The Myth of Barter and the Myth of Primordial Debt may seem like opposing hypotheses since the first describes money as a commodity growing out of primitive trade, and the second describes money as an IOU backed by the state founded on the debt of our very existence, but they are really two sides of the same coin. Coins actually capture the dual nature of money very well:
- On one side is the Head the symbol of state authority vouching for this symbol of credit.
- On the other is the Tail where the precise value of this commodity and how it may be redeemed is stamped.
Money functions both as a commodity and as an IOU and you can start from either and reason your way to the other. The problem with these foundational myths of economics is that they attempt to ascribe the phenomena of the state and the market to human nature. They conceive of humanity as inherently commercial, a conception which can only dehumanize and lead to cruelty.
Graeber walks us through a bit of Nietzsche where Nietzsche describes the progress of religion as commercial relationships of gradually increasing complexity much like Adam Smith did:
In other words, for Nietzsche, starting from Adam Smith’s assumptions about human nature means we must necessarily end up with something very much along the lines of primordial-debt theory. On the one hand, it is because of our feeling of debt to the ancestors that we obey the ancestral laws: this is why we feel that the community has the right to react “like an angry creditor” and punish us for our transgressions if we break them. In a larger sense, we develop a creeping feeling that we could never really pay back the ancestors, that no sacrifice (not even the sacrifice of our first-born) will ever truly redeem us. We are terrified of the ancestors, and the stronger and more powerful a community becomes, the more powerful they seem to be, until finally, “the ancestor is necessarily transifgured into a god.” As communities grow into kingdoms and kingdoms into universal empires, the gods themselves come to seem more universal, they take on grander, more cosmic pretentions, ruling the heavens, casting thunderbolts – culminating in the Christian god, who, as the maximal deity, necessarily “brought about the maximum feeling of indebtedness on earth.” Even our ancestor Adam is no longer figured as a creditor, but as a transgressor, and therefore a debtor, who passes on to us his burden of Original Sin: “Finally, with the impossibility of discharging the debt, people also come up with the notion that it is impossible to remove the penance, the idea that it cannot be paid off (“eternal punishment”)… until all of a sudden we confront the paradoxical and horrifying expedient with which a martyred humanity found temporary relief, that stroke of genius of Christianity: God sacrificing himself for the guilt of human beings, God paying himself back with himself, God as the only one who can redeem man from what for human beings has become impossible to redeem – the creditor sacrificing himself for the debtor, out of love (can people believe that?), out of love for his debtor!”
Nietzsche composed this argument to demonstrate how absurd it is to think of humanity in strictly commercial terms, but what is more absurd is that this is precisely how many Americans think of society, and how many Christians think of Christianity. When framed this way utter horrors like the idea of eternal torment become “only natural” and similar excesses of cruelty between people become perfectly reasonable.
While many of us shrug indifferently at the suggestion that God holds people in an eternal debtors prison, and analogously at the fact that a small percentage of humanity called creditors hold the vast majority in poverty – the actual texts of our religious traditions are remarkably sympathetic to the plight of debtors. Rather than holding that everyone is impossibly indebted and merits impossible punishment the Bible suggest that it is the system of debt accounting itself that is the problem. It is the cruelty we engage in when we treat human relationships like commercial transactions that has to be redeemed.
The solution to debt in the Bible isn’t paying it off. The solution to debt is Jubilee. The ledger doesn’t get balanced it gets destroyed.