January 22, 2012


David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2011) ("All the great religious traditions seen to bang up against this quandary in one form or another. On the one hand, insofar as all human relations involve debt, they are 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 these obligation 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 universe that doesn't make a lot of sense." Id. at 12-13. "Here we come to the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduces to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market? On one level the difference between an obligation and a debt is simple and obvious. A debt is the obligation to pay a certain sum of money. As a result, a debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debt to become simple, cold, and impersonal--which, in turn, allows them to be transferable. If one owes a favor, or one's life, to another human being--it is owed to that person specifically. But if one owes forty thousand dollars at 12-percent interest, it doesn't really matter who the creditor is, neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing--as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effect; one need only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. If you end up having to abandon your home and wander in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that's unfortunate, but incidental to the creditor. Money is money, and a deal's a deal." Id at 13-14. "Whenever ['from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs'] is the operative principle, even if it's just two people who are interacting, we can say we are in the presence of a sort of communism." "Almost everyone follows this principle if they are collaborating on some common project. If someone fixing a broken water pipes says, 'Hand me the wrench,' his co-workers will not, generally speaking, say, 'And what do I get for it?'--even if they are working for Exxon-Mobil, Burger King, or Goldman Sachs. The reason is simple efficiency (ironically enough, considering the conventional wisdom that 'communism just doesn't work'): if you care about getting something done, the most efficient way to go about it is obviously to allocate tasks by ability and give people whatever they need to do them. One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capitalist firms, internally, operate communistically. True, the don't tend to operate very democratically. Most often they are organized around military-style top-down chains of command. But there is often an interesting tension here, because top-down chains of command are not particularly efficient: they tend to promote stupidity among those on the top, resentful foot-dragging among those on the bottom. The greater the need to improvise, the more democratic the cooperation tends to become. Inventors have always understood this, start-up capitalists frequently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscovered the principle: not only with things like freeware, which everyone talks about, but even in the organisation of their businesses. Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages." Id. at 96. Food for thought for those trying to rethink legal education? "Formal slavery has been eliminated, but (as anyone who work's from nine to five can testify) the idea that you can alienate your liberty, at least temporarily, endures. In fact, it determines what most of us have to do for most of our waking hours, except, usually, on weekends. The violence had been largely pushed out of sight. But this is largely because we're no longer able to imagine what a world based on social arrangements that did not require the continual threat of tasers and surveillance cameras would even look like." Id. at 210.).