The Machinery of Hopelessness



For at least 5,000 years, before capitalism even existed, popular movements have tended to center on struggles over debt.  There is a reason for this.  Debt is the most efficient means ever created to make relations fundamentally based on violence and inequality seem morally upright.  When this trick no longer works everything explodes, as it is now.  Debt has revealed itself as the greatest weakness of the system, the point where it spirals out of control.  But debt also allows endless opportunities for organizing.  Some speak of a debtors’ strike or debtors’ cartel.  Perhaps so, but at the very least we can start with a pledge against evictions.  Neighborhood by neighborhood we can pledge to support each other if we are driven from our homes.  This power does not solely challenge regimes of debt, it challenges the moral foundation of capitalism.  This power creates a new regime.  After all, a debt is only a promise and the world abounds in broken promises.  Think of the promise made to us by the state: if we abandon any right to collectively manage our own affairs we will be provided with basic life security.  Think of the promise made by capitalism: we can live like kings if we are willing to buy stock in our own collective subordination.  All of this has come crashing down.  What remains is what we are able to promise one another directly, without the mediation of economic and political bureaucracies.  The revolution begins by asking what sorts of promises do free men and women make one another and how, by making them, do we begin to make another world?

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David Graeber is an anthropologist.  His latest book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years.  This essay, available for download at No Borders, is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.

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