GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

January 1, 2019

Discipline and Debt

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:19 am

The Big Man, in archaic social orders, becomes big by out-gifting his competitors. This out-gifting must be understood not simply as giving out goods, but as including “services,” and above all the service of “leadership.” The Big Man renders everyone dependent upon him, entirely for “merit-based” reasons, and this is a debt which can never be paid back. Out-gifting others therefore becomes a model for the initial power differential. The Big Man’s occupation of the center is always precarious, though—his capacity for distribution can lapse, or be out-done by some new competitor. Making the occupation of the center permanent, then, would require always already having given unrepayable gifts—such a gift must be cosmogonic, i.e., mediating between the cosmos and the community, providing for the good will of the gods, as manifested in sufficient rainfall, prey animals, protection from other communities, etc. This is sacral kingship, which is itself unstable due to the variability of all those conditions which are not, in fact, under the ritual control of the king. No matter how large the territories over which the sacred king rules, these conditions provide at least a residue of fragility—even if the king’s gift is making the Nile flow and sustain all of Egypt, it’s always possible that the Nile will dry up. Still, at a certain point, sacred kingship can provide itself with substantial hedges against being “refuted” by the cosmos.

These hedges also minimize the degree of testing to which the competence of the ruler is subjected to. He delegates, and since those to whom power is delegated are less secure in their positions, which is to say, have fewer hedges, they must be more competent—and more competent means obligating their subordinates in the manner of the Big Man. The king must at least be minimally competent enough to assess the competency of his subordinates—incompetence past a point would introduce instability at the top. Meanwhile, the more his subordinates are able to hedge against reverses in conditions that might undermine their power, the more they are able to target their mode of obligating their subordinates in coercive, rather than reciprocal ways. The most effective way of doing so would be to indebt them monetarily—indebtedness beyond the ability to repay, assuming that repayment can be enforced, is tantamount to slavery—and, eventually, becomes more than “tantamount to.” The introduction of money in the ancient world was first of all aimed at creating such a relationship between individuals bound to local communities with their own hierarchies and the imperial order, which required vast manpower for productive and military purposes. And the capacity to indebt and enslave entails a corresponding decline in the need for competence, which is to say, reciprocal, asymmetrical, obligation.

We can then see the periodic debt forgiveness in the ancient world (the “jubilee”), and the ultimately eschatological significance such forgiveness took on in the Axial Age religions in terms of the need to restore competency and clarity in the chains of command—as opposed, as its contemporary theorists tend to assume, to embodying some revolutionary, anarchic impulse (although, no doubt, such fantasies were often generated as well). What debt, and ultimately money, do, in other words, is represent hedges against direct accountability on that part of those in power—direct accountability, that is, to some competent (in the sense given above) superior. Those who can’t do, issue money and create debts. Of course, then, managing money and debts becomes something one can become competent in. Competence in this field is in that case a marker of the insecurity of the central authority. To the extent that total skunkworks is unattainable (or, at least, unattained), hedges against direct accountability will be created, and money competence will emerge to “measure” that.

The increasingly popular argument by Michael Hudson (, upon which David Graeber’s argument depends, is that the Axial Age religions were really revolts against enslaving debt, in favor of restoring (or radicalizing?) the Jubilee Year of debt forgiveness. All that stuff about sin, repentance and eternal life is really a revision by the power mongers once Christianity (for example) became a state religion—that is, it becomes about making the poor accountable, rather than the rich. Anarchism must reject the claim that social hierarchies allow for the emergence of differentiated competencies: that some individuals can be closer to the center than others makes it possible to discover all kinds of new ways in which one can be closer to the center. But anarchists must also project back a modern egalitarian morality to the archaic, which is to say to elide the necessary relation between the community and a center. Debt is not simply imposed on a debt free “primitive communist” community, any more than kingship is simply imposed on a non-hierarchical order: as Graeber himself shows in On Kingship, “egalitarian” communities are in fact governed by the most rigid and demanding other-worldly hierarchies; similarly, the central object always obligates the community. The individual who occupies the center doesn’t create the center—to believe so is to throw us back into the most naïve Enlightenment accusations against “priests” as “tricking” the people. The logic of sacrifice needs to be broken, regardless of the need to restrain or abolish “predatory debt”—Graeber seems to be aware of this, to some extent, as his very ambivalent relation to Rene Girard’s scapegoat theory in On Kingshipseems to indicate.

Money is invented to distribute to soldiers away from home who need to purchase goods since they are themselves bereft of productive capacities, and markets are established to provide the soldiers with something to buy. But buy for what? You didn’t just buy a steak and bring it home to fire up on the grill; you bought goods to bring to the communal sacrifice. We can assume every meal was communal, and therefore sacrificial. A strict division of loot would be carried out according to merit, with Achilles getting the most and others in accord with their past and expected contributions; the distribution of money would probably also be done differentially, but would already involve a derogation from the straightforward recognition of merit by an accountable leader. We can already see some hedging here. It is the derogation from competence represented by debt and money that encourages fantasies of a complete abolition of debt, obligation, and servitude in an apocalyptic revelation. We can see two tendencies here: on the one side, a more orderly sacrificial process, integrated into a more complex economic and social order, regulated by an increasingly conceptually sophisticated justice system; on the other side, an all-against-one recrudescence of scapegoating. The scapegoating would emerge more readily among the poor, who have less interest in preserving the imperial system, but such tendencies would be encouraged by sections of the elite—perhaps in the name of restoring competence, perhaps in the name of resisting such restoration. Meanwhile, among the elites criticisms of a necessarily improvised and “distorted” justice system would emerge, generating intellectual models of more “cosmic” forms of justice. These contending models both open intellectual space for questioning the sacrificial system and generate resentments that can be used for intensifying it.

This Gordian knot can only be cut by discrediting scapegoating through the exposure of the bad faith of trying to purify the community by excising some offending member. And this exposure can only be accomplished by individuals knowingly occupying potentially violent centers—that is, individuals who develop a new kind of “competency,” that of eliciting and attracting the resentments of those who wish the mimetic sources of their desire to remain occluded. These are first of all prophets, saints and martyrs, but as the threshold for dangerous mimetic violence is raised, such dispositions become more widely distributed, and are simply “morality.” Now, the Hudson-Graeber position is worth keeping in mind here, because money and debt are no doubt bound up in the question of morality. Once sacrificial logic is broken (or, to the extent that it is broken, or, more pessimistically, weakened sufficiently for us to proceed beyond its specter), we can examine systematically the relation between competencies and money as a relation between ordered and at least somewhat disordered imperative orders. What is moral is to determine what each is capable of doing, and to give to each the means of fulfilling the task—and to protect each—to stand in the breach for each—against sniping, undercutting, bluffing, addition of new, unworkable demands, and so on. This morality holds both for those who are capable of much and those who are capable of little, however much it will be manifested differently in each case. Judgments regarding money and debt will therefore be moral, in this sense: they might, immorally, be used to inflate the hedge against the deposition of the incompetent by expanding indebtedness and dispossession; or, they can be used to make visible, measure and minimize the hedges already there, by privileging competence over further hedging wherever possible.

In the contemporary world, we clearly see both tendencies in abundance. The connection between debt, globalism and victimary politics examined by Eric Gans in his first two and final “Unified Field Theory” Chronicles exposes this nexus of incompetence, debt expansion, dispossession and scapegoating very well. The movement on the other side is toward sovereignty, borders, protection of competencies from political contravention, the re-establishment of distinctions between moral and criminal behavior—new, nationalist economic models, privileging productivity over finance, correspond to this movement. Continued movement in that direction depends upon a widening recognition that liberalism has become incompatible with competence, in any field—to maintain competent practices you must either insulate yourself from liberalism or pay it ransom. This will become unsustainable and people will have to choose. It will be helpful to develop an economic theory that posits clear chains of commands and disciplinary spaces as the source of value.

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