Aaron Bady reviews David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years to great effect.
By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.It's a great, long review, and you should read it.
I've yet to read Graeber's book, but if anything Bady's review doesn't go quite far enough. The neoliberal project has embraced the commodification of literally all human interaction. Creatures of Washington are now pretty blase and upfront about this sort of thing. "Markets in everything." "Think like an economist." It's worth saying, though, that for years conservative types used to deny that they really wanted this, and they'd wank around with talk about the family and the ineffable quality of connecting with Pastor Jim out by the mailbox, and taking old Rusty out to the creek to shoot varmints. I don't think they actually cared about that shit, and I don't think they particularly cared if people knew, but they at least wanted to keep up the pretense. The modern neoliberal is a purer breed, and has that whole "social justice" plausible deniability thing going down.
Bady makes a little hash with the self-evidently absurd notion that we might someday expect our children to pay us back for the cost of their childhood. The thing to understand, as Bady certainly does, is that the self-evident absurdity of such a situation in no way makes it unlikely. After all, I could carve out a living for myself just writing the same identical "marriage-- it's, like, for money, man" article that you've read fifteen times in the last six months, just rotating between the venues that get all breathless and horny for that stuff. (I fully expect The Atlantic to come out with its new cover story "Ladies: Doin' it for the Cash" any day now.) There's usually a little foreplay before they come right out with it-- an evo psych backrub, a little fake feminist reach around-- but in the end it comes down to the claim that people just get married for security and wealth and status, expressed in that self-assured voice stupid people get when they finish a crossword.
Part of the point here is that they don't have to exactly convince everyone, they just have to get the idea out there. When, for example, a neoliberal insists that you simply must kill your dog for a certain amount of money, and if you say otherwise you're probably a liar, the point isn't to make everybody agree. It's just to stretch the bounds of the discourse, until someday (I'm thinking next week) we're getting a bloggy circle jerk asking "child indebtedness to parents: is it really that crazy?" The insistence on commodification is even more explicit: " of course... the implication is that the majority of pet owners are experiencing huge psychic returns that we're not picking up on in conventional economic statistic." Of course, the only way to understand the decision to kill a living being to which you have an immense personal and emotional connection is economic. It is not merely that the neoliberal doesn't agree with a different perspective. There can be no other understanding.
Ultimately, the point of all of this is that contemporary capitalism has traded the vast improvements to worker safety, power, rights, and benefits for growth. By insisting that all human behavior is merely and only a matter of currency exchange, the terrible aspects of this bargain are ignored. (A bargain made, not incidentally, by people other than the workers who are living with its consequences, and defended by writers and pundits who have nothing personally to fear.) Sure, a factory worker in Indonesia might work in squalor for 14 hours a day, with less than 30 minutes of combined break time, threatened constantly by unsafe working conditions, totally unrepresented and totally without power or redress of grievances, constantly at risk of sexual exploitation and physical abuse-- but she's getting paid, and we can put her wages on a graph, and that's growth. And no other considerations matter. To point out the inherent cruelty and human cost of this bargain is to remove oneself from the discourse of the serious.
Talking to a neoliberal about workers and our moral duty to workers is like talking to a tailor about your lover or best friend. You want to talk about her intelligence, her depth, her character, and he keeps interrupting and telling you she's a size six. When you tell him you want to talk about some other quality, he just keeps angrily pushing his tape measure into your hands. The next time a neoliberal asks you to define your "policy position," head for the hills. It just means "let me dictate a completely arbitrary range of shitty choices to you."
Bady's post also considers the question of possibility, and the fact that an enormous amount of the effort of neoliberalism goes into pretending that there are no other options, that this is The Way, and that moving forward simply does not entail asking questions about where we want to go, as we just have to follow the path. Constitutionally, I'm a pessimist, so I will leave the forward-thinking to Bady's piece. I will just say again that history is filled with people who assumed that they had reached the end of history, that their way was The Way, and that they had found the natural organization of human society. And they always end up wrong.
Update: I kept writing Brady, but it's Bady. Fixed.