One strange feature of Capitalism is that it appears to need a built-in expiration date. Despite its proponents describing it as the inevitable and final greatest form of human economic activity, the moment that too many people begin actually treating it this way the whole thing sort of goes kaplooey. The reason for this is if there is no final reckoning coming, no end to the bonanza of credit and expansion, then there is no reason for anyone not to generate infinite future money.
It’s only the idea that there is some kind of limit to this whole apparatus that makes it function. The moment we admit that the banks can just make as much money as they want and the national debt is never actually going to be repaid, ironically, is when the confidence necessary to make it all run evaporates. Capitalism is inherently apocalyptic.
This is unusual. Feudalism, for example, has no problem imagining itself as eternal. To say, “this or that lord always has been and always will be sovereign over these lands” is perfectly consistent with that system. But if you say that the United States can and will issue limitless credit from here to eternity you have a serious problem.
Maybe, Graeber suggests, this is why capitalist societies have always imagined looming disasters on the horizon – the Axis, Communism, Terrorism, Global Warming… these disasters have some basis in reality, of course, or they wouldn’t work, but they are also serving a purpose in keeping our economy running – because capitalists have always been a sort of specie of war profiteer. It is only in the climate of potential doom that it makes sense to gamble on the scale that we do, to try to get what you can, while you can before it all comes tumbling down.