Debt and violence

From David Graeber’s “Debt: The First Five Thousand Years“:

Historically, as we have seen, ages of virtual, credit money have also involved creating some sort of overarching institutions — Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law — that place some sort of controls on the potentially catastrophic social consequences of debt. […] While the new age of virtual money [i.e., since 1971] has only just begun and the long term consequences are as yet entirely unclear, we can already say one or two things. The first is that a movement towards virtual money is not in itself, necessarily, an insidious effect of capitalism. In fact, it might well mean exactly the opposite. For much of human history, systems of virtual money were designed and regulated to ensure that nothing like capitalism could ever emerge to begin with.

If Graeber’s account of virtual, credit, deferring money forms — that is, money that is not bullion or backed by metal, which is important not because of the substance but because in previous ages it has been used to enforce the universality of wage labor — as a historic warding off of capitalism is correct, then there would seem to be two possibilities inherent in the current financial crisis: post-Bretton Woods capital has erred by its primary reliance on a money form and accompanying social bond — credit and debt, respectively — that are incompatible with it, and so a readjustment, a reversion, will be necessary; or capital’s overcoming of the current crisis will represent not simply surpassing a limit but also the crossing of a threshold — the integration of financialization into a new capitalist assemblage. The social-democratic calls for a new deal and the locating of debt as capitalism’s dirty little secret are, of course, reterritorializing demands banking on the former solution, a weird kind of desire to conserve an ontology that no longer exists. The latter, though, seems the more likely solution, one that will, as Melinda Cooper and Angela Mitropoulos note, be based on and pave the way for the “renewed deterritorialisation of capital flows on another scale and another basis.” If capital is able to overcome the first huge crisis in financialization, it will be, according to Graeber’s scheme, an epoch-making change. It will also, as both Cooper and Mitropoulos and Graeber agree, be achieved in blood: “there is no possibility of a peaceful exit” from the current crisis because of “the absolutely crucial role of violence in defining the very terms by which we imagine both ‘society’ and ‘markets’ – in fact, many of our most elementary ideas of freedom.”


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