Questioning the obligation to pay back debt

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If you'd like a titillating read this summer, let me propose Debt: The First 5000 Years, by David Graeber. It's a book that dares to question "the very assumption that debts have to be repaid." In all honesty, did you not just feel a shudder of moral revulsion at the thought along perhaps with the thrill of the forbidden? That's what's titillating. Graeber, an economist/anthropologist, asks how debt managed to become "the most profound moral obligation in our reality." People are readier to condone and forgive -- or at least consider doing so -- murder, theft, betrayal; how on earth did that happen? To find an answer he goes back five millennia and advances stealthily toward the bizarre present.

Graeber isn't totally hostile to debt. On the contrary. He sees it as a basic part of being human. We're all in debt: to God or the cosmos for existence, to each other for daily needs, to ancestors for language and heritage, to posterity and the future. It's a universal metaphor that got perverted. How? By being quantified and reduced to a specific number in a particular currency. In earlier times (here's where his anthropology comes in) debts weren't quantifiable: they were associated with marriages, funerals, blood debts (revenge etc.); they were rooted in social connections and based on trust or honour. In a way they could never be fully paid since they correlated with real people. Part of their point was to remind us that a unique human life can't be translated into any other terms.

When debts were quantified into money, they were removed from those concrete contexts; they became transferable and abstract. Enter the law, jail, shame, fear, desperation, and here we are today. You'll prefer the book-length version but it's pretty persuasive. I have a friend who's spent her life working, usually for tiny financial returns, on behalf of those who get the short end of the stick in this society. She often lends money to friends, always happily accepting that she may never get it back. Yet she hates owing money herself, tries frantically to avoid it and to pay it back swiftly when she does. Meanwhile the richest and most undeserving demand and get bailouts for stupid or criminal acts and go on to behave exactly as before. It's these gobsmacking paradoxes that Graeber is out to above all understand. His moral judgments are secondary.

I admire two things especially about the book. One is how much Graeber knows. He actually seems to have read the books in his bibliography. He praises a classic work by Ben Nelson called The Idea of Usury: From Tribal Brotherhood to Universal Otherhood -- the title alone is worth more than most full books but I'd forgotten it and I once worked for Nelson. The other is Graeber's optimism, though cheerfulness may be a better term. He sees hopeful signs in the (misnamed) anti-globalization and Occupy movements, Argentina's triumphant 2001 default, an East Asian boycott of the IMF -- the resistance is out there. He's undepressed by how it's "increasingly clear that current arrangements are not viable" at the very moment that we "have hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination" for devising alternate approaches. This failure seems to energize him, as if it's a golden chance for everyone to jump in and suggest fixes for the disaster. Nor is he against markets, just so-called free ones (where slaves were freely traded); he even argues that you could have thriving markets without capitalism.

This buoyancy sets off Graeber's leftism -- he's an anarchist and activist as well as a prof -- from admirable gloommongers on the left like Chris Hedges, who wrote this week: "We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us." Graeber would definitely be more fun to be arrested with. Of course adopting a purview that goes back 5,000 years probably helps you gather some perspective and take the tough stuff in your stride.

And his book isn't even as long as last summer's doorstoppers, about the girl with the dragon tattoo.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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