Calculable Obligations: Motivations of Money and Technology

Debt, that is, as opposed to a promise, is a calculable obligation.

I was reading a review of two books on the current state of global indebtedness in the London Review of Books (“Forgive Us Our Debts” by Benjamin Kunkel) when it seemed clear to me that this is the basic ground of all domination and coercion–a fantastical model of unequal obligation.  Debt is a mathematized economic truncheon of dominance and power, no less violent in its consequences that physical brutality; simply another aspect of our bullying economic and political systems.

The trouble for us now to see this and remedy it is that we have made this an abstraction by calling it debt and making it “paper” and virtual and making it the primary mode of “economy” rather than recognizing it as simply a coercive relationship among parties that are no longer REAL or personal.

Besides the clear results of this “fakery” evidenced by the 2008 financial crash and the consequent downward spiral of the world’s economies with effects almost entirely on the working poor, we can now see it working its way clearly as a “mode” of reconstituting our educational systems.  The states are creating “intelligence” debts by forcing a one-sided measurement policy on students and schools and then calling in those “debts” and cashing out existing “partners” in the process, like teachers and even whole schools, in order to replace them with a different currency more readily quantifiable and calculable to the debt equation.

Let’s take few minutes to pull out some pertinent parts of the review to see how this works.

(Kunkel is reviewing two books, Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the New World Order by Philip Coggan and Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.  I’ve mentioned Graeber  before and linked to an interview he did with Charlie Rose as well as one on Democracy Now! (“Stick ‘Em Up!“).)

Default or forgiveness, bankruptcy or jubilee: the different terms for the erasure of debts reflect a divergence of mood founded on different social positions. Individuals owe debts to private lenders and – through taxes – to governments. But, conversely, governments and corporations owe debts to individuals by way of pensions and healthcare plans, not to mention bonds. And many of the banks to which so many of us owe so much money are themselves technically insolvent: to over-lend during the bubble, they had to over-borrow. So too are there net-creditors (China or Germany) and net-debtors (the US or Spain) among nations. Many of the economic promises made over the last decades will not be kept; what follows will depend on which, and whose, promises these are.

Here is a truth that we are encouraged to forget or as readily kept in the dark about: that bank, that credit company, that you owe money to ALSO owes money to other lenders.  Why is the single debtor made to feel as if his/her position in debt is a failing of character and morality while the “systemic” debt of banks is excused as the way our economy “works?”  The only reason is that one is privileged while the other is coerced.  One will be made, by force of law (laws made by the bankers and lawyers in congress), to “keep” the promise while the other is allowed to “write off” promises

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Graeber’s first proposition is that debt can’t be considered apart from the history of money, when it is money that distinguishes a debt from a mere obligation or promise. Obligations are immemorial and incalculable, but until the advent of money such relations of mutual obligation evade mathematical specification. Only through money do nebulous obligations condense into numerically precise debts, which can and – according to ‘our accustomed morality’ – must one day be paid off.

The human social obligations of communities are “incalculable” but commercial economies cannot abide by that particular ethos and so creates a “mathematical specification” that further detaches the relation between parties and makes the very transaction a “morality” enforced by “custom.”

Commercial economies, in other words, routinely grant credit arrangements a factitious independence from social interchange, so that primary relationships seem to obtain not between human beings but between two sums of money, one loaned and the other due, while people themselves become mere bystanders to the accumulation of compound interest. The second is Graeber’s argument that such a reification of monetary debts can only be maintained by force. A debt is ‘a promise corrupted by both math and violence’. The mathematics abstracts obligation from the fluid process of community, while the violence wielded by mafias or the state enforces the abstraction….a certain literalism about money, an unblushing faith in its capacity to determine or discover genuinely equivalent values, is the mark – or blemish – of commercial economies.

Keep that “promise corrupted by both math and violence” in mind when thinking about the mechanisms and methods of school reformers.

While this review stays on the level of the economics of the debt relationship we are allowed glimpses into the machinery of culturally (systemically) enforced abstractions.  It’s best summary of what Graeber is really trying to analyze is our social relations as “prescribed” by the money relation that is “debt.”

The theoretical core of Debt is a loose schema of three types of human economic relationship. Communism (Graeber admits his use of the word ‘is a bit provocative’), exchange and hierarchy don’t describe distinct types of society but different ‘modalities’ of behaviour that operate to a greater or lesser degree in all societies, monetised or not. Graeber’s communism, which bears a resemblance to Kropotkin’s ‘mutual aid’, covers relationships answering to Marx’s dictum: to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities. People act as communists not only towards friends and family but often towards guests, neighbours and strangers: ‘What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the other person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will.’ Relationships of exchange, by contrast, entail that each party gets from the other a more or less exact equivalent to whatever it’s given. Because exchange ‘gives us a way to call it even: hence, to end the relationship’, it takes place mostly among strangers. Hierarchy is, like communism, a mode of ongoing relationship, but between unequals. Enforced by custom, hierarchy requires that social inferiors make repeated material tribute to their betters in caste or status.

This makes the point that it is the social custom of “exchange” that creates our impersonal and detached perspectives on human relationship as cognate to the money relationship–the primacy of a relationship “not between human beings but between two sums of money, one loaned and the other due, while people themselves become mere bystanders…;” a mode of interaction that necessitates an ending in its structure.  Paying your debts is “calling it even.”  “Even” here is as loaded a term as one gets.  An equation that begins in hierarchy can never be even.

But let’s now push this into the current coercive obsession in our federal and state education departments–managerial and hierarchical and mathematical to the core.  What I wanted to simply offer is that our social situation has become highly abstract.  We replicate this “exchange” modality–a kind of philosophy of living–by the way we understand our social obligations.  If we allow that a public school is a kind of social equation with a taxing body on one side and a taxpayer on the other then we imagine an equation that should be, our could be, balanced in its “summation.”  Money in, Education out.  Money in, Student Out.  The student then becomes a kind of factor in an equation that requires a balance against the “input” of money.

As a student is not a lump of silver or gold or handful of cash we begin to create terminologies to quantify outcomes.  We begin to put money values on the “future” created by educational “success.”  We also must create a reductive being who IS in fact equivalent to a commodity of exchange.  Student Z MUST perform as Students A-X do so that our equations will balance.

The only way to balance an equation is for all factors to be of the same stuff.  So further reductions are made and a Student must take X exam that will yield X results on average.  We must make the “calculating” disciplines our primary factor.  Only the mathematical can be properly equated.  And it’s why reading becomes more and more an “informational” genre.  (This is the gist of the common core perspective in reading as Information In–Information Out.)  This of course says nothing regarding the economies of “hierarchy” that are being put in place to manage these detached relationships, for example any “society” or “association” dedicated to the advance of a particular kind of technology expertise that promulgates educational technology as the “future” of educational environments.  This makes the technology professional the servant of the technology providers and leaves the student and community farther down on the list of interested parties to the relationship.

It is the technological entwined with the motivating force of commercial economy that yield a dangerously uncritical perspective on their social “good.”

The symbiosis of money and technology has made a “double genesis” possible in the imputing of motives, as the thinker may attribute to “capitalism” the aspects of our civilization he dislikes and to “technology” the aspects in which he places his hopes, or vice versa.  Since both money and technology are objective “powers” existing in history, we might properly expect them to manifest the ambivalence of such powers.  Either, that is, should be capable of acting favorably or unfavorably…unfavorably when its workings are protected from criticism, as the money motive is piously protected in some quarters by being made synonymous with the national godhead of patriotism, and as the technological motive is protected in other quarters where it is granted immunity in the name of “science” as an absolute good.  (Burke, K., A Grammar of Motives, 116.)

We have moved well beyond a human to human relationship that might be characterized by physical and attached (even if disinterested) interactions.  Everyone is a stranger in this world.  Everyone is simply a factor in an equation that must be balanced in particular terms within the current hierarchy of cultural and economic relationships.  Nearly everyone a debtor to a diminishing number of creditors.

The further damage that will be done by any dominance of technological products and methods in the classroom will be the coming to same social and philosophical point (detachment) from the other end of the spectrum.  One used to imagine the school as a locus of enforced sociability.  We might argue about that pro and con as well, but at the very least it could be considered a physical, geographical center of community.  A “WE” attends a school and there learns the “rules” of that community.  A teacher, as much a guide and mentor as a disciplinarian and compliance officer, had the opportunity to interact a communal relationship of caring and empathy.  This might not occur–as the greater increase in class size and the past 40 years of a testing regime has made it harder for teachers to be “human” with their students–but there was a chance.  There was human sympathy in potentia.  The more we push technology into the place where that potential should be, the less we will educate for humanity but instead educate for economy and hierarchy.

A very cold calculus of obligation indeed.


photo credit: flickingerbrad’s photostream

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