Primordial Debt Theory
"Primordial debt theory ... has been developed largely in France, by a team of researchers—not only economists but anthropologists, historians, and classicists—originally assembled around the figures of Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans,30 and more recently, Bruno Théret, and it has since been taken up by neo-Keynesians in the United States and the United Kingdom as well.
"The core argument is that any attempt to separate monetary policy from social policy is ultimately wrong. Primordial-debt theorists insist that these have always been the same thing. Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets, and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.
At first, the argument goes, this sense of debt was expressed not through the state, but through religion. To make the argument, Aglietta and Orléans fixed on certain works of early Sanskrit religious literature: the hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas and the Brahmanas, priestly commentaries composed over the centuries that followed, texts that are now considered the foundations of Hindu thought. It’s not as odd a choice as it might seem. These texts constitute the earliest known historical reflections on the nature of debt.
Actually, even the very earliest Vedic poems, composed sometime between 1500 and 1200 bc, evince a constant concern with debt—which is treated as synonymous with guilt and sin.
There are numerous prayers pleading with the gods to liberate the worshipper from the shackles or bonds of debt. Sometimes these seem to refer to debt in the literal sense—Rig Veda 10.34, for instance, has a long description of the sad plight of gamblers who “wander homeless, in constant fear, in debt, and seeking money.” Elsewhere it’s clearly metaphorical. In these hymns, Yama, the god of death, figures prominently. To be in debt was to have a weight placed on you by Death. To be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, to gods or to men, was to live in the shadow of Death. Often, even in the very early texts, debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods—particularly Agni, who represents the sacrificial fire—for release. It was only with the Brahmanas that commentators started trying to weave all this together into a more comprehensive philosophy. The conclusion: that human existence is itself a form of debt.
Sacrifice (and these early commentators were themselves sacrificial priests) is thus called “tribute paid to Death.” Or such was the manner of speaking. In reality, as the priests knew better than anyone, sacrifice was directed to all the gods, not just Death—Death was just the intermediary. Framing things this way, though, did immediately raise the one problem that always comes up, whenever anyone conceives human life through such an idiom. If our lives are on loan, who would actually wish to repay such a debt? To live in debt is to be guilty, incomplete. But completion can only mean annihilation. In this way, the “tribute” of sacrifice could be seen as a kind of interest payment, with the life of the animal substituting temporarily for what’s really owed, which is ourselves—a mere postponement of the inevitable.
Different commentators proposed different ways out of the dilemma. Some ambitious Brahmins began telling their clients that sacrificial ritual, if done correctly, promised a way to break out of the human condition entirely and achieve eternity (since, in the face of eternity, all debts become meaningless.)35 Another way was to broaden the notion of debt, so that all social responsibilities become debts of one sort or another. Thus two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods, to be repaid in sacrifice, but also to the Sages who created the Vedic learning to begin with, which we must repay through study; to our ancestors (“the Fathers”), who we must repay by having children; and finally, “to men”—apparently meaning humanity as a whole, to be repaid by offering hospitality to strangers.36 Anyone, then, who lives a proper life is constantly paying back existential debts of one sort or another; but at the same time, as the notion of debt slides back into a simple sense of social obligation, it becomes something far less terrifying than the sense that one’s very existence is a loan taken against Death. Not least because social obligations always cut both ways. Especially since, once one has oneself fathered children, one is just as much a debtor as a creditor.
What primordial-debt theorists have done is to propose that the ideas encoded in these Vedic texts are not peculiar to a certain intellectual tradition of early Iron Age ritual specialists in the Ganges valley, but that they are essential to the very nature and history of human thought.
If the king has simply taken over guardianship of that primordial debt we all owe to society for having created us, this provides a very neat explanation for why the government feels it has the right to make us pay taxes. Taxes are just a measure of our debt to the society that made us."
From religious debt to monetary debt
"At the origin of money we have a “relation of representation” of death as an invisible world, before and beyond life — a representation that is the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which humanity emerged.
Payment of this debt, which can however never be settled on earth—because its full reimbursement is out of reach—takes the form of sacrifices which, by replenishing the credit of the living, make it possible to prolong life and even in certain cases to achieve eternity by joining the Gods. But this initial belief-claim is also associated with the emergence of sovereign powers whose legitimacy resides in their ability to represent the entire original cosmos. And it is these powers that invented money as a means of settling debts—a means whose abstraction makes it possible to resolve the sacrificial paradox by which putting to death becomes the permanent means of protecting life. Through this institution, belief is in turn transferred to a currency stamped with the effigy of the sovereign—a money put in circulation but whose return is organized by this other institution which is the tax/settlement of the life debt. So money also takes on the function of a means of payment." (Bruno Théret, “The Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Currency, Journal of Consumer Policy, 1999)
Cited by David Graeber in: the First_Five_Thousand_Years_of_Debt
"How do we go from that absolute debt we owe to God to the very specific debts we owe our cousins, or the bartender?
The answer provided by primordial-debt theorists is, again, ingenious. If taxes represent our absolute debt to the society that created us, then the first step toward creating real money comes when we start calculating much more specific debts to society, systems of fines, fees, and penalties, or even debts we owe to specific individuals who we have wronged in some way, and thus to whom we stand in a relation of “sin” or “guilt.”
This is actually much less implausible than it might sound. One of the puzzling things about all the theories about the origins of money that we’ve been looking at so far is that they almost completely ignore the evidence of anthropology. Anthropologists do have a great deal of knowledge of how economies within stateless societies actually worked—how they still work in places where states and markets have been unable to completely break up existing ways of doing things. There are innumerable studies of, say, the use of cattle as money in eastern or southern Africa, of shell money in the Americas (wampum being the most famous example) or Papua New Guinea, bead money, feather money, the use of iron rings, cowries, spondylus shells, brass rods, or woodpecker scalps.42 The reason that this literature tends to be ignored by economists is simple: “primitive currencies” of this sort is only rarely used to buy and sell things, and even when they are, never primarily everyday items such as chickens or eggs or shoes or potatoes. Rather than being employed to acquire things, they are mainly used to rearrange relations between people. Above all, to arrange marriages and to settle disputes, particularly those arising from murders or personal injury.
There is every reason to believe that our own money started the same way—even the English word “to pay” is originally derived from a word for “to pacify, appease”—as in, to give someone something precious, for instance, to express just how badly you feel about having just killed somone’s brother in a drunken brawl, and how much you would really like to avoid this becoming the basis for an ongoing blood-feud.
Debt theorists are especially concerned with this latter possibility."
Transforming our Debts
"What does it mean to imagine our responsibilities as debts? To whom do we owe our existence?
It’s significant that their answer did not make any mention either of “society” or states (though certainly kings and governments certainly existed in early India). Instead, they fixed on debts to gods, to sages, to fathers, and to “men.” It wouldn’t be at all difficult to translate their formulation into more contemporary language. We could put it this way.
We owe our existence above all:
- To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature. The ground of our existence. To be repaid through ritual: ritual being an act of respect and recognition to all that beside which we are small.
- To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accomplishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape. Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread. We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.
- To our parents, and their parents—our ancestors. We repay them by becoming ancestors.
- To humanity as a whole. We repay them by generosity to strangers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence life, possible.
Set out this way, though, the argument begins to undermine its very premise. These are nothing like commercial debts. After all, one might repay one’s parents by having children, but one is not generally thought to have repaid one’s creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.
Myself, I wonder: Couldn’t that really be the point? Perhaps what the authors of the Brahmanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be. That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation. These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage, you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity. All the more so if one is speaking of the universe. If you cannot bargain with the gods because they already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe, because the universe is everything—and that everything necessarily includes yourself. One could in fact interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of “freeing oneself” from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence that the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start. Or even that the very presumption of positing oneself as separate from humanity or the cosmos, so much so that one can enter into one-to-one dealings with it, is itself the crime that can be answered only by death. Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place.
Or let us look at the other side of the equation. Even if it is possible to imagine ourselves as standing in a position of absolute debt to the cosmos, or to humanity, the next question becomes: Who exactly has a right to speak for the cosmos, or humanity, to tell us how that debt must be repaid? If there’s anything more preposterous than claiming to stand apart from the entire universe so as to enter into negotiations with it, it is claiming to speak for the other side.
If one were looking for the ethos for an individualistic society such as our own, one way to do it might well be to say: we all owe an infinite debt to humanity, society, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it), but no one else could possibly tell us how we are to pay it. This at least would be intellectually consistent. If so, it would actually be possible to see almost all systems of established authority—religion, morality, politics, economics, and the criminal-justice system—as so many different fraudulent ways to presume to calculate what cannot be calculated, to claim the authority to tell us how some aspect of that unlimited debt ought to be repaid. Human freedom would then be our ability to decide for ourselves how we want to do so.
No one, to my knowledge, has ever taken this approach. Instead, theories of existential debt always end up becoming ways of justifying—or laying claim to—structures of authority."
Primordial Debt Theory as a myth
"Are primordial-debt theorists describing a myth, have they discovered a profound truth of the human condition that has always existed in all societies, and is it simply spelled out particularly clearly in certain ancient texts from India—or are they inventing a myth of their own?
Clearly it must be the latter. They are inventing a myth.
The choice of the Vedic material is significant. The fact is, we know almost nothing about the people who composed these texts and little about the society that created them. We don’t even know if interest-bearing loans existed in Vedic India—which obviously has a bearing on whether priests really saw sacrifice as the payment of interest on a loan we owe to Death. As a result, the material can serve as a kind of empty canvas, or a canvas covered with hieroglyphics in an unknown language, on which we can project almost anything we want to. If we look at other ancient civilizations in which we do know something about the larger context, we find that no such notion of sacrifice as payment is in evidence. If we look through the work of ancient theologians, we find that most were familiar with the idea that sacrifice was a way by which human beings could enter into commercial relations with the gods, but that they felt it was patently ridiculous: If the gods already have everything they want, what exactly do humans have to bargain with?49 We’ve seen in the last chapter how difficult it is to give gifts to kings. With gods (let alone God) the problem is magnified infinitely. Exchange implies equality. In dealing with cosmic forces, this was simply assumed to be impossible from the start.
The notion that debts to gods were appropriated by the state, and thus became the bases for taxation systems, can’t really stand up either. The problem here is that in the ancient world, free citizens didn’t usually pay taxes. Generally speaking, tribute was levied only on conquered populations."