Basically up to this point Graeber has been pointing out that the language of the market exerts an inappropriate hegemony over our moral imagination. Debt is a specific, fairly narrow thing, but it is employed metaphorically as the basis for a host of relationships and behaviors that don’t naturally belong to the domain of commerce. He’s dispelled some myths and helped us see the problem this confusion creates. Now it is time for him to begin laying out how human relationships actually are structured, what different types of obligations there are, so we can begin to put debt into its proper place.
Graeber describes three main moral principles on which economic relations rest. These are not separate types of societies, but moral principles present in every society, which complement each other sometimes and compete at others. They are: communism, exchange, and hierarchy. Today I’m only going to talk about the first of these.
By communism Graeber does not mean a form of government or an idealized society where everything is held in common, he means “any human relationship that operates on the principles of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.'” There has never been a society that operated entirely on this principle (nor could there be in Graeber’s estimation), but neither has there ever been a society that didn’t depend on this principle for its existence. “Communism is the foundation of all human sociability.”
Everyone follows this principle for example if they are collaborating on a common project. If a plumber asks someone to hand them a wrench we aren’t likely to say “what’s in it for me?” It’s simply the most efficient way for work to get done: allocate duties based on ability and provide everyone with what they need to accomplish the task.
The same principle holds in conversation. We assume nearly always that other people will tell us what we need to know. If we ask for directions, or for the time of day, or for clarification on a restaurant menu even perfect strangers can be relied on to provide what we need. Lies, insults, and various forms of verbal aggression get their power from the assumption that they are unusual.
Sharing is a value taught in every culture and every society holds certain things, usually those regarded to be basic necessities in common: water, air, roads, education, emergency services etc… “Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of sociality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace.”
Communism does not necessitate material equality. Some needs and abilities are greater than others. It is not based in reciprocity, though it does entail mutual obligation. These obligations are not debts though. They cannot be tallied in a ledger, precisely quantified, or ever paid off. It is the ongoing obligation to provide for each other at a certain basic level which makes society possible.
We are all communists up to a point.