Understanding Debt: As the Pendulum Swings

If Occupy is a movement and the movement has intellectuals, then David Graeber is primus inter pares. Below are two excerpts from a September 2011 interview which give nice overview of his thinking. With a mind-boggling $1,000,000,000,000 (trillion) dollars in student debt, countless home mortgages under water, and a government run for the benefit of the plutocracy, is it possible that his ideas, marginal though they may seem, will find an increasingly welcome reception over the next 5 to 10 years? Click here for the full article in The Brooklyn Rail.

[Interviewer]: There’s something about the quantitative aspect of debt, the way that it can impersonalize human relationships, that makes it such a powerful force in civilization.

David Graeber: Exactly: The turning of moral obligations into numbers and then using those numbers to justify things that could otherwise never be justified morally. And that’s the story of debt. That’s why I realized, when writing it, that this has been going on for a very long time. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) and what they did to countries in the Global South—which is, of course, exactly the same thing bankers are starting to do at home now—is just a modern version of this old story.

Graeber: One of the strange powers of the logic of debt, which pervaded first North Atlantic societies and then almost the rest of the world under the organizing principle of capitalism, is that people are under the pressure of the shame and humiliation that comes with being in debt. This causes a frenetic need to look and turn everything around them into a source of profit. And that’s what the industrious people are, the people who submit themselves to that logic.

Click here for the full article.


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