Graeber, Dual Power, and Monetary Reform

A friend of mine asked me to explain what it means for Graeber to say that he is an anarchist in the context of money and banking and this was my response, expanded for the blog post:

Graeber calls himself a “little a” anarchist in that he is not tied down by the ideology or any of the big names in the canon and considers it a principle of practicing politics. Anarchism mostly just means “without rulers” and the model of decision-making, the process a meeting takes on, is more important to him and other practically-minded activists that also use it. It is called the consensus model and, when done right (which is actually much harder than he makes it out to be in my experience), it is an extremely powerful and uplifting tool for organizing ourselves. The ideal in the consensus model is that a solution to a problem is worked out through deliberation that everyone can agree on. Voting is not desired but sometimes necessary when the group gets too big, but the intention is that the best solution for all people involved is reached with everyone getting to participate.

So when he talks about himself as an anarchist, it is the consensus process and direct action outside of/without communication with government agencies that he is mostly referring to. It sure as hell worked wonders during the occupy movement, but there were plenty of other factors that propelled and also hampered that movement. When you break it down, (little-a) anarchism is about self-rule instead of command rule. In a general assembly, people don’t interrupt (I love this), get on a stack (a serial list of who will talk next), clarify and debate proposals, take “temperature-checks” (in lieu of voting), and communicate non-verbally with hand-signals. It is very involving and gives everyone a sense that their thoughts actually matter and will have an effect on the course of the greater body-politic.

This style of self-organization will have limits when it comes to making policy in the present state of government, so legitimacy in the agencies of power and our liberal society is definitely lacking. The model itself comes off as antagonistic to the rest of our law-based, market oriented society because it refuses to negotiate or make demands. Although, there is no reason why some group of folks couldn’t consent on doing so. An anarchist, on the other hand, tends to hate the state as a quasi-religious ideological tenet. It started out as a humanistic desire for a non-violent world where nations did not continually embroil their populations in ruinous wars. It has spread deeper into culture with punk music – “don’t tell me what to do!”, hippies – “make love not war, man”, and the general protest politics that got big in the sixties. From the mid 1800’s until then, it was mainly thought of in the political economy sense of an alternative to capitalism that espoused grassroots revolution against all forms of oppression. Worker movements like the IWW or Wobblies wanted to use the power of the recent uprisings for a world run by those who work rather than those who profit off of them. They tended to be nomadic and were better organized before they were crushed, provoking many strikes by workers toiling in horrid conditions.

There are anarchists who are utopian socialists and engage in prefigurative politics like the syndicalists, but they generally refuse to take power and limit themselves to something like: “destroy all the states in a total revolution with a maximally invigorated population!” What comes afterward is up to your imagination, but I think some of the more committed anarchists would just continue fighting whoever seizes the obviously inevitably power vacuum that would result – probably until they are all dead. I think Graeber and those like him would be less militaristic, opting instead for constant organizing to the side of whatever government takes shape. However, there is something inherently aggressive in occupying space and claiming it for your own, marching around nearby (loudly and breaking shit occasionally), and defying all other mandates and orders but those you have crafted on your own inside. He makes the point that the Occupy movement was the most non-violent movement of its size though, probably ever. He also makes the point that occupying is somewhat of an aggressive assertion of a mass of people.

Some anarchists like to emphasize the ancient times before states and organized religion as if they were the manifestation of a timeless grassroots earth-people. It’s actually kind of appealing, until you notice the romantic folly of mixing ideals from the present, the historical past, and the ancient past and saying that underneath them there’s a timeless one that I’ve got. Still though, mythology and elemental worshipping sounds better to me than monotheism – if you have to have something of a cohesive cultural understanding through spiritual agents.

As for the debt subordinating nations and democracy, he gets most of his economic insights from Michael Hudson. He’s just a far better writer. Hudson talks about the nefarious ways in which America subordinates other nations to its interests being largely a result of its international monetary practices between the large, economically and militarily powerful nations. The U.S. has operated on a double standard for decades and forced the victorious allies after both world wars to repay it for supplies. It was through unwavering debt repayment that the U.S. got Britain to relinquish its status as top nation in the world, and the money shortages after WWI due to debt services to the U.S. all but directly caused the Great Depression. Since then, as you probably know, nations are under the illusion that they need to borrow money before it is created. But is it a failure in economic thinking or a veiled threat from the U.S.? If nations begin to print their own money debt-free and do anything socialistic like nationalize their industries, their currency will be attacked and they will be targeted for regime change. The only nations big enough to challenge this system are on the move right now, but it is still unclear whether their policies will differ from the U.S., especially in terms of debt and money policies. The interests of bond and share holders and bankers earning interest at all levels of lending (even when it shouldn’t need to be lent), plus American hegemony across the globe has got to be what he means.

What gets me is how so few people know about this, yet it is the most powerful force shaping and constraining governments and people throughout the earth. There is a gigantic geopolitical battle going on right now over trade areas and currency, yet the American public is simply not informed about it. Did you hear about Putin’s proposal for a free-trade area throughout all of Europe? I think Eurasia might be slipping away from the U.S. I heard a military (probably Navy) commander speak on a Democracy Now sound bite about how the Trans-Pacific Partnership would be a major boon to his strategic efforts to control the Pacific – “as good as another aircraft carrier.” Hudson also points to the intertwining of neoliberal philosophy and American foreign policy.

To wrap up, I think anarchists like Graeber would be willing and able to understand this stuff. Between he and Taibbi, we finally have people that can communicate complicated stuff to the public. But anarchists strategy is all delegitimization and uprising; you can’t count on them to create a public bank.

[Going further]

Graeber discusses monetary policy in this article for the Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/mar/18/truth-money-iou-bank-of-england-austerity. In his usual flowing style, he covers the history of money and how debt is built directly into money at its very source of creation in a breeze. I’ve written about it previously so I won’t go into it in depth, but the important thing in my eyes vis a vis anarchism is this question of how monetary reform could ever come from an anarchist movement espousing a consensus process. Here enters the concept of dual power:

“…the Occupy movement is ultimately based on what in revolutionary theory is often called a *dual power* strategy: we are trying to create liberated territories outside of the existing political, legal, and economic order, on the principle that that order is irredeemably corrupt. It is a space that operates to what extent it is possible, outside the apparatus of government and its claims of a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.” The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement

A burning question for someone like me who is interested in the undeniable force and vivacity of grassroots political organizing and the comfort it brings at meetings, and reclaiming the power to create money for the public is this: how can we reconcile these two opposing positions in the vein of the old populist movements around the turn of the century? The self-imposed distance from the state will make anarchist movements unwilling to touch any kind of policy objectives, no matter how transformative and how beneficial they would be to the current economic realities that most people must endure today. And yet, the greatest impediment to the liberating goals of revolutionaries is the debt structured central bank and international financial institution rule – a rule that would most easily be broken by the reinstating of sovereign money creation by governments and not private banks. Public control of money creation and distribution is more powerful in terms of confronting global oppression than any seizure of power in the traditional revolutionary sense. Such a “reform” in any individual nation would certainly travel very far in our hyper-connected age, the ripple effects of which would eventually turn power relations upside down.

So do we abandon these practices and start campaigning for political parties that would enact these reforms, form “broad coalitions” with public interest groups, and appeal to big-spender representatives with a list of demands? We should never allow ourselves to be pressured into taking sides on anyone else’s terms before we consider the options placed before us and determine if such a decision is actually required of us. Graeber’s appeal to dual power allows us to consider two different opposing forms of power and organization at once, not having to make them both find a common ground. Consensus-based direct action works well in autonomous spaces for non-bureaucratic people. Representatives regulating the money supply of a nation and administering loans at the local level would work too. The latter operates with the backing of national governments and organized military violence. The former an ideal of peaceful villagers cooperating amiably. Neither models are wholly adequate, but neither do we have to insist that they work out their differences and gel together to make the one right model. Such would be a forced choice insisting that we have one political identity and eliminate all other contradictory beliefs.

Expanding on the dual power concept Graeber elaborates on four different recent political strategies for turning grassroots political movement into sustained machines that have influenced their regions greatly.

The Sadr Strategy: armed militias with top-down discipline like those found in Iraq, which are much more likely to eventually become political parties and require a culturally cohesive base.

The San Andés Strategy: Zapatista organizations that fight and negotiate with national governments to keep their seized territory.

The El Alto Strategy: as found in Bolivia, “using autonomous institutions as the base to win a role in government and maintaining them as a directly democratic alternative completely separate from government”, which then elect representatives while putting “enormous pressure [on them] to do exactly the opposite of what they elected them to do.” This gives those representatives even more negotiating power.

The Buenos Aires Strategy: “try to strip [the political establishment] of all legitimacy.” This apparently worked in Argentina to default on its international debt. “… doing so set off a cascade of events that nearly destroyed international enforcement agencies like the International Monetary Fund, and effectively ended the Third World debt crisis.”

One gets the feeling that to enact major monetary reform would require delegitimization from populist grassroots movements *plus* inside economic policy makers pushing good ideas for public financing.

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The Forces of Nietzsche vs. the Humanity of Graeber: part II

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.

The Forces of Nietzsche vs. the Humanity of Graeber: part 1

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.>

The Dual Mythology of the Market and the State

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.

Debt and Moral Grounding: Beginning David Graeber’s Debt

To come to a better understanding of debt and the role it plays on our lives individually, socially, and on a global level we are going to need some help. While at one time the function of a particular logic of indebtedness might have been fully apparent to those who suffered as a result of it, we can’t seem to get a collective grip on debt at present time. A purely economic formulation of how debt functions risks freezing time and giving us only a small slice of the effects that debt takes on people. Economic theories tend to ignore the history of money as it was used in diverse societies and opt for a static, state-of-nature (or similarly ahistorical) account of money, credit, and debt.

To speak or write of a single thing called debt means that there is a common thread extended through most human societies that can be isolated apart from other aspects of a society, though its impact will be transfigured and interpreted in a spectacularly wide range ways depending on geography, cultural heritage, and everything that makes cultures unique. Extracting this thing (which is more properly a logic doing work on its own) called debt from its context is necessary for theorizing it, but this does not mean that one can theorize in the obscurity of a few models, graphs, and esoteric phrases meant to be understood by a select few and mediated by them to the greater public. Economic theory has moved towards specialization and has enormous influence on the actions of representatives taken (supposedly) on behalf of whole societies, but could the discipline of money, markets, trade, labor, and production have really forgotten the most basic element of living in a social arrangement?

There are more prescient economists who are sensitive to a greater array of history than the European story since the Enlightenment era thinkers began musing on human nature and political economy in books printed by a press for wide distribution. More historical information is required though when an entire discipline is rife with political clout, and an anthropologist with an eye towards what is wrong with economics can supply this research. David Graeber brings together an extremely diverse selection of ethnographic research into one book meant to critically assess our knowledge of money – what it is and does to people. He posits many working hypotheses of his own beyond the critical function of dispelling mainstream arguments and even writes a chapter titled: ’A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations’, which I will eventually go over. The book is a kind of grand narrative of the humanistic kind that takes a huge supply of historical records and seeks a link that will bind humans in common. The notion of a “baseline communism” is one that has stuck in my memory as the crux of his ethical position. Morality and money, the effects that the later has on shaping discourse on the former throughout the course of history, are detailed very well, but the authors own morality must be remembered in the stack of historical evidence that Graeber has compiled for us. Lest we allow the mistake of obscurity that befalls economists wearing blinders in regards to the great variety in history, we must not let Graeber’s moral sentiments or, perhaps, ideology* obscure our understanding of debt.

Graeber is quite the crafty storyteller, and ’Debt’ is real page turner. His stated goal is neither to give a purely objective account of debt in human societies nor tell an entertaining story, but he does weave high theorizing in with anecdotes, folk tales, verified documents and artifacts. The first chapter is called ’On the Experience of Moral Confusion’ and muses on how one could justify horrendous macro-economic policies that do severe damage to people under the rubric of debt repayment. It is a sincere and far reaching question to ask: Why do people insist that debtors must repay their debts to creditors as a moral imperative, no matter the physical suffering?

“If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. It is most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds that the majority of human beings hold simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil.” (p.8)

Before getting into the chapters read and discussed by the Politics of Debt group, it is important to note that two separate works are in operation in this book and perhaps deliberately: 1) the historical work of discovering old social customs, recording dates as precisely as possible, supplying evidence to make a case about an actual occurrence, etc. and 2) a moral appeal to humanity that values one action/reaction to another across every human. The diversity in human culture and the range of diverging values they take on in response to ethical dilemmas is on full display (perhaps even better than it has ever been presented to me) but that universal humanist morality can creep into even tightly evidence-based arguments unawares – especially in the hands of a masterful storyteller.

So I will proceed with caution, keeping a close eye on the moral confusion that might arise from reading such a sweeping history itself; on the other hand, an oversimplified clarity could be misleading. The trick is in absorbing the insights that a politically active anthropologist can provide, while keeping the humanist morality separate.

The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to setting the scene with the received schools of economic theory and then demonstrating how easily their axioms and starting assumptions become flatly wrong. The myth of barter assumes that all societies function like the one in which classical economic theory developed: dominated by exchange. Treated like a collection of individuals all alone in their rational decision making power making deals with other similarly isolated individuals, classical economics extends its own social context into those other societies not yet “fully developed”. Economics needed a myth to show why the discipline itself is necessary for making business more efficient and resources better allocated throughout society. The myth that money emerged to simplify transactions already taking place but without the efficiency of money posits a negative of the ideal that economics strives for, equilibrium and efficiency, but does not remove the individualism. The goal of the classical economist here is to understand the origins of “the economy” and in so doing the reason why money exists (supposedly to help facilitate trade). But these moneyless societies did not trade in the way assumed by the economics textbooks – the theory is “exporting” its own social norms into the “old ancient” societies under its study. It is a “classic” example of begging the question: many other cultures didn’t need money and didn’t trade like modern European cultures, from which economics as a field of study, did. Mainstream economists ignore the role of debt and loose agreements among neighbors in a common social setting, to say nothing of the variety in ways different cultures handled indebtedness.

The goal of economists’ adventures in creating fictional scenarios of other, primal peoples before their own time is to explain what money is and how it came to exist. Graeber demonstrates how a theory of money must account for debt:

“The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money… money and debt appear on the scene at exactly the same time.” (p.21)

So debt is bound up with money in that both can be measured and subjected to cold calculation in Graeber’s theory. But debt can exist as a social relation without hard cash or coinage.

“We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coinage came much later, and their use spread unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems.” (p.40)

So is all money simply debt? Does the IOU credit system, whereby people loan to each other without necessarily establishing precise numerical rules for repayment, always underpin money? The idea of debt-free money will come up later on, but Graeber explicitly states that debts incurred within a society predate money. People have gotten along just fine without a substantial unit of measure to give each other for favors; but when that standard currency comes into play, it is as a form of debt. This is undoubtedly true in a fiat system, where money is created “out of thin air” and so a debt is charged from the bank or entity that put the cash into existence. Currencies pegged to a supply of some material like gold or silver are different: their value is tied to something tangible and not based on a promise. A debt on the other hand involves a transaction whose completion has not yet occurred. There is a time lapse in-between the moment a debt is declared and understood by both parties and when the debt is eliminated by repayment, assuming that all debts could in fact be payed off (they all can’t).

Graeber does think that money comes into being as a kind of debt: the preexisting debt is “monetized” or unitized into a universally recognized store of value. Money obviously involves exchanges and transactions between individuals as a condition for the possibility of the establishment of its value. Money is something exchanged on the spot, bringing the relationship to an equilibrium state and allowing both individuals to walk away. “A debt”, he says, “is just an exchange that has not been brought to a completion” (p.121). Money then becomes a way to resolve the situation of debt. So far so good.

But in beginning the “treatise” chapter he says: “To tell the history of debt, then, is also necessarily to reconstruct how the language of the marketplace has come to to pervade every aspect of human life – even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it.” (p.89). We do not need to follow him along with the story of the history of debt in order to understand the logic of debt – this can be done much more quickly and without all of the anecdotes, jokes, and spiritual manifestations. Nor do we need to create new categories that explain the effects of the moral confusion that debt instills. But Graeber does: recurring themes in human societies are given to help us chart the complicated intertwining paths that debt sets us out on. A historical focus prevents the abuses of abstraction found in classical and neoclassical economics, but Graeber is going even farther. Three different forces are contrived and put to work in communities that switch between each other in terms of their role in guiding our behavior: Communism, Hierarchy, and Exchange. He writes that “Much as in the case of the great religions, the logic of the marketplace has insinuated itself even into the thinking of those who are most explicitly opposed to it. As a result, I am going to have to start over here, *to create a new theory pretty much from scratch.*” (p.90). (my emphasis) To find a conception of debt untainted by the market, a new theory is going to be devised. But Graeber is going for something very grand here in a pure conception of debt (i.e. one that cuts through the moral fiber that holds up all cultures and escapes the Capitalist terminology of our current era). We could very well say that indebtedness is simply an uncompleted exchange during which all sorts of strange and pernicious things can happen (usually involving money) but also a necessary component of society, but then we would only get the rule, the logic of debt and not all of those negative effects. Since he wants to correct and detect those misuses of the logic of debt and he has a wealth of data on so many different societies at his disposal, we get terms that will hold for the entirety of human history. This, however, opens him up to criticism for mixing copious amounts of research with a normative standard he perceives to be at the ground of each and every society under consideration.

Not that this vast store of information does not belong in an understanding of debt; it can indeed correct many false assumptions about how debt functions in society – as it does with the majority of modern economic thought. But the big risk is in mixing novel terminology with these details of societies and producing something new and creative with what sounds scientific, or totally evidence based. This is a much bigger issue that goes farther than Graeber: just how scientific is economics? anthropology? To the extent that they gather evidence, hold experiments, make predictions, and much more, science is at work. But we will not understand debt in this scientific way if economic relations require a moral ground, as the title of chapter five implies. The issue is whether debt as a logic can be amoral, and whether Graeber is infusing his history with a morality of his own. Strange things are indeed happening when debt is attempted to be comprehended in a logical fashion. Whether debt logic is extractible from its moral underpinnings, or whether morality follows debt in all cases.

So we are not given a statement of what debt is* until we are treated with a trinity of notions that imminently constitute society: Communism, Hierarchy, and Exchange. The categorization is helpful for conceptualizing debt and it gives us a way to frame separate cultures in a way that links them together in a web of debt. The utility of this trinity, its use-value if you will, for understanding debt is why I will follow Graeber’s story, but it must be remarked that it is precisely here that – in setting forth his own “moral grounds” for economics – that there is room for critique.

Communism is here not a revolutionary utopian or scientific program at the end of a progressivist vision of history, but the bedrock of human social relations. The minimal sense of “from each according to there abilities, to each according to their needs” is often repeated as the principal slogan of communism and the glue of society. I’m wary of this move: the phrase came about in the context of a Marxist revolutionary theory that posits history as a science and leading to a great evental, social whole. The reversal of Communism back into not the high theory (which incessantly demands revolutionary practice as an entrance fee to its discourse) from which it came but each and every society at its base just doesn’t smell right. Why the -ism? Graeber is attacking classical economics and its pursuing individualism (which binds people into contractual, one-to-one relationships with other individuals) very well, but I wonder if this appeal to baseline communism is merely the other side of the “coin”. It is hard for me to believe that a theory that came out of the same debates as the classical school, and is similarly triumphal in their progressive analysis of history could come to embody *all societies.

“In fact, “communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now – that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which *everything has been organized that way and it would be difficult to imagine how there would be…
But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism” (p.95)

It is this baseline communism that will be thwarted by the debt malfeasance of the violent and parasitic members of the commune hoarding cash. The creeping threats of exchange and hierarchy are what invade the commune, subsuming it their own separate logic. The three phenomena coexist in every society but not harmoniously, seeing as it is the functional and integrated form of communism that is the least responsible for intra-societal violence and slavery.

Exchange is responsible for the drift that pushes people away from each other and puts them in a dual state of equality and separation. When one is engaged in exchange, possession of things and commodities, competition, and gift giving can take place.

“In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. Therefore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away.” (p.108)

When two people are isolated and yet on the same level (without one being higher or lower than the other) sharing takes on a different dimension (or dimensionality if you will) that allows a measuring of one by the other. So if that same level is to be occupied by both, an equalization must occur so that they do not fall into contestation. But this happens all of the time, and the art of gift giving is a way to politely exchange without breaking out into offensive battle. Exchange keeps people on the same playing field, resulting in entertaining games but also impersonal, commercial transactions where the parties can cancel out the relationship and forget the affair. The debts we have with each other are then a way to bring each other together while equal exchange implies separation.

Hierarchy is the outright rejection of equivalence. The vertical levels are well understood, the contests and games become lording over each other. Hierarchies are stabilized relationships where one is considered better than the other, higher and rightfully so. A justification of one’s status as greater and more revered are assumed: “The moment we recognize someone as a different *sort of person, above or below us, then the ordinary rules of reciprocity are set aside.” (p.111). Kings and royalty, aristocrats, the caste system – you get the picture. Interestingly enough though, Graeber asserts “that the logic of identity is, always and everywhere, entangled with the logic of hierarchy.” The custom and essence of a person, their social role and their inner most being, are a result of sedimentation into hierarchies: “…a certain action, repeated, becomes customary; as a result, it comes to define the actor’s essential nature.” So a persons nature is inextricably linked to their customary role as it has become crystallized into a universally acknowledged quality of that person by everyone else. Essentialism: gone. But what remains is a social core: baseline communism is a “quality” of all social arrangements and is indestructible.

Graeber has done a fine job of critiquing the self-promoting fantasies of (neo)classical economists and their reliance on exchange-based understandings of morality as equality, of Justice as reciprocity. Debt similarly falls into this camp of exchanging things between two parties who are on the same plane and must. By the time he finally gets around to asking “What, then, is debt?” On page 120, it is already firmly placed into the sphere of exchange and not a part of the logic of baseline communism or hierarchy.

“A debt, then, is just an exchange that has not been brought to a completion.
It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality (communism, with its needs and abilities; hierarchy, with its customs and qualities). True, if we were really determined, we could argue (as some people do) that communism is a condition of permanent mutual indebtedness, or that hierarchy is constructed out of unplayable debts. But isn’t this just the same old story, starting from the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definition, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?…
Debt is what happens in between: when two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality.” (p.121-122)

So debt is a relation between separate individuals who are equal in theory but not-yet. During this present, this not-yet, hierarchy solidifies.

Critiquing the reciprocal notion of Justice and the tendency to view society, the economy, and the marketplace as a place of equilibrium where things balance out is Graeber’s starting point, and he quickly shows (well, relative to the rest of the book) that it is unreliable as a ethical and economic tool. Given the enormous historical data and factual evidence he presents, it is hard to argue with him that human relations involve far more – including common decency and clear customary boundaries. But doesn’t communism take the privileged position in his triangle, on the bottom, maybe, but resting firmly on a secure ground of the baseline? Triangles need to be in perfect balance themselves if they are to rest one point on a surface, the slightest tilt will make one side fall to the ground and rest much more easily… This issue of origins in value and morality will come up when Nietzsche, Lazzarato, and Wortham come into play, and chapter four, Cruelty and Redemption, looks at On the Genealogy of Morals. The topic of origins is tricky.

Having dispelled equality and reciprocity as standards of economies and ethics, we still are in a study of debt; and in debt, we are in an exchange model that presuppose this one-to-one symmetrical relationship – at least in sometime, the not-yet. To further understand the logic and politics of debt, and without an possibly anthropocentric communism at its base, even more help will be required. Scanning through the internet, the best full critique of Graeber’s book I’ve seen so far is this one from Jacobin Magazine by Mike Beggs: Debt: The First 500 pages. Here is a taste of things to come from that article:

The mint can print any numbers on its bills and coins, but cannot decide what those numbers refer to. That is determined by countless price-setting decisions by mainly private firms, reacting strategically to the structure of costs and demand they face, in competition with other firms. Graeber interprets Aristotle as saying that all money is merely “a social convention,” like “worthless bronze coins that we agree to treat as if they were worth a certain amount.” Money is, of course, a social phenomenon. What else would it be? But to call its value a social convention seems to misrepresent the processes by which this value is established in an economy like ours – not by general agreement or political will, but as the outcome of countless interlocking strategies in a vast, decentralized, competitive system.

I will remain on the topic of values, ethics, and origins for a few more posts before the issue of money, monetary policy, and contemporary heterodox economics enters the stage. But just to conclude, and since this is the topic of the Politics of Debt class at the time, here is another pertinent quote from the Jacobin Magazine article:

“…unlike Graeber’s critique, not much of monetary theory itself rests on the historical origins of money. Economics deals with the operation of a system. It attempts to explain the system’s stability, how the parts function together, and why dysfunctions develop. The origins of the parts may say little about their present shape or roles within the system. Modern monetary economics has been concerned above all else with explaining the value of money, and the conditions of its stability or instability. This is a problem that concerns the role of money in organizing exchange via prices. The imaginary barter economy without money but somehow still with a highly developed division of labor is a counterfactual, a tool of abstraction, which in fact the textbooks are often careful not to describe as actual history.

As for arguments that money is essentially about debt, or essentially a creature of the state: this is to make the mistake of reducing something involved in a complicated set of relationships to one or two of its moments. Economics has generally met the challenges of credit and state theories of money not with fear or incomprehension, but with indifference: if credit or the state is the answer to the riddle of money, the wrong question may have been posed.”

Simon Critchley on Nihilism, Ethics, and the Democratic Deficit

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Here is a link to a video of Simon Critchley at the European Graduate School. His talk begins with Nietzsche on the problem of Nihilism and moves on towards his meta-ethical schema of the infinite demand.

Some take-away notes:

– In thinking with Nietzsche we have lost belief in the world. The final moment of nihilism is the understanding that the true world of being is an illusion and there is only “the reality of becoming”.

– the Christian will-to-truth has been inverted. What was true has been found to be false and meaninglessness sets in: “”why?” finds no answer.”

– Nietzsche is not a nihilist according to Critchley but develops his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism.

– Nietzsche’s eternal return is the ultimate a test of endurance. It is the most burdensome thought one can have and one’s ability to endure the eternal return is a measure of one’s strength.

– Critchley interprets the eternal return as an ethical thought, and Nietzsche as a “super-Kantian” who gives a moral law without any metaphysical guarantee. He acknowledges that there are other competing interpretations. “Nietzsche is like the Talmud”.

– the response to nihilism has taken on a split between active and passive forms.
Passive nihilism being a withdrawal from the world that has been lost: give it all up, it’s gone.
Active nihilism being the project of destroying the old world and creating a new one.

– this distinction is a mere model though, alternatives and mixtures between the two could be devised.

– Kant’s categorical imperative is an autonomous choice of a subject, an internal agreement with the Universal moral law.

– Levinas’s ethics is a heteronomous confrontation of the face of the other that is transformed in his later work into an movement that invades the subject and divides it. The dividual, schizo-subject is torn between itself but by an external other that demands its commitment.

– Critchley believes that ethics is by nature an infinite demand that splits a subject in two and internalizes the ethical responsibility to the other. This is a “Meta-Ethical” schema of
(approval demand).

– Critchley is holding out for the formation of an Hegemonic body-assemblage composed of ethical subjects centered around a name (LGBT, Migrant, Worker, etc.).

– he is vocally unconcerned about an internalized self-hatred. Nietzsche is very concerned with it, and takes great pains to diagnose the resentment of the slavish weakness of morality vs. ethics.

– **Critchley does not make a hard distinction between Ethics and Morality**

– his Meta-Ethics is the Logic of Debt.

This is especially interesting in his engagement with David Graeber in the end of his book Infinitely Demanding. Since then, the greatest force for social change in my view has been the occupy movement of which Graeber has played a big role in. The Strike Debt movement similarly has a wide reaching potential to completely transform the world-economy and rescue us from this prolonged Capitalist crisis. But here is a series of very weighty questions that arise form this debate:

Will a revolutionary movement today come from a hegemony of dividuals committed to an ethical principle and organized around a name? Or is the logic of indebtedness – individuals perpetually behind on their internalized responsibility to pay back their borrowed value – precisely what is to be challenged?

Would a post-nihilist ethic still necessarily involve this Meta-Ethical structure or would it be possible to reinterpret debt as the basis for social cooperation instead of a theological skeleton?

A one point in his The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley says “To be is to be in debt.” In a Heideggerian exegesis on the structure of belief. The subjective ethical demand is and remains based on an ontology still tinged with the image of thought that can be rooted in the (subject-object) distinction.

Later in the lecture, Critchley misinterprets Foucault’s work on the care of the self as an ethics that he subscribes to, rather than a genealogy of the subject as it was formed in the long history of Greek-Roman-Christian technologies. Couldn’t we imagine a revolutionary practice that does not take the form of a moral subject?

Perhaps one way to respond to nihilism would be to refuse the ethical demands that are placed on one and resolutely declare: “I am not in your debt anymore”. Perhaps Striking at Debt would be a viable post-nihilist praxis. One way or another, getting past nihilism is only the beginning.

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