Richard Dienst, The Bonds of Debt: Borrowing Against the Common Good, Verso, New York, 2011, 192 pages, $24.95, ISBN 9781844676910
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5000 Years, Melville House Publishing, New York, 2011, 534 pages, $22.00, ISBN 9781933633862
In 2011, as the scramble from above for a status-quo-preserving scheme to deleverage the global economy entered its third year, two books approaching debt from a less lofty angle were released. The Bonds of Debt by Richard Dienst, and Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber, both ask what it ought to mean to live with debt today, and, in Graeber’s case, what it has meant historically. Both authors, while acknowledging the centrality of debt to human relations, challenge the assumptions, mythologies, and platitudes that make it seem so obvious that one must always pay their debts. Instead of accepting debt and credit as valid “economic judgment[s] of the morality of man” (Marx, 1975, cited in Dienst, 2011: 148), Graeber and Dienst look closely at what exactly debt is, where it comes from, and where it is taking us, in order to “locate precise targets for infidelity to the current order of things” (Dienst, 2011: 157) and to learn which debts are worth keeping and which are not. Neither author maps out a program for future research, but each raises enough questions about the relationship between debt, money, violence, biopolitics, capitalism, space, and the cycles of history to occupy researchers for years to come.
Debt has already made the rare leap from scholarly manuscript to pop non-fiction – the product of a serendipitous release date and Graeber’s media appointment as the “house theorist of Occupy Wall Street” (Meaney, 2011). Dienst, a former student of Fredric Jameson, is a public intellectual in his own right, but lacks the timely affiliations to propel Bonds onto any best-seller lists. Bonds is, nevertheless, an eminently readable collection of essays equally deserving of a large audience. While the two books share the theme of debt, and some similar conclusions, the courses they trace from A to B are very different.
For Graeber, debt is a “promise corrupted by math and violence” (Graeber, 2012). Though this definition might sound flippant, Graeber takes it seriously, and Debt is largely a journey through time (and space) to figure out when and how unique and context-dependent obligations between people became quantifiable, transferable, and enforceable by coercive state and legal power. Along the way we learn that Aristotle, Smith, and Marx had the history of money backwards: virtual money – credit and debt – came first; barter and coinage came later. (This order of events is familiar to those acquainted with the work of Geoffrey Ingham  and Chartalist theories of state and credit money more generally [Knapp, 1905; Innes, 1914]). For Graeber, the main problem with the well-rehearsed fairy tale of historical progression from barter, to coinage, to credit, to stock markets, hedge funds, and CDOs, is not just that it is empirically false. More important is that the myth is too-neatly peaceful, elides the role of the state, and hives off the market from the rest of human relations as though “the exchange of goods need nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex or death” (page 33). It turns out that once these elements are added back into the story, the belief that one should always pay their debts is reduced to vapid moralism.
For Dienst, such moralism in the context of the current “regime of indebtedness” is transparently absurd. Debt is not something we can simply do without (page 6). Dienst means this in an existential sense – i.e. debt comes with membership in a society where people depend on each other – but also in a less benign sense. Debt has become, according to Dienst, the only way to pay for the costs of “collective irrationality” (e.g. environmental destruction, financial crises), to sustain speculative bubbles, to compensate for the privatization of social protection, or to keep households floating “between the discipline of the labor market and the discipline of bankruptcy laws” (page 60). This deepening insinuation of indebtedness into the “lifeworld” gives it a biopolitical register. “By forging countless short circuits between the macro and the micro, indebtedness becomes something like a whole ‘structure of feeling’, whereby humans find themselves owing their existence (along with the lives of other beings) ever more fully to the economic apparatus that claims to control life as such” (page 29). For Dienst, then, getting out of debt is not an option, a disturbing thought when one realizes that all debt is ultimately grounded in some other source of value, usually some future source of value – future labor, future growth, etc. Everyone in the rich North, in Dienst’s words, is “paying now for a system of violence that may yet turn against them” (page 93).
Where Dienst looks forward to the violence that awaits us if we cannot reorganize our collective indebtedness more fairly, Graeber looks back at the forgotten and invisible violence “lodged in our most intimate conceptions of honor, property, and even freedom” (page 164) that undergird today’s social relations of debt. As Graeber’s history shows, debt’s connection to violence is not transhistorical. “Primitive” currencies, in what Graeber calls “human economies,” were used to create, maintain, or sever relationships, and to acknowledge debts between people too unique to be settled by the exchange of equivalents. For Graeber, the transformation of “human economies” into “market economies,” is invariably linked to physical violence. “It is only by the threat of sticks, ropes, spears, and guns that one can tear people out of those endlessly complicated webs of relationship with others (sisters, friends, rivals…) that render them unique, and thus reduce them to something that can be traded” (page 208). In Graeber’s version of history, debt, as we know it today, has its roots in the earliest commodifications of human relations, and wherever the qualities of a person are reduced to quantities, violence is required to seal the deal.
Dienst’s handling of the debt-violence nexus is less intimate than Graeber’s. Instead of focusing on the empirical, Dienst considers how the state’s monopoly on violence is “ground[ed in] a regime of indebtedness” (Graeber: 75). Dienst uses Kant’s ” (1795) “Perpetual Peace,” and Keynes’s (1919) Economic Consequences of the Peace to represent two obverse ways of thinking about war and debt. For Kant (1991, page 95), debt threatens peace because “a credit system which grows beyond sight…represents a dangerous power of money… [and] a war treasure” states can use against their neighbors, who also happen to be their creditors. While Kant was concerned about the ways that debt can be used to build a war chest, Keynes expressed greater concern about the potential for states starved of credit to lash out at their neighbors. The two agreed, however, on the solution: a cosmopolitan capitalism, in which nations bound to each other by trade and the “spirit of commerce” work together to grow the economic pie. The deeper issue for Dienst is that this liberal wager on peace secured by entwined self-interest and the expansion of global capital has left us in hock to a system “in which all-encompassing economic institutions set the terms whereby nature and humankind will pay for their own survival” (page 127).
In Dienst’s account it is less physical violence, and more the insidious ways that debt structures our lives that we need to recognize and overcome. In his fifth essay, “Spaces of Indebtedness,” Dienst explores the relationship between indebtedness, visibility, and space. Inspired by Deleuze’s (1992) “Postscript on Societies of Control,” the chapter starts from the premise that “man is no longer enclosed man, but indebted man” (Deleuze, 1992: 6). Deleuze tells us that we have entered a new “regime of social power” in which Foucault’s disciplinary institutions – the factory, the school, the hospital – can no longer contain the “new productive powers,” “the demand for training,” and “the supervision of health;” the old “model has exhausted its ability to expand in space” and a new one with its own spatiality and optics must take its place (Dienst, page 123). This is a provocative hypothesis for geographers that Dienst reduces to a strange game of cultural criticism in which he tests whether it is “possible to register…the global sprawl of an indebted world in a single building” – Rem Koolhaas’s New York Prada store (page 129). Thanks to Foucault, and Harvey, we know what enclosure looks like, and we know how it organizes space. Dienst leaves it up to us (geographers) to figure out the spatial logic of the current regime of indebtedness.
Both Graeber and Dienst agree that at some point in the 1970s, we entered a new phase of history in which debt began to dominate human affairs in unfamiliar ways, and that the financial crisis marked a twist whose political meaning is still indeterminate. For Dienst, the current “crisis of indebtedness” is a symptom of familiar culprits – financialization, neoliberalism, and the ongoing crises of capitalism – and he approvingly cites Brenner (2002; 2006), Arrighi (1994; 2007), as well as Harvey (2003; 2005), at length (see chapter 1). This turning point for Graeber, though, belongs to a longer arc of history.
One of Debt’s novel assertions (which has yet to receive much scholarly scrutiny) is that monetary history can be divided into alternating periods: those dominated by credit money, and periods in which gold and silver take center stage. Graeber’s “Age of the Great Capitalist Empires” (1450 to 1972) fits wholly within a half cycle of this historical oscillation. With an air of monetary determinism, Graeber associates turns to gold, silver, and coins with intensification of violence, war and slavery, and turns to the virtual with the rise of spiritualism, relative peace, and the institution of mechanisms for springing debt traps, like debt forgiveness and strict usury laws. If the cycle repeats itself, we are due for a return to the virtual, but without the medieval church to protect us from usurers or sagacious kings to clean our slates. A vague gesture at a “biblical-style Jubilee” (the periodic cancellation of debts) is all Graeber is willing to surrender in terms of concrete policy proposals for what to do as we enter this uncharted territory.
Dienst, too, sees hope in Jubilee, but as only one moment in a tension between two financial(ised) utopias: the “utopia of microcredit” and the “utopia of Jubilee.” The first utopia imagines that “human productivity itself requires indebtedness as a kind of irreducible technical prosthesis” (page 184), while the later imagines “how economics as we know it can be jettisoned by an act of collective will” (page 185). The tension between these utopias sets up a dialectical problematic, which, for Dienst, necessarily lies at the core of any radical politics of indebtedness: “how can the constructive and constitutive forces of indebtedness be affirmed without erecting an appropriative and destructive apparatus?” (page 185).
At a time when “we lack even the political vocabulary to designate a collective addressee of an egalitarian politics” (page 50), both authors hold up debt as a hopeful idiom of identification through which we might build a new radical politics. A first step in this direction would be to shed the antiquated creditor-centered morality that demands the “rebalancing” of accounts no matter the cost. The financial crisis may yet trigger a gestalt shift in perception where it becomes possible to see what we owe each other in new ways. It remains to be seen whether the problematic and polemics of Graeber or Dienst will hold sway in the academy, let alone beyond.
Mark Kear, Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6 Canada
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