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Moving from Primordial Debt to Primordial Gratitude

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
4th March 2012


Charles Eisenstein has penned an in-depth review of David Graeber’s seminal book on the history of debt, which I recommend you read in full at Shareable.

One passage struck me in particular, where Charles introduces ‘primordial gratitude’, as a contrast to the Primordial Debt Theory which is presented in Graeber’s book.

(also recommended is the in-depth seminar on Graeber’s book at Croooked Timber)

Charles Eisenstein:

“Throughout the book, amid lengthy discussion of debt, obligation, honor, credit, and money, there is strikingly little mention of gratitude. He offers a sophisticated appraisal of the “primordial debt” theory of economic philosophy (and of theology); what about a theory of primordial gratitude? Instead of being born into debt (to society, the ancestors, God, the cosmos), perhaps we are born into gratitude: the knowledge of how much we have received, and the desire to give in turn. As I illustrate in Sacred Economics, the assumption of primordial gratitude generates a very different economics: one that need not be coercive in nature, but understands people’s natural desire to create and contribute; one that internalizes costs rather than exporting them onto other people and future generations; one that, like gift economies of yore, discourages accumulation and makes wealth and status a function of giving.

Immersed in a system that enslaves us to debt and forces us into competition merely to survive, we are unused to expressing our innate desire to give. But when normal breaks down, that desire bursts forth. Many people in the Occupy movement (in which Graeber was deeply involved) have told me that the most amazing thing about it was how people stepped forward, without being paid to or ordered to, to meet whatever needs called to them. A gift economy – even a gift politics – quickly emerged. Even if it devolved into infighting and paralysis, we caught a glimpse of something real. “I saw how human beings are supposed to live,” one Occupier told me. I have seen the same happen after natural disasters disrupt the flow of normalcy: neighbors who ordinarily have no occasion to speak to one another emerge from their houses and everyone helps each other out. The desire to give, to contribute to the general welfare, lies latent in all of us. Could we build an economic system consciously designed to encourage this impulse? Because, as Graeber illustrates in so many vivid examples, the debt-pressure inherent in an interest-based system inhibits it.”

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One Response to “Moving from Primordial Debt to Primordial Gratitude”

  1. Lori Says:

    Looks like Dale got the memo:

    An education is something you should be grateful for all your life, not in debt for all your life.

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