In the middle of this massive tome Graeber strays from a straight narrative into more of a mosaic approach. These chapters no longer seem to be progressing us toward a conclusion, and more providing layers of snapshots which all tell similar stories from different angles. Chapter Seven “Honor and Degradation” looks at ways we value and degrade human beings and how when that gets tangled up with commerce we end up with some of the worst atrocities of history. Basically, the moment you can put a price-tag on a person you’re in trouble, morally speaking.
The roots of this ability to put a price on a person go deeper than just market economies. One way of looking at it is through systems of honor and shame present in many cultures. Graeber uses many examples to basically prove the point that honor only exists where shame and degradation are also prominent. Honor depends on the degradation of others. Indeed, to have honor in a heroic/warrior culture is to be capable of shaming and degrading others. Kings and chiefs and warrior-heroes are always surrounded by slaves and captives. One’s honor is proven by one’s ability to shame others and defend yourself from shame.
This creates a dilemma where victims of shame and degradation in order to recover their dignity have to play by the rules of the system that degraded them. “The problem is that honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others. To be able to recover it, then, a slave must necessarily adopt the rules and standards of the society that surrounds him, and this means that, in practice at least, he cannot absolutely reject the institutions that deprived him of his honor in the first place… all societies based on slavery tend to be marked by this agonizing double consciousness: the awareness that the highest things one has to strive for are also, ultimately, wrong; but at the same time, the feeling that this is simply the nature of reality. This might help explain why throughout most of history, when slaves did rebel against their masters, they rarely rebelled against slavery itself.”
There is a social currency to go along with money and a deficit of dignity to go along with debt. By robbing people of their dignity the need is created for them to support the society that has degraded them at least to the extent that they recover what they’ve lost.
I think this phenomenon is observable in America where we see poor communities often ideologically supportive of economic policies that are to their own detriment. Their pursuit of honor depends on the myth of the self-made millionaire. To oppose that system is to relinquish the hope of recovering their dignity. As John Steinbeck put it, “socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”