The following comments are based on David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years.” 2011. His basic assumption is that economies did not evolve from barter systems; from the beginnings of civilization there were always elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods. Economies started with debt, and we still operate in an environment configured by debt, guilt, sins, and the search for redemption. He also shows that economy, anthropology, and psychology are more closely linked than we previously thought, and he uses examples across cultures and history to demonstrate his ideas.  Since guilt is also a central question for psychoanalysis, I think it is worthwhile to discuss his ideas from a psychoanalytic perspective. Here are some reflections:

  1. Money was invented because we cannot repay our debt. It keeps track of who owes what to whom and represents a quantitative delineation of an absolute moral relation. If the debt is absolute, and we can never repay it, how can this become a circulation? How do you turn an absolute debt into a cycle that drives the economic flow of society?
  2. When debt gets accepted, it becomes an obligation, an internal demand. Debt is the opposite of a demand towards the Other. Honor consists in paying back your debt. To get civilized means that one learns how to exist in the field of the demands of others. The psychological structure conforms to the political and economic system. It breeds obedience and aggression.
  3. If the social link starts with universal guilt, the attempt to quantify this relation can ultimately only fail – or, to say it differently, it will be similar to a division by zero. The resulting infinities absolutize the economic sphere. Everyone becomes an entrepreneur, even if they only sell their ability to work. It turns people into economic beings who are forced to participate and to work in a society that tries to economize itself totally. The fundamental goal in capitalistic societies is endless progress or economic expansion, endless GDP growth.When capitalism becomes complete, it reaches its end.
  4. But does the social link have to start with debt? Do we perpetuate the system because we participate in it, and because we see no alternatives any more? Is it true that the oppressed perpetuate and recreate the system of oppression?
  5. We are defined through relationships. Kierkegaard, an existential and somewhat idealistic philosopher (1813-1855), defines the Self as a relation that relates to itself by relating to others. This is freedom, in his definition. (“The self is a relation which relates itself to its own self, or it is that in the relation that the relation relates itself to its own self; the self is not the relation but that the relation relates itself to its own self.”) from a psychoanalytic point of view, the human is a sophisticated identification mechanism. The self is only a mirror image, but as such it also includes, represents, and  signifies others. We unconsciously use other people in order to become individuals with an identity. This makes us very suggestible creatures; and it makes it easy to manipulate or control people. The creation of identity, individually or culturally, is the main task of culture, but the cultural process works against the background of a fundamental nihilism, because these “selves” are ultimately only the results of identifications. As Lacan says, the subject always remains a split subject; it can never be whole, except in fantasy. The human psyche has no inherent natural structure. It is empty like a mirror.
  6. The child becomes human when it enters language and begins to express itself. For Lacan, language is the structure that is “Other” for the infant, and it is also occupied by real others, like the mother. There is an asymmetry between subject and Other, as between mother and child. Therefore, humans tend to accept hierarchy in social relations (or between subject and other, small o) as primordial for the constitution of political entities. We elect leaders who represent the State, or the symbolic totality of a society, but these people are only too real. No actual person can embody the common good, and this is the dilemma that turns politics into such a difficult process. Hierarchy breaks symmetry, but at the price of identification with a leader. Polar units crystallize that are nevertheless heterogeneous, and they are marked by power differentials: Leader/follower, husband/wife, master/slave, Worker/owner, or simply: we against them.
  7. The symmetry between the subject and its mirror image in the Other is also broken when we become aware that the other does not have to love us, or that there is a reality to our own bodies, for instance when we see our own blood. Another symmetry-breaking function is the sexual difference, with the incest taboo as the fundamental rule that creates exogamy, and leads to the separation of the social from the biological realm.
  8. Aggression is the other side of identification: We want to blow the other away. We stigmatize outsiders, oppress foreigners, and fear everything that is truly unknown. There is something deadly in the mirror relation of the subject to itself via the Other. It leads to an irreducible hatred towards the other, because she/he occupies the place where the subject wants to be. Guilt controls the hatred, but the aggression can break through easily. This cannot be overcome through historical progress, and there is always something wild at the core of civilization: the potential for uncivilized and unexplainable aggression is an integral part of the human condition. The debt was often paid in human lives. Debt was also blood-debt, which correlates with honor and social identity. Early civilizations are permeated by sacrificial rituals, and violence and war is a constant feature of history everywhere. We create identity by creating enemies, and we sacrifice others as a substitute for our own self-destructiveness.
  9. Love always starts as a narcissistic form of love. This explains why the greed motivator of modern capitalism works so well. But we don’t just love ourselves, we love ourselves via another person whom we believe we love. Love unites, but the differences actually remain. Women were used as currency in many societies. Sexuality is integral to contemporary economic exchanges as well. We buy and sell sex, and sex is a prime motivator in the marketplace. There is an economy of love, an economy of sexuality, and an economy of bodies. The subject exists in the field of desires: it is either a desiring subject, or the object of another’s desire. Today’s marketing and advertising campaigns have  perfected the fetishization of commodities: The objects we own define us.
  10. Money is the ultimate object, it is a quantified signifier that can be used for everything. Everything has a price, and anything of value can now get expressed through a number. Capitalism represents the triumph of Pythagoras, but not in ways philosophers, mathematicians or physicists anticipated it. Graeber demonstrates that the origin of money is itself mythical, and by virtualizing money again we come around full circle.
  11. Needs versus play: Is our economic system based on a natural distribution mechanism (market) that matches demands, needs, and supplies via a real currency, or is it a system of cultural rules that helps us define and negotiate needs via intermediary inventions like money? Can we overcome the myth that the economic distribution system has to be based on a scarcity model? To what degree is economics today based on mythical thinking?

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Anthropology, Economics, Political Theory


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