David Graeber leads a busy double life. By day, he is an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London. By night, he is an anarchist and activist, best known for being the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street, as Bloomberg Businessweek dubbed him. In his latest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber marries his academic and activist selves by dissecting our moral confusion about debt, showing both how contingent our intuitions are in the light of anthropology and how our obtuseness has led to the mass suffering of austerity programs and financial crashes. In part one of his two-part interview, Web Editor David Johnson talks to Graeber about why we dont put babies lives ahead of Citibanks shareholders, what it means to be a conservative nowadays, and whether we should renew the tradition of debt jubilees.
To read part 2 of the interview, click here.
David Graeber / photo by Jimmy Fontaine
David Johnson: What inspired you to write the book?
David Graeber: It came out of the strange moral power that debt has over people. So many times youre talking to people about the depredations of the International Monetary Fund in the third world, telling these horrible stories about the thousands of babies dying of preventable diseases because people arent allowed to maintain malaria-eradication campaigns or basic health services due to austerity measures and debt servicing, and people respond, Well, yeah, but you cant say they dont owe the money. People have got to pay their debts, come on! That common-sensical notion not only that its moral to pay ones debt, but also that morality essentially is a matter of paying ones debts can bring people to justify things that they would never think to justify in any other circumstance. For the most part, decent people tend not to think killing lots of babies is justifiable under any circumstances. But debt somehow changes all that. Why is that?
DJ: You launch the book with an anecdote about debating an attorney who was an otherwise decent person but who insisted that countries indebted to the IMF must pay back their loans. The book is a sort of rejoinder to her and to people like her, but its a very long-winded answer, in that you appeal to 5,000 years of history and anthropology. Why doesnt your immediate answerLook, the consequences of forcing these countries to pay their debt are babies dying of malaria and starvationsuffice?
DG: Obviously my immediate answer wasnt enough or she wouldnt have said what she did. Thats why I felt I had to write the book: because youd think it would be self-evident that killing thousands of babiesso that Citibank avoids losing one percent of its interest on a loan which is the tiniest percentage of its portfolio and will not actually affect the lives of their shareholders in any wayis wrong. You would think that would be morally self-evident, but its not.
DJ: In some ways the argument of the book reminded me of the philosopher Bernard Williams.
DG: How so?
DJ: He thought that morality was a peculiar institution in that it places so much weight on the notion of obligation over all our other values, and things we care about and find importantthe thought that we ought morally to do something is supposed to trump everything else we value. In a similar way the book examines how debtthe notion that you ought to pay your debt, you ought to pay what you owehas this peculiar grip on us that trumps or silences other concerns.
DG: And has a tendency to do so, yeah!
DJ: In thinking about the relationship between the moral oughtYou ought to fulfill your promise, for exampleand this notion of debtYou ought to pay your debtIm wondering whether they speak in the same voice.
DG: However you want to take that, it comes out the same way, except supercharged. In the same way that the ought trumps all other values, debt trumps all other oughts. And I argue in the book that one reason why medieval theologians, whether Christian or Muslim, seemed so inherently suspicious about usury is because it creates a moral imperative that tends to trump all others. They recognized a potentially dangerous rival when they saw one, a moral system that would completely overwhelm their own if it was allowed full rein.
One reason I thought all the history helpful is because there are these simplistic moral arguments and the second line of defense for the people who are defending the existing system is to say, All right, fine, its not just. Were not saying the existing financialized version of capitalism is a good system. But it foments technological change in such a way that, even though it creates vast inequalities, the poor are still better off than they would be under another system.
DJ: Steven Pinker just came out with his book, with a similarly optimistic picture of liberal capitalism.
DG: And thats very unusual, actually, that Pinker is still trying to come up with these lines, because most defenders of capitalism are not doing the Pinker approachYes, its actually better. They realize that they cant. Theyre just saying All right, its not the best system in the world, but no other system is possible anyway.
The instinct of the people now in power is to figure out how to change things as little as possible.
What weve seen over the last 30 years is a war on the human imagination. Thats the other starting point for this bookthat in 2008 we had this crash, and all these assumptions weve been told weve had to accept for 30 years came crashing to the ground along with the market. One of them is the assumption that markets are actually self-sustaining. Obviously not true. Another one was that the people running them are competent. For years we were told that they arent very nice peopletheyre greedy bastards, actuallybut they know what theyre doing. All other systems just dont work. These guys are incredibly bright, theyre incredibly competent. No, it turns out actually that they dont even understand the working of their own financial instruments, or as far as they do, theyre engaged in scams. They trashed the entire system.
Assumption number three is that all debts ought to be repaid. Actually, no, debts dont really need to be repaid, because AIG, who owes money, can wave a variety of different magic wands and debts can be made to disappear. Once you understand that the narrative weve been handed has been false, youd think this would be the moment when you start thinking about larger questions: Why do we have an economy? What is debt? What is money? How could these things be organized differently? What do we need to keep and what do we change? You would think this would be the moment for international discussion about the basic assumptions that weve been making, and it seemed for about two weeks that it was going to happen.
DJ: Youre talking about 2008?
DG: Yes. The Economist put out this headline saying: CapitalismWas it a Good Idea? And obviously their conclusion was yes, because theyre The Economist, but nonetheless the question had to be asked.
DJ: The Financial Times recently ran a series of articles similar to The Economists. Has the conversation you thought we should have had really ended?
DG: It was cut off. That was one reason I wrote this book: we were supposed to have this conversation, people started to, and then there was this general panic among people running things saying No, no, no, stop that. Just carry on. Just clap your hands over your ears. Nothing to see here, keep moving along.
A gift to the World Bank and IMF from Istanbul / Joe Athialy (cc)
DJ: Keep calm and carry on.
DG: Keep calm and carry on. That only worked for so long, and we finally reached the point where thats obviously not viable anymore. Enough people have said, No, we have to start talking about this. Perhaps thats one reason why the book has been received as well as it has: people are finally exasperated at ignoring the problem.
And in a larger sense, theres been this attack on the human imagination. Theres been this sense that you cant talk about the big questions, its all settled. And when we found out it wasnt, theres this sort of paralysis that strikes.
I keep thinking about the extraordinary conservatism of the people running the world economy, running the governments of the largest nations of the world. Lets compare it to ages past: lets think about the people who fought World War II, lets think about the 50s, the giant structures like the United Nations, Bretton Woods, the space program those people were capable of thinking big. We dont do that anymore. The instinct of the people now in power is to figure out how to change things as little as possible. The world political culture has turned into this knee-jerk defensive conservatism of trying desperately to maintain things exactly as they are, for as long a period as possible.
DJ: It seems to me that its even worse than that, in the sense that the current postwar order is violating its own hard-won principles. You get liberal economists like Paul Krugman asking How is it possible that we can be implementing austerity in a time like this?
DG: Yeah. They all knew austerity was a bad idea economically, but they tried to do something that might be good economically and discovered that they werent even allowed to do it; so they thought, Well, we have to do something. Well do this other plan even though its bad. Its very odd.
The current political regime in Washington is a great example of the fundamental conservatism of global leaders. I think thats one of the explanations for why you have young people finally showing up in the streets. We had this guy who ran as a candidate of change. He didnt run as a radical, but he had all the social-movement rhetoric that made you think that actually he was going to do things differently. His candidacy mobilized grass roots supporters as if this were a social movement. It was all very self-conscious, and all these young people became politicized and thought this was going to actually mean some kind of profound change.
And what do we get? We get this guy who is basically a classic conservative. The word conservative has changed in contemporary American English; now it means extreme radical reactionary or right-winger. But in the old-fashioned sense of wishing to conserve existing institutions in as much a viable long-term form, thats what Obama turned out to be. Pretty much everything hes done is along the lines of How can we save the auto industry? How can we preserve the banking system without nationalizing it, without changing it in any fundamental way? He did not map out a great new vision of a health system. He said the system we have is not viable, but heres a plan where we can preserve the same principles of profit-driven private health in a form that will be sustainable. So basically this is a guy who is willing to make heroic efforts not to change.
And yet its at a moment when you have Democrats seizing both houses of Congress, a charismatic President taking leadership over the financial crisis where its almost impossible not to change anything, and a popular rage against existing financial elites willing to accept emergency measures . . . If at a moment like that you cant get any sort of progressive change through electoral means, its not going to happen.
DJ: Regarding your mention of the war on the imagination, the book offers numerous anthropological cases of different societies and how they used money, and you use many more examples than you need to make your argument. What the book does as a reading exercise is enliven ones imagination to the multitude of possibilities there are in how we can think about debt.
DG: Thats precisely what I was trying to do. One reason to spread the canvas so broadlythe same thing that drew me to anthropologyis that you fight the idea that all these questions are settled, that theres really only one way to run the economy, the political system, society. What you see when you look at history, if you look anthropologically across the world, even at any one time, is a dazzling infinite variety of social possibilities. Which you would never have dreamed possible until you see them. It makes it much more difficult to make the argument that nothing except what weve got is possible.
Capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism.
DJ: How do we get beyond our ways of thinking about debt, given how entrenched they are? We dont live in an African tribal society or in the Roman Empire.
DG: There are two levels of that. One of the things that I was trying really hard to do was to demonstrate that, for all that variety, youre not talking about fundamentally different principles. Its not like other peoples live in an entirely untranslatable, unintelligible universe. The fact that we can do anthropology means theyre building the things out of the same materials that we are; theyre just putting the pieces together in different ways. And once you understand that and look back at your own society, you just see it with new eyes. And thats again what I was trying to do, to start by talking about radically different sorts of economic systems and ways that people interact with one another.
So I think one of the questions Im asking in the book is not just about the power of debt but also why we come to see debtexchange whereby complete transactions are debtsas being the essence of all social relations, because the very logic of exchange is just one of many ways that we ourselves think of the morality of distribution and transfer of material goods. There are always different registers and different moralities that we bring to bear, but the basic principles really are the same everywhere you go. So the moment you realize that everything were doing is not an exchange, suddenly you realize that forms of feudal hierarchy actually exist right here, but forms of communism also exist right here. Almost any social possibility already exists and is part of the daily fabric of our existence. Were just taught not to notice it or think its particularly important.
DJ: That argument reminded me of philosopher Jerry [G.A.] Cohen, who uses the notion of a camping trip to examine the sort of norms we take for granted in everyday relations. Theyre communist norms.
DG: Yeah! Most interactions with people that you trust, people that you love, or people that just need to cooperate with on an immediate basis, take the form of From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs. It doesnt matter if youre working for the government, working for a corporation, or working in your family; if you need to fix the toilet because its leaking and you say Hand me the wrench, the other guy doesnt say What do I get for that? Its not an exchange; people act according to their abilities to chip in. Ironically communism is applied because its the only thing that works; its the most efficient way to allocate resources. Thus I like to say that you could argue that capitalism is just a bad way of organizing communism. [laughter]
DJ: At the end of the book, you suggest one policy proposal of a sort, namely a jubilee, or a cancellation of all debts.
DG: Well, its not really a policy proposalI dont believe in policy. Im an anarchist, right? Policy means other people making decisions for you.
DJ: Right. Have you thought about how a jubilee would work right now, in terms of all the underwater mortgages in this country or on the sovereign debt crisis in Europe?
DG: I havent worked it out; Im not an economist. But there are people who have. Boston Consulting Group, I believe, ran a model recently and came to the conclusion that, while having a debt jubilee would cause great economic disruption, not having one would create even more. The situation we have basically isnt viable. Some kind of radical solution is going to be required at some point; the question is what form its going to take.
This time around, they might consider doing it in a form that actually helps ordinary people. It would have been perfectly feasible to take the trillions of dollars that they essentially printed to bail out the banks and give it to mortgage holders, because what the banks had were mortgage-based securities that were no good anymore. If they just paid the mortgages using the same money, that in effect would have bailed out the banks.
DJ: That wouldnt have been a debt cancellation.
DG: Well, Im just giving an example. It would have had the same effect as a debt cancellation, because they would have printed money to pay the debts. The irony is that they chose instead to give the money directly to the banks and not bail out the mortgage-holders. Which is a pattern that you see over and over again in world historyone of the more dramatic consistencies Ive noticed in the history of debt: debts between equals are not the same as debts between people who are not equals.
Debts between either poor people or rich people, that they have with each other, can be renegotiated or forgiven. People can be extraordinarily generous, understanding, forgiving when dealing with others like themselves. But debts between social classes, between the rich and the poor, suddenly become a matter of absolute morality. And thats what we saw; its a very, very old pattern.
To read part 2 of the interview, click here.
David Graeber is Reader of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
David V. Johnson is Web editor at Boston Review.
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