I went into central London yesterday to buy a copy of David Graeber‘s book ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years‘, but was put off by the price tag. I bought a copy for my kindle instead, and have enjoyed dipping into it, particularly looking at Graeber’s take on Buddhism and debt throughout history.
I was moved to buy the book after reading this fascinating review in the ever wonderful London Review of Books. As the storm clouds continue to gather in the eurozone, I’ve been left wondering what to think, from a Buddhist viewpoint, about Graeber’s call for a ‘biblical-style jubilee’ to ‘cancel outstanding consumer and government loans‘.
According to the LRB review, Graeber is ‘an American who teaches anthropology at Goldsmith’s in London [and] a veteran of the alter-globalisation movement, which sought debt forgiveness for the global South.’ He was ‘closely involved in planning the occupation of Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan that began last September,’ and is credited with the slogan ‘We are the 99 per cent.‘
His book ‘concludes with a call for a “biblical-style jubilee” – in the Old Testament one was declared every fifty years – to cancel outstanding consumer and government loans: “Nothing would be more important than to wipe the slate clean for everyone, mark a break with our accustomed morality, and start again.”‘
What do we think of this, as Buddhists and non-Buddhists? Part of Graeber’s thesis is that debt and violence are intimately linked: ‘Debt is the perversion of a promise, a promise that has been perverted through mathematics and violence.’ (White Review) Would, then, a debt jubilee be in keeping with the first Buddhist precept: non-harm? ‘Reconciliation through forgiveness is of great value. It helps to alleviate destructiveness and gives rise to an atmosphere pregnant with possibilities. It is truly creative,’ as Ratnaghosha, former Chair of the London Buddhist Centre, said in his series on talks on kshanti - the perfection of patience. ‘Money as “debt’” has been responsible for a century of war, poverty, crime and injustice, according to Susmita Barua. Should we be campaigning, then, to drop the debt?
On the other side, though, when nations default on their debts, isn’t there a sense of them collectively ‘taking the not given’? Would a debt jubilee undermine the very fabric of trust between individuals and nation-states that enables society to function, albeit imperfectly? Would love to have your views.