Debt: Forgive and Forget?

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.

3 Responses to “Debt: Forgive and Forget?”

  1. Gianni says:

    This view has been held right back to the socialist democracies of Chile’s Allende in the 1970’s – a form of redistribution of wealth. An acknowledgement of of the North’s role in all this suffering. Wonderful to read this. Thanks

  2. Manjusiha says:

    Thanks for the comment Gianni. Will be interesting to see what happens this week in the wake of yesterday’s Greek election.

  3. Chintamani says:

    The debt owed by nation states to private banks (as one, admittedly rather mouthy, trader said: “Governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world) is, actually, nothing. As I learned recently, private banks ‘create’ money out of nothing as numbers on a computer screen, lend it, and then demand it and its interest back from the debtor – and they can create as much money in this way as they like. The debtor nation in turn takes its hard earned Gross National Product, and the taxes it levies on its citizens, and, effectively feeds into the ever ravenous maw of the private banks. Private banks thrive and prosper on the debts of others. That is their business, and, as the above mentioned trader remarked, he goes to bed each night hoping for a recession, because he can make money out of it. Private banks are, effectively, parasites on the rest of society. So, a nation, like Greece, that defaults on its debts (which are, effectively, to private banks), a nation wherein, now, there are people can now no longer afford to pay for their medication, is not ‘taking the not given’ – because what they are ‘taking’ was, itself, wholly ill-gotten by the lender. What is needed above all else is regulation to curb the absurd and wholly unethical rapacious power of the private banks so that a nation’s wealth is put back in the hands of that nation. (see

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