Home     About     Contact     

Broken Windows

Personalizing the Politics of Wealth —

Debt mechanical 2.indd

Expressing astonishment, a friend who recently moved from New York to Mexico to sidestep rising rents, sent me a link to a Mother Jones article on the booming job market in “wealth counselors.” These are the psychologists who help the extremely wealthy cope with the unique suffering that attends being burdened by buckets of cashola. This note arrived the same week the Wall Street Journal printed an Op-Ed by billionaire Tom Perkins comparing the Occupy Wall Street protests to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. Subjected to immediate and sustained ridicule, Perkins doubled down, defending the comparison, as did the Journal’s Op-Ed editors. More recently, Ben Carson, the arch-conservative celebrity brain-surgeon, echoed Perkins’ dubious historical analogy: progressives are Nazis.

When someone depicts the idea that government ought to regulate economic life as a Heil Hitler! salute, chances are they’ve been worshipping on their knees at the altar of Frederich Hayek, the main theorist of the neoliberal (i.e. free market or libertarian conservative) Austrian school of economics. Perkins’s and Carson’s rhetoric is a full-throated version of standard Austrian school dogma — what’s remarkable is how openly they are parading some of the theory’s more absurd implications. The timing also seems noteworthy — the Occupy movement is more or less moribund at this point, in retreat if not full remission – what are these guys so worried about? How could a couple of bank windows busted in Oakland a few years back so haunt the Plutocratic imagination?

I actually don’t think these plutocrats are crazy at all. Rather, I believe “Hitler” stands in for tidal forces these guys sense moving with a disturbing power beneath the surface of our political and economic life. Ironically enough, the best way to understand what these tidal forces is to read Debt: the First 5000 Years, (2012). Written by David Graeber, one of the chief theorists of the Occupy movement, this exhaustively researched, but also highly readable text detonates the foundational ideas of market-valorizing conservative. Typically, libertarian conservatives promote a narrative of story-book simplicity – the marketplace was a kind of Eden in which no problems existed until the evil State arrived and started giving orders. Remove the state, they say, and all will be well. No, no, no, Graeber responds. Citing compelling historical and anthropological evidence, he shows instead how markets were from the beginning the creation of states, as was, indeed, the very idea of “exchange” as a mode of social interaction.

The opposition between the state and the market is a false one, in other words – a magician’s sleight-of-hand by which we have been mesmerized. Graeber goes on to underscore the link between the origin of debt and exchange on the one hand, and violence on the other – exchange values were first coordinated not by markets, but in order to make penalty substitutions possible. “You killed my father, you’re supposed to give me ten heifers…but you only have seven. Says here a heifer is equivalent to two sheep…” etc. At the risk of over-simplifying Graeber’s intricate and exhaustively documented account, this kind of penalty arrangement is where exchange value came from – no market in sight.

Among other things, Graeber’s analysis draws our attention to the oddly plaintive quality in the complaints aired by Perkins and Carson. Notice the strange dissonance in play – the hurt feelings these men express show their deep connection to the rest of us…but their free-market values define virtue as an explicit disconnection from all others. Jumping back and forth across this line, laying claim at once the kind of honor and respect that can only come by being part of a larger social whole, but ferociously disavowing the reciprocity implicit in such relationships – it’s the best of both worlds, at least as a child might define it. We see this contradiction echoed in the fundamental paradox of debt as a social arrangement. The two parties of a debt arrangement are no longer incommensurate beings the way nobility and peon are – a debt is premised on a baseline equality that gets drawn out of balance by the loan, but which will be restored again by the payment of the debt. In a subtle but potent fashion, debt establishes a fundamental equality and reciprocity between the two parties – an effect Graeber links to the democratic world view.


Graeber goes on to sketch out the even more direct relationship between coinage and warfare. Thousands of years after credit arrived, coinage sprang up in three places, all around 500 BC – in Greece, in the Ganges River Valley in India and in Western China in the foothills of the Himalayas. The catalyst was a sudden need to pay soldiers with something they could carry with them, soldiers who didn’t have the time, the social rootedness, or the mindset to establish credit relationships. The rulers who raised these armies had to also create a regional market in which soldiers could exchange their coins for food and other material goods. Alexander’s armies, for example, apparently ran through half a ton of silver per day. Need more silver to mint the coins to pay your soldiers? Just put those war slaves to work in the silver mines.

The ruler pays the soldiers…who provide the slaves…who work the mines… to secure the silver…to pay the soldiers. In the Mediterranean this kind of coin-war-slavery assemblage ran in a self-sustaining cycle that spanned a thousand years before subsiding with the collapse of Rome. The cycle was reborn in the 1450s, according to Graeber, and immediately amped up by the arrival of South American silver and gold. This is when we see the rebirth of slavery in both its chattel, whips-and-chains mode, and also in the slightly softer form of wage slavery. Fueling this cycle are the endless series of wars and colonial campaigns that for centuries funneled all the treasures of the world through Euro-American banks. This modern coin-war-slavery cycle runs all the way up through 1971 when Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard…after which the world began to slip inexorably back into a credit economy. Think about this next time you whip out that Visa card – you don’t even need coins to feed a parking meter anymore.

Neo-liberalism has always relied on our fatal weakness for simplicity – for black and white over shades of gray – a weakness whose other side is an intolerance of ambiguity. Brain science has shown that an inability to tolerate ambiguity characterizes the conservative mind. This helps explain the desperate panic fueling the simplistic imperatives of capital accumulators. “All I have to do,” they tell themselves “is always embrace the choice that maximizes profit. Making this simple choice again and again is the full expression of my ethical capacities as a human being — the marketplace will sort out all the rest. When you ask me to care about the poor, or to devote even a fragment of my wealth to the welfare of others, you are asking me to violate this simple rubric. And do not suggest to me that this simple choice – always doing what will bring me more – is in any way the source of some social or environmental problem. On top of abandoning my shining path you are then making me into the bad guy. I mean, forget it. In fact, in order to purge my mind of the little worm of doubt you have let loose, I am going to go out today and damage some poor people. I am going to invest in some mountain top mining. I am going to donate to the campaign of some horrible, screeching agent of inequality in order to prove to myself that your hectoring has had no impact on my dream of ethical perfection.” Ah, money, and the knots it ties us into.

To counter this neoliberal myth, Graeber tables a simple narrative of his own. The Perkins and the Carsons of the world are combating a powerful tide shifting us back towards the communitarian credit economy of the Middle Ages. It’s not about Church communities this time around, but about other forms of connectivity, technologically enhanced. Seen from this angle, the role of social media in recent uprisings in Tunisia and Cairo, in Seattle and on Wall Street suggest future revolutions will be fundamentally different than the violent conflicts that characterized the more war-like modern age. This is not to announce the commencement of a cumbaya historical moment in which the lions lie down with the lambs, but perhaps there is a opening here for an adjustment of our basic social and economic relations. Indeed, such adjustments seem already to have arrived. In credit economies the social pathologies associated with debt are regulated not via conquest and war, but through jubilees – the periodic forgiveness of debt. A radical idea? We actually had a jubilee in 2008 – a jubilee for bankers – it just faced in the wrong direction.

To the extent that the coin-war-slavery cycle is responsible for rampant and unsustainable economic dynamism and growth, this kind of shift back toward a less dynamic credit economy would arrive right on cue. The Kristallnacht reference in Perkins’s Op-Ed was only slightly more surprising than encountering the name “Jeremy Grantham” in a New Statesman column by the brilliant leftist Naomi Klein a few months back. Grantham, the founder of GMO, one of the most successful investment firms to emerge from the neoliberal 1980s, is a supremely unsentimental analyst and a brilliant operator. One might expect Klein – an articulate critic of top down class warfare – to call Grantham to task for our current plight, but instead she actually quotes Grantham to support her call for acts of civil disobedience. Grantham, it turns out, wrote a long piece in Nature in 2012 in which he urged scientists to risk arrest in their efforts to call attention to the approaching ravages of climate change, which he calls “the crisis of our species’ existence.” In light of the stark realities of resource depletion and living systems collapse Grantham describes, the Kristallnacht rhetoric Perkins his amigos deploy in defense of their simplistic world view smacks of childish denial. If I weren’t afraid of offending their fragile self-images I might suggest that the situation we are in is what happens when the weakest among us – those least able to cope with the actual complexities of life – come to dominate.


  1. Cyndi Hubach says:

    Just an amazing synthesis of complex ideas Guy… thank you so much for your insights. I wonder if the technological advances you cite might help obviate the need for outright revolution. Rather than toppling these regimes, what I see happening more and more is people simply removing themselves from the dominant structures, and building parallel, horizontal ones in their place. Distributed rooftop solar is a great example, as are the DIY and local food movements. (We should really be thinking about this in terms of internet connectivity… at the very least, it should be treated as a public utility.) The more we diminish their relevance, the more we diminish their power.

  2. Chris Kelley says:

    Great post Guy.

    I think I’m coming late to the party on something. I always thought the word “progressive” stood for a kind of open minded, open hearted interest in transcending politics and chatter and looking to a more evolved world view. Seems like someone has been at work (past forty or so years?) re-branding the word.

    In a conversation with my lovely if slightly narrow minded, republican brother in law (we all have one, don’t we?) I mentioned my hopes for more, solid, “progressive” thought from our leaders…

    What followed was a long inquiry into exactly where and how I made the slide, the precipitous toboggan ride down from liberal (socialist) to “progressive” (commie-neo nazi revolutionist).

    It seems as though, with the rise of the ultra radical “tea party” there has been a desire on the right to identify an equally extreme wing of the left. And the word that’s being bent toward this endeavor is “Progressive.” Never mind that there may not really be an equal and opposite version but, as you say, the conservative mind hates nuance.


  3. Thank you, Guy, for this brilliant piece. I had heard about Graeber’s book on the radio and had admired what the reviewer had to say about it — but to connect it as you do with current thinking is a major leap in understanding. And as always, you are a wonderful writer — I love your ‘cumbaya historical moment.’
    Did I tell you about a superb book, LIVES OTHER THAN MY OWN by Emmanuel Carriere (and stop reading if I did)? It’s more than worth reading in its own right (however, at first you might think why is Janet recommending it in this context) — but it gets to an amazing description of the French judicial system about debt and it too inscribes it into a larger picture of human beings living within and outside that system. I’m going to pass this piece along to friends and hope that it becomes viral. Janet

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.