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."
An example of moral confusion in medieval Japanese buddhism:
"The moment that usurers were thought to go too far, exactly the same sort of stories as found in Europe would start appearing. A Medieval Japanese author recounts one—he insists it’s a true story—about the terrifying fate of Hiromushime, the wife of a wealthy district governor around 776 ad. An exceptionally greedy woman, she would add water to the rice wine she sold and make a huge profit on such diluted saké. On the day she loaned something to someone she would use a small measuring cup, but on the day of collection she used a large one. When lending rice her scale registered small portions, but when she received payment it was in large amounts. The interest that she forcibly collected was tremendous—often as much as ten or even one hundred times the amount of the original loan. She was rigid about collecting debts, showing no mercy whatsoever. Because of this, many people were thrown into a state of anxiety; they abandoned their households to get away from her and took to wandering in other provinces.
After she died, for seven days, monks prayed over her sealed coffin. On the seventh, her body mysteriously sprang to life:
Those who came to look at her encountered an indescribable stench. From the waist up she had already become an ox with four-inch horns protruding from her forehead. Her two hands had become the hooves of an ox, her nails were now cracked so that they resembled an ox hoof’s instep. From the waist down, however, her body was that of a human. She disliked rice and preferred to eat grass. Her manner of eating was rumination. Naked, she would lie in her own excrement.
Gawkers descended. Guilty and ashamed, the family made desperate attempts to buy forgiveness, canceling all debts owed to them by anybody, donating much of their wealth to religious establishments. Finally, mercifully, the monster died.
The author, himself a monk, felt that the story represented a clear case of premature reincarnation—the woman was being punished by the law of karma for her violations of “what is both reasonable and right.” His problem was that Buddhist scriptures, insofar as they explicitly weighed in on the matter, didn’t provide a precedent. Normally, it was debtors who were supposed to be reborn as oxen, not creditors. As a result, when it came time to explain the moral of the story, his exposition grew decidedly confusing:
It is as one sutra says: “When we do not repay the things that we have borrowed, our payment becomes that of being reborn as a horse or ox.” “The debtor is like a slave, the creditor is like a master.” Or again: “a debtor is a pheasant and his creditor a hawk.” If you are in a situation of having granted a loan, do not put unreasonable pressure on your debtor for repayment. If you do, you will be reborn as a horse or an ox and be put to work for him who was in debt to you, and then you will repay many times over.10 So which will it be? They can’t both end up as animals in each other’s barns.
All the great religious traditions seem to bang up against this quandary in one form or another. On the one hand, insofar as all human relations involve debt, they are all morally compromised. Both parties are probably already guilty of something just by entering into the relationship; at the very least they run a significant danger of becoming guilty if repayment is delayed. On the other hand, when we say someone acts like they “don’t owe anything to anybody,” we’re hardly describing the person as a paragon of virtue. In the secular world, morality consists largely of fulfilling our obligations to others, and we have a stubborn tendency to imagine those obligations as debts. Monks, perhaps, can avoid the dilemma by detaching themselves from the secular world entirely, but the rest of us appear condemned to live in a universe that doesn’t make a lot of sense."