David Graeber’s Debt Reading Group – Session Four

(Notes on Chapter 6 – ‘Games with Sex and Death’)

This chapter is something of a turning point within the overall argument. To date, we have been witnessing the work of ground/throat clearing: we’ve heard about the problems with mainstream economics, the problems with primordial debt theory, the problems with theological accounts of debt and the problems with secular moralisations of indebtedness – insofar as each of these frameworks mistakenly claim the truth of debt. Now, finally, Graeber is getting on with saying what debt really is. His account hinges upon the distinction between an obligation which can be hypothetically re-paid, and one which hypothetically cannot. As was already argued towards the end of the previous chapter:

Debt…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 who there is some way to set matters straight…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 restored, even if the cost may be death by lethal injection (120-1)

When we get the opportunity to engage with Graeber’s own account of debt, which we finally begin to do around this point in the book, we are reading an account of debt which is thoroughly grounded within anthropological investigation. Following the work of the “French economist-turned-anthropologist named Philippe Rospabé” (131) and in particular his account of primitive money, Graeber tackles the distinction between debts which can be hypothetically repaid, and those that cannot [recalling the primordial debt theorists of Chapter 3, albeit with some qualification (136)], by distinguishing between human economies and their associated social currencies, on the one hand, and commercial-market economies, and their associated currencies, on the other. “Money”, for Rospabé, and hence for Graeber, “can be seen, in human economies, as first and foremost the acknowledgment of the existence of a debt that cannot be paid” (136).

With respect to market economies, Graeber insists, human economies are relative newcomers. “For most of human history, human economies predominated” (130) This chapter anthropologically demonstrates how the transition from the earlier to the latter form of economy occurred in a variety of cases, and then underlines how the replacement of human economies with market economies is often simultaneous with the violent replacement of an idea that we are bound to one another in all sorts of ways, with one in which we are no longer thought of, nor think of ourselves as being, eternally reciprocally entangled.

Everything here, for Graeber, is a matter of anthropological context or, more precisely, everything about the transition from human to market economies is a matter of “people ‘ripped from their contexts'” (162). The violence implied in the term ripping is to be understood non-metaphorically. To bring attention to the violence inherent within market economies is, for Graeber, to bring attention to nothing less than historical-anthropological reality itself:

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 (164)

The questions we mainly focused upon within the meeting were as follows:

1) How literally are we to take the notion of people being ripped from their context as a spatially and temporally identifiable feature of the transition from human to market economies? This ripping is presented as a demonstrable empirical claim here with recourse to select anthropological contexts. To what extent, however, can it be taken as a general claim concerning the birth of market economies in all times and all places?

2) What is a people’s context and on what basis can it be understood as separate from a context which it is not?

3) Isn’t people ripped from their context a demonstrable feature of any advanced society which requires a complex division of labour? Hasn’t contextlessness become the context?

4) How separate are human and market economies, spatially and temporally, and at what point does one cease to become itself in order to become its other?

5) Why has the tendency been for market economies to replace human economies, despite the many violent problems underlined here? Is the process reversible? Has it been reversed and if so how?

6) What is the point being made about women in this chapter? Is Graeber using anthropological accounts of the role of women in primitive societies in order to make his broader empirical point or is there a feminist project running hand in hand with the anti-economic project?

7) The title ‘Games with Sex and Death’ suggests psychoanalysis, yet does not deliver. Psychoanalytic accounts of debt, indeed, have not been given any notable treatment to date. Is this primarily our problem, given some of our interests, or is it a problem which Graeber is duty bound to address in offering a general account of debt?

I suspect many of these questions will be addressed during our procession through the remaining six chapters.

One thought on “David Graeber’s Debt Reading Group – Session Four

  1. Thanks for posting this update. I missed this group so it’s very useful to see the questions that you addressed in the group. What is interesting is that some of the issues and discussions continued in the most recent group reading on chapter 7 (notes for which I’ll post over the weekend).

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