Examples and references cascade out of David Graeber’s writing at such a pace that it would be completely bewildering if it wasn’t also so thrilling. From Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, to Tudor England, to the Rig Veda the third chapter of Debt throws its net wide. You’ll have to trust me that reading my posts is no substitute for the book itself.
Since the Barter myth didn’t hold up Graeber attends to another foundational myth of economics. Money and markets don’t arise spontaneously out of barter societies as a resolution to the coincidence of double needs. Rather they arise through state intervention. Graeber gives an illuminating hypothetical example:
Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem- unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and animals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions. On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with the things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.
Boom. Money, taxes, and markets all in one fell swoop. In other words the “economy” arises as a way to meet artificial needs created by the state desiring to have a class of people who aren’t occupied with meeting their own needs: soldiers, aristocrats, priests etc…
But if this is the way that it develops what could give the state sufficient gravitas, sufficient authority to pull such a maneuver? Setting aside the proposition that states are just glorified thugs (admittedly plausible), what would persuade so many people through history to go along with this arrangement?
Here is where economists get to work on another myth that Graeber dismantles. Some economists which subscribe to this state/credit theory of the origin of money propose that there is something called “Primordial Debt”. This is the idea that just being alive is a kind of debt. They suggest that early religions held that all of our time on earth is borrowed from death and that sacrifice arose as a way of making a payment in lieu of our lives on this primordial debt. Supposedly, kings and emperors just claimed this religious impulse for themselves, our primordial debt became a debt to the state and there you have it, justification for all sorts of schemes like money and taxes.
This is a pretty compelling narrative, actually. We already talk about “social contracts” and “debts to society”. At a basic level it is simply true: we owe our existence, our culture, our identity, our possessions, and most everything else to the society we were born and raised in.
The problem with this theory becomes apparent when you try to quantify the debt we supposedly owe to our ancestors in society. “If we were to imagine what we owe them as a debt, it could only be infinite. The question is: Does it really make sense to think of this as a debt? After all, a debt is by definition something that we could at least imagine paying back. It is strange enough to wish to be square with one’s parents – it rather implies that one does not wish to think of them as parents anymore. Would we really want to be square with all of humanity? What would that even mean? And is this desire really a fundamental feature of human thought?”
The myth of primordial debts as justification for state power misreads its supposed religious foundations. Early Vedic literature, for example, does indeed talk a lot about debt, but these debts are of a different character than commercial debts. One has a debt, in Brahmanic thought, to ones parents, but that debt is discharged by becoming a parent. Try telling your creditors that you repaid their loan by lending cash to someone else. One’s debt to humanity is repaid by treating strangers with kindness, in other words, by acting with humanity. One’s debt to culture and knowledge is paid by becoming cultured and knowledgeable.
Whereas commercial debt rests on the separation of the parties involved and once discharged the relationship between those parties is dissolved, the kinds of religious debts described in the Rig Veda rest on the unity of the parties and can only be repaid by deepening the relationship. You might say that primordial debts, if they exist, undermine rather than reinforce markets and credit.
(Sidenote: this illuminates a crucial element of the gospel for me. The reconciliatory path which Jesus represents a method of paying for debts of violence, injury, and sin between people which doesn’t sever relationships, but forges eternal ones. So tight are these new bonds that the people can be said to be part of the same body. Incidentally, this argues strongly against a retributive or penal model of atonement since a debt “paid in full” allows the parties to go their separate ways. Jesus doesn’t so much settle accounts with God as demonstrate that the way this debt is paid is by paying it forward in love and mercy.)
The Myth of Barter and the Myth of Primordial Debts as they’re articulated in our society form the pincers of a trap: “on one side is the logic of the market where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don’t owe each other anything. On the other side is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told they are opposites and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it’s a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would recognize today.”