A long-ish quote from an interview over at Naked Capitalism with the newly-crowned international leftist superhero de jour David Graeber concerning debt, realities, and the rather unfortunate position of certain bag-less cats:
Well, I think this is a prime example of why existing arrangements are clearly untenable. Obviously the ‘whole debt’ cannot be paid. But even when some French banks offered voluntary write-downs for Greece, the others insisted they would treat it as if it were a default anyway. The UK takes the even weirder position that this is true even of debts the government owes to banks that have been nationalized – that is, technically, that they owe to themselves! If that means that disabled pensioners are no longer able to use public transit or youth centers have to be closed down, well that’s simply the ‘reality of the situation,’ as they put it.
These ‘realities’ are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That’s one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the ‘Third World debt crisis’ – what got called, rather weirdly, the ‘anti-globalization movement’. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).
When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: “Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated.” I find this extraordinarily hopeful.
The obvious asymmetry of the situation (which was known rather clearly after 2008-09) is one that Graeber has been pointing out with regularity in his ubiquitous work on debt. Historically, this has always been the case: debt is simply a promise, and elites rarely have a problem amending those promises given a change in the material and historical conditions of which the promises were originally predicated, but only horizontally, that is, with other elites. When debts are vertically constructed, between those who have control of capital and those who sell their labor power, then the moral problem of debt repayment all of a sudden becomes paramount and austerity rules the day. This is precisely where the class issue is located, and it’s refreshing to see a movement like Occupy Wall Street fix its collective eye on these growing inequalities.