Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Melville House, 2011
544 pp., $32.00
The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
302 pp., $24.95
Love Is Stronger than Debt
If the last five years of American politics have demonstrated anything, it's that Marx's dictum about the modern state couldn't be more indisputable: our government is the executive committee for the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. Now more than ever, our liberal democracy is a corporate franchise, and the stockholders are demanding an ever-higher return on their investment in America, Inc. Over the last four decades, the Plutocracy has decided to repeal the 20th century, to cancel the gains and protections won by workers, the poor, and others outside the imperial aristocracy of capital. Enough of this coddling of those Ayn Rand vilified as "moochers" and "looters." Return the country to its rightful owners: the "Job Creators," the Almighty Entrepreneurs, those anointed by Heaven to control the property interests of the American Empire. Endowed with the Divine Right of Capital, they deserve our thanksgiving and reverence, for without them we would not deserve to live, such common clay are we.
Lest anyone think that the re-election of President Barack Obama invalidates this judgment, think again. Mitt Romney may have been a more egregious and openly disdainful lord of the manor, but Obama has compiled an impeccable record of imperial corporate stewardship. Despite all the hype about a rising progressive coalition of non-whites and young people, there is no reason to believe that Obama's second term of office will be any less a model of deference.
The Plutocracy's beatific vision for the mass of Americans is wage servitude: a fearful, ever-busy, and cheerfully abject pool of human resources. Rendered lazy and recalcitrant by a half-century of mooching, American workers must be forced to be free: crush labor unions, keep remuneration low, cut benefits and lengthen working hours, close or narrow every avenue of escape or repose from accumulation. If they insist on living like something more than the whining, expendable widgets they are, reduce them to a state of debt peonage with an ensemble of financial shackles: mortgages, credit cards, and student loans, all designed to ensure that the wage slaves utter two words siren-sweet to business: "Yes, boss." It's the latest chapter in the depressing story that David Graeber relates in Debt: debt as an especially insidious weapon in the arsenal of social control. "There's no better way to justify relations founded on violence … than by reframing them in the language of debt," he writes, "because it immediately makes it seem that it's the victim who's doing something wrong."
Alas, we're living in the early, bewildering days of the demise of the American Empire, the beginning of the end of that obsession-compulsion known as the Amerian Dream. The reasons are clear, if often angrily denied: military hubris and over-extension; a stagnant monopoly capitalism with a bloated financial sector; a population on whom it's dawning that low-wage labor is their inexorable fate; ecological wreckage that can only be limited or repaired by cessation of growth. The patricians' task will be threefold: finessing the increasingly obvious fact of irreversible imperial decline; convincingly performing the charade of democracy in the face of popular vassalage; and distracting or repressing the roiling rage and tumult among the plebs. How will the elites maintain and festoon their ever-more untenable hegemony?
Empires have always evaded but eventually accepted their impending senescence: first, willful, vehement denial, and redoubled, often violent devotion to the imperial customs and divinities; then the slow, entropic apocalypse of demoralization and retrenchment. As imperial twilight descends, a brisk if melancholy market of fashions in acquiescence will undoubtedly arise. Reconciled to the dystopian prospect of a world engulfed in war and famine, the affluent will sport a variety of brands of what Simon Critchley dubs "passive nihilism," a withdrawal from politics into tasteful, well-guarded enclaves of resignation. Radical visions may revive as well, but right now they're dispiritingly feckless. Looking at first like a pentecost of utopia, the "Occupy" movement has dismally failed to gain any popular traction, in part because of the utter mediocrity and incoherence of its demands. "Fairness" is populist pabulum; "we are the 99%" is a slogan, not serious political analysis. The injustice and indignity of capitalism have seldom been so openly wretched, but as Graeber ruefully observes, just when we need "to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times," we seem to have "hit the wall in terms of our collective imagination."
Don't expect any breadth or grandeur from the Empire's Christian divines. Across the board, the imperial chaplains exhibit the most obsequious deference to the Plutocracy, providing imprimaturs and singing hallelujahs for the civil religion of Chrapitalism: the lucrative merger of Christianity and capitalism, America's most enduring covenant theology. It's the core of "American exceptionalism," the sanctimonious and blood-spattered myth of providential anointment for global dominion. In the Chrapitalist gospel, the rich young man goes away richer, for God and Mammon have pooled their capital, formed a bi-theistic investment group, and laundered the money in baptismal fonts before parking it in offshore accounts. Chrapitalism has been America's distinctive and gilded contribution to religion and theology, a delusion that beloved community can be built on the foundations of capitalist property. As the American Empire wanes, so will its established religion; the erosion of Chrapitalism will generate a moral and spiritual maelstrom.
What will American Christians do as their fraudulent Mandate from Heaven expires? They might break with the imperial cult so completely that it would feel like atheism and treason. With a little help from anarchists, they might be monotheists, even Christians again. Who better to instruct them in blasphemy than sworn enemies of both God and the state? Christians might discover that unbelievers can be the most incisive and demanding theologians. As Critchley asserts, " 'God' is the first anarchist, calling us into struggle with the mythic violence of law, the state, and politics by allowing us to glimpse the possibility of something that stands apart." By inciting us to curse and renounce the homespun idolatry of Chrapitalism, Critchley and Graeber can point Christians back to a terrible but glorious moment in their history: when the avant-garde of the eschaton were maligned as godless traitors. We'll need that dangerous memory in our frightful if doubtless very different time.
An anti-globalist firebrand and renowned anthropologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, Graeber has been touted as a guru for Occupy, writing portentously in the Guardian that it represents "the opening salvo in a wave of negotiations over the dissolution of the American Empire." Debt should be read as a scholarly barrage in that colloquy on imperial decay. Indeed, Graeber himself tells us that his is an Important Book. "For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions." Graeber's Great Answer is a tour de force of interdisciplinary erudition, a sprawling, disheveled, and fascinating mess of a book. After 200 pages of anthropology, economics, sociology, and philosophy—even a bit of religion and theology—the history of debt unfolds as a magpie collection of anecdotes: stories from around the globe about coinage, slavery, markets, trade, and law. The last two centuries get jammed into the last 40 pages; the last 40 years into the final thirty. It's a rambling, ill-focused account, and it's not at all clear by the end of the volume exactly what the Great Answer is.
Graeber's history is less engrossing than his vigorous diatribe against the sado-science of economics—the ethical nexus of Chrapitalism—and his sustained assault on this phony discipline will endure in the annals of schadenfreude. There's been a Himalayan rise in the inflation rate of arrogance among economists since the 1970s, and having failed to see the current turmoil coming, practitioners of the dismal science should be required to eat a daily helping of humble pie. Their account of history (where they pretend to know any) has been discredited for over a century; drawing on an ample anthropological and historical literature, Graeber shows that money and markets emerged, not from Adam Smith's "natural liberty," but from the need of ancient states to provision their expanding temple-military complexes. From its "myth of barter" to its truncated, utility-maximizing humanism, economics, Graeber contends, has "little to do with anything we observe when we examine how economic life is actually conducted." Historically illiterate and morally cretinous, economics—not theology—is the most successful confidence game in the history of intellectual life, a testament to the power of avarice to induce and embellish human credulity.
In Graeber's view, economics' most nefarious impact on morality is its perverse account of social relations, especially those revolving around obligation and interdependence. Graeber distinguishes between obligations—the incalculable owing of favors, as when you give me something, and I owe you something back—and debt as a precisely enumerable obligation, and therefore calculable in terms of equivalence and money. Conceivable only when people are treated not as human beings but as abstractions, equivalence is the categorical imperative of pecuniary reason, and it sanctifies the self-righteous, skinflint buncombe that parades as an ethic of "character." Isn't paying one's debts the basis of morality and dependable personal character? Especially when translated into money, the quantification of debt can justify a lot of indecent, horrific conduct. Can't pay me back? I'll take your daughter, or foreclose on your home, or demand austerity measures that result in famine, disease, or destitution.
Graeber's alternative to debt and its moral atrocities is communism: "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs." (Not, note well, according to their "deserts.") Knowing that he'll face a fusillade of umbrage about "totalitarianism," Graeber insists that communism "exists right now" and lies at "the foundation of all human sociability." Our lives abound with moments of everyday communism: we don't charge people who ask us for directions, and if we do, we're rightly considered jerks. Communism is not "egalitarianism"—which, as even Marx observed, partakes of the boring, inhuman logic of equivalence—and in Graeber's view, it doesn't entail any specific form of property. (An unromantic admirer of peasant societies and their moral economy of "the commons," Graeber appears to endorse what anthropologists sometimes call "usufruct," in which property becomes a kind of trusteeship dependent on the performance of a function.) A communist relationship—between spouses, lovers, friends—is not only one in which accounts are not kept, but one in which it would be considered "offensive, or simply bizarre" to even think of doing so. Love keeps no record of wrongs—or rights.
Thus communism restricts or negates a "freedom" conceived solely as lack of restraint. As Graeber explains, "freedom" has meant several things: release from debts, as in the biblical notion of "redemption"; friendship, as derived from the German freund, connoting amicable solidarity; and unfettered power, or libertas, enshrined in Roman jurisprudence, the right of a patriarch to do anything with his possessions. And as Graeber reminds us, those possessions included his family: famulus meant slave, while dominus, or master, derived from domus, or household. (Remember that next time you're tempted to swoon to claptrap about "family values.") The notion of absolute ownership of things originated in the absolute ownership of people. Roman libertas leavens the mean-spirited ideal of "freedom" in liberal capitalist democracies. As "self-ownership," freedom both makes property a right rather than a function and turns a right into a kind of alienable property. Of course, capitalists have every interest in getting us to see "freedom" this way, since "self-ownership" entails the notion that we can give away, sell, or rent out our freedom. As 19th-century craftsmen and workers understood better than we do today, wage labor is the slavery of capitalism: if you don't own the means of production, you work for those who do—unlike chattel, you enjoy the dubiously ennobling privilege of choosing your master.
Graeber affirms redemption and friendship against the command economy of libertas. Friends and lovers don't treat each other as servants or vendable objects, so freedom should be "the ability to make friends," the capacity to enter into human relations that are uncoerced and incalculable. And since friends are naturally communists, they'll live without thinking of their relations in a way that leads to double-entry bookkeeping; they'll live in the light of "redemption," which isn't about "buying something back" but rather about "destroying the entire system of accounting." To create a more humane and generous world, we must unlearn our moral arithmetic and throw the ledgers into the bonfire. A communist society of friends requires the abolition of capitalism.
Hence the expectation, after 500 pages, of a Great Answer with "breadth and grandeur"—but Graeber fails to deliver anything more than exhortation and tepid reformism. "History is not over … surprising new ideas will certainly emerge," he assures us; popular movements are having "all sorts of interesting conversations." Yet Graeber's own call for "a Biblical-style Jubilee" is magnanimous but disappointingly banal. A wholesale cancellation of consumer and international debt seems bold, but it's fundamentally conservative: it would liberate debtors while maintaining the existing arrangement and logic of capitalism. Property forms do matter; we can't treat them with the cavalier indifference that Graeber exhibits. To end the tyranny of debt, we would have to cultivate a political imagination that sees well beyond a jubilee.
While Graeber asserts that some great conceptual breakthrough could arise "from some as yet completely unexpected quarter," he pretty much dismisses religion as a source of moral and political innovation. Religion parrots the language of money and debt: "forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" as the Lord's Prayer pleads, and religions often speak of the debt we owe to God or some other cosmic force. "Redemption" meant buying back, and the Atonement is often conceived as Christ's paying a debt we sinners owe to God. And besides, as Graeber observes, Christians don't take their own Savior at his word. Christian bankers and creditors don't forgive their debtors; why should God forgive them their sins? Yet Graeber concedes that Christianity harbors traces of a moral and ontological revolution against the regime of debt. "Redemption" could point to the destruction and transcendence of equivalence; as Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians explained, "our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be." You can pay off the bank or the bartender; how do you square a "debt " to God?
Graeber drops the point and moves on; Critchley makes "our relations with the cosmos" the central concern of his incisive volume. A philosopher at the New School for Social Research, Critchley has written often and profoundly on ethics in the wake of God's apparent death, especially in Infinitely Demanding (2007), where he sought to explain and overcome the demoralization he sees in liberal societies. Tracing what he calls their "motivational deficit" to the "felt inadequacy of secular conceptions of morality," Critchley proposed an account of moral and political agency in terms of "dividualism," where the self is incessantly called and divided by "fidelity to an unfulfillable demand." We can and should never be "at one" with ourselves; we can and never should be "authentic." The energy for political transformation resides in our "endless inauthenticity, failure, and lack of self-mastery."
With his new book, Critchley joins other left radicals—Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, and Terry Eagleton—who seek in theology not some balm for disappointment, but a tonic to sharpen the mind and revive the spirit of anti-capitalist struggle. Presented as a modest portfolio of "experiments in political theology," Critchley's volume is a rich, audacious attempt to plumb the meaning of faith, the most sustained left-atheist engagement with Christian theology since the work of Ernst Bloch. Struck by Oscar Wilde's bracing assertion in De Profundis—"everything to be true must become a religion"—Critchley provides an exacting and indispensable reflection on the nature of political commitment.
From Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Marx to Rawls, Nozick, and Foucault, the modernity of modern politics has been thought to reside in the rejection of any conception of political order rooted in nature or divinity. But by grounding the political completely and unreservedly in the human, this apparently "secular" mode of politics requires that the human be "unchallengeable"—in other words, sacred. All political order depends, Critchley maintains, on allegiance to a "supreme fiction" whereby a people becomes a people—an "original covenant," as he puts it. Whether it's fascism, communism, or liberal democracy, modern political forms, Critchley contends, comprise "a series of metamorphoses of sacralization." In this view, the American civil religion is an especially brazen displacement and renaming of sacral devotion.
This is a provocative and unsettling claim, for it counters the tale of modernity narrated as "secularization" or "disenchantment." First told by Marx and Max Weber, it's been given a Christian re-statement most recently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age (2009). I've long thought that religious intellectuals give too much credence to the "disenchantment of the world," and that they need, not to call for some reactive "re-enchantment," but to tell a new story about modernity. (As readers may know, I'm finishing a book that makes a Critchleyan claim about the history of capitalism.) For those who want to challenge the very narrative of "secularization," Critchley will be an invaluable interlocutor, if not quite a kindred spirit.
Still, Critchley's account of "the sacred" remains utterly human and terrestrial—it echoes a lineage that extends from Ludwig Feuerbach to Norman O. Brown—and it underlies the promise and failure of his attempt at a political theology without God. Honoring its "infinite demand," the dividualist self commits to a truth that is fundamentally religious—a "troth, the experience of fidelity where one is affianced and then betrothed." This is a powerful and persuasive phenomenology of faith as unswerving devotion. But from whom or what does this infinite demand to which we betrothe ourselves originate? Critchley summarily rules out any origin "external to the self … any external, divine command, any transcendent reality." It seems that in Critchley's telling, we marry ourselves. Polonius is right: to thine own self be true.
This religious fidelity to ourselves behooves both love and communism. In two chapters on Pauline theology and the late-medieval movement of the Free Spirit, Critchley hints at a radical politics sustained by faith and suffused by love. Perusing the writings of Marguerite Porete—a learned, lyrical Beguine mendicant who died at the stake in 1310—Critchley affirms her belief that sin could be overcome in this life through a mystical, quasi-erotic union with the Spirit, and that such a union requires what Simone Weil called a "decreation" of the ego in the transformative crucible of love. Love, for Porete, is a strenuous, intrepid pilgrimage into self-annihilation; "love dares the self to leave itself behind, to enter into poverty"; in Critchley's words, love is "the audacity of impoverishment," an exhilarating, paradoxically enriching loss, an abandonment of all security for the sake of communion—friendship—with divinity.
Thus, as Critchley interprets Paul, "who I am is not in my power"; called and divided, my identity requires "a certain affirmation of weakness." The self is not a seizure and assertion, but rather "the orientation of the self towards something that exceeds oneself." Freedom is not, as in Roman and liberal capitalist libertas, some "virile assertion of autarchy," but rather "the acknowledgement of an essential powerlessness." Freedom comes through submission to the anguish of love; it is not the possession but the endurance of all things. "Love," Critchley writes compellingly, "is not as strong as death. It is stronger."
For Porete and the Free Spirit, love and poverty—tokens of friendship with God—entailed a "faith-based communism," in which the wealth of God is held in common by all, without regard for class or status. (As Graeber emphasizes, friends and lovers are communists.) At the same time, "there is no longer any legitimacy to moral constraints … that do not directly flow from our freedom"—freedom understood as friendship with God. In Pauline terms, love is the law of our being.
Though (wrongly) condemned by the Inquisition for sexual libertinage, the Free Spirit was less about doing than about changing what you want. A revolution of desire must both precede and accompany a revolution of politics. The Free Spirit explored the outer limits adumbrated by Paul and the earliest Christians—"rejects and refuseniks, the very filth of the world," as Critchley glosses Paul, who produced a "political theology of the wretched of the earth." Reading Paul (properly) in an eschatological light, Critchley sketches what he calls the Christian meontology: "an account of things that are not" together with an account of things that are, but are passing. (Like, say, the American Empire.) Meontology is the historical and political analogue to dividualism: we are called and divided from the present, beckoned to "see the world from the standpoint of redemption." We are to live as if the new world already is, and as if this world were already not—not cutting deals with the transient and god-forsaking powers and principalities of the age. Living as a vanguard, Christians reside—or better, travel—within the radical insecurity of time, since the parousia could occur at any moment and render all our calculations foolish.
Critchley clearly believes that the contemporary left must recuperate something of this eschatological faith, but his political theology founders on his avowed dismissal—and misconstrual—of Christian ontology. "To be is to be in debt," he writes, and "original sin is the theological name for the essential ontological indebtedness of the self." There are two problems with this account of ontological "debt." If, as Critchley holds, there is no "transcendent reality," then to whom or what do I "owe" this "debt"? To the "infinite demand" of whom or what do I owe my faith and commitment? If Critchley's "dividualism" is right, I owe it to myself—but I suspect that any debt that I owe to myself will be a fairly easy tab to settle, with ever-negotiable terms of repayment to myself as my lenient creditor.
In other words, I'm sinful—and here Critchley makes another mistake. Sin does not name our "ontological indebtedness"—this makes existence sinful in itself, which makes the calamity of sin incomprehensible. Graeber comes closer to getting it right when he remarks that sin "is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists … so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place." Sin is not only a refusal to acknowledge our "indebtedness"—it's the very idea of our indebtedness itself, the notion that our ultimate relation to God is that of dependence, not of loving friendship. It's not just that we desired to be independent of God; it's that we didn't trust God, didn't desire his friendship. So when Critchley writes that Christian love rests on a conviction of "the absolute difference between the human and the divine," he forgets the Incarnation, where the divine entered into the human, and the human was raised to the level of divinity. (Following Paul, the Church Fathers would elaborate the Incarnation in the doctrine of theosis, or the deification of humanity.)
Being Christian consists in realizing that we don't "owe" God a single thing; it's not as though, in giving, he's parted with something, and become poorer or more diminished because of it. I would argue that this perversion of our relationship with God lies at the root of the American Dream, the delusion that the endless pursuit of libertas and wealth is an offering to God. Turning God into a ruthless creditor, we pile up money, achievements, property, and empire to settle the debt. And when the money runs out, the achievements fade, the property depreciates, and the empire crumbles, we wail about losing his favor, as if he's found us unworthy of lending on account of a low cosmic credit score.
In his magnificent sermon, "Poverty and God," the late Father Herbert McCabe reminds us that God is our Creator, not our creditor, nor some demanding investor in our earthly pursuits. "God makes without becoming richer … it is only creation that gains by God's act." (As Henry Miller once put it, "God doesn't make a dime on the deal.") Thus, God is literally poor because he "has no possessions … nothing is or acts for the benefit of God." We can't "give back" to God, or win his love with an impeccable credit history. His delight is to be with, not hound his children, like a rude collection agent; what parent thinks of a child's life as a loan to be repaid or a debt to be squared?
Come to think of it, the God of Jesus Christ has no business sense at all, and violates every canon of the Protestant Ethic. He pays the same wage for one hour of work as for ten, and recommends that we lend without thought of return. (Finance capital could not survive a day with this logic, which is one excellent reason to recommend it.) He's an appallingly lavish and undiscriminating spendthrift, sending his sunshine on the good and the evil. He has a soft spot for moochers and the undeserving poor: his Son was always inviting himself into people's homes, and never asking if the blind man deserved to be cured. How can you run a decent economy this way?
He calls us his friends, and friends share all things; as Thomas Merton knew, "to be a Christian is to be a communist." And divine friendship is to live without debts by "throwing ourselves away"—giving (not charging) according to our ability, and receiving according to our need. "To aim at poverty," McCabe said, "to grow up by living in friendship, is to imitate the life-giving poverty of God, to be godlike." By comparison, the American Dream is a shabby hallucination. As the American Empire totters and slides into history's graveyard of hubris, the glorious poverty of friendship will be our only hope of moral renewal. It's a model of another, very different empire, one innocent of creditors and debtors: the people's republic of heaven, the realm of divine love's utterly unearned, unarmed, and penniless dominion.
Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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