Sunday, November 20, 2011

Pay Your Debts?


Why do we feel like we should keep all our promises to strangers, even though we don't feel at all the same with regard to friends? When strangers demand we do what we promised, why do we feel they are right?

We know what we want with friends: good life. We give ourselves to our friends without expecting return. There are obvious and good reasons for not doing what we promised our friends, and our friends know it. We don't even feel like we owe friends an explanation. Those who we feel we owe explanations to are those people acting like enemies to us in the midst of our lives of friendliness and civility. It is the mixture of two inconsistent ways of life, war and peace, that creates our confusion.

We don't know how to explain to our peaceful selves how we lived with enemies in times of war. We ran away in fear, we attacked in rage, we made treaties intending to break them. Now in every respect we aim to do the opposite: stay calm and reason out disputes, and keep to our resolution when it is made.

We keep our promises in our lives with friends, but not because following a rule is good in itself. Rules are instruments, tools used to reach a good end, and not all such tools can be used at the same time. Sometime the rule, "return what is borrowed", is superseded by the rule, "protect our friend from himself when he is drunk", don't let him kill himself with the knife he demands you return.

We make gifts to our friends because we want to. We like making gifts, and try to create the right practical conditions to go on doing this, a place where people who like making gifts can live together. In such a place there is no need for exchange, for a gift to be returned. In a place where everyone gives no one owes anyone anything.

What then are we to do when the people we live with become enemies? We do nothing good with enemies. A gift to an enemy does not create conditions where everyone can give without expecting return. An enemy, when he approaches with shows of friendliness to make a deal, is exactly someone who demands a return for what he gives. And strangely, no matter how much we are used to the life without obligation between friends, we feel like we owe the enemy the return he demands.

When two enemies approach each other to make a trade, and one person gets something without immediately making a return, he lives under the creditor's threat of violence until he makes a return. The man next door, who is perhaps a generous friend as a neighbor, in the role of a banker is acting as an enemy. The banker is in a position of power, threatening with police and court orders.

The fear and guilt we feel arise from habits learned in childhood, when in a subordinate position to our parents, without understanding and deliberate choice, in fear and rage, we were coerced into obedience.

We feel we must repay, that the demand made on us is right. But then we remind ourselves we are not children. We have left the subordination of the family and made a life of friendship, one adult to another. We remind ourselves we are in the world of enemies now. Enemies grab and run, friends give and stay, in neither group is there repayment. Demand for repayment arises only in the confusion of giving between friends and enemies.

We must see our confused feelings of guilt and fear of violence for what they are, a product of leftover childish habits of conformity and inapplicable adult friendliness. Either the society of friends must be restored, or the demand to pay be consciously refused.

If there is anything we might do to keep the friendship together, then that act will be in the nature of a gift, an attempt to restore friendship as if the enmity did not exist. If that fails or is impossible to attempt, we give up on it and the enemy conquered or driven away.

The enemy in many ways are our mirror image. They will break any rule, change any rule to monopolize markets to ensure profit, and to increase their power to enforce the favorable trade. When there is nothing outside the game, no greater good, the rules can be varied at will, the variation however controlled by inflexible, impersonal principle, again, a movement towards greater control of markets and greater concentration of power. All who have given up their individual sense of better or worse rules feel an absolute conviction of entitlement, of being a creditor themselves, due a return for that sacrifice of personal choice.* Living in a world of impersonal rules and threat of force, they fall back into the world of childhood habits learned in fear and rage, of unreasoning conviction that rules must be followed.

Two worlds face each other, what are usually called good and evil. Two kinds of individuals with two ways organizing themselves.

On one side, those who have sold their individuality, who are the more rewarded the more individuality is lost, who have set out on a path, made an investment, which moves firmly only in one direction and towards simplification.

On the other side, those like ourselves, contributing their ideas, their work, as gifts to be taken up selectively by the collective, the collective diverse but growing, as we ourselves remain individual but growing.

Further Reading:
David Graeber: Debt: The First 5000 Years
* See The Game Against The Game