Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Primordial Debt

Why am I so fascinated by debt?  To date I have written about the Greek crisis and Margaret Atwood's book Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth on this blog.  Right now I'm smack in the middle of David Graeber's Debt:  The First 5,000 Years.

I think the interest comes from the fact that a lot of the language around citizenship and migration uses terms and ideas that try to clarify what is owed to whom.   Debtors versus lenders, takers versus givers and so on.  This causes a great deal of in-fighting among the citizens of a state who don't agree that they either should pay or pay more than others.  It also causes  strife between native citizens and immigrants or emigrants.  One or more groups feels that the scales are unbalanced in some way and so they turn to others groups and ask for (or force) them to accept the responsibility for the "debt" and turn over some sort of payment which can be tangible or intangible.

You can see hints of this argument in almost any discussion about citizenship or migration and they are usually poorly articulated.  Just because one group feels that another owes something, doesn't mean they agree on the terms:  what exactly is owed in compensation, how repayment is to be made, and when payment is due.  Also missing (or expressed in very vague terms) is a moral basis for claiming there is a debt in the first place.

David Graeber unearthed one very intriguing moral argument which he discusses at some length in his book.  It's called "primordial debt theory" and it attempts to answer the question:  On what basis can one say that people owe something to a state or a society?
The first explicit theory of the debt owed by each living person to the society that makes his or her existence possible was formulated by Auguste Comte in his last work, The Catechism of Positive Religion (1852)...
Comte’s notion of an unlimited obligation to society crystallized in the notion of social debt, which was taken up among social reformers and, eventually, socialist politicians in many parts of Europe and abroad. In France the notion of a social debt soon became something of a catchphrase, a slogan — and, eventually, a cliché: “We are all born as debtors to society.” The state, according to this view, was merely the administrator of the existential debt that everyone owes to everyone.
Forgive me, but this sounds an awful lot like something the nuns spent four years trying to beat into my head: the notion that we are born in sin, that we owe an immense debt to God, and that our only hope of salvation is faith and good works.  They did an excellent job and 35 years later I recite the Credo at least once a week and mean every word.

As I examine Primordial Debt theory (and I'm trying to get my hands on the original texts Graeber mentions) I have a lot of questions about it.  Is this really a product of pure reason or are they asking me take quite a lot on faith?

What is this "society" they are asking me to be obliged to?  Is it my local community, is it the country I live in or the region?  I know that I'm physically present in a particular place and I've walked the length of Versailles so I know it's real and has boundaries.  I know people here but not all of them.  The ones I've met are very diverse.  There is a core of something you might call "Frenchness" about them but they are not French in the same way as people in Brittany or in Paris.  I've never walked around the French nation to assure myself that she really exists or, for that matter around Europe.  I take the word of the people around me that these things do indeed have a concrete reality.  

One thing I have observed is that this "society" around me is always changing.  People come and go.  Ideas have their day and then pass away.  New laws and behaviours come into being and old ones are let go.  I go back to the U.S. these days and the "society" in Seattle is barely recognizable to me as the place where I was raised.     

Perhaps when the world was less connected and more people stayed close to the area where they were born,  "society" was meaningful.  It's not entirely meaningless today because clearly we do live in "webs of significance" that are both local and global.  But the argument that there is a thing called "society" to which one owes absolutely everything is questionable.  In the very least it would be more appropriate to talk of "societies" instead - circles that overlap like in Venn diagrams that grow or ebb in significance depending on who and where we are.

The concept breaks down even further when it comes to migrants.  If the debt is "that owed by the living to the continuity and durability of the society that secures their individual existence" then what does an international migrant owe to whom?  To the society they were born into?  To every single society they pass through in their lives?  Or to the society they choose as adults?  All of these societies made a contribution to the person the migrant becomes but how in heaven's name can we possibly slice and dice a life and say that he owes this here and that there.  

The second leap they are asking for is to accept the State as the holder of the debt and the administrator of it.  I don't follow the logic and honestly I'm a bit suspicious of it.  How convenient and what a lovely deal for the State.  I'm not sure that it does much for those under its sovereignty except to put them in a state of eternal servitude and précarité.    Why do I say this?  Because the question I asked before is still outstanding:  what exactly is owed in compensation and what are the terms for repayment?  The answer just might be: what States say it is and they can change the terms any time they like.  Furthermore states have the power to ground people in a particular society - to claim them against their will.  That's the way citizenship laws work. A US customs official said this to one Canadian-American trying to cross the border, "You're an American until we say you aren't." 

That doesn't seem terribly moral to me.  In fact, it looks like a pure power relationship with the people on the losing end.  Granted, one is theoretically allowed certain rights and access to public goods as a result of that grounding (it's sometimes contingent on it) but is this about caring and protecting one's citizens or is it about throwing bread at them so they don't hiss like Colbert's goose?  

Coming up with an argument that stars with the premise that "we are all born debtors" is just a little too close to the one that says "we are all born sinners."   I happen to believe the latter and reject the former. While both tell me I must make sacrifices in this life, my faith at least gives clear terms, the possibility of redemption, and eternal life.  What does the State have to offer to match that?  

As of 16:08 this afternoon that is my take on primordial debt.  If you have another view, or you feel that I don't have a proper understanding of the argument, please feel free to share it.


Tim said...

Victoria, you might also want to check out this Veronique De Rugy woman. She was one of co-signors of the support Rand Paul repeal FATCA letter (along with Dan Mitchell, Jim Jatras, and Grover Norquist). I know I am off topic again.

I had actually seen the video before she came out against FATCA was thinking about reaching out to her before I knew she had an opinion on it.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim, the Flophouse welcome mat is nailed to the door for you and feel free to comment anywhere you like. :-)

That's a good one. I will watch this morning over apple crisp and coffee.

Just me said...

and, my dear, I don't accept this either... "we are all born sinners." LOL

Everything I hear this podcast, I think of you poor Catholics.. Please don't be offended, but religion and me parted ways years ago after a Evangelical up bringing.

Act II and God said, huh?

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Just Me, I'm not offended at all and I will watch the video when I get back from Mass. :-)

I've read Christopher Hitchens, Dawkins and the other new atheists. I've also read Chesterton, Francis de Sales. John Waters (the Irish journalist) and I've got both our new pope's book and My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman on my to-read list.

When I look back at the agnostic phase of my life, I realize that it wasn't about thinking at all - it was about rejection and giving up in the face of unanswerable questions. The was nothing particularly principled or well thought out about it. Somewhere along the line those questions came back (and it wasn't the cancer that moved me to action) and I started thinking again. So I read and I thought and lo and behold I found myself back in the Church.

That's my story. I know quite a few people who've had bad experiences with the faith of their childhoods. I wasn't one of them. For me it was more about intellectual pride - the circles I moved in considered religion to be an anachronism and since I didn't want my intellectual credential challenged, I just went along with it. I'm not proud of that.

For me, what's important here is "free will." Nobody made me read those books or go to Mass or force me to self-identify as one thing or another. It was there when I decided to go back and I'm glad I did. Nation-states don't seem to have that in mind when they say "you belong to us for life and you will do thus and such or you will experience hell on earth."