Debt

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David Graeber, will use a 'typology' of mostly non-commercial transactions, to structure exchanges without or about debt. - this is a draft


VARIETIES OF (MOSTLY NON-COMMERCIAL) TRANSACTION

1) Open-ended Egalitarian (“communistic”) relations

a. Group Communism or Sharing.

Communism is here defined as any relations that operate on the principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Shared common resources are those of which everyone who is considered part of a group of sharers can draw freely and equally, either on the basis of socially accepted standards of need, or unconditionally. Alternately, there might be a formal process of equal division and distribution.

b. Dyadic Communism:

i. “Individualistic Communism”. This can occur within families, or through a pledge (for example, with various forms of blood-brotherhood) or simply through the gradual accretion of mutual trust within a friendship. In any case, when two individuals know they can count on the other to help them when in need, effectively to act on a principle “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs the relation can become a form what Mauss referred to as “individualistic communism.”

ii. Inter-Group Communism. The same kind of relations can develop between two small groups—families or lineages, for examples—with each is committed to provide to the other with certain sorts of goods or favors when needed or requested. The larger the group, however, the more likely the nature of the obligations will be circumscribed: for example, one might expect to be able to ask if need of food, or in work in building a boat or house, but not for others (say, cattle or other ceremonial valuables).

iii. Moiety Systems. In formalized versions of such arrangements, communities often end up symbolically divided into two halves, each of which has the responsibility of providing the other with a certain service whenever needed or requested. Here the nature of the services is usually quite precisely specified. For instance, each half of the community might be responsible for burying the other’s dead, or initiating the other’s children into adulthood, or each side can only be allowed to marry the sons and daughters of the other side or even, to eat the other’s yams or pigs. Even in the latter case, though, it is crucial that accounts are not kept.

iv. Attenuated Communism. In almost any society, there is a sense that one should be able to treat any social equal, often even any stranger, in a communistic fashion (again, “from each according to their abilities…”) in two sorts of circumstance:

1. When the need is great enough: for instance, for instance when someone is drowning and cries “help”, or when a child has fallen into a well, everyone able to help can be expected to do so.
2. When the thing needed or requested is easy to provide: hence

anyone in our society can ask a stranger for a light, or for directions, and expect they will provide it if they can

standards for what is considered a sufficiently great need and what is considered sufficiently easy to provide to be treated in this way vary a great deal from society to society. Also, standards vary depending on how close one feels to another person: for instance, in many societies it is considered profoundly anti-social to refuse a direct request for food from a neighbor, relative, or anyone with whom one is on good terms—especially, of course, if the person is hungry. Requests for items considered luxuries would usually be treated very differently.

c. Attenuated Reciprocity (or communism through debt)

This obtains where you have a situation suspended half-way between communism and reciprocal exchange, where in principle accounts should balance out, but in practice, everyone is careful to ensure that they do not. This is surprisingly common. Laura Bohannan describes such a situation in dealings between Tiv women in Nigeria in her book Return to Laughter, but there are many similar cases, between friends or neighbors India to Latin America. A neighbors will bring one needed food, or cooking oil, or household supplies; later one is supposed to reciprocate, but everyone is always careful to return either a little more, or a little less, than they owe, since an exact return would imply the wish to break off the social relationship. Here then there is a feeling that gifts should ultimately balance out, but that this ultimate moment should never come. Community therefore comes to be composed of endless webs of such minor unfinished debt. This seems to be distinguished from sharing relations in that there is a formal ideology of equal, tit-for-tat, exchange that is in fact largely subverted in practice. (The opposite can of course occur as well, and ostensibly communistic relations can actually operate according to a certain expectation of balance: at the very least if someone is seen to be abusing the system, they will be noticed.)

2) Balanced Egalitarian Exchange (i.e. that create no ongoing claims)

(the important thing about balanced forms of exchange is that they create no ongoing debt relation, hence, no ongoing ties after the transaction is closed)

a. Loans: here, the exact same object that is given must later be returned. Often for instance famous heirlooms are so completely identified with some original holders (or at least, their lineage) that no one else could really own them. Such objects were considered to be merely held by someone else, and there was every expectation they would eventually be returned. With the loan of money, the exact same bills are not required, but rather the exact same sum.
b. Tit for Tat, or Gift-Countergift; the exchange of complements, or favors, or rounds of drinks, tends to take this form. But so, often, does the exchange of meals, valuable objects. In such exchange, the relationship can be broken off after every round because the return is considered to be a more or less exact equivalent to the initial gift. When such gifts are large
c. Reciprocal Appropriation: This is the inverse of gift-countergift; one party asks for another’s possession with the knowledge that they will then have the right to respond with a similar demand of their own. Often simply praising another’s possessions is seen as making such a claim: foreigners in New Zealand would often have to learn, when dealing with Maori acquaintances, never to express admiration for say, someone’s greenstone pendant—the owner would most likely instantly hand it over, and then, after a few days interval, express similar admiration for one’s rifle. This form of exchange can become very close to, and indeed can become effectively continuous with, barter.


d. Contests of Outrageous Demand: This occurs either in the context of communistic relations, or within regimes of reciprocal appropriation, usually, where there is a certain lack of mutual trust. One party will make an apparently outrageous demand of the other, even while knowing the other will thus have the right to make a similarly outrageous demand of them later on. For example, warring Yanomami villages will often settle their disputes with one another in this way, one group will prepare a feast for the other, who will then come and test the other side’s willingness to make peace by demanding say, their former rival’s pet dogs or most prized possessions; then, the situation is reversed and the victims make similar demands in turn. Or it can be a way of establishing alliances: as with the Malagasy fatidra or blood brotherhood relations between individuals, or ziva or “joking relations” that seem to be their parallel between groups. Within such relations it is stipulated that one party can refuse the other party nothing, and in fact, both sides can, in theory, demand the shirt off the other’s back, or sexual access to the other’s spouse, etc, but only in the awareness the other can reciprocate in kind. This phenomenon of “testing” might be said to be typical of relations that are ostensibly communistic, but where a certain social distance make it uncertain how reliable partners may really be, especially at first. Just as Yanomamo feasts are an extreme version of a kind of common intervillage barter, relations like fatidra can, once trust is established, become the basis for commercial business partnerships.

e. Gift As Claim: In some contexts, one party may present a gift to another in the knowledge that that other’s acceptance of the gift can be considered also recognition of the giver’s right to either appropriate something they consider to be of equal value (note that in all of these cases, it is assumed that some rough equivalence can be worked out), or make some kind of social claim. Maori exchange often took this form: a traveler might offer a pig to their hosts so as to be able to ask them for provisions later on, or one man might present another with an heirloom axe which, if accepted, would give him the right to later claim the recipient’s daughter in marriage. In the past I have suggested that Mauss’ famous hau might be read as an attempt to head off this kind of debt.

f. Barter and Commercial Exchange: if one eliminates the element of time, the delay between giving (or taking) and the return gift, then any of these forms can turn into what we would ordinarily call “barter”. Through most of human history, however, barter however only tends to occur between strangers, people who have no ordinary social relations: since of all these forms, it requires the least ongoing social relations or knowledge of the other party to the transaction. Also, it tends to involve only a very limited range of goods for which there are fixed equivalents. Once these fixed equivalents are formalized (as in ancient Mesopotamia, a shekel of silver was fixed as the equivalent of a bushel of barley) they become money, in the sense of a unit of account—an abstract measure of value used to establish equivalents. Such abstract money of account, and elaborate credit systems, were being used in the ancient Near East for thousands of years before money started being used as a regular medium of exchange with the invention of coinage in 7th century Lydia.

i. Monetary transactions can take relatively personal or relatively impersonal forms. Credit arrangements, which rely on abstract money of account, are relatively personalized; buying and selling through anonymous medium like coins or paper money are relatively anonymous and impersonal, tend to occur especially between strangers, and can easily blend into systems of theft and plunder
ii. Haggling, which can be elaborately ritualized, is ordinarily a way of creating the simulation of a social relation by creating a little drama where a conflictual relation between strangers into one of friendship, and then is immediately dissolved
iii. Barter as a general system of exchange within a society (“I’ll give you ten chickens for that cow”) only tends to emerge either alongside impersonal money economies, or in circumstances like in some parts of West Africa in the 17th and 18th centuries, or the former Soviet Union, or where impersonal forms of money once existed but have largely disappeared, and have not been replaced by credit arrangements

3) Open-ended Hierarchical Relations

These are relations where there is no presumed equality between the two parties, and therefore, the logic of reciprocity does not generally apply. If the relation becomes systematic, it tends to move towards a logic not of reciprocity (which would imply the two parties are in some way equivalent) but precedent.

a. Hierarchies of Unlimited Demand (institutionalized plunder): these are like relations of communistic exchange between individuals or small groups (1.b.ii or 1.b.iii), except one-sided. One party has the right to demand what they like from the other, with no expectation of reciprocation. This is often framed as “ritualized theft”, of which the most famous ethnographic example is probably the vasu system in Fiji, where a sister’s son has the right steal almost anything belong to their mother’s brother. Marcel Mauss lumped these together with “communistic” relations but in fact they operate on a very different logic: really much closer to that of overt theft or plunder. Most of the famous ethnographic examples come from cases where there is a contradiction of principles: is in the case of the vasu, where the mother’s brother would otherwise be a hierarchical superior, and the right of the inferior to raid or appropriate the goods of the inferior gets turned into a kind of ritualized game. Similarly certain clans in various Malagasy kingdoms had the right to steal anything they could get away with during ritual events; or at the very least, could not be prosecuted for such theft (the owners could, however, try to physically stop them). More typical is the right of predatory elites simply to take what they want from inferiors, as in cases where nomadic raiding systems or banditry are eventually formalized into states, but in so doing retain their essential character. These of course shade into relations of simple violence.

b. Hierarchical Redistribution: here the superior appropriates a share of everyone’s goods and then redistributes all or most of it, often on a more egalitarian basis. This was of course the form fixed on by Karl Polanyi, and is usually assumed to be typical of “chiefdoms” or early states. It’s important though to bear in mind that, as Japanese philosopher Kojin Karatani reminds us, redistribution of this sort is often the reverse side of systems of plunder. It is not always so. Potlatches for example were generally proceeded by elaborate processes of pooling and assembly of goods (only later through interest-bearing loans) by aristocratic sponsors among allies and dependents. “Big Men” in Melanesia are of course famous for the art of assembling masses of goods for ceremonial exchange, which could be seen as forms of redistribution. However systems of plunder and extortion are historically equally important and are often passed over in the literature.


c. Institutionalized Hierarchy. These are relations in which inequality is assumed, but the terms can usually be to some degree negotiated. Such relations are often justified in terms of some reciprocal exchange (i.e., “peasants provide food and the lords provide protection”, or “this is how we repay our mothers for having nurtured us”) but in practice, they tend to operate on entirely different logic. Within relations of clear hierarchy, gestures tend to be treated as precedents and create the expectation they will be repeated. If one gives money to a beggar (or to a charity fund) they are unlikely to give you back something of equal value; rather, they are simply more likely to ask again; if parents allow a child an indulgence they are likely to expect the same in the future; similarly, if in Medieval Europe: “In the ninth century, when one day there was a shortage of wine in the royal cellars at Ver, the monks of Saint-Denis were asked to supply the two hundred hogs-heads required. This contribution was thenceforth claimed from them as of right every year, and it required an imperial charter to abolish it. At Ardres, we are told, there was once a bear, the property of the local lord. The inhabitants, who loved to watch it fight with dogs, undertook to feed it. The beast eventually died, but the lord continued to exact the loaves of bread”. In other words, if a feudal inferior provided a gift to a superior it is likely to be treated as a precedent, added to the web of custom, and thus, expected to be repeated each year in the future. This is very important to bear in mind because it means that in relations where inequality is assumed from the outset, the logic of debt works on exactly the opposite principle as they would within egalitarian relations

d. Self-Reversing Hierarchies: there are cases where the very presentation of a gift by a superior (passing on a title, say, or a ducal estate) transforms the receiver into the person the giver used to be. Kwakiutl potlatches were normally held to “fasten on” constitutive gifts of this nature: someone holding a certain title would transfer that title to a grandchild, or son-in-law, who would thus take on their former name, possessions, and social rights and responsibilities. They can also be considered, like dowry, as forms of early inheritance, which is always a kind of constitutive gift to the living from the dead. Alternately, there are what might be called:


i. “self-subverting hierarchies”, in which passing something on destroys the hierarchy that exists within the gift relation itself: ideally, for example, an effective teacher destroys the inequality of knowledge on which the teacher-student hierarchy was originally based.


4) Agonistic Exchange or the Heroic Gift

Tit-for-tat exchange can also mount into contests of one-upmanship, where each party tries to present a gift or counter-gift so lavish their rival cannot reciprocate; in these the equal standing of the two parties is up for grabs at any moment, and either is at risk, and the danger is that they might degenerate at any moment—at least symbolically—into subordination and hierarchy. “Gifts make slaves”, the Inuit saying goes, “as whips make dogs.” This is especially typical of aristocratic societies, where magnificent gestures are the very stuff of politics. The stakes here can be very high: ancient Celtic aristocrats, according one Greek source, used to commit ritual suicide if presented with a gift so magnificent they could not possibly repay it, and one Icelandic saga records the story of a Viking poet who actually attempted to kill a friend who had left him a particularly magnificent shield as a present to avoid having to compose a poem praising his friend’s generosity.


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