How Debt Has Come to Shape Humanity
Over the last 5,000 years, what has made the concept of debt so strangely powerful?
- For most of human history — at least, the history of states and empires — most human beings have been told that they were debtors.
- If one looks at the history of debt, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion.
- Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it.
Why debt? What makes the concept so strangely powerful? Consumer debt is the life-blood of our economy. All modern nation-states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international politics. But nobody seems to know exactly what it is, or how to think about it.
The very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibility of the concept, is the basis of its power. If history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt — above all, because it immediately makes it seem like it’s the victim who’s doing something wrong.
Mafiosi understand this. So do the commanders of conquering armies. For thousands of years, violent men have been able to tell their victims that those victims owe them something. If nothing else, they “owe them their lives” (a telling phrase) for not simply killing them.
Nowadays, for example, military aggression is defined as a crime against humanity, and international courts, when they are brought to bear, usually demand aggressors pay compensation. Germany had to pay massive reparations after World War I, and Iraq is still paying Kuwait for Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1990.
Arguments about debt have been going on for at least 5,000 years. For most of human history — at least, the history of states and empires — most human beings have been told that they were debtors. For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors — of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards and the selling of debtors’ children into slavery.
By the same token, for the last 5,000 years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records — tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place.
If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. Its most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds the majority of human beings believe simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil.
The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but often, the rules fell into disuse, causing the Church hierarchy to authorize preaching campaigns, sending mendicant friars to travel from town to town warning usurers that unless they repented and made full restitution of all interest extracted from their victims, they would surely go to Hell.
These sermons, many of which have survived, are full of horror stories of God’s judgment on unrepentant lenders: stories of rich men struck down by madness or terrible diseases, haunted by deathbed nightmares of the snakes or demons who would soon rend or eat their flesh. In the 12th century, when such campaigns reached their heights, more direct sanctions began to be employed.
The Papacy issued instructions to local parishes that all known usurers were to be excommunicated. They were not to be allowed to receive the sacraments, and under no conditions could their bodies be buried on hallowed ground.
Looking over the expanse of world literature, it is almost impossible to find one sympathetic representation of a moneylender — or certainly, a professional moneylender, which means by definition one who charges interest. I’m not sure there is another profession (executioners?) with such a consistently bad image.
It’s especially remarkable when one considers that unlike executioners, usurers often rank among the richest and most powerful people in their communities. Yet the very name, “usurer,” evokes images of loan-sharks, blood-money, pounds of flesh, the selling of souls, and behind them all, the Devil, often represented as himself a kind of usurer, an evil accountant with his books and ledgers, or alternately, as the figure looming just behind the usurer, biding his time until he can repossess the soul of a villain who, by his very occupation, has clearly made a compact with Hell.
Other religious traditions have different perspectives. In Medieval Hindu law codes, not only were interest-bearing loans permissible (the main stipulation was that interest should never exceed principal), but it was often emphasized that a debtor who did not pay would be reborn as a slave in the household of his creditor — or in later codes, reborn as his horse or ox.
The central question then becomes this: What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and of justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts?
The crucial factor is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic — and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene.
If you end up having to abandon your home and wandering in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that’s unfortunate, but it’s only incidental to the creditor. Is that really the world we want to live in?
Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “DEBT: THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS” by David Graeber. Copyright 2011 Melville House. Reprinted with the permission of the author.