Brutal Debt, or the return to feudalism

David Graeber in Conversation with Rebecca Solnit. This excerpted conversation, worth reading in full, took place on January 26th, 2012, at City Lights Books in San Francisco.

I strongly recommend listening to the conversation that David Graeber had with Charlie Rose, on the origins of money, markets, and the state! See the video at the bottom of this page.


“In discussing topics ranging from the origins of free market capitalism (Islam) to the virtues of anarchism, Graeber and his conversation partner, Rebecca Solnit, make the case that we do not need to satisfy ourselves with the politico-socioeconomic status quo. To raise the level of discourse on these issues, terms need redefining and social dynamics reconfiguring. Graeber maintains that by thinking of “capitalism as a really bad way of organizing communism,” we can improve cooperation among exchanging parties and the quality of human social relations. For Solnit, the Occupy movement has heralded a radical revolution toward this effort: “It turns out that we’re actually capable of something other than neoliberalism and actually we’re really capable of enjoying ourselves more than we do under neoliberalism. It feels that if neoliberalism is first about privatizing desire and imagination before the economy, then we’re in this process of publicizing it again.”

The conversation

Rebecca Solnit: The research was kind of amazing. But it wasn’t really until the website, “We Are the 99 Percent,” where people started telling their stories of indebtedness that I realized just how extraordinarily brutal debt has become as a force in society today, whether it’s healthcare debt, mortgages—particularly on houses that have gone underwater—or college debt. All these different forms of indebtedness have essentially created a new form of debt peonage, and I think they’re talking about bringing back debtor’s prison.

David Graeber: In several states, they are locking people up for failure to pay. Usually, if it’s court mandated, they can get into court for not paying. Well, the “We Are the 99 Percent” website, I was actually looking at that the other day because in theory I’m supposed to write a book on Occupy Wall Street. It’s fascinating, that page. The interesting thing for me was that this book came out in July and I was in New York. I had a year off and I had two projects. One of them was working with the Occupy Wall Street stuff, which was in formation at the time in August, and I was writing the book. I tried not to put them together so I didn’t talk about the Occupy stuff at the book events and I didn’t talk about the book at the Occupy events. But it was hard not to because every time I did any kind of event about the debt book and there were people under the age of twenty-five in the audience, two or three would come up afterwards and start saying, “Is there any way that we can start some sort of campaign about student loan debt?” And I’d start hearing these stories that were completely horrific. So I realized that there was something out there.

And the “99 percent” thing fascinated me, too. It actually helped me a little bit because one of the things I was trying to figure out was the changing class lines that Occupy represents. The fact that the working poor are the people suffering out subprime mortgages and fatal loans and more and more of our money—you know, capitalism is operated by extracting money, not so much directly being paid. When I was in college, that’s what they called it. The difference between capitalism and feudalism is that under capitalism, they make money directly through wages, manufacturing, and commerce and under feudalism, it’s directly through juro-political means. Seems to me that, what, 16 percent of profits to emerge from corporations are not from any kind of premium? And that’s to overstate it, because even car manufacturers aren’t getting all the profits from their financial transactions.

Rebecca Solnit: So, you’re saying we’re heading towards feudalism economically?

David Graeber: Something like that. You know, there was this big discussion on the internet that included me quoting Sir Moses Finley saying that in the ancient world, there is basically one revolutionary program: cancel the debts and redistribute the land. And they’re saying that basically we’re back to that.

Rebecca Solnit: In a piece from one of my disaster magazines, an anthropologist went to Kenya and an affluent herdsman offered to kill a goat and roast it for a feast in his honor. The anthropologist said, “Oh, that’s great, thank you so much. What a great compliment.” And then the herdsman borrowed the goat from a really poor guy and the anthropologist asked, “What are you doing?” It took him another year of being in the community to realize that the herdsman was creating a web of mutual—I’m trying to avoid using the horrible financial language that is so reductive—but essentially, that the rich man now owed the poor man something that the poor man could collect when times got tough and it pulled him into the community, it connected him. In fact, by taking something material away from the poor man, the herdsman was giving him something immaterial that was worth more; he wouldn’t lose materially in the long run and he would gain immaterially.

But what’s also interesting about these narratives is something that they both clarified for me: that part of the function of money is to seal off. You want my house, you give me money, I go away, and all of our relations are severed forever. I wondered if you would talk about how money changing hands becomes a way to sever a relationship, the certain mutual times in which money didn’t sever, the ways in which we don’t have to think of it as debt because it doesn’t have to be closed, sealed, and finished, and that maybe it’s not even a bad thing to be in somebody’s debt (which is now wholly a bad thing).

David Graeber: An anthropologist who studied people in central Nigeria showed us how we were completely clueless. She doesn’t really speak the language and she gets a house, and immediately women start showing up from the neighborhood and dropping off little baskets of stuff: somebody bringing some okra, somebody bringing some fish. And she doesn’t know what to do so she takes out her little notebook and eventually somebody takes pity on her and starts explaining how things work. The person says, “Well, you know, you give something back to these people. But the key is you have to figure out exactly what it’s worth, and then give them either something slightly more valuable, or slightly less valuable. So if it’s worth twelve shillings, you give them something worth eleven or thirteen, never give twelve. Because if you give twelve, that’s like saying, ‘go to hell, I don’t ever have to see you again.’” So everyone has to be a little bit beholden.

This is a society where there are all these kinds of transactions, but they’re consciously trying to resist the idea of closure that money makes easy to introduce. Similarly, one of the fairly interesting things about money is that it makes certain things possible that wouldn’t be possible otherwise—it doesn’t make them inevitable. Hence the strange blindness of economists to what would actually happen when one does exchange things if there isn’t money in such contexts. The fascinating thing about standard economic stories is exactly that: they assume that everybody wants that kind of closure. That all human relations are forms of exchange, because if everything is an exchange then it’s true that we’re both equals. We walk up, I give you something, you give me something, and we walk away. Or I give you something, you don’t give me something right now, and you owe me. So if we have any ongoing relationships at all, it’s because somebody is in debt.

However, the problem with that is that debt—like sin—implies that one party in the transaction didn’t live up to expectations, at least in the moment, and has done something wrong. In a lot of moral and religious versions of this, probably both parties did. And the implication—if you assume that human relations are all manners of exchange, which throughout the history of commercial society people have wanted to think—is that you end up thinking that there is something wrong with social relations. People don’t have an ongoing relation unless it’s a form of debt because everything is an exchange, so ongoing relationships are incomplete exchanges, and therefore one party is probably to blame—more likely than not, both are. Sociality itself seems to become like a matter of sin, and inherently wrong.

Rebecca Solnit: Wait, how does sociality become a sin?

David Graeber: Because if you imagine that everything is an exchange, then we’re supposed to just transact and walk away. If we haven’t walked away and we still have a relationship, it’s because there’s a debt.

Rebecca Solnit: One of the things that has come up for me is how we talk as though we live in a capitalist society. I often think that the reason capitalism hasn’t completely destroyed everything is that a huge amount of anti-capitalist endeavor goes on, from labors of love, nurture, friendship, and barter to gift economies and different kinds of exchanges, not just one alternate model but a whole host of other ways in which we engage with each other and with the world that aren’t financial and debt-based. For example, the oil corporations spend a lot of money to get, say, the tar sands pipeline through, but nobody’s—you know, there are definitely environmentalists being paid—but a lot of people are acting for something other than financial compensation. So if the tar sands pipeline doesn’t get made, it’s because a huge amount of people are doing something that doesn’t involve remuneration, money, etc., because we’re not actually the self-interested financial instruments that economists like to imagine we are.

David Graeber: David Harvie, not the British, Marxist, geographer-type guy, but David Harvie, the British Marxist economist, actually calculated how much time people in the U.K. spend on labor to get money, versus labor on something not oriented towards money and it comes out at about fifty-fifty. So even in the most market-obsessed society, we’re still spending half of our time on something other than just getting cash. It is really important to emphasize that, because we have a tendency to take this totalizing view that by capitalism, anything that serves to reproduce capitalism is capitalism, and that’s all that’s important about it. And if you do that, how can you possibly imagine capitalism ever not absorbing everything. There’s also this notion that capitalism is like this fractal thing where anything that contains an element of capitalism anywhere inside it is just something that turns into capitalism. It is an incredibly defeatist attitude. One of the things I was trying to show in the book is that if you choose to look at reality that way, I suppose you can, but you have to do enormous violence to reality to do so consistently.

For example, the notion that anything that money touches, or that commerce touches, or that exchanges trade, is capitalism, and if you introduce any element of that into what might seem to be a non-capitalist situation, then suddenly that is part of capitalism. One of the things I discovered while writing this is that, to the contrary, markets and state power have always been deeply intertwined. And one of the facts that I discovered while researching, which I didn’t know at all before I started writing, is that free market ideology—does anyone know where it first comes from? It comes from medieval Islam, and specifically, Shari’a. Because Shari’a provided this commercial law that is independent from the state.

It made it possible. There are markets extending from Mali, Indonesia, way outside the purview of any one government which operated under civil laws, so contracts weren’t, except on trust. So they have this free market ideology the moment they have markets operating outside the purview of the states, as prior to that markets had really mainly existed as a side effect of military operations. Coinage systems were created to pay soldiers. So this market system outside of the state immediately starts transforming entirely—Adam Smith actually took all his best ideas and lines from sources from medieval Persia. But one thing he doesn’t take is the underlying assumption they have that the basis of a market is mutual aid.

You know, competition has a role, they don’t deny that. But that’s not what it is all about. It makes sense, because you can’t have cutthroat competition when there’s no one stopping you from actually cutting each other’s throats. In order to build up trust we also have to think about each other’s needs and it creates an entirely different dynamic. So in a weird way, they see the market as an extension of communism. In a way like mutual aid: we need each other to do things that we can’t do for ourselves. If we are intimately connected with each other, we just give things to each other; if we don’t know each other we find another way to handle it. If you think about it, each according to his or her abilities and each according to his or her needs is sort of the same thing as supply and demand.

When you take away the violence from the market, even it starts shifting into something else—not exactly paradise, but it doesn’t become the market in the way we see it now. The conclusion that I ultimately came to is that certain types of communism—I think we should just change our use of the term. Now, we’re used to thinking of communism as being once-upon-a-time-all-things-were-owned-in-common, maybe-someday-this-will-come-again. And people agree that there is a sort of epic narrative going on here. I think we should just throw this narrative out, it’s irrelevant anyway, and who cares who owns things? I don’t. You know, we all own the White House. So what? I still can’t go in, right?

The question is: who has access to it under what circumstances? And if you look at it that way, where the idea of each according to his or her abilities and each according to his or her needs applies, all societies are based on a sort of minimum level of communism. Otherwise, you couldn’t have any social relations at all.

Communism is the basis of all sociality and it’s the basis of cooperation. Within a capitalist corporation, someone says, “Lend me a wrench,” and someone asks, “Yeah, what do I get?” You assume that the idea of each according to his or her abilities, each according to his or her needs—in solving a problem—is actually the only thing that works. And in situations of disaster, there are often communistic notions of improvisation, where you basically exchange hierarchies and all of a sudden all those things that are luxuries that you can’t afford, you have them in an emergency. So I think we need to think of capitalism as a very bad way of organizing communism. Much of what we do is already communism, so just expand it.”

Watch the video:

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