If baseline communism is the foundation of human socialization, according to Graeber, it still doesn’t account for all of our economic interaction by a long-shot. Two other modes of interaction are found in all societies: exchange and hierarchy.
Exchange is what Adam Smith (and all economists since) have been obsessed with. It only occurs between relative equals with a certain degree of separation. This is because the very premise of an exchange is that the relationship can be ended once both parties are satisfied with the results (or if the results become so disastrous for one side that they terminate the exchange). Debt only occurs during exchanges. One could say that “debt” is just an incomplete exchange, an exchange that hasn’t ended yet. Once I pay my debt in full I can wipe my hands of the whole relationship – in fact, I’m probably pretty eager to stop talking to my creditor.
This helps explain why trying to use exchange and debt as the default metaphor for all human interactions is so flawed: it casts all human interaction as alienated, even distasteful; the sort of thing we’d be glad to be finished with if we could. It also requires that we pretend that all interactions occur between relative equals, which is indeed part of the (patently false) mythology of the United States.
The truth is that all societies also involve hierarchy and where there is inequality different sorts of obligations arise from “debt” which is uniquely a function of exchange. For example, if I take a friend out to lunch they are are likely to feel an obligation to return the favor sometime. But if I take someone who is my clear social inferior, like a teenager from my youth group, out to lunch then they’re unlikely to feel obligated to return the favor. They know that I was giving them a gift. It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to try to pay me back in that way. We are not equals.
In situations of inequality obligations between parties are not symmetrical. A feudal lord owes his serfs protection. They owe him fealty and a portion of their crop. There is no market where an exchange rate between these services can be established. You can’t say “I gave you x bales of wheat so you owe me x number of knights to protect my farm”. This isn’t an exchange. The obligations only appear reciprocal, but they are really unilateral. There might not be a war for many years but the serfs still owe their grain, and even if there is a drought on the lord is supposed to protect his people from invasion.
Ultimately, what Graeber is trying to lay out for us in this chapter is that we use different types of moral reasoning for different types of interactions. Many interactions depend on a kind of baseline communism, where we all expect people to give from their ability according to one another’s need. Others occur in the realm of exchange between equals, which is where debt is applicable. Still other interactions occur between people who are not equal and therefore have asymmetrical obligation to each other.