I never managed to finish David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years. First, I don’t enjoy the attempt to grab onto a single concept and use it to explain absolutely everything in the world. Debt is a rich topic of research as it is and I see no need to try to create some sort of a grand narrative du jour out of it. I thought we were past grand narratives anyway.
Another problem I had with the book is that it is obsessed with proving that there were matters on which Adam Smith was wrong. I don’t know whether it’s a regular thing to do among economists to argue so passionately about a theory created in the XVIIIth century. I mean, the guy’s been dead for a very long time, so how is it a big breakthrough to assume that he was wrong on occasion? I can’t imagine publishing a book in my discipline arguing earnestly that Francisco Mariano Nipho, an XVIIIth century literary critic, was not entirely right. Well, duh. This would make me look like one of those weirdos who claim that psychoanalysis is useless because Freud fucked up often enough. As if nothing happened in the discipline since then.
The main reason that I disliked Graeber’s book, however, was that it became pretty obvious quite soon that the guy had an agenda that he tried to sneak past his readers in a very inelegant way. In his recent article “Can Debt Spark a Revolution?” published in The Nation*, Graeber proves that I was right from the start. His hope for the future is debt forgiveness:
A debt jubilee, after all, affords the possibility not just of economic renewal, but of intellectual and spiritual renewal as well.
There is, of course, absolutely no proof that any spiritual or intellectual renewal will come from debt forgiveness. Evidence to the contrary, however, abounds. Graeber admits that a form of debt forgiveness has already been put in place when the taxpayers saved the failing companies from imminent ruin. So have the banks and companies we bailed out been spiritually or intellectually renewed? Obviously not. To the contrary, they pursued the same practices that led them into trouble with even greater abandon than before. They messed up, saw that there were no consequences attached to messing up, and continued doing exactly what they were doing before. There is no doubt in my mind that any further attempts at debt forgiveness will very soon lead to even greater portions of the population being even more indebted than they are today.
Graeber demonstrates exactly why the #Occupy protests have failed so miserably when he says the following:
Occupy was right to resist the temptation to issue concrete demands. But if I were to frame a demand today, it would be for as broad a cancellation of debt as possible, followed by a mass reduction of working hours—say to a five-hour workday or a guaranteed five-month vacation.
Here the article ends without any explanation of who will pay for these five-month vacations or forgiven debts, mortgages, auto loans, etc. The Treasury? Well, we all know it’s empty and up to its non-existent ears in debt. Of course, everybody wants a guaranteed five-month vacation and no debt. As well as world peace and wonderful weather all the time. But what’s the use of engaging in these silly fantasies if you are not ready at least to begin considering how they could be made reality?
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