Fifty years ago, another ambitious examination of historical development was published. This too drew abundantly from “economists, economic historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists” in order to elucidate patterns of social existence and institutional evolution. This too promised to locate in the remote past of humanity, experiences that have “penetrated into unconsciousness of individuals, there to encounter the echoes from the primitive-communist past, which have never been completely buried by the effects of 7000 years of exploitation of man by man.” This too argued, in effect, that a lost social consciousness would be key to the reassertion of a future freed from economic oppression. David Graeber asserts that communism is in fact one of the basis for all human societies. But, while Ernest Mandel’s Marxist Economic Theory was written in the context of a cold war in which the fundamental question of social organization was ever present, David begins his quest 2000 years beyond the mist (and myth) enveloped origins of ancient communalism to the beginnings of society already differentiated by class and social function. The current social context is one permeated by a crushing global financial collapse, where – unlike Mandel’s time—the fundamental questions of the class organization of society no longer present themselves as urgent political propositions.
David’s purpose, as might be expected, is therefore a bit different. Where Mandel sought ostensibly to resurrect empirical data to validate his interpretation of Marxism, his real goal was to demonstrate how humanity could liberate itself by transforming its conditions of existence, of revolutionizing the actual relations that people enter into by democratically regulating material reproduction and distribution. Debt: the First 5000 Years rests on an alternative investigative platform and begins with a most remarkable counterintuitive assertion. “Why debt? What makes the concept so strangely powerful? Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation-states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it” (emphasis added). That is, a trans-historical meaning of debt cannot be nailed down, and this is what largely occupies the book’s exposition, because the definition of debt is fundamentally mercurial. Each age and each class has its understanding of debt. The power of history’s dominant social forces resides precisely in their ability to reframe power prerogatives in terms of ever malleable and self-serving notions of debt and, when needed, to violently foist these ever shifting understandings on their victims in every variant of known social contexts. Ultimately the “pernicious morality of debt” – its transformative impact—is that it “reduce(s) us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money —and then telling us that it’s only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue everything in life other than money. It introduces moral perversions on almost every level.”
“Debt” in this sense occupies a very similar functional space once occupied by Marxist discussions of ideology. An ideology, in the Marxist sense, is a set of beliefs organically developed by ruling groups, which interprets and rationalizes the facts of mind, nature and society in ways that stabilize their rule by systematically obscuring the real conditions of society. This is not fundamentally a question of conscious distortion, invention or denial of facts themselves, although there may always be an element of this commensurate with degree to which a ruling group is socially cloistered. It is much rather a question of how elite needs, preferences and interests motivate the contextual understanding and causal arrangement of actual, known or provisionally known, truths in the service of power. The success of any ruling ideology can be assessed against its ability to misdirect and suppress awareness of conflicting social interests, a consciousness otherwise necessary if subaltern members of society are to evaluate social programs and policies that involve such conflicting interests on an independent basis. If “we” all buy into the pernicious morality of debt, aren’t we actually acquiescing to a comprehensive ruling ideology that submits, as an incontrovertible and self-evident proposition, that capitalism is forged in a moral universe of mutually reciprocal obligations freely entered into? But hasn’t the acceptance of a universal commonweal always been the accepted social myth, and one of capitalism’s chief propagandistic strengths and selling points?
It is perhaps not coincidental that American socialists at the turn of the 20th Century, when they could still be described as a mass struggle movement, framed the social question along lines that anticipated the thesis of Debt. “…(T)he billions of watered stock and bonds crying for dividends and interest are a perpetual mortgage upon the work and lives of the people of all generations to come.”
The question then is on what basis and with what justification can that ubiquitous social mortgage—that debt owed in perpetuity—be abrogated? Do we need to reset the clock as did our ancient forebears and call for a universal debt jubilee, as David proposes? Or do we need to call into question by means of social struggle the fundamental class arrangements upon which debt and the ideology of debt is at present so firmly implanted in the unexamined preconsciousness of society’s rank and file?
While David’s proposal in the abstract is imaginative and sweeping, it nevertheless dovetails with the spirit of the times, most strikingly with the preoccupations of the business press and Washington, as well as international, policy makers. For it is precisely the question of deleveraging, of writing down if not repudiating elite debt on a massive scale, that remains the precondition for a thorough going system shakeout and restructuring needed to relaunch capitalism on a more efficient and profitable basis. TARP, the auto industry bail out, the anemic mortgage relief now being proposed – not to mention mass bankruptcy—are all, in effect, forms of debt repudiation or contain within them elements of such. Scaling back both “entitlements” as well as public and private pensions are similarly vehicles for repudiating debts incurred to workers in the form of deferred compensation. Mass unemployment is a dead weight on labor markets that allows corporations to leverage down and rewrite existing contracts, thereby abrogating the promissory notes that would otherwise accrue to labor and which were previously negotiated in “good faith”. It is a means of freeing capital for investment that otherwise had been designated to pay wages. Internationally, the write down of public debt comes at the cost of working class living standards, in the manifold ways discussed above, and with the added indignity of transferring public property to the private sphere at bargain basement prices.
Of course, all this fall short of universal debt repudiation, of a true clean slate for society. But then that’s the point. No debt jubilee that David unearthed, if I read him correctly, was ever proposed as a permanent framework for the root and branch reconstruction of society on more democratic and egalitarian foundations. They were stopgaps needed to forestall a plunge into a social abyss, breathing spells to facilitate social retrenchment. It is in that historical spirit alone that capitalism is in fact undergoing a limited debt jubilee, a debt jubilee from the top down. It has little choice.
So the question presents itself. Is it possible to build a movement of resistance based on our shared, cross class experiences as cogs in the machinery of debt or is it more fruitful to locate sources of liberation where the opposition of needs and interests most sharply diverge? A debt jubilee? Yes, but from the bottom up.