debt

__Debt__The_First_5_000_Years


DEBT

THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS


DAVID GRAEBER


''A BRILLIANT. DEEPLY ORIGINAL POLITICAL THINKER."

REBECCA SOLNIT, AUTHOR

A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL


THANK YOU! COME AGAIN 1


MELVILLE HOUSE PUBLISHING


DEBT


DEBT


THE FIRST 5,000 YEARS


DAVID GRAEBER


'* MELVILLEHOUSE

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK


© 2011 David Graeber

First Melville House Printing: May 2011 Melville House Publishing

145 Plymouth Street Brooklyn, New York 11201 mhpbooks.com


ISBN: 978-1-933633-86-2


Printed in the United States of America


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data


Graeber, David.

Debt : the first 5 ,000 years I David Graeber.

  1. em.

    Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2 (alk. paper)

    1. Debt-History. 2. Money-History. 3. Financial crises-History.

    1. Title. HG370l.G73 2010 332-dc22

      2010044508


      43

      73

      493

      CONTENTS



      1

      On The Experience of

      Moral Confusion


      2

      The Myth of Barter

      21

      3

      Primordial Debts


      4

      Cruelty and Redemption


      s

      A Brief Treatise on the Moral



      Grounds of Economic Relations

      89

      6

      Games with Sex and Death

      127

      1

      Honor and Degradation, or,



      On the Foundations of



      Contemporary Civilization

      165

      s

      Credit Versus Bullion, And the Cycles of History


      211

      9

      The Axial Age (800 BC-600 AD)

      223

      10

      The Middle Ages (600 AD-1450 AD)

      251

      11

      Age of the Great Capitalist



      Empires (1450-1971)

      307

      12

      (1971-The Beginning of Something



      Yet to Be Determined)

      361


      Notes

      393


      Bibliography

      455


      Index



      Cha pte r One


      ON TH E EXPERI ENCE OF MO RAL CO NFUSION


      debt

      • noun 1 a sum of money owed. 2 the state of owing money. 3 a feeling of gratitude for a favour or service.

      -Oxford English Dictionary


      If you owe the bank a hundred thou­ sand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank.

      -American Proverb


      TWO YEARS AGO, by a series of strange coincidences, I found myself attending a garden party at Westminster Abbey. I was a bit uncom­ fortable. It's not that other guests weren't pleasant and amicable, and Father Graeme, who had organized the party, was nothing if not a gra­ cious and charming host. But I felt more than a little out of place. At one point, Father Graeme intervened, saying that there was someone by a nearby fountain whom I would certainly want to meet. She turned out to be a trim, well-appointed young woman who, he explained, was an attorney-"but more of the activist kind. She works for a founda­ tion that provides legal support for anti-poverty groups in London. You'll probably have a lot to talk about."

      We chatted. She told me about her job. I told her I had been involved for many years with the global justice movement-"anti­ globalization movement," as it was usually called in the media. She was curious: she'd of course read a lot about Seattle, Genoa, the tear gas and street battles, but . . . well, had we really accomplished any­ thing by all of that?

      "Actually," I said, "I think it's kind of amazing how much we did manage to accomplish in those first couple of years."

      2 D E B T


      "For example?"

      "Well, for example, we managed to almost completely destroy the IMF."

      As it happened, she didn't actually know what the IMF was, so I offered that the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world's debt enforcers-"You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs." I launched into historical background, explaining how, during the '7os oil crisis, OPEC coun­ tries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn't figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called "go-go banking"); how they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early '8os; how, during the '8os and '9os, this led to the Third World debt crisis; how the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order to obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on basic foodstuffs, or even policies of keeping strategic food reserves, and abandon free health care and free education; how all of this had led to the collapse of all the most basic supports for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth. I spoke of poverty, of the looting of public resources, the collapse of societies, endemic violence, malnutrition, hopelessness, and broken lives.

      "But what was your position?" the lawyer asked. "About the IMF? We wanted to abolish it." "No, I mean, about the Third World debt."

      "Oh, we wanted to abolish that too. The immediate demand was to stop the IMF from imposing structural adjustment policies, which were doing all the direct damage, but we managed to accomplish that surprisingly quickly. The more long-term aim was debt amnesty. Some­ thing along the lines of the biblical Jubilee. As far as we were con­ cerned," I told her, "thirty years of money flowing from the poorest countries to the richest was quite enough."

      "But," she objected, as if this were self-evident, "they'd borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one's debts."

      It was at this point that I realized this was going to be a very dif­ ferent sort of conversation than I had originally anticipated.

      Where to start? I could have begun by explaining how these loans had originally been taken out by unelected dictators who placed most of it directly in their Swiss bank accounts, and ask her to contemplate the justice of insisting that the lenders be repaid, not by the dictator,

      O N TH E EX P E R I E N C E O F M O R AL C O N F U S I O N 3


      or even by his cronies, but by literally taking food from the mouths of hungry children. Or to think about how many of these poor countries had actually already paid back what they'd borrowed three or four times now, but that through the miracle of compound interest, it still hadn't made a significant dent in the principal. I could also observe that there was a difference between refinancing loans, and demanding that in order to obtain refinancing, countries have to follow some or­ thodox free-market economic policy designed in Washington or Zurich that their citizens had never agreed to and never would, and that it was a bit dishonest to insist that countries adopt democratic constitutions and then also insist that, whoever gets elected, they have no control over their country's policies anyway. Or that the economic policies imposed by the IMF didn't even work. But there was a more basic problem: the very assumption that debts have to be repaid.

      Actually, the remarkable thing about the statement "one has to pay one's debts" is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn't true. A lender is supposed to accept a certain degree of risk. If all loans, no matter how idiotic, were still retrievable–if there were no bankruptcy laws, for instance–the results would be disastrous. What reason would lenders have not to make a stupid loan?

      "Well, I know that sounds like common sense," I said, "but the funny thing is, economically, that's not how loans are actually sup­ posed to work. Financial institutions are supposed to be ways of direct­ ing resources toward profitable investments. If a bank were guaranteed to get its money back, plus interest, no matter what it did, the whole system wouldn't work. Say I were to walk into the nearest branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland and say 'You know, I just got a really great tip on the horses. Think you could lend me a couple million quid?' Obviously they'd just laugh at me. But that's just because they know if my horse didn't come in, there'd be no way for them to get the money back. But, imagine there was some law that said they were guaranteed to get their money back no matter what happens, even if that meant, I don't know, selling my daughter into slavery or harvesting my organs or something. Well, in that case, why not? Why bother waiting for someone to walk in who has a viable plan to set up a laundromat or some such? Basically, that's the situation the IMF created on a global level-which is how you could have all those banks willing to fork over billions of dollars to a bunch of obvious crooks in the first place." I didn't get quite that far, because at about that point a drunken financier appeared, having noticed that we were talking about money, and began telling funny stories about moral hazard-which somehow,

      4 D E B T


      before too long, had morphed into a long and not particularly engross­ ing account of one of his sexual conquests. I drifted off.

      "

      Still, for several days afterward, that phrase kept resonating in my head.

      "Surely one has to pay one's debts."

      The reason it's so powerful is that it's not actually an economic statement: it's a moral statement. After all, isn't paying one's debts what morality is supposed to be all about? Giving people what is due them. Accepting one's responsibilities. Fulfilling one's obligations to others, just as one would expect them to fulfill their obligations to you. What could be a more obvious example of shirking one's responsibili­ ties than reneging on a promise, or refusing to pay a debt?

      It was that very apparent self-evidence, I realized, that made the statement so insidious. This was the kind of line that could make ter­ rible things appear utterly bland and unremarkable. This may sound strong, but it's hard not to feel strongly about such matters once you've witnessed the effects. I had. For almost two years, I had lived in the highlands of Madagascar. Shortly before I arrived, there had been an outbreak of malaria. It was a particularly virulent outbreak because malaria had been wiped out in highland Madagascar many years be­ fore, so that, after a couple of generations, most people had lost their immunity. The problem was, it took money to maintain the mosquito eradication program, since there had to be periodic tests to make sure mosquitoes weren't starting to breed again and spraying campaigns if it was discovered that they were. Not a lot of money. But owing to IMF­ imposed austerity programs, the government had to cut the monitoring program. Ten thousand people died. I met young mothers grieving for lost children. One might think it would be hard to make a case that the loss of ten thousand human lives is really justified in order to ensure that Citibank wouldn't have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn't particularly important to its balance sheet anyway. But here was a perfectly decent woman-one who worked for a charitable organization, no less-who took it as self-evident that it was. After all, they owed the money, and surely one has to pay one's debts.


      I I I I I


      For the next few weeks, that phrase kept coming back at me. Why debt? What makes the concept so strangely powerful? Consumer debt is the lifeblood of our economy. All modern nation-states are built on deficit spending. Debt has come to be the central issue of international

      O N TH E EX P E R I E N C E O F M O R A L CON FU .S I O N 5


      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 that 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) because they haven't been killed.

      Nowadays, for example, military aggression is defined as a crime against humanity, and international courts, when they are brought to bear, usually demand that aggressors pay compensation. Germa­ ny had to pay massive reparations after World War I, and Iraq is still paying Kuwait for Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990. Yet the Third World debt, the debt of countries like Madagascar, Bolivia, and the Philippines, seems to work precisely the other way around. Third World debtor nations are almost exclusively countries that have at one time been attacked and conquered by European countries-often, the very countries to whom they now owe money. In 1895, for example, France invaded Madagascar, disbanded the government of then-Queen Ranavalona III, and declared the country a French colony. One of the first things General Gallieni did after "pacification," as they liked to call it then, was to impose heavy taxes on the Malagasy population, in part so they could reimburse the costs of having been invaded, but also, since French colonies were supposed to be fiscally self-supporting, to defray the costs of building the railroads, highways, bridges, planta­ tions, and so forth that the French regime wished to build. Malagasy taxpayers were never asked whether they wanted these railroads, high­ ways, bridges, and plantations, or allowed much input into where and how they were built.1 To the contrary: over the next half century, the French army and police slaughtered quite a number of Malagasy who objected too strongly to the arrangement (upwards of half a million, by some reports, during one revolt in 1947). It's not as if Madagascar has ever done any comparable damage to France. Despite this, from the be­ ginning, the Malagasy people were told they owed France money, and to this day, the Malagasy people are still held to owe France money, and the rest of the world accepts the justice of this arrangement. When the "international community" does perceive a moral issue, it's usually

      6 D E B T


      when they feel the Malagasy government is being slow to pay their debts.

      But debt is not just victor's justice; it can also be a way of pun­ ishing winners who weren't supposed to win. The most spectacular example of this is the history of the Republic of Haiti-the first poor country to be placed in permanent debt peonage. Haiti was a nation founded by former plantation slaves who had the temerity not only to rise up in rebellion, amidst grand declarations of universal rights and freedoms, but to defeat Napoleon's armies sent to return them to bondage. France immediately insisted that the new republic owed it 150 million francs in damages for the expropriated plantations, as well as the expenses of outfitting the failed military expeditions, and all other nations, including the United States, agreed to impose an embargo on the country until it was paid. The sum was intentionally impossible (equivalent to about 18 billion dollars) , and the resultant embargo en­ sured that the name "Haiti" has been a synonym for debt, poverty, and human misery ever since. 2

      Sometimes, though, debt seems to mean the very opposite. Starting in the 198os, the United States, which insisted on strict terms for the re­ payment of Third World debt, itself accrued debts that easily dwarfed those of the entire Third World combined-mainly fueled by military spending. The U.S. foreign debt, though, takes the form of treasury bonds held by institutional investors in countries (Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Gulf States) that are in most cases, effectively, U.S. military protectorates, most covered in U.S. bases full of arms and equipment paid for with that very deficit spending. This has changed a little now that China has gotten in on the game (China is a special case, for reasons that will be explained later) , but not very much-even China finds that the fact it holds so many U.S. treasury bonds makes it to some degree beholden to U.S. interests, rather than the other way around.

      So what is the status of all this money continually being funneled into the U.S. treasury? Are these loans? Or is it tribute? In the past, military powers that maintained hundreds of military bases outside their own home territory were ordinarily referred to as "empires," and empires regularly demanded tribute from subject peoples. The U.S. government, of course, insists that it is not an empire–but one could easily make a case that the only reason it insists on treating these pay­ ments as "loans" and not as "tribute" is precisely to deny the reality of what's going on.

      Now, it's true that, throughout history, certain sorts of debt, and certain sorts of debtor, have always been treated differently than

      O N T H E EXP E R I E N C E O F M O R AL C O N F U S I O N 7


      others. In the 172os, one of the things that most scandalized the British public when conditions at debtors' prisons were exposed in the popular press was the fact that these prisons were regularly divided into two sections. Aristocratic inmates, who often thought of a brief stay in Fleet or Marshalsea as something of a fashion statement, were wined and dined by liveried servants and allowed to receive regular visits from prostitutes. On the "common side," impoverished debtors were shack­ led together in tiny cells, "covered with filth and vermin," as one report put it, "and suffered to die, without pity, of hunger and jail fever. "3

      In a way you can see current world economic arrangements as a much larger version of the same thing: the U. S. in this case being the Cadillac debtor, Madagascar the pauper starving in the next cell­ while the Cadillac debtors' servants lecture him on how his problems are due to his own irresponsibility.

      And there's something more fundamental going on here, a philo­ sophical question, even, that we might do well to contemplate. What is the difference between a gangster pulling out a gun and demand­ ing you give him a thousand dollars of "p.otection money," and that same gangster pulling out a gun and demanding you provide him with a thousand-dollar "loan"? In most ways, obviously, nothing. But in certain ways there is a difference. As in the case of the U.S. debt to Korea or Japan, were the balance of power at any point to shift, were America to lose its military supremacy, were the gangster to lose his henchmen, that "loan" might start being treated very differently. It might become a genuine liability. But the crucial element would still seem to be the gun.

      There's an old vaudeville gag that makes the same point even more elegantly-here, as improved on by Steve Wright:


      I was walking down the street with a friend the other day and a guy with a gun jumps out of an alley and says "stick 'em up." As I pull out my wallet, I figure, "shouldn't be a total loss."

      So I pull out some money, turn to my friend and say, "Hey, Fred, here's that fifty bucks I owe you."

      The robber was so offended he took out a thousand dollars of his own money, forced Fred to lend it to me at gunpoint, and then took it back again.


      In the final analysis, the man with the gun doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to do. But in order to be able to run even a regime based on violence effectively, one needs to establish some kind of set of rules. The rules can be completely arbitrary. In a way it doesn't even

      8 D E B T


      matter what they are. Or, at least, it doesn't matter at first. The prob­ lem is, the moment one starts framing things in terms of debt, people will inevitably start asking who really owes what to whom.

      Arguments about debt have been going on for at least five thou­ sand years. For most of human history-at least, the history of states and empires-most human beings have been told that they are debt­ ors.4 Historians, and particularly historians of ideas, have been oddly reluctant to consider the human consequences; eapecially since this situation-more than any other-has caused continual outrage and re­ sentment. Tell people they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased, but this surprisingly rarely leads to armed revolt. Tell people that they are potential equals who have failed, and that therefore, even what they do have they do not deserve, that it isn't rightly theirs, and you are much more likely to inspire rage. Certainly this is what history would seem to teach us. 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 seques­ tering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors' chil­ dren into slavery. By the same token, for the last five thousand 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. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: "Cancel the debts and redistribute the land."5

      Our tendency to overlook this is all the more peculiar when you consider how much of our contemporary moral and religious language originally emerged directly from these very conflicts. Terms like "reck­ oning" or "redemption" are only the most obvious, since they're taken directly from the language of ancient finance. In a larger sense, the same can be said of "guilt," "freedom," "forgiveness," and even "sin." Arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong.

      The fact that so much of this language did take shape in arguments about debt has left the concept strangely incoherent. After all, to argue with the king, one has to use the king's language, whether or not the initial premises make sense.

      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 that the majority of human beings

      O N T H E EXPER I E N C E O F M O R AL C O N F U S I O N 9


      hold 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.

      It's true that opinions on this latter point do shift back and forth. One extreme possibility might be the situation the French anthropolo­ gist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himala­ yas, where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes-they were referred to as "the vanquished ones," since they were thought to be descended from a populat"on once conquered by the current landlord caste, many centuries before-lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans from the landlords simply to find a way to eat-not for the money, since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors' outhouses and reroofed their sheds. For the "vanquished"­ as for most people in the world, actually-the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. These required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. In such cases it was com­ mon practice, Galey explains, for high-caste moneylenders to demand one of the borrower's daughters as security. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughter's marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender's household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent off to some nearby timber camp, where she would have to spend the next year or two as a prostitute working off her father's debt. Once it was paid off, she'd return to her husband and begin her married life.6

      This seems shocking, outrageous even, but Galey does not report any widespread feeling of injustice. Everyone seemed to feel that this was just the way things worked. Neither was there much concern voiced among the local Brahmins, who were the ultimate arbiters in matters of morality-though this is hardly surprising, since the most prominent moneylenders were often Brahmins themselves.

      Even here, of course, it's hard to know what people were saying behind closed doors. If a group of Maoist rebels were to suddenly seize control of the area (some do operate in this part of rural India) and round up the local usurers for trial, we might hear all sorts of views expressed.

      Still, what Galey describes represents, as I say, one extreme of possibility: one in which the usurers themselves are the ultimate moral authorities. Compare this with, say, medieval France, where the moral

      10 D E B T


      status of moneylenders was seriously in question. The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude, 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 twelfth century, when such campaigns reached their heights, more direct sanctions began to be employed. The papacy is­ sued instructions to local parishes that all known usurers were to be excommunicated; they were not to be allowed to receive the sacra­ ments, and under no conditions could their bodies be buried on hal­ lowed ground. One French cardinal, Jacques de Vitry, writing around r2ro, recorded the story of a particularly influential moneylender whose friends tried to pressure their parish priest to overlook the rules and allow him to be buried in the local churchyard:


      Since the dead usurer's friends were very insistent, the priest yielded to their pressure and said, "Let us put his body on a donkey and see God's will, and what He will do with the body. Wherever the donkey takes it, be it a church, a cemetery, or elsewhere, there will I bury it. " The body was placed upon the donkey which without deviating either to right or left, took it straight out of town to the place where thieves are hanged from the gibbet, and with a hearty buck, sent the cadaver flying into the dung beneath the gallows.7


      Looking over world literature, it is almost impossible to find a single sympathetic representation of a moneylender-or anyway, a profes­ sional moneylender, which means by definition �me who charges inter­ est. 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, "usu­ rer," 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

      O N T H E EX P E R I E N C E O F MORAL C O N F U S I O N 11


      time until he can repossess the soul of a villain who, by his very oc­ cupation, has clearly made a compact with Hell.

      Historically, there have been only two effective ways for a lender to try to wriggle out of the opprobrium: either shunt off responsibility onto some third party, or insist that the borrower is even worse. In me­ dieval Europe, for instance, lords often took the first approach, employ­ ing Jews as surrogates. Many would even speak of "our" Jews-that is, Jews under their personal protection-though in practice this usually meant that they would first deny Jews in their territories any means of making a living except by usury (guaranteeing that they would be widely detested), then periodically turn on them, claiming they were detestable creatures, and take the money for themselves. The second approach is of course more common. But it usually leads to the conclu­ sion that both parties to a loan are equally guilty; the whole affair is a shabby business; and most likely, both are damned.

      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 same tolerant attitude toward lenders, and warnings of karmic revenge against borrowers, reappear in many strands of Buddhism. Even so, the moment that usurers were thought to go too far, exactly the same sort of stories as found in Europe would start appearing. A Medieval Japanese author recounts one-he insists it's a true story-about the terrifying fate of Hiromushime, the wife of a wealthy district governor around 776 AD. An exceptionally greedy woman,


      she would add water to the rice wine she sold and make a huge profit on such diluted sake. On the day she loaned some­ thing to someone she would use a small measuring cup, but on the day of collection she used a large one. When lending rice her scale registered small portions, but when she received payment it was in large amounts. The interest that she forcibly collected was tremendous-often as much as ten or even one hundred times the amount of the original loan. She was rigid about collecting debts, showing no mercy whatsoever. Because of this, many people were thrown into a state of anxiety; they abandoned their households to get away from her and took to wandering in other provinces.8

      12 D E B T


      After she died, for seven days, monks prayed over her sealed coffin. On the seventh, her body mysteriously sprang to life:


      Those who came to look at her encountered an indescribable stench. From the waist up she had already become an ox with four-inch horns protruding from her forehead. Her two hands had become the hooves of an ox, her nails were now cracked so that they resembled an ox hoof's instep. From the waist down, however, her body was that of a human. She disliked rice and preferred to eat grass. Her manner of eating was rumination. Naked, she would lie in her own excrement.9


      Gawkers descended. Guilty and ashamed, the family made desperate attempts to buy forgiveness, canceling all debts owed to them by any­ body, donating much of their wealth to religious establishments. Fi­ nally, mercifully, the monster died.

      The author, himself a monk, felt that the story represented a clear case of premature reincarnation-the woman was being punished by the law of karma for her violations of "what is both reasonable and right." His problem was that Buddhist scriptures, insofar as they ex­ plicitly weighed in on the matter, didn't provide a precedent. Normally, it was debtors who were supposed to be reborn as oxen, not creditors. As a result, when it came time to explain the moral of the story, his exposition grew decidedly confusing:


      It is as one sutra says: "When we do not repay the things that we have borrowed, our payment becomes that of being reborn as a horse or ox." "The debtor is like a slave, the creditor is like a master. " Or again: "a debtor is a pheasant and his credi­ tor a hawk." If you are in a situation of having granted a loan, do not put unreasonable pressure on your debtor for repay­ ment. If you do, you will be reborn as a horse or an ox and be put to work for him who was in debt to you, and then you will repay many times over.10


      So which will it be? They can't both end up as animals in each other's barns.

      All the great religious traditions seem to bang up against this quan­ dary in one form or another. On the one hand, insofar as all human re­ lations involve debt, they are all morally compromised. Both parties are probably already guilty of something just by entering into the relation­ ship; at the very least they run a significant danger of becoming guilty

      O N T H E EX P E R I E N C E O F MORAL C O N F U S I O N 13


      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 those obligations 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 a universe that doesn't make a lot of sense.


      I I I I I


      The story of Hiromushime is a perfect illustration of the impulse to throw the accusation back at the accuser-just as in the story about the dead usurer and the donkey, the emphasis on excrement, animals, and humiliation is clearly meant as poetic justice, the creditor forced to experience the same feelings of disgrace and degradation that debtors are always made to feel. It's all a more vivid, more visceral way of ask­ ing that same question: "Who really owes what to whom?"

      It's also a perfect illustration of how the moment one asks the question "Who really owes what to whom?," one has begun to adopt the creditor's language. Just as if we don't pay our debts, "our payment becomes that of being reborn as a horse or an ox"; so if you are an unreasonable creditor, you too will "repay. " Even karmic justice can thus be reduced to the language of a business deal.

      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 reduced 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 debts 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 effects; one need only cal­ culate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. If you end

      14 D E B T


      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.

      From this perspective, the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money's capacity to turn moral­ ity into a matter of impersonal arithmetic-and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. The factor of violence, which I have been emphasizing up until now, may appear secondary. The difference between a "debt" and a mere moral obliga­ tion is not the presence or absence of men with weapons who can en­ force that obligation by seizing the debtor's possessions or threatening to break his legs. It is simply that a creditor has the means to specify, numerically, exactly how much the debtor owes.

      However, when one looks a little closer, one discovers that these two elements-the violence and the quantification-are intimately linked. In fact it's almost impossible to find one without the other. French usurers had powerful friends and enforcers, capable of bullying even Church authorities. How else would they have collected debts that were technically illegal? Hiromushime was utterly uncompromis­ ing with her debtors-"showing no mercy whatsoever"-but then, her husband was the governor. She didn't have to show mercy. Those of us who do not have armed men behind us cannot afford to be so exacting.

      The way violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics will crop up again and again over the course of this book. It is the ultimate source of the moral confusion that seems to float around everything surrounding the topic of debt. The resulting dilemmas appear to be as old as civilization itself. We can observe the process in the very earliest records from ancient Mesopotamia; it finds its first philosophical expression in the Vedas, reappears in endless forms throughout recorded history, and still lies underneath the essen­ tial fabric of our institutions today-state and market, our most basic conceptions of the nature of freedom, morality, sociality-all of which have been shaped by a history of war, conquest, and slavery in ways we're no longer capable of even perceiving because we can no longer imagine things any other way.


      I I I I I


      There are obvious reasons why this is a particularly important moment to reexamine the history of debt. September 2oo8 saw the beginning of

      O N T H E EXPER I E N C E O F M O R AL C O N F U S I O N 15


      a financial crisis that almost brought the entire world economy screech­ ing to a halt. In many ways the world economy did: ships stopped moving across the oceans, and thousands were placed in dry dock. Building cranes were dismantled, as no more buildings were being put up. Banks largely ceased making loans. In the wake of this, there was not only public rage and bewilderment, but the beginning of an actual public conversation about the nature of debt, of money, of the financial institutions that have come to hold the fate of nations in their grip.

      But that was just a moment. The conversation never ended up tak­ ing place.

      The reason that people were ready for such a conversation was that the story everyone had been told for the last decade or so had just been revealed to be a colossal lie. There's really no nicer way to say it. For years, everyone had been hearing of a whole host of new, ultra­ sophisticated financial innovations: credit and commodity derivatives, collateralized mortgage obligation derivatives, hybrid securities, debt swaps, and so on. These new derivative markets were so incredibly sophisticated, that-according to one persistent story-a prominent in­ vestment house had to employ astrophysicists to run trading programs so complex that even the financiers couldn't begin to understand them. The message was transparent: leave these things to the professionals. You couldn't possibly get your minds around this. Even if you don't like financial capitalists very much (and few seemed inclined to argue that there was much to like about them) , they were nothing if not capa­ ble, in fact so preternaturally capable, that democratic oversight of fi­ nancial markets was simply inconceivable. (Even a lot of academics fell for it. I well remember going to conferences in 2oo6 and 2007 where trendy social theorists presented papers arguing that these new forms of securitization, linked to new information technologies, heralded a looming transformation in the very nature of time, possibility-reality itself. I remember thinking: "Suckers!" And so they were.)

      Then, when the rubble had stopped bouncing, it turned out that

      many if not most of them had been nothing more than very elaborate scams. They consisted of operations like selling poor families mort­ gages crafted in such a way as to make eventual default inevitable; taking bets on how long it would take the holders to default; packag­ ing mortgage and bet together and selling them to institutional inves­ tors (representing, perhaps, the mortgage-holders' retirement accounts) claiming that it would make money no matter what happened, and al­ low said investors to pass such packages around as if they were money; turning over responsibility for paying off the bet to a giant insurance conglomerate that, were it to sink beneath the weight of its resultant

      16 D E B T


      debt (which certainly would happen), would then have to be bailed out by taxpayers (as such conglomerates were indeed bailed out) .U In other words, it looks very much like an unusually elaborate version of what banks were doing when they lent money to dictators in Bolivia and Gabon in the late '7os: make utterly irresponsible loans with the full knowledge that, once it became known they had done so, politicians and bureaucrats would scramble to ensure that they'd still be reim­ bursed anyway, no matter how many human lives had to be devastated and destroyed in order to do it.

      The difference, though, was that this time, the bankers were doing it on an inconceivable scale: the total amount of debt they had run up was larger than the combined Gross Domestic Products of every coun­ try in t4e world-and it threw the world into a tailspin and almost destroyed the system itself.

      Armies and police geared up to combat the expected riots and unrest, but none materialized. But neither have any significant changes in how the system is run. At the time, everyone assumed that, with the very defining institutions of capitalism (Lehman Brothers, Citibank, General Motors) crumbling, and all claims to superior wisdom revealed to be false, we would at least restart a broader conversation about the nature of debt and credit institutions. And not just a convwersation.

      It seemed that most Americans were open to radical solutions. Surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that the banks should not be rescued, whatever the economic consequences, but that ordinary citizens stuck with bad mortgages should be bailed out. In the United States this is quite extraordinary. Since colonial days, Americans have been the population least sympathetic to debtors. In a way this is odd, since America was settled largely by absconding debt­ ors, but it's a country where the idea that morality is a matter of pay­ ing one's debts runs deeper than almost any other. In colonial days, an insolvent debtor's ear was often nailed to a post. The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: de­ spite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected on "moral grounds" until r898Y The change was epochal. For this very reason, perhaps, those in charge of moderating debate in the media and legisla­ tures decided that this was not the time. The United States government effectively put a three-trillion-dollar Band-Aid over the problem and changed nothing. The bankers were rescued; small-scale debtors-with a paltry few exceptions-were not.U To the contrary, in the middle of the greatest economic recession since the '3os, we are already begin­ ning to see a backlash against them-driven by financial corporations

      O N TH E EX P E R IEN CE O F M O RAL C O N F U S I O N 17


      who have now turned to the same government that bailed them out to apply the full force of the law against ordinary citizens in financial trouble. "It's not a crime to owe money," reports the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune, "But people are routinely being thrown in jail for failing to pay debts." In Minnesota, "the use of arrest warrants against debtors has jumped 6o percent over the past four years, with 845 cases in 2009 In Illinois and southwest Indiana, some judges jail debtors

      for missing court-ordered debt payments. In extreme cases, people stay in jail until they raise a minimum payment. In January [2o1o], a judge sentenced a Kenney, Ill., man 'to indefinite incarceration' until he came up with $300 toward a lumber yard debt."14

      In other words, we are moving toward a restoration of some­ thing much like debtors' prisons. Meanwhile, the conversation stopped dead, popular rage against bailouts sputtered into incoherence, and we seem to be tumbling inexorably toward the next great financial catastrophe-the only real question being just how long it will take.

      We have reached the point at which the IMF itself, now trying to reposition itself as the conscience of global capitalism, has begun to issue warnings that if we continue on the present course, no bailout is likely to be forthcoming the next time. The public simply will not stand for it, and as a result, everything really will come apart. "IMF Warns Second Bailout Would 'Threaten Democracy"' reads one recent headline.15 ( Of course by "democracy" they mean "capitalism.") Surely it means something that even those who feel they are responsible for keeping the current global economic system running, who just a few years ago acted as if they could simply assume the current system would be around forever, are now seeing apocalypse everywhere.


      I I I I I


      In this case, the IMF has a point. We have every reason to believe that we do indeed stand on the brink of epochal changes.

      Admittedly, the usual impulse is to imagine everything around us as absolutely new. Nowhere is this so true as with money. How many times have we been told that the advent of virtual money, the dema­ terialization of cash into plastic and dollars into blips of electronic information, has brought us to an unprecedented new financial world? The assumption that we were in such uncharted territory, of course, was one of the things that made it so easy for the likes of Goldman Sachs and AIG to convince people that no one could possibly under­ stand their dazzling new financial instruments. The moment one casts matters on a broad historical scale, though, the first thing one learns

      18 D E B T


      is that there's nothing new about virtual money. Actually, this was the original form of money. Credit system, tabs, even expense accounts, all existed long before cash. These things are as old as civilization itself. True, we also find that history tends to move back and forth between periods dominated by bullion-where it's assumed that gold and silver are money-and periods where money is assumed to be an abstrac­ tion, a virtual unit of account. But historically, credit money comes first, and what we are witnessing today is a return of assumptions that would have been considered obvious common sense in, say, the Middle Ages-or even ancient Mesopotamia.

      But history does provide fascinating hints of what we might expect. For instance: in the past, ages of virtual credit money almost invari­ ably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire–to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry, as they seem to be doing now. They are accompanied by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global insti­ tutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors. At the same time, on the kind of historical scale we're talking about here, a decade or two is nothing. We have very little idea what to expect.


      I I I I I


      This book is a history of debt, then, but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like–what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question. As a result, the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths-not only the Myth of Barter, which is taken up in the first chapter, but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state-that in one way or another form the basis of our common-sense assumptions about the na­ ture of economy and society. In that common-sense view, the State and the Market tower above all else as diametrically opposed principles. Historical reality reveals, however, that they were born together and have always been intertwined. The one thing that all these misconcep­ tions have in common, we will find, is that they tend to reduce all hu­ man relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal. This leads to another question: If not exchange, then what? In chapter five, I will begin to answer the question by drawing on the fruits of anthropol­ ogy to describe a view of the moral basis of economic life; then return

      O N TH E EX P E R I E N C E O F M O R A L C O N F U S I O N 19

      to the question of the origins of money to demonstrate how the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence–that the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. That, in turn, opens the way to starting, with chapter eight, an actual history of the last five thou­ sand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money. Many of the discoveries here are pro­ foundly unexpected: from the origins of modern conceptions of rights and freedoms in ancient slave law, to the origins of investment capital in medieval Chinese Buddhism, to the fact that many of Adam Smith's most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free-market theorists from medieval Persia (a story which, inciden­ tally, has interesting implications for understanding the current appeal of political Islam) . All of this sets the stage for a fresh approach to the last five hundred years, dominated by capitalist empires, and allows us to at least begin asking what might really be at stake in the present day.

      For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it's looking like we have no other choice.


      Cha pte r Two


      TH E MYT H OF BARTER


      For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong.

      -H.L. Mencken


      WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE between a mere obligation, a sense that one ought to behave in a certain way, or even that one owes something to someone, and a debt, properly speaking? The answer is simple: money. The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money.

      Not only is it money that makes debt possible: money and debt ap­ pear on the scene at exactly the same time. Some of the very first writ­ ten documents that have come down to us are Mesopotamian tablets recording credits and debits, rations issued by temples, money owed for rent of temple lands, the value of each precisely specified in grain and silver. Some of the earliest works of 1p0ral philosophy, in turn, are reflections on what it means to imagine morality as debt-that is, in terms of money.

      A history of debt, then, is thus necessarily a history of money-and the easiest way to understand the role that debt has played in human society is simply to follow the forms that money has taken, and the way money has been used, across the centuries-and the arguments that inevitably ensued about what all this means. Still, this is neces­ sarily a very different history of money than we are used to. When economists speak of the origins of money, for example, debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. Even if one consults books on the history of money in, say, France, India, or China, what one generally gets is a history of coinage, with barely any discussion of credit arrangements at all. For almost a century, anthropologists like me have been pointing out

      22 D E B T


      that there is something very wrong with this picture. The standard economic-history version has little to do with anything we observe when we examine how economic life is actually conducted, in real communities and marketplaces, almost anywhere-where one is much more likely to discover everyone in debt to everyone else in a dozen different ways, and that most transactions take place without the use of currency.

      Why the discrepancy?

      Some of it is just the nature of the evidence: coins are preserved in the archeological record; credit arrangements usually are not. Still, the problem runs deeper. The existence of credit and debt has always been something of a scandal for economists, since it's almost impossible to pretend that those lending and borrowing money are acting on purely "economic" motivations (for instance, that a loan to a stranger is the same as a loan to one's cousin); it seems important, therefore, to begin the story of money in an imaginary world from which credit and debt have been entirely erased. Before· we can apply the tools of anthropol­ ogy to reconstruct the real history of money, we need to understand what's wrong with the conventional account.

      Economists. generally speak of three functions of money: medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value. All economic text­ books treat the first as primary. Here's a fairly typical extract from Economics, by Case, Fair, Gartner, and Heather (1996) :


      Money is vital to the working of a market economy. Imagine what life would be like without it. The alternative to a mon­ etary economy is barter, people exchanging goods and services for other goods and services directly instead of exchanging via the medium of money.

      How does a barter system work ? Suppose you want crois­ sants, eggs and orange juice for breakfast. Instead of going to the grocer's and buying these things with money, you would have to find someone who has these items and is willing to trade them. You would also have to have something the baker, the orange juice purveyor and the egg vendor want. Having pencils to trade will do you no good if the baker and the or­ ange juice and egg sellers do not want pencils.

      A barter system requires a double coincidence of wants for

      trade to take place. That is, to effect a trade, I need not only have to find someone who has what I want, but that person must also want what I have. Where the range of traded goods is small, as it is in relatively unsophisticated economies, it is

      T H E M Y TH O F BARTER 23

      not difficult to find someone to trade with, and barter is often used. '


      This latter point is questionable, but it's phrased in so vague a way that it would be hard to disprove.


      In a complex society with many goods, barter exchanges in­ volve an intolerable amount of effort. Imagine trying to find people who offer for sale all the things you buy in a typical trip to the grocer's, and who are willing to accept goods that you have to offer in exchange for their goods.

      Some agreed-upon medium of exchange (or means of pay­ ment) neatly eliminates the double coincidence of wants prob­ lem. 2


      It's important to emphasize that this is not presented as something that actually happened, but as a purely imaginary exercise. "To see that society benefits from a medium of exchange" write Begg, Fischer and Dornbuch (Economics, 2oos), "imagine a barter economy." "Imag­ ine the difficulty you would have today," write Maunder, Myers, Wall, and Miller (Economics Explairzed, 1991) , "if you had to exchange your labor directly for the fruits of someone else's labor." "Imagine," write Parkin and King (Economics, 1995) , "you have roosters, but you want roses. "1 One could multiply examples endlessly. Just about every eco­ nomics textbook employed today sets out the problem the same way. Historically, they note, we know that there was a time when there was no money. What must it have been like? Well, let us imagine an economy something like today's, except with no money. That would have been decidedly inconvenient! Surely, people must have invented money for the sake of efficiency.

      The story of money for economists always begins with a fantasy world of barter. The problem is where to locate this fantasy in time and space: Are we talking about cave men, Pacific Islanders, the Ameri­ can frontier? One textbook, by economists Joseph Stiglitz and John Driffill, takes us to what appears to be an imaginary New England or Midwestern town:


      One can imagine an old-style farmer bartering with the black­ smith, the tailor, the grocer, and the doctor in his small town. For simple barter to work, however, there must be a double coincidence of wants . . . Henry has potatoes and wants shoes, Joshua has an extra pair of shoes and wants potatoes. Bartering

      24 D E B T


      can make them both happier. But if Henry has firewood and Joshua does not need any of that, then bartering for Joshua's shoes requires one or both of them to go searching for more people in the hope of making a multilateral exchange . Money provides a way to make multilateral exchange much simpler. Henry sells his firewood to someone else for money and uses the money to buy Joshua's shoes.4


      Again this is just a make-believe land much like the present, except with money somehow plucked away. As a result it makes no sense: Who in their right mind would set up a grocery in such a place? And how would they get supplies? But let's leave that aside. There is a simple reason why everyone who writes an economics textbook feels they have to tell us the same story. For economists, it is in a very real sense the most important story ever told. It was by telling it, in the significant year of r776, that Adam Smith, professor of moral philoso­ phy at the University of Glasgow, effectively brought the discipline of economics into being.

      He did not make up the story entirely out of whole cloth. Already in 330 Be, Aristotle was speculating along vaguely similar lines in his treatise on politics. At first, he suggested, families must have produced everything they needed for themselves. Gradually, some would presum­ ably have specialized, some growing corn, others making wine, swap­ ping one for the other.5 Money, Aristotle assumed, must have emerged from such a process. But, like the medieval schoolmen who occasion­ ally repeated the story, Aristotle was never clear as to how.6

      In the years after Columbus, as Spanish and Portuguese adven­ turers were scouring the world for new sources of gold and silver, these vague stories disappear. Certainly no one reported discovering a land of barter. Most sixteenth- and seventeenth-century travelers in the West Indies or Africa assumed that all societies would necessarily have their own forms of money, since all societies had governments and all governments issued money.7

      Adam Smith, on the other hand, was determined to overturn the conventional wisdom of his day. Above all, he objected to the notion that money was a creation of government. In this, Smith was the intel­ lectual heir of the Liberal tradition of philosophers like John Locke, who had argued that government begins in the need to protect private property and operated best when it tried to limit itself to that function. Smith expanded on the argument, insisting that property, money and markets not only existed before political institutions but were the very fou�dation of human society. It followed that insofar as government

      T H E M Y TH O F BARTER 25

      should play any role in monetary affairs, it should limit itself to guar­ anteeing the soundness of the currency. It was only by making such an argument that he could insist that economics is itself a field of human inquiry with its own principles and laws-that is, as distinct from, say ethics or politics.

      Smith's argument is worth laying out in detail because it is, as I say, the great founding myth of the discipline of economics.

      What, he begins, is the basis of economic life, properly speaking? It is "a certain propensity in human nature the propensity to truck,

      barter, and exchange one thing for another." Animals don't do this. "Nobody," Smith observes, "ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog. "8 But humans, if left to their own devices, will inevitably begin swapping and comparing things. This is just what humans do. Even logic and conversation are really just forms of trading, and as in all things, humans will always try to seek their own best advantage, to seek the greatest profit they can from the exchange.9

      It is this drive to exchange, in turn, which creates that division of labor responsible for all human achievement and civilization. Here the scene shifts to another one of those economists' faraway fantasylands­ it seems to be an amalgam of North American Indians and Central Asian pastoral nomads: 10

      In a tribe of hunters or shepherds a particular person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dex­ terity than any other. He frequently exchanges them for cattle or for venison with his companions; and he finds at last that he can in this manner get more cattle and venison, than if he himself went to the field to catch them. From a regard to his own interest, therefore, the making of bows and arrows grows to be his chief business, and he becomes a sort of armourer. Another excels in making the frames and covers of their little huts or moveable houses. He is accustomed to be of use in this way to his neighbours, who reward him in the same manner with cattle and with venison, till at last he finds it his interest to dedicate himself entirely to this employment, and to become a sort of house-carpenter. In the same manner a third becomes a smith or a brazier; a fourth a tanner or dresser of hides or skins, the principal part of the clothing of savages . . .

      It's only once we have expert arrow-makers, wigwam-makers, and so on that people start realizing there's a problem. Notice how, as in

      26 DEBT


      so many examples, we have a tendency to slip from imaginary savages to small-town shopkeepers.


      But when the division of labor first began to take place, this power of exchanging must frequently have been very much clogged and embarrassed in its operations. One man, we shall suppose, has more of a certain commodity than he himself has occasion for, while another has less. The former consequently would be glad to dispose of, and the latter to purchase, a part of this superfluity. But if this latter should chance to have noth­ ing that the former stands in need of, no exchange can be made between them. The butcher has more meat in his shop than he himself can consume, and the brewer and the baker would each of them be willing to purchase a part of it. But they have nothing to offer in exchange . . .


      I I I I I


      In order to avoid the inconveniency of such situations, every prudent man in every period of society, after the first establish­ ment of the division of labor, must naturally have endeavored to manage his affairs in such a manner, as to have at all times by him, besides the peculiar produce of his own industry, a certain quantity of some one commodity or other, such as he imagined that few people would be likely to refuse in exchange

      for the produce of their industry. 1 1

      So everyone will inevitably start stockpiling something they figure that everyone else is likely to want. This has a paradoxical effect, because at a certain point, rather than making that commodity less valuable (since everyone already has some) it becomes more valuable (because it becomes, effectively, currency) :


      Salt is said to be the common instrument of commerce and exchanges in Abyssinia; a species of shells in some parts of the coast of India; dried cod at Newfoundland; tobacco in Virginia; sugar in some of our West India colonies; hides or dressed leather in some other countries; and there is at this day a village in Scotland where it is not uncommon, I am told, for a workman to carry nails instead of money to the baker's shop or the ale-house. 1 2

      TH E MYTH O F BARTER 2 7


      Eventually, of course, at least for long-distance trade, it all boils down to precious metals, since these are ideally suited to serve as cur­ rency, being durable, portable, and able to be endlessly subdivided into identical portions.


      Different metals have been made use of by different nations for this purpose. Iron was the common instrument of com­ merce among the ancient Spartans; copper among the ancient Romans; and gold and silver among all rich and commercial nations.


      I I I I I


      Those metals seem originally to have been made use of for this purpose in rude bars, without any stamp or coinage . . .


      I I I I I


      The use of metals in this rude state was attended with two very considerable inconveniencies; first with the trouble of weigh­ ing; and, secondly, with that of assaying them. In the precious metals, where a small difference in the quantity makes a great difference in the value, even the business of weighing, with proper exactness, requires at least very accurate weights and

      scales. The weighing of gold in particular is an operation of some nicety 13


      It's easy to see where this is going. Using irregular metal ingots is easier than barter, but wouldn't standardizing the units-say, stamp­ ing pieces of metal with uniform designations guaranteeing weight and fineness, in different denominations-make things easier still? Clearly it would, and so was coinage born. True, issuing coinage meant govern­ ments had to get involved, since they generally ran the mints; but in the standard version of the story, governments have only this one limited role-to guarantee the money supply-and tend to do it badly, since throughout history, unscrupulous kings have often cheated by debasing the coinage and causing inflation and other sorts of political havoc in what was originally a matter of simple economic common sense.

      Tellingly, this story played a crucial role not only in founding the discipline of economics, but in the very idea that there was something called "the economy," which operated by its own rules, separate from moral or political life, that economists could take as their field of study.

      28 D E B T


      "The economy" is where we indulge in our natural propensity to truck and barter. We are still trucking and bartering. We always will be. Money is simply the most efficient means.

      Economists like Karl Menger and Stanley Jevons later improved on the details of the story, most of all by adding various mathemati­ cal equations to demonstrate that a random assortment of people with random desires could, in theory, produce not only a single commodity to use as money but a uniform price system. In the process, they also substituted all sorts of impressive technical vocabulary (i.e., "inconve­ niences" became "transaction costs"). The crucial thing, though, is that by now, this story has become simple common sense for most people. We teach it to children in schoolbooks and museums. Everybody knows it. "Once upon a time, there was barter. It was difficult. So people in­ vented money. Then came the development of banking and credit." It all forms a perfectly simple, straightforward progression, a process of increasing sophistication and abstraction that has carried humanity, logically and inexorably, from the Stone Age exchange of mastodon tusks to stock markets, hedge funds, and securitized derivatives. 1 4

      It really has become ubiquitous. Wherever we find money, we also find the story. At one point, in the town of Arivonimamo, in Madagas­ car, I had the privilege of interviewing a Kalanoro, a tiny ghostly crea­ ture that a local spirit medium claimed to keep hidden away in a chest in his home. The spirit belonged to the brother of a notorious local loan shark, a horrible woman named Nordine, and to be honest I was a bit reluctant to have anything to do with the family, but some of my friends insisted-since after all, this was a creature from ancient times. The creature spoke from behind a screen in an eerie, otherworldly qua­ ver. But all it was really interested in talking about was money. Finally, slightly exasperated by the whole charade, I asked, "So, what did you use for money back in ancient times, when you were still alive?"

      The mysterious voice immediately replied, "No. We didn't use money. In ancient times we used to barter commodities directly, one for the other . . . "


      I I I I I


      The story, then, is everywhere. It is the founding myth of our system of economic relations. It is so deeply established in common sense, even in places like Madagascar, that most people on earth couldn't imagine any other way that money possibly could have come about.

      The problem is there's no evidence that it ever happened, and an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that it did not.

      T H E M Y TH O F BARTER 29


      For centuries now, explorers have been trying to find this fabled land of barter-none with success. Adam Smith set his story in aborigi­ nal North America (others preferred Africa or the Pacific). In Smith's time, at least it could be said that reliable information on Native Amer­ ican economic systems was unavailable in Scottish libraries. But by mid-century, Lewis Henry Morgan's descriptions of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, among others, were widely published-and they made clear that the main economic institution among the Iroquois nations were longhouses where most goods were stockpiled and then allocated by women's councils, and no one ever traded arrowheads for slabs of meat. Economists simply ignored this information. 15 Stanley Jevons, for example, who in 1871 wrote what has come to be considered the classic book on the origins of money, took his examples straight from Smith, with Indians swapping venison for elk and beaver hides, and made no use of actual descriptions of Indian life that made it clear that Smith had simply made this up. Around that same time, missionaries, adventurers, and colonial administrators were fanning out across the world, many bringing copies of Smith's book with them, expecting to find the land of barter. None ever did. They discovered an almost end­ less variety of economic systems. But to this day, no one has been able to locate a part of the world where the ordinary mode of economic transaction between neighbors takes the form of "I'll give you twenty chickens for that cow."

      The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Hum­ phrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: "No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available eth­

      nography suggests that there never has been such a thing. " 16

      Now, all this hardly means that barter does not exist-or even that it's never practiced by the sort of people that Smith would refer to as "savages." It just means that it's almost never employed, as Smith imagined, between fellow villagers. Ordinarily, it takes place between strangers, even enemies. Let us begin with the Nambikwara of Brazil. They would seem to fit all the criteria: they are a simple society with­ out much in the way of division of labor, organized into small bands that traditionally numbered at best a hundred people each. Occasion­ ally if one band spots the cooking fires of another in their vicinity, they will send emissaries to negotiate a meeting for purposes of trade. If the offer is accepted, they will first hide their women and children in the forest, then invite the men of other band to visit camp. Each band has a chief; once everyone has been assembled, each chief gives a formal speech praising the other party and belittling his own; everyone puts

      30 DEBT


      aside their weapons to sing and dance together-though the dance is one that mimics military confrontation. Then, individuals from each side approach each other to trade:


      If an individual wants an object he extols it by saying how fine it is. If a man values an object and wants much in exchange for it, instead of saying that it is very valuable he says that it is no good, thus showing his desire to keep it. "This axe is no good, it is very old, it is very dull," he will say, referring to his axe which the other wants.

      This argument is carried on in an angry tone of voice un­ til a settlement is reached. When agreement has been reached each snatches the object out of the other's hand. If a man has bartered a necklace, instead of taking it off and handing it over, the other person must take it off with a show of force. Disputes, often leading to fights, occur when one party is a little premature and snatches the object before the other has finished arguing.17


      The whole business concludes with a great feast at which the wom­ en reappear, but this too can lead to problems, since amidst the music and good cheer, there is ample opportunity for seductions. 18 This some­ times led to jealous quarrels. Occasionally, people would get killed.

      Barter, then, for all the festive elements, was carried out be­ tween people who might otherwise be enemies and hovered about an inch away from outright warfare-and, if the ethnographer is to be believed-if one side later decided they had been taken advantage of, it could very easily lead to actual wars.

      To shift our spotlight halfway around the world to Western Am­ hem Land in Australia, where the Gunwinggu people are famous for entertaining neighbors in rituals of ceremonial barter called the dza­ malag. Here the threat of actual violence seems much more distant. Partly, this is because things are made easier by the existence of a moi­ ety system that embraces the whole region: no one is allowed to marry, or even have sex with, people of their own moiety, no matter where they come from, but anyone from the other is technically a potential match. Therefore, for a man, even in distant communities, half the women are strictly forbidden, half of them fair game. The region is also united by local specialization: each people has its own trade product to be bartered with the others.

      What follows is from a description of a dzamalag held in the 1940s, as observed by an anthropologist named Ronald Berndt.

      T H E MYTH O F BARTER 3 1


      Once again, it begins as strangers, after some initial negotiations, are invited into the hosts' main camp. The visitors in this particular example were famous for their "much-prized serrated spears"-their hosts had access to good European cloth. The trading begins when the visiting party, which consisted of both men and women, enters the camp's dancing ground of "ring place," and three of them began to entertain their hosts with music. Two men start singing, a third ac­ companies them on the didjeridu. Before long, women from the hosts' side come and attack the musicians:


      Men and women rise and begin to dance. The dzamalag opens when two Gunwinggu women of the opposite moiety to the singing men "give dzamalag" to the latter. They present each

      man with a piece of cloth, and hit or touch him, pulling him

      down on the ground, calling him a dzamalag husband, and joking with him in an erotic vein. Then another woman of the opposite moiety to the pipe player gives him cloth, hits and jokes with him.

      This sets in motion the dzamalag exchange. Men from the

      visiting group sit quietly while women of the opposite moiety come over and give them cloth, hit them, and invite them to copulate; they take any liberty they choose with the men, amid amusement and applause, while the singing and dancing con­ tinue. Women try to undo the men's loin coverings or touch

      their penises, and to drag them from the "ring place" for co­ itus. The men go with their dzamalag partners, with a show of reluctance, to copulate in the bushes away from the fires which

      light up the dancers. They may give the women tobacco or beads. When the women return, they give part of this tobacco

      to their own husbands, who have encouraged them to go dza­

      malag. The husbands, in turn, use the tobacco to pay their own female dzamalag partners 1 9


      New singers and musicians appear, are again assaulted and dragged off to the bushes; men encourage their wives "not to be shy," so as to maintain the Gunwinggu reputation for hospitality; eventually those men also take the initiative with the visitors' wives, offering cloth, hit­ ting them, and leading them off into the bushes. Beads and tobacco circulate. Finally, once participants have all paired off at least once, and the guests are satisfied with the cloth they have acquired, the women stop dancing and stand in two rows and the visitors line up to repay them.

      32 DEB T


      Then visltlng men of one moiety dance towards the women of the opposite moiety, in order to "give them dzamalag." They hold shovel-nosed spears poised, pretending to spear the

      women, but instead hit them with the flat of the blade. "We will not spear you, for we have already speared you with our penises." They present the spears to the women. Then visiting men of the other moiety go through the same actions with the women of their opposite moiety, giving them spears with ser­ rated points. This terminates the ceremony, which is followed by a large distribution of food.20


      This is a particularly dramatic case, but dramatic cases are reveal­ ing. What the Gunwinggu hosts appear to have been able to do here, owing to the relatively amicable relations between neighboring peoples in Western Arnhem Land, is to take all the elements in Nambikwara barter (the music and dancing, the potential hostility, the sexual in­ trigue) , and turn it all into a kind of festive game–one not, perhaps, without its dangers, but (as the ethnographer emphasizes) considered enormous fun by everyone concerned.

      What all such cases of trade through barter have in common is that they are meetings with strangers who will, likely as not, never meet again, and with whom one certainly will not enter into any ongoing re­ lations. This is why a direct one-on-one exchange is appropriate: each side makes their trade and walks away. It's all made possible by laying down an initial mantle of sociability, in the form of shared pleasures, music and dance–the usual base of conviviality on which trade must always be built. Then comes the actual trading, where both sides make a great display of the latent hostility that necessarily exists in any ex­ change of material goods between strangers-where neither party has no particular reason not to take advantage of the other-by playful mock aggression, though in the Nambikwara case, where the mantle of sociability is extremely thin, mock aggression is in constant danger of slipping over into the real thing. The Gunwinggu, with their more relaxed attitude toward sexuality, have quite ingeniously managed to make the shared pleasures and aggression into exactly the same thing. Recall here the language of the economics textbooks: "Imagine a society without money." "Imagine a barter economy." One thing these examples make abundantly clear is just how limited the imaginative

      powers of most economists turn out to be.21

      Why? The simplest answer would be: for there to even be a disci­ pline called "economics," a discipline that concerns itself first and fore­ most with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement

      T H E MYTH O F BARTER 33


      for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that, among peo­ ple like the Gunwinngu and the Nambikwara, simply does not exist. These divisions in turn are made possible by very specific institutional arrangements: the existence of lawyers, prisons, and police, to ensure that even people who don't like each other very much, who have no interest in developing any kind of ongoing relationship, but are simply interested in getting their hands on as much of the others' possessions as possible, will nonetheless refrain from the most obvious expedient (theft) . This in turn allows us to assume that life is neatly divided be­ tween the marketplace, where we do our shopping, and the "sphere of consumption," where we concern ourselves with music, feasts, and seduction. In other words, the vision of the world that forms the basis of the economics textbooks, which Adam Smith played so large a part in promulgating, has by now become so much a part of our common sense that we find it hard to imagine any other possible arrangement.

      From these examples, it begins to be clear why there are no societ­

      ies based on barter. Such a society could only be one in which every­ body was an inch away from everybody else's throat; but nonetheless hovering there, poised to strike but never actually striking, forever. True, barter does sometimes occur between people who do not consid­ er each other strangers, but they're usually people who might as well be strangers-that is, who feel no sense of mutual responsibility or trust, or the desire to develop ongoing relations. The Pukhtun of Northern Pakistan, for instance, are famous for their open-handed hospitality. Barter is what you do with those to whom you are not bound by ties of hospitality (or kinship, or much of anything else) :


      A favorite mode of exchange among men is barter, or adal­ badal (give and take) . Men are always on the alert for the possibility of bartering one of their possessions for something better. Often the exchange is like for like: a radio for a radio, sunglasses for sunglasses, a watch for a watch. However, un­ like objects can also be exchanged, such as, in one instance, a bicycle for two donkeys. Adal-badal is always practiced with non-relatives and affords men a great deal of pleasure as they attempt to get the advantage over their exchange partner. A good exchange, in which a man feels he has gotten the better of the deal, is cause for bragging and pride. If the exchange is bad, the recipient tries to renege on the deal or, failing that, to

      34 D E B T


      palm off the faulty object on someone unsuspecting. The best partner in adal-badal is someone who is distant spatially and will therefore have little opportunity to complain. 22


      Neither are such unscrupulous motives limited to Central Asia. They seem inherent to the very nature of barter-which would explain the fact that in the century or two before Smith's time, the English words "truck and barter," like their equivalents in French, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Portuguese, literally meant "to trick, bamboozle, or rip off. " 23 Swapping one thing directly for another while trying to

      get the best deal one can out of the transaction is, ordinarily, how one deals with people one doesn't care about and doesn't expect to see again. What reason is there not to try to take advantage of such a person? If, on the other hand, one cares enough about someone-a neighbor, a friend-to wish to deal with her fairly and honestly, one will inevitably also care about her enough to take her individual needs, desires, and situation into account. Even if you do swap one thing for another, you are likely to frame the matter as a gift.


      I I I I I


      To illustrate what I mean by this, let's return to the economics text­ books and the problem of the "double coincidence of wants." When we left Henry, he needed a pair of shoes, but all he had lying around were some potatoes. Joshua had an extra pair of shoes, but he didn't really need potatoes. Since money has not yet been invented, they have a problem. What are they to do?

      The first thing that should be clear by now is that we'd really have to know a bit more about Joshua and Henry. Who are they? Are they related? If so, how? They appear to live in a small community. Any two people who have been living their lives in the same small community will have some sort of complicated history with each other. Are they friends, rivals, allies, lovers, enemies, or several of these things at once?

      The authors of the original example seem to assume two neighbors of roughly equal status, not closely related, but on friendly terms-that is, as close to neutral equality as one can get. Even so, this doesn't say much. For example, if Henry was living in a Seneca longhouse, and needed shoes, Joshua would not even enter into it; he'd simply men­ tion it to his wife, who'd bring up the matter with the other matrons, fetch materials from the longhouse's collective storehouse, and sew him some. Alternately, to find a scenario fit for an imaginary economics

      T H E MYTH O F BARTER 35


      textbook, we might place Joshua and Henry together in a small, inti­ mate community like a Nambikwara or Gunwinggu band.


      SCENARIO 1

      Henry walks up to Joshua and says "Nice shoes!"

      Joshua says, "Oh, they're not much, but since you seem to like them, by all means take them."

      Henry takes the shoes.

      Henry's potatoes are not at issue since both parties are perfectly well aware that if Joshua were ever short of potatoes, Henry would give him some.


      And that's about it. Of course it's not clear, in this case, how long Henry will actually get to keep the shoes. It probably depends on how nice they are. If they were just ordinary shoes, this might be the end of the matter. If they are in any way unique or beautiful, they might end up being passed around. There's a famous story that John and Lorna Marshall, who carried out a study of Kalahari Bushmen in the '6os, once gave a knife to one of their favorite informants. They left and came back a year later, only to discover that pretty much everyone in the band had been in possession of the knife at some point in between. On the other hand, several Arab friends confirm to me that in less strictly egalitarian contexts, there is an expedient. If a friend praises a bracelet or bag, you are normally expected to immediately say "take it"-but if you are really determined to hold on to it, you can always say, "yes, isn't it beautiful? It was a gift."

      But clearly, the authors of the textbook have a slightly more im­ personal transaction in mind. The authors seem to imagine the two men as the heads of patriarchal households, on good terms with each other, but who keep their own supplies. Perhaps they live in one of those Scottish villages with the butcher and the baker in Adam Smith's examples, or a colonial settlement in New England. Except for some reason they've never heard of money. It's a peculiar fantasy, but let's see what we can do:


      SCENARIO 2

      Henry walks up to Joshua and says, "Nice shoes!"

      Or, perhaps-let's make this a bit more realistic-Henry's wife is chatting with Joshua's and strategically lets slip that the state of Henry's shoes is getting so bad he's complaining about corns.

      36 D E B T


      The message is conveyed, and Joshua comes by the next day to offer his extra pair to Henry as a present, insisting that this is just a neighborly gesture. He would certainly never want anything in return.

      It doesn't matter whether Joshua is sincere in saying this. By do­ ing so, Joshua thereby registers a credit. Henry owes him one.

      How might Henry pay Joshua back ? There are endless possi­ bilities. Perhaps Joshua really does want potatoes. Henry waits a discrete interval and drops them off, insisting that this too is just a gift. Or Joshua doesn't need potatoes now but Henry waits until he does. Or maybe a year later, Joshua is planning a banquet, so he comes strolling by Henry's barnyard and says "Nice pig . . . "


      In any of these scenarios, the problem of "double coincidence of wants," so endlessly invoked in the economics textbooks, simply disap­ pears. Henry might not have something Joshua wants right now. But if the two are neighbors, it's obviously only a matter of time before he will.24

      This in turn means that the need to stockpile commonly acceptable items in the way that Smith suggested disappears as well. With it goes the need to develop currency . As with so many actual small communi­ ties, everyone simply keeps track of who owes what to whom.

      There is just one major conceptual problem here-one the atten­ tive reader might have noticed . Henry "owes Joshua one." One what? How do you quantify a favor? On what basis do you say that this many potatoes, or this big a pig, seems more or less equivalent to a pair of shoes ? Because even if these things remain rough-and-ready ap­ proximations, there must be some way to establish that X is roughly equivalent to Y, or slightly worse or slightly better. Doesn't this imply that something like money, at least in the sense of a unit of accounts by which one can compare the value of different obj ects, already has to exist?

      In most gift economies, there actually is a rough-and-ready way to solve the problem. One establishes a series of ranked categories of types of thing. Pigs and shoes may be considered objects of roughly equivalent status, one can give one in return for the other; coral neck­

      laces are quite another matter, one would have to give back another necklace, or at least another piece of jewelry-anthropologists are used to referring to these as creating different "spheres of This does simplify things somewhat. When cross-cultural barter becomes a regular and unexceptional thing, it tends to operate according to simi­ lar principles: there are only certain things traded for certain others

      T H E MYTH O F BARTER 37


      (cloth for spears, for example) , which makes it easy to work out tra­ ditional equivalences. However, this doesn't help us at all with the problem of the origin of money. Actually, it makes it infinitely worse. Why stockpile salt or gold or fish if they can only be exchanged for some things and not others?

      In fact, there is good reason to believe that barter is not a par­ ticularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become wide­ spread in modern times. Certainly in most of the cases we know about, it takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don't have a lot of it around. Elaborate barter systems often crop up in the wake of the collapse of national economies: most recently in Russia in the '9os, and in Argentina around 2002, when rubles in the first case, and dollars in the second, effectively disappeared.26 Occasionally one can even find some kind of currency beginning to develop: for instance, in POW camps and many prisons, inmates have indeed been known to use cigarettes as a kind of cur­ rency, much to the delight and excitement of professional economists.27 But here too we are talking about people who grew up using money and now have to make do without it-exactly the situation "imagined" by the economics textbooks with which I began.

      The more frequent solution is to adopt some sort of credit system. When much of Europe "reverted to barter" after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and then again after the Carolingian Empire likewise fell apart, this seems to be what happened. People continued keeping accounts in the old imperial currency, even if they were no longer us­ ing coins.28 Similarly, the Pukhtun men who like to swap bicycles for donkeys are hardly unfamiliar with the use of money. Money has ex­ isted in that part of the world for thousands of years. They just prefer direct exchange between equals-in this case, because they consider it more manly.29

      The most remarkable thing is that even in Adam Smith's examples of fish and nails and tobacco being used as money, the same sort of thing was happening. In the years following the appearance of The Wealth of Nations, scholars checked into most of those examples and discovered that in just about every case, the people involved were quite

      familiar with the use of money, and in fact, were using money-as a unit of account.30 Take the example of dried cod, supposedly used as money in Newfoundland. As the British diplomat A. Mitchell-Innes pointed out almost a century ago, what Smith describes was really an illusion, created by a simple credit arrangement:

      38 D E B T


      In the early days of the Newfoundland fishing industry, there was no permanent European population; the fishers went there for the fishing season only, and those who were not fishers were traders who bought the dried fish and sold to the fishers their daily supplies. The latter sold their catch to the traders at the market price in pounds, shillings and pence, and obtained in return a credit on their books, with which they paid for their supplies. Balances due by the traders were paid for by drafts on England or France.31


      It was quite the same in the Scottish village. It's not as if anyone actually walked into the local pub, plunked down a roofing nail, and asked for a pint of beer. Employers in Smith's day often lacked coin to pay their workers; wages could be delayed by a year or more; in the meantime, it was considered acceptable for employees to carry off either some of their own products or leftover work materials, lumber, fabric, cord, and so on. The nails were de facto interest on what their employers owed them. So they went to the pub, ran up a tab, and when occasion permitted, brought in a bag of nails to charge off against the debt. The law making tobacco legal tender in Virginia seems to have been an attempt by planters to oblige local merchants to accept their products as a credit around harvest time. In effect, the law forced all merchants in Virginia to become middlemen in the tobacco business, whether they liked it or not; just as all West Indian merchants were obliged to become sugar dealers, since that's what all their wealthier customers brought in to write off against their debt.

      The primary examples, then, were ones in which people were improvising credit systems, because actual money-gold and silver coinage-was in short supply. But the most shocking blow to the con­ ventional version of economic history came with the translation, first of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and then of Mesopotamian cuneiform, which pushed back scholars' knowledge of written history almost three mil­ lennia, from the time of Homer (circa 8oo Be) , where it had hovered in

      Smith's time, to roughly 3500 BC. What these texts revealed was that

      credit systems of exactly this sort actually preceded the invention of coinage by thousands of years.

      The Mesopotamian system is the best-documented, more so than that of Pharaonic Egypt (which appears similar) , Shang China (about which we know little) , or the Indus Valley civilization (about which we know nothing at all) . As it happens, we know a great deal about Mesopotamia, since the vast maj ority of cuneiform documents were financial in nature.

      TH E MYTH O F BARTER 39


      The Sumerian economy was dominated by vast temple and palace complexes. These were often staffed by thousands: priests and officials, craftspeople who worked in their industrial workshops, farmers and shepherds who worked their considerable estates. Even though ancient Sumer was usually divided into a large number of independent city­

      states, by the time the curtain goes up on Mesopotamian civilization around 3500, temple administrators already appear to have developed a single, uniform system of accountancy-one that is in some ways still with us, actually, because it's to the Sumerians that we owe such things as the dozen or the 24-hour day.32 The basic monetary unit was the silver shekel. One shekel's weight in silver was established as the equivalent of one gur, or bushel of barley. A shekel was subdivided into 6o minas, corresponding to one portion of barley-on the prin­ ciple that there were 30 days in a month, and Temple workers received two rations of barley every day. It's easy to see that "money" in this

      sense is in no way the product of commercial transactions. It was ac­ tually created by bureaucrats in order to keep track of resources and move things back and forth between departments.

      Temple bureaucrats used the system to calculate debts (rents, fees, loans . . . ) in silver. Silver was, effectively, money. And it did indeed circulate in the form of unworked chunks, "rude bars" as Smith had put it.33 In this he was right. But it was almost the only part of his ac­ count that was right. One reason was that silver did not circulate very much. Most of it just sat around in Temple and Palace treasuries, some of which remained, carefully guarded, in the same place for literally thousands of years. It would have been easy enough to standardize the ingots, stamp them, create some authoritative system to guarantee their purity. The technology existed. Yet no one saw any particular need to

      do so. One reason was that while debts were calculated in silver, they did not have to be paid in silver-in fact, they could be paid in more or less anything one had around. Peasants who owed money to the Temple or Palace, or to some Temple or Palace official, seem to have settled their debts mostly in barley, which is why fixing the ratio of sil­ ver to barley was so important. But it was perfectly acceptable to show up with goats, or furniture, or lapis lazuli. Temples and Palaces were

      huge industrial operations-they could find a use for almost anything.34 In the marketplaces that cropped up in Mesopotamian cities, pric­

      es were also calculated in silver, and the prices of commodities that weren't entirely controlled by the Temples and Palaces would tend to fluctuate according to supply and demand . But even here, such evidence as we have suggests that most transactions were based on credit. Mer­ chants (who sometimes worked for the Temples, sometimes operated

      40 DEB T


      independently) were among the few people who did, often, actually use silver in transactions; but even they mostly did much of their dealings on credit, and ordinary people buying beer from "ale women," or lo­ cal innkeepers, once again, did so by running up a tab, to be settled at harvest time in barley or anything they might have had at hand.35

      At this point, just about every aspect of the conventional story of the origins of money lay in rubble. Rarely has an historical theory been so absolutely and systematically refuted. By the early decades of the twentieth century, all the pieces were in place to completely rewrite the history of money. The groundwork was laid by Mitchell-Innes­

      the same one I've already cited on the matter of the cod-in two essays that appeared in New York's Banking Law Journal in 1913 and 1914. In these, Mitchell-Innes matter-of-factly laid out the false assumptions on which existing economic history was based and suggested that what was really needed was a history of debt:


      One of the popular fallacies in connection with commerce is that in modern days a money-saving device has been intro­ duced called credit and that, before this device was known, all, purchases were paid for in cash, in other words in coins. A careful investigation shows that the precise reverse is true. In olden days coins played a far smaller part in commerce than they do to-day. Indeed so small was the quantity of coins, that they did not even suffice for the needs of the [Medieval Eng­

      lish] Royal household and estates which regularly used tokens of various kinds for the purpose of making small payments. So unimportant indeed was the coinage that sometimes Kings did not hesitate to call it all in for re-minting and re-issue and still commerce went on just the same.36


      In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of acciden­ tal byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

      The curious thing is that it never happened. This new history was

      never written. It's not that any economist has ever refuted Mitchell-Innes. They just ignored him. Textbooks did not change their story–even if

      T H E M Y TH O F BARTER 41

      all the evidence made clear that the story was simply wrong. People still write histories of money that are actually histories of coinage, on the assumption that in the past, these were necessarily the same thing; periods when coinage largely vanished are still described as times when the economy "reverted to barter," as if the meaning of this phrase is self-evident, even though no one actually knows what it means. As a

      result we have next-to-no idea how, say, the inhabitant of a Dutch town in 950 AD actually went about acquiring cheese or spoons or hir­ ing musicians to play at his daughter's wedding-let alone how any of this was likely to be arranged in Pemba or Samarkand.17


      Chapte r Th ree PRIMOR DIAL DEBTS


      In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers and to men. If one makes a sac­ rifice, it is because of a debt owing to th e gods from birth . . . If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing

      to the saints . . . If one wishes for off­ spring, it is because of a debt due to the fathers from birth . . . And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt ow­ ing to men.

      -Satapatha Brahmana 1.7.12, r-6


      Let us drive away the evil effects of bad dreams, just as we pay off debts.

      -Rig Veda 8-47·17


      THE REASON THAT economics textbooks now begin with imaginary villages is because it has been impossible to talk about real ones. Even some economists have been forced to admit that Smith's Land of Barter doesn't really exist. 1

      The question is why the myth has been perpetuated, anyway. Economists have long since jettisoned other elements of The Wealth of Nations-for instance, Smith's labor theory of value and disapproval of joint-stock corporations. Why not simply write off the myth of bar­ ter as a quaint Enlightenment parable, and instead attempt to under­ stand primordial credit arrangements-or anyway, something more in keeping with the historical evidence?

      The answer seems to be that the Myth of Barter cannot go away, because it is central to the entire discourse of economics.

      44 D E BT


      Recall here what Smith was trying to do when he wrote The Wealth of Nations. Above all, the book was an attempt to establish the newfound discipline of economics as a science. This meant that not only did economics have its own peculiar domain of study-what we

      now call "the economy," though the idea that there even was some­ thing called an "economy" was very new in Smith's day-but that this economy operated according to laws of much the same sort as Sir Isaac Newton had so recently identified as governing the physical world. Newton had represented God as a cosmic watchmaker who had created the physical machinery of the universe in such a way that it would operate for the ultimate benefit of humans, and then let it run on its own. Smith was trying to make a similar, Newtonian argument.2 God-or Divine Providence, as he put it-had arranged matters in such a way that our pursuit of self-interest would nonetheless, given an unfettered market, be guided "as if by an invisible hand" to promote the general welfare. Smith's famous invisible hand was, as he says in

      his Theory of Moral Sentiments, the agent of Divine Providence. It was

      literally the hand of God.3

      Once economics had been established as a discipline, the theological arguments no longer seemed necessary or important. People continue to argue about whether an unfettered free market really will produce the results that Smith said it would; but no one questions whether "the market" naturally exists. The underlying assumptions that derive from this came to be seen as common sense-so much so that, as I've noted, we simply assume that when valuable objects do change hands, it will normally be because two individuals have both decided they would gain a material advantage by swapping them. One interesting corollary is that, as a result, economists have come to see the very question of the presence or absence of money as not especially important, since money is just a commodity, chosen to facilitate exchange, and which we use to measure the value of other commodities . Otherwise, it has no

      special qualities. Still, in 1958, Paul Samuelson, one of the leading lights

      of the neoclassical school that still predominates in modern economic thought, could express disdain for what he called "the social contriv­ ance of money." "Even in the most advanced industrial economies," he insisted, "if we strip exchange down to its barest essentials and peel off the obscuring layer of money, we find that trade between individuals and nations largely boils down to barter."4 Others spoke of a "veil of money" obscuring the nature of the "real economy" in which people produced real goods and services and swapped them back and forth .5

      Call this the final apotheosis of economics as common sense. Money is unimportant. Economies-"real economies"-are really vast

      P R I M O R DIAL D E B TS 45


      barter systems. The problem is that history shows that without money, such vast barter systems do not occur. Even when economies "revert to barter," as Europe was said to do in the Middle Ages, they don't actu­ ally abandon the use of money. They just abandon the use of cash. In the Middle Ages, for instance, everyone continued to assess the value of tools and livestock in the old Roman currency, even if the coins themselves had ceased to circulate.6

      It's money that had made it possible for us to imagine ourselves in the way economists encourage us to do: as a collection of individuals and nations whose main business is swapping things. It's also clear that the mere existence of money, in itself, is not enough to allow us see the world this way. If it were, the discipline of economics would have been created in ancient Sumer, or anyway, far earlier than 1776, when Adam

      Smith's The Wealth of Nations appeared.

      The missing element is in fact exactly the thing Smith was at­ tempting to downplay: the role of government policy. In England, in Smith's day, it became possible to see the market, the world of butch­ ers, ironmongers, and haberdashers, as its own entirely independent sphere of human activity because the British government was actively engaged in fostering it. This required laws and police, but also, specific monetary policies, which liberals like Smith were (successfully) advo­ cating.7 It required pegging the value of the currency to silver, but at the same time greatly increasing the money supply, and particularly the amount of small change in circulation. This not only required huge amounts of tin and copper, but also the careful regulation of the

      banks that were, at that time, the only source of paper money. The century before The Wealth of Nations had seen at least two attempts to create state-supported central banks, in France and Sweden, that had proven to be spectacular failures. In each case, the would-be cen­ tral bank issued notes based largely on speculation that collapsed the moment investors lost faith. Smith supported the use of paper money, but like Locke before him, he also believed that the relative success

      of the Bank of England and Bank of Scotland had been due to their policy of pegging paper money firmly to precious metals. This became the mainstream economic view, so much so that alternative theories of money as credit-the one that Mitchell-Innes advocated-were quickly relegated to the margins, their proponents written off as cranks, and the very sort of thinking that led to bad banks and speculative bubbles in the first place·.

      It might be helpful, then, to consider what these alternative theo­ ries actually were.

      46 D E B T


      State and Cred it Theories of Mo ney


      Mitchell-Innes was an exponent of what came to be known as the Credit Theory of money, a position that over the course of the nine­ teenth century had its most avid proponents not in Mitchell-Innes's native Britain but in the two up-and-coming rival powers of the day, the United States and Germany. Credit Theorists insisted that money is not a commodity but an accounting tool. In other words, it is not a "thing" at all. You can no more touch a dollar or a deutschmark than you can touch an hour or a cubic centimeter. Units of currency are merely abstract units of measurement, and as the credit theorists cor­ rectly noted, historically, such abstract systems of accounting emerged long before the use of any particular token of exchange.8

      The obvious next question is: If money is a just a yardstick, what then does it measure? The answer was simple: debt. A coin is, effec­ tively, an IOU. Whereas conventional wisdom holds that a banknote is, or should be, a promise to pay a certain amount of "real money" (gold, silver, whatever that might be taken to mean), Credit Theorists argued that a banknote is simply the promise to pay something of the same value as an ounce of gold. But that's all that money ever is. There's no fundamental difference in this respect between a silver dollar, a Susan B. Anthony dollar coin made of a copper-nickel alloy designed to look vaguely like gold, a green piece of paper with a picture of George Washington on it, or a digital blip on some bank's computer.

      Conceptually, the idea that a piece of gold is really just an IOU is always rather difficult to wrap one's head around, but something like this must be true, because even when gold and silver coins were in use, they almost never circulated at their bullion value.

      How could credit money come about? Let us return to the econom­ ics professors' imaginary town. Say, for example, that Joshua were to give his shoes to Henry, and, rather than Henry owing him a fa­ vor, Henry promises him something of equivalent value.9 Henry gives Joshua an IOU. Joshua could wait for Henry to have something use­ ful, and then redeem it. In that case Henry would rip up the IOU and the story would be over. But say Joshua were to pass the IOU on to a third party-Sheila-to whom he owes something else. He could tick it off against his debt to a fourth party, Lola-now Henry will owe that amount to her. Hence is money born. Because there's no logical end to it. Say Sheila now wishes to acquire a pair of shoes from Edith; she can just hand Edith the IOU, and assure her that Henry is good for it. In principle, there's no reason that the IOU could not continue

      P R I M O R D I AL D E BTS 47


      circulating around town for years-provided people continue to have faith in Henry. In fact, if it goes on long enough, people might forget about the issuer entirely. Things like this do happen . The anthropolo­ gist Keith Hart once told me a story about his brother, who in the 'sos was a British soldier stationed in Hong Kong. Soldiers used to pay their bar tabs by writing checks on accounts back in England . Local mer­ chants would often simply endorse them over to each other and pass them around as currency: once, he saw one of his own checks, written six months before, on the counter of a local vendor covered with about forty different tiny inscriptions in Chinese.

      What credit theorists like Mitchell-Innes were arguing is that even if Henry gave Joshua a gold coin instead of a piece of paper, the situ­ ation would be essentially the same. A gold coin is a promise to pay something else of equivalent value to a gold coin. After all, a gold coin is not actually useful in itself. One only accepts it because one assumes other people will.

      In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one's trust in other human beings.

      This element of trust of course makes everything more compli­ cated. Early banknotes circulated via a process almost exactly like

      �hat I've just described, except that, like the Chinese merchants, each recipient added his or her signature to guarantee the debt's legitimacy. But generally, the difficulty in the Chartalist position-this is what it came to be called, from the Latin charta, or token-is to establish why people would continue to trust a piece of paper. After all, why couldn't anyone just sign Henry's name on an IOU? True, this sort of debt-token system might work within a small village where every­ one knew one another, or even among a more dispersed community

      like sixteenth-century Italian or twentieth-century Chinese merchants, where everyone at least had ways of keeping track of everybody else. But systems like these cannot create a full-blown currency system, and there's no evidence that they ever have. Providing a sufficient number of IOUs to allow everyone even in a medium-sized city to be able to carry out a significant portion of their daily transactions in such cur­ rency would require millions of tokens. 10 To be able to guarantee all of them, Henry would have to be almost unimaginably rich.

      All this would be much less of a problem, however, if Henry were, say, Henry II, King of England, Duke of Normandy, Lord of Ireland, and Count of Anjou.

      The real impetus for the Chartalist position, in fact, came out of what came to be known as the "German Historical School," whose

      48 D E B T


      most famous exponent was the historian G.F. Knapp, whose State Theory of Money first appeared in 1905.11 If money is simply a unit of measure, it makes sense that emperors and kings should concern themselves with such matters. Emperors and kings are almost always concerned to established uniform systems of weights and measures throughout their kingdoms. It is also true, as Knapp observed, that

      once established, such systems tend to remain remarkably stable over time. During the reign of the actual Henry II (1154-1189) , just about everyone in Western Europe was still keeping their accounts using the monetary system established by Charlemagne some 350 years earlier­ that is, using pounds, shillings, and pence-espite the fact that some of these coins had never existed (Charlemagne never actually struck a silver pound) , none of Charlemagne's actual shillings and pence re­ mained in circulation, and those coins that did circulate tended to vary enormously in size, weight, purity, and valueY According to the Chartalists, this doesn't really matter. What matters is that there is a uniform system for measuring credits and debts, and that this system remains stable over time. The case of Charlemagne's currency is par­ ticularly dramatic because his actual empire dissolved quite quickly, but the monetary system he created continued to be used, for keeping accounts, within his former territories for more than 8oo years. It was referred to, in the sixteenth century, quite explicitly as "imaginary money," and derniers and livres were only completely abandoned, as units of account, around the time of the French Revolution Y

      According to Knapp, whether or not the actual, physical money stuff in circulation corresponds to this "imaginary money" is not par­ ticularly important. It makes no real difference whether it's pure sil­ ver, debased silver, leather tokens, or dried cod-provided the state is willing to accept it in payment of taxes. Because whatever the state was willing to accept, for that reason, became currency. One of the most important forms of currency in England in Henry's time were notched "tally sticks" used to record debts. Tally sticks were quite explicitly IOUs: both parties to a transaction would take a hazelwood twig, notch it to indicate the amount owed, and then split it in half. The creditor would keep one half, called "the stock" (hence the origin of the term "stock holder") and the debtor kept the other, called "the stub" (hence the origin of the term "ticket stub.") Tax assessors used such twigs to calculate amounts owed by local sheriffs. Often, though, rather than wait for the taxes to come due, Henry's exchequer would often sell the tallies at a discount, and they would circulate, as tokens of debt owed to the government, to anyone willing to trade for them.14

      P R I M O R D IAL D E BTS 49


      Modern banknotes actually work on a similar principle, except in reverseY Recall here the little parable about Henry's IOU. The reader might have noticed one puzzling aspect of the equation : the IOU can operate as money only as long as Henry never pays his debt. In fact this is precisely the logic on which the Bank of England-the first successful modern central bank-was originally founded . In 1694, a consortium

      of English bankers made a loan of £1 ,2oo,ooo to the king. In return

      they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to advance IOUs for a portion of the money the king now owed them to any inhabitant of the kingdom willing to borrow from them, or willing to deposit their own money in the bank-in effect, to circulate or "monetize" the newly

      created royal debt. This was a great deal for the bankers (they got to charge the king 8 percent annual interest for the original loan and simultaneously charge interest on the same money to the clients who borrowed it) , but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it ever were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist. 16

      If nothing else, this approach helps solve one of the obvious mys­ teries of the fiscal policy of so many early kingdoms: Why did they make subjects pay taxes at all ? This is not a question we're used to asking. The answer seems self-evident. Governments demand taxes be­ cause they wish to get their hands on people's money. But if Smith was right, and gold and silver became money through the natural workings of the market completely independently of governments, then wouldn't the obvious thing be to just grab control of the gold and silver mines ? Then the king would have all the money he could possibly need. In fact, this is what ancient kings would normally do. If there were gold and silver mines in their territory, they would usually take control of them. So what exactly was the point of extracting the gold, stamping one's picture on it, causing it to circulate among one's subjects-and then demanding that those same subjects give it back again ?

      This does seem a bit of a puzzle. But if money and markets do not emerge spontaneously, it actually makes perfect sense. Because this is the simplest and most efficient way to bring markets into being. Let us take a hypothetical example. Say a king wishes to support a stand­ ing army of fifty thousand men . Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem-unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and ani­ mals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions.17 On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and

      50 DEB T


      then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one's entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.

      This is a bit of a cartoon version, but it is very clear that markets did spring up around ancient armies; one need only take a glance at Kautilya's Arthasasatra, the Sassanian "circle of sovereignty," or the Chinese "Discourses on Salt and Iron" to discover that most ancient rulers spent a great deal of their time thinking about the relation be­ tween mines, soldiers, taxes, and food. Most concluded that the cre­ ation of markets of this sort was not just convenient for feeding sol­ diers, but useful in all sorts of ways, since it meant officials no longer had to requisition everything they needed directly from the populace, or figure out a way to produce it on royal estates or royal workshops. In other words, despite the dogged liberal assumption-again, com­ ing from Smith's legacy-that the existence of states and markets are somehow opposed, the historical record implies that exactly the op­ posite is the case. Stateless societies tend also to be without markets.

      As one might imagine, state theories of money have always been anathema to mainstream economists working in the tradition of Adam Smith. In fact, Chartalism has tended to be seen as a populist underside of economic theory, favored mainly by cranks.18 The curious thing is that the mainstream economists often ended up actually working for governments and advising such governments to pursue policies much like those the Chartalists described-that is, tax policies designed to create markets where they had not existed before-despite the fact that they were in theory committed to Smith's argument that markets develop spontaneously of their own accord.

      This was particularly true in the colonial world. To return to Mad­ agascar for a moment: I have already mentioned that one of the first things that the French general Gallieni, conqueror of Madagascar, did when the conquest of the island was complete in 1901 was to impose a head tax. Not only was this tax quite high, it was also only payable in newly issued Malagasy francs. In other words, Gallieni did indeed print money and then demand that everyone in the country give some of that money back to him.

      Most striking of all, though, was language he used to describe this tax. It was referred to as the "imp6t moralisateur," the "educational" or "moralizing tax." In other words, it was designed-to adopt the

      P R I M O R DIAL D E BTS 5 1


      language of the day-to teach the natives the value of work. Since the "educational tax" came due shortly after harvest time, the easiest way for farmers to pay it was to sell a portion of their rice crop to the Chinese or Indian merchants who soon installed themselves in small towns across the country. However, harvest was when the market price of rice was, for obvious reasons, at its lowest; if one sold too much of one's crop, that meant one would not have enough left to feed one's family for the entire year, and thus be forced to buy one's own rice back, on credit, from those same merchants later in the year when prices were much higher. As a result, farmers quickly fell hope­ lessly into debt (the merchants doubling as loan sharks) . The easiest ways to pay back the debt was either to find some kind of cash crop to sell-to start growing coffee, or pineapples–or else to send one's children off to work for wages in the city, or on one of the plantations that French colonists were establishing across the island. The whole project might seem no more than a cynical scheme to squeeze cheap labor out of the peasantry, and it was that, but it was also something more. The colonial government was were also quite explicit (at least in their own internal policy documents) , about the need to make sure that peasants had at least some money of their own left over, and to ensure that they became accustomed to the minor luxuries-parasols, lipstick, cookies-available at the Chinese shops. It was crucial that they develop new tastes, habits, and expectations; that they lay the foundations of a consumer demand that would endure long after the conquerors had left, and keep Madagascar forever tied to France.

      Most people are not stupid, and most Malagasy understood ex­ actly what their conquerors were trying to do to them. Some were determined to resist. More than sixty years after the invasion, a French anthropologist, Gerard Althabe, was able to observe villages on the east coast of the island whose inhabitants would dutifully show up at the coffee plantations to earn the money for their poll tax, and then, having paid it, studiously ignore the wares for sale at the local shops and instead turn over any remaining money to lineage elders, who would then use it to buy cattle for sacrifice to their ancestors.19 Many were quite open in saying that they saw themselves as resisting a trap. Still, such defiance rarely lasts forever. Markets did gradually take shape, even in those parts of the island where none had previously existed. With them came the inevitable network of little shops. And by the time I got there, in 1990, a generation after the poll tax had finally been abolished by a revolutionary government, the logic of the market had become so intuitively accepted that even spirit mediums were recit­

      ing passages that might as well have come from Adam Smith.

      52 D E B T


      Such examples could be multiplied endlessly. Something like this occurred in just about every part of the world conquered by European arms where markets were not already in place. Rather than discovering barter, they ended up using the very techniques that mainstream eco­ nomics rejected to bring something like the market into being.


      In Sea rch of a M yth


      Anthropologists have been complaining about the Myth of Barter for almost a century. Occasionally, economists point out with slight ex­ asperation that there's a fairly simple reason why they're still telling the same story despite all the evidence against it: anthropologists have never come up with a better one.10 This is an understandable objection, but there's a simple answer to it. The reasons why anthropologists haven't been able to come up with a simple, compelling story for the origins of money is because there's no reason to believe there could be one. Money was no more ever "invented" than music or mathematics or jewelry. What we call "money" isn't a "thing" at all, it's a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions: of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y. As such it is probably as old as human thought. The moment we try to get any more specific, we discover that there are any number of different habits and practices that have converged in the stuff we now call "money," and this is precisely the reason why economists, historians, and the rest have found it so difficult to come up with a single definition.

      Credit Theorists have long been hobbled by the lack of an equally compelling narrative. This is not to say that all sides in the currency debates that ranged between 1850 and 1950 were not in the habit of deploying mythological weaponry. This was true particularly, perhaps, in the United States. In 1894, the Greenbackers, who pushed for de­ taching the dollar from gold entirely to allow the government to spend freely on job-creation campaigns, invented the idea of the March on Washington-an idea that was to have endless resonance in U.S. his­ tory. L. Frank Baum's book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which ap­ peared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who twice ran for president on the Free Silver platform-vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold_ll As with the Greenbackers, one of the main constitu­ encies for the movement was debtors: particularly, Midwestern farm

      P R I M O R D I A L D E B TS 53


      families such as Dorothy's, who had been facing a massive wave of foreclosures during the severe recession of the 189os. According to the Populist reading, the Wicked Witches of the East and West represent the East and West Coast bankers (promoters of and benefactors from the tight money supply) , the Scarecrow represented the farmers (who didn't have the brains to avoid the debt trap) , the Tin Woodsman was the industrial proletariat (who didn't have the heart to act in solidarity with the farmers), the Cowardly Lion represented the political class (who didn't have the courage to intervene). The yellow brick road, silver slippers, emerald city, and hapless Wizard presumably speak for themselves. 22 "Oz" is of course the standard abbreviation for "ounce. "23 As an attempt to create a new myth, Baum's story was remarkably ef­ fective. As political propaganda, less so. William Jennings Bryan failed

      in three attempts to win the presidency, the silver standard was never adopted, and few nowadays even remember what The Wonderful Wiz­ ard of Oz was originally supposed to be about.24

      For state-money theorists in particular, this has been a problem. Stories about rulers using taxes to create markets in conquered territo­ ries, or to pay for soldiers or other state functions, are not particularly inspiring. German ideas of money as the embodiment of national will did not travel very well.

      Every time there was a major economic meltdown, however, con­ ventional laissez-faire economics took another hit. The Bryan cam­ paigns were born as a reaction to the Panic of 1893. By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the very notion that the market could regulate itself, so long as the government ensured that money was safe­ ly pegged to precious metals, was completely discredited. From roughly 1933 to 1979, every major capitalist government reversed course and adopted some version of Keynesianism. Keynesian orthodoxy started from the assumption that capitalist markets would not really work unless capitalist governments were willing effectively to play nanny: most famously, by engaging in massive deficit "pump-priming" during downturns. While in the '8os, Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ron­ ald Reagan in the United States made a great show of rejecting all of this, it's unclear how much they really did.25 And in any case, they were operating in the wake of an even greater blow to previous monetary orthodoxy: Richard Nixon's decision in 1971 to unpeg the dollar from precious metals entirely, eliminate the international gold standard, and introduce the system of floating currency regimes that has dominated the world economy ever since. This meant in effect that all national currencies were henceforth, as neoclassical economists like to put it, " fiat money" backed only by the public trust.

      54 D E B T


      Now, John Maynard Keynes himself was much more open to what he liked to call the "alternative tradition" of credit and state theories than any economist of that stature (and Keynes is still arguably the sin­ gle most important economic thinker of the twentieth century) before or since. At certain points he immersed himself in it: he spent several years in the 1920s studying Mesopotamian cuneiform banking records to try to ascertain the origins of money-his "Babylonian madness, "

      as he would later call it.26 His conclusion, which he set forth at the very beginning of his Treatise on Money, his most famous work, was more or less the only conclusion one could come to if one started not from first principles, but from a careful examination of the historical record: that the lunatic fringe was, essentially, right. Whatever its earli­ est origins, for the last four thousand years, money has been effectively

      a creature of the state. Individuals, he observed, make contracts with one another. They take out debts, and they promise payment.


      The State, therefore, comes in first of all as the authority of law which enforces the payment of the thing which corresponds to the name or description in the contract. But it comes doubly when, in addition, it claims the right to determine and declare what thing corresponds to the name, and to vary its declara­ tion from time to time-when, that is to say it claims the right to re-edit the dictionary. This right is claimed by all modern

      States and has been so claimed for some four thousand years at least. It is when this stage in the evolution of Money has been reached that Knapp's Chartalism-the doctrine that mon­ ey is peculiarly a creation of the State-is fully realized . . . To-day all civilized money is, beyond the possibility of dispute, chartalist. 27


      This does not mean that the state necessarily creates money. Mon­ ey is credit, it can be brought into being by private contractual agree­ ments (loans, for instance) . The state merely enforces the agreement and dictates the legal terms. Hence Keynes' next dramatic assertion: that banks create money, and that there is no intrinsic limit to their ability to do so: since however much they lend, the borrower will have no choice but to put the money back into some bank again, and thus, from the perspective of the banking system as a whole, the total number of debits and credits will always cancel out.28 The implications were radical, but Keynes himself was not. In the end, he was always careful to frame the problem in a way that could be reintegrated into the mainstream economics of his day.

      P R I M O R D I AL D E BTS 55


      Neither was Keynes much of a mythmaker. Insofar as the alterna­ tive tradition has come up with an answer to the Myth of Barter, it was not from Keynes' own efforts (Keynes ultimately decided that the origins of money were not particularly important) but in the work of some contemporary neo-Keynesians, who were not afraid to follow some of his more radical suggestions as far as they would go.

      The real weak link in state-credit theories of money was always the element of taxes. It is one thing to explain why early states demanded taxes (in order to create markets.) It's another to ask "by what right?" Assuming that early rulers were not simply thugs, and that taxes were not simply extortion-and no Credit Theorist, to my knowledge, took such a cynical view even of early government-one must ask how they justified this sort of thing.

      Nowadays, we all think we know the answer to this question. We pay our taxes so that the government can provide us with services. This starts with security services-military protection being, often, about the only service some early states were really able to provide. By now, of course, the government provides all sorts of things. All of this is said to go back to some sort of original "social contract" that everyone somehow agreed on, though no one really knows exactly when or by whom, or why we should be bound by the decisions of distant ances­ tors on this one matter when we don't feel particularly bound by the decisions of our distant ancestors on anything else.29 All of this makes sense if you assume that markets come before governments, but the whole argument totters quickly once you realize that they don't.

      There is an alternative explanation, one created to be in keeping with the state-credit theory approach. It's referred to as "primordial debt theory" and it has been developed largely in France, by a team of researchers-not only economists but anthropologists, historians, and classicists-originally assembled around the figures of Michel Aglietta and Andre Orleans,30 and more recently, Bruno Theret, and it has since been taken up by neo-Keynesians in the United States and the United Kingdom as weiiY

      It's a position that has emerged quite recently, and at first, largely amidst debates about the nature of the euro. The creation of a common European currency sparked not only all sorts of intellectual debates (does a common currency necessarily imply the creation of a common European state? Or of a common European economy or society ? Are these ultimately the same thing?) but dramatic political ones as well. The creation of the euro zone was spearheaded above all by Germany, whose central banks still see their main goal as combating inflation. What's more, tight money policies and the need to balance budgets

      56 D E B T


      having been used as the main weapon to chip away welfare-state poli­ cies in Europe, it has necessarily become the stake of political struggles between bankers and pensioners, creditors and debtors, just as heated as those of r89os America.

      The core argument is that any attempt to separate monetary policy from social policy is ultimately wrong. Primordial-debt theorists insist that these have always been the same thing. Governments use taxes to create money, and they are able to do so because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself. It exists long before money and markets, and money and markets themselves are simply ways of chopping pieces of it up.

      At first, the argument goes, this sense of debt was expressed not through the state, but through religion. To make the argument, Aglietta and Orleans fixed on certain works of early Sanskrit religious literature: the hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas and the Brahma­ nas, priestly commentaries composed over the centuries that followed, texts that are now considered the foundations of Hindu thought. It's not as odd a choice as it might seem. These texts constitute the earliest known historical reflections on the nature of debt.

      Actually, even the very earliest Vedic poems, composed sometime between 1500 and 1200 BC, evince a constant concern with debt-which is treated as synonymous with guilt and sinY There are numerous prayers pleading with the gods to liberate the worshipper from the shackles or bonds of debt. Sometimes these seem to refer to debt in the literal sense-Rig Veda 10 .34, for instance, has a lorig description of the sad plight of gamblers who "wander homeless, in constant fear, in debt, and seeking money." Elsewhere it's clearly metaphorical.

      In these hymns, Yama, the god of death, figures prominently. To be in debt was to have a weight placed on you by Death. To be under any sort of unfulfilled obligation, any unkept promise, to gods or to men, was to live in the shadow of Death. Often, even in the very early texts, debt seems to stand in for a broader sense of inner suffering, from which one begs the gods-particularly Agni, who represents the sacrificial fire-for release. It was only with the Brahmanas that com­ mentators started trying to weave all this together into a more com­ prehensive philosophy. The conclusion: that human existence is itself a form of debt.


      A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.33

      P R I M O R D I AL D E B TS 57


      Sacrifice (and these early commentators were themselves sacrificial priests) is thus called "tribute paid to Death." Or such was the manner of speaking. In reality, as the priests knew better than anyone, sacrifice was directed to all the gods, not just Death-Death was just the inter­ mediary. Framing things this way, though, did immediately raise the one problem that always comes up, whenever anyone conceives human life through such an idiom. If our lives are on loan, who would actually wish to repay such a debt ? To live in debt is to be guilty, incomplete. But completion can only mean annihilation. In this way, the "tribute" of sacrifice could be seen as a kind of interest payment, with the life of the animal substituting temporarily for what's really owed, which is ourselves-a mere postponement of the inevitable.34

      Different commentators proposed different ways out of the dilem­ ma. Some ambitious Brahmins began telling their clients that sacrificial ritual, if done correctly, promised a way to break out of the human condition entirely and achieve eternity (since, in the face of eternity, all debts become meaningless.)35 Another way was to broaden the notion of debt, so that all social responsibilities become debts of one sort or another. Thus two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods, to be repaid in sacrifice, but also to the Sages who created the Vedic learning to begin with, which we must repay through study; to our ancestors ("the Fathers"), who we must repay by having children; and finally, "to men"-apparently meaning humanity as a whole, to be repaid by offering hospitality to strangers.36 Anyone, then, who lives a proper life is constantly paying back existential debts of one sort or another; but at the same time, as the notion of debt slides back into a simple sense of social obligation, it becomes something far less terrifying than the sense that one's very existence is a loan taken against Death.37 Not least because social ob­ ligations always cut both ways. Especially since, once one has oneself fathered children, one is just as much a debtor as a creditor.

      What primordial-debt theorists have done is to propose that the ideas encoded in these Vedic texts are not peculiar to a certain intel­ lectual tradition of early Iron Age ritual specialists in the Ganges val­ ley, but that they are essential to the very nature and history of human thought. Consider for example this statement, from an essay by French economist Bruno Theret with the uninspiring title "The Socio-Cultural Dimensions of the Currency : Implications for the Transition to the Euro," published in the Journal of Consumer Policy in 1999:


      At the origin of money we have a "relation of representa­ tion" of death as an invisible world, before and beyond life–a

      58 D E B T


      representation that is the product of the symbolic function proper to the human species and which envisages birth as an original debt incurred by all men, a debt owing to the cosmic powers from which humanity emerged.

      Payment of this debt, which can however never be settled on earth-because its full reimbursement is out of reach-takes the form of sacrifices which, by replenishing the credit of the living, make it possible to prolong life and even in certain cases to achieve eternity by joining the Gods. But this initial belief­ claim is also associated with the emergence of sovereign powers whose legitimacy resides in their ability to represent the entire original cosmos. And it is these powers that invented money as a means of settling debts-a means whose abstraction makes it possible to resolve the sacrificial paradox by which put­ ting to death becomes the permanent means of protecting life. Through this institution, belief is in turn transferred to a cur­ rency stamped with the effigy of the sovereign-a money put in circulation but whose return is organized by this other institu­ tion which is the tax/settlement of the life debt. So money also takes on the function of a means of payment.38


      If nothing else, this provides a neat illustration of how different are standards of debate in Europe from those current in the Anglo­ American world. One can't imagine an American economist of any stripe writing something like this. Still, the author is actually making a rather clever synthesis here. Human nature does not drive us to "truck and barter." Rather, it ensures that we are always creating symbols­ such as money itself. This is how we come to see ourselves in a cosmos surrounded by invisible forces; as in debt to the universe.

      The ingenious move of course is to fold this back into the state theory of money-since by "sovereign powers" Theret actually means "the state." The first kings were sacred kings who were either gods in their own right or stood as privileged mediators between human beings and the ultimate forces that governed the cosmos. This sets us on a road to the gradual realization that our debt to the gods was always, really, a debt to the society that made us what we are.

      The "primordial debt," writes British sociologist Geoffrey Ingham, "is that owed by the living to the continuity and durability of the soci­ ety that secures their individual existence. "39 In this sense it is not just criminals who owe a "debt to society"-we are all, in a certain sense, guilty, even criminals.

      P R I M O R DIAL D E B TS 59


      For instance, Ingham notes that, while there is no actual proof that money emerged in this way, "there is considerable indirect etymologi­ cal evidence":


      In all Indo-European languages, words for "debt" are synony­ mous with those for "sin" or "guilt", illustrating the links be­ tween religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by "money." For example, there is a connection between money (German Geld), indemnity or sacrifice (Old English Geild) , tax (Gothic Gild) and, of course, guilt.40


      Or, to take another curious connection: Why were cattle so often used as money ? The German historian Bernard Laum long ago pointed out that in Homer, when people measure the value of a ship or suit of armor, they always measure it in oxen-even though when they actu­ ally exchange things, they never pay for anything in oxen. It is hard to escape the conclusion that this was because an ox was what one of­ fered the gods in sacrifice. Hence they represented absolute value. From Sumer to Classical Greece, silver and gold were dedicated as offerings in temples. Everywhere, money seems to have emerged from the thing most appropriate for giving to the gods.41

      If the king has simply taken over guardianship of that primordial debt we all owe to society for having created us, this provides a very neat explanation for why the government feels it has the right to make us pay taxes. Taxes are just a measure of our debt to the society that

      made us. But this doesn't really explain how this kind of absolute life­ debt can be converted into money, which is by definition a means of measuring and comparing the value of different things. This is just as much a problem for credit theorists as for neoclassical economists, even if the problem for them is somewhat differently framed. If you start from the barter theory of money, you have to resolve the problem of how and why you would come to select one commodity to measure just

      how much you want each of the other ones. If you start from a credit theory, you are left with the problem I described in the first chapter: how to turn a moral obligation into a specific sum of money, how the mere sense of owing someone else a favor can eventually turn into a system of accounting in which one is able to calculate exactly how many sheep or fish or chunks of silver it would take to repay the debt. Or in this case, how do we go from that absolute debt we owe to God to the very specific debts we owe our cousins, or the bartender?

      The answer provided by primordial-debt theorists is, again, inge­ nious. If taxes represent our absolute debt to the society that created

      60 DEBT


      us, then the first step toward creating real money comes when we start calculating much more specific debts to society, systems of fines, fees, and penalties, or even debts we owe to specific individuals who we have wronged in some way, and thus to whom we stand in a relation of "sin" or "guilt."

      This is actually much less implausible than it might sound. One of the puzzling things about all the theories about the origins of money that we've been looking at so far is that they almost completely ig­ nore the evidence of anthropology. Anthropologists do have a great deal of knowledge of how economies within stateless societies actually worked-how they still work in places where states and markets have been unable to completely break up existing ways of doing things. There are innumerable studies of, say, the use of cattle as money in eastern or southern Africa, of shell money in the Americas (wampum being the most fa mous example) or Papua New Guinea, bead money, feather money, the use of iron rings, cowries, spondylus shells, brass rods, or woodpecker scalps.42 The reason that this literature tends to be ignored by economists is simple: "primitive currencies" of this sort is only rarely used to buy and sell things, and even when they are, never primarily to buy and sell everyday items such as chickens or eggs or shoes or potatoes. Rather than being employed to acquire things, they are mainly used to rearrange relations between people. Above all, to arrange marriages and to settle disputes, particularly those arising from murders or personal inj ury.

      There is every reason to believe that our own money started the same way-even the English word "to pay" is originally derived from a word for "to pacify, appease"-as in, to give someone something precious, for instance, to express just how badly you feel about having just killed his brother in a drunken brawl, and how much you would really like to avoid this becoming the basis for an ongoing blood-feud .43 Debt theorists are especially concerned with this latter possibil­

      ity. This is partly because they tend to skip past the anthropological literature and look at early law codes-taking inspiration here, from the groundbreaking work of one of the twentieth century's greatest nu­ mismatists, Philip Grierson, who in the '7os, first suggested that money might first have emerged from early legal practice. Grierson was an expert in the European Dark Ages, and he became fascinated by what have come to be known as the "Barbarian Law Codes," established by many Germanic peoples after the destruction of the Roman Empire in the 6oos and 7oos-Goths, Frisians, Franks, and so on-soon followed by similar codes published everywhere from Russia to Ireland. Cer­ tainly they are fascinating documents. On the one hand, they make it

      P R I M O R D I AL D E B TS 6 1

      abundantly clear just how wrong are conventional accounts of Europe around this time "reverting to barter." Almost all of the Germanic law codes use Roman money to make assessments; penalties for theft, for instance, are almost always followed by demands that the thief not only return the stolen property but pay any outstanding rent (or in the event of stolen money, interest) owing for the amount of time it has been in his possession . On the other hand, these were soon followed by law codes by people living in territories that had never been under Ro­ man rule-in Ireland, Wales, Nordic countries, Russia-and these are if anything even more revealing. They could be remarkably creative, both in what could be used as a means of payment and on the precise breakdown of inj uries and insults that required compensation:

      Compensation in the Welsh laws is reckoned primarily in cattle and in the Irish ones in cattle or bondmaids (cumal), with considerable use of precious metals in both. In the Germanic codes it is mainly in precious metal In the Russian codes it

      was silver and furs, graduated from marten down to squirrel. Their detail is remarkable, not only in the personal inj uries envisioned-specific compensations for the loss of an arm, a hand, a forefinger, a nail, for a blow on the head so that the brain is visible or bone projects-but in the coverage some of them gave to the possessions of the individual household. Title II of the Salic Law deals with the theft of pigs, Title III with cattle, Title IV with sheep, Title V with goats, Title VI with dogs, each time with an elaborate breakdown differentiating between animals of different age and sex.44

      This does make a great deal of psychological sense. I've already remarked how difficult it is to imagine how a system of precise equivalences-one young healthy milk cow is equivalent to exactly thirty-six chickens-could arise from most forms of gift exchange. If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been . On the other hand, if Joshua's pig just destroyed Henry's garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry's family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly-this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express out­ rage if they feel they have received one groat less than was their right­ ful due. That means exact mathematical specificity: for instance, the

      62 D E B T


      capacity to measure the exact value of a two-year-old pregnant sow. What's more, the levying of penalties must have constantly required the calculation of equivalences. Say the fine is in marten pelts but the culprit's clan doesn't have any martens. How many squirrel skins will do ? Or pieces of silver jewelry ? Such problems must have come up all the time and led to at least a rough-and-ready set of rules of thumb over what sorts of valuable were equivalent to others. This would help explain why, for instance, medieval Welsh law codes can contain detailed breakdowns not only of the value of different ages and condi­ tions of milk cow, but of the monetary value of every object likely to be found in an ordinary homestead, down to the cost of each piece of timber-despite the fact that there seems no reason to believe that most such items could even be purchased on the open market at the time.45


      I I I I I


      There is something very compelling in all this. For one thing, the prem­ ise makes a great deal of intuitive sense. After all, we do owe every­ thing we are to others. This is simply true. The language we speak and even think in, our habits and opinions, the kind of food we like to eat, the knowledge that makes our lights switch on and toilets flush, even the style in which we carry out our gestures of defiance and rebellion against social conventions-all of this, we learned from other people, most of them long dead. If we were to imagine what we owe them as a debt, it could only be infinite. The question is: Does it really make sense to think of this as a debt? After all, a debt is by definition some­ thing that we could at least imagine paying back. It is strange enough to wish to be square with one's parents-it rather implies that one does not wish to think of them as parents any more. Would we really want to be square with all humanity ? What would that even mean ? And is this desire really a fundamental feature of all human thought?

      Another way to put this would be: Are primordial-debt theorists describing a myth, have they discovered a profound truth of the hu­ man condition that has always existed in all societies, and is it simply spelled out particularly clearly in certain ancient texts from India-or are they inventing a myth of their own ?

      ·

      Clearly it must be the latter. They are inventing a myth.

      The choice of the Vedic material is significant. The fact is, we know almost nothing about the people who composed these texts and little about the society that created them.46 We don't even know if

      P R I M O R D I A L DEB TS 63


      interest-bearing loans existed in Vedic India-which obviously has a bearing on whether priests really saw sacrifice as the payment of inter­ est on a loan we owe to Death.47 As a result, the material can serve as a kind of empty canvas, or a canvas covered with hieroglyphics in an unknown language, on which we can project almost anything we want to. If we look at other ancient civilizations in which we do know some­ thing about the larger context, we find that no such notion of sacrifice as payment is in evidence.48 If we look through the work of ancient theologians, we find that most were familiar with the idea that sacrifice was a way by which human beings could enter into commercial rela­ tions with the gods, but that they felt it was patently ridiculous: If the gods already have everything they want, what exactly do humans have to bargain with ?49 We've seen in the last chapter how difficult it is to give gifts to kings. With gods {let alone God) the problem is magnified infinitely. Exchange implies equality. In dealing with cosmic forces, this was simply assumed to be impossible from the start.

      The notion that debts to gods were appropriated by the state, and thus became the bases for taxation systems, can't really stand up either. The problem here is that in the ancient world, free citizens didn't usually pay taxes. Generally speaking, tribute was levied only on conquered populations. This was already true in ancient Mesopotamia, where the inhabitants of independent cities did not usually have to pay direct taxes at all. Similarly, as Moses Finley put it, "Classical Greeks looked upon direct taxes as tyrannical and avoided them whenever pos­ sible.50 Athenian citizens did not pay direct taxes of any sort; though the city did sometimes distribute money to its citizens, a kind of reverse taxation-sometimes directly, as with the proceeds of the Laurium sil­ ver mines, and sometimes indirectly, as through generous fees for jury duty or attending the assembly. Subject cities, however, did have to pay tribute. Even within the Persian Empire, Persians did not have to pay tribute to the Great King, but the inhabitants of conquered provinces did.51 The same was true in Rome, where for a very long time, Roman citizens not only paid no taxes but had a right to a share of the tribute levied on others, in the form of the dole-the "bread" part of the fa­ mous "bread and circuses. "52

      In other words, Benj amin Franklin was wrong when he said that in this world nothing is certain except death and taxes. This obviously makes the idea that the debt to one is just a variation on the other much harder to maintain.

      None of this, however, deals a mortal blow to the state theory of money. Even those states that did not demand taxes did levy fees, penalties, tariffs, and fines of one sort or another. But it is very hard

      64 DEB T


      to reconcile with any theory that claims states were first conceived as guardians of some sort of cosmic, primordial debt.

      It's curious that primordial-debt theorists never have much to say about Sumer or Babylonia, despite the fact that Mesopotamia is where the practice of loaning money at interest was first invented, probably two thousand years before the Vedas were composed-and that it was also the home of the world's first states. But if we look into Mesopo­ tamian history, it becomes a little less surprising. Again, what we find there is in many ways the exact opposite of what such theorists would have predicted.

      The reader will recall here that Mesopotamian city-states were dominated by vast Temples: gigantic, complex industrial institutions often staffed by thousands-including everyone from shepherds and barge-pullers to spinners and weavers to dancing girls and clerical ad­ ministrators. By at least 2700 BC, ambitious rulers had begun to imitate them by creating palace complexes organized on similar terms-with the exception that where the Temples centered on the sacred chambers of a god or goddess, represented by a sacred image who was fed and clothed and entertained by priestly servants as if he or she were a liv­

      ing person. Palaces centered on the chambers of an actual live king. Sumerian rulers rarely went so far as to declare themselves gods, but they often came very close. However, when they did interfere in the lives of their subjects in their capacity as cosmic rulers, they did not do it by imposing public debts, but rather by canceling private ones.53

      We don't know precisely when and how interest-bearing loans originated, since they appear to predate writing. Most likely, Temple administrators invented the idea as a way of financing the caravan trade. This trade was crucial because while the river valley of ancient Mesopotamia was extraordinarily fertile and produced huge surpluses of grain and other foodstuffs, and supported enormous numbers of livestock, which in turn supported a vast wool and leather industry, it was almost completely lacking in anything else. Stone, wood, metal, even the silver used as money, all had to be imported. From quite early times, then, Temple administrators developed the habit of advancing goods to local merchants-some of them private, others themselves Temple functionaries-who would then go off and sell it overseas. Interest was just a way for the Temples to take their share of the re­ sulting profits.54 However, once established, the principle seems to have quickly spread. Before long, we find not only commercial loans, but

      also consumer loans-usury in the classical sense of the term. By c24oo

      BC it already appears to have been common practice on the part of lo­ cal officials, or wealthy merchants, to advance loans to peasants who

      P R I M O R D I A L D E BTS 65


      were in financial trouble on collateral and begin to appropriate their possessions if they were unable to pay. It usually started with grain, sheep, goats, and furniture, then moved on to fields and houses, or, al­ ternately or ultimately, family members. Servants, if any, went quickly, followed by children, wives, and in some extreme occasions, even the borrower himself. These would be reduced to debt-peons: not quite slaves, but very close to that, forced into perpetual service in the lend­ er's household-or, sometimes, in the Temples or Palaces themselves. In theory, of course, any of them could be redeemed whenever the bor­ rower repaid the money, but for obvious reasons, the more a peasant's resources were stripped away from him, the harder that became.

      The effects were such that they often threatened to rip society apart. If for any reason there was a bad harvest, large proportions of the peasantry would fall into debt peonage; fa milies would be bro­ ken up. Before long, lands lay abandoned as indebted fa rmers fled their homes for fear of repossession and joined semi-nomadic bands on the desert fringes of urban civilization. Faced with the potential for complete social breakdown, Sumerian and later Babylonian kings periodically announced general amnesties: "clean slates," as economic historian Michael Hudson refers to them. Such decrees would typically declare all outstanding consumer debt null and void (commercial debts were not affected ), return all land to its original owners, and allow all debt-peons to return to their families . Before long, it became more or less a regular habit for kings to make such a declaration on first as­ suming power, and many were forced to repeat it periodically over the course of their reigns.

      In Sumeria, these were called "declarations of freedom"-and it is significant that the Sumerian word amargi, the first recorded word for "freedom" in any known human language, literally means "return to mother"-since this is what freed debt-peons were finally allowed to do.55

      Michael Hudson argues that Mesopotamian kings were only in a position to do this because of their cosmic pretensions: in taking power, they saw themselves as literally recreating human society, and so were in a position to wipe the slate clean of all previous moral ob­ ligations. Still, this is about as far from what primordial-debt theorists had in mind as one could possibly imagine.56


      I I I I I


      Probably the biggest problem in this whole body of literature is the ini­ tial assumption: that we begin with an infinite debt to something called

      66 D E B T


      "society." It's this debt to society that we project onto the gods. It's this same debt that then gets taken up by kings and national governments.

      What makes the concept of society so deceptive is that we assume the world is organized into a series of compact, modular units called "societies," and that all people know which one they're in. Histori­ cally, this is very rarely the case. Imagine I am a Christian Armenia!) merchant living under the reign of Genghis Khan. What is "society" for me? Is it the city where I grew up, the society of international merchants (with its own elaborate codes of conduct) within which I conduct my daily affairs, other speakers of Armenian, Christendom (or maybe just Orthodox Christendom) , or the inhabitants of the Mongol empire itself, which stretched from the Mediterranean to Korea? His­ torically, kingdoms and empires have rarely been the most important reference points in peoples' lives. Kingdoms rise and fall; they also strengthen and weaken; governments may make their presence known in people's lives quite sporadically, and many people in history were never entirely clear whose government they were actually in. Even until quite recently, many of the world's inhabitants were never even quite sure what country they were supposed to be in, or why it should mat­ ter. My mother, who was born a Jew in Poland, once told me a joke from her childhood:


      There was a small town located along the frontier between Russia and Poland; no one was ever quite sure to which it belonged. One day an official treaty was signed and not long after, surveyors arrived to draw a border. Some villagers ap­ proached them where they had set up their equipment on a nearby hill.

      "So where are we, Russia or Poland ?"

      "According to our calculations, your village now begins ex­ actly thirty-seven meters into Poland. "

      The villagers immediately began dancing for joy.

      "Why ?" the surveyors asked. "What difference does it make?"

      "Don't you know what this means ?" they replied. "It means we' ll never have to endure another one of those terrible Rus­ sian winters! "


      However, if we are born with an infinite debt to all those people who made our existence possible, but there is no natural unit called "society"-then who or what exactly do we really owe it to? Everyone? Everything? Some people or things more than others ? And how do we

      P R I M O R D I A L D E B TS 67


      pay a debt to something so diffuse? Or, perhaps more to the point, who exactly can claim the authority to tell us how we can repay it, and on what grounds ?

      If we frame the problem that way, the authors of the Brahmanas are offering a quite sophisticated reflection on a moral question that no one has really ever been able to answer any better before or since. As I say, we can't know much about the conditions under which those texts were composed, but such evidence as we do have suggests that the crucial documents date from sometime between soo and 400 Be-that is, roughly the time of Socrates-which in India appears to have been just around the time that a commercial economy, and institutions like

      coined money and interest-bearing loans were beginning to become features of everyday life. The intellectual classes of the time were, much as they were in Greece and China, grappling with the implica­ tions. In their case, this meant asking: What does it mean to imagine our responsibilities as debts ? To whom do we owe our existence ?

      It's significant that their answer did not make any mention either of "society" or states (though certainly kings and governments certainly existed in early India) . Instead, they fixed on debts to gods, to sages, to fathers, and to "men." It wouldn't be at all difficult to translate their formulation into more contemporary language. We could put it this way. We owe our existence above all:


      • To the universe, cosmic forces, as we would put it now, to Nature. The ground of our existence. To be repaid through ritual: ritual be­ ing an act of respect and recognition to all that beside which we are small.57

      • To those who have created the knowledge and cultural accom­

        plishments that we value most; that give our existence its form, its meaning, but also its shape. Here we would include not only the philosophers and scientists who created our intellectual tradition but everyone from William Shakespeare to that long-since-forgotten woman, somewhere in the Middle East, who created leavened bread. We repay them by becoming learned ourselves and contributing to human knowledge and human culture.

      • To our parents, and their parents-our ancestors. We repay them by

        becoming ancest.ors.

      • To humanity as a whole. We repay them by generosity to strang­ ers, by maintaining that basic communistic ground of sociality that makes human relations, and hence life, possible.

      68 DEB T


      Set out this way, though, the argument begins to undermine its very premise. These are nothing like commercial debts. After all, one might repay one's parents by having children, but one is not gener­ ally thought to have repaid one's creditors if one lends the cash to someone else.58

      Myself, I wonder: Couldn't that really be the point? Perhaps what the authors of the Brahmanas were really demonstrating was that, in the final analysis, our relation with the cosmos is ultimately nothing like a commercial transaction, nor could it be. That is because commercial transactions imply both equality and separation. These examples are all about overcoming separation: you are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage, you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity. All the more so if one is speak­ ing of the universe. If you cannot bargain with the gods because they already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the

      universe, because the universe is everything-and that everything neces­

      sarily includes yourself. One could in fact interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of "freeing oneself" from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence that the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start. Or even that the very presumption of positing oneself as separate from humanity or the cosmos, so much so that one can enter into one-to-one dealings with it, is itself the crime that can be answered only by death. Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place.59

      Or let us look at the other side of the equation . Even if it is pos­ sible to imagine ourselves as standing in a position of absolute debt to the cosmos, or to humanity, the next question becomes: Who exactly has a right to speak for the cosmos, or humanity, to tell us how that debt must be repaid ? If there's anything more preposterous than claim­ ing to stand apart from the entire universe so as to enter into negotia­ tions with it, it is claiming to speak for the other side.

      If one were looking for the ethos for an individualistic society such as our own, one way to do it might well be to say: we all owe an infinite debt to humanity, society, nature, or the cosmos (however one prefers to frame it) , but no one else could possibly tell us how we are to pay it. This at least would be intellectually consistent. If so, it would actually

      P R I M O R DIAL D E BTS 69


      be possible to see almost all systems of established authority-religion, morality, politics, economics, and the criminal-j ustice system-as so many different fraudulent ways to presume to calculate what cannot be calculated, to claim the authority to tell us how some aspect of that unlimited debt ought to be repaid. Human freedom would then be our ability to decide for ourselves how we want to do so.

      No one, to my knowledge, has ever taken this approach. In­ stead, theories of existential debt always end up becoming wa-ys of justifying-or laying claim to-structures of authority. The case of the Hindu intellectual tradition is telling here. The debt to humanity appears only in a few early texts, and is quickly forgotten. Almost all later Hindu commentators ignore it and instead put their emphasis on a man's debt to his father.60


      I I I I I


      Primordial-debt theorists have other fish to fry. They are not really interested in the cosmos, but actually, in "society."

      Let me return again to that word, "society." The reason that it seems like such a simple, self-evident concept is because we mostly use it as a synonym for "nation." After all, when Americans speak of paying their debt to society, they are not thinking of their responsibili­ ties to people who live in Sweden. It's only the modern state, with its elaborate border controls and social policies, that enables us to imagine "society" in this way, as a single bounded entity. This is why project­ ing that notion backwards into Vedic or Medieval times will always be deceptive, even though we don't really have another word.

      It seems to me that this is exactly what the primordial-debt theo­ rists are doing: projecting such a notion backwards.

      Really, the whole complex of ideas they are talking about-the notion that there is this thing called society, that we have a debt to it, that governments can speak for it, that it can be imagined as a sort of secular god-all of these ideas emerged together around the time of the French Revolution, or in its immediate wake. In other words, it was born alongside the idea of the modern nation-state.

      We can already see them coming together clearly in the work of Auguste Comte, in early nineteenth-century France. Comte, a phi­ losopher and political pamphleteer now most famous for having first coined the term "sociology," went so far, by the end of his life, as actually proposing a Religion of Society, which he called Positivism,

      70 D E B T


      broadly modeled on Medieval Catholicism, replete with vestments where all the buttons were on the back (so they couldn't be put on without the help of others). In his last work, which he called a "Positiv­ ist Catechism," he also laid down the first explicit theory of social debt. At one point someone asks an imaginary Priest of Positivism what he thinks of the notion of human rights . The priest scoffs at the very idea. This is nonsense, he says, an error born of individualism. Positivism understands only duties. After all:


      We are born under a load of obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, to our contemporaries. After our birth these obligations increase or accumulate before the point where we are capable of rendering anyone any service. On what human foundation, then, could one seat the idea of

      "rights" ?61


      While Comte doesn't use the word "debt," the sense is clear enough. We have already accumulated endless debts before we get to the age at which we can even think of paying them. By that time, there's no way to calculate to whom we even owe them. The only way to redeem our­ selves is to dedicate ourselves to the service of Humanity as a whole.

      In his lifetime, Comte was considered something of a crackpot, but his ideas proved influential. His notion of unlimited obligations to so­ ciety ultimately crystallized in the notion of the "social debt," a notion taken up among social reformers and, eventually, socialist politicians in many parts of Europe and abroad.62 "We are all born as debtors to so­ ciety": in France the notion of a social debt soon became something of a catchphrase, a slogan, and eventually a cliche.63 The state, according to this view, was merely the administrator of an existential debt that all of us have to the society that created us, embodied not least in the fact that we all continue to be completely dependent on one another for our existence, even if we are not completely aware of how.

      These are also the intellectual and political circles that shaped the

      thought of Emile Durkheim, the founder of the discipline of sociology that we know today, who in a way did Comte one better by arguing that all gods in all religions are always already projections of society­ so an explicit religion of society would not even be necessary. All religions, for Durkheim, are simply ways of recognizing our mutual dependence on one another, a dependence that affects us in a million ways that we are never entirely aware of. "God" and "society" are ultimately the same.

      P R I M O R D I A L D E B TS 7 1


      The problem is that for several hundred years now, it has simply been assumed that the guardian of that debt we owe for all of this, the legitimate representatives of that amorphous social totality that has al­ lowed us to become individuals, must necessarily be the state. Almost all socialist or socialistic regimes end up appealing to some version of this argument. To take one notorious example, this was how the Soviet Union used to justify forbidding their citizens from emigrating to other countries. The argument was always: The USSR created these people, the USSR raised and educated them, made them who they are. What right do they have to take the product of our investment and transfer it to another country, as if they didn't owe us anything? Neither is this rhetoric restricted to socialist regimes. Nationalists appeal to exactly the same kind of arguments–especially in times of war. And all mod­ ern governments are nationalist to some degree.

      One might even say that what we really have, in the idea of pri­

      mordial debt, is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods that created us, paid interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and ultimately paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe it to the Nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, to offer to pay it with our lives.

      This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don't owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it's a fa lse dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would rec­ ognize tody.


      Chapte r Fo ur


      CRUE LTY AND REDEM PTI ON


      We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals.

      -Amos 2:6


      THE READER M AY have noticed that there is an unresolved debate between those who see money as a commodity and those who see it as an IOU. Which one is it ? By now, the answer should be obvious: it's both. Keith Hart, probably the best-known current anthropological authority on the subj ect, pointed this out many years ago. There are, he famously observed, two sides to any coin:


      Look at a coin from your pocket. On one side is "heads"-the symbol of the political authority which minted the coin; on the other side is "tails"-the precise specification of the amount the coin is worth as payment in exchange. One side reminds us that states underwrite currencies and the money is originally a relation between persons in society, a token perhaps. The other reveals the coin as a thing, capable of entering into definite relations with other things. 1


      Clearly, money was not invented to overcome the inconveniences of barter between neighbors-since neighbors would have no reason to engage in barter in the first place. Still, a system of pure credit money would have serious inconveniences as well. Credit money is based on trust, and in competitive markets, trust itself becomes a scarce com­ modity. This is particularly true of dealings between strangers. Within the Roman empire, a silver coin stamped with the image of Tiberius might have circulated at a value considerably higher than the value of the silver it contained. Ancient coins invariably circulated at a value higher than their metal content.2 This was largely because Tiberius's government was willing to accept them at face value. However, the

      74 DEB T


      Persian government probably wasn't, and the Mauryan and Chinese governments certainly weren't. Very large numbers of Roman gold and silver coins did end up in India and even China; this is presumably the main reason that they were made of gold and silver to begin with.

      What's true for a vast empire like Rome or China is obviously all the more true for a Sumerian or Greek city-state, let alone anyone operating within the kind of broken checkerboard of kingdoms, towns, and tiny principalities that prevailed in most of Medieval Europe or India. As I've pointed out, often what was inside and what was out­ side were not especially clear. Within a community-a town, a city,

      a guild or religious society-pretty much anything could function as money, provided everyone knew there was someone willing to accept it to cancel out a debt. To offer one particularly striking example, in certain cities in nineteenth-century Siam, small change consisted en­ tirely of porcelain Chinese gaming counters-basically, the equivalent of poker chips-issued by local casinos. If one of these casinos went out of business or lost its license, its owners would have to send a crier

      through the streets banging a gong and announcing that anyone hold­ ing such chits had three days to redeem them.3 For major transactions, of course, currency that was also acceptable outside the community (usually silver or gold again) was ordinarily employed.

      In a similar way, English shops, for many centuries, would issue their own wood or lead or leather token money. The practice was often technically illegal, but it continued until relatively recent times. Here is an example from the seventeenth century, by a certain Henry, who had a store at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire:


      This is clearly a case of the same principle: Henry would provide small change in the form of IOUs redeemable at his own store. As such, they might circulate broadly, at least among anyone who did regular business at that shop. But they were unlikely to travel very far from Stony Stratford-most tokens, in fact, never circulated more than a few blocks in any direction. For larger transactions, everyone, including Henry, expected money in a form that would be acceptable anywhere, including in Italy or France.4

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P TI O N 7 5


      Throughout most of history, even where we do find elaborate mar­ kets, we also find a complex jumble of different sorts of currency. Some of these may have originally emerged from barter between for­ eigners: the cacao money of Mesoamerica or salt money of Ethiopia are frequently cited examples.5 Others arose from credit systems, or from arguments over what sort of goods should be acceptable to pay taxes or other debts. Such questions were often matters of endless contestation. One could often learn a lot about the balance of political forces in a given time and place by what sorts of things were accept­ able as currency. For instance: in much the same way that colonial Virginia planters managed to pass a law obliging shopkeepers to ac­ cept their tobacco as currency, medieval Pomeranian peasants appear to have at certain points convinced their rulers to make taxes, fees, and customs duties, which were registered in Roman currency, actually payable in wine, cheese, peppers, chickens, eggs, and even herring­ much to the annoyance of traveling merchants, who therefore had to either carry such things around in order to pay the tolls or buy them locally at prices that would have been more advantageous to their suppliers for that very reason.6 This was in an area with a free peasantry, rather than serfs. They were in a relatively strong political position. In other times and places, the interests of lords and merchants prevailed instead.

      Thus money is almost always something hovering between a com­ modity and a debt-token. This is probably why coins-pieces of silver or gold that are already valuable commodities in themselves, but that, being stamped with the emblem of a local political authority, became even more valuable-still sit in our heads as the quintessential form of money. They most perfectly straddle the divide that defines what money is in the first place. What's more, the relation between the two was a matter of constant political contestation.

      In other words, the battle between state and market, between gov­ ernments and merchants is not inherent to the human condition.


      I I I I I


      Our two origin stories-the myth of barter and the myth of primordial debt-may appear to be about as far apart as they could be, but in their own way, they are also two sides of the same coin. One assumes the other. It's only once we can imagine human life as a series of com­ mercial transactions that we' re capable of seeing our relation to the universe in terms of debt.

      7 6 D E B T


      To illustrate, let me call a perhaps surpnsmg witness, Friedrich Nietzsche, a man able to see with uncommon clarity what happens when you try to imagine the world in commercial terms.

      Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals appeared in 1887. In it, he

      begins with an argument that might well have been taken directly from Adam Smith-but he takes it a step further than Smith ever dared to, insisting that not just barter, but buying and selling itself, precede any other form of human relationship. The feeling of personal obligation, he observes,


      has its origin in the oldest and most primitive personal rela­ tionship there is, in the relationship between seller and buyer, creditor and debtor. Here for the first time one person moved up against another person, here an individual measured himself against another individual. We have found no civilization still at such a low level that something of this relationship is not already perceptible. To set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalencies, to exchange things-that preoccupied man's

      very first thinking to such a degree that in a certain sense it's what thinking itself is. Here the oldest form of astuteness was bred; here, too, we can assume are the first beginnings of man's pride, his feeling of pre-eminence in relation to other animals. Perhaps our word "man" (manas) continues to ex­ press directly something of this feeling of the self: the human being describes himself as a being which assesses values, which values and measures, as the "inherently calculating animal. " Selling and buying, together with their psychological attributes, are even older than the beginnings of any form of social orga­ nizations and groupings; out of the most rudimentary form of personal legal rights the budding feeling of exchange, contract, guilt, law, duty, and compensation was instead first transferred to the crudest and earliest social structures (in their relation­ ships with similar social structures), along with the habit of

      comparing power with power, of measuring, of calculating.7


      Smith, too, we will remember, saw the origins of language-and hence of human thought-as lying in our propensity to "exchange one thing for another," in which he also saw the origins of the market.R The urge to trade, to compare values, is the very thing that makes us intel­ ligent beings, and different from other animals. Society comes later­ which means our ideas about responsibilities to other people first take shape in strictly commercial terms.

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 7 7


      Unlike with Smith, however, it never occurred to Nietzsche that you could have a world where all such transactions immediately cancel out. Any system of commercial accounting, he assumed, will produce creditors and debtors. In fact, he believed that it was from this very fact that human morality emerged. Note, he says, how the German word schuld means both "debt" and "guilt." At first, to be in debt was simply to be guilty, and creditors delighted in punishing debtors unable to repay their loans by inflicting "all sorts of humiliation and torture on the body of the debtor, for instance, cutting as much flesh

      off as seemed appropriate for the debt."9 In fact, Nietzsche went so far as to insist that those original barbarian law codes that tabulated so much for a ruined eye, so much for a severed finger, were not originally meant to fix rates of monetary compensation for the loss of eyes and fingers, but to establish how much of the debtor's body creditors were allowed to take! Needless to say, he doesn't provide a scintilla of evi­ dence for this (none exists) .10 But to ask for evidence would be to miss the point. We are dealing here not with a real historical argument but with a purely imaginative exercise.

      When humans did begin to form communities, Nietzsche contin­ ues, they necessarily began to imagine their relationship to the com­ munity in these terms. The tribe provides them with peace and security. They are therefore in its debt. Obeying its laws is a way of paying it back ("paying your debt to society" again) . But this debt, he says, is also paid-here too-in sacrifice:


      Within the original tribal cooperatives-we're talking about primeval times-the living generation always acknowledged a legal obligation to the previous generations, and especially to the earliest one which had founded the tribe [ . . . ] Here the reigning conviction is that the tribe only exists at all only be­ cause of the sacrifices and achievements of its ancestors-and that people have to pay them back with sacrifices and achieve­ ments. In this people recognize a debt which keeps steadily growing because these ancestors in their continuing existence as powerful spirits do not stop giving the tribe new advantages and lending them their power. Do they do this for free ? But there is no "for free" for those raw and "spiritually destitute" ages. What can people give back to them ? Sacrifices (at first as nourishment understood very crudely) , festivals, chapels, signs of honor, above all, obedience–for all customs, as work of

      one's ancestors, are also their statutes and commands. Do peo­ ple ever give them enough ? This suspicion remains and grows. 1 1

      7 8 D E B T


      In other words, for Nietzsche, starting from Adam Smith's as­ sumptions about human nature means we must necessarily end up with something very much along the lines of primordial-debt theory. On the one hand, it is because of our feeling of debt to the ancestors that we obey the ancestral laws: this is why we feel that the community has the right to react "like an angry creditor" and punish us for our transgres­ sions if we break them. In a larger sense, we develop a creeping feeling that we could never really pay back the ancestors, that no sacrifice (not even the sacrifice of our first-born) will ever truly redeem us. We are terrified of the ancestors, and the stronger and more powerful a com­ munity becomes, the more powerful they seem to be, until finally, "the ancestor is necessarily transfigured into a god." As communities grow into kingdoms and kingdoms into universal empires, the gods them­ selves come to seem more universal, they take on grander, more cosmic pretentions, ruling the heavens, casting thunderbolts-culminating in the Christian god, who, as the maximal deity, necessarily "brought about the maximum feeling of indebtedness on earth." Even our ances­ tor Adam is no longer figured as a creditor, but as a transgressor, and therefore a debtor, who passes on to us his burden of Original Sin:


      Finally, with the impossibility of discharging the debt, people also come up with the notion that it is impossible to remove the penance, the idea that it cannot be paid off ("eternal pun­ ishment") . . . until all of a sudden we confront the paradoxi­ cal and horrifying expedient with which a martyred humanity found temporary relief, that stroke of genius of Christianity: God sacrificing himself for the guilt of human beings, God pay­ ing himself back with himself, God as the only one who can re­ deem man from what for human beings has become impossible to redeem-the creditor sacrificing himself for the debtor, out of love (can people believe that?), out of love for his debtor! 1 2


      It all makes perfect sense if you start from Nietzsche's initial prem­ ise. The problem is that the premise is insane.

      There is also every reason to believe that Nietzsche knew the prem­ ise was insane; in fact, that this was the entire point. What Nietzsche is doing here is starting out from the standard, common-sense assump­ tions about the nature of human beings prevalent in his day (and to a large extent, still prevalent)-that we are rational calculating machines, that commercial self-interest comes before society, that "society" itself is just a way of putting a kind of temporary lid on the resulting con­ flict. That is, he is starting out from ordinary bourgeois assumptions

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 7 9


      and driving them to a place where they can only shock a bourgeois audience.

      It's a worthy game and no one has ever played it better; but it's a game played entirely within the boundaries of bourgeois thought. It has nothing to say to anything that lies beyond that. The best response to anyone who wants to take seriously Nietzsche's fantasies about sav­ age hunters chopping pieces off each other's bodies for failure to remit are the words of an actual hunter-gatherer-an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen's Book of the Es­ kimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful

      hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:


      "Up in our country we are human! " said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."13


      The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and simi­ lar statements about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunt­ ing societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly hu­ man meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began "comparing

      power with power, measuring, calculating" and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.

      It's not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn't aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization. If Nietzsche's analysis of debt is helpful to us, then, it is because it reveals that when we start from the assumption that human thought is essentially a matter of commercial calculation, that buying and selling are the basis of human society-then, yes, once we begin

      80 DEBT


      to think about our relationship with the cosmos, we will necessarily conceive of it in terms of debt.


      I I I I I


      I do think Nietzsche helps us in another way as well: to understand the concept of redemption. Niezsche's account of "primeval times" might be absurd, but his description of Christianity-of how a sense of debt is transformed into an abiding sense of guilt, and guilt to self-loathing, and self-loathing to self-torture-all of this does ring very true.

      Why, for instance, do we refer to Christ as the "redeemer" ? The primary meaning of "redemption" is to buy something back, or to recover something that had been given up in security for a loan; to ac­ quire something by paying off a debt. It is rather striking to think that the very core of the Christian message, salvation itself, the sacrifice of God's own son to rescue humanity from eternal damnation, should be framed in the language of a financial transaction.

      Nietzsche might have been starting from the same assumptions as Adam Smith, but clearly the early Christians weren't. The roots of this thinking lie deeper than Smith's with his nation of shopkeepers. The authors of the Brahmanas were not alone in borrowing the language of the marketplace as a way of thinking about the human condition. Indeed, to one degree or another, all the major world religions do this. The reason is that all of them-from Zoroastrianism to Islam­ arose amidst intense arguments about the role of money and the mar­ ket in human life, and particularly about what these institutions meant for fundamental questions of what human beings owed to one another. The question of debt, and arguments about debt, ran through every aspect of the political life of the time. These arguments were set amidst revolts, petitions, reformist movements. Some such movements gained allies in the temples and palaces. Others were brutally suppressed . Most of the terms, slogans, and specific issues being debated, though, have been lost to history. We just don't know what a political debate

      in a Syrian tavern in 750 BC was likely to be about. As a result, we have

      spent thousands of years contemplating sacred texts full of political allusions that would have been instantly recognizable to any reader at the time when they were written, but whose meaning we now can only guess at. 14

      One of the unusual things about the Bible is that it preserves some bits of this larger context. To return to the notion of redemption: the Hebrew words padah and goal, both translated as "redemption," could be used for buying back anything one had sold to someone else,

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 8 1


      particularly the recovery of ancestral land, or to recovering some ob­ ject held by creditors in way of a pledge.15 The example foremost in the minds of prophets and theologians seems to have been the last: the redemption of pledges, and especially, of family members held as debt­ pawns. It would seem that the economy of the Hebrew kingdoms, by the time of the prophets, was already beginning to develop the same kind of debt crises that had long been common in Mesopotamia: espe­ cially in years of bad harvests, the poor became indebted to rich neigh­ bors or to wealthy moneylenders in the towns, they would begin to lose title to their fields and to become tenants on what had been their own land, and their sons and daughters would be removed to serve as servants in their creditors' households, or even sold abroad as slaves.16 The earlier prophets contain allusions to such crises, but the book of Nehemiah, written in Persian times, is the most explicitY


      Some also there were that said, "We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth ."

      There were also those that said, "We have borrowed money for the king's tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards.

      "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our chil­ dren as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards."

      And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.

      Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, "Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. " And I set a great assembly against themY


      Nehemiah was a Jew born in Babylon, a former cup- bearer to the Persian emperor. In 444 Be, he managed to talk the Great King into appointing him governor of his native Judaea. He also received per­ mission to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar more than two centuries earlier. In the course of rebuilding, sacred texts were recovered and restored; in a sense, this

      was the moment of the creation of what we now consider Judaism.

      The problem was that Nehemiah quickly found himself confronted with a social crisis. All around him, impoverished peasants were un­ able to pay their taxes; creditors were carrying off the children of the poor. His first response was to issue a classic Babylonian-style "clean

      82 D E B T


      slate" edict-having himself been born in Babylon, he was clearly fa­ miliar with the general principle. All non-commercial debts were to be forgiven . Maximum interest rates were set. At the same time, though, Nehemiah managed to locate, revise, and reissue much older Jewish laws, now preserved in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, which in certain ways went even further, by institutionalizing the principle.19 The most famous of these is the Law of Jubilee: a law that stipulated that all debts would be automatically cancelled "in the Sabbath year" (that is, after seven years had passed), and that all who languished in bondage owing to such debts would be released.20

      "Freedom," in the Bible, as in Mesopotamia, came to refer above all to release from the effects of debt. Over time, the history of the Jew­ ish people itself came to be interpreted in this light: the liberation from bondage in Egypt was God's first, paradigmatic act of redemption; the historical tribulations of the Jews (defeat, conquest, exile) were seen as misfortunes that would eventually lead to a final redemption with the coming of the Messiah-though this could only be accomplished, prophets such as Jeremiah warned them, after the Jewish people truly repented of their sins (carrying each other off into bondage, whoring after false gods, the violation of commandments) Y In this light, the adoption of the term by Christians is hardly surprising. Redemption was a release from one's burden of sin and guilt, and the end of history would be that moment when all slates are wiped clean and all debts finally lifted when a great blast from angelic trumpets will announce the final Jubilee.

      If so, "redemption" is no longer about buying something back. It's really more a matter of destroying the entire system of account­ ing. In many Middle Eastern cities, this was literally true: one of the common acts during debt cancelation was the ceremonial destruction of the tablets on which financial records had been kept, an act to be repeated, much less officially, in just about every major peasant revolt in history.22

      This leads to another problem : What is possible in the meantime, before that final redemption comes ? In one of his more disturbing parables, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, Jesus seemed to be explicitly playing with the problem :


      Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 83


      his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

      The servant fell on his knees before him. "Be patient with me, " he begged, "and I will pay back everything." The servant' s master took pity on him, canceled the debt, and let him go.

      But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. "Pay back what you owe me!" he demanded.

      His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back."

      But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other ser­ vants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

      Then the master called the servant in. "You wicked ser­ vant," he said, "I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you ?" In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 23


      This is quite an extraordinary text. On one level it's a joke; in oth­ ers, it could hardly be more serious.

      We begin with the king wishing to "settle accounts" with his ser­ vants. The premise is absurd. Kings, like gods, can't really enter into relations of exchange with their subjects, since no parity is possible. And this is a king who clearly is God. Certainly there can be no final

      settling of accounts.

      So at best we are dealing with an act of whimsy on the king's part. The absurdity of the premise is hammered home by the sum the first man brought before him is said to owe. In ancient Judaea, to say some­ one owes a creditor "ten thousand talents" would be like now saying someone owes "a hundred billion dollars." The number is a joke, too; it simply stands in for "a sum no human being could ever, conceivably, repay. "24

      Faced with infinite, existential debt, the servant can only tell obvi­ ous lies: "a hundred billion ? Sure, I'm good for it! Just give me a little more time. " Then, suddenly, apparently just as arbitrarily, the Lord forgives him.

      Yet, it turns out, the amnesty has a condition he is not aware of. It is incumbent on his being willing to act in an analogous way to other

      84 DEB T


      humans-in this particular case, another servant who owes him (to translate again into contemporary terms) , maybe a thousand bucks. Failing the test, the human is cast into hell for all eternity, or "until he should pay back all he owed," which in this case comes down to the same thing.

      The parable has long been a challenge to theologians. It's normally interpreted as a comment on the endless bounty of God's grace and how little He demands of us in comparison-and thus, by implication, as a way of suggesting that torturing us in hell for all eternity is not as unreasonable as it might seem. Certainly, the unforgiving servant is a genuinely odious character. Still, what is even more striking to me is the tacit suggestion that forgiveness, in this world, is ultimately im­ possible. Christians practically say as much every time they recite the Lord's Prayer, and ask God to " forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors."25 It repeats the story of the parable almost exactly, and the implications are similarly dire. After all, most Christians reciting the prayer are aware that they do not generally forgive their debtors. Why then should God forgive them their sins ?26

      What's more, there is the lingering suggestion that we really couldn't live up to those standards, even if we tried. One of the things that makes the Jesus of the New Testament such a tantalizing character is that it's never clear what he's telling us. Everything can be read two ways. When he calls on his followers to forgive all debts, refuse to cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, love their enemies, to hand over their possessions to the poor-is he really expecting them to do this? Or are such demands just a way of throwing in their faces that, since we are clearly not prepared to act this way, we are all sinners whose salvation can only come in another world-a position that can be (and has been) used to justify almost anything? This is a vision of human life as inherently corrupt, but it also frames even spiritual affairs in com­ mercial terms: with calculations of sin, penance, and absolution, the Devil and St. Peter with their rival ledger books, usually accompanied by the creeping feeling that it's all a charade because the very fact that we are reduced to playing such a game of tabulating sins reveals us to be funda mentally unworthy of forgiveness.

      World religions, as we shall see, are fu ll of this kind of ambiva­ lence. On the one hand they are outcries against the market; on the other, they tend to frame their objections in commercial terms-as if to argue that turning human life into a series of transactions is not a very good deal. What I think even these few examples reveal, though, is how much is being papered over in the conventional accounts of the origins and history of money. There is something almost touchingly

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 85


      naive in the stories about neighbors swapping potatoes for an extra pair of shoes. When the ancients thought about money, friendly swaps were hardly the first thing that came to mind.

      True, some might have thought about their tab at the local ale­ house, or, if they were a merchant or administrator, of storehouses, account books, exotic imported delights. For most, though, what was likely to come to mind was the selling of slaves and ransoming of pris­ oners, corrupt tax-farmers and the depredations of conquering armies, mortgages and interest, theft and extortion, revenge and punishment, and, above all, the tension between the need for money to create fami­ lies, to acquire a bride so as to have children, and use of that same money to destroy families-to create debts that lead to the same wife and children being taken away. "Some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them." One can only imagine what those words meant, emotionally, to a father in a patriarchal society in which a man's ability to protect the honor of his family was everything. Yet this is what money meant to the ma­ jority of people for most of human history: the terrifying prospect of one's sons and daughters being carried off to the homes of repulsive strangers to clean their pots and provide the occasional sexual services, to be subject to every conceivable form of violence and abuse, pos­ sibly for years, conceivably forever, as their parents waited, helpless, avoiding eye contact with their neighbors, who knew exactly what was happening to those they were supposed to have been able to protect.27 Clearly this was the worst thing that could happen to anyone-which is why, in the parable, it could be treated as interchangeable with be­ ing "turned over to the jailors to be tortured" for life. And that's just from the perspective of the father. One can only imagine how it might have felt to be the daughter. Yet, over the course of human history, untold millions of daughters have known (and in fact many still know) exactly what it's like.

      One might object that this was just assumed to be in the nature of things: like the imposition of tribute on conquered populations, it might have been resented, but it wasn't considered a moral issue, a matter of right and wrong. Some things just happen. This has been the most common attitude of peasants to such phenomena throughout hu­ man history. What's striking about the historical record is that in the case of debt crises, this was not how many reacted. Many actually did become indignant. So many, in fact, that most of our contemporary language of social justice, our way of speaking of human bondage and emancipation, continues to echo ancient arguments about debt.

      86 D E B T


      It's particularly striking because so many other things do seem to have been accepted as simply in the nature of things. One does not see a similar outcry against caste systems, for example, or for that matter, the institution of slavery.28 Surely slaves and untouchables often experi­ enced at least equal horrors. No doubt many protested their condition. Why was it that the debtors' protests seemed to carry such greater moral weight? Why were debtors so much more effective in winning the ear of priests, prophets, officials, and social reformers ? Why was it that officials like Nehemiah were willing to give such sympathetic con­ sideration to their complaints, to inveigh, to summon great assemblies ? Some have suggested practical reasons: debt crises destroyed the free peasantry, and it was free peasants who were drafted into ancient armies to fight in wars.29 No doubt this was a factor; clearly it wasn't the only one. There is no reason to believe that Nehemiah, for instance, in his anger at the usurers, was primarily concerned with his ability to levy troops for the Persian king. It is something more fundamental.

      What makes debt different is that it is premised on an assumption of equality.

      To be a slave, or lower-caste, is to be intrinsically inferior. We are dealing with relations of unadulterated hierarchy. In the case of debt, we are dealing with two individuals who begin as equal parties to a contract. Legally, at least as far as the contract is concerned, they are the same.

      We can add that, in the ancient world, when people who actually were more or less social equals loaned money to one another, the terms appear to have normally been quite generous. Often no interest was charged, or if it was, it was very low. "And don't charge me interest," wrote one wealthy Canaanite to another, in a tablet dated around 1200 BC, "a fter all, we are both gentlemen. "30 Between close kin, many "loans" were probably, then as now, just gifts that no one seriously expected to recover. Loans between rich and poor were something else again.

      The problem was that, unlike status distinctions like caste or slav­ ery, the line between rich and poor was never precisely drawn. One can imagine the reaction of a farmer who went up to the house of a wealthy cousin, on the assumption that "humans help each other," and ended up, a year or two later, watching his vineyard seized and his sons and daughters led away. Such behavior could be justified, in legal terms, by insisting that the loan was not a form of mutual aid but a commercial relationship-a contract is a contract. (It also required a certain reli­ able access to superior force.) But it could only have felt like a terrible betrayal. What's more, framing it as a breach of contract meant stating

      C R U E L TY A N D R E D E M P T I O N 87


      that this was, in fact, a moral issue: these two parties ought to be equals, but one had failed to honor the bargain. Psychologically, this can only have made the indignity of the debtor's condition all the more painful, since it made it possible to say that it was his own turpitude that sealed his daughter's fate. But that just made the motive all the more compelling to throw back the moral aspersions: "Our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children ." We are all the same people. We have a responsibility to take account of one another's needs and interests. How then could my brother do this to me?

      In the Old Testament case, debtors were able to marshal a particu­ larly powerful moral argument-as the authors of Deuteronomy con­ stantly reminded their readers, were not the Jews all slaves in Egypt, and had they not all been redeemed by God ? Was it right, when they had all been given this promised land to share, for some to take that

      land away from others? Was it right for a population of liberated slaves to go about enslaving one aother's children ?31 But analogous arguments

      were being made in similar situations almost everywhere in the ancient world : in Athens, in Rome, and for that matter, in China-where leg­ end had it that coinage itself was first invented by an ancient emperor to redeem the children of fa milies who had been forced to sell them after a series of devastating floods.

      Through most of history, when overt political conflict between classes did appear, it took the form of pleas for debt cancellation-the freeing of those in bondage, and usually, a more just reallocation of the land. What we see, in the Bible and other religious traditions, are traces of the moral arguments by which such claims were justified, usu­ ally subject to all sorts of imaginative twists and turns, but inevitably, to some degree, incorporating the language of the marketplace itself.



      Chapter Five


      A BRIE F TR EATI SE ON TH E MORAL GR OU ND S OF EC ONOMIC RE LATI ONS


      TO TELL THE HISTORY of debt, then, is also necessarily to recon­ struct how the language of the marketplace has come to pervade every aspect of human life-even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it. We have already seen how both Vedic and Christian teachings thus end up making the same curious move: first describing all morality as debt, but then, in their very manner of doing so, demonstrating that morality cannot really be reduced to debt, that it must be grounded in something else.1

      But what? Religious traditions prefer vast, cosmological answers: the alternative to the morality of debt lies in recognition of continu­ ity with the universe, or life in the expectation of the imminent an­ nihilation of the universe, or absolute subordination to the deity, or withdrawal into another world. My own aims are more modest, so I will take the opposite approach. If we really want to understand the moral grounds of economic life, and by extension, human life, it seems to me that we must start instead with the very small things: the every­ day details of social existence, the way we treat our friends, enemies, and children-often with gestures so tiny (passing the salt, bumming a cigarette) that we ordinarily never stop to think about them at all. Anthropology has shown us just how different and numerous are the ways in which humans have been known to organize themselves. But it also reveals some remarkable commonalities-fundamental moral principles that appear to exist everywhere, and that will always tend to be invoked, wherever people transfer objects back and forth or argue about what other people owe them.

      One of the reasons that human life is so complicated, in turn, is because many of these principles contradict one another. As we will see, they are constantly pulling us in radically different directions. The moral logic of exchange, and hence of debt, is only one; in any given situation, there are likely to be completely different principles that

      90 DEB T


      could be brought to bear. In this sense, the moral confusion discussed in the first chapter is hardly new; in a sense, moral thought is founded on this very tension.


      I I I I I


      To really understand what debt is, then, it will be necessary to un­ derstand how it's different from other sorts of obligation that human beings might have to one another-which, in turn, means mapping out what those other sorts of obligation actually are. Doing so, how­ ever, poses peculiar challenges. Contemporary social theory-economic anthropology included-offers surprisingly little help in this regard. There's an enormous anthropological literature on gifts, for instance, starting with the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss's essay of 1925, even on "gift economies" that operate on completely different prin­ ciples than market economies-but in the end, almost all this literature concentrates on the exchange of gifts, assuming that whenever one gives a gift, this act incurs a debt, and the recipient must eventually reciprocate in kind . Much as in the case of the great religions, the logic of the marketplace has insinuated itself even into the thinking of those who are most explicitly opposed to it. As a result, I am going to have to start over here, to create a new theory, pretty much from scratch.

      Part of the problem is the extraordinary place that economics cur­ rently holds in the social sciences. In many ways it is treated as a kind of master discipline. Just about anyone who runs anything important in America is expected to have some training in economic theory, or at least to be familiar with its basic tenets. As a result, those tenets have come to be treated as received wisdom, as basically beyond question (one knows one is in the presence of received wisdom when, if one challenges it, the first reaction is to treat one as simply ignorant­ "You obviously have never heard of the Laffer Curve"; "Clearly you need a course in Economics 101 "-the theory is seen as so obviously true that no one who understands it could possibly disagree.) What's more, those branches of social theory that make the greatest claims to "scientific status"-" rational choice theory," for instance-start from the same assumptions about human psychology that economists do: that human beings are best viewed as self-interested actors calculating how to get the best terms possible out of any situation, the most profit or pleasure or happiness for the least sacrifice or investment-curious, considering experimental psychologists have demonstrated over and over again that these assumptions simply aren't true.2

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F ECONO M I C R E L A T I O N S 9 1


      From early on, there were those who wished to create a theo­ ry of social interaction grounded in a more generous view of human nature–insisting that moral life comes down to something more than mutual advantage, that it is motivated above all by a sense of justice. The key term here became "reciprocity," the sense of equity, balance, fairness, and symmetry, embodied in our image of justice as a set of scales. Economic transactions were just one variant of the principle of balanced exchange–and one that had a notorious tendency to go awry. But if one examines matters closely, one finds that all human relations are based on some variation on reciprocity.

      In the r9sos, '6os and '7os, there was something of a craze for this sort of thing, in the guise of what was then called "exchange theory," developed in infinite variations, from George Homans' "Social Ex­ change Theory" in the United States to Claude Levi-Strauss's Structur­ alism in France. Levi-Strauss, who became a kind of intellectual god in anthropology, made the extraordinary argument that human life could be imagined as consisting of three spheres: language (which consisted of the exchange of words), kinship (which consisted of the exchange of women), and economics (which consisted of the exchange of things) . All three, he insisted, were governed by the same fundamental law of reciprocity.3

      Levi-Strauss's star is fallen now, and such extreme statements seem, in retrospect, a little bit ridiculous. Still, it's not as if anyone has pro­ posed a bold new theory to replace all this. Instead, the assumptions have simply retreated into the background. Almost everyone continues to assume that in its fundamental nature, social life is based on the

      principle of reciprocity, and therefore that all human interaction can best be understood as a kind of exchange. If so, then debt really is at the root of all morality, because debt is what happens when some bal­

      ance has not yet been restored.

      But can all justice really be reduced to reciprocity ? It's easy enough to come up with forms of reciprocity that don't seem particularly just. "Do unto others as you would wish others to do unto you" might seem like an excellent foundation for a system of ethics, but for most of us, "an eye for an eye" does not evoke justice so much as vindictive brutal­ ity.4 "One good turn deserves another" is a pleasant sentiment, but "I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine" is shorthand for political corrup­ tion. Conversely, there are relationships that seem clearly moral but appear to have nothing to do with reciprocity. The relation between mother and child is an oft-cited example. Most of us learn our sense of justice and morality first from our parents. Yet it is extremely difficult to see the relation between parent and child as particularly reciprocal.

      92 DEB T


      Would we really be willing to conclude that therefore it is not a moral relationship ? That it has nothing to do with justice ?

      The Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood begins a recent book on debt with a similar paradox:


      Nature Writer Ernest Thompson Seton had an odd bill pre­ sented to him on his twenty-first birthday. It was a record kept by his father of all the expenses connected with young Ernest's childhood and youth, including the fee charged by the doctor for delivering him. Even more oddly, Ernest is said to have paid it. I used to think that Mr. Seton Senior was a jerk, but now I'm wondering.5


      Most of us wouldn't wonder much. Such behavior seems mon­ strous, inhuman. Certainly Seton did: he paid the bill, but never spoke to his father again afterward.6 And in a way, this is precisely why the presentation of such a bill seems so outrageous. Squaring accounts means that the two parties have the ability to walk away from each other. By presenting it, his father suggested he'd just as soon have noth­ ing further to do with him.

      In other words, while most of us can imagine what we owe to our parents as a kind of debt, few of us can imagine being able to actually pay it-or even that such a debt ever should be paid. Yet if it can't be paid, in what sense is it a "debt" at all ? And if it is not a debt, what is it?


      I I I I I


      One obvious place to look for alternatives is in cases of human inter­ action in which expectations of reciprocity seem to slam into a wall. Nineteenth-century travelers' accounts, for instance, are full of this sort of thing. Missionaries working in certain parts of Africa would often be astounded by the reactions they would receive when they adminis­ tered medicines. Here's a typical example, from a British missionary in Congo:


      A day or two after we reached Vana we found one of the na­ tives very ill with pneumonia. Comber treated him and kept him alive on strong fowl-soup; a great deal of careful nursing and attention was visited on him, for his house was beside the camp. When we were ready to go on our way again, the man was well. To our astonishment he came and asked us for a

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F ECONO M I C R E L A T I O N S 9 3


      present, and was as astonished and disgusted as he had made us to be, when we declined giving it. We suggested that it was his place to bring us a present and to show some gratitude. He said to us, "Well indeed! You white men have no shame!"7


      In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philoso­ pher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that "natives" ope

      ated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health a fter having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis:


      You save a person's life, and you must expect to receive a visit from him before long; you are now under an obligation to him, and you will not get rid of him except by giving him presents.8


      Now, certainly, there is almost always felt to be something ex­ traordinary about saving a life. Anything surrounding birth and death almost cannot help but partake of the infinite, and, therefore, throw all everyday means of moral calculation askew. This is probably why stories like this had become something of a cliche in America when I was growing up. I remember as a child several times being told that among the Inuit (or sometimes it was among Buddhists, or Chinese, but curiously, never Africans)-that if one saves someone else's life, one is considered responsible for taking care of that person forever. It defies our sense of reciprocity. But somehow, it also makes a weird kind of sense.

      We have no way of knowing what was really going on in the minds of the patients in these stories, since we don't know who they were or what sort of expectations they had (how they normally interacted with their doctors, for example) . But we can guess. Let's try a thought experiment. Imagine that we are dealing with a place where, if one man saved another's life, the two became like brothers. Each was now expected to share everything, and to provide for the other when he was in need. If so, the patient would surely notice that his new brother appeared to be extraordinarily wealthy, not in much need of anything, but that he, the patient, was lacking in many things the missionary could provide.

      Alternately (and more likely) , imagine that we are dealing not with a relationship of radical equality but the very opposite. In many parts

      94 D E B T


      of Africa, accomplished curers were also important political figures with extensive clienteles of former patients. A would-be follower thus arrives to declare his political allegiance. What complicates the matter in this case is that followers of great men, in this part of Africa, were in a relatively strong bargaining position. Good henchmen were hard to come by; important people were expected to be generous with fol­ lowers to keep them from joining some rival's entourage instead. If so, asking for a shirt or knife would be a way of asking for confirmation that the missionary does wish to have the man as a follower. Paying him back, in contrast, would be, like Seton's gesture to his father, an insult: a way of saying that despite the missionary having saved his life, he would just as soon have nothing further to do with him.


      I I I I I


      This is a thought experiment-because we don't really know what the African patients were thinking. The point is that such forms of radical equality and radical inequality do exist in the world, that each carries within it its own kind of morality, its own way of thinking and arguing about the rights and wrongs of any given situation, and these morali­ ties are entirely different than that of tit-for-tat exchange. In the rest of the chapter, I will provide a rough-and-ready way to map out the main possibilities, by proposing that there are three main moral principles on which economic relations can be founded, all of which occur in any human society, and which I will call communism, hierarchy, and exchange.


      Co mmuni sm


      I will define communism here as any human relationship that operates on the principles of "from each according to their abilities, to each ac­ cording to their needs."

      I admit that the usage here is a bit provocative. "Communism" is a word that can evoke strong emotional reactions-mainly, of course, because we tend to identify it with "communist" regimes. This is iron­ ic, since the Communist parties that ruled over the USSR and its sat­ ellites, and that still rule China and Cuba, never described their own systems as "communist. " They described them as "socialist." "Com­ munism" was always a distant, somewhat fuzzy utopian ideal, usually

      T H E M O R A L G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 9 5


      to be accompanied by the withering away of the state-to be achieved at some point in the distant future.

      Our thinking about communism has been dominated by a myth. Once upon a time, humans held all things in common-in the Gar­ den of Eden, during the Golden Age of Saturn, in Paleolithic hunter­ gatherer bands. Then came the Fall, as a result of which we are now cursed with divisions of power and private property. The dream was that someday, with the advance of technology and general prosperity, with social revolution or the guidance of the Party, we would finally be in a position to put things back, to restore common ownership and common management of collective resources. Throughout the last two centuries, Communists and anti- Communists argued over how plau­ sible this picture was and whether it would be a blessing or a night­ mare. But they all agreed on the basic framework: communism was about collective property, "primitive communism" did once exist in the distant past, and someday it might return .

      We might call this "mythic communism "-or even , "epic communism"-a story we like to tell ourselves. Since the days of the French Revolution, it has inspired millions; but it has also done enor­ mous damage to humanity. It's high time, I think, to brush the entire argument aside. In fact, "communism" is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now-that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organized in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be. All of us act like communists a good deal of the time. None of us acts like a communist consistently. "Communist society"-in the sense of a society organized exclusively on that single principle-could never exist. But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism.

      Starting, as I say, from the principle of " from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" allows us to look past the question of individual or private ownership (which is often little more than formal legality anyway) and at much more immediate and practical questions of who has access to what sorts of things and under what conditions.9 Whenever it 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. 10 If someone fixing a broken water pipe says, "Hand me the wrench," his co-worker will not, generally speaking,

      96 DEBT


      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 "com­ munism just doesn't work") : if you really 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.11 One might even say that it's one of the scandals of capitalism that most capital­ ist firms, internally, operate communistically. True, they 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 in­ teresting tension here, because top-down chains of command are not particularly efficient: they tend to promote stupidity among those on 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 fre­ quently figure it out, and computer engineers have recently rediscov­ ered the principle: not only with things like freeware, which everyone talks about, but even in the organization of their businesses. Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republi­ can) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 198os, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with their laptops in each other's garages.

      This is presumably also why in the immediate wake of great di­ sasters-a flood, a blackout, or an economic collapse-people tend to behave the same way, reverting to a rough-and-ready communism. However briefly, hierarchies and markets and the like become luxuries that no one can afford. Anyone who has lived through such a moment can speak to their peculiar qualities, the way that strangers become sisters and brothers and human society itself seems to be reborn. This is important, because it shows that we are not simply talking about cooperation. In fact, communism is the foundation of all human socia­

      bility. It is what makes society possible. There is always an assumption

      that anyone who is not actually an enemy can be expected on the prin­ ciple of "from each according to their abilities," at least to an extent: for example, if one needs to figure out how to get somewhere, and the other knows the way.

      We so take this for granted, in fact, that the exceptions are them­ selves revealing. E.E. Evans-Pritchard, an anthropologist who in the 1920s carried out research among the Nuer, Nilotic pastoralists in southern Sudan, reports his discomfiture when he realized that some­ one had intentionally given him wrong directions:

      T H E M O R A L G R O U N D S O F ECONO M I C R E L A T I O N S 9 7


      On one occasion I asked the way to a certain place and was deliberately deceived. I returned in chagrin to camp and asked the people why they had told me the wrong way. One of them replied, "You are a foreigner, why should we tell you the right way ? Even if a Nuer who was a stranger asked us the way we would say to him, 'You continue straight along that path,' but we would not tell him that the path forked . Why should we tell him? But you are now a member of our camp and you are kind to our children, so we will tell you the right way in future. "12


      The Nuer are constantly engaged in feuds; any stranger might well turn out to be an enemy there to scout out a good place for an am­ bush, and it would be unwise to give such a person useful information. What's more, Evans-Pritchard's own situation was obviously relevant, since he was an agent of the British government-the same government that had recently sent in the RAF to strafe and bomb the inhabitants of this very settlement before forcibly resettling them there. Under the circumstances, the inhabitants' treatment of Evans-Pritchard seems quite generous. The main point, though, is that it requires something on this scale-an immediate threat to life and limb, terror-bombing of civilian populations-before people will ordinarily consider not giving a stranger accurate directions. 13

      It's not just directions. Conversation is a domain particularly dis­ posed to communism. Lies, insults, put-downs, and other sorts of ver­ bal aggression are important-but they derive most of their power from the shared assumption that people do not ordinarily act this way: an insult does not sting unless one assumes that others will normally be considerate of one's feelings, and it's impossible to lie to someone who does not assume you would ordinarily tell the truth. When we genuinely wish to break off amicable relations with someone, we stop speaking to them entirely.

      The same goes for small courtesies like asking for a light, or even for a cigarette. It seems more legitimate to ask a stranger for a cigarette than for an equivalent amount of cash, or even food; in fact, if one has been identified as a fellow smoker, it's rather difficult to refuse such a request. In such cases-a match, a piece of information, holding the elevator-one might say the "from each" element is so minimal that most of us comply without even thinking about it. Conversely, the same is true if another person's need-even a stranger's-is particular­ ly spectacular or extreme: if he is drowning, for example. If a child has fallen onto the subway tracks, we assume that anyone who is capable of helping her up will do so.

      98 D E B T


      I will call this "baseline communism": the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" will be assumed to apply. Of course, different communities ap­ ply very different standards. In large, impersonal urban communities, such a standard may go no further than asking for a light or directions. This might not seem like much, but it founds the possibility of larger social relations. In smaller, less impersonal communities-especially those not divided into social classes-the same logic will likely extend much further: for example, it is often effectively impossible to refuse a request not just for tobacco, but for food-sometimes even from a stranger; certainly from anyone considered to belong to the com­ munity. Exactly one page after describing his difficulties in asking for directions, Evans-Pritchard notes that these same Nuer find it almost impossible, when dealing with someone they have accepted as a mem­ ber of their camp, to refuse a request for almost any item of common consumption, so that a man or woman known to have anything extra in the way of grain, tobacco, tools, or agricultural implements can be expected to see their stockpiles disappear almost immediately.14 How­ ever, this baseline of openhanded sharing and generosity never extends to everything. Often , in fact, things freely shared are treated as trivial and unimportant for that very reason. Among the Nuer, true wealth takes the form of cattle. No one would freely share their cattle; in fact, young Nuer men learn that they are expected to defend their cattle with their lives; for this reason, cattle are neither bought nor sold.

      The obligation to share food, and whatever else is considered a ba­ sic necessity, tends to become the basis of everyday morality in a society whose members see themselves as equals. Another anthropologist, Au­ drey Richards, once described how Bemba mothers, "such lax discipli­ narians in everything else," will scold their children harshly if they give one an orange or some other treat and the child does not immediately offer to share it with her friends.15 But sharing is also, in such societies­ in any, if we really think about it-a major focus of life's pleasures. As a result, the need to share is particularly acute in both the best of times and the worst of times: during famines, for example, but also during moments of extreme plenty. Early missionary accounts of native North Americans almost invariably include awestruck remarks on gen­ erosity in times of famine, often to total strangers .16 At the same time,


      On returning from their fishing, their hunting, and their trading, they exchange many gifts; if they have thus obtained something

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F ECON O M I C R E L A T I O N S 9 9


      unusually good, even if they have bought it, or if it has been given to them, they make a feast to the whole village with it. Their hospitality towards all sorts of strangers is remarkable.17


      The more elaborate the feast, the more likely one is to see some combination of free sharing of some things ( for instance, food and drink) and careful distribution of others: say, prize meat, whether from game or sacrifice, which is often parceled out according to very elabo­ rate protocols or equally elaborate gift exchange. The giving and tak­ ing of gifts often takes on a distinctly gamelike quality, continuous often with the actual games, contests, pageants, and performances that also often mark popular festivals. As with society at large, the shared conviviality could be seen as a kind of communistic base on top of which everything else is constructed. It also helps to emphasize that sharing is not simply about morality, but also about pleasure. Soli­ tary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds. There is a certain communism of the senses at the root of most things we consider fun.

      The surest way to know that one is in the presence of commu­ nistic relations is that not only are no accounts taken, but it would be considered offensive, or simply bizarre, to even consider doing so. Each village, clan, or nation within the League of the Hodenosaunee, or Iroquois, for example, was divided into two halves.18 This is a com­ mon pattern: in other parts of the world (Amazonia, Melanesia) too, there are arrangements in which members of one side can only marry someone from the other side, or only eat food grown on the other side; such rules are explicitly designed to make each side dependent on the other for some basic necessity of life. Among the Six Iroquois, each side was expected to bury the other's dead. Nothing would be more absurd than for one side to complain that, "last year, we buried five of your dead, but you only buried two of ours."

      Baseline communism might be considered the raw material of soci­ ality, a recognition of our ultimate interdependence that is the ultimate substance of social peace. Still, in most circumstances, that minimal baseline is not enough. One always behaves in a spirit of solidarity more with some people than others, and certain institutions are spe­ cifically based on principles of solidarity and mutual aid. First among these are those we love, with mothers being the paradigm of selfless love. Others include close relatives, wives and husbands, lovers, one's closest friends. These are the people with whom we share everything, or at least to whom we know we can turn in need, which is the

      100 D E B T


      definition of a true friend everywhere. Such fri endships may be formal­ ized by a ritual as "bond-friends" or "blood brothers" who cannot refuse each other anything. As a result, any community could be seen as criss-crossed with relations of "individualistic communism," one-to­ one relations that operate, to varying intensities and degrees, on the basis of " from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs."19

      This same logic can be, and is, extended within groups: not only cooperative work groups, but almost any in-group will define itself by creating its own sort of baseline communism. There will be certain things shared or made freely available within the group, others that anyone will be expected to provide for other members on request, that one would never share with or provide to outsiders: help in repair­ ing one's nets in an association of fisherman, stationery supplies in an office, certain sorts of information among commodity traders, and so forth . Also, certain categories of people we can always call on in certain situations, such as harvesting or moving house.20 One could go on from here to various forms of sharing, pooling, who gets to call on whom for help with certain tasks: moving, or harvesting, or even, if one is in trouble, providing an interest-free loan . Finally, there are the different sorts of "commons," the collective administration of common resources.

      The sociology of everyday communism is a potentially enormous field, but one which, owing to our peculiar ideological blinkers, we have been unable to write about because we have been largely unable to see it. Rather than try to fu rther outline it, I will limit myself to three final points.

      First, we are not really dealing with reciprocity here–or at best, only with reciprocity in the broadest sense.21 What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the other person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will. The Iroquois example brings home clearly what makes this possible: that such relations are based on a presumption of eternity. Society will always exist. Therefore, there will always be a north and a south side of the village. This is why no accounts need be taken. In a similar way, people tend to treat their mothers and best friends as if they will always exist, however well they

      know it isn't true.

      The second point has to do with the fa mous "law of hospitality." There is a peculiar tension between a common stereotype of what are called "primitive societies" (people lacking both states and markets) as societies in which anyone not a member of the community is as­ sumed to be an enemy, and the frequent accounts of early European

      T H E MORAL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 10 1


      travelers awestruck by the extraordinary generosity shown them by actual "savages." Granted, there is a certain truth to both sides. Wher­ ever a stranger is a dangerous potential enemy, the normal way to overcome the danger is by some dramatic gesture of generosity whose very magnificence catapults them into that mutual sociality that is the ground for all peaceful social relations. True, when one is dealing with completely unknown quantities, there is often a process of testing. Both Christopher Columbus, in Hispaniola, and Captain Cook, in Polynesia, reported similar stories of islanders who either flee, attack, or offer everything-but who often later enter the boats and help themselves to anything they take a fancy to, provoking threats of violence from the crew, who then did their utmost to establish the principle that relations between strange peoples should be mediated instead by "normal" com­ mercial exchange.

      It's understandable that dealings with potentially hostile strangers should encourage an all-or-nothing logic, a tension preserved even in English in the etymology of the words "host," "hostile," "hostage," and indeed "hospitality," all of which are derived from the same Latin root.22 What I want to emphasize here is that all such gestures are simply exaggerated displays of that very "baseline communism" that I have already argued is the ground of all human social life. This is why, for instance, the difference between friends and enemies is so often articulated through food-and often the most commonplace, humble, domestic sorts of food: as in the familiar principle, common in both Europe and the Middle East, that those who have shared bread and salt must never harm one another. In fact, those things that exist above

      all to be shared often become those things one cannot share with en­

      emies. Among the Nuer, so free with food and everyday possessions, if one man murders another, a blood feud follows. Everyone in the vicinity will often have to line up on one side or another, and those on opposite sides are strictly forbidden to eat with anyone on the other, or even to drink from a cup or bowl one of their newfound enemies has previously used, lest terrible results ensue.23 The extraordinary in­ convenience this creates is a major incentive to try to negotiate some sort of settlement. By the same token, it is often said that people who have shared food, or the right, archetypal kind of food, are forbidden to harm one another, however much they might be otherwise inclined to do so. At times, this can take on an almost comical formality, as in the Arab story of the burglar who, while ransacking someone's house, stuck his finger in a jar to see if it was full of sugar, only to discover it was full of salt instead. Realizing that he had now eaten salt at the owner's table, he dutifully put back everything he'd stolen.

      10 2 D E B T


      Finally, once we start thinking of communism as a principle of morality rather than just a question of property ownership, it becomes clear that this sort of morality is almost always at play to some degree in any transaction-even commerce. If one is on sociable terms with someone, it's hard to completely ignore their situation. Merchants of­ ten reduce prices for the needy. This is one of the main reasons why shopkeepers in poor neighborhoods are almost never of the same ethnic group as their customers; it would be almost impossible for a merchant who grew up in the neighborhood to make money, as they would be under constant pressure to give financial breaks, or at least easy credit terms, to their impoverished relatives and school chums. The opposite is true as well. An anthropologist who lived for some time in rural Java once told me that she measured her linguistic abilities by how well she could bargain at the local bazaar. It frustrated her that she could never get it down to a price as low as local people seemed pay. "Well," a Ja­ vanese friend finally had to explain, "they charge rich Javanese people more, too."

      Once again, we are back to the principle that if the needs (for

      instance, dire poverty) , or the abilities (for instance, wealth beyond imagination) , are sufficiently dramatic, then unless there is a complete absence of sociality, some degree of communistic morality will almost inevitably enter into the way people take accounts.24 A Turkish folktale about the Medieval Sufi mystic Nasruddin Hodja illustrates the com­ plexities thus introduced into the very concept of supply and demand:


      One day when Nasruddin was left in charge of the local tea­ house, the king and some retainers, who had been hunting nearby, stopped in for breakfast.

      "Do you have quail eggs?" asked the king.

      "I'm sure I can find some," answered Nasruddin.

      The king ordered an omelet of a dozen quail eggs, and Nasruddin hurried out to look for them. After the king and his party had eaten, he charged them a hundred gold pieces.

      The king was puzzled. "Are quail eggs really that rare in this part of the country?"

      "It's not so much quail eggs that are rare around here," Nasruddin replied. "It's more visits from kings."


      Exchange


      Communism, then, is based neither in exchange nor in reciprocity­ except, as I have observed, in the sense that it does involve mutual ex­ pectations and responsibilities. Even here, it seems better to use another

      T H E MORAL G R O U N D S O F ECO N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 10 3


      word (" mutuality"?) so as to emphasize that exchange operates on entirely different principles; that it's a fundamentally different kind of moral logic.

      Exchange is all about equivalence. It's a back-and-forth process involving two sides in which each side gives as good as it gets. This is why one can speak of people exchanging words (if there's an argu­ ment) , blows, or even gunfire.25 In these examples, it's not that there is ever an exact equivalence-even if there were some way to measure an exact equivalence-but more a constant process of interaction tend­ ing toward equivalence. Actually, there's something of a paradox here: each side in each case is trying to outdo the other, but, unless one side is utterly put to rout, it's easiest to break the whole thing off when both consider the outcome to be more or less even. When we move to the exchange of material goods, we find a similar tension. Often there is an element of competition; if nothing else, there's always that pos­ sibility. But at the same time, there's a sense that both sides are keeping accounts, and that, unlike what happens in communism, which always partakes of a certain notion of eternity, the entire relationship can be canceled out, and either party can call an end to it at any time.

      This element of competition can work in completely different ways. In cases of barter or commercial exchange, when both parties to the transaction are only interested in the value of goods being trans­ acted, they may well-as economists insist they should-try to seek the maximum material advantage. On the other hand, as anthropologists have long pointed out, when the exchange is of gifts, that is, the objects passing back and forth are mainly considered interesting in how they reflect on and rearrange relations between the people carrying out the transaction, then insofar as competition enters in, it is likely to work precisely the other way around-to become a matter of contests of generosity, of people showing off who can give more away.

      Let me take these one at a time.

      What marks commercial exchange is that it's "impersonal": who it is that is selling something to us, or buying something from us, should in principle be entirely irrelevant. We are simply comparing the value or two objects. True, as with any principle, in practice, this is rarely completely true. There has to be some minimal element of trust for a transaction to be carried out at all, and, unless one is dealing with a vending machine, that usually requires some outward display of social­ ity. Even in the most impersonal shopping mall or supermarket, clerks are expected to at least simulate personal warmth, patience, and other reassuring qualities; in a Middle-Eastern bazaar, one might have to go through an elaborate process of establishing a simulated friendship, sharing tea, food, or tobacco, before engaging in similarly elaborate

      10 4 DEBT


      haggling-an interesting ritual that begins by establishing sociality through baseline communism-and continues with an often prolonged mock battle over prices. It's all done on the basis of the assumption that buyer and seller are, at least at that moment, friends (and thus each entitled to feel outraged and indignant at the other's unreasonable demands) , but it's all a little piece of theater. Once the object changes hands, there is no expectation that the two will ever have anything to do with each other again.26

      Most often this sort of haggling-in Madagascar the term for it literally means "to battle out a sale" (miady varotra)-can be a source of pleasure in itself.

      The first time I visited Analakely, the great cloth market in Mada­ gascar's capital, I came with a Malagasy friend intent on buying a sweater. The whole process took about four hours. It went something like this: my friend would spot a likely sweater hanging in some booth, ask the price, and then she would begin a prolonged battle of wits with the vendor, invariably involving dramatic displays of insult and indig­ nation, and simulated walkings off in disgust. Often it seemed ninety percent of the argument was spent on a final, tiny difference of a few ariary-literally, pennies-that seemed to become a profound matter of principle on either side, since a merchant's failure to concede it could sink the entire deal.

      The second time I visited Analakely I went with another friend, also a young woman, who had a list of measures of cloth to buy sup­ plied by her sister. At each booth she adopted the same procedure: she simply walked up and asked for the price.

      The man would quote her one.

      "All right," she then asked, "and what's your real final price?" He'd tell her, and she'd hand over the money.

      "Wait a minute!" I asked. "You can do that?

      "Sure," she said. "Why not?"

      I explained what had happened with my last friend.

      "Oh, yeah," she said. "Some people enjoy that sort of thing."

      Exchange allows us to cancel out our debts. It gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship . With vendors, one is usu­ ally only pretending to have a relationship at all. With neighbors, one might for this very reason prefer not to pay one's debts. Laura Bohannan writes about arriving in a Tiv community in rural Nigeria; neighbors immediately began arriving bearing little gifts: "two ears corn, one vegetable marrow, one chicken, five tomatoes, one handful peanuts. "27 Having no idea what was expected of her, she thanked them and wrote down in a notebook their names and what they had

      T H E M O R A L G R O U N D S O F ECO N O M I C R E L AT I O N S 1 0 5


      brought. Eventually, two women adopted her and explained that all such gifts did have to be returned. It would be entirely inappropriate to simply accept three eggs from a neighbor and never bring anything back. One did not have to bring back eggs, but one should bring some­ thing back of approximately the same value. One could even bring money-there was nothing inappropriate in that-provided one did so at a discreet interval, and above all, that one did not bring the exact cost of the eggs. It had to be either a bit more or a bit less. To bring back nothing at all would be to cast oneself as an exploiter or a parasite. To bring back an exact equivalent would be to suggest that one no longer wishes to have anything to do with the neighbor. Tiv women, she learned, might spend a good part of the day walking for miles to distant homesteads to return a handful of okra or a tiny bit of change, "in an endless circle of gifts to which no one ever handed over the precise value of the object last received "-and in doing so, they were continually creating their society. There was certainly a trace of communism here-neighbors on good terms could also be trusted to help each other out in emergencies-but unlike communistic relations, which are assumed to be permanent, this sort of neighborliness had to be constantly created and maintained, because any link can be broken off at any time.

      There are endless variations on this sort of tit-for-tat, or almost tit-for-tat, gift exchange. The most fa miliar is the exchange of presents: I buy someone a beer; they buy me the next one. Perfect equivalence implies equality. But consider a slightly more complicated example: I take a friend out to a fancy restaurant for dinner; after a discreet inter­ val, they do the same. As anthropologists have long been in the habit of

      pointing out, the very existence of such customs-especially, the feeling that one really ought to return the favor-can't be explained by stan­ dard economic theory, which assumes that any human interaction is ultimately a business deal and that we are all self-interested individuals trying to get the most for ourselves for the least cost or least amount of effort.28 But this feeling is quite real, and it can cause genuine strain

      for those of limited means trying to keep up appearances. So: Why, if I took a free-market economic theorist out to an expensive dinner, would that economist feel somewhat diminished-uncomfortably in my debt-until he had been able to return the favor? Why, if he were feeling competitive with me, would he be inclined to take me to some­ place even more expensive ?

      Recall the feasts and festivals alluded to above: here, too, there is a base of conviviality and playful (sometimes not so playful) competition . On the one hand, everyone's pleasure is enhanced-after all, how many

      10 6 DEB T


      people would really want to eat a superb meal at a French restau­ rant all alone? On the other, things can easily slip into games of one­ upmanship-and hence obsession, humiliation, rage . . . or, as we'll soon see, even worse. In some societies, these games are formalized, but it's important to stress that such games only really develop between people or groups who perceive themselves to be more or less equivalent in status.29 To return to our imaginary economist: it's not clear that he would feel diminished if he received a present, or was taken out to dinner, by just anyone. He would be most likely to feel this way if the benefactor were someone he felt was of roughly equivalent status or dignity: a colleague, for example. If Bill Gates or George Soros took him out to dinner, he would likely conclude that he had indeed re­ ceived something for nothing and leave it at that. If some ingratiating junior colleague or eager graduate student did the same, he'd be likely to conclude that he was doing the man a favor just by accepting the invitation-if indeed he did accept, which he probably wouldn't.

      This, too, appears to be the case wherever we find society divided into fine gradations of status and dignity. Pierre Bourdieu has described the "dialectic of challenge and riposte" that governs all games of honor among Kabyle Berber men in Algeria, in which the exchange of insults, attacks (in feud or battles) , thefts, or threats was seen to follow exactly the same logic as the exchange of gifts.30 To give a gift is both an honor and a provocation. To respond to one requires infinite artistry. Timing is all-important. So is making the counter-gift just different enough, but also just slightly grander. Above all is the tacit moral principle that one must always pick on someone one's own size. To challenge someone obviously older, richer, and more honorable is to risk being snubbed, and hence humiliated; to overwhelm a poor but respectable man with a gift he couldn't possibly pay back is simply cruel, and will do equal damage to your reputation. There's an Indonesian story about that too: about a rich man who sacrificed a magnificent ox to shame a penurious rival; the poor man utterly humiliated him, and won the contest, by calmly proceeding to sacrifice a chicken.31

      Games like this become especially elaborate when status is to some degree up for grabs. When matters are too clear-cut, that introduces its own sorts of problems. Giving gifts to kings is often a particularly tricky and complicated business. The problem here is that one cannot really give a gift fit for a king (unless, perhaps, one is another king) , since kings by definition already have everything. On the one hand, one is expected to make a reasonable effort:

      T H E M O R AL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 10 7


      Nasruddin was once called up to visit the king. A neighbor saw him hurrying along the road carrying a bag of turnips.

      "What are those for?" he asked.

      "I've been called to see the king. I thought it would be best to bring some kind of present."

      "You're bringing him turnips? But turnips are peasant food! He's a king! You should bring him something more appropri­ ate, like grapes."

      Nasruddin agreed, and came to the king carrying a bunch of grapes. The king was not amused. "You're giving me grapes ? But I'm a king! This is ridiculous. Take this idiot out and teach him some manners! Throw each and every one of the grapes at him and then kick him out of the palace."

      The emperor's guards dragged Nasruddin into a side room and began pelting him with grapes. As they did so, he fell on his knees and began crying, "Thank you, thank you God, for your infinite mercy! "

      "Why are you thanking God ?" they asked. "You're being totally humiliated! "

      Nasruddin replied, "Oh, I was just thinking, 'Thank God I didn't bring the turnips! "'


      On the other hand, to give something that a king does not already have can get you in even greater trouble. One story circulating in the early Roman Empire concerned an inventor who, with great fanfare, presented a glass bowl as a gift to the emperor Tiberius. The emperor was puzzled: What was so impressive about a piece of glass? The man dropped it on the ground. Rather than shattering, it merely dented. He picked it up and simply pushed it back into its former shape.

      "Did you tell anyone else how you made this thing?" asked a startled Tiberius.

      The inventor assured him that he had not. The emperor therefore ordered him killed, since, if word of how to make unbreakable glass got out, his treasury of gold and silver would soon be worthless.32

      The best bet when dealing with kings was to make a reason­ able effort to play the game, but one that is still bound to fail. The fourteenth-century Arab traveler Ibn Battuta tells of the customs of the King of Sind, a terrifying monarch who took a particular delight in displays of arbitrary power.33 It was customary for foreign worthies visiting the king to present him with magnificent presents; whatever the gift was, he would invariably respond by presenting the bearer with something many times its value. As a result, a substantial business

      10 8 DEBT


      developed where local bankers would lend money to such VISitors to finance particularly spectacular gifts, knowing they could be well re­ paid from the proceeds of royal one-upmanship. The king must have known about this. He didn't object-since the whole point was to show that his wealth exceeded all possible equivalence-and if he re­ ally needed to, he could always expropriate the bankers. They knew that the really important game was not economic, but one of status, and his was absolute.

      In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. There­ fore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away. This in turn implies autonomy. Both principles sit uncomfortably with monarchs, which is the reason that kings generally dislike any sort of exchange.34 But within that overhanging prospect of potential cancellation, of ultimate equivalence, we find endless varia­ tions, endless games one can play. One can demand something from another person, knowing that by doing so, one is giving the other the right to demand something of equivalent value in return . In some con­ texts, even praising another's possession might be interpreted as a de­ mand of this sort. In eighteenth-century New Zealand, English settlers soon learned that it was not a good idea to admire, say, a particularly beautiful jade pendant worn around the neck of a Maori warrior; the latter would inevitably insist on giving it, not take no for an answer, and then, after a discreet interval, return to praise the settler's coat or gun. The only way to head this off was to quickly give him a gift before he could ask for one. Sometimes gifts are offered in order for the giver to be able to make such a demand : if one accepts the present, one is tacitly agreeing to allow the giver to claim whatever he deems equivalent.35

      All this, in turn, can shade into something very much like barter,

      directly swapping one thing for another-which as we've seen does occur even in what Marcel Mauss liked to refer to as "gift econo­ mies," even if largely between strangers.16 Within communities, there is almost always a reluctance, as the Tiv example so nicely illustrates, to allow things to cancel out-one reason that if there is money in common usage, people will often either refuse to use it with friends or relatives (which in a village society includes pretty much everyone), or alternately, like the Malagasy villagers in chapter 3, use it in radically different ways.

      TH E M O R AL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 10 9


      Hie ra rchy


      Exchange, then, implies formal equality-or at least, the potential for it. This is precisely why kings have such trouble with it.

      In contrast, relations of explicit hierarchy-that is, relations be­ tween at least two parties in which one is considered superior to the other-do not tend to operate by reciprocity at all. It's hard to see because the relation is often justified in reciprocal terms ("the peas­ ants provide food, the lords provide protection"), but the principle by which they operate is exactly the opposite. In practice, hierarchy tends to work by a logic of precedent.

      To illustrate what I mean by this, let us imagine a kind of con­ tinuum of one-sided social relations, ranging from the most exploit­ ative to the most benevolent. At one extreme is theft, or plunder; on the other selfless charity.37 Only at these two extremes is it is possible to have material interactions between people who otherwise have no social relation of any kind. Only a lunatic would mug his next-door neighbor. A band of marauding soldiers or nomadic horsemen falling on a peasant hamlet to rape and pillage also obviously have no inten­ tion of forming any ongoing relations with the survivors. But in a similar way, religious traditions often insist that the only true charity is anonymous-in other words, not meant to place the recipient in one's debt. One extreme form of this, documented in various parts of the world, is the gift by stealth, in a kind of reverse burglary: to literally sneak into the recipient's house at night and plant one's present so no one can know for sure who has left it. The figure of Santa Claus, or Saint Nicholas (who, it must be remembered, was not just the patron saint of children, but also the patron saint of thieves) would appear to

      ·be the mythological version of the same principle: a benevolent burglar

      with whom no social relations are possible and therefore to whom no one could possibly owe anything, in his case, above all, because he does not actually exist.

      Observe, however, what happens when one moves just a little bit less far out on the continuum in either direction. I have been told (I suspect it isn't true) that in parts of Belarus, gangs prey so systemati­ cally on travelers on trains and busses that they have developed the habit of giving each victim a little token, to confirm that the bearer has already been robbed . Obviously one step toward the creation of a state. Actually, one popular theory of the origins of the state, that goes back at least to the fourteenth-century North African historian Ibn Khaldun, runs precisely along these lines: nomadic raiders eventually systematize

      110 D E B T


      their relations with sedentary villagers; pillage turns into tribute, rape turns into the "right of the first night" or the carrying off of likely can­ didates as recruits for the royal harem . Conquest, untrammeled force, becomes systematized, and thus framed not as a predatory relation but as a moral one, with the lords providing protection, and the villagers, their sustenance. But even if all parties assume they are operating by a shared moral code, that even kings cannot do whatever they want but must operate within limits, allowing peasants to argue about the rights and wrongs of just how much of their harvest a king's retainers are entitled to carry off, they are very unlikely to frame their calculation in terms of the quality or quantity of protection provided, but rather in terms of custom and precedent: How much did we pay last year? How much did our ancestors have to pay? The same is true on the other side. If charitable donations become the basis for any sort of social relation, it will not be one based on reciprocity. If you give some coins to a panhandler, and that panhandler recognizes you later, it is unlikely that he will give you any money-but he might well consider you more likely to give him money again. Certainly this is true if one donates money to a charitable organization. (I gave money to the United Farm Workers once and I still haven't heard the end of it.) Such an act of one-sided generosity is treated as a precedent for what will be expected a fterward.38 It's quite the same if one gives candy to a child.

      This is what I mean when I say that hierarchy operates by a prin­ ciple that is the very opposite of reciprocity. Whenever the lines of su­ periority and inferiority are clearly drawn and accepted by all parties as the framework of a relationship, and relations are sufficiently ongoing that we are no longer simply dealing with arbitrary force, then relations will be seen as being regulated by a web of habit or custom. Sometimes the situation is assumed to have originated in some founding act of conquest. Or it might been seen as ancestral custom for which there is no need of explanation. But this introduces another complication to the problem of giving gifts to kings-or to any superior: there is always the danger that it will be treated as a precedent, added to the web of cus­ tom, and therefore considered obligatory thereafter. Xenophon claims that in the early days of the Persian Empire, each province vied to send the Great King gifts of its most unique and valuable products. This became the basis of the tribute system : each province was eventually expected to provide the same "gifts" every year.39 Similarly, according to the great Medieval historian Marc Bloch:


      [I]n the ninth century, when one day there was a shortage of wine in the royal cellars at Ver, the monks of Saint-Denis were

      T H E M O RAL G R O U N D S OF EC O N O M I C R E L AT I O N S 111


      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. "40


      In other words, any gift to a feudal superior, "especially if repeated three of four times," was likely to be treated as a precedent and added to the web of custom. As a result, those giving gifts to superiors often insisted on receiving a "letter of non-prej udice" legally stipulating that such a gift would not be required in the future. While it is unusual for matters to become quite so formalized, any social relation that is as­ sumed from the start to be unequal will inevitably begin to operate on an analogous logic-if only because, once relations are seen as based on "custom," the only way to demonstrate that one has a duty or obli­ gation to do something is to show that one has done it before.

      Often, such arrangements can turn into a logic of caste: certain clans are responsible for weaving the ceremonial garments, or bringing the fish for royal feasts, or cutting the king's hair. They thus come to be known as weavers or fishermen or barbers.41 This last point can't be overemphasized because it brings home another truth regularly over­ looked: that the logic of identity is, always and everywhere, entangled in the logic of hierarchy. It is only when certain people are placed above others, or where everyone is being ranked in relation to the king, or the high priest, or Founding Fathers, that one begins to speak of people bound by their essential nature: about fundamentally differ­ ent kinds of human being. Ideologies of caste or race are just extreme examples. It happens whenever one group is seen as raising themselves above others, or placing themselves below others, in such a way that ordinary standards of fair dealing no longer apply.

      In fact, something like this happens in a small way even in our most intimate social relations. The moment we recognize someone as a different sort of person, either above or below us, then ordinary rules of reciprocity become modified or are set aside. If a friend is unusually

      generous once, we will likely wish to reciprocate. If she acts this way repeatedly, we conclude she is a generous person, and are hence less likely to reciprocate.42

      We can describe a simple formula here: a certain action, repeated, becomes customary; as a result, it comes to define the actor's essential nature. Alternately, a person's nature may be defined by how others

      112 D E B T


      have acted toward him in the past. To be an aristocrat is largely to insist that in the past, others have treated you as an aristocrat (since aristocrats don't really do anything in particular, most spend their time simply existing in some sort of putatively superior state) , and therefore should continue to do so. Much of the art of being such a person is that of treating oneself in such a manner that it conveys how you expect others to treat you: in the case of actual kings, covering oneself with gold so as to suggest that others do likewise. On the other end of the scale, this is also how abuse becomes self-legitimating. As a former student of mine, Sarah Stillman, pointed out: in the United States, if

      a middle-class thirteen-year-old girl is kidnapped, raped, and killed, it is considered an agonizing national crisis that everyone with a tele­ vision is expected to follow for several weeks. If a thirteen-year-old girl is turned out as a child prostitute, raped systematically for years, and ultimately killed, all this is considered unremarkable-really just the sort of thing one can expect to end up happening to someone like that.43

      When objects of material wealth pass back and forth between su­ periors and inferiors as gifts or payments, the key principle seems to be that the sorts of things given on each side should be considered fundamentally different in quality, their relative value impossible to quantify-the result being that there is no way to even conceive of a squaring of accounts. Even if Medieval writers insisted on imagining society as a hierarchy in which priests pray for everyone, nobles fight for everyone, and peasants feed everyone, it never even occurred to anyone to establish how many prayers or how much military protec­ tion was equivalent to a ton of wheat. Nor did anyone ever consider making such a calculation. Neither is it that "lowly" sorts of people are necessarily given lowly sorts of things and vice versa. Sometimes it is quite the opposite. Until recently, just about any notable philosopher, artist, poet, or musician was required to find a wealthy patron for support. Famous works of poetry or philosophy are often prefaced­ oddly, to the modern eye-with gushing, sycophantic praise for the wisdom and virtue of some long-forgotten earl or count who provided a meager stipend. The fact that the noble patron merely provided

      room and board, or money, and that the client showed his gratitude by painting the Mona Lisa, or composing the Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, was in no way seen to compromise the assumption of the noble's intrinsic superiority.

      There is one great exception to this principle, and that is the phe­ nomenon of hierarchical redistribution. Here, though, rather than giv­ ing back and forth the same sorts of things, they give back and forth

      T H E MORAL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 113


      exactly the same thing: as, for instance, when fans of certain Nigerian pop stars throw money onto the stage during concerts, and the pop stars in question make occasional tours of their fans' neighborhoods tossing (the same) money from the windows of their limos. When this is all that's going on, we may speak of an absolutely minimal sort of hierarchy. In much of Papua New Guinea, social life centers on "big men," charismatic individuals who spend much of their time coaxing, cajoling, and manipulating in order to acquire masses of wealth to give away again at some great feast. One could, in practice, pass from here to, say, an Amazonian or indigenous North American chief. Unlike big men, their role is more formalized; but actually such chiefs have no power to compel anyone to do anything they don't want to (hence North American Indian chiefs' famous skill at oratory and powers of persuasion). As a result, they tended to give away far more than they received. Observers often remarked that in terms of personal posses­ sions, a village chief was often the poorest man in the village, such was the pressure on him for constant supply of largesse.

      Indeed, one could judge how egalitarian a society really was by ex­ actly this: whether those ostensibly in positions of authority are merely conduits for redistribution, or able to use their positions to accumulate riches. The latter seems most likely in aristocratic societies that add another element: war and plunder. After all, just about anyone who comes into a very large amount of wealth will ultimately give at least part of it away-often in grandiose and spectacular ways to large num­ bers of people. The more of one's wealth is obtained by plunder or extortion , the more spectacular and self-aggrandizing will be the forms in which it's given away. 44 And what is true of warrior aristocracies is all the more true of ancient states, where rulers almost invariably represented themselves as the protectors of the helpless, supporters of widows and orphans, and champions of the poor. The genealogy of the modern redistributive state-with its notorious tendency to foster identity politics-can be traced back not to any sort of "primitive com­ munism" but ultimately to violence and war.


      Sh i fti ng betwe en Modali ties


      I should underline again that we are not talking about different types of society here (as we've seen, the very idea that we've ever been or­ ganized into discrete "societies" is dubious) but moral principles that always coexist everywhere. We are all communists with ·our closest

      114 DEBT


      friends, and feudal lords when dealing with small children . It is very hard to imagine a society where people wouldn't be both.

      The obvious question is: If we are all ordinarily moving back and forth between completely different systems of moral accounting, why hasn't anybody noticed this? Why, instead, do we continually feel the need to reframe everything in terms of reciprocity ?

      Here we must return to the fact that reciprocity is our main way of imagining justice. In particular, it is what we fall back on when we're thinking in the abstract, and especially when we're trying to create an idealized picture of society. I've already given examples of this sort of thing. Iroquois communities were based on an ethos that required ev­ eryone to be attentive to the needs of several different sorts of people: their friends, their families, members of their matrilineal clans, even friendly strangers in situations of hardship. It was when they had to think about society in the abstract that they started to emphasize the two sides of the village, each of which had to bury the other's dead. It was a way of imagining communism through reciprocity. Similarly, feudalism was a notoriously messy and complicated business, but when­ ever Medieval thinkers generalized about it, they reduced all its ranks and orders into one simple formula in which each order contributed its share: "Some pray, some fight, still others work. "45 Even hierarchy was seen as ultimately reciprocal, despite this formula having nothing to do with the real relations between priests, knights, and peasants really operated on the ground. Anthropologists are familiar with the phe­ nomenon: it's only when people who have never had occasion to really think about their society or culture as a whole, who probably weren't even aware they were living inside something other people considered a "society" or a "culture, " are asked to explain how everything works that they say things like "this is how we repay our mothers for the pain of having raised us," or puzzle over conceptual diagrams in which clan A gives their women in marriage to clan B who gives theirs to clan C, who gives theirs back to A again, but which never seem to quite cor­ respond to what real people actually do.46 When trying to imagine a just society, it's hard not to evoke images of balance and symmetry, of elegant geometries where everything balances out.

      The idea that there is something called "the market" is not so very different. Economists will often admit this, if you ask them in the right way. Markets aren't real. They are mathematical models, created by imagining a self-contained world where everyone has exactly the same motivation and the same knowledge and is engaging in the same self­ interested calculating exchange. Economists are aware that reality is always more complicated; but they are also aware that to come up with

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 115


      a mathematical model, one always has to make the world into a bit of a cartoon. There's nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when it enables some (often these same economists) to declare that anyone who ignores the dictates of the market shall surely be punished-or that since we live in a market system, everything (except government interference) is based on principles of justice: that our economic system is one vast network of reciprocal relations in which, in the end, the accounts balance and all debts are paid.

      These principles get tangled up in each other and it's thus often difficult to tell which predominates in a given situation-one reason that it's ridiculous to pretend we could ever reduce human behavior, economic or otherwise, to a mathematical formula of any sort. Still, this means that some degree of reciprocity can be detected as poten­ tially present in any situation; so a determined observer can always find some excuse to say it's there. What's more, certain principles appear to have an inherent tendency to slip into others. For instance, a lot of extremely hierarchical relationships can operate (at least some of the time) on communistic principles. If you have a rich patron, you come to him in times of need, and he is expected to help you. But only to a certain degree. No one expects the patron to provide so much help that it threatens to undermine the underlying inequality.47

      Likewise, communistic relations can easily start slipping into rela­ tions of hierarchical inequality-often without anyone noticing it. It's not hard to see why this happens. Sometimes different people's "abili­ ties" and "needs" are grossly disproportionate. Genuinely egalitarian societies are keenly aware of this and tend to develop elaborate safe­ guards around the dangers of anyone-say, especially good hunters, in a hunting society-rising too far above themselves; just as they tend to be suspicious of anything that might make one member of the so­ ciety feel in genuine debt to another. A member who draws attention to his own accomplishments will find himself the object of mockery. Often, the only polite thing to do if one has accomplished something significant is to instead make fun of oneself. The Danish writer Peter Freuchen, in his Book of the Eskimo, described how in Greenland, one could tell what a fine delicacy someone had to offer his guests by how much he belittled it beforehand:


      The old man laughed. "Some people don't know much. I am such a poor hunter and my wife a terrible cook who ruins everything. I don't have much, but I think there is a piece of meat outside. It might still be there as the dogs have refused it several times."

      116 DEBT


      This was such a recommendation in the Eskimo way of backwards bragging that everyone's mouths began to water . . .


      The reader will recall the walrus hunter of the last chapter, who took offense when the author tried to thank him for giving him a share of meat-after all, humans help one another, and once we treat some­ thing as a gift, we turn into something less than human: "Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."48

      "Gift" here does not mean something given freely, not mutual aid

      that we can ordinarily expect human beings to provide to one another. To thank someone suggests that he or she might not have acted that way, and that therefore the choice to act this way creates an obliga­ tion, a sense of debt-and hence, inferiority. Communes or egalitarian collectives in the United States often face similar dilemmas, and they have to come up with their own safeguards against creeping hierar­ chy. It's not that the tendency for communism to slip into hierarchy is inevitable-societies like the Inuit have managed to fend it off for thousands of years-but rather, that one must always guard against it. In contrast, it's notoriously difficult-often downright impossible­

      to shift relations based on an assumption of communistic sharing to relations of equal exchange. We observe this all the time with friends: if someone is seen as taking advantage of your generosity, it's often much easier to break off relations entirely than to demand that they some­ how pay you back. One extreme example is the Maori story about a notorious glutton who used to irritate fishermen up and down the coast near where he lived by constantly asking for the best portions of their catch . Since to refuse ;1 direct request for food was effectively impos­ sible, they .would dutifully turn it over; until one day, people decided enough was enough and killed him.49

      We've already seen how creating a ground of sociability among strangers can often require an elaborate process of testing the oth­ ers' limits by helping oneself to their possessions. The same sort of thing can happen in peacemaking, or even in the creation of business partnerships.50 In Madagascar, people told me that two men who are

      thinking of going into business together will often become blood broth­ ers. Blood brotherhood, fatidra, consists of an unlimited promise of mutual aid. Both parties solemnly swear that they will never refuse any request from the other. In reality, partners to such an agreement are usually fairly circumspect in what they actually request. But, my friends insisted, when people first make such an agreement, they sometimes

      like to test it out. One may demand the other's house, the shirt off his back, or (everyone's favorite example) the right to spend the night

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F ECONO M I C R E L A T I O N S 117


      with his wife. The only limit is the knowledge that anything one can demand, the other one can too.51 Here, again, we are talking about an initial establishment of trust. Once the genuineness of the mutual com­ mitment has been confirmed, the ground is prepared, as it were, and the two men can begin to buy and sell on consignment, advance funds, share profits, and otherwise trust that each will look after the other's commercial interests from then on. The most famous and dramatic moments, however, are those when relations of exchange threaten to break down into hierarchy: that is, when two parties are acting like equals, trading gifts, or blows, or commodities, or anything else, but one of them does something that completely flips the scale.

      I've already mentioned the tendency of gift exchange to turn into games of one-upmanship, and how in some societies this potential is formalized in great public contests. This is typical, above all, of what are often called "heroic societies": those in which governments are weak or nonexistent and society is organized instead around warrior noblemen, each with his entourage of loyal retainers and tied to the

      others by ever-shifting alliances and rivalries. Most epic poetry-from the Iliad to the Mahabharata to Beowulf-harkens back to this sort of world, and anthropologists have discovered similar arrangements among the Maori of New Zealand and the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, and Haida of the American Northwest coast. In heroic societies, the throw­ ing of feasts and resulting contests of generosity are often spoken of as mere extensions of war: " fighting with property" or " fighting with food ." Those who throw such feasts often indulge in colorful speeches

      about how their enemies are thus crushed and destroyed by glorious feats of generosity aimed in their direction (Kwakiutl chiefs liked to speak of themselves as great mountains from which gifts rolled like gi­ ant boulders) , and of how conquered rivals are thus reduced-much as in the Inuit metaphor-to slaves.

      Such statements are not to be taken literally-another feature of such societies is a highly developed art of boastingY Heroic chiefs and warriors tended to talk themselves up just as consistently as those in egalitarian societies talked themselves down. It's not as if someone who loses out in a contest of gift exchange is ever actually reduced to slav­ ery, but he might end up feeling as if he were. And the consequences could be catastrophic. One ancient Greek source describes Celtic fes­ tivals where rival nobles would alternate between jousts and contests of generosity, presenting their enemies with magnificent gold and silver treasures. Occasionally this could lead to a kind of checkmate; some­ one would be faced with a present so magnificent that he could not possibly match it. In this case, the only honorable response was for him

      118 D E B T


      to cut his own throat, thus allowing his wealth to be distributed to his followersY Six hundred years later, we find a case from an Icelandic saga of an aging Viking named Egil, who befriended a younger man named Einar, who was still actively raiding. They liked to sit together composing poetry. One day Einar came by a magnificent shield "in­ scribed with old tales; and between the writing were overlaid spangles of gold with precious stones." No one had ever seen anything like it. He took it with him on a visit to Egil. Egil was not at home, so Einar waited three days, as was the custom, then hung the shield as a present in the mead-hall and rode off.


      Egil returned home, saw the shield, and asked who owned such a treasure. He was told that Einar had visited and given it to him. Then Egil said, "To hell with him! Does he think I'm going to stay up all night and compose a poem about his shield? Get my horse, I ' m going to ride after him and kill him. " As Einar's luck would have it he had left early enough to put sufficient distance between himself and Egil. So Egil resigned himself to composing a poem about Einar's gift.54


      I I I I I


      Competitive gift exchange, then, does not literally render anyone slaves; it is simply an affair of honor. These are people, however, for whom honor is everything.

      The main reason that being unable to pay a debt, especially a debt of honor, was such a crisis was because this was how noblemen as­ sembled their entourages. The law of hospitality in the ancient world, for instance, insisted that any traveler must be fed, given shelter, and treated as an honored guest-but only for a certain length of time. If a guest did not go away, he would eventually become a mere sub­ ordinate. The role of such hangers-on has been largely neglected by students of human history. In many periods-from imperial Rome to medieval China-probably the most important relationships, at least in towns and cities, were those of patronage. Anyone rich and important would find himself surrounded by flunkies, sycophants, perpetual din­ ner guests, and other sorts of willing dependents. Drama and poetry of the time are full of such characters.55 Similarly, for much of hu­ man history, being respectable and middle-class meant spending one's mornings going from door to door, paying one's respects to important local patrons. To this day, informal patronage systems still crop up, whenever relatively rich and powerful people feel the need to assemble

      T H E M O R AL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L AT I O N S 119


      networks of supporters-a practice well documented in many parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Latin America. Such rela­ tionships seem to consist of a slapdash mix of all three principles that I've been mapping out over the course of this chapter; nevertheless, those observing them insist on trying to cast them in the language of exchange and debt.

      A final example: in a collection called Gifts and Spoils, published in

      r97r, we find a brief essay by the anthropologist Lorraine Blaxter about a rural department in the French Pyrenees, most of whose inhabitants are farmers. Everyone places a great emphasis on the importance of mutual aid-the local phrase means "giving service" (rendre service) . People living in the same community should look out for one another and pitch in when their neighbors are having trouble. This is the es­ sence of communal morality, in fact, it's how one knows that any sort of community exists. So far so good. However, she notes, when some­ one does a particularly great favor, mutual aid can turn into something else:


      If a man in a factory went to the boss and asked for a job, and the boss found him one, this would be an example of someone giving service. The man who got the job could never repay the boss, but he could show him respect, or perhaps give him sym­ bolic gifts of garden produce. If a gift demands a return, and no tangible return is possible, the repayment will be through support or esteem.56


      Thus does mutual aid slip into inequality. Thus do patron-client relations come into being. We have already observed this. I chose this particular passage because the author's phrasing is so weird. It com­ pletely contradicts itself. The boss does the man a favor. The man cannot repay the favor. Therefore, the man repays the favor by show­ ing up at the boss's house with the occasional basket of tomatoes and showing him respect. So which one is it? Can he repay the favor, or not?

      Peter Freuchen's walrus hunter would, no doubt, think he knew exactly what was going on here. Bringing the basket of tomatoes was simply the equivalent of saying "Thank you." It was a way of ac­ knowledging that one owes a debt of gratitude, that gifts had in fact made slaves just as whips make dogs. The boss and the employee are now fundamentally different sorts of people. The problem is that in all other respects, they are not fundamentally different sorts of people. Most likely they are both middle-aged Frenchmen, fathers of fa milies,

      12 0 D E B T


      citizens of the Republic with similar tastes in music, sports, and food. They ought to be equals. As a result, even the tomatoes, which are re­ ally a token of recognition of the existence of a debt that can never be repaid, has to be represented as if it was itself a kind of repayment­ an interest payment on a loan that could, everyone agrees to pretend, someday be paid back, thus returning the two members to their proper equal status once again.57

      (It's telling that the favor is finding the client a job in a factory, because what happens is not very different from what happens when you get a job in a factory to begin with. A wage-labor contract is, ostensibly, a free contract between equals-but an agreement between equals in which both agree that once one of them punches the time clock, they won't be equals any more.58 The law does recognize a bit of a problem here; that's why it insists that you cannot sell off your equal­ ity permanently [you are not free to sell yourself into slavery] . Such ar­ rangements are only acceptable if the boss's power is not absolute, if it is limited to work time, and if you have the legal right to break off the contract and thereby to restore yourself to full equality, at any time.)

      It seems to me that this agreement between equals to no longer be

      equal (at least for a time) is critically important. It is the very essence of what we call "debt."


      I I I I I


      What, then, is debt?

      Debt is a very specific thing, and it arises from very specific situ­ ations. It first requires a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals, who are equals in those ways that are really important, and who are not currently in a state of equality-but for whom there is some way to set matters straight.

      In the case of gift-giving, as we've seen, this requires a certain equality of status. That's why our economics professor didn't feel any sense of obligation-any debt of honor-if taken out to dinner by someone who ranked either much higher or much lower than himself. With money loans, all that is required is that the two parties be of equal legal standing. (You can't lend money to a child, or to a lunatic. Well, you can, but the courts won't help you get it back.) Legal-rather than moral-debts have other unique qualities. For instance, they can be forgiven, which isn't always possible with a moral debt.

      This means that there is no such thing as a genuinely unpayable debt. If there was no conceivable way to salvage the situation, we

      T H E M O R A L G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 12 1


      wouldn't be calling it a "debt." Even the French villager could, con­ ceivably, save his patron's life, or win the lottery and buy the factory. Even when we speak of a criminal "paying his debt to society," we are saying that he has done something so terrible that he has now been banished from that equal status under the law that belongs by natural right to any citizen of his country; however, we call it a "debt" because it can be paid, equality can be restored, even if the cost may be death by lethal injection .

      During the time that the debt remains unpaid, the logic of hierar­ chy takes hold. There is no reciprocity. As anyone who has ever been in jail knows, the first thing the jailors communicate is that nothing that happens in jail has anything to do with justice. Similarly, debtor and creditor confront each other like a peasant before a feudal lord. The law of precedent takes hold. If you bring your creditor tomatoes from the garden, it never occurs to you that he would give something back. He might expect you to do it again, though . But always there is the assumption that the situation is somewhat unnatural, because the debt really ought to be paid.

      This is what makes situations of effectively unpayable debt so dif­ ficult and so painful. Since creditor and debtor are ultimately equals, if the debtor cannot do what it takes to restore herself to equality, there is obviously something wrong with her; it must be her fault.

      This connection becomes clear if we look at the etymology of com­ mon words for "debt" in European languages. Many are synonyms for "fault," "sin," or "guilt;" just as a criminal owes a debt to society, a debtor is always a sort of criminal.59 In ancient Crete, according to Plu­ tarch, it was the custom for those taking loans to pretend to snatch the money from the lender's purse. Why, he wondered ? Probably "so that, if they default, they could be charged with violence and punished all the more. "60 This is why in so many periods of history insolvent debt­ ors could be jailed, or even-as in early Republican Rome-executed.

      A debt, then, is just an exchange that has not been brought to completion.

      It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality (communism, with its needs and abilities; hierarchy, with its customs and qualities) . True, if we were really determined, we could argue (as some do) that communism is a condition of permanent mutual indebtedness, or that hierarchy is con­ structed out of unpayable debts. But isn't this just the same old story, starting from the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definition, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?

      12 2 D E B T


      No. All human interactions are not forms of exchange. Only some are. Exchange encourages a particular way of conceiving human rela­ tions. This is because exchange implies equality, but it also implies separation. It's precisely when the money changes hands, when the debt is cancelled, that equality is restored and both parties can walk away and have nothing further to do with each other.

      Debt is what happens in between: when the two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality. Because achieving that equality, however, destroys the very reason for having a relation­ ship, just about everything interesting happens in between.61 In fact, just about everything human happens in between-even if this means that all such human relations bear with them at least a tiny element of criminality, guilt, or shame.

      For the Tiv women whom I mentioned earlier in the chapter, this wasn't much of a problem. By ensuring that everyone was always slightly in debt to one another, they actually created human society, if a very fragile sort of society-a delicate web made up of obligations to return three eggs or a bag of okra, ties renewed and recreated, as any one of them could be cancelled out at any time.

      Our own habits of civility are not so very different. Consider the custom, in American society, of constantly saying "please" and "thank you." To do so is often treated as basic morality: we are constantly chiding children for forgetting to do it, just as the moral guardians of our society-teachers and ministers, for instance-do to everybody else. We often assume that the habit is universal, but as the Inuit hunter made clear, it is not.62 Like so many of our everyday courtesies, it is a kind of democratization of what was once a habit of feudal deference: the insistence on treating absolutely everyone the way that one used only to have to treat a lord or similar hierarchical superior.

      Perhaps this is not so in every case. Imagine we are on a crowded bus, looking for a seat. A fellow passenger moves her bag aside to clear one; we smile, or nod, or make some other little gesture of acknowl­ edgment. Or perhaps we actually say "Thank you." Such a gesture is simply a recognition of common humanity: we are acknowledging that the woman who had been blocking the seat is not a mere physical obstacle but a human being, and that we feel genuine gratitude toward someone we will likely never see again. None of this is generally true when one asks someone across the table to "please pass the salt," or when the postman thanks you for signing for a delivery. We think of these simultaneously as meaningless formalities and as the very moral basis of society. Their apparent unimportance can be measured by the

      T H E M O R AL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 12 3


      fact that almost no one would refuse, on principle, to say "please" or "thank you" in just about any situation-even those who might find it almost impossible to say "I'm sorry" or "I apologize."

      In fact, the English "please" is short for "if you please," "if it pleases you to do this"-it is the same in most European languages (French si il vous plait, Spanish por favor) . Its literal meaning is "you are under no obligation to do this." "Hand me the salt. Not that I am saying that you have to!" This is not true; there is a social obligation, and it would be almost impossible not to comply. But etiquette largely consists of the exchange of polite fictions (to use less polite language,

      lies) . When you ask someone to pass the salt, you are also giving them an order; by attaching the word "please," you are saying that it is not an order. But, in fact, it is.

      In English, "thank you" derives from "think," it originally meant, "I will remember what you did for me''-which is usually not true either-but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English "much obliged"-it actually does means "I am in your debt." The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from "mercy," as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your bene­ factor's power-since a debtor is, after all, a criminalY Saying "you're welcome," or "it's nothing" (French de rien, Spanish de nada)-the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true–is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying "my pleasure"-you are saying, "No, actually, it's a credit, not a debit-you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself! "64 Decoding the tacit calculus of debt ("I owe you one," "No, you don't owe me anything," "Actually, if anything, it's me who owes you," as if inscribing and then scratching off so many infinitesimal entries in an endless ledger) makes it easy to understand why this sort of thing is often viewed not as the quintessence of morality, but as the quintes­ sence of middle-class morality. True, by now middle-class sensibilities dominate society. But there are still those who find the practice odd. Those at the very top of society often still feel that deference is owed primarily to hierarchical superiors and find it slightly idiotic to watch postmen and pastry cooks taking turns pretending to treat each other

      like little feudal lords. At the other extreme, those who grew up in what in Europe are called "popular" environments-small towns, poor neighborhoods, anyplace where there is still an assumption that people who are not enemies will, ordinarily, take care of one another-will

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      often find it insulting to be constantly told, in effect, that there is some chance they might not do their job as a waiter or taxi driver correctly, or provide houseguests with tea. In other words, middle-class etiquette insists that we are all equals, but it does so in a very particular way. On the one hand, it pretends that nobody is giving anybody orders (think here of the burly security guard at the mall who appears before someone walking into a restricted area and says, "Can I help you ?"); on the other, it treats every gesture of what I've been calling "baseline communism" as if it were really a form of exchange. As a result, like Tiv neighborhoods, middle-class society has to be endless!recreated, as a kind of constant

      flickering game of shadows, the criss-crossing of an infinity of momen­

      tary debt relations, each one almost instantly cancelled out.

      All of this is a relatively recent innovation. The habit of always saying "please" and "thank you" first began to take hold during the commercial revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries­ among those very middle classes who were largely responsible for it. It is the language of bureaus, shops, and offices, and over the course of the last five hundred years it has spread across the world along with them. It is also merely one token of a much larger philosophy, a set of assumptions of what humans are and what they owe one another, that have by now become so deeply ingrained that we cannot see them .


      I I I I I


      Sometimes, at the brink of a new historical era, some prescient soul can see the full implications of what is beginning to happen-sometimes in a way that later generations can 't. Let me end with a text by such a person . In Paris, sometime in 1540s, Franc;:ois Rabelais-lapsed monk, doctor, legal scholar-composed what was to become a famous mock eulogy, which he inserted in the third book of his great Gargantua and Pantagruel, and which came to be known as "In Praise of Debt."

      Rabelais places the encomium in the mouth of one Panurge, a wandering scholar and man of extreme classical erudition who, he ob­ serves, "knew sixty-three ways of making money-the most honorable and most routine of which was stealing. "65 The good-natured giant Pantagruel adopts Panurge and even provides him with a respectable income, but it bothers him that Panurge continues to spend money like water and remains up to his ears in debt. Wouldn't it be better, Pan­ tagruel suggests, to be able to pay his creditors ?

      Panurge responds with horror: "God forbid that I should ever be out of debt!" Debt is, in fact, the very basis of his philosophy:

      TH E MORAL G R O U N D S O F EC O N O M I C R E L A T I O N S 12 5


      Always owe somebody something, then he will be forever pray­ ing God to grant you a good, long and blessed life. Fearing to lose what you owe him, he will always be saying good things about you in every sort of company; he will be constantly ac­ quiring new lenders for you, so that you can borrow to pay him back, filling his ditch with other men's spoil.66


      Above all else, they will always be praying that you come into money. It's like those ancient slaves destined to be sacrificed at their masters' funerals. When they wished their master long life and good health, they genuinely meant it! What's more, debt can make you into a kind of god, who can make something (money, well-wishing creditors) out of absolutely nothing.


      Worse still: I give myself to bonnie Saint Bobelin if all my life I have not reckoned debts to be, as it were, a connection and colligation between Heaven and Earth (uniquely preserving the lineage of Man without which, I say, all human beings would soon perish) and perhaps to be that great World Soul which, according to the Academics, gives life to all things.

      That it really is so, evoke tranquilly in your mind the Idea and Form of a world-take if you like the thirtieth of the worlds imagined by Metrodorus-in which there were no debt­ ors or lenders at all. A universe sans debts! Amongst the heav­ enly bodies there would be no regular course whatsoever: all would be in disarray. Jupiter, reckoning that he owed no debt to Saturn, would dispossess him of his sphere, and with his Ho­ meric chain hold in suspension all the Intelligences, gods, heav­ ens, daemons, geniuses, heroes, devils, earth, sea and all the elements . . . The Moon would remain dark and bloody; why should the Sun share his light with her? He is under no obliga­ tion. The Sun would never shine on their Earth; the heavenly bodies would pour no good influences down upon it.

      Between the elements there will be no mutual sharing of qualities, no alternation, no transmutation whatsoever, one will not think itself obliged to the other; it has lent it nothing. From earth no longer will water be made, nor water trans­ muted into air; from air fire will not be made, and fire will not warm the earth. Earth will bring forth nothing but monsters, Titans, giants. The rain will not rain, the light will shed no light, the wind will not blow, and there will be no summer, no autumn, Lucifer will tear off his bonds and, sallying forth from deepest Hell with the Furies, the Vengeances and the horned

      12 6 D E B T


      devils, will seek to turf the gods of both the greater and lesser nations out from their nests in the heavens.


      And what's more, if human beings owed nothing to one another, life would "be no better than a dog-fight"-a mere unruly brawl.


      Amongst human beings none will save another; it will be no good a man shouting Help! Fire! I'm drowning! Murder! No­ body will come and help him. Why ? Because he has lent noth­ ing: and no one owes him anything. No one has anything to lose by his fire, his shipwreck, his fall, or his death. He has lent nothing. And: he would lend nothing either hereafter.

      In short, Faith, Hope and Charity would be banished from this world.


      Panurge-a man without a family, alone, whose entire calling in life was getting large amounts of money and then spending it-serves as a fitting prophet for the world that was just beginning to emerge. His perspective of course is that of a wealthy debtor-not one liable to be trundled off to some pestiferous dungeon for failure to pay. Still, what he is describing is the logical conclusion, the reductio ad absur­ dum, which Rabelais as always lays out with cheerful perversity, of the assumptions about the world as exchange slumbering behind all our pleasant bourgeois formalities (which Rabelais himself, incidentally, detested-the book is basically a mixture of classical erudition and dirty jokes).

      And what he says is true. If we insist on defining all human interac­ tions as matters of people giving one thing for another, then any ongo­ ing human relations can only take the form of debts. Without them, no one would owe anything to anybody. A world without debt would revert to primordial chaos, a war of all against all; no one would feel the slightest responsibility for one another; the simple fact of being hu­ man would have no significance; we would all become isolated planets who couldn't even be counted on to maintain our proper orbits.

      Pantagruel will have none of it. His own feelings on the matter, he says, can be summed up with one line from the Apostle Paul: "Owe no man anything, save mutual love and affection. "67 Then, in an ap­ propriately biblical gesture, he declares, "From your past debts I shall free you."

      "What can I do but thank you ?" Panurge replies.



      Chapte r Six


      GAM ES WITH S EX AND D EATH


      WHEN WE RET U RN to an examination of conventional economic history, one thing that jumps out is how much has been made to dis­ appear. Reducing all human life to exchange means not only shunting aside all other forms of economic experience (hierarchy, communism) , but also ensuring that the vast majority of the human race who are not adult males, and therefore whose day-to-day existence is relatively difficult to reduce to a matter of swapping things in such a way as to seek mutual advantage, melt away into the background.

      As a result, we end up with a sanitized view of the way actual business is conducted. The tidy world of shops and malls is the quintes­ sential middle-class environment, but at either the top or the bottom of the system, the world of financiers or of gangsters, deals are often made in ways not so completely different from ways that the Gunwinggu or Nambikwara make them-at least in that sex, drugs, music, extrava­ gant displays of food, and the potential for violence do often play parts. Consider the case of Neil Bush (George W.'s brother) who, during divorce proceedings with his wife, admitted to multiple infidelities with women who, he claimed, would mysteriously appear at his hotel-room

      door after important business meetings in Thailand and Hong Kong.


      "You have to admit it's pretty remarkable," remarked one of his wife's attorneys, "for a man to go to a hotel-room door and open it and have a woman standing there and have sex with her. "

      "It was very unusual," Bush replied, admitting however that this had happened to him on numerous occasions.

      "Were they prostitutes ?" "I don't know. "'


      In fact, such things seem almost par for the course when really big money comes into play.

      12 8 DEBT


      In this light, the economists' insistence that economic life begins with barter, the innocent exchange of arrows for teepee frames, with no one in a position to rape, humiliate, or torture anyone else, and that it continues in this way, is touchingly utopian .

      As a result, though, the histories we tell are full of blank spaces, and the women in them seem to appear out of nowhere, without ex­ planation, much like the Thai women who appeared at Bush's door. Recall the passage cited in Chapter Three, from numismatist Philip Grierson, about money in the barbarian law codes:


      Compensation in the Welsh laws is reckoned primarily in cattle and in the Irish ones in cattle or bondmaids (cumal), with con­ siderable use of precious metals in both. In the Germanic codes it is mainly in precious metal . . . 2


      How is it possible to read this passage without immediately stop­ ping at the end of the first line? "Bondmaids"? Doesn't that mean "slaves ?" (It does.) In ancient Ireland, female slaves were so plentiful and important that they came to function as currency. How did that happen ? And if we are trying to understand the origins of money, here, isn't the fact that people are using one another as currency at all interesting or significant?3 Yet none of the sources on money remark much on it. It would seem that by the time of the law codes, slave girls were not actually traded, but just used as units of account. Still, they must have been traded at some point. Who were they ? How were they enslaved ? Were they captured in war, sold by their parents, or reduced to slavery through debt? Were they a major trade item ? The answer

      to all these questions would seem to be yes, but it's hard to say more because the history remains largely unwritten.4

      Or let' s return to the parable of the ungrateful servant. "Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt." How did that happen ? Note that we're not even speaking of debt service here (he is already his creditor's servant) , but outright slavery. How did a man's wife and children come to be considered no different than his sheep and crockery-as property to be liquidated on the occasion of default? Was it normal for a man in first-century Palestine to be able to sell his wife? (It wasn'tY If he didn't own her, why was someone else allowed to sell her if he couldn't pay his debts ?

      The same could be asked of the story in Nehemiah. It's hard not to empathize with the distress of a father watching his daughter taken

      GAM ES WITH SEX A N D D E AT H 12 9


      off by strangers. On the other hand, one might also ask: Why weren't they taking him ? The daughter hadn't borrowed any money.

      It's not as if it is ordinary for fathers in traditional societies to be able to sell their children . This is a practice with a very specific his­ tory: it appears in the great agrarian civilizations, from Sumer to Rome to China, right around the time when we also start to see evidence of money, markets, and interest-bearing loans; later, more gradually, it also appears in those surrounding hinterlands that supplied those civilizations with slaves.6 What's more, if we examine the historical evidence, there seems good reason to believe that the very obsession

      with patriarchal honor that so defines "tradition" in the Middle East and Mediterranean world itself arose alongside the father's power to alienate his children-as a reaction to what were seen as the moral per­ ils of the market. All of this is treated as somehow outside the bounds of economic history .

      Excluding all this is deceptive not only because it excludes the main purposes to which money was actually put in the past, but because it doesn't give us a clear vision of the present. After all, who were those Thai women who so mysteriously appeared at Neil Bush's hotel door? Almost certainly, they were children of indebted parents. Likely as not, they were contractual debt peons themselves.'

      Focusing on the sex industry would be deceptive, though. Then as now, most women in debt bondage spend the vast majority of their time sewing, preparing soups, and scouring latrines. Even in the Bible, the admonition in the Ten Commandments not to "covet thy neighbor's wife" clearly referred not to lust in one's heart (adultery had already been covered in commandment number seven), but to the prospect of taking her as a debt-peon-in other words, as a servant to sweep one's yard and hang out the laundry.x In most such matters, sexual exploitation was at best incidental (usually illegal, sometimes practiced anyway, symbolically important.) Again, once we remove some of our usual blinders, we can see that matters have changed far less, over the course of the last five thousand years or so, than we really like to think.


      I I I I I


      These blinders are all the more ironic when one looks at the anthro­ pological literature on what used to be called "primitive money"­ that is, the sort one encounters in places where there are no states or markets-whether Iroquois wampum, African cloth money, or Solo­ mon Island feather money, and discovers that such money is used

      13 0 D E B T


      almost exclusively for the kinds of transactions that economists don't like to have to talk about.

      In fact, the term "primitive money" is deceptive for this very rea­ son, since it suggests that we are dealing with a crude version of the kind of currencies we use today. But this is precisely what we don't find. Often, such currencies are never used to buy and sell anything at all.9 Instead, they are used to create, maintain, and otherwise reor­ ganize relations between people: to arrange marriages, establish the paternity of children, head off feuds, console mourners at funerals, seek forgiveness in the case of crimes, negotiate treaties, acquire followers­ almost anything but trade in yams, shovels, pigs, or jewelry.

      Often, these currencies were extremely important, so much so that social life itself might be said to revolve around getting and disposing of the stuff. Clearly, though, they mark a totally different conception of what money, or indeed an economy, is actually about. I've decided therefore to refer to them as "social currencies," and the economies that employ them as "human economies." By this I mean not that these societies are necessarily in any way more humane (some are quite hu­ mane; others extraordinarily brutal), but only that they are economic systems primarily concerned not with the accumulation of wealth, but with the creation, destruction, and rearranging of human beings.

      Historically, commercial economies-market economies, as we now like to call them-are a relative newcomer. For most of human history, human economies predominated. To even begin to write a genuine history of debt, then, we have to start by asking: What sort of debts, what sort of credits and debits, do people accumulate in human economies ? And what happens when human economies begin to give away to or are taken over by commercial ones ? This is another way of asking the question, "How do mere obligations turn into debts ?"-but it means not just asking the question in the abstract, but examining the historical record to try to reconstruct what actually did happen.

      This is what I will do over the course of the next two chapters. First I will look at the role of money in human economies, then de­ scribe what can happen when human economies are suddenly incorpo­ rated into the economic orbits of larger, commercial ones. The African slave trade will serve as a particularly catastrophic case in point. Then, in the next chapter, I will return to the first emergence of commercial economies in early civilizations of Europe and the Middle East.

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 13 1


      Money as In adequate Su bstitute


      The most interesting theory of the origin of money is the one recent­ ly put forward by a French economist-turned-anthropologist named Philippe Rospabe. While his work is largely unknown in the English­ speaking world, it's quite ingenious, and it bears directly on our prob­ lem. Rospabe's argument is that "primitive money" was not originally a way to pay debts of any sort. It's a way of recognizing the existence of debts that cannot possibly be paid. His argument is worth consider­ ing in detail.

      In most human economies, money is used first and foremost to arrange marriages. The simplest and probably most common way of doing this was by being presented as what used to be called "bride­ price" : a suitor's family would deliver a certain number of dog teeth, or cowries, or brass rings, or whatever is the local social currency, to a woman's family, and they would present their daughter as his bride. It's easy to see why this might be interpreted as buying a women, and many colonial officials in Africa and Oceania in the early part of the twentieth century did indeed come to that conclusion. The practice caused something of a scandal, and by 1926, the League of Nations was debating banning the practice as a form of slavery. Anthropologists objected. Really, they explained, this was nothing like the purchase of, say, an ox-let alone a pair of sandals. After all, if you buy an ox, you

      don't have any responsibilities to the ox. What you are really buying

      is the right to dispose of the ox in any way that pleases you. Marriage is entirely different, since a husband will normally have just as many responsibilities toward his wife as his wife will have toward him. It's a way of rearranging relations between people. Second of all, if you were really buying a wife, you'd be able to sell her. Finally, the real signifi­ cance of the payment concerns the status of the woman's children : if he's buying anything, it's the right to call her offspring his own.10

      The anthropologists ended up winning the argument, and "bride­ price" was dutifully redubbed "bridewealth." But they never really an­ swered the question : What is actually happening here ? When a Fijian suitor's family presents a whale tooth to ask for a woman's hand in marriage, is this an advance payment for the services the woman will provide in cultivating her future husband's gardens? Or is he purchas­ ing the future fertility of her womb? Or is this a pure formality, the equivalent of the dollar that has to change hands in order to seal a con­ tract? According to Rospabe, it's none of these. The whale tooth, how­ ever valuable, is not a form of payment. It is really an acknowledgment

      132 DEB T


      that one is asking for something so uniquely valuable that ' payment of any sort would be impossible. The only appropriate payment for the gift of a woman is the gift of another woman; in the meantime, all one can do is to acknowledge the outstanding debt.


      I I I I I


      There are places where suitors say this quite explicitly. Consider the Tiv of Central Nigeria, who we have already met briefly in the last chapter. Most of our information on the Tiv comes from mid-century, when they were still under British colonial rule.11 Everyone at that time

      insisted that a proper marriage should take the form of an exchange

      of sisters . One man gives his sister in marriage to another, that man marries the sister of his newfound brother-in-law. This is the perfect marriage because the only thing one can really give in exchange for a woman is another woman,.

      Obviously, even if every fa mily had exactly equal numbers of brothers and sisters, things couldn't always work this neatly. Say I marry your sister but you don't want to marry mine (because, say, you don't like her, or because she's only five years old) . In that case, you become her "guardian," which means you can claim the right to dispose of her in marriage to someone else–for instance, someone whose sister you actually do wish to marry. This system quickly grew into a complex system in which most important men became guard­ ians of numerous "wards," often scattered over wide areas; they would swap and trade them and in the process accumulate numerous wives for themselves, while less-fortunate men were only able to marry late in life, or not at all. 12

      There was one other expedient. The Tiv at that time used bundles of brass rods as their most prestigious form of currency. Brass rods were only held by men, and never used to buy things in markets (mar­ kets were dominated by women); instead, they were exchanged only for things that men considered of higher importance: cattle, horses, ivory, ritual titles, medical treatment, magical charms. It was possible, as one Tiv ethnographer, Akiga Sai, explains, to acquire a wife with brass rods, but it required quite a lot of them. You would need to give two or three bundles of them to her parents to establish yourself as a suitor; then, when you did finally make off with her (such marriages were always first framed as elopements), another few bundles to as­ suage her mother when she showed up angrily demanding to know what was going on. This would normally be followed by five more to get her guardian to at least temporarily accept the situation, and

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 13 3


      more still to her parents when she gave birth, if you were to have any chance of their accepting your claims to be the father of her children. That might get her parents off your back, but you'd have to pay off the guardian forever, because you could never really use money to acquire the rights to a woman. Everyone knew that the only thing you can legitimately give in exchange for a woman is another woman. In this case, everyone has to abide by the pretext that a woman will someday be forthcoming. In the meantime, as one ethnographer succinctly puts it, "the debt can never be fully paid." 13

      According to Rospabe, the Tiv are just making explicit the un­ derlying logic of bridewealth everywhere. The suitor presenting bride­ wealth is never paying for a woman, or even for the rights to claim her children . That would imply that brass rods, or whale's teeth, cowrie shells, or even cattle are somehow the equivalent of a human being, which by the logic of a human economy is obviously absurd. Only a human could ever be considered equivalent to another human. All the more so since, in the case of marriage, we are speaking of something even more valuable than one human life: we are speaking of a human life that also has the capacity to generate new lives.

      Certainly, many of those who pay bridewealth are, like the Tiv, quite explicit about all this. Bridewealth money is presented not to settle a debt, but as a kind of acknowledgment that there exists a debt that cannot be settled by means of money. Often the two sides will maintain at least the polite fiction that there will, someday, be a recompense in kind: that the suitor's clan will eventually provide one of its own women, perhaps even that very woman's daughter or grand­ daughter, to marry a man of the wife's natal clan. Or maybe there will

      be some arrangement about the disposition of her children; perhaps her clan will get to keep one for itself. The possibilities are endless.


      I I I I I


      Money, then, begins, as Rospabe himself puts it, "as a substitute for life.'* One might call it the recognition of a life-debt. This, in turn, ex­ plains why it's invariably the exact same kind of money that's used to arrange marriages that is also used to pay wergeld (or "bloodwealth" as it's sometimes also called) : money presented to the family of a mur­ der victim so as to prevent or resolve a blood-feud. Here the sources are even more explicit. On the one hand, one presents whale teeth or brass rods because the murderer's kin recognize they owe a life to the victim's family. On the other, whale teeth or brass rods are in no sense, and can never be, compensation for the loss of a murdered relative.

      13 4 DEBT


      Certainly no one presenting such compensation would ever be foolish enough to suggest that any amount of money could possibly be the "equivalent" to the value of someone's father, sister, or child .

      So here again, money is first and foremost an acknowledgment that one owes something much more valuable than money.

      In the case of a blood-feud, both parties will also be aware that even a revenge killing, while at least it conforms to the principle of a life for a life, won't really compensate for the victim's grief and pain either. This knowledge allows for some possibility of settling the mat­ ter without violence. But even here, there is often a feeling that, as in the case of marriage, the real solution to the problem is simply being temporarily postponed.

      An illustration might be helpful. Among the Nuer, there is a special class of priestly figures who specialize in mediating feuds, referred to in the literature as "leopard-skin chiefs." If one man murders another, he will immediately seek out one of their homesteads, since such a home­ stead is treated as an inviolate sanctuary: even the dead man's family, who will be honor-bound to avenge the murder, will know that they cannot enter it, lest terrible consequences ensue. According to Evans­ Pritchard's classic account, the chief will immediately start trying to negotiate a settlement between the murderer and victim's fa milies, a delicate business, because the victim's family will always first refuse:


      The chief first finds out what cattle the slayer's people possess and what they are prepared to pay in compensation He

      then visits the dead man's people and asks them to accept cattle for the life. They usually refuse, for it is a point of honor to be obstinate, but their refusal does not mean that they are unwill­ ing to accept compensation. The chief knows this and insists on their acceptance, even threatening to curse them if they do not give way 15

      More-distant kin weigh in, reminding everyone of their responsi­ bility to the larger community, of all the trouble that an outstanding feud will cause to innocent relatives, and after a great show of holding out, insisting that it is insulting to suggest that any number of cattle could possibly substitute for the life of a son or brother, they will usu­ ally grudgingly accept.16 In fact, even once the matter has technically been settled, it really hasn't-it usually takes years to assemble the cattle, and even once they have been paid, the two sides will avoid each other, "especially at dances, for in the excitement they engender, merely bumping into a man whose kinsman has been slain may cause

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 13 5


      a fight to break out, because the' offense is never forgiven and the score must finally be paid with a life."17

      So it's much the same as with bridewealth. Money does not wipe out the debt. One life can only be paid for with another. At best those paying bloodwealth, by admitting the existence of the debt and insist­ ing that they wish they could pay it, even though they know this is impossible, can allow the matter to be placed permanently on hold.

      Halfway around the world, one finds Lewis Henry Morgan de­ scribing the elaborate mechanisms set up by the Six Nations of the Iroquois to avoid precisely this state of affairs. In the event one man killed another,


      Immediately on the comm1sswn of a murder, the affair was taken up by the tribes to which the parties belonged, and stren­ uous efforts were made to effect a reconciliation, lest private retaliation should lead to disastrous consequences.

      The first council ascertained whether the offender was will­ ing to confess his crime, and to make atonement. If he was, the council immediately sent a belt of white wampum, in his name, to the other council, which contained a message to that effect. The latter then endeavored to pacify the family of the deceased, to quiet their excitement, and to induce them to ac­ cept the wampum as condonation.18


      Much as in the case of the Nuer, there were complicated schedules of exactly how many fathoms of wampum were paid over, depending on the status of the victim and the nature of the crime. As with the Nuer, too, everyone insisted that this was not payment. The value of the wampum in no sense represented the value of the dead man's life:


      The present of white wampum was not in the nature of a compensation for the life of the deceased, but of a regretful confession of the crime, with a petition for forgiveness. It was a peace-offering, the acceptance of which was pressed by mutual friends 19


      Actually, in many cases there was also some way to manipulate the system to turn payments meant to assuage one's rage and grief into ways of creating a new life that would in some sense substitute for the one that was lost. Among the Nuer, forty cattle were set as the stan­ dard fee for bloodwealth . But it was also the standard rate of bride­ wealth . The logic was this: if a man had been murdered before he was

      13 6 D E B T


      able to marry and produce offspring, it's only natural that his spmt would be angry. He had been, effectively, robbed of his eternity. The best solution would be to use the cattle paid in settlement to acquire what was called a "ghost-wife": a woman who would then be formally married to the dead man. In practice, she was usually paired off with one of the victim's brothers, but this was not particularly important; it didn't really matter too much who impregnated her, since he would be in no sense the father of her children . Her children would be con­ sidered the children of the victim's ghost-and as a result, any boys among them were seen as having been born with a particular commit­ ment to someday avenge his death.20

      This latter is unusual. But Nuer appear to have been unusually stubborn about feuds. Rospabe provides examples from other parts of the world that are even more telling. Among North African Bedouins, for instance, it sometimes happened that the only way to settle a feud was for the killer's family to turn over a daughter, who would then marry the victim's next of kin-his brother, say. If she bore him a male child, the boy was given the same name as his dead uncle and consid­ ered to be, at least in the broadest sense, a substitute for him.21 The Iroquois, who traced descent in the female line, did not trade women in this fashion. However, they had another, more direct approach. If a man died-even of natural causes-his wife's relatives might "put his name upon the mat, " sending off belts of wampum to commission a war party, which would then raid an enemy village to secure a captive. The captive could either be killed, or, if the clan matrons were in a benevolent mood (one could never tell; the grief of mourning is tricky), adopted: this was signified by throwing a belt of wampum around his shoulders, whereon he would be given the name of the deceased and be considered, from that moment on, married to the victim's wife, the owner of his personal possessions, and in every way, effectively, the exact same person as the dead man used to be.22

      All of this merely serves to underline Rospabe's basic point, which is that money can be seen, in human economies, as first and foremost the acknowledgment of the existence of a debt that cannot be paid.

      In a way, it's all very reminiscent of primordial-debt theory: money emerges from the recognition of an absolute debt to that which has given you life. The difference is that instead of imagining such debts as between an individual and society, or perhaps the cosmos, here they are imagined as a kind of network of dyadic relations: almost everyone in such societies was in a relation of absolute debt to someone else. It's

      not that we owe "society." If there is any notion of "society" here–and it's not clear that there is-society is our debts.

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 13 7


      Blo od De bts ( lele)


      Obviously, this leads us to the same familiar problem: How does a token of recognition that one cannot pay a debt turn into a form of payment by which a debt can be extinguished ? If anything, the problem seems even worse than it was before.

      In fact, it isn't. The African evidence clearly shows how such things can happen-though the answer is a bit unsettling. To demonstrate this, it will be necessary to look at one or two African societies with a closer focus.

      I'll start with the Lele, an African people who had, at the time that Mary Douglas studied them in the r9sos, managed to turn the principle of blood debts into the organizing principle of their entire society.

      The Lele were, at that time, a group of perhaps ten thousand souls, living on a stretch of rolling country near the Kasai River in the Belgian Congo, and considered a rude backcountry folk by their richer and more cosmopolitan neighbors, the Kuba and Bushong. Lele women grew maize and manioc; the men thought of themselves as intrepid hunters but spent most of their time weaving and sewing raffia-palm cloth. This cloth was what the area was really known for. It was not only used for every sort of clothing, but also exported : the Lele consid­ ered themselves the clothiers of the region, and it was traded with sur­ rounding people to acquire luxuries. Internally, it fu nctioned as a sort of currency. Still, it was not used in markets (there were no markets) , and, as Mary Douglas discovered to her great inconvenience, within a village, one couldn't use it to acquire food, tools, tableware, or really much of anythingY It was the quintessential social currency.


      Informal gifts of raffia cloth smooth all social relations: hus­ band to wife, son to mother, son to father. They resolve oc­ casions of tension, as peace-offerings; they make parting gifts, or convey congratulations. There are also formal gifts of raffia which are neglected only at risk of rupture of the social ties in­ volved. A man, on reaching adulthood, should give 20 cloths to his father. Otherwise he would be ashamed to ask his father's help for raising his marriage dues. A man should give 20 cloths to his wife on each delivery of a child 24


      Cloth was also used for various fines and fees, and to pay curers. So for instance, if a man's wife reported a would-be seducer, it was customary to reward her with 20 cloths for her fidelity (it was not

      13 8 D E B T


      required, but not doing so was considered decidedly unwise) ; if an adulterer was caught, he was expected to pay 50 or roo cloths to the woman's husband; if the husband and lover disturbed the peace of the village by fighting before the matter was settled, each would have to pay two in compensation, and so forth .

      Gifts tended to flow upward. Young people were always giving little presents of cloth as marks of respect to fathers, mothers, uncles, and the like. These gifts were hierarchical in nature: that is, it never occurred to those receiving them that they should have to reciprocate in any way. As a result, elders, and especially elder men, usually had a few extra pieces lying around, and young men, who could never weave quite enough to meet their needs, would have to turn to them whenever time for some major payment rolled around: for instance, if they had to pay a major fine, or wished to hire a doctor to assist their wife in child­ birth, or wanted to join a cult society. They were thus always slightly in debt, or at least slightly beholden, to their elders. But everyone also had a whole range of friends and relatives who they had helped out, and so could turn to for assistance.25

      Marriage was particularly expensive, since the arrangements usually required getting one's hands on several bars of camwood. If raffia cloth was the small change of social life, camwood-a rare imported wood used for the manufacture of cosmetics-was the high-denomination currency. A hundred raffia cloths were equivalent to three to five bars. Few individuals owned much in the way of camwood, usually just little bits to grind up for their own use. Most was kept in each village's col­ lective treasury.

      This is not to say that camwood was used for anything like bridewealth-rather, it was used in marriage negotiations, in which all sorts of gifts were passed back and forth . In fact, there was no bridewealth. Men could not use money to acquire women; nor could they use it to claim any rights over children. The Lele were matrilineal. Children belonged not to their father's clan, but to their mother's.

      There was another way that men gained control over women, however.26 This was the system of blood debts.

      It is a common understanding among many traditional African peoples that human beings do not simply die without a reason . If someone dies, someone must have killed them. If a Lele woman died in childbirth, for example, this was assumed to be because she had committed adultery. The adulterer was thus responsible for the death. Sometimes she would confess on her deathbed, otherwise the facts of the matter would have to be established through divination . It was the same if a baby died . If someone became sick, or slipped and fell

      GAMES WITH SEX A N D D E AT H 13 9

      while climbing a tree, one would check to see if they had been involved in any quarrel that could be said to have caused the misfortune. If all else failed, one could employ magical means to identify the sorcerer. Once the village was satisfied that a culprit had been identified, that person owed a blood-debt: that is, he owed the victim's next of kin a human life. The culprit would thus have to transfer over a young woman from his family, his sister or her daughter, to be the victim's ward, or "pawn."

      As with the Tiv, the system quickly became immensely compli­ cated. Pawnship was inherited. If a woman was someone's pawn, so would her children be, and so would her daughters' children. This meant that most males were also considered someone else's man. Still, no one would accept a male pawn in payment of blood-debts: the whole point was to get hold of a young woman, who would then go on to produce additional pawn children . Douglas's Lele informants emphasized that any man would naturally want to have many of these as possible:

      Ask "Why do you want to have more pawns ?" and they invari­ ably say, "The advantage of owning pawns is that if you incur a blood-debt, you can settle it by paying one of your pawns, and your own sisters remain free. " Ask, "Why do you wish your own sisters to remain free?" and they reply, "Ah! then if I incur a blood-debt, I can settle it by giving one of them as a pawn "

      Every man is always aware that at any time he is liable for a blood-debt. If any woman he has seduced confesses his name in the throes of child-birth, and subsequently dies, or if her child dies, or if anyone he has quarreled with dies of illness or accident, he may be held responsible . . . Even if a woman runs away from her husband, and fighting breaks out on her account, the deaths will be laid at her door, and her brother or mother's brother will have to pay up. Since only women are accepted as blood-compensation, and since compensation is demanded for all deaths, of men as well as of women, it is obvious that there can never be enough to go around. Men fall into arrears in their pawnship obligations, and girls used to be pledged before their birth, even before their mothers were of marriageable age Y

      In other words, the whole thing turned into an endlessly complicat­ ed chess game-one reason, Douglas remarks, why the term "pawn"

      14 0 DEBT


      seems singularly apropos. Just about every adult Lele male was both someone else's pawn, and engaged in a constant game of securing, swapping, or redeeming pawns. Every major drama or tragedy of vil­ lage life would ordinarily lead to a transfer of rights in women . Almost all of those women would eventually get swapped again.

      Several points need to be emphasized here. First of all, what were being traded were, quite specifically, human lives. Douglas calls them "blood-debts," but "life-debts" would be more appropriate. Say, for instance, a man is drowning, and another man rescues him. Or say he's deathly ill but a doctor cures him. In either case, we would likely say one man "owes his life" to the other. So would the Lele, but they meant it literally. Save someone's life, they owe you a life, and a life owed had to be paid back. The usual recourse was for a man whose life was saved to turn over his sister as a pawn-or if not that, a different woman; a pawn he had acquired from someone else.

      The second point is that nothing could substitute for a human life. "Compensation was based on the principle of equivalence, a life for a life, a person for a person." Since the value of a human life was abso­ lute, no amount of raffia cloth, or camwood bars, or goats, or transis­ tor radios, or anything else could possibly take its place.

      The third and most important point is that in practice, "human life" actually meant "woman's life"-or even more specifically, "young woman's life." Ostensibly this was to maximize one's holdings: above all, one wished for a human being who could become pregnant and produce children, since those children would also be pawns. Still, even Mary Douglas, who was in no sense a feminist, was forced to admit that the whole arrangement did seem to operate as if it were one gigantic apparatus for asserting male control over women. This was true above all because women themselves could not own pawns.28 They could only be pawns. In other words: when it came to life-debts, only men could be either creditors or debtors. Young women were thus the credits and the debits-the pieces being moved around the chessboard-while the hands that moved them were invariably male.29

      Of course, since almost everyone was a pawn, or had been at some point in their lives, being one could not in itself be much of a tragedy. For male pawns it was in some ways quite advantageous, since one's "owner" had to pay most of one's fines and fees and even blood-debts. This is why, as Douglas's informants uniformly insisted, pawnship had nothing in common with slavery. The Lele did keep slaves, but never very many. Slaves were war captives, usually foreigners . As such they had no fa mily, no one to protect them. To be a pawn, on the other hand, meant to have not one, but two different fa milies to look after

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 14 1


      you: you still had your own mother and her brothers, but now you also had your "lord."

      For a woman, the very fact that she was the stakes in a game that all men were playing afforded all sorts of opportunities to game the system. In principle, a girl might be born a pawn, assigned to some man for eventual marriage. In practice, however,


      a little Lele girl would grow up a coquette. From infancy she was the centre of affectionate, teasing, flirting attention. Her affianced husband never gained more than a very limited con­ trol over her . . . Since men competed with one another for women there was scope for women to manoeuvre and intrigue. Hopeful seducers were never lacking and no woman doubted that she could get another husband if it suited her.30


      In addition, a young Lele woman had one unique and powerful card to play. Everyone was well aware that, if she completely refused to countenance her situation, she always had the option of becoming a "village-wife. "31

      The institution of village-wife was a peculiarly Lele one. Probably the best way to describe it is to imagine a hypothetical case. Let us say that an old, important man acquires a young woman as pawn through a blood-debt, and he decides to marry her himself. Technically, he has the right to do so, but it's no fun for a young woman to be an old man's third or fourth wife. Or, say he decides to offer her in marriage to one of his male pawns in a village far away from her mother and natal home. She protests. He ignores her protestations. She waits for an opportune moment and slips off at night to an enemy village, where she asks for sanctuary. This is always possible: all villages have their traditional enemies. Neither would an enemy village refuse a woman who came to them in such a situation. They would immediately de­ clare her "wife of the village," who all men living there would then be obliged to protect.

      It helps to understand that here, as in many parts of Africa, most older men had several wives. This meant that the pool of women avail­ able for younger men was considerably reduced. As our ethnographer explains, the imbalance was a source of considerable sexual tension:


      Everyone recognized that the young unmarried men coveted the wives of their seniors. Indeed, one of their pastimes was to plan seductions and the man who boasted of none was derided. Since the old men wished to remain polygynists, with two or

      14 2 DEB T


      three wives, and since adulteries were thought to disrupt the peace of the village, Lele had to make some arrangement to appease their unmarried men.

      Therefore, when a sufficient number of them reached the age of eighteen or so, they were allowed to buy the right to a common wife.32


      After paying an appropriate fee in raffia cloth to the village treasury, they were permitted to build a collective house, and then they were ei­ ther allotted a wife to put in it, or allowed to form a party that would try to steal one from a rival village. (Or, alternately, if one showed up as a refugee, they would ask the rest of the village for the right to accept her: this was invariably granted.) This common wife is what's referred to as a "village wife." The position of village wife was more than respectable. In fact, a newly married village wife was treated very much like a princess. She was not expected to plant or weed in the gardens, fetch wood or water, or even to cook; all household chores were done by her eager young husbands, who provided the best of everything, spending much of their time hunting in the forest vying to bring her the choicest delicacies, or plying her with palm wine. She could help herself to others' possessions and was expected to make all sorts of mischief to the bemused indulgence of all concerned. She was also expected to make herself sexually available to all members of the age-set-perhaps ten or twelve different men-at first, pretty much whenever they wanted her.33

      Over time, a village wife would usually settle down with just three or four of her husbands, and finally, just one. The domestic arrange­ ments were flexible. Nonetheless, in principle, she was married to the village as a whole. If she had children, the village was considered to be their father, and as such expected to bring them up, provide them with resources, and eventually, get them properly married off-which is why villages had to maintain collective treasuries full of raffia and camwood bars in the first place. Since at any time a village was likely to have several village wives, it would also have its own children and grandchildren, and therefore be in a position to both demand and pay blood-debts, and thus, to accumulate pawns.

      As a result, villages became corporate bodies, collective groups

      that, like modern corporations, had to be treated as if they were indi­ viduals for purposes of law. However there was one key difference. Un­ like ordinary individuals, villages could back up their claims with force. As Douglas emphasizes, this was crucial, because ordinary Lele men were simply not able to do this to one another.34 In everyday

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D DE A TH 14 3


      affairs, there was an almost complete lack of any systematic means of coercion. This was the main reason, she notes, that pawnship was so innocuous. There were all sorts of rules, but with no government, no courts, no judges to make authoritative decisions, no group of armed men willing or able to employ the threat of force to back those deci­ sions up, rules were there to be adj usted and interpreted. In the end, everyone's feelings had to be taken into account. In everyday affairs, Lele put great stock on gentle and agreeable behavior. Men might have been regularly seized with the urge to throw themselves at each other in fits of jealous rage (often they had good reason to), but they very rarely did. And if a fight did break out, everyone would immediately jump in to break it up and submit the affair to public mediation .35

      Villages, in contrast, were fortified, and age-sets could be mobilized to act as military units. Here, and only here, did organized violence enter the picture. True, when villages fought, it was also always over women (everyone Douglas talked to expressed incredulity at the very idea that grown men, anywhere, could ever come to blows over any­ thing else) . But in the case of villages, it could come to an actual war. If another village's elders ignored one's claims to a pawn, one's young men might organize a raiding party and kidnap her, or carry off some other likely young women to be their collective wife. This might lead to deaths, and to further claims for compensation. "Since it had the backing of force," Douglas observes drily, "the village could afford to be less conciliatory towards the wishes of its pawns. "36

      It's at exactly this point, too, where the potential for violence

      enters, that the great wall constructed between the value of lives and money can suddenly come tumbling down.


      Sometimes when two clans were disputing a claim to blood compensation, the claimant might see no hope of getting sat­ isfaction from his opponents. The political system offered no direct means for one man (or clan) to use physical coercion or to resort to superior authority to enforce claims against an­ other. In such a case, rather than abandon his claim to a pawn­ woman, he would be ready to take the equivalent in wealth, if he could get it. The usual procedure was to sell his case against the defendants to the only group capable of extorting a pawn by force, that is, to a village.

      The man who meant to sell his case to a village asked them for Ioo raffia cloths or five bars of camwood. The village raised the amount, either from its treasury, or by a loan from one

      14 4 D E B T


      of its members, and thereby adopted as its own his claim to a pawn.37


      Once he held the money, his claim was over, and the village, which had now bought it, would proceed to organize a raid to seize the woman in dispute.

      In other words, it was only when violence was brought into the

      equation that there was any question of buying and selling people. The ability to deploy force, to cut through the endless maze of preferences, obligations, expectations, and responsibilities that mark real human relationships, also made it possible to overcome what is otherwise the first rule of all Lele economic relationships: that human lives can only be exchanged for other human lives, and never for physical objects. Significantly, the amount paid-a hundred cloths, or an equivalent amount of camwood-was also the price of a slave.38 Slaves were, as I mentioned, war captives. There seem never to have been very many of them; Douglas only managed to locate two descendants of slaves in the 1950s, some twenty-five years after the practice had been abol­ ished.39 Still, the numbers were not important. The mere fact of their existence set a precedent. The value of a human life could, sometimes, be quantified; but if one was able to move from A = A (one life equals another) to A = B (one life = one hundred cloths) , it was only because the equation was established at the point of a spear.


      Flesh -D ebt (Tiv)


      I have dwelt on the Lele in such detail in part because I wanted to con­ vey some sense of why I was using the term "human economy," what life is like inside one, what sort of dramas fill people's days, and how money typically operates in the midst of all this. Lele currencies are, as I say, quintessential social currencies. They are used to mark every visit, every promise, every important moment in a man's or woman's life. It is surely significant, too, what the objects used as currency here actually were. Raffia cloth was used for clothing. In Douglas's day, it was the main thing used to clothe the human body; camwood bars were the source of a red paste that was used as a cosmetic-it was the main substance used as makeup, by both men and women, to beautify themselves each day. These, then, were the materials used to shape people's physical appearance, to make them appear mature, decent, at­ tractive, and dignified to their fellows. They were what turned a mere naked body into a proper social being.

      GAMES WITH SEX A N D D E AT H 14 5


      This is no coincidence. In fact, it's extraordinarily common in what I've been calling human economies. Money almost always arises first from objects that are used primarily as adornment of the person. Beads, shells, feathers, dog or whale teeth, gold, and silver are all well­ known cases in point. All are useless for any purpose other than mak­ ing people look more interesting, and hence, more beautiful. The brass rods used by the Tiv might seem an exception, but actually they're not: they were used mainly as raw material for the manufacture of jewelry, or simply twisted into hoops and worn at dances. There are exceptions (cattle, for instance) , but as a general rule, it's only when governments, and then markets, enter the picture that we begin to see currencies like barley, cheese, tobacco, or salt.40

      It also illustrates the peculiar progression of ideas that so often mark human economies . On the one hand, human life is the absolute value. There is no possible equivalent. Whether a life is given or taken, the debt is absolute. In places, this principle is indeed sacrosanct. More often, it is compromised by the elaborate games played by the Tiv, who treat the giving of lives, and the Lele, who treat the taking of lives, as creating debts that can only be paid by delivering another human being. In each case, too, the practice ends up engendering an extraor­ dinarily complex game in which important men end up exchanging women, or at least, rights over their fertility.

      But this is already a kind of opening. Once the game exists, once the principle of substitution comes in, there was always the possibility of extending it. When that begins to happen, systems of debt that were premised on creating people can-even here-suddenly become the means of destroying them.

      As an example, let us once again return to the Tiv. The reader will recall that if a man did not have a sister or a ward to give in exchange for one's wife, it was possible to assuage her parents and guardians by gifts of money. However, such a wife would never be considered truly his. Here too, there was one dramatic exception. A man could buy a slave, a woman kidnapped in a raid from a distant country.41 Slaves, after all, had no parents, or could be treated as if they didn't; they had been forcibly removed from all those networks of mutual obligation and debt in which ordinary people acquired their outward identities. This was why they could be bought and sold.

      Once married, though, a purchased wife would quickly develop new ties. She was no longer a slave, and her children were perfectly legitimate-more so, in fact, than those of a wife who was merely ac­ quired through the continual payment of brass rods.

      14 6 DEB T


      We have perhaps a general principle: to make something saleable, in a human economy, one needs to first rip it from its context. That's what slaves are: people stolen from the community that made them what they are. As strangers to their new communities, slaves no longer had mothers, fathers, kin of any sort. This is why they could be bought and sold or even killed : because the only relation they had was to their owners. A Lele village's ability to organize raids and kidnap a woman from an alien community seems to have been the key to its ability to start trading women for money-even if in their case, they could do so only to a very limited extent. After all, her relatives were not very far away, and they would surely come around demanding an explanation. In the end, someone would have to come up with an arrangement that everyone could live with.42

      Still, I would also insist that there is something more than this. One gets the distinct sense, in much of the literature, that many African societies were haunted by the awareness that these elaborate networks of debt could, if things went just slightly wrong, be transformed into something absolutely terrible. The Tiv are a dramatic case in point.


      I I I I I


      Among students of anthropology, the Tiv are mainly famous for the fact that their economic life was divided into what their best-known ethnographers, Paul and Laura Bohannan, referred to as three sepa­ rate "spheres of exchange." Ordinary, everyday economic activity was mostly the affair of women. They were the ones who filled the markets, and who trod the paths giving and returning minor gifts of okra, nuts, or fish. Men concerned themselves with what they considered higher things: the kind of transactions that could be conducted using the Tiv currency, which, as with the Lele, consisted of two denominations, a kind of locally made cloth called tugudu, widely exported, and, for ma­ jor transactions, bundles of imported brass rods.43 These could be used to acquire certain flashy and luxurious things (cows, purchased foreign wives) , but they were mainly for the give and take of political affairs, hiring curers, acquiring magic, gaining initiation into cult societies. In political matters, Tiv were even more resolutely egalitarian than the Lele: successful old men with their numerous wives might have lorded it over their sons and other dependants within their own house com­ pounds, but beyond that, there was no formal political organization of any sort. Finally, there was the system of wards, which consisted entirely of men's rights in women. Hence, the notion of "spheres." In principle, these three levels-ordinary consumption goods, masculine

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 14 7


      prestige goods, and rights in women-were completely separate. No amount of okra could get you a brass rod, just as, in principle, no number of brass rods could give you full rights to a woman.

      In practice, there were ways to game the system. Say a neighbor was sponsoring a feast but was short on supplies; one might come to his aid, then later, discreetly, ask for a bundle or two in repayment. To be able to wheel and deal, to "turn chickens into cows," as the saying went, and ultimately, broker one's wealth and prestige into a way of acquiring wives, required a "strong heart"-that is, an enterprising and charismatic personality.44 But "strong heart" had another meaning too. There was believed to be a certain actual biological substance called

      tsav that grew on the human heart. This was what gave certain people

      their charm, their energy, and their powers of persuasion. Tsav there­ fore was both a physical substance and that invisible power that allows certain people to bend others to their will.45

      The problem was-and most Tiv of that time appear to have be­ lieved that this was the problem with their society-that it was also possible to augment one's tsav through artificial means, and this could only be accomplished by consuming human flesh.

      Now, I should emphasize right away that there is no reason to be­ lieve that any Tiv actually did practice cannibalism. The idea of eating human flesh appears to have disgusted and horrified them as much as it would most Americans. Yet for centuries, most appear to have been veritably obsessed by the suspicion that some of their neighbors-and particularly prominent men who became de facto political leaders­

      were, in fact, secret cannibals. Men who built up their tsav by such

      means, the stories went, attained extraordinary powers: the ability to fly, to become impervious to weapons, to be able to send out their souls at night to kill their victims in such a way that their victims did not even know that they were dead, but would wander about, confused and feckless, to be harvested for their cannibal feasts. They became, in short, terrifying witches.46

      The mbatsav, or society of witches, was always looking for new

      members, and the way to accomplish this was to trick people into eat­ ing human flesh. A witch would take a piece of the body of one of his own close relatives, who he had murdered, and place it in the victim's food. If the man was foolish enough to eat it, he would contract a "flesh-debt," and the society of witches ensured that flesh-debts are always paid.


      Perhaps your friend, or some older man, has noticed that you have a large number of children, or brothers and sisters, and so

      14 8 D E B T


      tricks you into contracting the debt with him. He invites you to eat food in his house alone with him, and when you begin the meal he sets before you two dishes of sauce, one of which contains cooked human flesh . . .


      If you eat from the wrong dish, but you do not have a "strong heart"-the potential to become a witch-you will become sick and flee from the house in terror. But if you have that hidden potential, the flesh will begin to work in you. That evening, you will find your house surrounded by screeching cats and owls. Strange noises will fill the air. Your new creditor will appear before you, backed by his confederates in evil. He will tell of how he killed his own brother so you two could dine together, and pretend to be tortured by the thought of having lost his own kin as you sit there, surrounded by your plump and healthy relatives. The other witches will concur, acting as if all this is your own fault. "You have sought for trouble, and trouble has come upon you . Come and lie down on the ground, that we may cut your throat. "47

      There's only one way out, and that's to pledge a member of your own fa mily as substitute. This is possible, because you will find you have terrible new powers, but they must be used as the other witches demand. One by one, you must kill off your brothers, sisters, children; their bodies will be stolen from their graves by the college of witches, brought back to life just long enough to be properly fattened, tortured, killed again, then carved and roasted for yet another feast.


      The flesh debt goes on and on. The creditor keeps on coming. Unless the debtor has men behind him who are very strong in tsav, he cannot free himself from the flesh debt until he has given up all his people, and his family is finished. Then he goes himself and lies down on the ground to be slaughtered, and so the debt is finally discharged.48


      Th e Sl ave Tra de


      In one sense, it's obvious what's going on here. Men with "strong hearts" have power and charisma; using it, they can manipulate debt to turn extra food into treasures, and treasures into wives, wards, and daughters, and thus become the heads of ever-growing families. But that very power and charisma that allows them to do this also makes them run the constant danger of sending the whole process jolting back

      GAMES WITH SEX A N D DE A TH 14 9


      into a kind of horrific implosion, of creating flesh-debts whereby one's family is converted back into food.

      Now, if one is simply trying to imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen to someone, surely, being forced to dine on the mu­ tilated corpses of one's own children would, anywhere, be pretty high on the list. Still, anthropologists have come to understand, over the years, that every society is haunted by slightly different nightmares, and these differences are significant. Horror stories, whether about vampires, ghouls, or flesh-eating zombies, always seem to reflect some aspect of the tellers' own social lives, some terrifying potential, in the way they are accustomed to interact with each other, that they do not wish to acknowledge or confront, but also cannot help but talk about.49 In the Tiv case, what would that be? Clearly, Tiv did have a major problem with authority. They lived in a landscape dotted with com­ pounds, each organized around a single older man with his numerous wives, children, and assorted hangers-on. Within each compound, that man had near-absolute authority. Outside there was no formal political structure, and Tiv were fiercely egalitarian. In other words: all men as­ pired to become the masters of large families, but they were extremely suspicious of any form of mastery. Hardly surprising, then, that Tiv men were so ambivalent about the nature of power that they became convinced that the very qualities that allow a man to rise to legitimate prominence could, if taken just a little bit further, turn him into a mon­ ster.50 In fact, most Tiv seemed to assume that most male elders were witches, and that if a young person died, they were probably being paid

      off for a flesh-debt.

      But this still doesn't answer the one obvious question: Why is all this framed in terms of debt?


      I I I I I


      .

      Here a little history is in order. It would appear that the ancestors of the Tiv arrived in the Benue river valley and adj acent lands sometime around 175o-a time when all of what's now Nigeria was being torn apart by the Atlantic slave trade. Early stories relate how the Tiv, dur­ ing their migrations, used to paint their wives and children with what looked like smallpox scars, so that potential raiders would be afraid to carry them off.51 They established themselves in a notoriously inacces­ sible stretch of country and offered up ferocious defense against peri­ odic raids from neighboring kingdoms to their north and west-with which they eventually came to a political rapprochement.SZ

      15 0 D E B T


      The Tiv, then, were well aware of what was happening all around them. Consider, for example, the case of the copper bars whose use they were so careful to restrict, so as to avoid their becoming an all­ purpose form of currency.

      Now, copper bars had been used for money in this part of Africa for centuries, and at least in some places, for ordinary commercial transactions, as well. It was easy enough to do: one simply snapped them apart into smaller pieces, or pulled some of them into thin wires, twisted those around to little loops, and one had perfectly serviceable small change for everyday market transactions.53 Most of the ones cur­ rent in Tivland since the late eighteenth century, on the other hand, were mass-produced in factories in Birmingham and imported through the port of Old Calabar at the mouth of the Cross River, by slave­ traders based in Liverpool and Bristol.54 In all the country adj oining the Cross River-that is, in the region directly to the south of the Tiv territory-copper bars were used as everyday currency. This was presumably how they entered Tivland; they were either carried in by pedlars from the Cross River or acquired by Tiv traders on expeditions abroad. All this, however, makes the fact that the Tiv refused to use copper bars as such a currency doubly significant.

      During the q6os alone, perhaps a hundred thousand Africans were shipped down the Cross River to Calabar and nearby ports, where they were put in chains, placed on British, French, or other European ships, and shipped across the Atlantic-part of perhaps a million and a half exported from the Bight of Biafra during the whole period of the At­ lantic slave trade.55 Some of them had been captured in wars or raids, or simply kidnapped. The majority, though, were carried off because of debts.

      Here, though, I must explain something about the organization of the slave trade.

      The Atlantic Slave Trade as a whole was a gigantic network of credit arrangements. Ship-owners based in Liverpool or Bristol would acquire goods on easy credit terms from local wholesalers, expecting to make good by selling slaves (also on credit) to planters in the Antilles and America, with commission agents in the city of London ultimately financing the affair through the profits of the sugar and tobacco trade. 56 Ship-owners would then transport their wares to African ports like Old Calabar. Calabar itself was the quintessential mercantile city-state, dominated by rich African merchants who dressed in European clothes, lived in European-style houses, and in some cases even sent their chil­ dren to England to be educated.

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D DE A TH 15 1


      On arrival, European traders would negotiate the value of their cargoes in the copper bars that served as the currency of the port. In 1698, a merchant aboard a ship called the Dragon noted the following prices he managed to establish for his wares:


      one bar iron 4 copper bars one bunch of beads 4 copper bars five rangoes57 4 copper bars

      one basin No. 1 4 copper bars

      one tankard 3 copper bars

      one yard linen I copper bar

      six knives I copper bar one brass bell No. I 3 copper bars58


      By the height of the trade fifty years later, British ships were bring­ ing in large quantities of cloth (both products of the newly created Manchester mills and calicoes from India) , and iron and copper ware, along with incidental goods like beads, and also, for obvious reasons, substantial numbers of firearms.19 The goods were then advanced to African merchants, again on credit, who assigned them to their own agents to move upstream.

      The obvious problem was how to secure the debt. The trade was an extraordinarily duplicitous and brutal business, and slave raiders were unlikely to be dependable credit risks-especially when dealing with foreign merchants who they might never see again .60 As a result, a system quickly developed in which European captains would demand security in the form of pawns.

      The sort of "pawns" we are talking about here are clearly quite different from the kind we encountered among the Lele. In many of the kingdoms and trading towns of West Africa, the nature of pawn­ ship appears to have already undergone profound changes by the time Europeans showed up on the scene around 1500-it had become, effec­ tively, a kind of debt peonage. Debtors would pledge family members as surety for loans; the pawns would then become dependents in the creditors' households, working their fields and tending to their house­ hold chores-their persons acting as security while their labor, effec­ tively, substituted for interest.61 Pawns were not slaves; they were not, like slaves, cut off from their fa milies; but neither were they precisely free.62 In Calabar and other ports, masters of slaving ships, on advanc­ ing goods to their African counterparts, soon developed the custom of

      15 2 D E B T


      demanding pawns as security-for instance, two of the merchants' own dependents for every three slaves to be delivered, preferably including at least one member of the merchants' familiesY This was in practice not much different than demanding the surrender of hostages, and at times it created major political crises when captains, tired of waiting for delayed shipments, decided to take off with a cargo of pawns in­ stead.

      Upriver, debt pawns also played a major part in the trade. In one way, the area was a bit unusual. In most of West Africa, the trade ran through major kingdoms such as Dahomey or Asante to make wars and impose draconian punishments-one very common expedient for rulers was to manipulate the justice system, so that almost any crime came to be punishable by enslavement, or by death with the enslave­ ment of one's wife and children, or by outrageously high fines which, if one could not pay them, would cause the defaulter and his family to be sold as slaves. In another way, it is unusually revealing, since the lack of any larger government structures made it easier to see what was really happening. The pervasive climate of violence led to the sys­ tematic perversion of all the institutions of existing human economies, which were transformed into a gigantic apparatus of dehumanization and destruction.

      In the Cross River region, the trade seems to have seen two phases. The first was a period of absolute terror and utter chaos, in which raids were frequent, and anyone traveling alone risked being kidnapped by roving gangs of thugs and sold to Calabar. Before long, villages lay abandoned; many people fled into the forest; men would have to form armed parties to work the fields.64 This period was relatively brief. The second began when representatives of local merchant soci­ eties began to establish themselves in communities up and down the region, offering to restore order. The most famous of these was the Aro Confederacy, who called themselves, "Children of God. "65 Backed by heavily armed mercenaries and the prestige of their famous Oracle at Arochukwu, they established a new and notoriously harsh justice system.66 Kidnappers were hunted down and themselves sold as slaves. Safety was restored to roads and farmsteads. At the same time, Aro collaborated with local elders to create a code of ritual laws and penal­ ties so comprehensive and severe that everyone was at constant risk of falling afoul of themY Anyone who violated one would be turned over to the Aro for transport to the coast, with their accuser receiving their price in copper bars.68 According to some contemporary accounts, a man who simply disliked his wife and was in need of brass rods could

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D DE A TH 15 3

      always come up with some reason to sell her, and the village elders­ who received a share of the profits-would almost invariably concur.69 The most ingenious trick of the merchant societies, though, was to assist in the dissemination of a secret society, called Ekpe. Ekpe was most famous for sponsoring magnificent masquerades and for initiat­ ing its members into arcane mysteries, but it also acted as a secret mechanism for the enforcement of debts.70 In Calabar itself, for ex­ ample, the Ekpe society had access to a whole range of sanctions, starting with boycotts (all members were forbidden to conduct trade with a defaulting debtor) , fines, seizure of property, arrest, and finally, execution-with the most hapless victims left tied to trees, their lower jaws removed, as a warning to others.71 It was ingenious, particularly, because such societies always allowed anyone to buy in, rising though the nine initiatory grades if they could pay the fee-these also exacted, of course, in the brass rods the merchants themselves supplied. In Cala­

      }

      bar, the fee schedule for each grade looked like this :72


      1. Nyampi

      2. Oku Akana

      Brass 4· Makanda 5 · Makara

      6. Mboko Mboko

      Bunko Abonko

      8. Mboko Nya Ekpo 9 · Ekpe


      3 oo boxes brass rods, each £2 9s.

      =£735 , for the first four grades.


      so boxes brass rods for each of the lower grades.


      In other words, it was quite expensive. But membership quickly became the chief mark of honor and distinction everywhere. Entry fees were no doubt less exorbitant in small, distant communities, but the effect was still the same: thousands ended up in debt to the merchants, whether for the fees required for joining, or for the trade goods they supplied (mostly cloth and metal put to use creating the gear and costumes for the Ekpe performances-debts that they thus themselves became responsible for enforcing on themselves. These debts, too, were regularly paid in people, ostensibly yielded up as pawns.)

      How did it work in practice ? It appears to have varied a great deal from place to place. In the Afikpo district, on a remote part of the up­ per Cross River, for instance, we read that everyday affairs-the acqui­ sition of food, for example-was conducted, as among the Tiv, "with­ out trade or the use of money." Brass rods, supplied by the merchant societies, were used to buy and sell slaves, but otherwise mostly as a

      15 4 D E B T


      social currency, "used for gifts and for payments in funerals, titles, and other ceremonies. "73 Most of those payments, titles, and ceremonies were tied to the secret societies that the merchants had also brought to the area. All this does sound a bit like the Tiv arrangement, but the presence of the merchants ensured that the effects were very different:


      In the old days, if anybody got into trouble or debt in the up­ per parts of the Cross River, and wanted ready money, he used generally to "pledge" one or more of his children, or some other members of his family or household, to one of the Aku­ nakuna traders who paid periodical visits to his village. Or he would make a raid on some neighboring village, seize a child, and sell him or her to the same willing purchaser.74


      The passage only makes sense if one recognizes that debtors were also, owing to their membership in the secret societies, collectors. The seizing of a child is a reference to the local practice of "panyarring," current throughout West Africa, by which creditors despairing of repay­ ment would simply sweep into the debtor's community with a group of armed men and seize anything-people, goods, domestic animals-that could be easily carried off, then hold it hostage as security.75 It didn't matter if the people or goods had belonged to the debtor, or even the debtor's relatives. A neighbor's goats or children would do just as well, since the whole point was to bring social pressure on whoever owed the money. As William Bosman put it, "If the Debtor be an honest man and the Debt just, he immediately endeavours by the satisfaction of his Creditors to free his Countrymen. "76 It was actually a quite sensible expedient in an environment with no central authority, where people tended to feel an enormous sense of responsibility toward other mem­ bers of their community and very little responsibility toward anyone else. In the case of the secret society cited above, the debtor would, presumably, be calling in his own debts-real or imagined-to those outside the organization, in order not to have to send off members of his own family.n

      Such expedients were not always effective. Often debtors would be

      forced to pawn more and more of their own children or dependents, until finally there was no recourse but to pawn themselves.78 And of course, at the height of the slave trade, "pawning" had become little more than a euphemism. The distinction between pawns and slaves had largely disappeared. Debtors, like their families before them, ended up turned over to the Aro, then to the British, and finally, shackled and

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 15 5


      chained, crowded into tiny slaving vessels and sent off to be sold on plantations across the sea?9


      I I I I I


      If the Tiv, then, were haunted by the vision of an insidious secret orga­ nization that lured unsuspecting victims into debt traps, whereby they themselves became the enforcers of debts to be paid with the bodies of their children, and ultimately, themselves-one reason was because this was, literally happening to people who lived a few hundred miles away. Nor is the use of the phrase " flesh-debt" in any way inappropri­ ate. Slave-traders might not have been reducing their victims to meat, but they were certainly reducing them to nothing more than bodies. To be a slave was to be plucked from one's family, kin, friends, and com­ munity, stripped of one's name, identity, and dignity; of everything that made one a person rather than a mere human machine capable of un­ derstanding orders. Neither were most slaves offered much opportunity to develop enduring human relations. Most that ended up in Caribbean or American plantations, though, were simply worked to death.

      What is remarkable is that all this was done, the bodies extracted, through the very mechanisms of the human economy, premised on the principle that human lives are the ultimate value, to which nothing could possibly compare. Instead, all the same institutions-fees for ini­ tiations, means of calculating guilt and compensation, social currencies, debt pawnship-were turned into their opposite; the machinery was, as it were, thrown into reverse; and, as the Tiv also perceived, the gears and mechanisms designed for the creation of human beings collapsed on themselves and became the means for their destruction.


      I I I I I


      I do not want to leave the reader with the impression that what I am describing here is in any way peculiar to Africa. One could find the exact same things happening wherever human economies came into contact with commercial ones (and particularly, commercial economies with advanced military technology and an insatiable demand for hu­ man labor) .

      Remarkably similar things can be observed throughout Southeast Asia, particularly amongst hill and island people living on the fringes of major kingdoms. As the premier historian of the region, Anthony Reid,

      15 6 D E B T


      has pointed out, labor throughout Southeast Asia has long been orga­ nized above all through relations of debt bondage.


      Even in relatively simple societies little penetrated by money, there were ritual needs for substantial expenditures-the pay­ ment of bride-price for marriage and the slaughter of a buffalo at the death of a fa mily member. It is widely reported that such

      ritual needs are the most common reason why the poor become indebted to the rich . . . 80


      For instance, one practice, noted from Thailand to Sulawesi, is for a group of poor brothers to turn to a rich sponsor to pay for the expenses of one brother's marriage. He's then referred to as their "mas­ ter." This is more like a patron-client relation than anything else: the brothers might be obliged to do the occasional odd job, or appear as his entourage on occasions when he has to make a good impression­ not much more. Still, technically, he owns their children, and "can also

      repossess the wife he provided if his bondsmen fail to carry out his obligations. "81

      Elsewhere, we hear similar stories to those in Africa-of peasants pawning themselves or members of their families, or even gambling themselves into bondage; of principalities where penalties invariably took the form of heavy fines. "Frequently, of course, these fines could not be paid, and the condemned man, often accompanied by his depen­ dants, became the bondsman of the ruler, of the inj ured party, or of whoever was able to pay his fine for him. "82 Reid insists that most of this was relatively innocuous-in fact, poor men might take out loans for the express purpose of becoming debtors to some wealthy patron, who could provide them with food during hard times, a roof, a wife. Clearly this was not "slavery" in the ordinary sense. That is, unless the patron decided to ship some of his dependents off to creditors of his own in some distant city like Majapahit or Ternate, whereupon they might find themselves toiling in some grandee's kitchen or pepper plantation like any other slave.

      It's important to point this out because one of the effects of the slave trade is that people who don't actually live in Africa are often left with an image of that continent as an irredeemably violent, savage place-an image that has had disastrous effects on those who do live there. It might be fitting, then, to consider the history of one place that is usually represented as the polar opposite: Bali, the famous "land of ten thousand temples"-an island often pictured in anthropological texts and tourist brochures as if it were inhabited exclusively by placid,

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 1 5 7


      dreamy artists who spend their days arranging flowers and practicing synchronized dance routines.

      In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Bali had not yet ob­ tained this reputation . At the time, it was still divided among a dozen tiny, squabbling kingdoms in an almost perpetual state of war. In fact, its reputation among the Dutch merchants and officials ensconced in nearby Java was almost exactly the opposite of what it is today. Ba­ linese were considered a rude and violent people ruled by decadent, opium-addicted nobles whose wealth was based almost exclusively on their willingness to sell their subjects to foreigners as slaves. By the time the Dutch were fully in control in Java, Bali had been turned largely into a reservoir for the export of human beings-young Bali­ nese women in particular being in great demand in cities through the region as both prostitutes and concubines.83 As the island was drawn into the slave trade, almost the entire social and political system of the island was transformed into an apparatus for the forcible extraction of women. Even within villages, ordinary marriages took the form of "marriage by capture"-sometimes staged elopements, sometimes real forcible kidnappings, after which the kidnappers would pay a woman's family to let the matter drop. 84 If a woman was captured by someone genuinely important, though, no compensation would be offered. Even in the 196os, elders recalled how attractive young women used to be hidden away by their parents,


      forbidden to bear towering offerings to temple festivals, lest they be espied by a royal scout and hustled into the closely protected female quarters of the palace, where the eyes of male visitors were restricted to foot level. For there was slim chance a girl would become a legitimate low-caste wife (penawing) of

      the raja . . . More likely after affording a few years' licentious satisfaction, she would degenerate into a slave-like servant.85


      Or, if she did rise to such a position that the high-caste wives be­ gan to see her as a rival, she might be either poisoned or shipped off overseas to end up servicing soldiers at some Chinese-run bordello in Jogjakarta, or changing bedpans in the house of a French plantation­ owner in the Indian Ocean island of Reunion.86 Meanwhile, royal law codes were rewritten in all the usual ways, with the exception that here, the force of law was directed above all and explicitly against women. Not only were criminals and debtors to be enslaved and deported, but any married man was granted the power to renounce his wife, and by doing so render her, automatically, property of the local ruler, to be

      15 8 D E B T


      disposed of as he wished. Even a woman whose husband died before she had produced male offspring would to be handed over to the palace to be sold abroadY

      As Adrian Vickers explains, even Bali's fa mous cockfights-so fa­ miliar to any first-year anthropology student-were originally promot­ ed by royal courts as a way of recruiting human merchandise:


      Kings even helped put people into debt by staging large cock­ fights in their capitals. The passion and extravagance encour­ aged by this exciting sport led many peasants to bet more than they could afford. As with any gambling, the hope of great wealth and the drama of a contest fuelled ambitions which few could afford and at the end of the day, when the last spur had sunk into the chest of the last rooster, many peasants had no home and family to return to. They, and their wives and children, would be sold to Java.88


      Reflecti ons on Viol ence


      I began this book by asking a question: How is it that moral obliga­ tions between people come to be thought of as debts, and as a result, end up justifying behavior that would otherwise seem utterly immoral?

      I began this chapter by beginning to propose an answer: by making a distinction between commercial economies and what I call "human economies"-that is, those where money acts primarily as a social currency, to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather

      than to purchase things. As Rospabe so cogently demonstrated, it is

      the peculiar quality of such social currencies that they are never quite equivalent to people. If anything, they are a constant reminder that human beings can never be equivalent to anything-even, ultimately, to one another. This is the profound truth of the blood-feud. No one can ever really forgive the man who killed his brother because every brother is unique. Nothing could substitute-not even some other man given the same name and status as your brother, or a concubine who will bear a son who will be named after your brother, or a ghost-wife who will bear a child pledged to someday avenge his death .

      In a human economy, each person is unique, and of incompa­ rable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others. A woman may be a daughter, sister, lover, rival, companion, mother, age-mate, and mentor to many different people in different ways. Each relation is unique, even in a society in which they are sustained through

      GAM ES WITH S E X A N D D E AT H 159


      the constant g1vmg back and forth of generic objects such as raffia cloth or bundles of copper wire. In one sense, those objects make one who one is-a fact illustrated by the way the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others . Still, just as our clothes don't really make us who we are, a relationship kept alive by the giving and taking of raffia is always something more than that.89 This means that the raffia, in turn, is always something less. This is why I think Rospabe was right to emphasize the fact that in such economies, money can never substitute for a person : money is a way of acknowledging that very fact, that the debt cannot be paid. But even the notion that a person can substitute for a person, that one sis­ ter can somehow be equated with another, is by no means self-evident.

      In this sense, the term "human economy" is double-edged . These are, after all, economies: that is, systems of exchange in which qualities are reduced to quantities, allowing calculations of gain and loss-even if those calculations are simply a matter (as in sister exchange) of I equals I, or (as in the feud) of I minus I equals o.

      How is this calculability effectuated ? How does it become pos­ sible to treat people as if they are identical? The Lele example gave us a hint: to make a human being an object of exchange, one woman equivalent to another for example, requires first of all ripping her from her context; that is, tearing her away from that web of relations that makes her the unique conflux of relations that she is, and thus, into a generic value capable of being added and subtracted and used as a means to measure debt. This requires a certain violence. To make her equivalent to a bar of camwood takes even more violence, and it takes an enormous amount of sustained and systematic violence to rip her so completely from her context that she becomes a slave.

      I should be clear here. I am not using the word "violence" meta­ phorically. I am not speaking merely of conceptual violence, but of the literal threat of broken bones and bruised flesh; of punches and kicks; in much the same way that when the ancient Hebrews spoke of their daughters in "bondage," they were not being poetic, but talking about literal ropes and chains.

      Most of us don't like to think much about violence. Those lucky enough to live relatively comfortable, secure lives in modern cities tend either to act as if it does not exist or, when reminded that it does, to write off the larger world "out there" as a terrible, brutal place, with not much that can be done to help it. Either instinct allows us not to have to think about the degree to which even our own daily existence is defined by violence or at least the threat of violence (as I've often

      16 0 DEB T


      noted, think about what would happen if you were to insist on your right to enter a university library without a properly validated ID), and to overstate the importance-or at least the frequency-of things like war, terrorism, and violent crime. The role of force in providing the framework for human relations is simply more explicit in what we call "traditional societies"-even if in many, actual physical assault by one human on another occurs less often than in our own. Here's a story from the Bunyoro kingdom, in East Africa:


      Once a man moved into a new village. He wanted to find out what his neighbors were like, so in the middle of the night he pretended to beat his wife very severely, to see if the neighbors would come and remonstrate with him. But he did not really beat her; instead he beat a goatskin, while his wife screamed and cried out that he was killing her. Nobody came, and the very next day the man and his wife packed up and left that vil­ lage and went to find some other place to live . 90


      The point is obvious. In a proper village, the neighbors should have rushed in, held him back, demanded to know what the woman could possibly have done to deserve such treatment. The dispute would be­ come a collective concern that ended in some sort of collective settle­ ment. This is how people ought to live. No reasonable man or woman would want to live in a place where neighbors don't look after one another.

      In its own way it's a revealing story, charming even, but one must still ask: How would a community-even one the man in the sto­ ry would have considered a proper community-have reacted if they thought she was beating him?91 I think we all know the answer. The first case would have led to concern; the second would have led to ridi­ cule. In Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, young vil­ lagers used to put on satirical skits making fun of husbands beaten by their wives, even to parade them about the town mounted backwards on an ass for everyone to jeer at.92 No African society, as far as I know,

      went quite this far. (Neither did any African society burn as many witches-Western Europe at that time was a particularly savage place.) Yet as in most of the world, the assumption that the one sort of brutal­ ity was at least potentially legitimate, and that the other was not, was the framework within which relations between the sexes took place.93

      What I want to emphasize is that there is a direct relation be­ tween that fact and the possibility of trading lives for one another.

      GAMES WITH S E X A N D DEA TH 161


      Anthropologists are fond of making diagrams to represent preferential marriage patterns. Sometimes, these diagrams can be quite beautiful :94


      Ideal pattern of bilateral cross-cousin marriage


      Sometimes they merely have a certain elegant simplicity, as in this diagram on an instance of Tiv sister exhange:95


      KUNAV


      MBAGBERA MBADUKU


      O D a c * B .6. A O M a N

      : ………..


      Human beings, left to follow their own desires, rarely arrange themselves in symmetrical patterns. Such symmetry tends to be bought at a terrible human price. In the Tiv case, Akiga is actually willing to describe it:


      Under the old system an elder who had a ward could always marry a young girl, however senile he might be, even if he

      162 D E B T


      were a leper with no hands or feet; no girl would dare to re­ fuse him. If another man were attracted by his ward he would take his own and give her to the old man by force, in order to make an exchange. The girl had to go with the old man, sorrowfully carrying his goat-skin bag. If she ran back to her home her owner caught her and beat her, then bound her and brought her back to the elder. The old man was pleased, and grinned till he showed his blackened molars . "Wherever you go, " he told her, "you will be brought back here to me; so stop worrying, and settle down as my wife." The girl fretted, till she wished the earth might swallow her. Some women even stabbed themselves to death when they were given to an old man against their will; but in spite of all, the Tiv did not care. 96


      The last line says everything. Citing it might seem unfair (the Tiv did, evidently, care enough to elect Akiga to be their first parliamen­ tary representative, knowing he supported legislation to outlaw such practices), but it serves nicely to bring home the real point: that certain sorts of violence were considered morally acceptable.97 No neighbors would rush in to intervene if a guardian was beating a runaway ward. Or if they did, it would be to insist that he use more gentle means to return her to her rightful husband. And it was because women knew that this is how their neighbors, or even parents, would react that "ex­ change marriage" was possible.

      This is what I mean by people "ripped from their contexts."


      I I I I I


      The Lele were fortunate enough to have largely escaped the devasta­ tions of the slave trade; the Tiv were sitting practically on the teeth of the shark, and they had to make heroic efforts to keep the threat at bay. Nonetheless, in both cases there were mechanisms for forcibly removing young women from their homes, and it was precisely this that made them exchangeable-though in each case too, a principle stipulated that a woman could only be exchanged for another woman . The few exceptions, when women could be exchanged for other things, emerged directly from war and slavery-that is, when the level of vio­ lence was significantly ratcheted up.

      The slave trade, of course, represented violence on an entirely dif­ ferent scale. We are speaking here of destruction of genocidal pro­ portions, in world-historic terms, comparable only to events like the destruction of New World civilizations or the Holocaust. Neither do

      GAMES WITH SEX A N D D E AT H 16 3


      I mean in any way to blame the victims: we need only imagine what would be likely to happen in our own society if a group of space aliens suddenly appeared, armed with undefeatable military technology, infi­ nite wealth, and no recognizable morality-and announced that they were willing to pay a million dollars each for human workers, no ques­ tions asked. There will always be at least a handful of people unscru­ pulous enough to take advantage of such a situation-and a handful is all it takes.

      Groups like the Aro Confederacy represent an all-too-familiar strategy, deployed by fascists, mafias, and right-wing gangsters every­ where: first unleash the criminal violence of an unlimited market, in which everything is for sale and the price of life becomes extremely cheap; then step in, offering to restore a certain measure of order­ though one which in its very harshness leaves all the most profitable

      aspects of t4e earlier chaos intact. The violence is preserved within the

      structure of the law. Such mafias, too, almost invariably end up enforc­ ing a strict code of honor in which morality becomes above all a matter of paying one's debts.

      Were this a different book, I might reflect here on the curious par­ allels between the Cross River societies and Bali, both of which saw a magnificent outburst of artistic creativity (Cross River Ekpe masks were a major influence on Picasso) that took the form, above all, of an efflorescence of theatrical performance, replete with intricate music, splendid costumes, and stylized dance-a kind of alternative political order as imaginary spectacle-at the exact moment that ordinary life became a game of constant peril in which any misstep might lead to being sent away. What was the link between the two ? It's an interesting question, but not one we can really answer here. For present purposes, the crucial question has to be: How common was this? The African slave trade was, as I mentioned, an unprecedented catastrophe, but commercial economies had already been extracting slaves from human economies for thousands of years. It is a practice as old as civilization. The question I want to ask is: To what degree is it actually constitutive of civilization itself?

      I am not speaking strictly of slavery here, but of that process that dislodges people from the webs of mutual commitment, shared history, and collective responsibility that make them what they are, so as to make them exchangeable-that is, to make it possible to make them subject to the logic of debt. Slavery is just the logical end-point, the most extreme form of such disentanglement. But for that reason it pro­ vides us with a window on the process as a whole. What's more, ow­ ing to its historical role, slavery has shaped our basic assumptions and

      16 4 DEB T


      institutions in ways that we are no longer aware of and whose influ­ ence we would probably never wish to acknowledge if we were. If we have become a debt society, it is because the legacy of war, conquest, and slavery has never completely gone away. It's still there, lodged in our most intimate conceptions of honor, property, even freedom. It's just that we can no longer see that it's there.

      In the next chapter, I will begin to describe how this happened .



      Chapter Seven HONOR AN D DEGRADATI ON

      OR, ON THE FO UNDATIO NS OF CONTEMPORA RY CIVIL IZATION


      ur5 [HAR]: n., liver; spleen; heart, soul;

      bulk, main body; foundation; loan; obligation; interest; surplus, profit; interest-bearing debt; repayment; slave­ woman.

      -early Sumerian dictionary1


      It is just to give each what is owed.

      -Simonides


      IN TH E LAST CHAPTER, I offered a glimpse of how human econo­ mies, with their social currencies-which are used to measure, assess, and maintain relationships between people, and only perhaps inciden­ tally to acquire material goods-might be transformed into something else. What we discovered was that we cannot begin to think about such questions without taking into account the role of sheer physical vio­ lence. In the case of the African slave trade, this was primarily violence imposed from outside. Nonetheless, its very suddenness, its very brutal­ ity, provides us with a sort of freeze-frame of a process that must have occurred in a much slower, more haphazard fashion in other times and places. This is because there is every reason to believe that slavery, with its unique ability to rip human beings from their contexts, to turn them into abstractions, played a key role in the rise of markets everywhere.

      What happens, then, when the same process happens more slowly ? It would seem that much of this history is permanently lost-since in both the ancient Middle East and the ancient Mediterranean, most of the really critical moments seem to have occurred just before the ad­ vent of written records. Still, the broad outlines can be reconstructed.

      16 6 D E BT


      The best way to do so, I believe, is to start from a single, odd, vexed concept: the concept of honor, which can be treated as a kind of arti­ fact, or even as a hieroglyphic, a fragment preserved from history that seems to compress into itself the answer to almost everything we've been trying to understand. On the one hand, violence: men who live by violence, whether soldiers or gangsters, are almost invariably obsessed with honor, and assaults on honor are considered the most obvious justification for acts of violence. On the other, debt. We speak both of debts of honor, and honoring one's debts; in fact, the transition from one to the other provides the best clue to how debts emerge from obli­ gations; even as the notion of honor seemed to echo a defiant insistence that financial debts are not really the most important ones; an echo, here, of arguments that, like those in the Vedas and the Bible, go back to the very dawn of the market itself. Even more disturbingly, since the notion of honor makes no sense without the possibility of degradation, reconstructing this history reveals how much our basic concepts of freedom and morality took shape within institutions-notably, but not only, slavery-that we'd sooner not have to think about at all.


      I I I I I


      To underscore some of the paradoxes surrounding the concept and bring home what's really at stake here, let us consider the story of one man who survived the Middle Passage: Olaudah Equiano, born some­ time around 1745 in a rural community somewhere within the confines of the Kingdom of Benin. Kidnapped from his home at the age of eleven, Equiano was eventually sold to British slavers operating in the Bight of Biafra, from whence he was conveyed first to Barbados, then to a plantation in colonial Virginia.

      Equiano's further adventures-and there were many-are narrated in his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olau­ dah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, published in 1789. After spending much of the Seven Years' War hauling gunpowder on a Brit­ ish frigate, he was promised his freedom, denied his freedom, sold to several owners-who regularly lied to him, promising his freedom, and then broke their word-until he passed into the hands of a Quaker

      merchant in Pennsylvania, who eventually allowed him to purchase his freedom. Over the course of his later years he was to become a success­ ful merchant in his own right, a best-selling author, an Arctic explorer, and eventually, one of the leading voices of English Abolitionism. His eloquence and the power of his life story played significant parts in the movement that led to the British abolition of the slave trade in 1807.

      H O N O R A N D DEGRAD AT I O N 16 7


      Readers of Equiano's book are often troubled by one aspect of the story : that for most of his early life, he was not opposed to the institu­ tion of slavery. At one point, while saving money to buy his freedom, he even briefly took a job that involved purchasing slaves in Africa. Equiano only came around to an abolitionist position after converting to Methodism and falling in with religious activists against the trade. Many have asked: Why did it take him so long? Surely if anyone had reason to understand the evils of slavery, he did.

      The answer seems, oddly, to lie in the man's very integrity. One thing that comes through strikingly in the book is that this was not only a man of endless resourcefulness and determination, but above all, a man of honor. Yet this created a terrible dilemma. To be made a slave is to be stripped of any possible honor. Equiano wished above all else to regain what had been taken from him. The problem is that honor is, by definition, something that exists in the eyes of others. To be able to recover it, then, a slave must necessarily adopt the rules and standards of the society that surrounds him, and this means that, in practice at least, he cannot absolutely reject the institutions that de­ prived him of his honor in the first place.

      It strikes me that this experience–of only being able to restore one's lost honor, to regain the ability to act with integrity by acting in accord with the terms of a system that one knows, through deeply traumatic personal experience, to be utterly unjust-is itself one of the most profoundly violent aspects of slavery. It is another example, perhaps, of the need to argue in the master's language, but here taken to insidious extremes .

      All societies based on slavery tend to be marked by this agonizing double consciousness: the awareness that the highest things one has to strive for are also, ultimately, wrong; but at the same time, the feeling that this is simply the nature of reality. This might help explain why throughout most of history, when slaves did rebel against their mas­ ters, they rarely rebelled against slavery itself. But the fl ip side of this is that even slave-owners seemed to feel that the whole arrangement was somehow fundamentally perverse or unnatural. First-year Roman law students, for instance, were made to memorize the following definition:


      slavery

      is an institution according to the law of nations whereby one person falls under the property rights of another, contrary to nature.2

      16 8 DEB T


      At the very least, there was always seen to be something disrep­ utable and ugly about slavery. Anyone too close to it was tainted. Slave-traders particularly were scorned as inhuman brutes. Throughout history, moral justifications for slavery are rarely taken particularly seriously even by those who espouse them. For most of human history, most people saw slavery much as we see war: a tawdry business, to be sure, but one would have to be naive indeed to imagine it could simply be eliminated.


      Honor Is Surplus Dign ity


      So what is slavery ? I've already begun to suggest an answer in the last chapter. Slavery is the ultimate form of being ripped from one's con­ text, and thus from all the social relationships that make one a human being. Another way to put this is that the slave is, in a very real sense, dead.

      This was the conclusion of the first scholar to carry out a broad

      historical survey of the institution, an Egyptian sociologist named Ali 'Abd al-Wahid Wafi, in Paris in 1931.3 Everywhere, he observes, from

      the ancient world to then-present-day South America, one finds the same list of possible ways whereby a free person might be reduced to slavery:


      1. By the law of force

        1. By surrender or capture in war

        2. By being the victim of raiding or kidnapping

      1. As legal punishment for crimes (including debt)

      2. Through paternal authority (a father's sale of his children)

      3. Through the voluntary sale of one's self4


      Everywhere, too, capture in war is considered the only way that is considered absolutely legitimate. All the others were surrounded by moral problems. Kidnapping was obviously criminal, and parents would not sell children except under desperate circumstances.5 We read of famines in China so severe that thousands of poor men would cas­ trat� themselves, in the hope that they might sell themselves as eunuchs at court-but this was also seen as the sign of total social breakdown .6 Even the judicial process could easily be corrupted, as the ancients were well aware–especially when it came to enslavement for debt.

      On one level, al-Wahid's argument is just an extended apologia for the role of slavery in Islam-widely criticized, since Islamic law never

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 1 6 9


      eliminated slavery, even when the institution largely vanished in the rest of the Medieval world. True, he argues, Mohammed did not forbid the practice, but still, the early Caliphate was the first government we know of that actually succeeded in eliminating all these practices (j udi­ cial abuse, kidnappings, the sale of offspring) that had been recognized as social problems for thousands of years, and to limit slavery strictly to prisoners of war.

      The book's most enduring contribution, though, lay simply in ask­ ing: What do all these circumstances have in common ? AI-Wahid's answer is striking in its simplicity: one becomes a slave in situations where one would otherwise have died . This is obvious in the case of war: in the ancient world, the victor was assumed to have total power over the vanquished, including their women and children; all of them could be simply massacred . Similarly, he argued, criminals were con­ demned to slavery only for capital crimes, and those who sold them­ selves, or their children, normally faced starvation.7

      This is not just to say, though, that a slave was seen as owing his master his life since he would otherwise be dead .8 Perhaps this was true at the moment of his or her enslavement. But a fter that, a slave could not owe debts, because in almost every important sense, a slave was dead. In Roman law, this was quite explicit. If a Roman soldier was captured and lost his liberty, his fa mily was expected to read his will and dispose of his possessions. Should he later regain his freedom, he

      would have to start over, even to the point of remarrying the woman who was now considered his widow.9

      In West Africa, according to one French anthropologist, the same principles applied :


      Once he had been finally removed from his own milieu through capture the slave was considered as socially dead, just as if he had been vanquished and killed in combat. Among the Mande, at one time, prisoners of war brought home by the conquerors were offered dege (millet and milk porridge)-because it was held that a man should not die on an empty stomach-and then presented with their arms so that they could kill them­ selves. Anyone who refused was slapped on the face by his abductor and kept as a captive: he had accepted the contempt which deprived him of personality .1 0


      Tiv horror stories about men who are dead but do not know it or who are brought back from the grave to serve their murderers, and

      17 0 DEB T


      Haitian zombie stories, all seem to play on this essential horror of slav­ ery: the fact that it's a kind of living death.

      In a book called Slavery and Social Death-surely the most pro­

      found comparative study of the institution yet written-Orlando Pat­ terson works out exactly what it has meant to be so completely and absolutely ripped from one's contextY First of all, he emphasizes, slav­ ery is unlike any other form of human relation because it is not a moral relation. Slave-owners might dress it up in all sorts of legalistic or paternalistic language, but really this is just window-dressing and no one really believes it; really, it is a relation based purely on violence; a slave must obey because if he doesn't, he can be beaten, tortured, or killed, and everyone is perfectly well aware of this. Second of all, being socially dead means that a slave has no binding moral relations with anyone else: he is alienated from his ancestors, community, family, clan, city; he cannot make contracts or meaningful promises, except at the whim of his master; even if he acquires a family, it can be broken up at any time. The relation of pure force that attached him to his mas­ ter was hence the only human relationship that ultimately mattered. As a result-and this is the third essential element-the slave's situation was one of utter degradation. Hence the Mande warrior's slap: the captive, having refused his one final chance to save his honor by kill­ ing himself, must recognize that he will now be considered an entirely contemptible being.12

      Yet at the same time, this ability to strip others of their dignity becomes, for the master, the foundation of his honor. As Patterson notes, there have been places-the Islamic world affords numerous examples-where slaves are not even put to work for profit; instead, rich men make a point of surrounding themselves with battalions of slave retainers simply for reasons of status, as tokens of their magnifi­ cence and nothing else.

      It seems to me that this is precisely what gives honor its notori­ ously fragile quality. Men of honor tend to combine a sense of total ease and self-assurance, which comes with the habit of command, with a notorious jumpiness, a heightened sensitivity to slights and insults, the feeling that a man (and it is almost always a man) is somehow reduced, humiliated, if any "debt of honor" is allowed to go unpaid. This is because honor is not the same as dignity. One might even say: honor is surplus dignity. It is that heightened consciousness of power, and its dangers, that comes from having stripped away the power and dignity of others; or at the very least, from the knowledge that one is capable of doing so. At its simplest, honor is that excess dignity that must be defended with the knife or sword (violent men, as we

      H O N O R A N D DEG RAD A TION 171


      all know, are almost invariably obsessed with honor) . Hence the war­ rior's ethos, where almost anything that could possibly be seen as a sign of disrespect-in inappropriate word, an inappropriate glance-is considered a challenge, or can be treated as such. Yet even where overt

      violence has largely been put out of the picture, wherever honor Is at

      issue, it comes with a sense that dignity can be lost, and therefore must be constantly defended.

      The result is that to this day, "honor" has two contradictory mean­ ings. On the one hand, we can speak of honor as simple integrity. Decent people honor their commitments. This is clearly what "honor" meant for Equiano: to be an honorable man meant to be one who speaks the truth, obeys the law, keeps his promises, is fair and con­ scientious in his commercial dealings.13 His problem was that honor simultaneously meant something else, which had everything to do with the kind of violence required to reduce human beings to commodities to begin with.

      The reader might be asking: But what does all this have to do with the origins of money ? The answer is, surprisingly: everything. Some of the most genuinely archaic forms of money we know about appear to have been used precisely as measures of honor and degradation: that is, the value of money was, ultimately, the value of the power to turn oth­ ers into money. The curious puzzle of the cumal-the slave-girl money of medieval Ireland-would appear to be a dramatic illustration.


      Honor Price (Early Medieva l I reland)


      For much of its early history, Ireland's situation was not very different than that in many of the African societies we looked at in the end of the last chapter. It was a human economy perched uncomfortably on the fringe of an expanding commercial one. What's more, at certain periods there was a very lively slave trade. As one historian put it, "Ireland has no mineral wealth, and foreign luxury goods could be bought by Irish kings mainly for two export goods, cattle and peo­ ple. "14 Hardly surprising, perhaps, that cattle and people were the two major denominations of the currency. Still,- by the time our earliest re­ cords kick in, around 6ooAD, the slave trade appears to have died off, and slavery itself was a waning institution, coming under severe disap­ proval from the Church Y Why, then, were cumal still being used as units of account, to tally up debts that were actually paid out in cows, and in cups and brooches and other objects made of silver, or, in the

      17 2 D E B T


      case of minor transactions, sacks of wheat or oats ? And there's an even more obvious question : Why women ? There were plenty of male slaves in early Ireland, yet no one seems ever to have used them as money.

      Most of what we know about the economy of early Medieval Ireland comes from legal sources-a series of law codes, drawn up by a powerful class of jurists, dating roughly from the seventh to ninth centuries AD. These, however, are exceptionally rich. Ireland at that time was still very much a human economy. It was also a very rural one: people lived in scattered homesteads, not unlike the Tiv, growing wheat and tending cattle. The closest there were to towns were a few concentrations around monasteries. There appears to have been a near total absence of markets, except for a few on the coast-presumably, mainly slave or cattle markets-frequented by foreign ships.16

      As a result, money was employed almost exclusively for social purposes: gifts; fees to craftsmen, doctors, poets, judges, and entertain­ ers; various feudal payments (lords gave gifts of cattle to clients who then had to regularly supply them with food) . The authors of the law codes didn't even know how to put a price on most goods of ordinary use-pitchers, pillows, chisels, slabs of bacon, and the like; no one seems ever to have paid money for them .17 Food was shared in fa milies or delivered to feudal superiors, who laid it out in sumptuous feasts for friends, rivals, and retainers. Anyone needing a tool or furniture or clothing either went to a kinsman with the relevant craft skills or paid someone to make it. The objects themselves were not for sale. Kings, in turn, assigned tasks to different clans: this one was to provide them with leather, this one poets, this one shields . . . precisely the sort of un­ wieldy arrangement that markets were later developed to get around.18 Money could be loaned. There was a highly complex system of pledges and sureties to guarantee that debtors delivered what they owed . Mainly, though, it was used for paying fines. These fines are endlessly and meticulously elaborated in the codes, but what really strikes the contemporary observer is that they were carefully graded by rank. This is true of almost all the "Barbarian Law Codes"-the size of the penalties usually has at least as much do with the status of the victim as it does with the nature of the injury-but only in Ireland were

      things mapped out quite so systematically.

      The key to the system was a notion of honor: literally "face."19 One's honor was the esteem one had in the eyes of others, one's hon­ esty, integrity, and character, but also one's power, in the sense of the ability to protect oneself, and one's family and followers, from any sort of degradation or insult. Those who had the highest degree of honor were literally sacred beings : their persons and possessions were

      H O N O R A N D DEG RA DA TI O N 17 3


      sacrosanct. What was so unusual about Celtic systems-and the Irish one went further with this than any other-was that honor could be precisely quantified. Every free person had his or her "honor price": the price that one had to pay for an insult to the person's dignity. These varied. The honor price of a king, for instance, was seven cumal, or seven slave girls-this was the standard honor price for any sacred be­ ing, the same as a bishop or master poet. Since (as all sources hasten to point out) slave girls were not normally paid as such, this would mean, in the case of an insult to such a person's dignity, one would have to pay twenty-one milk cows or twenty-one ounces of silver.20 The honor price of a wealthy peasant was two and a half cows, of a minor lord, that, plus half a cow additionally for each of his free dependents-and since a lord, to remain a lord, had to have at least five of these, that brought him up to at least five cows total.21

      Honor price is not to be confused with wergeld-the actual price of a man or woman's life. If one killed a man, one paid goods to the value of seven cumals, in recompense for killing him, to which one then added his honor price, for having offended against his dignity (by killing him) . Interestingly, only in the case of a king are the blood price and his honor price the same.

      There were also payments for injury: if one wounds a man's cheek, one pays his honor price plus the price of the injury. (A blow to the face was, for obvious reasons, particularly egregious.) The problem was how to calculate the inj ury, since this varied according to both the physical damage and status of the inj ured party. Here, Irish jurists developed the ingenious expedient of measuring different wounds with different varieties of grain: a cut on the king's cheek was measured in grains of wheat, on that of a substantial farmer in oats, on that of a smallholder merely in peas. One cow was paid for each.U Similarly, if one stole, say, a man's brooch or pig, one had to pay back three brooches or three pigs-plus his honor price, for having violated the sanctity of his homestead. Attacking a peasant under the protection of a lord was the same as raping a man's wife or daughter, a violation of the honor not of the victim, but of the man who should have been able to protect them.

      Finally, one had to pay the honor price if one simply insulted someone of any importance: say, by turning the person away at a feast, inventing a particularly embarrassing nickname (at least, if it caught on), or humiliating the person through the use of satire.23 Mockery was a refined art in Medieval Ireland, and poets were considered close to magicians: it was said that a talented satirist could rhyme rats to death, or at the very least, raise blisters on the faces of victims. Any

      174 D E B T


      man publicly mocked would have no choice but to defend his honor; and, in Medieval Ireland, the value of that honor was precisely defined. I should note that while twenty-one cows might not seem like much when we are dealing with kings, Ireland at the time had about 150 kings.24 Most had only a couple of thousand subjects, though there were also higher-ranking, provincial kings for whom the honor price

      was double.25 What's more, since the legal system was completely sepa­ rate from the political one, jurists, in theory, had the right the demote anyone-including a king-who had committed a dishonorable act. If a nobleman turned a worthy man away from his door or feast, shel­ tered a fugitive, or ate steak from an obviously stolen cow, or even if he allowed himself to be satirized and did not take the offending poet to court, his price could be lowered to that of a commoner. But the same was true of a king who ran away in battle, or abused his powers, or even was caught working in the fields or otherwise engaging in tasks beneath his dignity. A king who did something utterly outrageous­ murdered one of his own relatives, for example-might end up with no honor price at all, which meant not that people could say anything they liked about the king, without fear of recompense, but that he couldn't stand as surety or witness in court, as one's oath and standing in law was also determined by one's honor price. This didn't happen often, but it did happen, and legal wisdom made sure to remind people of it: the list, contained in one fa mous legal text, of the "seven kings who lost their honor price," was meant to ensure that everyone remembered that no matter how sacred and powerful, anyone could fall.

      What's unusual about the Irish material is that it's all spelled out so clearly. This is partly because Irish law codes were the work of a class of legal specialists who seem to have turned the whole thing al­ most into a form of entertainment, devoting endless hours to coming up with every possible abstract possibility. Some of the provisos are so whimsical ("if stung by another man's bee, one must calculate the ex­ tent of the inj ury, but also, if one swatted it in the process, subtract the replacement value of the bee") that one has to assume they were simply jokes. Still, as a result, the moral logic that lies behind any elaborate code of honor is laid out here in startling honesty. What about women ? A free woman was honored at precisely so percent of the price of her nearest male relative (her father, if alive; if not, her husband). If she was dishonored, her price was payable to that relative. Unless, that is, she was an independent landholder. In that case, her honor price was the same as that of a man. And unless she was a woman of easy virtue, in which case it was zero, since she had no honor to outrage. What about marriage ? A suitor paid the value of the wife's honor to

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 17 5


      her father and thus became its guardian. What about serfs? The same principle applied: when a lord acquired a serf, he bought out that man's honor price, presenting him with its equivalent in cows. From that moment on, if anyone insulted or injured the serf, it was seen an attack on the lord's honor, and it was up to the lord to collect the at­ tendant fees. Meanwhile the lord's honor price was notched upward as a result of gathering another dependent: in other words, he literally absorbs his new vassal's honor into his own .26

      All this, in turn, makes it possible to understand both something of the nature of honor, and why slave girls were kept as units for reckoning debts of honor even at a time when-owing no doubt to church influence-they no longer actually changed hands. At first sight it might seem strange that the honor of a nobleman or king should be measured in slaves, since slaves were human beings whose honor was zero. But if one's honor is ultimately founded on one's ability to extract the honor of others, it makes perfect sense. The value of a slave is that of the honor that has been extracted from them.

      Sometimes, one comes on a single haphazard detail that gives the game away. In this case it comes not from Ireland but from the Di­ metian Code in Wales, written somewhat later but operating on much the same principles. At one point, after listing the honors due to the seven holy sees of the Kingdom of Dyfed, whose bishops and abbots were the most exalted and sacred creatures in the kingdom, the text specifies that


      Whoever draws blood from an abbot of any one of those prin­ cipal seats before mentioned, let him pay seven pounds; and a female of his kindred to be a washerwoman, as a disgrace to the kindred, and to serve as a memorial to the payment of the honor priceY


      A washerwoman was the lowest of servants, and the one turned over in this case was to serve for life. She was, in effect, reduced to slavery. Her permanent disgrace was the restoration of the abbot's honor. While we cannot know if some similar institution once lay be­ hind the habit of reckoning the honor of Irish "sacred" beings in slave­ women, the principle is clearly the same. Honor is a zero-sum game. A man's ability to protect the women of his fa mily is an essential part of that honor. Therefore, forcing him to surrender a woman of his family to perform menial and degrading chores in another's household is the ultimate blow to his honor. This, in turn, makes it the ultimate reaf­ firmation of the honor of he who takes it away.

      17 6 D E B T


      I I I I I


      What makes Medieval Irish laws seem so peculiar from our perspective is that their exponents had not the slightest discomfort with putting an exact monetary price on human dignity. For us, the notion that the sanctity of a priest or the majesty of a king could be held equivalent to a million fried eggs or a hundred thousand haircuts is simply bizarre. These are precisely the things that ought to be considered beyond all possibility of quantification . If Medieval Irish jurists felt otherwise, it was because people at that time did not use money to buy eggs or haircuts .28 It was the fact that it was still a human economy, in which money was used for social purposes, that it was possible to create such an intricate system whereby it was possible not just to measure but to add and subtract specific quantities of human dignity-and in doing so, provide us with a unique window into the true nature of honor itself.

      The obvious question is: What happens to such an economy when people do begin to use the same money used to measure dignity to buy eggs and haircuts ? As the history of ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean world reveals, the result was a profound-and enduring-moral crisis.


      Mesopota mia (Th e Origi ns of Patri archy)


      In ancient Greek, the word for "honor" was tfme. In Homer's time, the term appears to have been used much like the Irish term "honor price": it referred both to the glory of the warrior and the compensation paid as damages in case of inj ury or insult. Yet with the rise of markets over the next several centuries, the meaning of the word tfme began to change. On the one hand, it became the word for "price"-as in, the price of something one buys in the market. On the other, it referred to an attitude of complete contempt for markets.

      Actually, this is still the case today:


      In Greece the word "timi" means honor, which has been typi­ cally seen as the most important value in Greek village society. Honor is often characterized in Greece as an open-handed gen­ erosity and blatant disregard for monetary costs and counting. And yet the same word also means "price" as in the price of a pound of tomatoes.29

      H O N O R A N D DEGRAD AT I O N 17 7


      The word "crisis" literally refers to a crossroads: it is the point where things could go either of two different ways. The odd thing about the crisis in the concept of honor is that it never seems to have been resolved. Is honor the willingness to pay one's monetary debts ? Or is it the fact that one does not feel that monetary debts are really that important? It appears to be both at the same time.

      There's also the question of what men of honor actually do think is

      important. When most of us think of a Mediterranean villager's sense of honor, we don't think so much of a casual attitude toward money as of a veritable obsession with premarital virginity. Masculine honor is caught up not even so much in a man's ability to protect his wom­ enfolk as in his ability to protect their sexual reputations, to respond to any suggestion of impropriety on the part of his mother, wife, sister, or daughter as if it were a direct physical attack on his own person. This is a stereotype, but it's not entirely unj ustified. One historian who went through fifty years of police reports about knife-fights in nineteenth-century Ionia discovered that virtually every one of them began when one party publicly suggested that the other's wife or sister was a whore.30

      So, why the sudden obsession with sexual propriety ? It doesn't seem to be there in the Welsh or Irish material. There, the greatest humiliation was to see your sister or daughter reduced to scrubbing someone else's laundry. What is it, then, about the rise of money and markets that cause so many men to become so uneasy about sex?31

      This is a difficult question, but at the very least, one can imagine how the transition from a human economy to a commercial one might cause certain moral dilemmas. What happens, for instance, when the same money once used to arrange marriages and settle affairs of honor can also be used to pay for the services of prostitutes ?

      As we'll see, there is reason to believe that it is in such moral crises that we can find the origin not only of our current conceptions of honor, but of patriarchy itself. This is true, at least, if we define "patriarchy" in its more specific Biblical sense: the rule of fathers, with all the fa miliar images of stern bearded men in robes, keeping a close eye over their sequestered wives and daughters, even as their children kept a close eye over their flocks and herds, familiar from the book of Genesis.32 Readers of the Bible had always assumed that there was something primordial in all this; that this was simply the way desert people, and thus the earliest inhabitants of the Near East, had always behaved. This was why the translation of Sumerian, in the first half of the twentieth century, came as something of a shock.

      17 8 D E BT


      In the very earliest Sumerian texts, particularly those from roughly 3000 to 2500 Be, women are everywhere. Early histories not only re­ cord the names of numerous female rulers, but make clear that women were well represented among the ranks of doctors, merchants, scribes, and public officials, and generally free to take part in all aspects of

      public life. One cannot speak of full gender equality: men still outnum­ bered women in all these areas. Still, one gets the sense of a society not so different than that which prevails in much of the developed world today. Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disap­ pearance of women's role in government and the liberal professions,

      and the loss of women's independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands. By the end of the Bronze Age, around noo BC, we begin to see large numbers of women sequestered away in harems and (in some places, at least) , subj ected to obligatory veiling.

      In fact, this appears to reflect a much broader worldwide pattern. It has always been something of a scandal for those who like to see the advance of science and technology, the accumulation of learning, economic growth-"human progress," as we like to call it-as neces­ sarily leading to greater human freedom, that for women, the exact opposite often seems to be the case. Or at least, has been the case until very recent times. A similar gradual restriction on women's freedoms can be observed in India and China. The question is, obviously, Why? The standard explanation in the Sumerian case has been the gradual infiltration of pastoralists from the surrounding deserts who, presum­ ably, always had more patriarchal mores. There was, after all, only a narrow strip of land along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers that could support intensive irrigation works, and hence, urban life. Civilization was thus from early times surrounded by a fringe of desert people, who lived much like those described in Genesis and spoke the same Semitic languages. It is undeniably true that, over the course of time, the Su­ merian language was gradually replaced-first by Akkadian, then by Amorite, then by Aramaic languages, and finally, most recently of all, by Arabic, which was also brought to Mesopotamia and the Levant by desert pastoralists. While all this did, clearly, bring with it profound cultural changes as well, it's not a particularly satisfying explanation.33 Former nomads appear to have been willing to adapt to urban life in any number of other ways. Why not that one ? And it's very much a local explanation and does nothing, really, to explain the broader pat­ tern. Feminist scholarship has instead tended to emphasize the growing

      H O N O R A N D DEGRAD AT I O N 17 9

      scale and social importance of war, and the increasing centralization of the state that accompanied it.34 This is more convincing. Certainly, the more militaristic the state, the harsher its laws tended to be toward women. But I would add another, complementary argument. As I have emphasized, historically, war, states, and markets all tend to feed off one another. Conquest leads to taxes. Taxes tend to be ways to create markets, which are convenient for soldiers and administrators. In the specific case of Mesopotamia, all of this took on a complicated relation to an explosion of debt that threatened to turn all human relations­ and by extension, women's bodies-into potential commodities. At the same time, it created a horrified reaction on the part of the (male) win­

      ners of the economic game, who over time felt forced to go to greater and greater lengths to make clear that their women could in no sense

      be bought or sold. .

      A glance at the existing material on Mesopotamian marriage gives us a clue as to how this might have happened.

      It is common anthropological wisdom that bridewealth tends to be typical of situations where population is relatively thin, land not a particularly scarce resource, and therefore, politics are all about con­ trolling labor. Where population is dense and land at a premium, one tends to instead find dowry: adding a woman to the household is add­ ing another mouth to feed, and rather than being paid off, a bride's father is expected to contribute something (land, wealth, money . . . ) to help support his daughter in her new home.35 In Sumerian times, for instance, the main payment at marriage was a huge gift of food paid by the groom's father to the bride's, destined to provide a sumptuous feast for the wedding.36 Before long, however, this seems to have split into two payments, one for the wedding, another to the woman's father, calculated-and often paid-in silver.37 Wealthy women sometimes ap­ pear to have ended up with the money: at least, many appear to have to worn silver arm and leg rings of identical denominations.

      However as time went on, this payment, called the terhatum, often

      began to take on the qualities of a simple purchase. It was referred to as "the price of a virgin"-not a mere metaphor, since the illegal deflowering of a virgin was considered a property crime against her father.38 Marriage was referred to as "taking possession" of a woman, the same word one would use for the seizure of goods.39 In principle, a wife, once possessed, owed her husbands strict obedience, and often could not seek a divorce even in cases of physical abuse.

      For women with wealthy or powerful parents, all this remained largely a matter of principle, modified considerably in practice. Mer­ chants' daughters, for example, typically received substantial cash

      18 0 D E B T


      dowries, with which they could go into business in their own right, or act as partners to their husbands. However, for the poor-that is, most people-marriage came more and more to resemble a simple cash transaction.

      Some of this must have been an effect of slavery: while actual slaves were rarely numerous, the very existence of a class of people with no kin, who were simply commodities, did make a difference. In Nuzi, for instance, "the brideprice was paid in domestic animals and silver amounting to a total value of 40 shekels of silver" '-to which the author drily adds, "there is some evidence that it was equal to the price of a slave girl . "40 This must have been making things uncomfortably obvious. It's in Nuzi, too, where we happen to have unusually detailed records, that we find examples of rich men paying cut-rate "brideprice" to impoverished families to acquire a daughter who they would then adopt, but who would in fact be either kept as a concubine or nurse­ maid, or married to one of their slaves.41

      Still, the really critical factor here was debt. As I pointed out in the last chapter, anthropologists have long emphasized that paying bride­ wealth is not the same as buying a wife. After all-and this was one of the clinching arguments, remember, in the original 1930s League of Nations debate-if a man were really buying a woman, wouldn't he also be able to sell her? Clearly African and Melanesian husbands were not able to sell their wives to some third party. At most, they could send them home and demand back their bridewealth.42

      A Mesopotamian husband couldn't sell his wife either. Or, nor­ mally he couldn't. Still, everything changed the moment he took out a loan. Since if he did, it was perfectly legal-as we've seen-to use his wife and children as surety, and if he was unable to pay, they could then be taken away as debt pawns in exactly the same way that he could lose his slaves, sheep, and goats. What this also meant was that honor and credit became, effectively, the same thing: at least for a poor man, one's creditworthiness was precisely one's command over one's household, and (the flip side, as it were) relations of domestic authority, relations that in principle meant ones of care and protection, became property rights that could indeed be bought and sold.

      Again, for the poor, this meant that fa mily members became com­ modities that could be rented or sold. Not only could one dispose of daughters as "brides" to work in rich men's households, tablets in Nuzi show that one could now hire out fa mily members simply by taking out a loan: there are recorded cases of men sending their sons or even wives as "pawns" for loans that were clearly just advance payment for employment in the lender's farm or cloth workshop.43

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 18 1


      The most dramatic and enduring crisis centered on prostitution. It's actually not entirely clear, from the earliest sources, whether one can speak here of "prostitution" at all. Sumerian temples do often ap­ pear to have hosted a variety of sexual activities. Some priestesses, for instance, were considered to be married to or otherwise dedicated to gods. What this meant in practice seems to have varied considerably.

      Much as in the case of the later devadasis, or "temple dancers" of

      Hindu India, some remained celibate; others were permitted to marry but were not to bear children; others were apparently expected to find wealthy patrons, becoming in effect courtesans to the elite. Still oth­ ers lived in the temples and had the responsibility to make themselves sexually available to worshippers on certain ritual occasions.44 One thing the early texts do make clear is that all such women were con­ sidered extraordinarily important. In a very real sense, they were the ultimate embodiments of civilization. After all, the entire machinery of the Sumerian economy ostensibly existed to support the temples, which were considered the households of the gods. As such, they represented the ultimate possible refinement in everything from music and dance to art, cuisine, and graciousness of living. Temple priestesses and spouses of the gods were the highest human incarnations of this perfect life.

      It's also important to emphasize that Sumerian men do not appear, at least in this earliest period, to have seen anything troubling about the idea of their sisters having sex for money. To the contrary, insofar as prostitution did occur (and remember, it could not have been nearly so impersonal, cold-cash a relation in a credit economy) , Sumerian religious texts identify it as among the fundamental features of human civilization, a gift given by the gods at the dawn of time. Procreative sex was considered natural (after all, animals did it) . Non-procreative sex, sex for pleasure, was divine.45

      The most famous expression of this identification of prostitute and civilization can be found in the story of Enkidu in the epic of Gil­ gamesh. In the beginning of the story, Enkidu is a monster-a naked and ferocious "wild man" who grazes with the gazelles, drinks at the watering place with wild cattle, and terrorizes the people of the city. Unable to defeat him, the citizens finally send out a courtesan who is also a priestess of the goddess Ishtar. She strips before him, and they make love for six days and seven nights. Afterward, Enkidu's former animal companions run away from him. After she explains that he has now learned wisdom and become like a God (she is, after all, a divine consort) , he agrees to put on clothing and come to live in the city like a proper, civilized hu.man being.46

      18 2 DEB T


      Already, in the earliest version of the Enkidu story, though, one can detect a certain ambivalence. Much later, Enkidu is sentenced to death by the gods, and his immediate reaction is to condemn the cour­ tesan for having brought him from the wilds in the first place: he curses her to become a common streetwalker or tavern keeper, living among vomiting drunks, abused and beaten by her clients. Then, later, he re­ grets his behavior and blesses her instead. But that trace of ambivalence was there from the beginning, and over time, it grew more powerful. From early times, Sumerian and Babylonian temple complexes were surrounded by far less glamorous providers of sexual services-indeed, by the time we know much about them, they were the center of veri­ table red-light districts full of taverns with dancing girls, men in drag (some of them slaves, some runaways), and an almost infinite variety of prostitutes. There is an endlessly elaborate terminology whose subtle­ ties are long since lost to us. Most seem to have doubled as entertain­ ers: tavern-keepers doubled as musicians; male transvestites were not only singers and dancers, but often performed knife-throwing acts. Many were slaves put to work by their masters, or women working off religious vows or debts, or debt bondswomen, or, for that matter, women escaping debt bondage with no place else to go. Over time, many of the lower-ranking temple women were either bought as slaves or debt peons as well, and there might have often been a blurring of roles between priestesses who performed erotic rituals and prostitutes owned by the temple (and hence, in principle, by the god), sometimes lodged within the temple compound itself, whose earnings added to the temple treasuries.47 Since most everyday transactions in Mesopo­ tamia were not cash transactions, once has to assume that it was the same with prostitutes-like the tavern-keepers, many of whom seem to have been former prostitutes, they developed ongoing credit relations

      with their clients-and this must have meant that most were less like

      what we think of as streetwalkers and more like courtesans.48 Still, the origins of commercial prostitution appear to have been caught up in a peculiar mixture of sacred (or once-sacred) practice, commerce, slavery, and debt.


      I I I I I


      "Patriarchy" originated, first and foremost, in a rej ection of the great urban civilizations in the name of a kind of purity, a reassertion of pa­ ternal control against great cities like Uruk, Lagash, and Babylon, seen as places of bureaucrats, traders, and whores. The pastoral fringes, the deserts and steppes away from the river valleys, were the places

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 18 3


      to which displaced, indebted farmers fled. Resistance, in the ancient Middle East, was always less a politics of rebellion than a politics of exodus, of melting away with one's flocks and fa milies-often before both were taken away.49 There were always tribal peoples living on the fringes. During good times, they began to take to the cities; in hard times, their numbers swelled with refugees-farmers who effectively became Enkidu once again. Then, periodically, they would create their own alliances and sweep back into the cities once again as conquerors. It's difficult to say precisely how they imagined their situation, because it's only in the Old Testament, written on the other side of the Fertile Crescent, that one has any record of the pastoral rebels' points of view. But nothing there mitigates against the suggestion that the extraordi­ nary emphasis we find there on the absolute authority of fathers, and the jealous protection of their fickle womenfolk, were made possible by, but at the same time a protest against, this very commoditization of people in the cities that they fled .

      The world's Holy Books-the Old and New Testaments, the Ko­ ran, religious literature from the Middle Ages to this day-echo this voice of rebellion, combining contempt for the corrupt urban life, sus­ picion of the merchant, and often, intense misogyny. One need only think of the image of Babylon itself, which has become permanently lodged in the collective imagination as not only the cradle of civiliza­ tion, but also the Place of Whores. Herodotus echoed popular Greek fantasies when he claimed that every Babylonian maiden was obliged to prostitute herself at the temple, so as to raise the money for her dowry.50 In the New Testament, Saint Peter often referred to Rome as "Babylon," and the Book of Revelation provides perhaps the most vivid image of what he meant by this when it speaks of Babylon, "the great whore," sitting "upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemy":


      17=4 And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:

      ITS And upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY,

      BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARL OTS AND ABOM­ INATIONS OF THE EARTH . 51


      Such is the voice of patriarchal hatred of the city, and of the angry millennia] voices of the fathers of the ancient poor.

      184 D E B T


      Patriarchy as we know it seems to have taken shape in a see-sawing battle between the newfound elites and newly dispossessed. Much of my own analysis here is inspired by the brilliant work of feminist his­ torian Gerda Lerner, who, in an essay on the origins of prostitution, observed :


      Another source for commercial prostitution was the pauper­ ization of farmers and their increasing dependence on loans in order to survive periods of famine, which led to debt slav­ ery. Children of both sexes were given up for debt pledges or sold f�r "adoption." Out of such practices, the prostitution of female family members for the benefit of the head of the fam­ ily could readily develop. Women might end up as prostitutes because their parents had to sell them into slavery or because their impoverished husbands might so use them. Or they might become self-employed as a last alternative to enslavement. With luck, they might in this profession be upwardly mobile through becoming concubines.

      By the middle of the second millennium B.C., prostitution

      was well established as a likely occupation for the daughters of the poor. As the sexual regulation of women of the propertied class became more firmly entrenched, the virginity of respect­ able daughters became a financial asset for the family. Thus, commercial prostitution came to be seen as a social necessity for meeting the sexual needs of men. What remained problem­ atic was how to distinguish clearly and permanently between respectable and non-respectable women.


      This last point is crucial. The most dramatic known attempt to solve the problem, Lerner observes, can be found in a Middle Assyrian law code dating from somewhere between 1400 and rroo BC, which is also the first known reference to veiling in the history of the Middle East-and also, Lerner emphasizes, first to make the policing of social boundaries the responsibility of the state.52 It is not surprising that this takes place under the authority of perhaps the most notoriously milita­ ristic state in the entire ancient Middle East.

      The code carefully distinguishes among five classes of women. Re­ spectable women (either married ladies or concubines) , widows, and daughters of free Assyrian men-" must veil themselves" when they go out on the street. Prostitutes and slaves (and prostitutes are now con­ sidered to include unmarried temple servants as well as simple harlots) are not allowed to wear veils. The remarkable thing about the laws is

      H O N O R A N D DEGRAD A T I O N 18 5


      that the punishments specified in the code are not directed at respect­ able women who do not wear veils, but against prostitutes and slaves who do. The prostitute was to be publicly beaten fifty times with staves and have pitch poured on her head; the slave girl was to have her ears cut off. Free men proven to have knowingly abetted an impostor would also be thrashed and put to a month's forced labor.

      Presumably in the case of respectable women, the law was assumed to be self-enforcing: as what respectable woman would wish to go out on the street in the guise of a prostitute ?

      When we refer to "respectable" women, then, we are referring to those whose bodies could not, under any conditions, be bought or sold. Their physical persons were hidden away and permanently relegated to some man's domestic sphere; when they appeared in public veiled, they were effectively still ostentatiously walking around, even in public, inside such a sphere.53 Women who could be exchanged for money, on the other hand, must be instantly recognizable as such.

      The Assyrian law code is one isolated instance; veils certainly did not become obligatory everywhere after 1300 BC. But it provides a win­ dow on developments that were happening, however unevenly, even spasmodically, across the region, propelled by the intersection of com­ merce, class, defiant assertions of male honor, and the constant threat of the defection of the poor. States seem to have played a complex dual role, simultaneously fostering commoditization and intervening to ame­ liorate its effects : enforcing the laws of debt and rights of fathers, and offering periodic amnesties. But the dynamic also led, over the course of millennia, to a systematic demotion of sexuality itself from a divine gift and embodiment of civilized refinement to one of its more fa miliar associations: with degradation, corruption, and guilt.


      I I I I I


      Here I think we have the explanation for that general decline of wom­ en's freedoms that may be observed in all the great urban civilizations for so much of their history. In all of them, similar things were hap­ pening, even if in each case, the pieces came together in different ways. The history of China, for instance, saw continual and largely un­ successful government campaigns to eradicate both brideprice and debt slavery, and periodic scandals over the existence of "markets in daugh­ ters," including the outright sale of girls as daughters, wives, concu­ bines, or prostitutes (at the buyer's discretion) continue to this day .54 In India, the caste system allowed what were otherwise differences between rich and poor to be made formal and explicit. Brahmins and

      18 6 D E B T


      other members of the upper castes jealously sequestered their daugh­ ters, and married them off with lavish dowries, while the lower castes practiced brideprice, allowing members of the higher ("twice-born") castes to scoff at them for selling their daughters. The twice-born were likewise largely protected from falling into debt bondage, while for much of the rural poor, debt dependency was institutionalized, with the daughters of poor debtors, predictably, often dispatched to brothels or to the kitchens or laundries of the rich.55 In either case, between the push of commoditization, which fell disproportionally on daughters, and the pull of those trying to reassert patriarchal rights to "pro­ tect" women from any suggestion that they might be commoditized, women's formal and practical freedoms appear to have been gradually but increasingly restricted and effaced. As a result, notions of honor changed too, becoming a kind of protest against the implications of the market, even as at the same time (like the world religions) they came to echo that market logic in endless subtle ways.

      Nowhere, however, are our sources as rich and detailed as they are for ancient Greece. This is partly because a commercial economy arrived there so late, almost three thousand years later than in Sumer. As a result, Classical Greek literature gives us a unique opportunity to observe the transformation as it was actually taking place.


      Ancient G reece (H onor and Debt)


      The world of the Homeric epics is one dominated by heroic warriors who are disdainful of trade. In many ways, it is strikingly reminiscent of medieval Ireland. Money existed, but it was not used to buy any­ thing; important men lived their lives in pursuit of honor, which took material form in followers and treasure. Treasures were given as gifts, awarded as prizes, carried off as loot.56 This is no doubt how tfme first came to mean both "honor" and "price"-in such a world, no one sensed any sort of contradiction between the two.57

      All this was to change dramatically when commercial markets be­ gan to develop two hundred years later. Greek coinage seem to have been first used mainly to pay soldiers, as well as to pay fines and fees and payments made to and by the government, but by about 6oo BC, just about every Greek city-state was producing its own coins as a mark of civic independence. It did not take long, though, before coins were in common use in everyday transactions. By the fifth century, in

      H O N O R A N D DEG RAD A T I O N 18 7


      Greek cities, the agora, the place of public debate and communal as­ sembly, also doubled as a marketplace.

      One of the first effects of the arrival of a commercial economy was a series of debt crises, of the sort long familiar from Mesopotamia and Israel. "The poor," as Aristotle succinctly put it in his Constitution of the Athenians, "together with their wives and children, were enslaved to the rich. "58 Revolutionary factions emerged, demanding amnesties, and most Greek cities were at least for a while taken over by populist strongmen swept into power partly by the demand for radical debt relief. The solution most cities ultimately found, however, was quite different than it had been in the Near East. Rather than institutionalize periodic amnesties, Greek cities tended to adopt legislation limiting or abolishing debt peonage altogether, and then, to forestall future crises, they would turn to a policy of expansion, shipping off the children of the poor to found military colonies overseas. Before long, the entire coast from Crimea to Marseille was dotted with Greek cities, which served, in turn, as conduits for a lively trade in slaves.59 The sudden abundance of chattel slaves, in turn, completely transformed the nature of Greek society. First and most famously, it allowed even citizens of modest means to take part in the political and cultural life of the city and have a genuine sense of citizenship . But this, in turn, drove the old aristocratic classes to develop more and more elaborate means of setting themselves off from what they considered the tawdriness and moral corruption of the new democratic state.

      When the curtain truly goes up on Greece, in the fifth century, we find everybody arguing about money. For the aristocrats, who wrote most of the surviving texts, money was the embodiment of corruption. Aristocrats disdained the market. Ideally, a man of honor should be able to raise everything he needed on his own estates, and never have to handle cash at all.60 In practice, they knew this was impossible. Yet at every point they tried to set themselves apart from the values of the ordinary denizens of the marketplace: to contrast the beautiful gold and silver beakers and tripods they gave one another at funerals and weddings with the vulgar hawking of sausages or charcoal; the dignity of the athletic contests for which they endlessly trained with commoners' vulgar gambling; the sophisticated and literate courtesans who attended to them at their drinking clubs, and common prostitutes (porne)-slave-girls housed in brothels near the agora, brothels often sponsored by the democratic polis itself as a service to the sexual needs of its male citizenry. In each case, they placed a world of gifts, generos­

      ity, and honor above sordid commercial exchange.61

      18 8 D E B T


      This resulted in a slightly different play of push and pull than we saw in Mesopotamia. On the one hand, we see a culture of aristocratic protest against what they saw as the lowly commercial sensibilities of ordinary citizens. On the other hand, we see an almost schizophrenic reaction on the part of the ordinary citizens themselves, who simulta­ neously tried to limit or even ban aspects of aristocratic culture and to imitate aristocratic sensibilities. Pederasty is an excellent case in point here. On the one hand, man-boy love was seen as the quintessential aristocratic practice-it was the way, in fact, that young aristocrats would ordinarily become initiated into the privileges of high society. As a result, the democratic polis saw it as politically subversive and made sexual relations between male citizens illegal. At the same time, almost everyone began to practice it.

      The fa mous Greek obsession with male honor that still informs so much of the texture of daily life in rural communities in Greece hear­ kens back not so much to Homeric honor but to this aristocratic rebel­ lion against the values of the marketplace, which everyone, eventually, began to make their own.62 The effects on women, though, were even more severe than they had been in the Middle East. Already by the age of Socrates, while a man's honor was increasingly tied to disdain for commerce and assertiveness in public life, a woman's honor had come to be defined in almost exclusively sexual terms: as a matter of virginity, modesty, and chastity, to the extent that respectable women were expected to be shut up inside the household and any woman who played a part in public life was considered for that reason a prostitute, or tantamount to oneY The Assyrian habit of veiling was not widely adopted in the Middle East, but it was adopted in Greece. As much as it flies in the face of our stereotypes about the origins of "Western" freedoms, women in democratic Athens, unlike those of Persia or Syria, were expected to wear veils when they ventured out in public.64


      I I I I I


      Money, then, had passed from a measure of honor to a measure of everything that honor was not. To suggest that a man's honor could be bought with money became a terrible insult-this despite the fact that, since men were often taken in war or even by bandits or pirates and held for ransom, they often did go through dramas of bondage and redemption not unlike those experienced by so many Middle East­ ern women. One particularly striking way of hammering it hom e­ actually, in this case, almost literally-was by branding ransomed pris­ oners with the mark of their own currency, much as if today some

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 18 9


      imaginary foreign kidnapper, after having received the ransom money for an American victim, made a point of burning a dollar sign onto the victim's forehead before returning him.65

      One question that isn't clear from all this is, Why? Why had mon­ ey, in particular, become such a symbol of degradation ? Was it all because of slavery ? One might be tempted to conclude that it was: per­ haps the newfound presence of thousands of utterly degraded human beings in ancient Greek cities made any suggestion that a free man (let alone a free woman) might in any sense be bought or sold particularly insulting. But this is clearly not the case. Our discussion of the slave money of Ireland showed that the possibility of the utter degradation of a human being was in no sense a threat to heroic honor-in a way, it was its very essence. Homeric Greeks do not appear to have been any different. It seems hardly coincidental that the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles that sets off the action of the Iliad, generally considered to be the first great work of Western literature, is a dispute over honor between two heroic warriors over the disposition of a slave girl.66 Agamemnon and Achilles were also well aware that it would only take an unfortunate turn in battle, or perhaps a shipwreck, for

      either of them to wind up as a slave. Odysseus barely escapes being enslaved on several occasions in the Odyssey. Even in the third century AD, the Roman emperor Valerian (253-260 AD) , defeated at the Battle of Edessa, was captured and spent the last years of his life as the footstool that the Sassanian emperor Shapur I used to mount his horse. Such were the perils of war. All this was essential to the nature of martial honor. A warrior's honor is his willingness to play a game on which he stakes everything. His grandeur is directly proportional to how far he can fall.

      Was it, then, that the advent of commercial money threw tradition­ al social hierarchies into disarray ? Greek aristocrats often spoke this way, but the complaints seem rather disingenuous. Surely it was money that allowed such a polished aristocracy to exist in the first place.67 Rather, the thing that really seemed to bother them about money was simply that they wanted it so much. Since money could be used to buy just about anything, everybody wanted it. That is: it was desirable because it was non-discriminating. One could see how the metaphor of the porne might seem particularly appropriate. A woman "common to the people"-as the poet Archilochos put it-is available to every­ one. In principle, we shouldn't be attracted to such an undiscriminat­ ing creature. In fact, of course, we are.68 And nothing was both so undiscriminating, and so desirable, as money. True, Greek aristocrats would ordinarily insist that they were not attracted to common porne,

      190 D E B T


      and that the courtesans, flute-girls, acrobats, and beautiful boys that frequented their symposia were not really prostitutes at all (though at times they also admitted that they really were) , they also struggled with the fact that their own high-minded pursuits, such as chariot-racing, outfitting ships for the navy, and sponsoring tragic dramas, required the exact same coins as the ones used to buy cheap perfume and pies for a fisherman's wife-the only real difference being that their pursuits tended to require a lot more of them.69

      We might say, then, that money introduced a democratization of desire. Insofar as everyone wanted money, everyone, high and low, was pursuing the same promiscuous substance. But even more: increasingly, they did not just want money. They needed it. This was a profound change. In the Homeric world, as in most human economies, we hear almost no discussion of those things considered necessary to human life (food, shelter, clothing) because it is simply assumed that everybody has them. A man with no possessions could, at the very least, become a retainer in some rich man's household. Even slaves had enough to eat?0 Here too, the prostitute was a potent symbol for what had changed, since while some of the denizens of brothels were slaves, others were simply poor; the fact that their basic needs could no longer be taken for granted were precisely what made them submit to others' desires. This extreme fear of dependency on others' whims lies at the basis of the Greek obsession with the self-sufficient household.

      All this lies behind the unusually assiduous efforts of the male citizens of Greek city-states-like the later Romans-to insulate their wives and daughters from both the dangers and the freedoms of the marketplace. Unlike their equivalents in the Middle East, they do not seem to have offered them as debt pawns. Neither, at least in Ath­ ens, was it legal for the daughters of free citizens to be employed as prostitutes.71 As a result, respectable women became invisible, largely removed from the high dramas of economic and political life.72 If any­ one was enslaved for debt, it was normally the debtor. Even more

      dramatically, it was ordinarily male citizens who accused one another

      of prostitution-with Athenian politicians regularly asserting that their rivals, when they were young boys being plied with gifts from their male suitors, were really trading sex for money, and hence deserved to lose their civic freedoms.71


      I I I I I


      It might be helpful here, to return to the principles laid out in chap­ ter five. What we see above all is the erosion both of older forms of

      H O N O R A N D DEG RADA T I O N 19 1


      hierarchy-the Homeric world of great men with their retainers-and, at the same time, of older forms of mutual aid, with communistic rela­ tions increasingly being confined to the interior of the household.

      It's the former-the erosion of hierarchy-that really seems to have been at stake in the "debt crises" that struck so many Greek cities around 6oo BC, right around the time that commercial markets were first taking shape.74 When Aristotle spoke of the Athenian poor as fall­ ing slave to the rich, what he appears to have meant was that in harsh years, many poor farmers fell into debt; as a result they ended up as

      sharecroppers on their own property, dependents . Some were even sold abroad as slaves. This led to unrest and agitation, and also to demands for clean slates, for the freeing of those held in bondage, and for the redistribution of agricultural land. In a few cases it led to outright revolution. In Megara, we are told, a radical faction that seized power not only made interest-bearing loans illegal, but did so retroactively, forcing creditors to make restitution of all interest they had collected in the past?5 In other cities, populist tyrants seized power on promises to abrogate agricultural debts.

      On the face of it, all this doesn't seem all that surprising: the mo­ ment when commercial markets developed, Greek cities quickly devel­ oped all the social problems that had been plaguing Middle Eastern cities for millennia : debt crises, debt resistance, political unrest. In real­ ity, things are not so clear. For one thing, for the poor to be "enslaved to the rich," in the loose sense that Aristotle seems to be using, was hardly a new development. Even in Homeric society, it was assumed as a matter of course that rich men would live surrounded by depen­ dents and retainers, drawn from the ranks of the dependent poor. The critical thing, though, about such relations of patronage is that they involved responsibilities on both sides. A noble warrior and his humble client were assumed to be fundamentally different sorts of people, but both were also expected to take account of each other's (fundamentally

      different) needs. Transforming patronage into debt relations-treating, say, an advance of seed corn as a loan, let alone an interest-bearing loan-changed all this?6 What's more, it did so in two completely contradictory respects. On the one hand, a loan implies no ongoing responsibilities on the part of the creditor. On the other, as I have con­ tinually emphasized, a loan does assume a certain formal, legal equality between contractor and contractee. It assumes that they are, at least

      in some ways on some level, funda mentally the same kind of person. This is certainly about the most ruthless and violent form of equality imaginable. But the fact it was conceived as equality before the market made such arrangements even more difficult to endure.77

      19 2 DEB T


      The same tensions can be observed between neighbors, who in farming communities tend to give, lend, and borrow things amongst themselves-anything from sieves and sickles, to charcoal and cooking oil, to seed corn or oxen for plowing. On the one hand, such giving and lending were considered essential parts of the basic fabric of hu­ man sociability in farm communities, on the other, overly demanding neighbors were a notorious irritant-one that could only have grown worse when all parties are aware of precisely how much it would have cost to buy or rent the same items that were being given away. Again, one of the best ways to get a sense of what were considered everyday dilemmas for Mediterranean peasants is to look at jokes. Late stories from across the Aegean in Turkey echo exactly the same concerns:


      Nasruddin's neighbor once came by ask if he could borrow his donkey for an unexpected errand. Nasruddin obliged, but the next day the neighbor was back again-he needed to take some grain to be milled. Before long he was showing up almost every morning, barely feeling he needed a pretext. Finally, Nasruddin got fed up, and one morning told him his brother had already come by and taken the donkey.

      Just as the neighbor was leaving he heard a loud braying sound from the yard.

      "Hey, I thought you said the donkey wasn't here!"

      "Look, who are you going to believe?" asked Nasruddin. "Me, or some animal?"


      With the appearance of money, it could also become unclear what was a gift, and what a loan . On the one hand, even with gifts, it was always considered best to return something slightly better than one had received.78 On the other hand, friends do not charge one another inter­ est, and any suggestion that they might was sure to rankle. So what' s the difference between a generous return gift and an interest payment? This is the basis of one of the most famous Nasruddin stories, one that appears to have provided centuries of amusement for peasants across the Mediterranean basin and adjoining regions. (It is also, I might note, a play on the fact that in many Mediterranean languages, Greek included, the word for "interest" literally means "offspring.")


      One day Nasruddin's neighbor, a notorious miser, came by to announce he was throwing a party for some friends. Could he borrow some of Nasruddin's pots ? Nasruddin didn't have many but said he was happy to lend whatever he had. The next

      HO N O R A N D D E G RADA T I O N 19 3


      day the miser returned, carrying Nasruddin's three pots, and one tiny additional one.

      "What's that?" asked Nasrudddin.

      "Oh, that's the offspring of the pots. They reproduced dur­ ing the time they were with me. "

      Nasruddin shrugged and accepted them, and the miser left happy that he had established a principle of interest. A month later Nasruddin was throwing a party, and he went over to borrow a dozen pieces of his neighbor's much more luxurious crockery. The miser complied. Then he waited a day. And then another . . .

      On the third day, the miser came by and asked what had happened to his pots.

      "Oh, them?" Nasruddin said sadly. "It was a terrible trag­ edy. They died. "79


      In a heroic system, it is only debts of honor-the need to repay gifts, to exact revenge, to rescue or redeem friends or kinsmen fallen prisoner-that operate completely under a logic of tit-for-tat exchange. Honor is the same as credit; it's one's ability to keep one's promises, but also, in the case of a w rong, to "get even. " As the last phrase implies, it was a monetary logic, but money, or anyway money-like relations, a re confined to this. Gradually, subtly, without anyone com­ pletely understanding the full implications of what was happening, what had been the essence of moral relations turned into the means for every sort of dishonest stratagem.

      We know a little about it from trial speeches, many of which have survived. Here is one from the fourth century, probably a round 365 BC. Apollodorus was a prosperous but low-born Athenian citizen (his father, a banker, had begun life as a slave) who, like many such gentle­ men, had acquired a country estate. There he made a point of making friends with his closest neighbor, Nicostratus, a man of aristocratic

      origins, though currently of somewhat straitened means. They acted as neighbors normally did, giving and borrowing small sums, lending each other animals or slaves, minding each other's property when one was away. Then one day Nicostratus ran into a piece of terrible luck. While trying to track down some runaway slaves, he was himself captured by pirates and held for ransom at the slave market on the island of Aegi­ nJ.. His relatives could only assemble part of the price, so he was forced

      😮 borrow the rest from strangers in the market. These appear to have

      �een professionals who specialized in such loans, and their terms were

      :10roriously harsh: if not repaid in thirty days, the sum doubled; if not

      194 DEBT


      repaid at all, the debtor became the slave of the man who had put up the money for his redemption.

      Tearfully, Nicostratus appealed to his neighbor. All his posses­ sions were already pledged now to one creditor or another; he knew Apollodorus wouldn't have that much cash lying around, but could his dear friend possibly put up something of his own by way of secu­ rity? Apollodorus was moved. He would be happy to forgive all debts Nicostratus already owed him, but the rest would be difficult. Still, he would do his best. In the end, he arranged to himself take a loan from an acquaintance of his, Arcesas, on the security of his town-house, at r6 percent annual interest, so as to be able to satisfy Nicostratus's creditors while Nicostratus himself arranged a friendly, no-interest era­ nos loan from his own relatives. But before long, Apollodorus began to realize that he had been set up. The impoverished aristocrat had decided to take advantage of his nouveau-riche neighbor; he was actu­ ally working with Arcesas and some of Apollodorus's enemies to have him falsely declared a "public debtor," that is, someone who had de­ faulted on an obligation to the public treasury. This would have first of all meant that he would lose his right to take anyone to court (i.e., his deceivers, to recover the money) , and second, would give them a pretext to raid his house to remove his furniture and other possessions. Presumably, Nicostratus had never felt especially comfortable being in debt to a man he considered his social inferior. Rather like Egil the Viking, who would rather kill his friend Einar than have to compose an elegy thanking him for an overly magnificent gift, Nicostratus appears to have concluded that it was more honorable, or anyway more bear­ able, to try to extract the money from his lowly friend through force and fraud than to spend the rest of his life feeling beholden . Before long, things had indeed descended to outright physical violence, and the whole matter ended up in court.80

      The story has everything. We see mutual aid: the communism of the prosperous, the expectation that if the need is great enough, or the cost manageable enough, friends and neighbors will help one another.81 And most did, in fact, have circles of people who would pool money if a crisis did arise: whether a wedding, a famine, or a ransom. We also see the omnipresent danger of predatory violence that reduces human beings to commodities, and by doing so introduces the most cutthroat kinds of calculation into economic life-not just on the part of the pirates, but even more so, perhaps, on those moneylenders lurking by the market offering stiff credit terms to anyone who came to ran­ som their relatives but found themselves caught short, and who then could appeal to the state to allow them to hire men with weapons to

      HO NOR A N D D E G R A DA T ION 195


      enforce the contract. We see heroic pride, which sees too great an act of generosity as itself a kind of belittling assault. We see the ambigu­ ity among gifts, loans, and commercial credit arrangements. Neither does the way things played out in this case seem particularly unusual, except perhaps for Nicostratus's extraordinarily ingratitude. Prominent Athenians were always borrowing money to pursue their political proj ­ ects; less-prominent ones were constantly worrying about their debts, or how to collect from their own debtors.SZ Finally, there is another, subtler element here. While everyday market transactions, at shops or stalls in the agora, were here as elsewhere typically conducted on credit, the mass production of coinage permitted a degree of anonymity for transactions that, in a pure credit regime, simply could not exist.83 Pirates and kidnappers do business in cash-yet the loan sharks at Ae­ gina's marketplace could not have operated without them. It is on this same combination of illegal cash business, usually involving violence, and extremely harsh credit terms, also enforced through violence, that innumerable criminal underworlds have been constructed ever since.


      I I I I I


      In Athens, the result was extreme moral confusion . The language of money, debt, and finance provided powerful-and ultimately irresistible–ways to think about moral problems. Much as in Vedic India, people started talking about life as a debt to the gods, of ob­ ligations as debts, about literal debts of honor, of debt as sin and of vengeance as debt collection. 84 Yet if debt was morality-and certainly at the very least it was in the interest of creditors, who often had little legal recourse to compel debtors to pay up, to insist that it was-what was one to make of the fact that money, that very thing that seemed capable of turning morality into an exact and quantifiable science, also seemed to encourage the very worst sorts of behavior?

      It is from such dilemmas that modern ethics and moral philoso­ phy begin. I think this is true quite literally. Consider Plato's Repub­ lic, another product of fourth-century Athens. The book begins when Socrates visits an old friend, a wealthy arms manufacturer, at the port of Piraeus. They get into a discussion of justice, which begins when the old man proposes that money cannot be a bad thing, since it allows those who have it to be just, and that justice consists in two things:

      telling the truth, and always paying one's debts.85 The proposal is easily demolished. What, Socrates asks, if someone lent you his sword, went violently insane, and then asked for it back (presumably, so he could kill someone)? Clearly it can never be right to arm a lunatic whatever

      19 6 D E B T


      the circumstances.x6 The old man cheerfully shrugs the problem off and heads off to attend to some ritual, leaving his son to carry on the argument.

      The son, Polemarchus, switches gears: clearly his father hadn't meant "debt" in the literal sense of returning what one has borrowed . He meant it more in the sense of giving people what is owed to them; repaying good with good and evil with evil; helping one's friends and hurting one's enemies. Demolishing this one takes a little more work (are we saying justice plays no part in determining who one's friends and enemies are? If so, wouldn't someone who decided he had no friends, and therefore tried to hurt everyone, be a just man ? And even if you did have some way to say for certain that one's enemy really is an intrinsically bad person and deserves harm, by harming him, do you not thus make him worse ? Can turning bad people into even worse people really be an example of justice?) but it is eventually accom­ plished. At this point a Sophist, Thrasymachos, enters and denounces all of the debaters as milky-eyed idealists. In reality, he says, all talk of "justice" is mere political pretext, designed to justify the interests of the powerful. And so it should be, because insofar as justice exists, it is simply that: the interest of the powerful. Rulers are like shepherds.

      We like to think of them as benevolently tending their flocks, but what do shepherds ultimately do with sheep ? They kill and eat them, or sell the meat for money. Socrates responds by pointing out that Thrasy­ machos is confusing the art of tending sheep with the art of profiting from them. The art of medicine aims to improve health, whether or not doctors get paid for practicing it. The art of shepherding aims to ensure

      the well-being of sheep, whether or not the shepherd (or his employer) is also a businessman who knows how to extract a profit from them. Just so with the art of governance. If such an art exists, it must have its own intrinsic aim apart from any profit one might also get from it, and what can this be other than the establishment of social justice? It's only the existence of money, Socrates suggests, that allows us to imag­ ine that words like "power" and "interest" refer to universal realities that can be pursued in their own right, let alone that all pursuits are really ultimately the pursuit of power, advantage, or self-interestY The question, he said, is how to ensure that those who hold political office will do so not for gain, but rather for honor.

      I will leave off here. As we all know, Socrates eventually gets around to offering some political proposals of his own, involving phi­ losopher kings; the abolition of marriage, the fa mily, and private prop­ erty; selective human breeding boards. (Clearly, the book was meant to annoy its readers, and for more than two thousand years, it has

      HO NO R A N D D E G R A DA TION 197


      succeeded brilliantly.) What I want to emphasize, though, is the degree to which what we consider our core tradition of moral and political theory today springs from this question: What does it mean to pay our debts ? Plato presents us first with the simple, literal businessman's view. When this proves inadequate, he allows it to be reframed in he­ roic terms. Perhaps all debts are really debts of honor after all. 88 But heroic honor no longer works in a world where (as Apollodorus sadly discovered) commerce, class, and profit have so confused everything that peoples' true motives are never clear. How do we even know who our enemies are? Finally, Plato presents us with cynical realpolitik. Maybe nobody really owes anything to anybody. Maybe those who pursue profit for its own sake have it right after all. But even that does not hold up. We are left with a certainty that existing standards are incoherent and self-contradictory, and that some sort of radical break would be required in order to create a world that makes any logical sense. But most of those who seriously consider a radical break along the lines that Plato suggested have come to the conclusion that there might be far worse things than moral incoherence. And there we have stood, ever since, in the midst of an insoluble dilemma.


      I I I I I


      It's not surprising that these issues weighed on Plato's mind. Not seven years before, he had taken an ill-fated sea cruise and wound up being captured and, supposedly like Nicostratus, offered for sale on the auc­ tion block at Aegina. However, Plato had better luck. A Libyan phi­ losopher of the Epicurean school, one Annikeris, happened to be in the market at the time. He recognized Plato and ransomed him. Plato felt honor-bound to try to repay him, and his Athenian friends assembled twenty minas in silver with which to do so, but Annikeris refused to accept the money, insisting that it was his honor to be able to benefit a fellow lover of wisdom.89 As indeed it was: Annikeris has been remem­ bered, and celebrated, for his generosity ever since. Plato went on to use the twenty minas to buy land for a school, the famous Academy. And while he hardly showed the same ingratitude as Nicostratus, one does rather get the impression that even Plato wasn't especially happy about the fact that his subsequent career was, in a sense, made pos­ sible by his debt to a man who he probably considered an extremely minor philosopher-and Annikeris wasn't even Greek! At least this would help explain why Plato, otherwise the inveterate name-dropper, never mentioned Annikeris. We know of his existence only from later biographers.90

      1 9 8 D E B T


      Ancient Ro me (P rope rty and Free dom)


      If Plato's work testifies to how profoundly the moral confusion intro­ duced by debt has shaped our traditions of thought, Roman law reveals how much it has shaped even our most familiar institutions.

      German legal theorist Rudolf von Jhering fa mously remarked that ancient Rome had conquered the world three times: the first time through its armies, the second through its religion, the third through its laws.91 He might have added: each time more thoroughly. The Empire, after all, only spanned a tiny portion of the globe; the Roman Catholic Church has spread farther; Roman law has come to provide the lan­ guage and conceptual underpinnings of legal and constitutional orders everywhere. Law students from South Africa to Peru are expected to spend a good deal of their time memorizing technical terms in Latin, and it is Roman law that provides almost all our basic conceptions about contract, obligation, torts, property, and jurisdiction-and, in a broader sense, of citizenship, rights, and liberties on which political life, too, is based .

      This was possible, Jhering held, because, the Romans were the first to turn jurisprudence into a genuine science. Perhaps-but for all that, it remains true that Roman law has a few notoriously quirky features, some so odd that they have confused and confounded jurists ever since Roman law was revived in Italian universities in the High Middle Ages. The most notorious of these is the unique way it defines property. In Roman law, property, or dominium, is a relation between a person and a thing, characterized by absolute power of that person over that thing. This definition has caused endless conceptual problems. First of all, it's not clear what it would mean for a human to have a "relation"

      with an inanimate object. Human beings can have relations with one another. But what would it mean to have a "relation" with a thing? And if one did, what would it mean to give that relation legal standing? A simple illustration will suffice: imagine a man trapped on a desert island. He might develop extremely personal relationships with, say, the palm trees growing on that island . If he's there too long, he might well end up giving them all names and spending half his time having imaginary conversations with them. Still, does he own them ? The ques­ tion is meaningless. There's no need to worry about property rights if noone else is there.

      Clearly, then, property is not really a relation between a person and a thing. It's an understanding or arrangement between people con­ cerning things. The only reason that we sometimes fail to notice this is

      HO NO R A N D D E G R A D AT ION 199


      that in many cases-particularly when we are talking about our rights over our shoes, or cars, or power tools-we are talking of rights held, as English law puts it, "against all the world"-that is, understandings between ourselves and everyone else on the planet, that they will all refrain from interfering with our possessions, and therefore allow us to treat them more or less any way we like. A relation between one person and everyone else on the planet is, understandably, difficult to conceive as such. It's easier to think of it as a relationship with a thing. But even here, in practice this freedom to do as one likes turns out to be fairly limited. To say that the fact that I own a chainsaw gives me an "absolute power" to do anything I want with it is obviously absurd. Almost anything I might think of doing with a chainsaw outside my own home or land is likely to be illegal, and there are only a limited number of things I can really do with it inside. The only thing "abso­ lute" about my rights to a chainsaw is my right to prevent anyone else from using it.92

      Nonetheless, Roman law does insist that the basic form of property is private property, and that private property is the owner's absolute power to do anything he wants with his possessions. Twelfth-century Medieval jurists came to refine this into three principles, usus (use of the thing) , fructus (fruits, i.e., enjoyment of the products of the thing) , and abusus (abuse or destruction of the thing), but Roman jurists weren't even interested in specifying that much, since in a certain way, they saw the details as lying entirely outside the domain of law . In fact, scholars have spent a great deal of time debating whether Roman au­ thors actually considered private property to be a right (ius) ,93 for the very reason that rights were ultimately based on agreements between people, and one's power to dispose of one's property was not: it was just one's natural ability to do whatever one pleased when social im­ pediments were absent.94

      If you think about it, this really is an odd place to start in devel­ oping a theory of property law. It is probably fa ir to say that, in any part of the world, in any period of history, whether in ancient Japan or Machu Picchu, someone who had a piece of string was free to twist it, knot it, pull it apart, or toss it in the fire more or less as they had a mind to. Nowhere else did legal theorists appear to have found this fact in any way interesting or important. Certainly no other tradition makes it the very basis of property law-since, after all, doing so made almost all actual law little more than a series of exceptions.

      How did this come about? And why? The most convincing expla� nation I've seen is Orlando Patterson's: the notion of absolute private property is really derived from slavery. One can imagine property not

      2 0 0 D E B T


      as a relation between people, but as a relation between a person and a thing, if one's starting point is a relation between two people, one of whom is also a thing. (This is how slaves were defined in Roman law: they were people who were also a res, a thing.)95 The emphasis on absolute power begins to make sense as well.96

      The word dominium, meaning absolute private property, was not

      particularly ancient.97 It only appears in Latin in the late Republic, right around the time when hundreds of thousands of captive laborers were pouring into Italy, and when Rome, as a consequence, was be­ coming a genuine slave society.98 By so BC, Roman writers had come to simply assume that workers-whether the farmworkers harvesting peas in countryside plantations, the muleteers delivering those peas to shops in the city, or the clerks keeping count of them-were someone else's property. The existence of millions of creatures who were simultane­ ously persons and things created endless legal problems, and much of the creative genius of Roman law was spent in working out the endless ramifications. One need only flip open a casebook of Roman law to get a sense of these. This is from the second-century jurist Ulpian:


      Again, Mela writes that if some persons were playing ball and one of them, hitting the ball quite hard, knocked it against a barber's hands, and in this way the throat of a slave, whom the barber was shaving, was cut by a razor pressed against it, then who is the person with whom the culpability lay is liable under the Lex Aquilia [the law of civil damages] ? Proclus says that the culpability lies with the barber; and indeed, if he was shav­ ing at a place where games are normally played or where traffic was heavy, there is reason to fault him. But it would not be badly held that if someone entrusts himself to a barber who has a chair in a dangerous place, he should have himself to blame.99


      In other words, the master cannot claim civil damages against the ballplayers or barber for destroying his property if the real problem was that he bought a stupid slave. Many of these debates might strike us as profoundly exotic (could you be accused of theft for merely con­ vincing a slave to run away ? If someone killed a slave who was also your son, could you take your sentimental feelings toward him into account in assessing damages, or would you have to stick to his market value ?)-but our contemporary tradition of jurisprudence is founded directly on such debates.100

      As for dominium, the word is derived from dominus, meaning "mas­

      ter" or "slave-owner," but ultimately from domus, meaning "house"

      H O N O R A N D D E G RAD A T I O N 2 0 1


      or "household." It's of course related to the English term "domestic," which even now can be used either to mean "pertaining to private life," or to refer to a servant who cleans the house. Domus overlaps some­ what in meaning with familia, "family"-but, as proponents of "family

      values" might be interested to know, familia itself ultimately derives from the word famulus, meaning "slave." A fa mily was originally all those people under the domestic authority of a paterfamilias, and that authority was, in early Roman law at least, conceived as absolute. 101 A man did not have total power over his wife, since she was still to some degree under the protection of her own father, but his children, slaves, and other dependents were his to do with as he wanted-at least in early Roman law, he was perfectly free to whip, torture, or sell them.

      A father could even execute his children, provided he found them to have committed capital crimes. 102 With his slaves, he didn't even need that excuse.

      In creating a notion of dominium, then, and thus creating the

      modern principle of absolute private property, what Roman jurists were doing first of all was taking a principle of domestic authority, of absolute power over people, defining some of those people (slaves) as things, and then extending the logic that originally applied to slaves to geese, chariots, barns, jewelry boxes, and so forth-that is, to every other sort of thing that the law had anything to do with.

      It was quite extraordinary, even in the ancient world, for a father to have the right to execute his slaves-let alone his children . No one is quite sure why the early Romans were so extreme in this regard. It's telling, though, that the earliest Roman debt law was equally un­ usual in its harshness, since it allowed creditors to execute insolvent debtors.103 The early history of Rome, like the histories of early Greek city-states, was one of continual political struggle between creditors and debtors, until the Roman elite eventually figured out the principle that most successful Mediterranean elites learned: that a free peasantry means a more effective army, and that conquering armies can provide war captives who can do anything debt bondsmen used to do, and therefore, a social compromise-allowing limited popular representa­ tion, banning debt slavery, channeling some of the fruits of empire into social-welfare payments-was actually in their interest. Presumably, the absolute power of fathers developed as part of this whole constel­ lation in the same way as we've seen elsewhere. Debt bondage reduced fa mily relations to relations of property; social reforms retained the new power of fathers but protected them from debt. At the same time, the increasing influx of slaves soon meant that any even moderately prosperous household was likely to contain slaves. This meant that

      202 D E B T


      the logic of conquest extended into the most intimate aspects of ev­ eryday life. Conquered people poured one's bath and combed one's hair. Conquered tutors taught one's children about poetry. Since slaves were sexually available to owners and their families, as well as to their friends and dinner guests, it is likely that most Romans' first sexual experience was with a boy or girl whose legal status was conceived as that of a defeated enemy .104

      Over time, this became more and more of a legal fiction-actual slaves were much more likely to have been paupers sold by parents, unfortunates kidnapped by pirates or bandits, victims of wars or judi­ cial process among barbarians at the fringes of the empire, or children of other slaves. 105 Still, the fiction was maintained.

      What made Roman slavery so unusual, in historical terms, was a conjuncture of two factors. One was its very arbitrariness. In dramatic contrast with, say plantation slavery in the Americas, there was no sense that certain people were naturally inferior and therefore destined to be slaves. Instead, slavery was seen as a misfortune that could hap­ pen to anyone. 106 As a result, there was no reason that a slave might not be in every way superior to his or her master: smarter, with a finer sense of morality, better ta�te, and a greater understanding of philoso­ phy. The master might even be willing to acknowledge this. There was no reason not to, since it had no effect on the nature of the relation­ ship, which was simply one of power.

      The second was the absolute nature of this power. There are many places where slaves are conceived as war captives, and masters as con­ querors with absolute powers of life and death-but usually, this is something of an abstract principle. Almost everywhere, governments quickly move to limit such rights. At the very least, emperors and kings will insist that they are the only ones with the power to order others put to death. 107 But under the Roman Republic there was no emperor; insofar as there was a sovereign body, it was the collective body of the slave-owners themselves. Only under the early Empire do we see any legislation limiting what owners could do to their (human) property: the first being a law of the time of the emperor Tiberius (dated r6 AD) stipulating that a master had to obtain a magistrate's permission before ordering a slave publicly torn apart by wild beasts. 108 However, the absolute nature of the master's power-the fact that in this context, he

      effectively was the state-also meant that there were also, at first, no

      restrictions on manumission : a master could liberate his slave, or even adopt him or her, whereby-since liberty meant nothing outside of membership in a community-that slave automatically became a Ro­ man citizen. This led to some very peculiar arrangements. In the first

      H O N O R A N D D E G RADA T I O N 2 0 3


      century AD, for example, it was not uncommon for educated Greeks to have themselves sold into slavery to some wealthy Roman in need of a secretary, entrust the money to a close friend or family member, and then, after a certain interval, buy themselves back, thus obtaining Roman citizenship. This despite the fact that, during such time as they

      were slaves, if their owner decided to, say, cut one of his secretary's feet off, legally, he would have been perfectly free to do so. 109

      The relation of dominus and slave thus brought a relation of con­ quest, of absolute political power into the household (in fact, made it the essence of the household) . It's important to emphasize that this was not a moral relation on either side. A well-known legal formula, attrib­ uted to a Republican lawyer named Quintus Haterius, brings this home with particular clarity. With the Romans as with the Athenians, for a male to be the object of sexual penetration was considered unbefitting to a citizen. In defending a freedman accused of continuing to provide sexual favors to his former master, Haterius coined an aphorism that

      was later to become something of a popular dirty joke: impudicitia in

      ingenuo crimen est, in servo necessitas, in Liberto officium (" to be the object of anal penetration is a crime in the freeborn, a necessity for a slave, a duty for a freedman").110 What is significant here is that sexual subservience is considered the "duty" only of the freedman. It is not considered the "duty" of a slave. This is because, again, slavery was not a moral relation. The master could do what he liked, and there was nothing the slave could do about it.


      I I I I I


      The most insidious effect of Roman slavery, however, is that through Roman law, it has come to play havoc with our idea of human free­ dom. The meaning of the Roman word libertas itself changed dra­ matically over time. As everywhere in the ancient world, to be " free" meant, first and foremost, not to be a slave. Since slavery means above all the annihilation of social ties and the ability to form them, free­ dom meant the capacity to make and maintain moral commitments to

      others. The English word " free," for instance, is derived from a Ger­ man root meaning "friend," since to be free meant to be able to make friends, to keep promises, to live within a community of equals. This is why freed slaves in Rome became citizens: to be free, by definition, meant to be anchored in a civic community, with all the rights and responsibilities that this entailed.111

      By the second century AD, however, this had begun to change. The jurists gradually redefined libertas until it became almost

      2 0 4 D E B T


      indistinguishable from the power of the master. It was the right to do absolutely anything, with the exception, again, of all those things one could not do. Actually, in the Digest, the definitions of freedom and slavery appear back to back:


      Freedom is .the natural faculty to do whatever one wishes that is not prevented by force or law. Slavery is an institution ac­

      cording to the law of nations whereby one person becomes private property (dominium) of another, contrary to nature.112


      Medieval commentators immediately noticed the problem here.113 But wouldn't this mean that everyone is free? After all, even slaves are free to do absolutely anything they're actually permitted to do. To say a slave is free (except insofar as he isn't) is a bit like saying the earth is square (except insofar as it is round) , or that the sun is blue (except insofar as it is yellow) , or, again, that we have an absolute right to do anything we wish with our chainsaw (except those things that we can 't.)

      In fact, the definition introduces all sorts of complications. If free­ dom is natural, then surely slavery is unnatural, but if freedom and slavery are just matters of degree, then, logically, would not all restric­ tions on freedom be to some degree unnatural ? Would not that imply that society, social rules, in fact even property rights, are unnatural as well? This is precisely what many Roman jurists did conclude-that is, when they did venture to comment on such abstract matters, which was only rarely. Originally, human beings lived in a state of nature

      where all things were held in common; it was war that first divided up the world, and the resultant "law of nations," the common usages of mankind that regulate such matters as conquest, slavery, treaties, and borders, that was first responsible for inequalities of property as well.114 This in turn meant that there was no intrinsic difference between private property and political power-at least, insofar as that power was based in violence. As time went on, Roman emperors also began claiming something like dominium, insisting that within their domin­ ions, they had absolute freedom-in fact, that they were not bound by laws.115 At the same time, as Roman society shifted from a republic of slave-holders to arrangements that increasingly resembled later feudal Europe, with magnates on their great estates surrounded by dependent peasants, debt servants, and an endless variety of slaves-with whom they could largely do as they pleased. The barbarian invasions that overthrew the empire merely formalized the situation, largely eliminat­ ing chattel slavery, but at the same time introducing the notion that the

      H O N O R A N D D E G RAD A T I O N 2 0 5


      noble classes were really descendants of the Germanic conquerors, and that the common people were inherently subservient.

      Still, even in this new Medieval world, the old Roman concept of freedom remained. Freedom was simply power. When Medieval political theorists spoke of "liberty," they were normally referring to a lord's right to do whatever he wanted within his own domains. This was, again, usually assumed to be not something originally established by agreement, but a mere fact of conquest: one famous English legend holds that when, around 1290, King Edward I asked his lords to pro­ duce documents to demonstrate by what right they held their franchises (or "liberties"), the Earl Warenne presented the king only with his rusty

      sword.116 Like Roman dominium, it was less a right than a power, and

      a power exercised first and foremost over people-which is why in the Middle Ages it was common to speak of the "liberty of the gallows," meaning a lord's right to maintain his own private place of execution.

      By the time Roman law began to be recovered and modernized in the twelfth century, the term dominium posed a particular problem, since it had come, in ordinary church Latin of the time, to be used equally for "lordship" and "private property." Medieval jurists spent a great deal of time and argument establishing whether there was indeed a difference between the two. It was a particularly thorny problem because, if property rights really were, as the Digest insisted, a form of absolute power, it was very difficult to see how anyone could have it but a king-or even, for certain jurists, God.117

      This is not the place to describe the resulting arguments, but I feel it's important to end here because in a way, it brings us full circle and allows us to understand precisely how Liberals like Adam Smith were able to imagine the world the way they did. This is a tradition that assumes that liberty is essentially the right to do what one likes with one's own property. In fact, not only does it make property a right; it treats rights themselves as a form of property. In a way, this is the greatest paradox of all. We are so used to the idea of "having" rights­ that rights are something one can possess-that we rarely think about what this might actually mean. In fact (as Medieval jurists were well aware) , one man's right is simply another's obligation. My right to free speech is others' obligation not to punish me for speaking; my right to a trial by a jury of my peers is the responsibility of the government to maintain a system of jury duty. The problem is just the same as it was with property rights: when we are talking about obligations owed by everyone in the entire world, it's difficult to think about it that way. It's much easier to speak of "having" rights and freedoms. Still, if freedom is basically our right to own things, or to treat things as if we own

      206 D E B T


      them, then what would it mean to "own" a freedom-wouldn't it have to mean that our right to own property is itself a form of property ? That does seem unnecessarily convoluted. What possible reason would one have to want to define it this way?118

      Historically, there is a simple-if somewhat disturbing-answer to this. Those who have argued that we are the natural owners of our rights and liberties have been mainly interested in asserting that we should be free to give them away, or even to sell them.

      Modern ideas of rights and liberties are derived from what, from the time when Jean Gerson, Rector of the University of Paris, began to lay them out around 1400, building on Roman law concepts, came to be known as "natural rights theory." As Richard Tuck, the premier historian of such ideas, has long noted, it is one of the great ironies of history that this was always a body of theory embraced not by the progressives of that time, but by conservatives. "For a Gersonian, lib­ erty was property and could be exchanged in the same way and in the same terms as any other property"-sold, swapped, loaned, or other­ wise voluntarily surrendered .119 It followed that there could be nothing intrinsically wrong with, say, debt peonage, or even slavery. And this is exactly what natural-rights theorists came to assert. In fact, over the next centuries, these ideas came to be developed above all in Antwerp and Lisbon, cities at the very center of the emerging slave trade. After all, they argued, we don't really know what's going on in the lands be­ hind places like Calabar, but there is no intrinsic reason to assume that the vast majority of the human cargo conveyed to European ships had not sold themselves, or been disposed of by their legal guardians, or lost their liberty in some other perfectly legitimate fashion. No doubt some had not, but abuses will exist in any system. The important thing was that there was nothing inherently unnatural or illegitimate about

      the idea that freedom could be sold. 120

      Before long, similar arguments came to be employed to justify the absolute power of the state. Thomas Hobbes was the first to really develop this argument in the seventeenth century, but it soon became commonplace. Government was essentially a contract, a kind of busi­ ness arrangement, whereby citizens had voluntarily given up some of their natural liberties to the sovereign. Finally, similar ideas have be­ come the basis of that most basic, dominant institution of our pres­ ent economic life: wage labor, which is, effectively, the renting of our freedom in the same way that slavery can be conceived as its sale. 121

      It's not only our freedoms that we own; the same logic has come to be applied even to our own bodies, which are treated, in such formu­ lations, as really no different than houses, cars, or furniture. We own

      H O N O R A N D D E G RADA T I O N 2 0 7


      ourselves, therefore outsiders have no right to trespass on us. 122 Again, this might seem an innocuous, even a positive notion, but it looks rath­ er different when we take into consideration the Roman tradition of property on which it is based. To say that we own ourselves is, oddly enough, to cast ourselves as both master and slave simultaneously. "We" are both owners (exerting absolute power over our property), and yet somehow, at the same time, the things being owned (being the object of absolute power) . The ancient Roman household, far from having been forgotten in the mists of history, is preserved in our most basic conception of ourselves-and, once again, just as in property law, the result is so strangely incoherent that it spins off into endless paradoxes the moment one tries to figure out what it would actually mean in practice. Just as lawyers have spent a thousand years trying to make sense of Roman property concepts, so have philosophers spent centuries trying to understand how it could be possible for us to have a relation of domination over ourselves. The most popular solution-to say that each of us has something called a "mind" and that this is com­ pletely separate from something else, which we can call "the body," and that the first thing holds natural dominion over the second-flies in the face of just about everything we now know about cognitive science. It's obviously untrue, but we continue to hold onto it anyway, for the simple reason that none of our everyday assumptions about property, law, and freedom would make any sense without it. 123


      Co nclusions


      The first four chapters of this book describe a dilemma. We don't re­ ally know how to think about debt. Or, to be more accurate, we seem to be trapped between imagining society in the Adam Smith mode, as a collection of individuals whose only significant relations are with their own possessions, happily bartering one thing for another for the sake of mutual convenience, with debt almost entirely abolished from the picture, and a vision in which debt is everything, the very substance of all human relations-which of course leaves everyone with the uncom­ fortable sense that human relations are somehow an intrinsically taw­ dry business, that our very responsibilities to one another are already somehow necessarily based in sin and crime. It's not an appealing set of alternatives.

      In the last three chapters I have tried to show that there is another way of looking at things, and then to describe how it is that we got

      208 D E B T


      here. This is why I developed the concept of human economies: ones in which what is considered really important about human beings is the fact that they are each a unique nexus of relations with others­ therefore, that no one could ever be considered exactly equivalent to anything or anyone else. In a human economy, money is not a way of buying or trading human beings, but a way of expressing just how much one cannot do so.

      I then went on to describe how all this can begin to break down: how humans can become objects of exchange: first, perhaps, women given in marriage; ultimately, slaves captured in war. What all these relations have in common, I observed, was violence. Whether it is Tiv girls being tied up and beaten for running away from their husbands, or husbands being herded into slave ships to die on faraway planta­ tions, that same principle always applies: it is only by the threat of sticks, ropes, spears, and guns that one can tear people out of those endlessly complicated webs of relationship with others (sisters, friends, rivals . . . ) that render them unique, and thus reduce them to something that can be traded.

      All of this, it is important to emphasize, can happen in places where markets in ordinary, everyday goods-clothing, tools, foodstuffs-do not even exist. In fact, in most human economies, one's most important possessions could never be bought and sold for the same reasons that people can't: they are unique objects, caught up in a web of relation­ ships with human beings. 124

      My old professor John Cornaro££ used to tell a story about car­ rying out a survey in Natal, in South Africa. He had spent most of a week driving from homestead to homestead in a jeep with a box full of questionnaires and a Zulu-speaking interpreter, driving past appar­ ently endless herds of cattle. A fter about six days, his interpreter sud­ denly started and pointed into the middle of one herd. "Look!" he said. "That's the same cow! That one there-with the red spot on its back. We saw it three days ago in a place ten miles from here. I wonder what happened ? Did someone get married? Or maybe there was a settlement to some dispute."

      In human economies, when this ability to rip people from their contexts does appear, it is most often seen as an end in itself. One can already see a hint of this among the Lele. Important men would occa­ sionally acquire war captives from far away as slaves, but it was almost always to be sacrificed at their funeral. 125 The squelching of one man's individuality was seen as somehow swelling the reputation, the social existence, of the other.126 In what I've been calling heroic societies, of course this kind of addition and subtraction of honor and disgrace is

      H O N O R A N D D E G RADAT I O N 2 0 9


      lifted from a somewhat marginal practice to become the very essence of politics. As endless epics, sagas, and eddas attest, heroes become heroes by making others small. In Ireland and Wales, we can observe how this very ability to degrade others, to remove unique human beings from their hearths and families and thus render them anonymous units of accounting-the Irish slave-girl currency, the Welsh washerwomen-is itself the highest expression of honor.

      In heroic societies, the role of violence is not hidden-it's glorified. Often, it can form the basis of one's most intimate relations. In the Iliad, Achilles sees nothing shameful in his relation with his slave-girl, Briseis, whose husband and brothers he killed; he refers to her as his "prize of honor," but almost in the very same breath, he also insists that, just any decent man must love and care for his household depen­

      dents, "so I from my heart loved this one, even though I won her with my spear." 127

      That such relations of intimacy can often develop between men of honor and those they have stripped of their dignity, history can well at­ test. After all, the annihilation of any possibility of equality also elimi­ nates any question of debt, of any relation other than power. It allows a certain clarity. This is presumably why emperors and kings have such a notorious tendency to surround themselves with slaves or eunuchs.

      There is something more here, though . If one looks across the ex­ panse of history, one cannot help but notice a curious sense of identi­ fication between the most exalted and the most degraded; particularly, between emperors and kings, and slaves. Many kings surround them­ selves with slaves, appoint slave ministers-there have even been, as with the Mamluks in Egypt, actual dynasties of slaves. Kings surround themselves with slaves for the same reason that they surround them­ selves with eunuchs: because the slaves and criminals have no fa milies or friends, no possibility of other loyalties-or at least that, in prin­ ciple, they shouldn't. But in a way, kings should really be like that too. As many an African proverb emphasizes : a proper king has no relatives either, or at least, he acts as if he does not.m In other words, the king

      and slave are mirror images, in that unlike normal human beings who are defined by their commitments to others, they are defined only by relations of power. They are as close to perfectly isolated, alienated beings as one can possibly become.

      At this point we can finally see what's really at stake in our pe­ culiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as

      210 D E B T


      completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty-not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of "use and abuse" over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man's household-to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts. 129

      European and American intellectuals, it is true, have spent much of the last two hundred years trying to flee from the more disturbing implications of this tradition of thought. Thomas Jefferson, that owner of many slaves, chose to begin the Declaration of Independence by di­ rectly contradicting the moral basis of slavery, writing "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men ·are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights . . . thus undercutting simultaneously any argument that Africans were racially inferior, and also that they or their ancestors could ever have been justly and legally deprived of their freedom. In doing so, however, he did not propose some radically new conception of rights and liber­ ties. Neither have subsequent political philosophers. For the most part, we've just kept the old ones, but with the word "not" inserted here and there. Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn't really have them in the first place.

      Formal slavery has been eliminated, but (as anyone who works

      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 has been largely pushed out of sight. 130 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.


      Chapte r Eight CREDIT VERSUS BULLION AND THE CYCLES OF HISTORY


      Bullion is the accessory of war, and not of peaceful trade.

      -Geoffrey W. Gardiner


      ONE MI GHT WELL ASK: If our political and legal ideas really are founded on the logic of slavery, then how did we ever eliminate slavery ? Of course, a cynic might argue that we haven't; we've just relabeled it. The cynic would have a point: an ancient Greek would certainly have seen the distinction between a slave and an indebted wage laborer as, at best, a legalistic nicety. ·1 Still, even the elimination of formal chat­ tel slavery has to be considered a remarkable achievement, and it is worthwhile to wonder how it was accomplished. Especially since it was not just accomplished once. The truly remarkable thing, if one consults the historical record, is that slavery has been eliminated-or effectively eliminated-many times in human history.

      In Europe, for instance, the institution largely vanished in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman empire-an historical achievement rarely recognized by those of us used to referring to these events as the beginning of "the Dark Ages."2 No one is quite sure how it happened. Most agree that the spread of Christianity must have had something to do with it, but that can't have been the direct cause, since the Church itself was never explicitly opposed to the institution and in many cases defended it. Instead, the abolition appears to have hap­

      pened despite the attitudes of both the intellectuals and the political

      authorities of the time. Yet it did happen, and it had lasting effects. On the popular level, slavery remained so universally detested that even a thousand years later, when European merchants started try­ ing to revive the trade, they discovered that their compatriots would

      2 1 2 D E B T


      not countenance slaveholding in their own countries-one reason why planters were eventually obliged to acquire their slaves in Africa and set up plantations in the New World .3 It is one of the great ironies of history that modern racism-probably the single greatest evil of our last two centuries-had to be invented largely because Europeans continued to refuse to listen to the arguments of the intellectuals and jurists and did not accept that anyone they believed to be a full and equal human being could ever be justifiably enslaved.

      What's more, the demise of ancient slavery was not limited to Europe. Remarkably, right around the same time-in the years around 6oo AD-we find almost exactly the same thing happening in India and China, where, over the course of centuries, amidst much unrest and confusion, chattel slavery largely ceased to exist. What all this suggests is that moments of historical opportunity-moments when meaningful change is possible-follow a distinct, even a cyclical pattern, one that has long been far more coordinated across geographical space than we would ever have imagined. There is a shape to the past, and it is only by understanding it that we can begin to have a sense of the historical opportunities that exist in the present.


      I I I I I


      The easiest way to make these cycles visible is to reexamine exactly the phenomenon we've been concerned with over the course of this book: the history of money, debt, and credit. The moment we begin to map the history of money across the last five thousand years of Eurasian history, startling patterns begin to emerge. In the case of money, one event stands out above all others: the invention of coinage. Coinage appears to have arisen independently in three different places, almost simultaneously: on the Great Plain of northern China, in the Ganges river valley of northeast India, and in the lands surrounding the Aegean Sea, in each case, between roughly 6oo and soo BC. This wasn't due to some sudden technological innovation: the technologies used in mak­ ing the first coins were, in each case, entirely different.4 It was a social transformation. Why this happened in exactly this way is an historical mystery. But this much we know: for some reason, in Lydia, India, and China, local rulers decided that whatever longstanding credit systems had existed in their kingdoms were no longer adequate, and they began to issue tiny pieces of precious metals-metals that had previously been used largely in international commerce, in ingot form-and to encour­ age their subjects to use them in day-to-day transactions.

      C R E D I T VE R SU S B ULL I O N 213


      From there, the innovation spread. For more than a thousand years, states everywhere started issuing their own coinage. But then, right around 6oo AD, about the time that slavery was disappearing, the whole trend was suddenly thrown into reverse. Cash dried up. Every­ where, there was a movement back to credit once again.

      If we look at Eurasian history over the course of the last five thou­ sand years, what we see is a broad alternation between periods domi­ nated by credit money and periods in which gold and silver come to dominate-that is, those during which at least a large share of transac­ tions were conducted with pieces of valuable metal being passed from hand to hand.

      Why? The single most important factor would appear to be war. Bullion predominates, above all, in periods of generalized violence.

      There's a very simple reason for that. Gold and silver coins are distin­ guished from credit arrangements by onspectacular feature: they can

      be stolen. A debt is, by definition, a record, as well as a relation of trust. Someone accepting gold or silver in exchange for merchandise, on the other hand, need trust nothing more than the accuracy of the scales, the quality of the metal, and the likelihood that someone else will be willing to accept it. In a world where war and the threat of violence are everywhere-and this appears to have been an equally ac­ curate description of Warring States China, Iron Age Greece, and pre­ Mauryan India-there are obvious advantages to making one's trans­ actions simple. This is all the more true when dealing with soldiers. On the one hand, soldiers tend to have access to a great deal of loot, much of which consists of gold and silver, and will always seek a way to trade it for the better things in life. On the other, a heavily armed itinerant soldier is the very definition of a poor credit risk. The econo­ mists' barter scenario might be absurd when applied to transactions between neighbors in the same small rural community, but when deal­ ing with a transaction between the resident of such a community and a passing mercenary, it suddenly begins to make a great deal of sense. For much of human history, then, an ingot of gold of silver, stamped or not, has served the same role as the contemporary drug dealer's suitcase full of unmarked bills: an object without a history, valuable because one knows it will be accepted in exchange for other goods just about anywhere, no questions asked. As a result, while credit systems tend to dominate in periods of relative social peace, or across networks of trust (whether created by states or, in most periods, transnational institutions like merchant guilds or communities of faith), in periods characterized by widespread war and plunder, they tend to be replaced by precious metal. What's more, while predatory lending

      2 1 4 D E B T


      goes on in every period of human history, the resulting debt crises ap­ pear to have the most damaging effects at times when money is most easily convertible into cash .

      As a starting point to any attempt to discern the great rhythms that define the current historical moment, let me propose the following breakdown of Eurasian history according to the alternation between periods of virtual and metal money. The cycle begins with the Age of the First Agrarian Empires (35oo-8oo Be), dominated by virtual credit money. This is followed by the Axial Age (8oo BC-6oo AD), which will be covered in the next chapter, and which saw the rise of coinage and a general shift to metal bullion. The Middle Ages (6oo-1450 AD), which saw a return to virtual credit money, will be covered in chapter 10; chapter n will cover the next turn of the cycle, the Age of Capitalist Empires, which began around 1450 with a massive planetary switch back to gold and silver bullion, and which could only really be said to have ended in 1971, when Richard Nixon announced that the U.S. dollar would no longer be redeemable in gold. This marked the begin­ ning of yet another phase of virtual money, one which has only just begun, and whose ultimate contours are, necessarily, invisible. Chapter 12, the final chapter, will be devoted to applying the insights of history to understanding what it might mean and the opportunities it might throw open .


      Mesopotamia (3500-800 BC)

      We have already had occasion to note the predominance of credit money in Mesopotamia, the earliest urban civilization that we know about. In the great temple and palace complexes, not only did money serve largely as an accounting measure rather than physically changing hands, merchants and tradespeople developed credit arrangements of their own. Most of these took the physical form of clay tablets, in­ scribed with some obligation of future payment, that were then sealed inside clay envelopes and marked with the borrower's seal. The credi­

      tor would keep the envelope as a surety, and it would be broken open on repayment. In some times or places at least, these bullae appear to have become what we would now call negotiable instruments, since the tablet inside did not simply record a promise to pay the original lender, but was designated "to the bearer"-in other words, a tablet recording a debt of five shekels of silver (at prevailing rates of interest)

      C R E D I T VE R S U S BU L L I O N 2 1 5

      could circulate as the equivalent of a five-shekel promissory note-that is, as money.5

      We don't know how often this happened; how many hands such tablets would typically pass through, how many transactions were based on credit, how often merchants actually did weigh out silver in rough chunks to buy and sell their merchandise, or when they were most likely to do so. No doubt all this varied over time. Promissory notes usually circulated within merchant guilds, or between inhabitants of the relatively well-off urban neighborhoods where people knew one another well enough to trust them to be accountable, but not so well that they could rely on one another for more traditional forms of mu­ tual aid.6 We know even less about the marketplaces frequented by or­ dinary Mesopotamians, except that tavern-keepers operated on credit, and hawkers and operators of market stalls probably did as welJ.7

      The origins of interest will forever remain obscure, since they pre­ ceded the invention of writing. The terminology for interest in most ancient languages is derived from some word for "offspring," causing some to speculate that it originates in loans of livestock, but this seems a bit literal-minded. More likely, the first widespread interest-bearing loans were commercial: temples and palaces would forward wares to merchants and commercial agents, who would then trade them in near­ by mountain kingdoms or on trading expeditions overseas. H

      The practice is significant because it implies a fundamental lack of trust. After all, why not simply demand a share in the profits ? This seems more fair (a merchant who came back bankrupt would probably have little means of paying anyway) , and profit-sharing partnerships of this sort became common practice in the later Middle East.9 The answer seems to be that profit-sharing partnerships were typically con­ tracted between merchants, or anyway people of similar background and experience who had ways of keeping track of one another. Palace or temple bureaucrats and world-roaming merchant adventurers had little in common, and the bureaucrats seem to have concluded that one could not normally expect a merchant returned from a fa r-off land to be entirely honest about his adventures. A fixed interest rate would render irrelevant whatever elaborate tales of robbery, shipwreck, or attacks by winged snakes or elephants a creative merchant might have concocted. The return was fixed in advance.

      This connection between borrowing and lying, incidentally, is an important one to history. Herodotus remarked about the Persians: "To tell a lie is considered by them the greatest disgrace, and next to that to be in debt especially because they think that one in debt must of

      necessity tell lies."10 (Later, Herodotus reported a story told to him by

      216 D E B T


      a Persian about the origins of the gold that the Persians had acquired in India: they stole it from the nests of giant ants.)11 Jesus's parable of the unforgiving servant makes a joke out of the matter ("Ten thousand talents ? No problem. Just give me a little more time") , but even here, one can see how such endless falsehoods contributed to a broader sense that a world in which moral relations are conceived as debts is also, while in certain ways entertaining, necessarily a world of corruption, guilt, and sin.

      By the time of the earliest Sumerian documents, this world may not yet have arrived. Still, the principle of lending at interest, even compound interest, was already familiar to everyone. In 2402 Be, for instance, a royal inscription by King Enmetena of Lagash-one of the earliest we have-complains that his enemy, the King of Umma, had been occupying a huge stretch of farmland that had rightfully belonged to Lagash for decades. He announces: if one were to calculate the rental fees for all that land, then the interest that would have been due on that rent, compounded annually, it would reveal that Umma now owes Lagash four and a half trillion liters of barley. The sum was, as in the parable, intentionally preposterousY It was just an excuse to start a war. Still, he wanted everyone to know that he knew exactly how to do the math.

      Usury-in the sense of interest-bearing consumer loans-was also well established by Enmetena's time. The king ultimately had his war and won it, and two years later, fresh off his victory, he was forced to publish another edict: this one, a general debt cancellation within his kingdom. As he later boasted, "he instituted freedom (amargi) in La­ gash. He restored the child to its mother, and the mother to her child; he cancelled all interest due."13 This was, in fact, the very first such

      declaration we have on record-and the first time in history that the word "freedom" appears in a political document.

      Enmetena's text is a bit vague on the details, but a half-century later, when his successor Uruinimgina declared a general amnesty dur­ ing the New Year's ceremonies of 2350 BC, the terms are all spelled out, and they conform to what was to become typical of such amnesties: cancelling not only all outstanding loans, but all forms of debt servi­ tude, even those based on failure to pay fees or criminal penalties-the only thing excepted being commercial loans.

      Similar declarations are to be found again and again, in Sumerian and later Babylonian and Assyrian records, and always with the same theme: the restoration of "j ustice and equity," the protection of wid­ ows and orphans, to ensure-as Hammurabi was to put it when he

      C R E D I T VE RSU S BU L L I O N 2 1 7


      abolished debts in Babylon in 1761 Bc-"that the strong might not op­ press the weak ."14 In the words of Michael Hudson,


      The designated occasion for clearing Babylonia's financial slate was the New Year festival, celebrated in the spring. Babylo­ nian rulers oversaw the ritual of "breaking the tablets," that is, the debt records, restoring economic balance as part of the calendrical renewal of society along with the rest of nature. Hammurabi and his fellow rulers signaled these proclamations by raising a torch, probably symbolizing the sun-god of justice Shamash, whose principles were supposed to guide wise and fair rulers. Persons held as debt pledges were released to rejoin their families. Other debtors were restored cultivation rights to their customary lands, free of whatever mortgage liens had accumulated . 15


      Over the next several thousand years, this same list-cancelling the debts, destroying the records, reallocating the land-was to become the standard list of demands of peasant revolutionaries everywhere. In Mesopotamia, rulers appear to have headed off the possibility of unrest by instituting such reforms themselves, as a grand gesture of cosmic renewal, a recreation of the social universe-in Babylonia, during the same ceremony in which the king reenacts his god Marduk's creation of the physical universe. The history of debt and sin was wiped out, and it was time to begin again. But it's also clear what they saw as the alternative: the world plunged into chaos, with farmers defect­ ing to swell the ranks of nomadic pastoralists, and ultimately, if the breakdown continued, returning to overrun the cities and destroy the existing economic order entirely.


      Egypt


      (2650-7 16 BC)


      Egypt represents an interesting contrast, since for most of its history, it managed to avoid the development of interest-bearing debt entirely. Egypt was, like Mesopotamia, extraordinarily rich by ancient stan­ dards, but it was also a self-contained society, a river running through a desert, and far more centralized than Mesopotamia. The pharaoh was a god, and the state and temple bureaucracies had their hands in everything: there were a dazzling array of taxes and a continual

      218 D E B T


      distribution of allotments, wages, and payments from the state. Here, too, money clearly arose as a means of account. The basic unit was the deben, or "measure"-originally referring to measures of grain, and later of copper or silver. A few records make clear the catch-as-catch­ can nature of most transactions:


      In the 15th year of Ramses II [c. 1275 BC] a merchant offered the Egyptian lady Erenofre a Syrian slave girl whose price, no doubt after bargaining, was fixed at 4 deben I kite [about 373 grams] of silver. Erenofre made up a collection of clothes and blankets to the value of 2 deben 2 r/3 kite-the details are set out in the record-and then borrowed a miscellany of objects from her neighbors-bronze vessels, a pot of honey, ten shirts, ten deben of copper ingots-till the price was made up . 16


      Most merchants were itinerant, either foreigners or commercial agents for the owners of large estates. There's not much evidence for commercial credit, however; loans in Egypt were still more likely to take the form of mutual aid between neighbors.17

      Substantial, legally enforceable loans, the kind that can lead to the loss of lands or family members, are documented, but they appear to have been rare-and much less pernicious, as the loans did not bear interest. Similarly, we do occasionally hear of debt-bondservants, and even debt slaves, but these seem to have been unusual phenomena and there's no suggestion that matters ever reached crisis proportions, as they so regularly did in Mesopotamia and the Levant.18

      In fact, for the first several thousand years, we seem to be in a somewhat different world, where debt really was a matter of "guilt" and treated largely as a criminal matter:


      When a debtor failed to repay his debt on time, his creditor could take him to court, where the debtor would be required to promise to pay in full by a specific date. As part of his promise-which was under oath-the debtor also pledged to undergo 100 blows and/or repay twice the amount of the origi­ nal loan if he failed to pay by the date specified.19


      The "and/or" is significant. There was no formal distinction be­ tween a fine and a beating. In fact, the entire purpose of the oath (rather like the Cretan custom of having a borrower pretend to snatch the money) seems to have been to create the justification for punitive action: so the debtor could be punished as either a perj urer or a thief.20

      C R E D I T VE RSUS B ULL I O N 2 1 9


      By the time of the New Kingdom ( rsso-1070) there is more evi­ dence for markets, but it's only by the time we reach the Iron Age, just before Egypt was absorbed into the Persian empire, that we begin to see evidence for Mesopotamian-style debt crises. Greek sources, for instance, record that the Pharaoh Bakenranef (reigned 720-715 BC) is­ sued a decree abolishing debt bondage and annulling all outstanding liabilities, since "he felt it would be absurd for a soldier, perhaps at the moment when he was setting forth to fight for his fatherland, to be hauled off to prison by his creditor for an unpaid loan"-which, if true, is also one of the earliest mentions of a debt prison.21 Under the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt after Alexander, periodic clean slates had become institutionized. It's well known that the Rosetta Stone, written both in Greek and Egyptian, proved to be the key that made it possible to translate Egyptian hieroglyphics. Few are aware of what it actually says. The stela was originally raised to announce an amnesty, both for debtors and for prisoners, declared by Ptolemy V in r96 sc.ZZ


      China


      (2200-771 BC)


      We can say almost nothing about Bronze Age India, since its writ­ ing remains indecipherable, and not much more about Early China. What little we do know-mainly culled from dribs and drabs in later literary sources-suggests that the earliest Chinese states were far less bureaucratic than their western cousins.23 There being no centralized temple or palace system with priests and administrators managing the storerooms and recording inputs and outputs, there was also little in­ centive to create a single, uniform unit of account. Instead, the evidence suggests a different path, with social currencies of various sorts still holding sway in the countryside and being converted to commercial purposes in dealings between strangers.

      Later sources recall that early rulers "used pearls and jade as their superior method of payment, gold as their middle method of pay­ ment, and knives and spades as their lower method of payment. "24 The author can only be talking about gifts here, and hierarchical ones at that: kings and great magnates rewarding their followers for services in theory rendered voluntarily. In most places, long strings of cowrie shells figure prominently, but even here, though we often hear of "the cowrie money of early China," and it's easy enough to find texts in

      2 2 0 D E B T


      which the value of sumptuous gifts are measured in cowries, it's never clear whether people were really carrying them around to buy and sell things in the marketplace.25

      The most likely interpretation is that they were carrying the shells, but for a long time marketplaces themselves were of minor significance, so this use was not nearly as important as the usual uses for social currencies : marriage presents, fines, fees, and tokens of honor.26 At any rate, all sources insist that there was a wide variety of currencies in cir­ culation. As David Scheidel, one of the premier contemporary scholars of early money, notes:


      In pre-imperial China, money took the form of cowrie shells, both originals and-increasingly-bronze imitations, tor­ toise shells, weighed gold and (rarely) silver bars, and most notably-from at least rooo BC onward-utensil money in the shape of spade blades and knives made of bronzeY


      These were most often used between people who didn't know each other very well. For tabulating debts between neighbors, with local vendors, or with anything having to do with the government, people appear to have employed a variety of credit instruments : later Chi­

      nese historians claimed that the earliest of these were knotted strings, rather like the Inca khipu system, and then later, notched strips of wood or bamboo.28 As in Mesopotamia, these appear to have long predated writing.

      We don't really know when the practice of lending at interest first reached China either, or whether Bronze Age China came to see the same sorts of debt crises as occurred in Mesopotamia, but there are tantalizing hints in later documents.29 For instance, later Chinese legends about the origin of coinage ascribed the invention to emper­ ors trying to relieve the effects of natural disasters. One early Han text reports:


      In ancient times, during the floods of Yu and the droughts of Tang, the common people became so exhausted that they were forced to borrow from one another in order to obtain food and clothing. [Emperor] Yu coined money for his people from the gold of Mount Li and [Emperor] Tang did likewise from the copper of Mount Yan. Therefore the world called them benevolent.10

      C R E D I T VE R SUS BU L L I O N 2 2 1

      Other versions are a little more explicit. The Guanzi, a collection that in early imperial China became the standard primer on political economy, notes "There were people who lacked even gruel to eat, and who were forced to sell their children. To rescue these people, Tang coined money. "31

      The story is clearly fanciful (the real origins of coined money were at least a thousand years later) , and it is very hard to know what to make of it. Could this reflect a memory of children being taken away as debt sureties ? On the face of it, it seems more like starving people sell­ ing their children outright-a practice that was later to become com­ monplace in certain periods of Chinese history.32 But the juxtaposition of loans and the sale of children is suggestive, especially considering what was happening on the other side of Asia at exactly the same time. The Guanzi later goes on to explain that these same rulers instituted the custom of retaining 30 percent of the harvest in public granaries for redistribution in emergencies, so as to ensure that this would never happen again. In other words, they began to set up just the kind of bureaucratic storage facilities that, in places like Egypt and Mesopota­ mia, had been responsible for creating money as a unit of account to begin with.


      Chapte r Nine TH E AX IAL AG E (800 BC – 600 AD)


      Let us designate this period as the "axial age. " Extraordinary events are crowded into this period. In China lived Confucius and Lao Tse, all the trends in Chinese philosophy arose . . . In India it was the age of the Upanishads and of Buddha; as in China, all philosophical trends, including skepticism and ma­ terialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed.

      -Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom


      THE PH RASE "THE AXIAL AGE" was coined by the German existen­ tialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.1 In the course of writing a history of philosophy, Jaspers became fascinated by the fact that figures like Py­ thagoras (570-495 Be) , the Buddha (563-483 Be) , and Confucius (551-479 BC) , were all alive at exactly the same time, and that Greece, India, and China, in that period, all saw a sudden efflorescence of debate between contending intellectual schools, each group apparently, unaware of the others' existence. Like the simultaneous invention of coinage, why this happened had always been a puzzle. Jaspers wasn't entirely sure himself. To some extent, he suggested, it must have been an effect of similar historical conditions. For most of the great urban civilizations of the time, the early Iron Age was a kind of pause between empires, a time when political landscapes were broken into a checkerboard of often diminutive kingdoms and city-states, most often at constant war externally and locked in constant political debate within. Each case witnessed the development of something akin to a drop-out culture,

      2 2 4 D E B T


      with ascetics and sages fleeing to the wilderness or wandering from town to town seeking wisdom; in each, too, they were eventually reab­ sorbed into the political order as a new kind of intellectual or spiritual elite, whether as Greek sophists, Jewish prophets, Chinese sages, or Indian holy men .

      Whatever the reasons, the result, Jaspers argued, was the first pe­ riod in history in which human beings applied principles of reasoned inquiry to the great questions of human existence. He observed that all these great regions of the world, China, India, and the Mediterranean, saw the emergence of remarkably parallel philosophical trends, from skepticism to idealism-in fact, almost the entire range of positions about the nature of the cosmos, mind, action, and the ends of human existence that have remained the stuff of philosophy to this day. As one of Jaspers' disciples later put i t-overstating only slightly-"no really new ideas have been added since that time. "1

      For Jaspers, the period begins with the Persian prophet Zoroaster, around 8oo Be, and ends around 200 Be, to be followed by a Spiritual Age that centers on figures like Jesus and Mohammed. For my own purposes, I find it more useful to combine the two. Let us define the Axial Age, then, as running from 8oo BC to 6oo AD .3 This makes the Axial Age the period that saw the birth not only of all the world's major philosophical tendencies, but also, all of today's major world religions: Zoroastrianism, Prophetic Judaism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hin­ duism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.4

      The attentive reader may have noticed that the core period of Jasper's Axial age–the lifetimes of Pythagoras, Confucius, and the Buddha-corresponds almost exactly to the period in which coinage was invented. What's more, the three parts of the world where coins were first invented were also the very parts of the world where those sages lived; in fact, they became the epicenters of Axial Age religious and philosophical creativity: the kingdoms and city-states around the Yellow River in China, the Ganges valley in northern India, and the shores of the Aegean Sea .

      What was the connection? We might start by asking: What is a coin ? The normal definition is that a coin is a piece of valuable metal, shaped into a standardized unit, with some emblem or mark inscribed to authenticate it. The world's first coins appear to have been cre­ ated within the kingdom of Lydia, in western Anatolia (now Turkey) , sometime around 6oo sc.5 These first Lydian coins were basically just round lumps of electrum-a gold-silver alloy that occurred naturally in the nearby Pactolus River-that had been heated, then hammered with some kind of insignia. The very first, stamped only with a few letters,

      T H E AX I A L A G E 2 2 5


      appear to have been manufactured by ordinary jewelers, but these dis­ appeared almost instantly, replaced by coins manufactured in a newly established royal mint. Greek cities on the Anatolian coast soon began to strike their own coins, and they came to be adopted in Greece itself; the same thing occurred in the Persian Empire after it absorbed Lydia in 547 BC.

      In both India and China, we can observe the same pattern : invent­ ed by private citizens, coinage was quickly monopolized by the state. The first Indian money, which seems to have appeared at some point in the sixth century, consisted of bars of silver trimmed down to uni­ form weights, then punch-marked with some kind of official symbol.6 Most of the examples discovered by archaeologists contain numerous additional counter-punches, presumably added much in the way that a check or other credit instrument is endorsed before being transferred. This strongly suggests that they were being handled by people used to dealing with more abstract credit instruments.7 Much early Chinese coinage also shows signs of having evolved directly from social curren­ cies: some were in fact cast bronze in the shape of cowries, though oth­ ers took the shape of diminutive knives, disks, or spades. In every case, local governments quickly stepped in-presumably within the space of about a generation .R However, since in each of the three areas there was a plethora of tiny states, this meant that each ended up with a wide variety of different currency systems. For example, around 700 Be, northern India was still divided into Janapadas or "tribal territories," some of them monarchies and some republics, and in the sixth century there were still at least sixteen major kingdoms. In China, this was the period where the old Zhou Empire first devolved into vying principali­ ties (the "Spring and Autumn" period, 722-481 Be), then splintered into the chaos of the "Warring States" (475-221 sc.) Like the Greek city­ states, all of the resulting kingdoms, no matter how diminutive, aspired to issue their own official currency.

      Recent scholarship has shed a great deal of light on how this must have happened. Gold, silver, and bronze–the materials from which coins were made–had long been the media of international trade; but until that time, only the rich had actually had much in their possession. A typical Sumerian farmer may well have never had occasion to hold a substantial piece of silver in his hand, except perhaps at his wedding. Most precious metals took the form of wealthy women's anklets and heirloom chalices presented by kings to their retainers, or it was simply stockpiled in temples, in ingot form, as sureties for loans. Somehow, during the Axial Age, all this began to change. Large amounts of silver, gold, and copper were dethesaurized, as the economic historians like

      2 2 6 D E B T


      to say; it was removed from the temples and houses of the rich and placed in the hands of ordinary people, was broken into tinier pieces, and began to be used in everyday transactions.

      How? Israeli Classicist David Schaps provides the most plausible suggestion: most of it was stolen. This was a period of generalized war­ fare, and it is in the nature of war that precious things are plundered.


      Soldiers who plunder may indeed go first for the women, the alcoholic drinks, or the food, but they will also be looking around for things of value that are easily portable. A long-term standing army will tend to accumulate many things that are valuable and portable-and the most valuable and portable items are precious metals and precious stones. It may well have been the protracted wars among the states of these areas that first produced a large population of people with precious metal in their possession and a need for everyday necessities . . .

      Where there are people who want to buy there will be peo­ ple willing to sell, as innumerable tracts on black markets, drug dealing, and prostitution point out . . . The constant warfare of the archaic age of Greece, of the Janapadas of In­ dia, of the Warring States of China, was a powerful impetus for the development of market trade, and in particular for market trade based on the exchange of precious metal, usually in small amounts. If plunder brought precious metal into the hands of the soldiers, the market will have spread it through the population.9


      Now, one might object: but surely, war and plunder were noth­ ing new. The Homeric epics, for instance, show a well-nigh obsessive interest in the division of the spoils. True, but what the Axial Age also saw-again, equally in China, India, and the Aegean-was the rise of a new kind of army, made up not of aristocratic warriors and their retainers, but trained professionals. The period when the Greeks began to use coinage, for instance, was also the period when they developed their famous phalanx tactics, which required constant drill and training of the hoplite soldiers. The results were so extraordinarily effective that Greek mercenaries were soon being sought after from Egypt to Crimea. But unlike the Homeric retainers, who could simply be ignored, an army of trained mercenaries needs to be rewarded in some meaningful way. One could perhaps provide them all with livestock, but livestock are hard to transport; or with promissory notes, but these would be

      T H E AXIA L AG E 2 2 7


      worthless in the mercenaries' own country. Allowing each a tiny share of the plunder does seem an obvious solution.

      These new armies were, directly or indirectly, under the control of governments, and it took governments to turn these chunks of metal into genuine currency. The main reason for this is simply scale: to cre­ ate enough coins that the people could begin to use them in everyday transactions required mass production on a scale far beyond the abili­ ties of local merchants or smiths.10 Of course we have already seen why governments might have incentive to do so: the existence of markets was highly convenient for governments, and not just because it made it so much easier for them to provision large standing armies. By insist­ ing that only their own coins were acceptable as fees, fines, or taxes, governments were able to overwhelm the innumerable social currencies that already existed in their hinterlands, and to establish something like uniform national markets.

      Actually, one theory is that the very first Lydian coins were in­ vented explicitly to pay mercenariesY This might help explain why the Greeks, who supplied most of the mercenaries, so quickly became accustomed to the use of coins, and why the use of coinage spread so quickly across the Hellenic world, so that by 480 BC there were at least one hundred mints operating in different Greek cities, even though at that time, none of the great trading nations of the Mediterranean had

      as yet showed the slightest interest in them. The Phoenicians, for exam­ ple, were considered the greatest merchants and bankers of antiquity.12

      They were also great inventors, having been the first to develop both the alphabet and the abacus. Yet for centuries after the invention of coinage, they preferred to continue conducting business as they always had, with unwrought ingots and promissory notes.13 Phoenician cities struck no coins until 365 Be, and while Carthage, the great Phoenician colony in North Africa that came to dominate commerce in the West­ ern Mediterranean, did so a bit earlier, it was only when " forced to do so to pay Sicilian mercenaries; and its issues were marked in Punic, 'for the people of the camp."'14

      On the other hand, in the extraordinary violence of the Axial Age, being a "great trading nation" (rather than, say, an aggressive military power like Persia, Athens, or Rome) was not, ultimately, a winning proposition. The fate of the Phoenician cities is instructive. Sidon, the wealthiest, was destroyed by the Persian emperor Artaxerxes III after a revolt in 351 BC. Forty thousand of its inhabitants are said to have committed mass suicide rather than surrender. Nineteen years later, Tyre was destroyed after a prolonged siege by Alexander: ten thousand died in battle, and the thirty thousand survivors were sold into slavery.

      2 2 8 D E B T


      Carthage lasted longer, but when Roman armies finally destroyed the city in 146 BC, hundreds of thousands of Carthaginians were said to have been raped and slaughtered, and fifty thousand captives put on the auction block, after which the city itself was razed and its fields sowed with salt.

      All this may bring home something of the level of violence amidst which Axial Age thought developed.15 But it also leaves us asking: What exactly was the ongoing relation among coinage, military power, and this unprecedented outpouring of ideas?


      Th e Me d ite rranean


      Here again our best information is from the Mediterranean world, and I have already provided some of its outlines. Comparing Athens­ with its far- flung naval empire-and Rome, we can immediately detect striking similarities. In each city, history begins with a series of debt crises. In Athens, the first crisis, the one that culminated in Solon's reforms of 594 Be, was so early that coinage could hardly have been a factor. In Rome, too, the earliest crises seem to have proceeded the advent of currency. Rather, in each case, coinage became a solution. In brief, one might say that these conflicts over debt had two possible outcomes. The first was that the aristocrats could win, and the poor remain "slaves of the rich"-which in practice meant that most people would end up clients of some wealthy patron . Such states were gener­ ally militarily ineffective .16 The second was that popular factions could prevail, institute the usual popular program of redistribution of lands and safeguards against debt peonage, thus creating the basis for a class of free farmers whose children would, in turn, be free to spend much of their time training for war.17

      Coinage played a critical role in maintaining this kind of free peasantry-secure in their landholding, not tied to any great lord by bonds of debt. In fact, the fiscal policies of many Greek cities amounted to little more than elaborate systems for the distribution of loot. It's important to emphasize that few ancient cities, if any, went so far as to outlaw predatory lending, or even debt peonage, entirely. Instead, they threw money at the problem. Gold, and especially silver, were ac­ quired in war, or mined by slaves captured in war. Mints were located in temples (the traditional place for depositing spoils) , and city-states developed endless ways to distribute coins, not only to soldiers, sail­ ors, and those producing arms or outfitting ships, but to the populace

      TH E AX I A L A G E 2 2 9


      generally, as jury fees, fees for attending public assemblies, or some­ times just as outright distributions, as Athens did most famously when they discovered a new vein of silver in the mines at Laurium in 483 BC. At the same time, insisting that the same coins served as legal tender for all payments due to the state guaranteed that they would be in suf­ ficient demand that markets would soon develop.

      Many of the political crises in ancient Greek cities similarly turned on the distribution of the spoils. Here is another incident recorded in Aristotle, who provides a conservative take on the origins of a coup in the city of Rhodes around 39I BC ("demagogues" here refers to the leaders of the democracy) :


      The demagogues needed money to pay the people for attend­ ing the assembly and serving on juries; for if the people did not attend, the demagogues would lose their influence. They raised at least some of the money they needed by preventing the disbursement of the money due the trireme [warship] com­ manders under their contracts with the city to build and fit triremes for the Rhodian navy. Since the trireme commanders were not paid, they were unable in turn to pay their suppliers and workers, who sued the trireme commanders. To escape

      these lawsuits the trireme commanders banded together and overthrew the democracy. 18


      It was slavery, though, that made all this possible. As the figures concerning Sidon, Tyre, and Carthage suggest, enormous numbers of people were being enslaved in many of these conflicts, and, of course, many slaves ended up working in the mines, producing even more gold, silver, and copper. (The mines in Laurium reportedly employed ten to twenty thousand of them.)19

      Geoffrey Ingham calls the resulting system a "military-coinage complex"-though I think it would be more accurate to call it a "military-coinage-slavery complex. "20 Anyway, that describes rather nicely how it worked in practice. When Alexander set out to conquer the Persian Empire, he borrowed much of the money with which to pay and provision his troops, and he minted his first coins, used to pay his creditors and continue to support the money, by melting down gold and silver plundered after his initial victoriesY However, an expeditionary force needed to be paid, and paid well: Alexander' s army, which num­ bered some no,ooo men, required half a ton of silver a day just for wages. For this reason, conquest meant that the existing Persian system of mines and mints had to be reorganized around providing for the

      2 3 0 D E B T


      invading army; and ancient mines, of course, were worked by slaves. In turn, most slaves in mines were war captives. Presumably most of the unfortunate survivors of the siege of Tyre ended up working in such mines. One can see how this process might feed upon itself.22

      Alexander was also the man responsible for destroying what re­ mained of the ancient credit systems, since not only the Phoenicians but also the old Mesopotamian heartland had resisted the new coin economy. His armies not only destroyed Tyre; they also dethesaurized the gold and silver reserves of Babylonian and Persian temples, the security on which their credit systems were based, and insisted that all taxes to his new government be paid in his own money. The result was to "release the accumulated specie of century onto the market in a matter of months," something like 18o,ooo talents, or in contemporary terms, an estimated $285 billion .23

      The Hellenistic successor kingdoms established by Alexander' s gen­ erals, from Greece to India, employed mercenaries rather than national armies, but the story of Rome is, again, similar to that of Athens. Its early history, as recorded by official chroniclers like Livy, is one of continual struggles between patricians and plebians, and of continual crises over debt. Periodically, these would lead to what were called mo­ ments of "the secession of the plebs," when the commoners of the city abandoned their fields and workshops, camped outside the city, and threatened mass defection-an interestig halfway point between the popular revolts of Greece and the strategy of exodus typically pursued in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Here, too, the patricians were ultimately faced with a decision: they could use agricultural loans to gradually turn the plebian population into a class of bonded laborers on their estates, or they could accede to popular demands for debt protection, preserve a free peasantry, and employ the younger sons of free farm families as soldiers.24 As the prolonged history of crises, secessions, and reforms makes clear, the choice was made grudgingly.25 The plebs practically had to force the senatorial class to take the imperial option. Still, they did, and over time they gradually presided over the establish­ ment of a welfare system that recycled at least a share of the spoils to soldiers, veterans, and their families.

      It seems significant, in this light, that the traditional date of the

      first Roman coinage-338 Be-is almost exactly the date when debt bondage was finally outlawed (326 BC) .26 Again, coinage, minted from war spoils, didn't cause the crisis. It was used as a solution.

      In fact, the entire Roman empire, at its height, could be understood as a vast machine for the extraction of precious metals and their coin­ ing and distribution to the military-combined with taxation policies

      T H E AXIAL A G E 2 3 1


      designed to encourage conquered populations to adopt coins in their everyday transactions. Even so, for most of its history, use of coins was heavily concentrated in two regions: in Italy and a few major cities, and on the frontiers, where the legions were actually stationed. In areas where there were neither mines nor military operations, older credit systems presumably continued to operate.

      I will add one final note here. In Greece as in Rome, attempts to solve the debt crisis through military expansion were always, ultimate­ ly, just ways of fending off the problem-and they only worked for a limited period of time. When expansion stopped, everything returned to as it had been before. Actually, it's not clear that all forms of debt bondage were ever entirely eliminated even in cities like Athens and Rome. In cities that were not successful military powers, without any source of income to set up welfare policies, debt crises continued to flare up every century or so-and they often became far more acute than they ever had in the Middle East, because there was no mecha­ nism, short of outright revolution, to declare a Mesopotamian-style clean slate. Large populations, even in the Greek world, did, in fact, sink to the rank of serfs and clients.27

      Athenians, as we've seen, seemed to assume that a gentleman nor­ mally lived a step or two ahead of his creditors. Roman politicians were little different. Of course much of the debt was money that mem­ bers of the senatorial class owed to each other: in a way, it's just the usual communism of the rich, extending credit to one another on easy terms that they would never think to offer others. Still, under the late Republic, history records many intrigues and conspiracies hatched by desperate debtors, often aristocrats driven by relentless creditors to make common cause with the poor.28 If we hear less about this sort of thing happening under the emperors, it's probably because there were fewer opportunities for protest; what evidence we have suggests that if anything, the problem got much worse.29 Around 100 AD, Plutarch wrote about his own country as if it were under foreign invasion:


      And as King Darius sent to the city of Athens his lieutenants Datis and Artaphernes with chains and cords, to bind the pris­ oners they should take; so these usurers, bringing into Greece boxes full of schedules, bills, and obligatory contracts, as so many irons and fetters for the shackling of poor criminals . . .

      For at the very delivery of their money, they immediately ask it back, taking it up at the same moment they lay it down; and they let out that again to interest which they take for the use of what they have before lent.

      2 3 2 D E B T


      So that they laugh at those natural philosophers who hold that nothing can be made of nothing and of that which has no existence; but with them usury is made and engendered of that which neither is nor ever was.30


      The works of the early Christian fathers likewise resound with endless descriptions of the misery and desperation of those caught in rich lenders' webs. In the end, through this means, that small win­ dow of freedom that had been created by the plebs was completely undone, and the free peasantry largely eliminated. By the end of the empire, most people in the countryside who weren't outright slaves had become, effectively, debt peons to some rich landlord; a situation in the end legally formalized by imperial decrees binding peasants to the land.31 Without a free peasantry to form the basis for the army, the state was forced to rely more and more on arming and employing Germanic barbarians from across the imperial frontiers-with results I need hardly relate.


      India


      In most ways, India, could not be more different as a civilization than the ancient Mediterranean-but to a remarkable degree, the same basic pattern repeats itself there as well.

      The Bronze Age civilization of the Indus Valley collapsed sometime around 16oo BC; it would be about a thousand years before India saw the emergence of another urban civilization. When it did, that civili­ zation was centered on the fertile plains that surrounded the Ganges farther east. Here too we observe, at first, a checkerboard of different sorts of government, from the famous "Ksatriya republics" with a pop­ ulace in arms and urban democratic assemblies, to elective monarchies, to centralized empires like Kosala and Magadha.32 Both Gautama (the future Buddha) , and Mahavira (the founder of Jainism) were born in one of the republics, though both ultimately found themselves teaching within the great empires, whose rulers often became patrons of wan­ dering ascetics and philosophers.

      Both kingdoms and republics produced their own silver and cop­ per coinage, but in some ways the republics were more traditional, since the self-governing "populace in arms" consisted of the traditional Ksatriya or warrior caste, who typically held their lands in common and had them worked by serfs or slaves.33 The kingdoms, on the other hand, were founded on a fundamentally new institution: a trained,

      T H E AXIAL A G E 2 3 3


      professional army, open to young men of a wide variety of back­ grounds, their equipment supplied by central authorities (soldiers were obliged to check their arms and armor when they entered cities) , and provided with generous salaries.

      Whatever their origins, here too, coins and markets sprung up above all to feed the machinery of war. Magadha, which ultimately came out on top, did so largely because it controlled most of the mines. Kautilya's Arthasastra, a political treatise written by one of the chief ministers for the Mauryan dynasty that succeeded it (321-185 Be) , stated the matter precisely: "The treasury is based upon mining, the army upon the treasury; he who has army and treasury may conquer

      the whole wide earth ."34 The government drew its personnel first of all from a landed class, which provided trained administrators, but even more, fu ll-time soldiers: the salaries of each rank of soldier and administrator were carefully stipulated . These armies could be huge. Greek sources report that Magadha could put to the field a force of 2oo,ooo infantry, 2o,ooo horses, and about 4,000 elephants-and that Alexander's men mutinied rather than have to face them. Whether on campaign or in garrison, they were inevitably accompanied by a range of different sorts of camp followers-petty traders, prostitutes, and hired servants-which, with the soldiers, seems to have been the very medium through which a cash economy had originally taken form .35 By Kautilya 's time, a few hundred years later, the state was inserting itself into every aspect of the process: Kautilya suggests paying sol­ diers apparently generous wages, then secretly replacing hawkers with government agents who could charge them twice the normal rates for supplies, as well as organizing prostitutes under a ministry in which they could be trained as spies, so as to make detailed reports on their clients' loyalties.

      Thus was the market economy, born of war, gradually taken over by the government. Rather than stifle the spread of currency, the pro­ cess seems to have doubled and even tripled it: the military logic was extended to the entire economy, the government systematically setting up its granaries, workshops, trading houses, warehouses, and jails, staffed by salaried officials, and all selling products on the market so as to collect the pieces of silver paid off to soldiers and officials and put them back into the royal treasuries The result was a moneta­ rization of daily life unlike anything India was to see for another two thousand years.37

      Something similar seems to have happened with slavery, which was quite commonplace at the time of the rise of the great armies-again, unlike almost any other point in Indian history-but was gradually

      234 D E B T


      brought under government control.38 By Kautilya's time, most war cap­ tives were not sold in marketplaces but relocated to government vil­ lages on newly reclaimed land. They were not allowed to leave, and these government villages were, at least according to the regulations, remarkably dreary places: veritable work camps, with all forms of festive entertainment officially prohibited. Slave hirelings were mostly convicts, rented by the state during their terms.

      With their armies, spies, and administration controlling everything, the new Indian kings evinced little interest in the old priestly caste and its Vedic ritual, though many kept up a lively interest in the new philosophical and religious ideas that seem to have been cropping up everywhere at the time. As time went on, however, the war machine began to sputter. It's not clear exactly why this happened. By the time of emperor Asoka (273-232 be) , the Mauryan dynasty controlled almost all of present-day India and Pakistan, but the Indian version of the military-coinage-slavery complex was showing definite signs of strain. Perhaps the clearest sign was the debasement of the coinage, which over the course of two centuries or so had gone from almost pure silver to about fifty percent copper.39

      Asoka, famously, began his reign in conquest: in 265 be, destroying the Kalingas, one of the last remaining Indian republics, in a war in which hundreds of thousands of human beings were, according to his own account, killed or carried off into slavery. Asoka later claimed to have been so disturbed and haunted by the carnage that he renounced war altogether, embraced Buddhism, and declared that from that time on, his kingdom would be governed by principles of ahimsa, or non­ violence. "Here in my kingdom," he declared in an edict inscribed on one of the great granite pillars in his capital of Patna, which so dazzled the Greek ambassador Megasthenes, "no living being must be killed or sacrificed. "40 Such a statement obviously can't be taken literally: Asoka might have replaced sacrificial ritual with vegetarian feasts, but he

      didn't abolish the army, abandon capital punishment, or even outlaw slavery. But his rule marked a revolutionary shift in ethos. Aggressive war was abandoned, and much of the army does seems to have been demobilized, along with the network of spies and state bureaucrats, with the new, proliferating mendicant orders (Buddhists, Jains, and also world-renouncing Hi-ndus) given official state support to preach to the villages on questions of social morality. Asoka and his successors diverted substantial resources to these religious orders, with the result that, over the next centuries, thousands of stupas and monasteries were built across the subcontinent.41

      T H E AX I A L A G E 2 3 5


      Asoka's reforms are useful to contemplate here because they help reveal just how mistaken some of our basic assumptions are: par­ ticularly, that money equals coins, and that more coins in circulation means more commerce and a greater role for private merchants. In reality, the Magadha state promoted markets but had been suspicious of private merchants, seeing them largely as competitors.42 Merchants had been among the earliest and most ardent supporters of the new religions (Jains, owing to their rigorous enforcement of rules against harm to any living creature, were obliged to become, effectively, a mercantile caste) . Mercantile interests fully supported Asoka's reforms. Yet the result was not an increase in the use of cash in everyday affairs but exactly the opposite.

      Early Buddhist economic attitudes have long been considered a bit mysterious. On the one hand, monks could not own property as individuals; they were expected to live an austere communistic life with little more than a robe and begging bowl as personal possessions, and they were strictly forbidden to so much as touch anything made of gold or silver. On the other hand, however suspicious of precious metals, Buddhism had always had a liberal attitude toward credit ar­ rangements. It is one of the few of the great world religions that has never formally condemned usury.43 Taken in the context of the times, however, there's nothing particularly mysterious about any of this. It makes perfect sense for a religious movement th at rejected violence and militarism, but that was in no way opposed to commerce.44 As we shall see, while Asoka's own empire was not long to endure, soon to be replaced by a succession of ever weaker and mostly smaller states, Buddhism took root. The decline of the great armies eventually led to the near-disappearance of coinage, but also to a veritable efflorescence of increasingly sophisticated forms of credit.


      China


      Until about 475 BC, northern China was still nominally an empire, but the emperors had devolved into figureheads and a, series of de facto kingdoms had emerged. The period from 475 to 221 BC is referred as the "Warring States period"; at that point, even the pretense of unity was cast aside. Ultimately, the country was reunited by the state of

      Qin, who established a dynasty that was then immediately overthrown by a series of massive popular insurrections, ushering in the Han dy­ nasty (2o6 sc-220 AD), founded by a previously obscure rural constable

      2 3 6 D E B T


      and peasant leader named Liu Bao, who was the first Chinese leader to adopt the Confucian ideology, exam system, and pattern of civil administration that were to continue for almost two thousand years.

      Still, the golden age of Chinese philosophy was the period of chaos that preceded unification, and this followed the typical Axial Age pat­ tern : the same fractured political landscape, the same rise of trained, professional armies and the creation of coined money largely in order to pay them.45 We also see the same government policies designed to encourage the development of markets, chattel slavery on a scale not seen before or since in Chinese history, the appearance of itinerant philosophers and religious visionaries, battling intellectual schools, and eventually, attempts by political leaders to transform the new philoso­ phies into religions of state.46

      There were also significant differences, starting with the currency system . China never minted gold or silver coins. Merchants used pre­ cious metals in the form of bullion, but the coins in actual circulation were basically small change: cast bronze disks, usually with a hole in the middle so that they could be strung together. Such strings of "cash" were produced in extraordinary numbers, and very large amounts had to be assembled for large-scale transactions: when wealthy men wished to make donations to temples, for instance, they had to use oxcarts to carry the money. The most plausible explanation is that, especially after unification, Chinese armies were enormous-some Warring States armies numbered up to a million-but not nearly as professional or well paid as those of kingdoms fa rther west, and from Qin and Han times on, rulers were careful to ensure that this remained the case, to make sure the army never became an independent power base.47

      There was also a notable difference in that the new religious and philosophical movements in China were from their very beginnings also social movements. Elsewhere, they only gradually became so. In ancient Greece, philosophy began with cosmological speculation; philosophers were more likely to be individual sages, perhaps surrounded by a few ardent disciples, as founders of movements.48 Under the Roman empire, schools of philosophy like the Stoics, Epicureans, Neo-Platonists did become movements of a sort: at least in the sense that they had thou­ sands of educated adherents, who "practiced " philosophy not only by reading, writing, and debating, but even more by meditation, diet, and exercise. Still, philosophical movements were basically confined to the civic elite; it was only with the rise of Christianity and other religious movements that phi losophy moved beyond it.49 One can observe a similar evolution in India, from individual Brahman world-renouncers, forest sages, and wandering mendicants with theories about the nature

      TH E AX I A L A G E 2 3 7


      of the soul or the composition of the material universe; to philosoph­ ical movements of the Buddhists, Jains, Ajrvika, and others mostly long forgotten; to, finally, mass religious movements with thousands of monks, shrines, schools, and networks of lay supporters.

      In China, while many of the founders of the "hundred schools" of philosophy that blossomed under the Warring States were wandering sages who spent their days moving from city to city trying to catch the ears of princes, others were leaders of social movements from the very start. Some of these movements didn't even have leaders, like the School of the Tillers, an anarchist movement of peasant intellectuals who set out to create egalitarian communities in the cracks and fissures between states.50 The Mohists, egalitarian rationalists whose social base seems to have been urban artisans, not only were philosophically opposed to war and militarism, but organized battalions of military en­ gineers who would actively discourage conflicts by volunteering to fight in any war against the side of the aggressor. Even the Confucians, for all the importance they attached to courtly ritual, were in their early days mainly known for their efforts in popular education.51


      Materiali sm 1:


      The Pursuit of Profit


      What is one to make of all this? The popular education campaigns of the period perhaps provide a clue. The Axial Age was the first time in human history when familiarity with the written word was no lon­ ger limited to priests, administrators, and merchants, but had become necessary to full participation in civic life. In Athens, it was taken for granted that only a country bumpkin would be entirely illiterate.

      Without mass literacy, neither the emergence of mass intellectual movements, nor the spread of Axial Age ideas would have been pos­ sible. By the end of the period, these ideas had produced a world where even the leaders of barbarian armies descending on the Roman empire felt obliged to take a position on the question of the Mystery of the Trinity, and where Chinese monks could spend time debating the rela­ tive merits of the eighteen schools of Classical Indian Buddhism.

      No doubt the growth of markets played a role too, not only help­ ing to free people from the proverbial shackles of status or community, but encouraging a certain habit of rational calculation, of measuring inputs and outputs, means and ends, all of which must inevitably have found some echoes in the new spirit of rational inquiry that begins to

      2 3 8 D E B T


      appear in all the same times and places. Even the word "rational" is telling: it derives, of course, from "ratio"-how many of X go into Y-a sort of mathematical calculation previously used mainly by ar­ chitects and engineers, but which, with the rise of markets, everyone who didn't want to get cheated at the marketplace had to learn how to do. Still, we must be careful here. After all, money in itself was nothing new. Sumerian farmers and tradesmen were already perfectly capable of making such calculations in 3500 Be; but none, as far as we know, were so impressed that they concluded, like Pythagoras, that mathematical ratios were the key to understanding the nature of the universe and the movement of celestial bodies, and that all things were ultimately composed of numbers-and they certainly hadn't formed secret societies based on sharing this understanding, debating and purg­ ing and excommunicating one another.52

      To understand what had changed, we have to look, again, at the particular kind of markets that were emerging at the beginning of the Axial Age: impersonal markets, born of war, in which it was possible to treat even neighbors as if they were strangers.

      Within human economies, motives are assumed to be complex. When a lord gives a gift to a retainer, there is no reason to doubt that it is inspired by a genuine desire to benefit that retainer, even if it is also a strategic move designed to ensure loyalty, and an act of magnifi­ cence meant to remind everyone else that he is great and the retainer small. There is no sense of contradiction here. Similarly, gifts between equals are usually fraught with many layers of love, envy, pride, spite, communal solidarity, or any of a dozen other things. Speculating on such matters is a major form of daily entertainment. What's missing, though, is any sense that the most selfish (" self-interested") motive is necessarily the real one: those speculating on hidden motives are just as likely to assume that someone is secretly trying to help a friend or harm an enemy as to acquire some advantage for him- or herself.53 Neither is any of this likely to have changed much in the rise of early credit markets, where the value of an IOU was as much dependent on assessments of its issuer's character as on his disposable income, and motives of love, envy, pride, etc. could never be completely set aside.

      Cash transactions between strangers were different, and all the more so when trading is set against a background of war and emerges from disposing of loot and provisioning soldiers; when one often had best not ask where the objects traded came from, and where no one is much interested in forming ongoing personal relationships anyway. Here, transactions really do become simply a figuring-out of how many of X will go for how many of Y, of calculating proportions, estimating

      T H E AXIAL A G E 2 3 9


      quality, and trying to get the best deal for oneself. The result, during the Axial Age, was a new way of thinking about human motivation, a radical simplification of motives that made it possible to begin speak­ ing of concepts like "profit" and "advantage"-and imagining that this is what people are really pursuing, in every aspect of existence, as if the violence of war or the impersonality of the marketplace has simply allowed them to drop the pretense that they ever cared about anything else. It was this, in turn, that allowed human life to seem like it could

      be reduced to a matter of means-to-end calculation, and hence some­ thing that could be examined using the same means that one used to study the attraction and repulsion of celestial bodies.54 If the underlying assumption very much resembles those of contemporary economists, it's no coincidence–but with the difference that, in an age when mon­ ey, markets, states, and military affairs were all intrinsically connected, money was needed to pay armies to capture slaves to mine gold to produce money; when "cutthroat competition " often did involve the literal cutting of throats, it never occurred to anyone to imagine that selfish ends could be pursued by peaceful means. Certainly, this picture of humanity does begin to appear, with startling consistency, across Eurasia, wherever we also see coinage and philosophy appear.

      China provides an unusually transparent case in point. Already in Confucius's time, Chinese thinkers were speaking of the pursuit of profit as the driving force in human life. The actual term used was li, a word first used to refer to the increase of grain one harvests from

      a field over and above what one originally planted (the pictogram represents a sheaf of wheat next to a knife) .55 From there it came to mean commercial profit, and thence, a general term for "benefit" or "payback." The following story, which purports to tell the reaction of a merchant's son named Li.i Buwei on learning that an exiled prince was living nearby, illustrates the progression nicely:


      On returning home, he said to his father, "What is the profit on investment that one can expect from plowing fields ?"

      "Ten times the investment," replied his father.

      "And the return on investment in pearls and jades is how much ?"

      "A hundredfold."

      "And the return on investment from establishing a ruler and securing the state would be how much ?"

      "It would be incalculable. "56

      240 D E B T


      Lti adopted the prince's cause and eventually contrived to make him King of Qin. He went on to became first minister for the king's son, Qin Shi Huang, helping him defeat the other Warring States to became the first Emperor of China. We still have a compendium of political wisdom that Lti commissioned for the new emperor, which contains such military advice as the following:


      As a general principle, when an enemy's army comes, it seeks some profit. Now if they come and find the prospect of death instead, they will consider running away the most profitable thing to do. When all one's enemies consider running to be the most profitable thing to do, no blades will cross.

      This is the most essential point in military matters.57


      In such a world, heroic considerations of honor and glory, vows to

      ·gods or desire for vengeance, were at best weaknesses to be manipu­ lated. In the numerous manuals on statecraft produced at the time, everything was cast as a matter of recognizing interest and advantage, calculating how to balance that which will profit the ruler against that which will profit the people, determining when the ruler's interests are the same as the people's and when they contradict.58 Technical terms drawn from politics, economics, and military strategy ("return on in­ vestment," "strategic advantage") blended and overlapped.

      The predominant school of political thought under the Warring States was that of the Legalists, who insisted that in matters of state­ craft, a ruler's interests were the only consideration, even if rulers would be unwise to admit this. Still, the people could be easily ma­ nipulated, since they had the same motivations: the people's pursuit of profit, wrote Lord Shang, is utterly predictable, "just like the tendency of water to flow downhill. "59 Shang was harsher than most of his fel­ low Legalists in that he believed that widespread prosperity would ultimately harm the ruler's ability to mobilize his people for war, and therefore that terror was the most efficient instrument of governance, but even he insisted that this regime be clothed as a regime of law and justice.

      Wherever the military-coinage-slavery complex began to take hold, we find political theorists propounding similar ideas. Kautilya was no different: the title of his book, the Arthasastra, is usually translated as "manual of statecraft," since it consists of advice to rulers, but its more literal translation is "the science of material gain. "60 Like the Legalists, Kautilya emphasized the need to create a pretext that governance was a matter of morality and justice, but in addressing the rulers themselves,

      T H E AXIAL A G E 2 4 1

      he insisted that "war and peace are considered solely from the point of view of profit"-of amassing wealth to create a more effective army, of using the army to dominate markets and control resources to amass more wealth, and so on.61 In Greece we've already met Thrasyma­ chos. True, Greece was slightly different. Greek city-states did not have kings, and the collapse of private interests and affairs of state was in principle universally denounced as tyranny. Still, in practice, what this meant was that city-states, and even political factions, ended up acting in precisely the same coldly calculating way as Indian or Chinese sov­ ereigns. Anyone who has ever read Thucydides' Melian dialogue–in which Athenian generals present the population of a previously friendly city with elegantly reasoned arguments for why the Athenians have determined that it is to the advantage of their empire to threaten them with collective massacre if they are not willing to become tribute­ paying subjects, and why it is equally in the interests of the Melians to submit-is aware of the results.62

      Another striking feature of this literature is its resolute material­ ism. Goddesses and gods, magic and oracles, sacrificial ritual, ancestral cults, even caste and ritual status systems all either disappear or are sidelined, no longer treated as ends in themselves but as yet mere tools to be used for the pursuit of material gain.

      That intellectuals willing to produce such theories should win the ears of princes is hardly surprising. Neither is it particularly surpris­ ing that other intellectuals should have been so offended by this sort of cynicism that they began to make common cause with the popular movements that inevitably began to form against those princes. But as is so often the case, oppositional intellectuals were faced with two choices: either adopt the reigning terms of debate, or try to come up with a diametrical inversion. Mo Di, the founder of Mohism, took the first approach. He turned the concept of li, profit, into something more like "social utility," and then he attempted to demonstrate that war itself is, by definition, an unprofitable activity. For example, he wrote, campaigns can only be fought in spring and autumn, and each had equally deleterious effects:

      If in the spring then the people miss their sowing and planting, if in the autumn, they miss their reaping and harvesting. Even if they miss only one season, then the number of people who will die of cold and hunger is incalculable. Now let us calculate the army's equipment, the arrows, standards, tents, armor, shields, and sword hilts; the number of these which will break and per­ ish and not come back . . . So also with oxen and horses 63

      242 D E B T


      His conclusion: if one could add up the total costs of aggression in human lives, animal lives, and material damage, one would be forced to the conclusion that they never outweighed the benefits-even for the victor. In fact, Mo Di took this sort of logic so far that he ended up ar­ guing that the only way to optimize the overall profit of humanity was to abandon the pursuit of private profit entirely and adopt a principle of what he called "universal love"-essentially arguing that if one takes the principle of market exchange to its logical conclusion, it can only lead to a kind of communism.

      The Confucians took the opposite approach, rejecting the initial premise. A good example is most of the opening of Mencius' much­ remembered conversation with King Hui:


      "Venerable Sir," the King greeted him, "since you have not counted a thousand miles too far to come here, may I suppose that you also have something with which you may profit my kingdom?"

      Mencius replied:

      "Why must Your Majesty necessarily use this word 'profit' ? What I have are only these two topics: benevolence and righ­ teousness, and nothing else."64


      Still, the end-point was roughly the same. The Confucian ideal of ren, of humane benevolence, was basically just a more complete inver­ sion of profit-seeking calculation than Mo Di's universal love; the main difference was that the Confucians added a certain aversion to calcula­ tion itself, preferring what might almost be called an art of decency. Taoists were later to take this even further with their embrace of intu­ ition and spontaneity. All were so many attempts to provide a mirror image of market logic. Still, a mirror image is, ultimately, just that: the same thing, only backwards. Before long we end up with an endless maze of paired opposites-egoism versus altruism, profit versus char­ ity, materialism versus idealism, calculation versus spontaneity-none of which could ever have been imagined except by someone starting out from pure, calculating, self-interested market transactions.65

      T H E AX I A L AG E 243

      Material ism II:

      Substance


      As in the near presence of death, de­ spise poor flesh, this refuse of blood and bones, this web and tissue of nerves and veins and arteries.

      -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 2. 2


      Taking pity on the hungry wolf, Wen­ shuang announced, "I do not covet this filthy bag of meat. I give it over to you that I may quickly acquire a body of more enduring strength. This donation will help benefit us both."

      -Discourse on the Pure Land 2I.I2


      As I've already observed, China was unusual because philosophy there began with debates about ethics and only later turned to speculations about the nature of the cosmos. In both Greece and India, cosmological speculation came first. In each, too, questions about the nature of the physical universe quickly give way to speculation about mind, truth, consciousness, meaning, language, illusion, world-spirits, cosmic intel­ ligence, and the fate of the human soul.

      This particular maze of mirrors is so complex and dazzling that it's extraordinarily difficult to discern the starting point-that is, what, precisely, is being reflected back and forth . Here anthropology can be helpful, as anthropologists have the unique advantage of being able to observe how human beings who have not previously been part of these conversations react when first exposed to Axial Age concepts. Every now and then too, we are presented with moments of exceptional clarity: ones that reveal the essence of our own thought to be almost exactly the opposite of what we thought it to be.

      Maurice Leenhardt, a Catholic missionary who had spent many long years teaching the Gospel in New Caledonia, experienced such a moment in the 1920s, when he asked one of his students, an aged sculptor named Boesoou, how he felt about having been introduced to spi