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Debt: The First 5000 Years
by David Graeber

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As Rospabé so cogently demonstrated, it is the peculiar quality of such social currencies that they are never quite equivalent to people. If anything, they are a constant reminder that human beings can never be equivalent to anything—even, ultimately, to one another. This is the profound truth of the blood-feud. No one can ever really forgive the man who killed his brother because every brother is unique. Nothing could substitute—not even some other man given the same name and status as your brother, or a concubine who will bear a son who will be named after your brother, or a ghost-wife who will bear a child pledged to some day avenge his death. In a human economy, each person is unique, and of incomparable value, because each is a unique nexus of relations with others. A woman may be a daughter, sister, lover, rival, companion, mother, age-mate, and mentor to many different people in different ways. Each relation is unique, even in a society in which they are sustained through the constant giving back and forth of generic objects such as raffia cloth or bundles of copper wire. In one sense, those objects make one who one is—a fact illustrated by the way the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others. Still, just as our clothes don’t really make us who we are, a relationship kept alive by the giving and taking of raffia is always something more than that.89 This means that the raffia, in turn, is always something less. This is why I think Rospabé was right to emphasize the fact that in such economies, money can never substitute for a person: money is a way of acknowledging that very fact, that the debt cannot be paid. But even the notion that a person can substitute for a person, that one sister can somehow be equated with another, is by no means self-evident. In this sense, the term “human economy” is double-edged. These are, after all, economies: that is, systems of exchange in which qualities are reduced to quantities, allowing calculations of gain and loss—even if those calculations are simply a matter (as in sister exchange) of 1 equals 1, or (as in the feud) of 1 minus 1 equals 0.

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