The Difference Between Owing Someone A Favor And Owing Someone A Debt

By far the book of 2012 for me (it possibly has taken me 8 months to read it, I’m not great with history). Nevertheless, this book was phenominal and eye-opening. Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber¬†– Here is a great quote from the book that helps to summarize some of his arguments and give you a peak into why I found it so brilliant.
As I pointed out in the very beginning: the difference between owing someone a favor, and owing someone a debt, is that the amount of a debt can be precisely calculated. Calculation demands equivalence. And such equivalence-especially when it involves equivalence between human beings (and it always seems to start that way, because at first, human beings are always the ultimate values)-only seems to occur when people have been forcibly severed from their contexts, so much so that they can be treated as identical to something else, as in: “seven martin skins and twelve large silver rings for the return of your captured brother,” “one of your three daughters as surety for this loan of one hundred and fifty bushels of grain” … This in turn leads to that great embarrassing fact that haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.
More than anything else, the endless recitation of the myth of barter, employed much like an incantation, is the economists’ way of fending off any possibility of having to confront it. But even a moment’s reflection makes it obvious. Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them only in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market likely to have been? Surely, he can only have been a thief. Burglars, marauding soldiers, then perhaps debt collectors, were the first to see the world this way. It was only in the hands of soldiers, fresh from looting towns and cities, that chunks of gold or silver-melted down, in most cases, from some heirloom treasure, that like the Kashmiri gods, or Aztec breastplates, or Babylonian women’s ankle bracelets, was both a work of art and a little compendium of history-could become simple, uniform bits of currency, with no history, valuable precisely for their lack of history, because they could be accepted anywhere, no questions asked. And it continues to be true. Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords and clubs, or nowadays, “smart bombs” from unmanned drones. It can also only operate by continually converting love into debt. I know my use of the word “love” here is even more provocative, in its own way, than “communism.” Still, it’s important to hammer the point home. Just as markets, when allowed to drift entirely free from their violent origins, invariably begin to grow into something different, into networks of honor, trust, and mutual connectedness, so does the maintenance of systems of coercion constantly do the opposite: turn the products of human cooperation, creativity, devotion, love, and trust back into numbers once again. In doing so, they make it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations.
Even more, by turning human sociality itself into debts, they transform the very foundations of our being-since what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others-into matters of fault, sin, and crime, and making the world into a place of iniquity that can only be overcome by completing some great cosmic transaction that will annihilate everything. Trying to flip things around by asking, “What do we owe society?” or even trying to talk about our “debt to nature” or some other manifestation of the cosmos is a false solution-really just a desperate scramble to salvage something from the very moral logic that has severed us from the cosmos to begin with. In fact, it’s if anything the culmination of the process, the process brought to a point of veritable dementia, since it’s premised on the assumption that we’re so absolutely, thoroughly disentangled from the world that we can just toss all other human beings-or all other living creatures, even, or the cosmos-in a sack, and then start negotiating with them. It’s hardly surprising that the end result, historically, is to see our life itself as something we hold on false premises, a loan long since overdue, and therefore, to see existence itself as criminal. Insofar as there’s a real crime here, though, it’s fraud. The very premise is fraudulent. What could possibly be more presumptuous, or more ridiculous, than to think it would be possible to negotiate with the grounds of one’s existence? Of course it isn’t. Insofar as it is indeed possible to come into any sort of relation with the Absolute, we are confronting a principle that exists outside of time, or human-scale time, entirely; therefore, as Medieval theologians correctly recognized, when dealing with the Absolute, there can be no such thing as debt.

4 Comments

  • I think a really good way for you to put into practice what you’ve learned from Graeber is to do my family and I a favour and forgive us the rest of the debt that we owe you. Graeber digs the Jubilee idea, and this would fit perfectly into that Rolling Jubilee thing that is hot right now so what better way to live into what you read, right? (Thanks a lot in advance! xoxo)

  • Actually Dan, you owe the single mom you have yet to pay back, not me. So it’s not really my place to rob her from what you owe her so you can experience some sort of philosophical release from your debts. I assume you are sending me some more money soon?

  • Actually, Nathan, you gave the money to the single mom, which is why I am giving money to you now. If you want to talk about how awesome something is but not live it out, that’s fine. Lord knows, you’ve been doing that for thirty or so years at this point so no need to change now, right?

    (xoxo)

  • Ohh Dan. Whatever you need to believe so that you actually paid your debt :) Can you imagine how you would have treated her if I would have let you go on thinking you were her debtor? You would have been like a spoiled ungrateful child and she never would have seen what you owe her. But hey I have an idea let’s try to somehow twist this situation around to blame me because you can’t manage your money and you have no issue using this mom for your own selfish gain. And cmon Dan. I’m not even close to thirty.

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