The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
302 pp., $24.95
Love Is Stronger than Debt
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.