Debt and honour PART-I
French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas, low-ranking castes referred to as “the vanquished ones”, since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste and lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. They were obliged to solicit loans from the landlords simply to find a way to eat—not for the money, since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors’ outhouses and reroofed their sheds. For the “vanquished” the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. These required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughter’s marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender’s household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent to some nearby timber camp as a prostitute working off her father’s debt. Once it was paid off, she’d return to her husband and begin her married life. You would expect mass outrage, but there was no widespread feeling of injustice. By getting dishonoured through conquest and not dying on the battlefield, “the vanquished” had been stripped of their humanity, condemned to be vessels of pleasure and data points on a creditors’ ledger.
In many ways, the history of debt is also one of patriarchy. In early Sumerian society, women were everywhere, from rulers to bureaucrats. Although, one cannot claim utter gender emancipation, but it was closer to the modern world than to medieval times. Over the course of the next thousand years or so, all this changes. The place of women in civic life erodes; gradually, the more familiar patriarchal pattern takes shape, with its emphasis on chastity and premarital virginity, a weakening and eventually wholesale disappearance of women’s role in government and the liberal professions, and the loss of women’s independent legal status, which renders them wards of their husbands.
By the middle of the second millennium B.C., prostitution was well established as a likely occupation for the daughters of the poor. As the sexual regulation of women of the propertied class became more firmly entrenched, the virginity of respectable daughters became a financial asset for the family. All of this got blanketed under ‘honour’. But this honour really is a Trojan Horse. It’s not just a deterrent for the commoners, but also established daughters as an exclusive security. Household women began acting as tokens for the family’s reputation and this reputation was first sold for bride-prices by fathers but subsequently evolved as a life-sized contract for kingdoms and business houses. Honour credits would appreciate if one made it into a more honourable house but would get liquidated if a woman eloped with a commoner. One might be thinking that I am overstating the economics of honour for storytelling, but in my defence, why has there never been an instance of honour killings when kids of honourable families elope or have extra-marital relations?
In fact, in ancient Greek, the word for “honour” was tīme. In Homer’s time, the term appears to have been used much like the Irish term “honour price”: it referred both to the glory of the warrior and the compensation paid as damages in case of injury or insult. Yet with the rise of markets over the next several centuries, the meaning of the word tīme began to change. On the one hand, it became the word for “price”—as in, the price of something one buys in the market. On the other, it referred to an attitude of complete contempt for markets. Even today the word “timi” means honour, which has been typically seen as the most important value in Greek village society. Honour is often characterised in Greece as an open-handed generosity and blatant disregard for monetary costs and counting. And yet the same word also means “price” as in the price of a pound of tomatoes. This profound confusion with debt and honour, goes back to time immemorial. Usury is deplored, but absconding debtors sneered upon. Unlike most words, ‘honour’ is also a superset over its inverse i.e., dishonour. This contradiction in terms is an epitaph for slavery. While the word ‘honour’ appears to be a relative of justice, fairness and generosity, it is actually a euphemism for the commodification of people. This ability to strip others of their dignity becomes, for the master, the foundation of his honour. As Patterson notes, there have been places, where slaves are not even put to work for profit; instead, rich men make a point of surrounding themselves with battalions of slave retainers simply for reasons of status, as tokens of their magnificence and nothing else. The reader might be asking: But what does all this have to do with the origins of money? The answer is, surprisingly: everything. Some of the most genuinely archaic forms of money we know about appear to have been used precisely as measures of honour and degradation: that is, the value of money was, ultimately, the value of the power to turn others into money. Quantification and violence always follow each other.
Formal slavery has been eliminated, but (as anyone who works from nine to five can testify) the idea that you can alienate your liberty, at least temporarily, endures. In fact, it determines what most of us must do for most of our waking hours, except, usually, on weekends. The evident doom of the cryptocurrency bubble, loss of third-world productive capital inside it, and bankruptcy of Sri Lanka due to the same predatory loaning by China, and the Pakistani government struggling to find enough morsels has sparked the debate around debt again, a correction overdue since the 2008 crash. As I have explained earlier, not all of us need to pay our debts, only some of us do. However, there is a caveat, which is that the ultimate hidden truth of the world is that we make and could just as easily make in a different image.
The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began “comparing power with power, measuring, calculating” and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt. It’s not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn’t aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course, we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilisation.
To be continued.