Comments on the Debt Dossier

I feel I am at a bit of a disadvantage since Richard Dienst has said much of what I would wish to say, and much of it, at least slightly better. I agree strongly with his assessment. What these papers show is just how wide-ranging the concept of debt really is, everything from the feeling of guilt when one has missed a car payment, or of being bound to the company store, to the need to somehow recognize that which makes one’s existence possible: whether that’s the creation of a scholarly discipline, the unknown benefactor who made it possible to flee one’s former country, or the ecosystems of the planet Earth. They also highlight the perils of using “debt” as a universal metaphor.
I’d like to say a little something more about the morality of debt because it’s the basis of a great deal of the concept’s power. It’s very easy to conflate morality and debt entirely–perhaps debts are just obligations, or more to the point, perhaps obligations are just debts. It’s actually very difficult to avoid falling into this sort of logic: presumably, because the beneficiaries of structural inequalities so often inform the victims that those victims are in their debt in some way or another (after all, how better to take a relation based on violent domination and make it seem like the victim is to blame?) and it is very difficult to come up with any riposte other than “wait a minute, who exactly owes what to who here?” This is presumably the reason why so many Axial Age theologies (whether in the Brahmanas, or New Testament) start, like Plato’s Republic, by proposing that justice or morality is just a matter of paying one’s debts–and then, invariably, reject the notion. This was an age when markets were spreading everywhere from Greece to China, in every case as a side-effect of war and conquest, and the language of debt was unavoidable–it was, clearly, the common idiom of political argument at the time. We would be wise not to fall into the same trap.
What does it mean when we frame something as a debt? Dienst is quite right in citing Adorno here: it implies a logic of “exchange and equivalence.” Though I would add the proviso that this logic is not simply that of capitalism; it goes much further back, to a logic of violence, slavery, and the market that historically, arose through the same process of ripping human beings (and then, later, marketable goods) from the web of social relations in which they had always, previously, been embedded, and which had made them what they were.
Consider the story of Concepcion García, the girl shot trying to cross the Rio Grande in 1919, who eventually received $2,000.00 in compensation for loss and “indignity.”
For the parents of Concepcion García, the money seems insufficient to account for their financial loss, and the emotional trauma suffered from witnessing the murder and the later justification of Concepcion’s death by the U.S. military.
But as the author, Monica Muñoz Martinez, also observes: “how do you quantify grief?” How can there be any answer to this other than: you can’t. How can the very idea of putting a price on one’s love for one’s daughter be anything but itself a form of violence? But does that mean the victims should not be compensated?
This is not a conundrum peculiar to capitalism, or even to market systems. In fact there are those who argue money itself originally emerged precisely from such dilemmas. If nothing else, what used to be called “primitive money”–things like wampum, spondylus, Solomon Island feather money, or even Nuer cattle–and which I prefer to call “social currencies” are typically mainly used to solve problems like this, and almost invariably the conclusion is the same: no amount of money can possibly compensate for the loss of a unique human being (unique because they are a unique nexus of human relationships), yet willingness to give up one’s most precious possessions is at least an acknowledgement of this fact. Money thus begins as a recognition of debts that by their nature cannot be paid. It is only when war and slavery is brought into picture, when human beings are ripped entirely from their contexts and become “equivalent and exchangeable” that money can come to be seen as measuring the actual value of things.
Yet exchange implies another kind of equivalence. It implies an equivalence between the parties entering into an exchange. Here I have to condense a very long argument, but suffice it to say that, various intellectual fashions to the contrary, all human interactions cannot really be reduced to reciprocity and exchange. (There are for instance interactions premised on a communistic logic that assumes ongoing, even eternal relations where accounts need not be kept, or others based on a hierarchical logic where rather than gifts being reciprocated, they are more likely to be seen as setting a precedent will be expected to be repeated in the future.) Those that do operate on a logic of exchange, whether it’s gift exchange or commodity exchange, tend to have certain common features: they are relations between two parties assumed to be autonomous and of formally equal status, at least in the immediate context of the exchange, and need have no ongoing social relations with one another once the transaction is complete. The equivalence of what is given and received is seen as reflecting the ultimate equivalence of the transacting parties. Debt is what happens when the transaction is incomplete. But this has some dramatic implications. First of all, it means that if you imagine all interactions as forms of exchange–as economists or for that matter Structuralists and many Poststructuralists like to do–then all ongoing social relations take the form of debts. It also means that all social relations exist because someone has not done what they ought to do: reciprocated and restored the balance. This is why words for “debt,” “guilt,” and “sin” overlap in so many languages, and debtors are so often seen as generic criminals. One party is definitely guilty. From the perspective of most World Religions, probably both are.
It is this notion of failed equality that underlies the moral power, and terrible ambivalence, of debt throughout world history. In terms of the ideological effectiveness of debt, this is, from the perspective of the powerful, the worm in the bud. It helps explain many historical mysteries: for instance why India, with its caste system, for much of its history saw so few rural revolts, as opposed to China where uprisings whose indebted peasants rose up constantly. Or why mass uprisings over debt did begin in India too when the Raj introduced debt peonage as their main means of extracting labor for export crops. Tell someone they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased; tell someone they are potential equals who have failed in their moral responsibilities, they are much more likely to become indignant.
Finally, this helps explain the peculiar historical affinity between debt and wage labor described so beautifully by Eli Jelly-Schapiro–and deepens the connection Michael Denning so brilliantly pointed out in his piece on the fetishism of debt.  Both take the form ostensibly free contracts between ostensibly legal equals, not to be equal any more–at least during such time as the contract remains in force.
Bearing all this in mind, what can we say about all of these cases of primal, foundational debt: the Chinese sociologists, the Vietnamese family’s long-lost benefactor, the concept of “debt to nature”?
One thing I think it suggests is that applying a moral logic of debt in such cases might in some ways really be doing the opposite of what we think it is. This is particularly true when we are dealing with our “debt” to entities that might otherwise be considered the grounds of our existence. When
Van Truong writes of a very particular debt owed to the man who’d let her family “make it out” of Vietnam, she captures some of the ambivalence felt by so many immigrants, and families of immigrants, about their home country. When, say, a Haitian immigrant who has become a doctor in New York speaks of wanting to “give something back” to Haiti, that implies that he is not himself Haiti, in fact, that he is an entity autonomous from Haiti, and not only that, in some sense equivalent to Haiti, at least in that one can imagine entering into some kind of moral relations of exchange with it. Physical separation makes it much easier to think this way. The sense of a broad sense of debt to one’s country, which takes the specific form of a debt to the man who made it possible to leave one’s country, brings home this double-edgedness of the “debt” concept unusually well. Or consider the case of Chinese sociology, as outlined by Hong Liang. Would acknowledgement of its debt to the Western thinkers who first helped establish it be recognition of the derivative nature of the discipline, or would it be the first step towards autonomy, since only if Chinese sociology is not simply a local version of the Western discipline can it recognize that it owes a debt to the latter?
Sigma Colón’s essay on environmental debt poses the most troubling paradox of all. It is perhaps the ultimate example of the moral perils of the need to adopt the enemy’s language. The planet is being destroyed. Does one really have a choice but to use all weapons at one’s disposal? Yet in order to frame the matter in the financial language that those destroying it are capable of understanding, that makes moral sense to them–even if only to begin a process of subtly transforming the very meaning of that language–one has to begin by pretending that they–that human beings in general–are not ourselves part of the planet and its ecosystems. Since how could we enter into commercial relations, calculate debts and credits, with Everything (an Everything that includes ourselves.)
This is not a new problem. We already encounter it in the Early Iron Age. The Brahmanas for instance, propose that we are all born with a debt (in one version “as a debt”) to the gods–are lives are a loan from the gods, we pay interest in the form of sacrifice, and finally, the principal when we die. Yet at the same time, the texts give us enough information to understand this isn’t really true. We are also born with a debt to our parents, which we repay by having children, a debt to the sages who created learning, which we pay by studying, a debt to humanity as a whole for making our lives possible in a thousand different ways we can never possibly account for, which we repay by hospitality to strangers. In no case is the payment at all like a financial transaction. You do not pay back a creditor, for instance, by lending money to someone else. In each case, in fact, you “repay” the debt by annihilating the difference between yourself and creditor: repay your parents by becoming a parent, the sages by becoming a sage, humanity by practicing humanity. Is it different with the gods? If the gods are simply what we would call the cosmos, then no–death is when we join the rest of the cosmos, and sacrifice–like any ritual–is our recognition of the totality of which we are in fact a part. If debt is guilt, the real guilt is the presumption of imagining ourselves beings that can enter into some kind of business transaction with Everything That Has Ever or Will Ever Exist.
Perhaps we should heed their advice.

david graeber