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The Anthropology of Debt

Posted by Josh Rothman  August 29, 2011 01:21 PM

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Over at the must-read economics blog Naked Capitalism, Philip Pilkington interviews the anthropologist David Graeber about his new book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Graeber is a controversial figure -- he's both a widely admired anthropologist and an anarchist activist -- and, in his book, he argues that economics isn't enough to understand debt and credit. Debt, he says, isn't really about money, and thinking about it in purely economic terms won't work. Instead, you have to recognize that debt derives from political, social, and moral life -- it's not about balance sheets, but about social relationships.


Christ drives the usurers out of the Temple, by Giotto.

We often think of debt as something modern -- as a complicated, infrastructure-intensive way to extend the reach of money. Debt, from this point of view, is a part of the modern economic system. And yet anthropology, Graeber points out, shows that the opposite is true: All societies, even those without currency, run on debt (and not, as is often assumed, on barter). "If you want your neighbor’s cow," Graeber says, "you’d say, 'wow, nice cow' and he’d say 'you like it? Take it!' -– and now you owe him one." Arrangements like this, which are essentially arrangements of debt and credit, radiate throughout all societies, without money ever figuring into it; we owe things to one another within our families, at our jobs, and in our communities in a purely social sense, even when those debts remain unquantified in dollars.

According to Graeber, our modern system of currency exchange has been grafted onto this more ancient system of familial, social, and political debt. "The big question in the origins of money," Graeber says, "is how a sense of obligation -- an ‘I owe you one’ -- turns into something that can be precisely quantified" in units of currency. History shows that it happens "when there is a potential for violence" -- for a breakdown, in essence, of the social order. "If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, 'traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!'" Debt, in short, is never just about dollars and cents. It's a way of creating, maintaining, and enforcing our social and moral relationships. That's why so much of our most heightened moral vocabulary, including words like "reckoning" and "redemption," is identical with the vocabulary of debt.

What does Graeber's anthropological account of debt have to contribute to our understanding of today's economic crisis (which, by all accounts, is a crisis of mass indebtedness)? For one thing, Graeber says, it emphasizes the way that debt, historically, has been regarded as a sociopolitcal contract, and not, ultimately, as an economic one. A system of debt, Graeber argues, only works when it's sensibly derived from a system of social relationships. When debts become too one-sided, or when they are written off en masse to benefit the powerful, it's the network of debts that must be readjusted, rather than the social network. That's why, time and time again throughout history, debts have been written down: "Rulers would regularly conclude [that] the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets . . . .' That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam." It may not happen this year, or even this decade, but, Graeber predicts, something similar will have to happen in our society: balance sheets will have to be rewritten to preserve the social order. Read the whole interview at Naked Capitalism.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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