January 14, 2011
An alternative explanation is primordial-debt theory, a school of thought developed largely in France by economists, anthropologists, historians, and classicists; its foundational text is Michel Aglietta and André Orléan’s La Violence de la Monnaie (1992). Adherents insist that monetary policy cannot be separated from social policy, that the two have always been intertwined. Governments use taxes to create money, which they are able to do because they have become the guardians of the debt that all citizens have to one another. This debt is the essence of society itself.From "To Have Is To Owe" by David Graeber at Triple Canopy.
At first, the argument goes, this sense of debt was expressed not through the state, but through religion. The hymns, prayers, and poetry collected in the Vedas and the Brahmanas, the foundations of Hindu thought, constitute the earliest-known reflections on the nature of debt, which they treat as synonymous with guilt and sin. According to the commentators of the Brahmanas, human existence is itself a form of debt: A man, being born, is a debt; he is born to death, and only by way of sacrifice does he redeem himself from death. Two famous passages in the Brahmanas insist that we are born as a debt not just to the gods (to be repaid in sacrifice) but also to the sages who created the Vedic learning (to be repaid through study), to our ancestors (to be repaid by having children), and, finally, to the whole of humanity (to be repaid with hospitality to strangers).
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 doesn’t use the word debt, but it is clear what he means: We have already accumulated endless debts before we get to the age at which we can even think of paying them. And by that time there’s no way even to calculate to whom we owe them. The only way to redeem ourselves is to be dedicated to the service of humanity.
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.
Theories of existential debt always end up justifying — or laying claim to — structures of authority. What we really have in the idea of primordial debt is the ultimate nationalist myth. Once we owed our lives to the gods who created us, paid them interest in the form of animal sacrifice, and, ultimately, paid back the principal with our lives. Now we owe our lives to the nation that formed us, pay interest in the form of taxes, and, when it comes time to defend the nation against its enemies, pay back the principal with our lives. This is a great trap of the twentieth century: On the one side is the logic of the market, which insists that we don’t owe one another anything. On the other is the logic of the state, which insists that we are born with a debt we can never truly pay. In fact, the dichotomy is false. States created markets, markets require states, and neither could continue without the other.