david on debt slavery freedom

Debt, Slavery and our Idea of Freedom (2011) – interviewing David Graeber via Jamie Stern-Weiner


notes/quotes (page numbers from anarchist library to kindle):


part 1

Because the latter promises are not typically framed in the language of ‘debt’. The language of debt is not an economic one; it’s a language of morality. It has been used for thousands of years by people in situations of vast inequalities of power. If you have a situation of complete inequality, particularly violent inequality – if you’ve conquered someone, or if you’re a Mafioso extracting protection money – then framing the relationship in terms of debt makes it seem as though the extractors are magnanimous and the victims are to blame. 

debt (book).. debt as power


There’s a series of them. One is just what we’ve been discussing. What is a debt? A debt is a promise that has been perverted by mathematics and violence,..t and the book examines the history of how that happens. History has done this strange thing to us: we associate things like war and slavery with the ancient world and imagine that they have no contemporary relevance to our lives. But in fact that history of violence has completely transformed the way we think, so that our commonsense political and economic logic has been completely reshaped. All of these things have been shaped much more by violence and military operations than we’d ever imagine, to the point where I think we’re going to have to start thinking in dramatically new terms to even come up with a realistic idea of what a free society would be like..t If “freedom” is the ability to make real promises, then, what sort of promises would free women and men make to one another? How would they be kept? We hardly know what it would even mean to start asking these questions, but in order to find out, we need to clear away a lot of the conceptual legacy of millennia of war, slavery, and debt, that keeps us from being able to find out. That’s not the explicit message of the book, but it’s one of the things I was really trying to convey

need: means to undo our hierarchical listening so that we can org around legit needs


But it brings all these deeply perverse and contradictory notions into it: that freedom is not a product of social relations, but is in fact the negation of social relations. That has had a deeply insidious effect on how we look at the world..t

black science of people/whales law


Well, how does that work? It obviously doesn’t make any sense. That, it seems to me, is why we are so determined to create a division between the mind and the body, because it offers a way of imagining our mind as the ‘master’ and our body as the ‘slave’. This idea is a response to the way we chose to define ‘freedom’ in law..t

interviewer: So this language of rights and self-ownership has been appealed to mainly by people wanting to limit freedom?

rights ness

Yes, to come up with excuses for the slave trade. That was the argument. It’s interesting to point out, because ancient slavery was not, for the most part, based on any idea of ‘race’ or ethnic superiority. Anyone could become a slave – it was just bad luck. If you were captured in war, you became a slave. 


Slavery was seen as a natural result of war: of course, people will go to fight in wars, some of them will surrender and become captives, and that’s just how it is. The question of whether it is right or wrong – well, yes, of course, it would be great if we could get rid of war. War is bad, so is slavery. But get real. That’s pretty much how people feel about war now, and that’s pretty much how people felt about slavery in antiquity.

It went in different directions, but overwhelmingly the natural rights people won out. So you end up with the kind of writing under erasure that I described, where you start with Roman law terms and then you try to make them imply the opposite of what they were originally formulated to imply. It’s very much like the language of debt and morality. If say a subject population is told, ‘you owe us something (for not having killed you when we conquered you a century ago)’ – which is very similar to the argument made for slavery – then it’s almost impossible to come up with a reply that doesn’t take the form of, ‘wait a minute, who really owes what to who here?’ But as soon as you say that, you are accepting that debt is morality, that moral obligations are best framed as matters of debt— suddenly you are using the conqueror’s language. I would suggest that this has been happening constantly, throughout history..t


That’s why you see, in so many of the ancient moral and religious texts, a strange duality, an internal tension, whereby people on the one hand feel obliged to use the language of debt (Sanskrit, Hebrew and Aramaic all use the same words for ‘debt’ as for ‘sin’) but at the same time, they start that way and then they say, ‘well, except not really’. They feel obliged to frame it as a matter of debt, and then they have to deconstruct the notion of debt and conclude that of course in reality what is sacred aren’t your debts but rather the ability to forgive debts (redemption). The realisation that debt is meaningless.


So money is a unit of measurement of value, but value as realised in credits and debts..t

literacy and numeracy both elements of colonialism/control/enclosure.. we need to calculate differently and stop measuring things


One of the big problems in the ancient world was how to feed one’s army. You have 50,000 people sitting around, and they’re going to eat pretty much anything standing in the area within about three weeks. How do you feed them? The easiest solution is to give the soldiers these metal coins and say, ‘OK, everyone in the kingdom is required to give me one of these coins’. Suddenly the whole population has to figure out a way to give the soldiers what they want in exchange for the coins. So you’re effectively employing your entire kingdom to feed your soldiers. Commercial markets are essentially, then, a by-product of military operations by states.

part 2


Every ship was equipped both for trade and for war, and one was considered an extension of the other..t


But I think we need to recognise the fact that not all resistance is libratory of everyone.

band since not everyone.. no one..


In America, for instance, pretty much everybody is in debt. The great social evil in antiquity, the thing that Sharia law and medieval canon law were trying to ensure never happened again, was the scenario in which a family gets so deep in debt that they are forced to sell themselves, or sell their children, into slavery. What do you have here today? You have a population all of whom are in debt, and who are essentially renting themselves to employers to do jobs that they almost certainly wouldn’t want to do otherwise, to be able to pay those debts. If Aristotle were magically transported to the U.S. he would conclude that most of the American population is enslaved, because for him the distinction between selling yourself and renting yourself is at best a legalism. This, again, is why I say that our definitions of freedom are bizarre – we’ve managed to take a situation which most people in the ancient world would have recognised as a form of slavery and turned it into the definition of freedom..t (your ability to contract debts, your ability to sell your labour on the market, and so on). In the process we have created the very thing that all that old legislation and all of those old political practices were designed to avoid.

gare enslavement law et al

So credit has come crumbling. That’s why I thought this was a timely moment for this book, because we need to have a serious conversation about debt. If things unfold the way they have done in the past, we will end up going in the complete opposite direction from the way in which things have been going for the past 40 years – away from new-fangled forms of slavery and debt peonage; away from endless creation of magical credit bubbles that then burst; and away from this idea that debt is a sacred obligation that immediately outranks any other promise you can make. But we still have these ideas in our heads – there’s a psychology there that’s going to be difficult to overcome

unless we go deep enough.. to something our souls already crave..

ie: a nother way