In the final chapter of his epic book Graeber tries to trace the story of American Capitalism since 1971 as a way of setting a scene for “what comes next.” This book is about changing paradigms, about effecting a gestalt switch in the reader from seeing “debt” in moral terms to seeing it in historical and political terms.
Graeber intentionally does not try to give a lot of concrete advise for how to behave, or prophecy the future of various movements like Occupy (which he has been a part of from the beginning). It means that the book leaves you with an odd feeling. I was on board with his criticism of our economic system halfway through and he continued to impress me with insight, but part of me was longing for more than insight. I wanted a solution.
The solution, alas, doesn’t fully exist yet. There are hints. There are groups around the fringes making hopeful noises, but no one really knows how this is going to play out. We are staring a very real total collapse like humanity has never experienced in the face. A finite planet cannot sustain an engine of infinite productivity much longer.
The future is unwritten, but there is a reason that Graeber has spent so much time analyzing the past – there are clues there which might play a part in crafting solutions. As a pastor I thought it was poignant that where Graeber chose to end his study of Debt is with the idea of Jubilee:
In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with one. It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one’s debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to agree to arrange things in a different way. It is significant, I think that since Hammurabi, great imperial states have almost invariably resisted this kind of politics. Athens and Rome established the paradigm: even when confronted with continual debt crises, they insisted on legislating around the edges, softening the impact, eliminating obvious abuses like debt slavery, using the spoils of empire to throw all sorts of extra benefits at their poorer citizens (who, after all, provided the rank and file of their armies), so as to keep them more or less afloat – but all in such a way as never to allow a challenge to the principle of debt itself. The governing class of the United States seems to have taken a remarkably similar approach: eliminating the worst abuses (e.g., debtors’ prisons), using the fruits of empire to provide subsidies, visible and otherwise, to the bulk of the population; in more recent years, manipulating currency rates to flood the country with cheap goods from China, but never allowing anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts.
At this point, however, the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. As it turns out, we don’t “all” have to pay our debts. Only some of us do. Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again.
Christians pray for their debts to be forgiven as they forgive debts. In the context of a society that demands certain people repay all debts while others are never so obliged this prayer is about debt resistance. Your worth is not determined by your ability or willingness to repay your debts. Perhaps it is time for Christians (and everyone else) to lock arms and default.
What is a debt anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom, (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point, we can’t even say. It’s more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.