Debt and Sin

“The debtor must pay the creditor” – one of the most basic mantras of economic theory is being turned on its head by anthropologists and sociologists. Great!

We are programmed by the systems within which we exist. This is true in economic matters as well. Economic history becomes textbook material once money and debt enter the picture. One of the mantras of economic theory: Debt needs to be repaid. The debtor must pay the creditor. But what if that, too, is merely programmed thinking? And what happens – as in the case of the struggling countries of the Eurozone – if the repayment of debt is impossible? Should we simply continue according to our old ways?

It seems evident that a simple debt cancellation isn’t sufficient. We must dig much deeper. In his book “Debt: the first 5000 years”, the British anthropologist David Graeber traces the history of debt in human civilizations. He argues that debt dates back much farther than money, for example. For millennia, people recognized debts they had to each other that could never be repaid: They felt indebted to their parents but were unable to ever compensate them for all the good they received as children. They felt indebted to the Gods, too, but no animal sacrifice could ever equal the value of creation itself, or could balance the sheets by compensating the Gods for gifting humans with life.

Our ancestors have set in motion an unfortunate cycle and we have been plagued by debt ever since. In ancient times, words for “debt” were used synonymously with words for “sin”. Economic and moral language overlapped, and we’re still trying to untangle them today. Why else would we be so committed to the idea that debts must be repaid? Compensating the creditor is regarded as a question of honor, as a moral imperative. The issue of debt cannot be framed in narrow economic terms alone.

If we want to change our ways of acting, we must change the way we think and talk. We must critically examine the words we employ to outline our thoughts, and we must change our habits of speech. Anthropologists like Graeber warn: This is a momentous task.

Critical economists like the young Czech thinker Tomas Sedlacek also point out that the totality of human interactions is organized according to the language of economics. One example: Of the thirty allegories in the New Testament, nineteen have a direct connection to economics.

One of the simplest economic systems is the relationship between two neighbors who lend to each other. Every village used to have countless unwritten debt scrolls that kept track of its internal relations. In relation to other villages and tribes, the patterns of economic activity borrowed heavily from the rules of courtship and war (this, too, anthropologists can tell us). Sometimes they bled into each other: A peaceful trading relationship could escalate into violent confrontation.

But who ever thought of framing these manifestations of economic activity in terms of human rationality? Nothing is as irrational as courtship, or as illogical as war. After centuries of listening to rational-choice economists, now might be the time to focus our attention on what anthropology, sociology and philosophy have to say about us humans. It’s an ongoing project – and it must continue!

Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Santo Subito

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