First Five Thousand Years of Debt
* Book: Debt: The First 5,000 Years. David Graeber. Melville House Publishing, 2011
- One: On The Experience of Moral Confusion 1
- Two: The Myth of Barter 21
- Three: Primordial Debts 43
- Four: Cruelty and Redemption 73
- Five: A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations 89
- Six: Games with Sex and Death 127
- Seven: Honor and Degradation, or, On the Foundations of Contemporary Civilization 165
- Eight: Credit Versus Bullion, And the Cycles of History 211
- Nine: The Axial Age (800 BC–600 AD) 223
- Ten: The Middle Ages (600 AD–1450 AD) 251
- Eleven: Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450–1971) 307
- Twelve: (1971–The Beginning of Something
- Yet to Be Determined) 361
The Moral Confusion around Debt
"Arguments about debt have been going on for at least five thousand years. For most of human history—at least, the history of states and empires—most human beings have been told that they are debtors.4 Historians, and particularly historians of ideas, have been oddly reluctant to consider the human consequences; especially since this situation—more than any other—has caused continual outrage and resentment. Tell people they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased, but this surprisingly rarely leads to armed revolt. Tell people that they are potential equals who have failed, and that therefore, even what they do have they do not deserve, that it isn’t rightly theirs, and you are much more likely to inspire rage. Certainly this is what history would seem to teach us. For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”
Our tendency to overlook this is all the more peculiar when you consider how much of our contemporary moral and religious language originally emerged directly from these very conflicts. Terms like “reckoning” or “redemption” are only the most obvious, since they’re taken directly from the language of ancient finance. In a larger sense, the same can be said of “guilt,” “freedom,” “forgiveness,” and even “sin.” Arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong. The fact that so much of this language did take shape in arguments about debt has left the concept strangely incoherent. After all, to argue with the king, one has to use the king’s language, whether or not the initial premises make sense.
If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. Its most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds that the majority of human beings hold simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil. It’s true that opinions on this latter point do shift back and forth. One extreme possibility might be the situation the French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas, where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes—they were referred to as “the vanquished ones,” since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste, many centuries before—lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans from the landlords simply to find a way to eat—not for the money, since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors’ outhouses and reroofed their sheds. For the “vanquished”—as for most people in the world, actually—the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. These required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. In such cases it was common practice, Galey explains, for high-caste moneylenders to demand one of the borrower’s daughters as security. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughter’s marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender’s household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent off to some nearby timber camp, where she would have to spend the next year or two as a prostitute working off her father’s debt. Once it was paid off, she’d return to her husband and begin her married life.
This seems shocking, outrageous even, but Galey does not report any widespread feeling of injustice. Everyone seemed to feel that this was just the way things worked. Neither was there much concern voiced among the local Brahmins, who were the ultimate arbiters in matters of morality—though this is hardly surprising, since the most prominent moneylenders were often Brahmins themselves.
Even here, of course, it’s hard to know what people were saying behind closed doors. If a group of Maoist rebels were to suddenly seize control of the area (some do operate in this part of rural India) and round up the local usurers for trial, we might hear all sorts of views expressed.
Still, what Galey describes represents, as I say, one extreme of possibility: one in which the usurers themselves are the ultimate moral authorities. Compare this with, say, medieval France, where the moral status of moneylenders was seriously in question. The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude, causing the Church hierarchy to authorize preaching campaigns, sending mendicant friars to travel from town to town warning usurers that unless they repented and made full restitution of all interest extracted from their victims, they would surely go to Hell.
These sermons, many of which have survived, are full of horror stories of God’s judgment on unrepentant lenders: stories of rich men struck down by madness or terrible diseases, haunted by deathbed nightmares of the snakes or demons who would soon rend or eat their flesh. In the twelfth century, when such campaigns reached their heights, more direct sanctions began to be employed. The papacy issued instructions to local parishes that all known usurers were to be excommunicated; they were not to be allowed to receive the sacraments, and under no conditions could their bodies be buried on hallowed ground."