the laws, and the religions – traditions whose base of words and ideas have persisted into our present day and have extended around much of the globe from the Mediterranean civilizations (namely, Rome).
In short, as trade began expanding in Greece, money became central to the daily life of the citizens of the cities. Aristocrats and warriors wanted to ensure that their estates were not subject to the equalizing power of money. So as “money introduced a democratization of desire” and everybody needed it for the basic necessities of life (p.190), one’s honor became a measure of how far one could keep themselves from the vile dictates of the marketplace. With the widespread appearance of coinage in a marketplace that seemed to envelope the entire society, making-do without recourse to commerce and trade became a status symbol. Rather than flaunting one’s wealth, the honor of the warrior was measured by how far he could distance himself from wealth in the eyes of his fellow citizens: “money, then, had passed from a measure of honor to a measure of everything that money was not. To suggest that a man’s honor could be bought with money would be a terrible insult -” (p.188). Eliminating risk and making a secure financial future for oneself ran counter to these warriors’ ideals. The extravagance of the wealthy is in stark opposition to “martial honor”: “A warrior’s honor is his willingness to play a game in which he stakes everything. His grandeur is directly proportional to how far he can fall.” (p.189). It was the mass market that sprang up in the Mediterranean cities along the coasts that made the circulation of money more fluid, spreading the equalizing transactions of minted coins for goods that occupied the previous system of credit and debt. The heroic warrior mentality had to morph into the struggle to remain above this ubiquity and to retain the cherished greatness that comes from the risk and victory of battle. This became keeping a tight hold on their house, lording over their property: “This extreme fear of dependency on others’ whims lies at the basis of the Greek obsession with the self-sufficient household.” (p.190). One could say that the warrior’s penchant for conquest and glory (codified by the honor and renown placed on him by his neighbors) was domesticated (quite literally) by money and markets, or even captured by the colonial machine.
Transitioning from Greece to Rome, property becomes the central theme of the complex laws that were drawn up in order to settle disputes in Ancient Rome. These basic concepts of property ownership have since been translated into the more idealistic notions of freedom, liberty, and rights as being “possessed” or “owned” by individuals from a legal-contractual point of view. The Roman Empire it seems most effectively conquered the world through its laws, for “Roman law has come to provide the language and conceptual underpinnings of legal and constitutional orders everywhere.” The hang-up of Roman law, its dilemma that caused difficulty in formulating particular laws was that “[i]n Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems.” Considering, as Graeber does, that property laws are not about people in relation to things but “an understanding or arrangement between people concerning things” (p.198), one can see how slavery fits in so easily in Rome: when the law is based on ownership of things in a society with much commerce and conquest, supposedly equal relationships with people can fall very quickly into master and slave.
“In creating a notion of dominium, then, and this creating the modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth – that is, to every other sort of thing the law had to do with.” (p.201)
As the structures of the state and the markets that developed between and inside them became more stable in the empire that was Rome, the laws also became more important in clearly defining when and where someone could fall into slavery and what control the city had over the people. The house-hold became the place where the male citizen could exercise his dominance over everything within it. Graeber notes how ’dominate’ and ’domestic’ have the same root in the Latin ’domus’. It was in Imperial Rome then that property was inscribed in the laws as a *right that one *has, so as to provide the space where the citizen could still lord-over in a world dominated itself by the twin pincers of commercial exchange (coinage, profits, debts, etc.) and outright war.
This is the hidden underside of the noble and ideal notions that circulate (as if they had the currency of a coin) in the discourse of so many communities, cities, and nations to this day: owning one’s freedom, saying “I have rights” is a derivative of Roman property law that codified the transition from master to slave within the empire. To have rights or own liberties also means that one can sell them. We are free to give up our freedom so to speak; given the predominance of markets and the need to make money to stay afloat in necessities of life, this was bound to happen. When freedom takes on the characteristic of property and rights are owned, we presuppose the individual person – as isolated and naturally independent – and sort of commodify it, as if we could take this thing that we own (our freedom) and sell it, or buy someone else’s.
“At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty… to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society…” (p.210)
These concepts have worked their way into our collective consciousness by way of translated texts that could travel along the Roman-built roads and the continuity of the Christain Church afterwards. The ownership of rights and liberties as property of individuals extends from Rome to western Europe to the American colonies to the rhetoric of protesters seeking redress for the pain and torment inflicted by this model of imperial warfare. With increasingly efficient war machinery and the capture of territories by the creation of markets and indebted nations, the lexicon of those who resist is for the most part still colored by the Roman heritage of the colonizers. Demands and ideals for redress of grievances or assertions of autonomy take the form of already having the right to self-determination (at best) or seeking to gain rights and the respect from the greater countries (worse). Graeber will labor on and on about the violence behind this, as if the whole edifice was held together by the brute threat of beating people up or killing them at the bottom of it, or else the violence done by demanding equivalent repayment for one’s monied debts (perhaps with interest). He seems to want to constantly remind us of this in order to draw on our moral affectations, which he has provided a ground for in baseline communism. Appealing to these sentiments is a strategy that invokes a desire to be rid of the entire structure of civilization, states, and money so as to allow for the primitive-communistic allocation of needs to all in our closest proximity (tribe maybe). So, unearthing the origins of our tarnished present turns out to be an exercise in replacing them with new origins: those of humanity.
But what happened to the honor of the Greek warrior obsessed with remaining outside the money system? If we are not to overdetermine the behavior of these warriors by pointing to their society of origin, then we can say that they were a form (albeit a privileged form) of resistance to the logic of money and markets. The reverence for honor that develops in response to the rise of markets and the moral conundrums they produce could be described as a safeguarding of one’s greater force from the flattening out a population of people. The public displays of one’s non-monetary worth in extravagant gift-giving is here reactive to the burgeoning influence of money in their cities and towns; but as to the origins of the warrior ideal itself, we do not receive from Graeber any explanations besides “violence” – which is clearly meant to have shock value and offend the reader’s sensibilities. The state and the forced imposition of symmetry in repayment assume the entirety of the blame for the violence of war and the desire of the honor-bound.
We need not resort to a social-determinism to explain why cultures become violent. On the other hand, we cannot assert that people are violent “by nature”. This simple dichotomy of contingent social forms/natural certainty (nature/nurture or “social construction”/essence) is precisely the quagmire that Nietzsche helps us get over in casting off and poking-fun at the narrative of origins. An origin-story must be retold over and over again to the young student, molding the subject and its soft, sculptable body for it to survive the flow of time. An origin can only ever live on in the memory of a body-politic and the narrative it communicates to itself; to be *forced into remembering the violence of the origin, its obscene counterpart to the glossy coating, does not get us beyond the logic of states, debt, or ’human rights.’ Understanding the forces bearing down on these bodies-politic does. For instance, the harsh mountainous geology of Greece made cities more isolated from each other, its close geographic proximity to the Persian Empire, sticking out into a sea with a history of once established civilizations and favorable wind patterns, and, yes, the rise of coinage and markets all contributed as *forces to a heroic society of war (See John Protevi, ’Geophilosophy: War and Earth’ in *Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences). But to take the origin-search this far would be to analyze so much detail as to take us out of the strictly social realm and into the earth-physical forces that always intermingle with the unique social structures of any given group of people. Nietzsche’s force-philosophy can’t take us their, for the advancement of the sciences had not allowed him to. But dissolving the attachment to origins rhetorically and reminding us to forget them so as to deal with what is in front of us in the near future is something at which Nietzsche was masterful. His diagnoses were restricted to the metaphors and scientific advancement of his time, but he could look past the symbols containing social currency and find other forces at work.
The alternative history of an idea we get from Graeber with the beginnings of human rights discourse in Roman property laws (and the domesticated warrior shrunk into his house, while the Empire expands) serves to reevaluate the entire progressivist terminology. The ideals that get in the way of a true communistic autonomy turn out to be the ones that get used by people supposedly on its side. Demanding rights isn’t a radical alternative to the existing order of things, but merely a demand for access to it: a seat at the table in global dominance. “Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn’t really have them in the first place.” (p.210). But it takes little more than a cover-to-cover reading of Debt to see that the alternative moral framework proposed is a primitive humanism, where periodic debt cancellation was normal in order to stave off deserting citizens and rebellious mobs. This does differ qualitatively from pretty much all of the dead-end strategies and rhetoric of contemporary (pseudo-)resistances to Capitalism, but it merely reverses the progressive faith in the future socialist state that tames Capitalism by growing bigger than it with a harkening back to a time of innocence. Rather than everyone gaining rights and owning a well-defined property/territory that separates them from an exploitative market or state military-force (aka the police), a community “before violence” asserts itself underneath the layers of intrusive social organization. The reversal is similar to Nietzsche’s “reevaluation of all values” but stops short at his search for “the overman” that would go beyond man. Essentially, if we strip down to the base(line) community, we would get to live out the goodness of each other’s company without any aggressiveness (just keep the exceptionally skilled one’s from gaining any distance!).
The progressivist humanism of rights accumulation differs from the primordial humanism of communization, but still remains a humanism. Lacking a nuanced understanding of the potential forces awaiting actualization, strategic maneuvering against something as powerful as the state or the market thought as totalized wholes relies on their negative moralization. We do not get beyond this moral framework (humanism) by singling out the violence of the state and the logic of debt and sticking all of the blame on them. This merely perpetuates the weak position of the pure, human resistor knocking at the great big castle doors of the corrupt state. A counter-power that frees itself from the grip of the state might not have to become conscious of itself as a force until the moment it faces real forceful opposition, but repeating the morality of the oppressors indefinitely will keep the counter-power to a limited scale. Movements must be able to grow and foster the expanding, aggressive impulse that marks a vital body.
While Graeber gives us the opposing ethic of the primal anarchist against the progressivist ethic of a more equitable, inclusive future, Nietzsche simply wouldn’t have made this distinction – he observed in the texts of revolutionaries manifested during his life a hatred of rule and a despising of what he thought to be most essential to the forces of life. Mutual aid, solidarity, and communal living can be incorporated into the Nietzschean affirmation of creative forces unkept by weakness and resentment, but today – I would contend – only as a movement or campaign. People are constantly asking each other about the next move, the next event during the course of struggle. How to keep moving on and whether the group is growing or dying, strengthening or weakening, or waxing or waning (if the previous two are too dramatic) is always being assessed by participants of a campaign or an emerging body with a political agenda.
Graeber perhaps too easily selects his own version of anarchism without picking out precisely what in anarchism remains philosophical-moralistically progressive. On the flip side, his access to vast historical records allows him to build a convincing argument about social-historical change from the (moral) ground up. Science itself, however, has a clearly visible progressivist streak that someone as sensitive to triumphalist narratives like he would do well to look into, that is, regarding an historical telos. The early revolutionary theorists of Europe were heavily influenced by Hegel and the progressive model historical change. A flow of history recorded in the archives and redeployed in massive (usually nationalistic) volumes made for a sentiment that the movement of time was getting better and better, eventually to reach an ideal state, or absence thereof. It is precisely this mixture of metaphysics (in the classic sense of causation and beginning/ends in nature; not physics) and history that Nietzsche could only bear with rage:
“The evolution of a thing, a custom, an organ is this by no means its progressus toward a goal, even less a logical progressus by the shortest route and with the smallest expenditure of force – but a succession of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions. The form is fluid, but the “meaning” is even more so.” (GM,12)
But Graeber does not take the progressivist stance of his predecessors. He believes his work to be proceeding along lines beyond that of classical anarchism, but doesn’t want to ascribe to anything but anarchism. Anarchism is only but a practice and kind of verb to him and he rejects to serious an affiliation with the classical figureheads of Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin. Recent work has been done by people like Todd May, Duanne Rousselle, and Saul Newman among others in mixing Nietzschean, post-Nietzschean, or postructuralist philosophy with anarchism in a body of literature provisionally titled “post-anarchism”. Graeber himself has written about the “new anarchists” and I think would benefit from engaging with post-anarchism. But anarchists often have a hard time getting over the French-wave of intellectual celebrity in the later part of the twentieth century and reading some damn Foucault. In fact, much of the general thrust of my argument can gleaned from his essay Nietzsche Genealogy History.
The reason for bringing all of this progressivism up is to remind us of some of the pretenses from which a great deal of the revolutionary action comes from and from which the massive work of anthropology in Debt doesn’t so much remain in line with as reverse. Debt does this by grounding itself and advocating a return to debt jubilee, but such an action of canceling all the debts could only be accomplished by a sovereign whose moral authority is robbed by a baseline communism. Is Graeber using a primitivism morality to try and convince a state authority to relieve the peasants, so that we could do it all all over again? Or is he demonstrating the necessity of a debt cancellation prophetically? I doubt it would be either of these; he is pointing the way towards resistance and I am trying to give it more oomph.
The force that would bring about something new must also forget the past of origins and be strong enough to do so, and perhaps must also be strong enough to create new origins.
Let’s return to Nietzsche. At the culmination of Nietzsche’s parody-narrative of debt and legal contracts as the origin of morals and guilt, we get the most odd twist of logic produced from carrying out a bad thought to its consequences. If debts are at the heart of ethics and business transactions are the first instance of men’s measurement against each other, the valuations found in Christianity and other similarly monotheistic religious doctrines must be too. As tribes advance to greater strength, each time more deeply indebted to their ancestors, to the gods, then finally to the ultimate God of pure credit for bestowing the whole universe (with a more personal touch), the debt becomes the heaviest burden imaginable – an all knowing, all seeing, all powerful whole to complement the hole in one’s soul. An individual’s relationship with such a being could only raise the stakes to epic proportions.
“…suddenly we stand before the paradoxical and horrifying expedient that afforded temporary relief for tormented humanity, that stroke of genius on the part of Christianity: God himself makes payment to himself for the guilt of mankind, God sacrifices himself for the guilt of mankind, God himself makes payment to himself, God as the only being who can redeem man form what has become up redeemable for man himself – the creditor sacrifices himself for his debtor, out of love (can one credit that?) out of love for his debtor!” (GM,21)
It is a truly ridiculous story in which God does all the accounting work for a weak and sinful lot of people. The great God-Creditor sacrifices his son to pay off a debt not to anyone else but to himself. As Graeber repeatedly notes, people actually would sell off their children onto slavery or otherwise to pay off debts, but this is no debtor paying back a loan, it is God paying back himself for someone else’s debts: the ineradicable sin of mortals. One cannot rid oneself of original sin, yet God sent his son to die for us anyways and rid Him (the great Creditor) of His (nonexistent) debts. Hence the precisely effective meme that spreads like a virus amongst people with anything resembling a market: “Jesus died for your sins.” The great creditor in the sky is said to have sacrificed his own son the way a debtor would, but only to pay himself back. All of us sinners remain in debt in essence but are unable to top God’s sacrifice – we remain infinitely in debt.
A good reader will focus on the immediately preceding section 22 and see that this is a fable and not the full picture of debt and morality. This talk of debt and credit has reached its limit and we must come down from heaven to meet the pangs of forces:
“You will have guessed what has really happened here, beneath all this: that the will to self-tormenting, that repressed cruelty of the animal-man made inward and scared back into himself, the creature imprisoned in the “state” so as to be tamed, who invented the bad conscience in order to hurt the more natural vent for this desire to hurt had been blocked – this man of the bad conscience has seized upon the presupposition of religion so as to drive his self-torture to its most gruesome pitch of severity and rigor. Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him.”
The man of bad conscience that Nietzsche describes is not the debtor but the one kept from its own outward expression and the conquering impulse by training, punishment, fear, and the state. These techniques and formations are what prevent the will to life from its fulfillment; this is what is “really” going on here. The religious garb is a spiritual cover to feelings of internalized oppression:
“All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward – this is what I call the internalization of man: this it was that man first developed what later was called his “soul.”” (GM,16)
Nietzsche’s real is contrasted with Graeber’s real: the forces of internalization that scare and push back against the body vs. the foundations of our humanity in communal affection.
The extent to which a foundational humanism can be swallowed up by the forces of resentment that Nietzsche diagnosed is determined by the way such a humanism is deployed against the reprehensible systems and statues of the state, the pastorate, the corporations, etc. If they only work so as to reinforce the power relationship by taking hold of the moral logic of the master and attempting to use it against power (when it was perfected and deployed as an art of subjugation), then we will only get caught up in the same loops that plague the (human) “rights” discourse. Graeber can see through the contractual rights framework but not the humanism of the pastorate.
So where does this leave us? If something like a jubilee that Graeber suggest at the end of Debt is going to happen, then I think some of the intellectual work done by Nietzsche and his predecessors would be well taken by other anarchists and Debt Strikers. To put the active back into the name activist, those feelings of joy, empowerment, and expansion should take precedence over moralizing and the pining for the communistic purity of human decency. The strategy of appealing to a moral sense of community does indeed have a role to play, but it can only take one so far. In the ancient civilizations that Graeber would have us look back on and learn from, a great deal of people had to flee their homes en mass and, if that was not enough, form militias to sack the capitals to challenge their indebtedness and their banishment:
“The pastoral fringes, the deserts and steppes away from the river valleys, were the places to which displaced, indebted farmers fled. Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one’s flocks and families – often before both were taken away. There were always tribal peoples living on the fringes. During good times, they began to take to the cities; in hard times their numbers swelled with refugees – farmers who effectively became Enkidu once again. Then, periodically, they would create their own alliances and sweep back into the cities once again as conquerors.” (Debt, p.183)
We could always try and implore the sovereign to take pity on our destitution, but when they listen almost exclusively to financiers and the businesses that have ascended into their position as big market players, the chance of that working is going to be small. Politicians tend to make decisions based on the pressures surrounding them, the ones that got them into the position they are in and could remove them very soon. If we revert back to the early forms of civilization, then resisting debt would have to eventually take the form of a counter-force of people who feel as if they had no future – as if the only option available to them was too escape. However, to assemble a new body-politic with enough force and vitality to withstand the pressures from the established forced bearing down on it with its debt-inducing machines would be another option that skips the exodus altogether. The only escape would be right into the middle of the political by doing the most political thing one can do in times of crisis: assembling as a collective body in those places where public assembly could still happen. There we would find the force to back up the demand for debt cancellation.
Which isn’t to say that such a force would be explicitly a collection of debtors or take the fulfillment of a particular demand against debt as goal. People have their critiques against the refusal of repayment, and the reciprocal-contractual morality of the market weighs heavily on the people as subjects. Both Nietzsche and Graeber are in agreement here. The new community of people that springs forth from that assembly in all of its force and vivacity is also something whose relevance and power is hard for anyone to disagree on. But, in attempts to make more than merely a semantic point, that body will need to recognize itself as a force to be reckoned with at some point and not just a rekindling of a humanity long lost on a social atmosphere permeated by the immoral, unjust, or otherwise hated prospect of war and financial solvency.
When people are organized (however loosely) together horizontally in these common places, what is produced is no mere static entity but a vibrant body that cannot help itself from expanding and growing large. The emergent body cannot be separated from its force – the power and ability the body has in influencing surrounding forces. A major and perhaps defining feature of such a body is the potential to act out of its own vitality as well as reproduce itself. The attributes of such a body are always context specific, but the immediacy of a rupture in the fabric of power relations is felt throughout all bodies affected.
Running through Nietzsche’s essay we have found that the memory calling upon the individual to keep tabs on oneself and keep account of its contractual affairs with others is not only a laughable way to speak of morality but pernicious. When taken to its extreme, it displays the weakness of the line of reasoning and the weakness it induces in creating the person of “bad conscience” or resentful one who cannot express their emotions outwardly, keeping them harbored so as to let them fester and render one more or less impotent. The priest of the church and the confession booth work on the subjection of of the individual so as to “force” a retreat back inside of itself. In the realistic-forceful take on morality, the symbols of worship and the ideas of “original sin” are merely the surface of a more docile population of self-regulating bodies. This same morality is taken up by Graeber although in a primal humanist manner in his baseline communism. Such a “baseline” suggests that no debt burden or criminal act could fall below it, for we are all humans at the bottom line.
More important than discovering a steady foundation for humanity, a collective political body must actualize itself as a force to rework the financial and political constraints on us as individuals. Casting off the memories burned into us through institutional training and actively forgetting the past rather than bringing us back to them (here as moral foundations) would be mark of strength.
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.>
From John Protevi’s Life War Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences:
“Now in thinking about the geo– of geohistory, we have to recognize first of all that the French word terre in A Thousand Plateaus has various meanings that interweave ontologically and politically in what I have elsewhere called political physics (Protevi 2001). Terre has at least four registers, the first three of which are equivalent to the English “earth” and the fourth to the English “land” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987). In A Thousand Plateaus, earth is (1) equivalent to the virtual plane of consistency on which strata are imposed (Deleuze and Guattari 1987); (2) part of the earth-territory (terre-territories) system of romanticism, the gathering point, outside all territories, of “forces of the earth” for intensive territorial assemblages (333-39); and (3) the “new earth” (une nouvelle terre), the correlate of absolute deterritorialization, tapping “cosmic forces” or new potentials for creation (423; 509-10). Land, by contrast, is terre that is constituted by the overcoding of territories under the signifying regime and the State apparatus (440-41).” (p.43)
I am not so sure about that one bit from the second sense of terre – that it is “outside all territories”. As I recall, D & G repeatedly call it the “close embrace” at the “heart” of the territory. This would make it inside but also intensive; in fact, “pure intensity.”
Well said from Terrance Blake at Agent Swarm
Zizek has given an interesting perspective to frame current discussions on the dangers of relativism in terms of a struggle for cultural hegemony:
“We are witnessing today the struggle for intellectual hegemony — for who will occupy the universal place of the “public intellectual” — between postmodern-deconstructionist cultural studies and the cognitivist popularizers of “hard” sciences” (Zizek, “Lacan Between Cultural Studies And Cognitivism”).
Deleuze talks about this struggle for intellectual hegemony in terms of the aspiration of various discipines to become “the official language of a Pure State” (DIALOGUES, 13). The ancient supremacy of philosophy has been superseded by new contenders: psychoanalysis, linguistics, and cognitive science, but the favorite is an even vaguer stereotype, “Science”, associated with an equally vague materialist-cum-naturalist hermeneutics. In each case we have a new “interiority”, i.e. the very opposite of the transversality that Deleuze and others call for, that combines various disciplines on…
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In my last Politics of Debt post, I went through Graeber’s three categories of society, which function to isolate certain distinct social phenomena playing on human relationships: Baseline Communism, Exchange, and Hierarchy. Careful to keep separate the morality that might follow the anthropologist himself from the immense store of facts and recordings on diverse societies that he has researched, my goal is to capture the logic of debt. Amongst the thinkers and scientists in their books and discoveries, could there lie a peculiar social relationship – debtor/creditor – that we could target for achieving a maximum ameliorative effect on society at large? Aside from the quest for an understanding of debt, an emancipatory project could emanate from such a skillful targeting; debt has been used to harm people and communities with a burning intensity as of late, and bringing into question debt and morality (and the interplay of the two) has the potential to reverse our fortunes.
The concern at the moment of the book is the question of money. Money in Graeber’s analysis is not quite a commodity (gold coins flying around marketplaces and as taxation) and not quite a credit or debt. “Thus money is almost always something hovering between a commodity and a debt-token.” (p.75) Both of these explanations for the nature of money correspond to their own mythical origin stories: commodity-money has the myth of barter (where all early societies are inefficiently trading item for item before coinage saves them from their savagery) while credit theories have the myth of primordial debt (where the debts are owed to the ancestors and the state, forming the eventual basis of money). Money thought of as an IOU, a mere promise by one person/party to another person/party, eventually finds its way into the social whole as a thing to be indebted to, with its head being the sovereign collecting taxes. When money is conceived as credit for paying back debts (a purely social arrangement depending on the actors involved), or, conversely, as a “debt-token” (where all money in circulation is a piece of the great debt, with society at large the creditor), then we get primordial debt theories with their infinite indebtedness to a social totality (the myth being a cosmic state, with a sovereign watching over the value of money).
The distinction between commodity-money(myth of barter) and credit/debt-money(myth of primordial debts) is the grey area where money actually lives according to Graeber. In theorizing money, an origin story of a mythical other time has been traditionally posited to give a sense of grounding to commercial value in exchange. The coins or paper or numbers on a computer screen circulating in exchange for commodities, greasing the wheels of commerce, are sometimes thought as commodities themselves and sometimes as either credit or debt. Thinking of money as one or the other instead of both sides of the “coin” leads to an idealized picture of either the great Market or the great State.
Regarding credit/debt money:
“Credit theorists insist that money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. If 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.
The obvious next question is: if money is just a yardstick, what then does it measure? The answer was simple: debt. A coin is, effectively, an IOU. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that a banknote is simply the promise to pay a certain amount of “real money” (gold, silver, or whatever that might be taken to mean), credit theorists argued that a banknote is simply the promise to pay back something of the same value as an ounce of gold. But that’s all that money ever is.” (p.46)
This conception of money is espoused by the Chartalists. Money is only the token of debt that is kicked off by a promise from one person to pay back another in equal proportion. During the time it is not payed back, the token can be circulated or passed on to another, third party who treats the debt-token as redeemable currency. It all works out just fine as long as the trust between all parties is held up and the original debtor is good for the payback. But when you get to larger economic systems, the question of trust becomes more tenuous and a guarantor with power must step in to ensure the worth of the debt-token become money. Regardless of who or what acts as the guarantor of the value of the currency is unimportant, as long as the confidence in the value of the currency is consistent throughout the society. Citing the historian G.F. knapp, Graeber writes:
“If money is simply a unit of measure, it makes sense that emperors and kings should concern themselves with such matters. Emperors and kings are almost always concerned to established to uniform systems of weights and measures throughout their kingdoms. It is also true, as Knapp observed, that once established, such systems tend to remain remarkably stable over time.” (p.48)
He goes on to remark that Charlemagne’s monetary system remained intact for over 800 years, despite the fact that the empire he ruled dissolved very soon after he took over. The point is that when money is thought of as a mere outgrowth of the credit/debt system that naturally occurs in normal social relationships, then a currency that expands into the macroeconomy and beyond a small village can only be kept secure by a bigger government entity like a king. Kings then take their power as sovereigns and keepers of the debt-token’s value and pay their armies to fight enemies and/or colonize those neighboring peoples around them. Tax collecting sucks up a portion of the money circulating through their domain and now a portion of that dispersed debt concentrates into the hands of a military protecting the people, or else plundering and expanding to the wishes of the rulers. This is the story under the Chartalist or state credit theories of money.
The argument hinges on the debts incurred from ordinary people going into debt with one another and then circulating those debt-tokens to create a state-wide market with security. These debts are conceived by the state theorists to preexist itself, originating from debts to one’s family, ancestors, neighbors, gods, and society itself.
“The core argument is that any attempt to separate monetary policy from social policy is ultimately wrong. Primordial-debt theorists insist that these have always been the same thing. Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.” (p.56)
Society itself is the originator of debts, and, therefore, the state-currencies with an official emblem minted on gold slabs are merely the standardizing process for what we all owe to “society.” As to what society is and how we pay it back for the generosity in being our great creditor, accounts will vary. Primordial-debt theorists go so far as to invoke early religious texts involving indebtedness as an existential situation. Lifelong debts, sacrifices to the gods – forces of the cosmos to which we are all indebted, the etymology of the words ‘debt’ as being synonymous with ‘sin’ and ‘guilt’: these ideas and practices all justify the authority that the sovereign claims in collecting taxes and making its subjects use the money that it stamped.
Cosmic religious doctrines that make us stand in relation to the All or God take up the condition of indebtedness and universalized it. A second step in the story comes from the primordial-debt economists:
“The ingenious move of course is to fold this back into the state theory of money – since by “sovereign powers” Théret actually means “the state.” The first kings were sacred kings who were either gods in their own right or stood as privileged mediators between human beings and the ultimate forces that govern the cosmos. This set us on a road to the gradual realization that our debt to the gods was always, really, a debt to the society that made us what we are.” (p.58)
This is how the myth of the state accompanies credit/debt theories of money and chartalism, that is, when very large societies and kingdoms develop. It is a story that justifies and solidifies the role of the sovereign as the guarantor of the value of the currency – the trust that this coin will be redeemed somewhere down the line of exchanges and can be taken by another for some tangible goods right now. The sovereign, the state, the king all “capitalize” on an original debt to society, which they have taken up and quantified into taxation.
“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. This is just as much a problem for credit theorists as for neoclassical economists, even if the problem for them is somewhat differently framed.” (p.59)
What Graeber is doing is showing how monetary theorists seeking an explanation for the creation of money and taxes have wittingly or unwittingly created a myth that has drawn on ancient myths about primordial indebtedness like in the Vedas. The teachings of the primordial indebtedness to the cosmos “lend” very well to the sovereign who wishes to command respect from its subjects and take enough of the output from its territory (in soldier’s bodies, weapons, etc.) to wage war. In the earliest civilizations, sovereigns were also in the position to wipe out all of the debts and restart the process of exchange with a “clean-slate.” This was done because of pressure exerted on them by a crumbling community situation, where people were fleeing their impossible debt and the selling off of their freedom and their children’s freedom to cover the cost of accumulating debt. But it was the “cosmic pretensions” of the sovereign that allowed them to do this.
How could we come to think of ourselves as being in debt to “society”? Graeber believes that these grand debts to existence, gods, and kings stem from a myth of the state or the nation.
“…in the idea of primordial debt, is the ultimate nationalist myth. Voice we owed out lives to the gods that created us, paid interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and ultimately paid back the principal with out 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.” (p.71)
He sees the state as the main perpetrator of self-promoting myths but going even farther than that he proposes the very word society as a kind of nationalist entity. Projecting themselves backward, nations envision their own well-organized composition into the past:
“What makes the concept of society so deceptive is that we assume the world is organized into a series of compact, modular units called “societies,” and that all people know which one they’re in. Historically, this is very rarely the case.” (p.66)
“The reason that it seems like such a simple, self-evident concept is because we mostly use it as a synonym for “nation.” After all, when Americans speak of paying their debt to society, they are not thinking of their responsibilities to people who live in Sweden. It’s only the modern state, with its elaborate border controls and social policies, that enables us to imagine “society” in this way, as a single bounded entity. This is why projecting that notion backwards into Vedic or Medieval times will always be deceptive, even though we don’t really have another word.” (p.69)
In questing for the origins of money and debt, we have been led into uncertainty concerning the very social cohesion one usually takes for granted. The state assures its subjects that it will guarantee the value of its currency and that it is the supreme entity towards which one is indebted. Those economists and neoliberals seeking a non-state theory of money tend to appeal to the other great myth: the Market. We seemed to be caught between two myths in thinking about money. It is the quintessential form of abstract value turned into something material; an imaginary “current” flowing throughout the land and sea which is at the same time the most immediate “real” concern for people’s lives.
So society is stuck in mythology as well, but wither the baseline communism? The basic commonality of humans that I described in the last post is functioning as Graeber’s “real” to the fictions of States and Markets. The fictional state assures us that the official money is good for exchange (redeemable for all debts) and manipulates the religious logic of cosmic indebtedness to its own advantage; the Market is the fictional “other” of the state that does indeed exert its forces of demand, labor, technology, supply, geography, etc. on money, but would not exist without that common exchangeable currency. These two poles are theories in economics but make use of myths to explain just what money is, its origin.
Graeber believes that money goes through shifting periods of being a commodity (backed by something material and stable like gold) and credit-based as in a fiat system. Money in all cases is both a commodity and a debt-token, but the money system, printing or coining a currency and regulating its value in trade by a state, goes through big cycles of being tied to a material or tied to the credit/debt arrangement. This financial arrangement of the economy (meaning banks peddling debt and multiplying there money to astronomical proportions based solely on that debt) is crucial at the macro scale.
This thing that streams all value into a standard number keeps that value thanks to the confusion between two myths. The foundations may be shaky, but we continue on in spite of the mystification as to what money is. Taking another step forward, we might ask: “what does it matter whether money has a sure origin? It works just fine.” This is a question of the importance of origins, and will have to be taken up in the next post.