Good to Think With

by Lou Brown on February 26, 2012

On a recent edition of the public radio show “The Story” (air date February 21, 2012), the interviewee, Kenan Trebincevic, a Bosnian Muslim, describes the relationship his family had with a neighbor woman, Petra, a Bosnian Serb. Muslims were being rounded up and placed in concentration camps, and Trebincevic’s family lived in fear. Petra would stop by for a visit, commenting to Trebincevic’s mother, “I like your rug,” or “That’s a pretty dress.” She would then invite the mother over for coffee, all the while talking about how nice the rug would look in her apartment or how good the dress would look on her. Within a context where Petra was known to have betrayed other Muslim residents to patrolling soldiers, Trebincevic says Petra’s message was very clear: “Either agree with what I’m asking you to do, or I’m going to turn you in.” His mother would dutifully fold up her rug or her dress or whatever other possession Petra had tacitly demanded, and give it to her neighbor when she went for coffee. This is an example of a type of relationship David Graeber describes as constitutive of a human economy, an economy “concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings” (p. 130). In this case, Petra is demonstrating that Trebincevic’s mother owes her a debt that can never really be repaid. The mother must continue to make payments, with both parties fully aware that no payment will ever be enough to match the value of the original “gift”, the lives of Trebincevic’s father and older brother. This story also resonates with another of Graeber’s key points, the role of violence in the creation of a system in which human lives can be thought of as objects of exchange.

I begin my comments with this narrative to indicate that Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a good book to think with. Having read it, I now find all around me examples that parallel the stories told by Graeber in his expansive examination of the history of debt. Hearing Trebincevic’s story, I thought immediately of Graeber’s examples of social relationships of indebtedness among the Tiv, the Nuer, the Lele, and the Balinese. Providing accounts of societies from “The Axial Age” to contemporary times and from all over the globe, Graeber successfully pushes us to see the origins of debt as a means of cementing ties and reinforcing interpersonal obligations as opposed to the impersonal, abstract sense of responsibility we tend to associate with debt today. I particularly appreciated the book’s reintroduction of classic ethnographies written by the likes of Audrey Richards, Laura and Paul Bohannan,, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, and Mary Douglas, all anthropologists writing in the 1950s and 60s when ethnographies were long and densely descriptive.

I find it especially interesting that Graeber relies on these texts and not on the more theory-driven anthropological writing of the 1980s and beyond, because it is precisely to that older style of anthropology that my non-anthropologist colleagues, including economists, have most often turned for examples to use in their social science models. During the peak of post-modern, reflexive approaches in anthropological writing, a political scientist friend advised me that the most useful thing anthropologists could do to advance understanding of human social life was to catalogue in thick detail all the varieties of human sociality we could find, providing data which scholars from other disciplines could then use in their more analytically rigorous work. I bristled at that proposed division of labor at the time, but his comments ring in my ears still as I contemplate the contributions of Graeber’s book.  If a reader approaches Graeber’s book hoping that insights drawn from anthropology can help elucidate mechanisms of change and continuity in human social life, she will leave a bit frustrated. I kept waiting for a systematic model that would help me understand how the general processes he described came to be, and how and why they changed. However, Graeber resists the language of models as being part of a constraining economistic way of thinking. Below, I want to highlight a couple of topics for which Graeber might have enlisted fellow anthropologists and even economists for explanations of social phenomena that involve both analytical specificity along with attention to cultural and historical context.

The first example is the work of economist Bina Agarwal, whose comparative research on the dynamics of gender relations in South Asia has greatly influenced academic scholarship and government policies concerning households and families. In her book ,A Field of One’s Own (Cambridge University Press, 1995), Agarwal explores the relationship between women’s well-being and their control of property. Agarwal’s work is of particular relevance where Graeber discusses the connection between the ability to think of humans as objects of exchange and the possibility of ripping a woman from her context, “tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is…” (p. 159). This, he says, ”requires a certain violence.” As I read these passages, and the many throughout the book that address how daughters are treated in marriage exchanges and how wives can be punished and disowned by all parties to a marital agreement should they step out of line, I thought how Agarwal’s analysis would cause us to think about these examples differently. It is not being ripped from their social context that does violence to these women; violence begins in their everyday, normal socially-meaningful existence within families in which they are denied rights to property and in which they are seen primarily as a potential drain on familial resources. Like much of the early ethnography upon which he relies for his examples, Graeber’s focus is predominantly on the ways a man’s honor is affected by his ability to protect and control the women and children in his life. Agarwal’s approach, which puts women at the center, provides us with a different analytic lens through which to interpret earlier ethnographic descriptions. Furthermore, Agarwal’s analysis encourages us to explore what values – not just value – women hold in family structures where they are treated as objects. Do they share the norms of those who hold greater power in society, and thus see themselves as deserving of their low status? Are they fully aware of the injustice of their position, and looking for opportunities to push against their structural constraints? Agarwal cuts across a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, in her search for answers to these questions, and her work can help us think systematically about the conditions under which intrafamilial violence is most likely to happen.

The second body of work that comes to mind when I read Debt is the work of economic anthropologists, particularly those who work in the tradition of Fredrik Barth’s early attempts to apply economic models to his ethnographic data. In two recent articles in Current Anthropology (2005 and 2007), Carolyn Lesorogol explores the mutual gains to be had when experimental economics meets cultural anthropology. Far from simply adopting economically-maximizing self-interest as the explanation for human decision-making, Lesorogol (along with her colleagues who have used the methods of experimental economics across fifteen small-scale societies, published collectively in Foundations of Human Sociality: Economic experiments and ethnographic evidence from fifteen small-scale societies, 2004) has shown the ways that context-specific social norms affect individual decisions to trust, share, and punish exchange partners. These are also the kinds of behaviors Graeber is interested in from his broader vantage point. While experimental approaches in the hands of economists working in labs often produce models of human behavior that bear little resemblance to reality, those same approaches in the hands of cultural anthropologists in fieldwork settings can help us more precisely to identify what factors lead people engaged in exchange to trust strangers, to reward generosity, and, even, in certain contexts, to punish generosity (similar to some of the situations Graeber describes).

To conclude, it is important to emphasize that Graeber is not attempting a detailed micro-analysis of every phenomenon he describes in his book. He is attempting to get us to recognize the ways prevailing models have limited our thinking about debt. While he has achieved that goal, I would also like to have seen him dive a bit more deeply into economics to discuss the work of Bina Agarwal and of those like her in development economics and feminist economics, a body of scholarship that is much harder to dismiss than the average introductory economics textbook. Likewise, I would be interested in an exploration of more contemporary anthropological research that undertakes to test the explanatory depth of economic models.

{ 49 comments }

1

Random Lurker 02.26.12 at 12:15 pm

Not having read Graeber’s book, I think that the blackmailing relationship between Petra and the muslim family cannot really be described as debt.
Blackmailing is a situation when someone in a position of power can exact continuous tributes from someone in a position of weakness; while debt can assume these charachteristics, debt is a subset of the “tribute” concept.
To conflate every kind of tribute with debt, IMHO, only makes things blurred – for example, we could say that since citiziens have to pay tributes (taxes) to the state, citiziens have a debt that they cannot ever pay in full to the state. I think this would be an absurd formulation.
Also, while it can happen that someone contracts a debt that is not able to repay in any way, at least from a formal perspective a debt can always be repaid; other kind of “tribute” situations, like feudal servitude, are not even supposed to be “repaid”, so I think the concept is very different.
Maybe the interesting thing is that debt, that formally can be repaid by definition, can morph in a very different relationship of tribute (or servitude) if materially it becomes impossible to repay it.

2

Guido Nius 02.26.12 at 12:47 pm

@1: shorter, a debt that cannot be repaid is no longer a debt, it is more like a punishment.

3

bob mcmanus 02.26.12 at 2:34 pm

2:” Living currency, in sum, reveals the truth of commodity exchange, that is, it reveals its lie: the impossibility of putting the incommensurable aspects of human life (classically
coagulated into “labor time”) into equivalence with inert or other things, or with money,
in whatever quantity. Because the lie of commodity society in the end is that it puts life
through a regulated exchange, which always involves a SACRIFICE, and thereby claims to settle an INFINITE DEBT. “

tiqqun, “Raw Material for a Theory of the “Young-Girl”

4

robotslave 02.26.12 at 2:46 pm

There are lots and lots (and lots) of recurring, unavoidable debts, negotiated serially. Quite often they are of the sort that “can never be repaid.” Water rights for subsistence farming would be an obvious example. I just don’t see why we can’t regard blackmail as a contract on this kind of debt.

Each of Petra’s negotiated contracts has a specific cost (one rug, one dress), is short term (until Petra asks again), and is paid.

Blackmail is interesting in two respects: first, that what the debtor has borrowed is a violation of social norms (e.g. adultery, being Muslim) without the attendant social consequences. Second, the contract is initiated by the lender, not the borrower, who probably didn’t expect anyone would try to collect payment for waiver of social obligation.

5

Omega Centauri 02.26.12 at 5:28 pm

I think blackmai usually morphs (or already has morphed) into something else, the exploitation of a power relationship without concern for accounting. You owe me because I can force you. Not, you owe me X because of Y.

6

Peter Erwin 02.26.12 at 6:34 pm

To echo some of what Random Lurker said, I find it rather hard to accept the idea that the Trebincevic family’s situation involves “debt”, particularly the notion that

Trebincevic’s mother owes [Petra] a debt that can never really be repaid. The mother must continue to make payments, with both parties fully aware that no payment will ever be enough to match the value of the original ‘gift’, the lives of Trebincevic’s father and older brother.

For one thing, this implies that the following two situations:

1. Petra saves the lives of the Trebincevic family (e.g., by rescuing them from a burning house)
2. Petra makes it known that she can cause the imprisonment or death of the family, but will refrain — for the time being — if paid

are somehow equivalent. Now, if there had been a singular incident in the past — e.g., Serb soldiers showed up once, and Petra refrained from telling them that the Trebincevic family were Muslims, and then the soldiers had left, never to return — then you could argue for an “original gift”, and possible attendant obligations. But that’s not the case: instead, Petra is continuing to extort possessions as long as the Trebincevic family is vulnerable. It’s not hard to imagine that if the local political situation had changed — e.g., if the patrolling Serb soldiers had been chased far away, with no prospect of returning — Petra’s extortion would necessarily cease, and not because some notional “debt” had been fully “repaid”.

(And suggesting that Petra is not concerned with “the accumulation of wealth” seems a little odd, given that she’s specifically demanding attractive and useful material items from the Trebincevic family.)

robotslave @ 4:
I think it’s maybe a bit questionable to describe that particular Bosnian situation as “a violation of social norms”, given that “being Muslim” had been perfectly normal in that society up until a year or two prior. Indeed, it’s rather the reverse — Petra is able to do what she does because social norms have been disrupted.

7

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.12 at 7:14 pm

I suspect the only difference between ‘contract’ and ‘extortion’ is that extortion can’t be enforced legally. Or, to put it another way: a typical contract (e.g. between employer and a wage worker, landlord and a tenant) is just a form of extortion that is validated and enforced by law.

8

Avid Reader 02.26.12 at 8:37 pm

@Henri; By definition, it’s not a contract unless it is agreed to voluntarily by both parties. A contract might or might not be legally enforceable, but that’s another question.

9

Random Lurker 02.26.12 at 8:39 pm

@HV 7 & robotslave @4
I think that there is a big difference, from a formal perspective, that often gets blurred in material terms:
A “debt” is a form of contract. The idea of contract is that there is a mutual agreement between people with reasonably equal rights: this is the reason that “taxes” are not a contract, and for this reason I think that the “Petra” example cannot be considered a debt (or even a contract).
In material terms, however, it may happen that someone who is formally free to sign a contract is in fact forced to by circumstances: for example an ancient roman farmer who had a bad year could be forced into debt simply because he needed food, at conditions at which he could never pay back the debt (or, someone in the modern world could be forced to sign for a job that he doesn’t like for a wage that he believes is excessively low, simply because he can find no other job and he needs money).
So the problem is when the “formal” reality doesn’t reflect anymore the “material” reality, and “debt” becomes a form of tribute.

10

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.12 at 8:52 pm

Avid Reader, if you hold a knife to my throat I give you my wallet voluntarily; just as voluntarily as I wash dishes in your restaurant for $5/hr when my family lives in a van down by the river. Other than the law, what’s the difference?

11

Avid Reader 02.26.12 at 9:11 pm

@Henri, speak for yourself! I would unwillingly give you my wallet, work for less than minimum wage, etc. were our roles reversed.

12

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.12 at 9:21 pm

In that case, almost any contract is involuntary, because you’d always prefer a better deal. When you accept the deal, you’re forced by the circumstances. Whether it’s a knife at your throat or the prevailing wage, that’s just details.

13

Salient 02.26.12 at 10:18 pm

I suspect the only difference between ‘contract’ and ‘extortion’ is that extortion can’t be enforced legally.

It’s hard to read this and not feel chilled at the thought of someone saying, by way of parallel, “I suspect the only difference between ‘sex’ and ‘rape’ is that the latter can be prosecuted legally.”

Way to rob people of their human agency, Henri. Sure, if you bleed all notions of intent and motivation out when choosing your priors, you can deduce all kinds of phenomenally absurd stuff.

If you see starvation due to being unable to receive essential resources from your community as entirely equivalent to starvation due to someone locking you up and never feeding you, all you’re doing is masking the horror of someone intentionally locking you up and never feeding you, whose motives, even when unclear, are a source of constant terror.

And besides, you’re pretty damn wrong about the distinction. The only difference between ‘contract’ and ‘extortion’ is that <ba contract can’t be enforced extralegally. When I enter into a contract, I don’t have to fear a bullet to the head, a kidnapping, an attack on my children, or even a slap to the face. The state-sanctioned contract enforcement apparatus supports only (1) financial penalty and (2) possibly jail time, but only for certain types of contract-breaking. (An attempt to enforce the contract by any other means would be… extortion!) Nobody’s life is jeopardized, nobody’s body is in danger of mutilation, nobody’s mind is going to be traumatically fucked with. Even if I’m not aware of the exact precise legal consequences for breaking my contract, I have a pretty good idea of what they are and, far more importantly, what they are not.

(Lest someone try to dismiss this response by adding a (3) to the list, sure, there’s always milder stuff like the other party bringing it up over dinner, or calling me to bug me about it, but that hardly rises to the level of ‘enforcement’ and doesn’t affect my point in the slightest.)

14

Salient 02.26.12 at 10:23 pm

…WTF? I’ve never seen CT comment box just eat paragraphs like that.

Trying again. The only difference between ‘contract’ and ‘extortion’ is that a contract cannot be enforced extralegally. The state-sanctioned enforcement mechanisms are (1) financial penalty and (2) possibly jail time for some types of contracts, and that’s pretty much it. No threatening the life of you or your loved ones, no mutilating you, no kidnapping you, none of any of the awful threats that one may face in an (inherently extralegal) extortion situation.

…I said a lot more than this, but I’m wary of the middle of my comment getting swallowed whole again, so I’ll leave off with that.

15

Alex K. 02.26.12 at 10:25 pm

“In that case, almost any contract is involuntary, because you’d always prefer a better deal. When you accept the deal, you’re forced by the circumstances.”

Woe is us, we are always _extorted_ by the circumstances! When a millionaire can not afford a private jet he is _extorted_ into buying a helicopter or –the horrors!– travel commercially.

Unfortunately, our cruel legal system makes an artificial distinction between “voluntary” agreements and extortion, so the poor millionaire can not have his day in court over the torture of being forced to fly with the peasants from business class.

16

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.12 at 10:35 pm

Well, where is, in your opinion, the bright line divide between sex and rape?

And of course a contract, any contract can be enforced extralegally, why not? Happens all the time, I’m sure.

17

Random Lurker 02.26.12 at 10:58 pm

I think the difference is that, usually, most people agree that abiding the law is ethically just. There are times when this ethical value of law is questioned, but in those times revolutions or similar stuff happen.

18

Salient 02.26.12 at 11:21 pm

And of course a contract, any contract can be enforced extralegally, why not? Happens all the time, I’m sure.

For fuck’s sake, Henri, if you attempt to enforce a contract extralegally, you are committing the crime of extortion.

19

robotslave 02.26.12 at 11:21 pm

I think that the more involved we get in lawyerly definitional argument about the meaning of “contract” or a “debt,” the further we get from the sort of organic, informal, local, culturally rooted, deeply interpersonal interaction that Graeber is trying to bring to our attention. Even more so when we invoke The State as the arbiter of such definitions.

The reluctance to consider blackmail as a kind of debt relation might be due to a preference to regard debt as “good” when it is organic, informal, etc., and “bad” when it is administered by capitalism, the state, or other impersonal institutions. I think Graeber goes to some length to show that this is not the project he is pursuing, but I’m not sure that goes for all of his readers as well.

The reluctance might also be due to some discomfort with the “illegitimacy” of blackmail, as it’s inherently a relationship between people who are each doing something socially unacceptable. But this is silly; if we can do serious academic investigations of the political economy of pirate crews and Chicago drugs gangs, then surely we can have a look at blackmailers as well.

@6 – I don’t think recent changes in social norms, even very violent changes, disqualify an example. The sudden or even capricious emergence of blood feuds, bigotry, genocidal impulses, and other ugliness is hardly unheard of in organic, local, bureaucracy-free, intensely interpersonal communities.

20

Salient 02.26.12 at 11:24 pm

And as for this:

Well, where is, in your opinion, the bright line divide between sex and rape?

Wow, Henri. Just… wow.

21

Henri Vieuxtemps 02.26.12 at 11:33 pm

@17, That’s not a new difference, that’s just a characteristic of the difference that I suggested.

@18, right. Isn’t it what I said and what you disagreed with?

@20, wow – what? I can have an intercourse today with a woman born February 27, 18 years ago in one geographical location, and it’s rape. I can have an intercourse today with the same woman in another geographical location, and it’s sex. Or I can have an intercourse tomorrow with the same woman in the first location and it’ll be sex.

22

robotslave 02.26.12 at 11:39 pm

I’m calling thread derailment on @21.

23

Tim Wilkinson 02.27.12 at 12:13 am

(This was a response to the thread up to comment 17)

Henri is closer, though the point needn’t rest on any distinction between positive and natural/moral law. (I’m baffled by both sides in the sex and rape argument, since 1. there’s no reason to treat consensual sex as containing an element of unwillingness, whereas a contract per se is essentially adversary; 2. the idea certainly shouldn’t be that extortion(/rape?) is OK because it’s continuous with contract(/consensual sex?) but I suppose something more like the idea that contract is not OK because it is continuous with extortion. But this couldn’t be right anyway as it stands, since ‘contracting with’ is symmetric, ‘extorting’ is not.)

But in demarcating extortionate transactions, ‘unwillingly’ cannot do the job required since I may just as well ‘unwillingly’ pay for my groceries (I would prefer not to pay if I could still have the groceries). Volition cannot be the sole basis of a distinction like this between forced and free, or coercive and non-coercive. We’d need at the very, inadequate, least some idea of the justice, fairness, whatever, of the situation in which negotiations take place (and there is much more I could ramble on about in this area).

The error of supposing this nebulous notion of some kind of partial reservation manifest in the structure of one’s ‘action plan’ can do the kind of hard work required of it is widespread, ubiquitous I suppose, among professional defenders of a doctrine of double effect.

(On extortionate versus non-ext transactions and the baseline, my http://surelysomemistake.blogspot.com/2003/11/earnings-thesis-moderating-libertarian.html#_Toc58590969 discusses some of the issues, fwiw, in the context of one, rather perversely-framed, iteration of a wider project I’ll resist the temptation to go on about).

But anyway, hang on a minute – a debt is not a form of contract (contra Dsquared’s ‘a debt is a promise to pay’), and this is not a nitpick: there need be no contract anywhere in the vicinity. I may, for example, owe damages for negligence (or I may owe a fine imposed for doing something, while out of my head on cheap cider, which I never had any inkling was a crime anyway). Going further afield in the old s-t continuum would no doubt divulge a wealth of other counterexamples, often gruesome.

Only by stipulative and radical redefinition of terms can ‘debt’ be limited to contractually-incurred debt, or ‘unwillingness’ to unwillingness which in the circumstances is reasonable or justified (or what have you).

But I agree that the blackmail situation doesn’t seem like one of debt. Ignoring positive law, and even granting arguendo that a proprietarian such as Buchanan(?) is right, contra Noz., to consider blackmail a legitimate way of extracting income, the situation doesn’t strike me as one in which the victim gets to the point of owing anything to her extorter, perhaps largely because of the open-ended nature of the situation.

Given the above argumentative concessions, a debt might be owed in consideration of costlessly refraining from a malicious act like informing, but the situation here is so ad hoc, so oblique and so much a seamless, ongoing relationship of domination that it’s hard to see what could conceivably, even with these concessions, be thought to give rise to a special obligation.

Actually, scrub that – it occurs to me that a single instance of not informing might – conceivably – give rise to an unlimited debt, just as saving someone’s life in a more active way has been held to do more or less the same. (Or so ISTR – I may have dreamt it. I’m more confident that it’s been thought that the opposite occurs and the lifesaver takes on the onerous obligation, which has some plausibility, cf. having kids, being the Creator…ah no, apparently not that. Foiling a suicide attempt might be the strongest case…)

24

robotslave 02.27.12 at 1:13 am

It might help to consider what we’d think of Petra if she didn’t demand rugs, and simply kept quiet without any form of compensation. And possibly with some risk to herself.

Would we not then say that the Trebincevic family owes their continuing safety to Petra’s collusion? At the end of the war, assuming the family made it through unscathed, would we (and they!) not say that they are in Petra’s eternal debt? And isn’t the fact that we’re clearly not talking about money when we say these things a very obvious example of what Graeber is banging on about?

I would guess that this is actually part of how it actually played out, too— that Petra just kept mum for a while before starting to make noises about textiles. It’s certainly conceivable that she marched up to the front door the day the camps opened and started demanding hush-money, but that sounds a bit incongruous to me.

25

Matt 02.27.12 at 1:35 am

whereas a contract per se is essentially adversary

No. There are a large number of silly things said about contracts in this thread, but this might be a good way to sum them up. A contract may be adversarial, of course, as might all sorts of things, but to think it’s “essentially” so is just a wild confusion. Please, try to do better, and to think a bit harder.

26

Henry 02.27.12 at 2:07 am

Henri – please take a break from commenting at CT for 72 hours or so.

27

Tim Wilkinson 02.27.12 at 2:55 am

Matt, I’m ashamed to admit that even with the benefit of your timely advice I seem to be too silly to find my way out of this confusion without further assistance. Can you give me any pointers on how I can do better?

28

ajay 02.27.12 at 10:24 am

Also, while it can happen that someone contracts a debt that is not able to repay in any way, at least from a formal perspective a debt can always be repaid

What about consols? The whole point of a consol is that it is a perpetual debt instrument; the government can never repay it.

(How blessed is the youth or maiden pure
Whose income is both ample and secure;
Invested in Consolidated Three
Per Cent Annuities, paid quarterly.)

“The only difference between ‘contract’ and ‘extortion’ is that a contract cannot be enforced extralegally. “

Also not sure about this. There are extralegal but not illegal ways that I can enforce a contract. If I deliver some goods to Salient and he doesn’t pay me, I can take him to court to force him to pay (legal method); but I can also, for example, tell all my fellow businessmen “Salient’s a deadbeat, don’t do business with him” and take out an ad in the local paper saying the same thing.

29

Random Lurker 02.27.12 at 11:33 am

“What about consols?”
In my opinion, consols are one example of a contract that was originally a debt, and as a consequence were supposed to be repaid, but then changed in something different (while keeping the formal definition of debt).

30

ajay 02.27.12 at 3:44 pm

Circular reasoning, isn’t it?

So, in your opinion, if I put money into consols, the best way to describe the relationship between me and HMG is that HMG is paying me tribute?

31

Random Lurker 02.27.12 at 4:14 pm

Sorry, I have some doubts on the use of the term “tribute” in english (which is not my mother tongue) – I think that the term implies a form of submission of the guy who has to pay (for example taxes are tributes because citiziens payng taxes are “subjects” of the state). In this sense, consols are clearly not tributes.
I would say that consols are “financial capital”, but not debt – it’s more like as if you bought “shares” of British state. Or if you prefer rent.
It is important that the creditor often “wants” financial capital, and as soon that the debtors pays back principal the creditor tries to lend to someone else (or to rollover debt to the state). So in this sense modern credit is used as a financial asset with the option to exit (or to rollover) for the creditor at a given time; however this is the “use” that today we have for credit, not the formal concept of credit.
Suppose for example, that I get a mortgage for my house, and pay both interest and principal in time to the bank. The bank then says to me: don’t pay principal anymore, just pay interest forever, because our business is to lend money for interest, so we have no real reason to terminate your mortgage.
This would be a kind of debt that I can’t repay (formally, and not just materially), very similar to consols.
I doubt that in such circumstances we would still speak of “debt”.

32

ajay 02.27.12 at 4:30 pm

Suppose for example, that I get a mortgage for my house, and pay both interest and principal in time to the bank. The bank then says to me: don’t pay principal anymore, just pay interest forever, because our business is to lend money for interest, so we have no real reason to terminate your mortgage.

Well, that would be illegal, wouldn’t it? The bank would be breaching the terms of your mortgage contract.
Don’t worry, you’re right about the meaning of “tribute” in English, it does imply submission.
On your original point, I can see what you’re getting at; instinctively we think a debt is something that you can at least in theory repay.
But formally it’s a situation where money changes hands up front in exchange for an obligation to pay back a certain amount or amounts on a certain schedule, whether it’s “everything by the end of the year, plus 3%”, or “$40 a month for the next five years” or something much more complicated involving floating interest rates and balloon payments and so on.

I don’t see that “$40 a month for the next hundred years” is a debt while “$40 a month forever” is something very different. And in practice people are quite happy to exchange perpetual for maturing debt.

33

Tim Wilkinson 02.27.12 at 4:55 pm

Or: formally it’s -a situation where money changes hands up front in exchange for- an obligation to pay -back a certain amount or amounts on a certain schedule-

34

Salient 02.27.12 at 9:40 pm

Also not sure about this. There are extralegal but not illegal ways that I can enforce a contract.

For some definition of ‘enforce’ which I would mildly push back against, this is true. The stuff you mention there was part of a contingent (3) in the longer post that got WTF-eaten.

Forgive me for code-switching into a horribly pedantic voice for a moment, to summarize my original post’s intent. If X threatens to do something that would be illegal [and presumably harmful to Y], unless Y provides X with {material stuff}, that’s extortion. This is an example of duress, which is when X threatens to do something that would be illegal [and presumably harmful to Y] unless {whatever}. (Shorter this paragraph: Duress is the key insight.) To avoid misspeaking yet again–I’m using duress in a purely formalistic legal fashion, duress-as-coded-into-law not duress-as-colloquially-used.

Probably you could substitute ‘illegal’ = ‘violent’ for almost every concrete example, but probably most legal forms of violence would be non-extortive, and (2) CT’s just not an appropriate form for debating the precise meaning of a word like ‘violence.’

35

Alex 02.28.12 at 10:14 am

Within a context where Petra was known to have betrayed other Muslim residents to patrolling soldiers, Trebincevic says Petra’s message was very clear: “Either agree with what I’m asking you to do, or I’m going to turn you in.” His mother would dutifully fold up her rug or her dress or whatever other possession Petra had tacitly demanded, and give it to her neighbor when she went for coffee. This is an example of a type of relationship David Graeber describes as constitutive of a human economy, an economy “concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings”

Possibly not helping his case?

36

Chris Bertram 02.28.12 at 10:21 am

_Possibly not helping his case?_

IIRC (my copy not with me) he nowhere asserts that “human economies” are devoid of exploitative and abusive relationships and actually documents cases where they involve such. So perhaps his “case” isn’t quite what you take it to be.

37

ajay 02.28.12 at 10:41 am

If X threatens to do something that would be illegal [and presumably harmful to Y], unless Y provides X with {material stuff}, that’s extortion. This is an example of duress, which is when X threatens to do something that would be illegal [and presumably harmful to Y] unless {whatever}.

Salient: thanks, that clarifies things.

Does X actually have to threaten something illegal for it to be duress, though? What about blackmail? That generally relies on a threat to do something damaging but legal…

38

dsquared 02.28.12 at 10:53 am

Would we not then say that the Trebincevic family owes their continuing safety to Petra’s collusion? At the end of the war, assuming the family made it through unscathed, would we (and they!) not say that they are in Petra’s eternal debt? And isn’t the fact that we’re clearly not talking about money when we say these things a very obvious example of what Graeber is banging on about?

Contrariwise, I would say that it is pretty clear that although we might say these things, we’d be talking metaphorically (there are several bits in the book where I worry that important philosophical conclusions are being drawn from the kind of misunderstandings of figurative speech that Tim Vine’s standup act is based on). Franklin Roosevelt said that America would pay back anyone who attacked it, “with compound interest”, but I don’t think this means that revenge is a kind of debt.

39

Matt 02.28.12 at 11:00 am

What about blackmail? That generally relies on a threat to do something damaging but legal…
Blackmail is a funny thing in a legal perspective in that (usually) if one just made public the (true) information, it would be perfectly legal to do so, and it would be legal to do so after telling the person you were going to do so, so as to make them feel bad first, but it’s illegal to demand money or other sorts of gain to not make public the information that one otherwise could lawfully make public. It’s one of only a few cases where you can’t do something for money that you could do for free.

40

Chris Bertram 02.28.12 at 11:03 am

_I don’t think this means that revenge is a kind of debt._

Vendetta, blood feud …

41

ajay 02.28.12 at 11:12 am

“I don’t think this means that revenge is a kind of debt.”

In the Celtic/Norse tradition that dsquared was talking about, it’s very close; it’s virtuous to keep your word, both in the context of returning favours and in the context of repaying offence. Debt, duty.
In German the word is “vergeltung”, which comes from “gelten” meaning “to be valid” or “to be worth” – related, presumably, to “gelt” meaning “money” in the sense of “something which has worth”. And of course we talk about “payback” in English.

42

dsquared 02.28.12 at 11:33 am

But I think this is just going to the point I was trying to make in my own post – that “debt” isn’t a special kind of thing created by our rulers, it’s just a normal application of the general human toolkit for “having social obligations” to the case of exchanging future for current goods. And debt is more codified and formalised than, say, vendetta because we’re an industrial society rather than one where clan warfare is the economic basis. I really do think that drawing any conclusion other than “sometimes two different things are quite similar” is a mistake here.

43

Peter Erwin 02.28.12 at 3:04 pm

If X threatens to do something that would be illegal [and presumably harmful to Y], unless Y provides X with {material stuff}, that’s extortion

I think the illegality is actually irrelevant; it’s the prospect of harm or damage to the recipient of the threat which matters. In the OP’s example, it’s not clear that Petra’s (implicit) threat to inform on the Trebincevic family is really illegal (barring some peculiar Bosnian law about not publicizing your neighbor’s religion), unless you could demonstrate that she’s actively colluding with the Serb soldiers. Petra could, for example, be implying that the next time the soldiers came to her house and asked her which of her neighbors were Muslim, she could tell them the truth, or not….

An even more extreme — but quite plausible — example would be my having evidence that you committed a crime, and blackmailing you by threatening to make that evidence public. Making the evidence public would be legal, and in many circumstances people might agree that it would be the morally correct to do so (and in some circumstances you might be legally required to do so, making the act of keeping silent or otherwise not informing the authorities illegal[*]). But, as ajay and Matt pointed out, the act of demanding money (or other gain) in exchange for keeping silent changes things, in both a legal and (I would suggest) ethical/moral sense.

[*] e.g., by perjuring yourself during formal testimony

44

ajay 02.28.12 at 3:25 pm

42 seems reasonable.

45

Peter Erwin 02.28.12 at 3:40 pm

robotslave @ 24:
It might help to consider what we’d think of Petra if she didn’t demand rugs, and simply kept quiet without any form of compensation. And possibly with some risk to herself.

Yes, that’s what I was sort of trying to get at with my first comment (@6). If Petra did the right thing and (at least in some passive sense) protected the Trebincevic family without demanding compensation first, then we might indeed agree that there is a (metaphorical) “debt” involved, one that the Trebincevic family themselves would recognize.[*]

But I disagree that the hypothetical “decent Petra” situation and the actual situation reported in the OP are somehow equivalent — that there is a commonly agreed-upon and recognizable “debt” or “gift” involved when Petra blackmails the Trebincevic family, let alone one where “both parties [are] fully aware that no payment will ever be enough to match the value of the original ‘gift’.”

(The statement in the OP that “Petra is demonstrating that Trebincevic’s mother owes her a debt that can never really be repaid” would make much sense if it were describing a situation where the hypothetical “decent Petra” was — after the Serb soldiers were long gone and there was no more danger — making remarks about how nice it was to have your whole family safe at home with you, and so forth.)

[*] How much of one depends on what Petra actually does or does not do, and the possible consequences or lack thereof. E.g., if she’s interrogated by Serb soldiers and lies about the Trebincevic family, that’s more impressive than if the soldiers set up a box and asked for the voluntary contribution of names, and Petra was simply one of those who didn’t put a name in the box.

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robotslave 02.29.12 at 2:05 pm

A “more codified and formalised” debt it isn’t, certainly. The other kind, though, still looks like fair game to me.

In “a normal application of the general human toolkit for “having social obligations” to the case of exchanging future for current goods” we can just slot in the future safety of one’s family and a current rug.

Of course, this would make Petra the borrower in that negotiation, which is either counterintuitive and revealing, or just stupid.

I’ll go with the former, if only because it sounds a lot like the thing in the other thread where you make someone buy T-bills at gunpoint. The repayment would take the form of “getting away with being Muslim,” which you can’t put in a bag and sounds like it ought to be free to begin with, but isn’t, in this nasty bit of social context.

The “just stupid” side would of course go “that’s not an exchange, that’s merely a mugging.” I’m not sure the family gets nothing out of it, though.

Entirely unrelated: it has only just now occurred to me to rhetorically ask, what changes if the book title is “Loans: From 3000BC to Today”?

47

Katherine 03.01.12 at 2:56 pm

How extraordinary. A post about the contribution that a more in-depth look at anthropology might have made to this book, and especially feminist anthropology, goes immediately down the rabbit hole of discussing the only the first paragraph and ignoring the rest altogether.

That’s impressive obtuseness, even for the Crooked Timber commentariat.

48

ajay 03.01.12 at 2:57 pm

Be the change you want to see, Katherine…

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robotslave 03.01.12 at 6:36 pm

@47

The lack of commenters’ engagement with anything in Lou’s article other than her rather provocative first paragraph might indicate that nobody objects much to her two primary critiques: that Graeber relies heavily on ethnographies that predate the incorporation of third-wave feminism in the discipline, and thus mislocates his own feminist critique of debt relations; and that in rejecting economic modelling entirely, he rejects feminist economics and work rooted in game theory that has been useful to anthropologists.

If Lou had directly accused Graeber of sexism, I’m sure her main points would have got hell of a lot more attention. It’s a lot less sensational to note that while Graeber is clearly versed in and in sympathy with feminist scholarship, his own application of feminism in his book is a bit shallow.

I do think Lou’s contributions are important; the more I think about this book, the more I’m convinced it’s the sort of exposition where I’m going to learn a lot about the author’s intentions by looking carefully at what he hasn’t packed into his bibliographical blunderbuss.

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