Tuesday, February 7, 2012

zunguzungu on Debt

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.


Aaron B said...

One little thing: it's "Bady," not "Brady."

Freddie said...

Damn dude. Sorry. Will fix.

Anonymous said...

Do you think it's possible that Yglesias is unrepresentative of the liberals that are to the right of you? -K.

sweet tooth said...

How incredibly depressing that someone like Graeber represents original thought in our time. Not knocking him just everyone else. Most obvious fucking shit in the world. Then again, I don't expect otherwise, since apparently NO ONE, least of all our celebrity evolutionary psychologists, has any knowledge of how human beings spent the first 99% of our time on this planet. Which might, I don't know, be a relevant "metric".

Also: life sucks, dehumanizing jobs are hard to find, and the internet is a vast dull wasteland I no longer find as diverting as staring out the window.

I would tell neoliberals to go to hell, but they already live there, so what's the point?

Finally, the daily insane genocide of children's imaginations and natural impulses continues apace.

Carry on y'all

johndeboercustom said...

like talking to a tailor


Freddie said...

I truly, truly wanted to avoid quoting Yglesias here, K., but that post was just too perfect.

matt said...

You do get that the Yglesias post was a joke, right?

Freddie said...


Brendan said...

matt, if that post was supposed to be a joke, not a single commenter got it, and a lot of long time Yglesias regulars still post over there. There's nothing in there suggesting it was a joke to me.

It's an understandable mistake though, since it really reads like a parody Yglesias post.

sweet tooth said...

Freddie: a little advice from a would-be FRIEND.

(Who is probably technically younger than you -- I'm 32 and aging rapidly -- but also probably way more despairing and self-destructive than you. that's right. fuck off.)

because, for some reason, your intellect was weaned on the internet, you keep apologizing for your spleen. and yet it remains SMALL FRY, because it's always some INTERNET thing you're objecting to, and WORSE, that has aroused you in the first place.

Alas, it's never aroused by: walking down the street. Buying milk. Talking to 'a person' at a 'real job'. (as opposed, of course, to a "Real Person", who none of us has ever met, including you, JCapan, my other homie!)

i never hear from you what i should hear from you: I, Freddie, am desperately unhappy. My heart is grown sore and old. My heart is not wild anymore. My heart was once wild. My heart should still be wild. Why is that? Why has my heart become a silly little chamber of my overworked brain? I am tired of this. It is not how we should be living. I am unhappy. We are unhappy. What am I to do? What are we to do? When we will stop talking like this (which is not talking, which is not talking, which is not talking.)

(the "i" in that last line ought to be italicized, bolded, and underlined.)

Or, more accurately, i do hear that, which is obviously why, a bottle of Jamesons in, I'm writing to you, but i hear it ONLY between the lines, indirectly, obliquely, and, using the kind of idiot academic word you too much like, it "vitiates" my pleasure.

please, my man. you got talent.

take a solid month off these idiot intertubes. see how it is to take a month off.

be various and daring and athletic. read all the monographs ever written on the Bushmen, the Hadza, the Mbuti, the Northern Hunters, the Amazon tribes, the pre-equestrian Western American tribes,the Malaysian indigenes,et cet et cet et cet et cet et cet et cet et cet et cet et cet cet et cet.

Feel homeless and wretched and tormented and a strange "archaic" longing to feel a "lyrical", "mystical" belonging while tripping mushrooms in the redwoods. Feel homeless and wretched and tormented and a strange "archaic" longing to feel a "lyrical", "mystical" belonging while walking down any normal city street of any normal city.

you will learn things.

Feel, for god's sakes, so that i am not the only one, the fucking hopeless endless despair that doesn't end and won't end because of anything we write.

drink whiskey.

read Paul Shepard. read Tim Ingold. read Me (tho i'm not yet published because the people who own the New York publishers are, despite the diligent help of my man James Wood, middlebrow posers extraordinaire who think Jonathan Franzen is a Great Novelist, which is too lol to LOL).

Somehow get it back together.

(Which i am currently unable to do cause i'm looking for hard-to-find menial work and battling alcoholism (i.e. drinking heavily) at the moment -- which makes this post not the usual self-righteous glossolalia (sic lol) masquerading as glib screed but a tragic anguished call-to-arms from a presently-fallen brother to a still-standing but frustratingly-misguided comrade)

i promise all your readers the result will be mucho entertaining, full of righteous anger, and quite possibly, tho definitely not inevitable, INSIGHTFUL. Maybe even possibly, if FREDDIE GROWS some world-historical BALLZ, useful.


(but then i'm a crank, right?... you never know... right? Bitchez!)

jcapan said...

Thank god for sweet tooth. Otherwise we'd be left reading the tea leaves in Yggles stool.

Aaron Bady said...

Thanks for the words and the careful reading, though I suspect you'll find that Graeber's book is quite a lot better on most of the points you're raising; you're exactly right that the review doesn't go far enough, which is the fault of Graeber for writing such a ridiculously rich and multifaceted book. 5000 words wasn't enough!
Also, should I feel weird that someone impersonated me to correct the Brady/Bady thing? I might easily have posted a quick comment to that effect, except I didn't! Weird...

matt said...

This is definitely a joke:

"Some enterprising billionaire should start making real cash offers for the purposes of social science."


"if I'm wrong about this the implication is that the majority of pet owners are experiencing huge psychic returns that we're not picking up on in conventional economic statistics"

is definitely a self-mocking remark about "conventional economic analysis."

Brendan said...

matt, the "enterprising billionaires" thing is a joke, but I think he's for real about the "psychic returns." He often really is that glib. He also seems to actually believe that people would perceive refusing the offer as "costing a million dollars."

Matthew Yglesias said...

The post in question is neither a "joke" nor advocacy of dog-slaughter. It's an observation that either a lot of people are lying about how they would behave when faced with this situation, or else that a lot of middle class American pet owners are better off in real human welfare terms than some discussions of monetary income statistics would indicate.