Debts and Deferences

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David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years adds a few decisive nails to the coffin of liberal economics and politics. Liberal economists imagine money and markets emerging out of barter; typically, they cannot show that anything like this ever happened, any more than social contract theorists can find an instance where that fictional event ever happened. Villager A doesn’t have too many chickens, while villager B has too many potatoes, and so A and B exchange chickens for potatoes; villagers C, D, E… n do not get in on the game, so that a certain point all the bartering gets too confusing so all must agree on a currency into which all values can be converted. All of this is ahistorical nonsense. Markets have historically been created and managed by states, for the purpose of maintaining ritual and military institutions. A fully marketized order, meanwhile, involves the violent disruption of personal and moral economies of credit (largely conducted without currency or calculation) and their replacement by debt regimes in which all of an individual’s possessions and the individual him/herself are alienable.  Traditional debt regimes, in which economies are always moral economies, presuppose the inclusion of everyone within the system—debts never completely expropriate the debtors. The market economy has everyone treating everyone else as outside of the system of obligations, as a potential adversary.

Graeber distinguishes between three forms of social organization. First, what he calls “communist,” using the definition from the Communist Manifesto, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Graeber sees this as a kind of originary form of social relations, which we all live according to for much of our everyday lives—such a relation treats the world as a single, eternal, object/environment to which everyone contributes and from which everyone receives indiscriminately (if you’ve ever held open a door for elderly woman, you acted like a communist). The second form of social organization is “exchange,” in which things are seen as commensurable. The third form is “hierarchy,” in which there is no commensurability between objects and individuals, and obligations are set by precedent. The exchange relation is really the focus of Graeber’s book. He traces the disembedding of exchange relations from “communist” ones and this seems to take place through the intervention of hierarchy. Kings need armies, and so they need to pay their soldiers, so they produce coins in order to do so; those soldiers need to spend the money somewhere so tradesmen surround the military. Kings need to tax their subjects, so some way of measuring wealth becomes necessary; taxes can be set high enough so that subjects have to go into debt, which in turn makes it easier to appropriate their property. We need currency in order to pay such “antagonistic” debts. Now, part of what makes Graeber’s discussion especially interesting (in a way, it’s the starting point of his discussion) is the perplexing fact that not only is debt generally and unthinkably taken to be a moral question (“we must repay our debts,” everyone must get what is due him”) but that moral thinking more generally seems to operate primarily with a vocabulary drawn from that of debt (God has given us all kinds of things and we in turn are deeply obliged to Him; we seek redemption from the slavery of sin, etc.).

Graeber’s intention is primarily to debunk this language of debt, which he examines in a sustained way in his chapter on “Primordial Debt.” He discusses sacrifice, and makes the very interesting observation that in some conditions the main form of currency (the representation of value into which exchangeable objects can be converted) is some object or objects (like cattle) that are most commonly used for sacrifice. For Graeber, the moral discourse of debt is irrational, and the standard of rationality seems to come from “communist” morality. For Graeber, the communists he discusses are much more rational than those of us besotted by debt-talk, who imagine all kinds of unpayable and even unimaginable debts (with God, for example, who couldn’t possibly need anything from us) rather than simply recognizing the basic fact of our interdependence. It would complicate Graeber’s argument to acknowledge that some form of exchange, or debt, not to mention hierarchy, is constitutive of the communist community as well. (Graeber doesn’t see “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” as different kinds of social orders, but as moral economies that co-exist within a single order—still, it’s clear that social orders are distinguished by the predominance of one over the others, and that the egalitarian communities from which Graeber draws his critiques of pathological exchange orders are the more reliable repositories of communist morality.) He focuses on intra-communal relations, not their relation to the sacred center (their ritual order), so the possibility that the notion of debt is indeed primordial, preceding the origin of human inequality, doesn’t arise. This makes it easy for him to ridicule the notion, that some researchers purport to see as fundamental in the ancient Middle East and India, that existence itself is a form of indebtedness, as a kind of state ideology, contending that rather than seeing these theological claims as supposing a (ridiculous!) “infinite” debt, we should rather interpret


this list [of escalating debts] as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence that the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start. Or even that the very presumption of positing oneself as separate from humanity or the cosmos, so much so that one can enter into one-to-one dealings with it, is itself the crime that can be answered only by death. Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place. (68)


Contrary to his normal procedure, though, Graeber doesn’t show that anyone, other than a present-day anarchist or communist, actually has interpreted these notions in this way. It’s understandable that Graber would want to insist upon an originary debt-free condition, since the only other way out of the violence endemic to impersonalized debt relations would be through hierarchy. Interestingly, Graeber points out that ancient and more recent pre-modern history is replete with revolts against the expropriating consequences of debt, where there is an implicit equality between debtor and creditor (insofar as they engage in exchange), but almost none against caste systems and slavery, and I would add far fewer against monarchy, or military hierarchies, where social distinctions are non-negotiable and beyond appeal—but doesn’t pursue the implications of this observation.

Graeber makes an argument intimately related to one of Marx’s central ones, and it is an argument that must be conceded. What, exactly, makes it possible to exchange one object with any other; what makes the objects commensurable? The objects must be abstracted from the network of relations in which they are embedded, and by “abstracted” Graeber means “violently ripped out.” This analysis, like Marx’s of “abstract labor,” implicates exchange and debt in sacrifice by focusing on the most exchangeable of all objects: human beings. Early forms of exchange between communities and families involved replacing people, and therefore establishing their value (as represented by other objects): brides, slaves, murder victims, and so on. Although Graeber doesn’t speak in these terms, the implication is that hostage taking is central to the earliest forms of exchange. (It is not clear to me whether, for Graeber, or in reality for that matter, the more localized and personalized forms of “credit” Graeber valorizes precede and are distorted by the pathological, hostage taking forms or, on the contrary, the personalized forms are reforms and curtailments of hostage taking, under a new mode of the sacred and new mode of sovereignty. I find myself assuming the latter is the case, since the establishment by sovereigns of markets must have always involved some violent abstraction, and early forms of exchange between tribes, families and communities must have always presupposed the possibility of violent escalation.) Now, as I argued in my post on sacral kingship, for human beings to have this extremely high “value,” it must be possible to place them at the center—which means that the center must have already been expropriated by the “Big Man” and eventually permanently occupied by the sacral king. Again, we see the inseparability of “humanization” and human sacrifice. Humanity cannot be the highest value without humans being the most valuable exchangeable and sacrificable object. Graeber is right to associate this economy of hostages with the honor culture, which he especially dislikes, seeing one’s honor as being defined by the stripping of another’s. Flinching at the brutality of such systems, especially when one would be unable to imagine a credible alternative under those conditions, is a serious analytical failure—honor culture must not only have suppressed forms of violence endemic to relations within and between more communist orders, but any replacement of honor culture must defer some critical mode of violence that can be recognized as communally destructive within such societies. And this kind of recognition comes, to quote Marx, under conditions not of one’s choosing.

Despite his ridicule of theologies of “infinite” and “existential” debt Graeber implicitly concedes that that development of these (critical) modes of thought in the “Axial Age” (800 BC to 600AD) of the great ancient empires led to the diminishment and ultimately elimination of the most egregious practices of mass slavery and human sacrifice of those empires. Once debt is conceived in infinite, existential terms, defining one’s relation to the sacred, then it is the assumption that debts can be settled through the exchange of hostages that becomes vulnerable to irony, ridicule and denunciation. Whether it’s “rational” (according to what tradition of rationality? Developed how—by reference to what system of exchange?) is completely irrelevant to the ethical advance that Graeber sees from the Axial to the Middle Ages (600-1450 AD), an advance we must see as a result of the gradual assimilation of the transcendent forms of the sacred of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. The sacral king is the earliest form of absolutism: the sacral king is the cynosure of the order, the mediator between divine and human, and also for this reason a possible sacrifice—the first form of human sacrifice. The ancient emperors retain this sacrality in an extended form (they cannot be violated under any conditions), but since they remove themselves from the position of sacrificial victim, they are sacrificed to, not sacrificed. The ancient empires were regimes of expanded sacrifice, or hostage taking, in which the abstraction and redistribution of individuals was routinely used to settle accounts. This accounts for the moral state of the axial empires that Graeber deplores, and which led to the more metaphorical and spiritual forms of sacrifice that provided for the moral revolution which restored a more reciprocal economy, based upon embedded debt networks, personal credit rather than currency, in the Middle Ages.

We can now focus on the relation between hostage taking, or the violent extraction of humans from relations of “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” that define them, and sovereignty. The forms of holiness inherited from the Axial Age dissenters invalidate hostage taking: each human being has a unique relation to the divine, so humans can no longer be treated as commensurable with one another. Rather than a possible sacrifice or receiver of sacrifice, the sovereign’s role is now to suppress sacrifice. To sacrifice a human requires that all the attention of the community converge on the sacrificial figure. He or she must be seen as the repository of all desires and resentments, the origin of some proliferating criminality or plague, the cause of dashed hopes. The post-axial sovereign ensures that such attention can only be organized on the terms of the sovereign. Hostage taking implies an honor system, and the suppression of sacrifice means the suppression of the honor system, which is to say the vendetta. The sovereign must settle accounts between groups and individuals in such a way that grievances are satisfied sufficiently so as to make recourse to the vendetta unthinkable. Sovereignty must reach into and shape the social order so as to block the emergence of power centers interested in restoring the honor system. This means a system of deferences that interpose between the convergent attention of the many and any individual the question, “what would the sovereign do (and have me do)”? Which further means that the sovereign construct a justice system that disseminates answers to those questions broadly and clearly, verbally and through institutionalized practices. When our attention converges on an individual—a celebrity, an infamous criminal or defendant, the victim of a Twitter mob—we may insult, ridicule, taunt, ostracize, but will stop short of appropriating the sovereign’s prerogative to imprison or kill. At a certain point, our attention converges on those who seem more likely than us to appropriate that prerogative (to organize a lynch mob, for example).

This gradual incorporation of the norms of axial age transcendence into Middle Ages governance accounts for the moral, political and even economic and technological advances steadily gained in medieval Europe (I’m not going to try and include parallel developments in the Islamic world, India and China). But insofar as these terms of transcendence inform the state, they can be invoked against the state, especially when they are embodied in a powerful institution with sacral imperial pretensions of its own. It is, after all, possible to concede that central power should be exercised absolutely while still insisting that the occupant of that central power be subject to replacement. Any specific argument along these lines will be marked by inconsistencies, but so will arguments for sovereign determined succession. And the criteria for replacement will most likely derive from the transcendent terms that are embedded in the sovereign itself. It’s then a few steps to modern democracy, which insists on institutionalizing a system of replacement so that his temporary hold on power will always be present in the mind of the sovereign. It’s then barely a step at all to propose that counters to sovereign action be built into sovereignty itself, in the form of “checks and balances.” But this makes the modern executive perilously close to becoming a sacrificial object again—not just in the once and for all manner in which the absolutist monarchs were sacrificed to inaugurate the modern age, but as a routine, almost ritualized matter. To refer again to my post on sacral kingship, I am arguing for an understanding of modern history as the ongoing attempt to create a satisfactory replacement for sacral kingship—sovereignty as a non-sacrificial center of attention that, even more, deflects towards itself all other potentially sacrificial centers of attention.

What makes the consequences of the “always already” divided sovereignty of medieval Christianity even more destructive is the possibility of re-“abstracting” individuals from their social networks of obligation and reciprocity. The breaking up of the honor system, which gives the individual a direct relation to the sovereign, makes this abstraction a site of power struggles—the source of the high-low vs. the middle power blocs. I’m not going to work through Graeber’s complex discussion of the rise of modernity, but he associates the rise of “capitalism” with a massive new abstraction of individuals—not so much as human hostages (although Graeber foregrounds the importance of world conquest and slavery by the West to this process) but as potential capitalists who see the world completely in terms of exchange. This self-capitalization respects the transcendent axial terms because in self-capitalizing, the subject is self-sacrificing through labor, discipline, and the exclusion or reduction of whole domains of what have always been considered essential human experiences. The asceticism of the capitalist subject is certainly in the Christian tradition. As long as this type of subject is privileged, the unification and securing of power is impossible—the self-sacrificing individuals will always be eager clients for sowers of dissension and division. The modern market is a product of power as much as markets ever were, with modern capitalists, as Graber argues, the descendants of the military adventurers of the early modern age—but, by setting markets against the state, liberalism makes the market a multiplier and intensifier of divided power. If liberalism does not directly restore, it always incites and ultimately relies on the return of the honor system—leftism is the institutionalization and infinitely varied refinment of the vendetta. So, absolutism demands the re-embedding of individuals into “communistic,” “exchange” and “hierarchical” orders, but on terms that preclude reversion to the honor system and preserve the mass literacy and numeracy presupposed, if not quite accomplished, by contemporary social orders.

To an extent, absolutists stand with some elements of the contemporary left, those that still have abolishing the capitalist world order on their agenda—at the very least, we can notice some of the same things deliberately ignored by liberals. There are actually a very few, and those very feeble (in power and intellectual acuity), among the left that have kept their eye on replacing the metastasized systems of exchange that have swallowed up all human relations and made us all hostage to globalizing economic, political and media regimes. Transnational human rights regimes and climate fanaticism, to take two examples (both providing legal and moral bases for “political correctness” and supply chains from transnational economic entities to your humble social justice warrior) tie the left irreversibly to capitalism. Blackmailing corporations and other large institutions, along with infiltrating the permanent state (which ensures the blackmailing will work), pretty much defines the left at this point.  No one is more calculating and exchange oriented than they are. And those on the left who wish to return to class, economic inequality and socialist transformation are completely unwilling to challenge the splintering of the leftist project along identity lines.

Graeber, to his credit, says little about the prospects of the left, refusing to feed his readership false optimism. To his discredit, while insisting on the permanence of the “communistic” dimension of human experience (we could hardly rid ourselves of it if we wished), and devoting the bulk of his attention to distinguishing productive from pathological modes of exchange, he says very little, especially by way of proposing new ways of thinking, about the “hierarchical” dimension. He concedes its necessity, but never offers even the most qualified praise for responsible uses of hierarchy, much less a rigorous distinction between positive and negative forms. I have to assume that, as a confirmed leftist speaking mostly to other leftists (Graeber has been an important figure in the “anti-globalization” movement [the ones who smashed up Seattle back in antiquity, i.e., 1999] which, insofar as it still exists, has become the alt-right movement). We, of course, have no such scruples—quite to the contrary! The articulation of “communism,” “exchange” and “hierarchy” can probably be incorporated very nicely into absolutism. The most originary manifestation of hierarchy is naming: to name another being is to establish an origin and destiny, and thereby constitute it, bring it into existence. Delegating is itself a form of naming. Naming is performative, like christening a ship or marrying a couple, activities that manifest the most basic social traditions. In a sense, that is what a tradition entails—a reciprocally constituting system of names.

The political formalism instituted by Moldbug is also a form of naming—anonymous, and therefore apparently spontaneous powers are incorporated and made subordinate to the sovereign through naming. The media are propaganda agencies of some power center or another—the blogger Sundance at the Conservative Treehouse asserts that the CIA leaks to the Washington Post and the FBI to the New York Times. No doubt we could create a more comprehensive map of affiliations. In the interests of transparency, we should not only have such a map but it should be used to centralize the information policy of the regime. Every piece of information comes from some specific place in the chain of command. That means all information purveyors are named by the sovereign. Moving beyond this specific example, we can see that sovereign naming prevents the abstraction of individuals in a way that conforms to a dynamic social order. Something new—a new enterprise, an invention—comes out of something existing, something with a name, and is itself named as soon as it comes to the attention of the sovereign (and the sovereign keeps getting better at noticing and assessing novel phenomena).

How do we devise and apply new names? Like Graeber’s “communism,” this practice is part of our most elementary relations to the world and each other. To point to something that hasn’t been noticed is to name it, even if only as “today’s hamburger,” as opposed to all the other hamburgers we’ve all eaten previously. Sovereign naming produces new centers of attention that direct our attention back to the sovereign’s naming capacity. Here’s a way to think about how “naming” as a form of thinking and speaking happens. Gertrude Stein had a habit of naming the chapters in her books. One reads through Chapters 1-6 and then the next chapter is “Chapter 3.” This arrests one attention and directs it toward the meta-critical dimension of books, to things we don’t ordinarily notice. After one has read a lot of books, one notices patterns—so, a “typical” novel might have, say 15 chapters, and the different chapters develop a certain character, or “feel,” because of the formulas of novel writing. So, in a 15 chapter book, chapter 7 has a “turning point” or “climax,” and when the reader gets to Chapter 7 such an expectation is implicit. One notices these patterns and forgets them, as we simply plug new books into the formula. But if there is a character or feel to “Chapter 7,” then other chapters can be Chapter 7-ish, say, in a book that reworks the formulae. You can let the reader notice the subversion of the formula, or you can explicitly identify the upcoming chapter as, “really,” Chapter 7, even if it comes after Chapter 2 and before Chapter 3. Whatever is better for writers, it is better for authority to explicitly name the “emergent property,” and to do so, also explicitly, in the only way one can—tropologically, that is, by violating some linguistic rule or expectation, using a word in a “wrong” way that is now made “right” by its authoritative application. Sovereign naming is thus the ostensive dimension of social order, which allows for a coherent array of imperatives and therefore a clarified chain of command. Of course, subjects will themselves get into the habit of naming, of making explicit their relations to each other, their obligations and expectations, and also their disappointments and amendments of those relations. We would have the means to resist our “abstraction” by deferring to one another’s names.

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