David Graeber writes in the concluding pages of Debt, “what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others” (Kindle Locations 7961-7962).
It takes nearly 500 pages for the reader to arrive at that sentence and fully feel the weight of it, but it is a question that decides how we wish to be in the world. For Graeber, there are three ways of interacting with the people around us: communism, hierarchy, and exchange.
Communism is the “foundation” of human relations. We would not survive infancy and childhood without it. It is a system predicated on, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”. A mother does not provide for her child because she is looking for something “in exchange” or to show her superiority in the ladder of hierarchy. She does so out of love because she is able and the child is in need. This is how Graeber views communism when stripped from its political and historical connotations. Ultimately, it is an expression of love, benevolence, and kindness. There is no community on earth that could survive without it and all societies are built upon it.
When engaging in this type of relation, debt doesn’t exist. Not really. Not in the form of specific quantification and the need for equivalence in repayment. There is clearly no equivalence between mother and child. They do not meet as equals and then decide to become indebted or not. Repayment doesn’t really begin to enter it. What would we think of the parent that tallied every service provided to their child and presented them with a receipt upon becoming an adult of all debts owed? They would be a monster in our eyes.
Hierarchy and exchange are the two systems we use when we aren’t giving freely. Traditionally, hierarchy arises from differences in the status and power of people. Interactions are not among equals, but debts and levels of honor are maintained. One can increase their honor by taking it from those around them. The lord with the most honor is the one that maintains the largest number of people below them, able to strip them of honor at any time. Of course, all this maintenance requires large and frequent gifts on the part of the lord, but servility and obedience is expected in return. They are not the gifts of the mother and humility, degradation, and violence await anyone that decides not to repay with servility.
Exchange is when people meet as equals. They may choose to take on debt and become unequal, but the possibility of repayment always holds out the idea that equality exists now or in the future. Of course, debt doesn’t have to be taken on at all and two people can simply exchange and part, no further relationship required. In that sense, exchange doesn’t require us to see each other as having relations at all. Our relationship ends as soon as our deal or debt ends.
Understanding these modes of interaction helps the reader once Graeber begins describing money, which comes in two essential forms, credit or coin. Credit forces us to engage in relationships because of the necessity to extend trust when interacting. When we lose trust, we lose credit. Coinage, on the other hand, allows us to interact through pure exchange with no relationship. Graeber points out that the “military-coinage-slavery complex” can arise because of this aspect of coinage.
Militaries of conquest can pay their soldiers with loot. In foreign lands with no relations, this loot can easily be turned into coin and no relations or credit are needed in order exchange goods and services. This often leads to slavery for a few reasons. Enslaving a conquered people entails stripping them of all ability to enter, form, and maintain relations with others. They are now objects, not human, and can become similar to the looted coin. They can also be harvested to create more coin and allow further military expansion. A slave can be seen as unfree because they have no relations or the ability to make them.
Graeber notes that our somewhat strange definition of private property descends from Roman law which includes the right of dominia, the full right to use and abuse as the owner sees fit. This is a direct result of the extreme version of slave rights that the Romans had. Romans were allowed to literally do anything they wished with their slaves because they had dominia over them. This was not usual or common elsewhere, even at that time, because slavery was often a temporary condition and not lifelong. The right to use and abuse non-human property, such as a table, would hardly need the legal protection encoded in the right of dominia.
In the end then, Debt is much more a book about what it means to be human than about anything financial per se. If we are to agree with Graeber about his classifications of the types of interactions we can engage in and the various outcomes that arise, we are presented with hard questions about ourselves.
More than anything else, this book forces the reader to ask about the nature of violence in human relations and what exactly it means for our humanity. The ability to exercise violence strips me of the need to “see” you at all. On the other hand, if communism is our foundation and it is predicated on love, giving with no thought of repayment, then hierarchy and exchange both rely on either debt or payment instead. They rely on valuing and pricing, not the recognition that humans or relationships can in fact be beyond value or priceless.
To put a price on something is, to a certain extent, to do violence as an alternative to acting out of love. Because we put prices on nearly everything, we have violence all around us. Admittedly, it is often tacit, hidden, and out of sight.
Where do we find it? Laws, police, and prisons. If I am hungry and steal food without paying the stated price, violence will be done to me. If I seek shelter because I am cold and homeless without paying the proper price, violence will be done to me. Most of this violence is simply threatened, but it is real if we choose to ignore it. Even in our own houses, violence is a very real threat. Own your own home outright with no mortgage? Try not paying your property taxes one year. You will quickly find police force removing you from “your” home.
When everything has a price, we aren’t required to empathize and sympathize with others as humans. We can always pay them if they’re a nuisance. This is strange though because payment is only simulated equivalence, not real, actual equality. Payment to another for injury, pain, or stress does not actually erase it.
What is the result of all these payments without sympathy? Dehumanization. If the quote that began this post is true, that we are “the sum of the relations we have with others,” then we have decidedly less humanity when we forgo entering into sympathetic relations with others from a desire to love and not harm. With enough wealth, we can essentially sever all human relations because we have no need to rely and depend on others, we can simply pay for anything we wish.
This, of course, is false precisely because we cannot in fact pay for our humanity. It arises out of those relationships we do form, not the ones we avoid, and the extent to which we are willing to extend love, trust, credit, and allow ourselves to become indebted to others in ways that are beyond repayment. Repayment we would never actually seek because to do so would be unhuman.
This final thought is the central insight of the book. Being human is being indebted to everyone around us, but that does not require us to tally up our debts and seek repayment. Being truly human entails giving and receiving freely, which is also at the heart of being free. Being unfree is to be a slave, as we saw above, and to be no longer human.
So far, I believe everything I’ve written to be true. However, this does present a problem and what I think is perhaps the key issue with modern life. For most of human history, we were poor, but free. Then we discovered the scientific method, the industrial revolution, and the rise of capitalism, which all led to wealth beyond imagination. Yet, it is extraordinarily difficult to imagine this system working without debt and hierarchy.
Does this mean that we have bought our positive freedom, or the opportunities available to us, in modern life at the expense of our more basic human freedom? Is this a mandatory trade-off, having to give up genuine relationships predicated on love in order to set precise prices and debts that must be repaid, to enable massive increases in productivity and therefore wealth and income?
Perhaps it is. Maybe humans are fated to exist as poor and free to engage in whatever relations they want or rich and enslaved to debt and masters. I truly don’t know, but I have a feeling it’s just a choice that we make. I think we can have both, but it means recognizing that certain things can’t be paid for or priced. Some things in human life should simply not rely on violence as the mediator. This will necessarily involve dialogue and some lost efficiency, but the human wealth we gain is likely more than worth any income lost.