by Mario Sifuentez
During his visit to campus this spring, David Palumbo-Liu discussed his article “All That is Sold Melts into Air (Again)” with faculty and students. He urges us to shed the shackles of an old morality in order to rid ourselves of the pressing guilt that we feel when we owe money. He argues that this guilt clouds our understanding of what exactly happened during the 2008 meltdown and offers instead a countermorality, that is based on a different sense of morality and justice.
This version of capitalism positions the proletariat as owing future labor to their capitalist overlords and that alienation of wage labor has now become an alienation based on debt. Debt follows us everywhere; it is ever present in our minds, in our labor, and most importantly in our credit score. The credit system is alienating because it eliminates a material good and replaces it with something ephemeral and intangible, it replaces it with distrust and suspicion on the side of the lender, which in turn makes the borrower feel untrustworthy.
In the case of the 2008 meltdown, the borrower, large corporations, escaped the scrutiny precisely because they are not people, they cannot feel alienation, they are not moral beings, and they cannot be held accountable. In the end we pay for their debts twice over in the form of taxes and services not rendered.
So what do we do? Palumbo-Liu reintroduces the notion of a countermorality, one that creates a “whole new social imaginary” that invests heavily in a new kind of language and new kind of vocabulary. One that allows us to reinvent, explode, and construct new meanings for ourselves and places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the one percent.
In reflecting on Palumbo-Liu’s article, I am reminded of Stephanie Black’s fantastic 2002 film, Life and Debt. In the opening sequence, three Rastafarian men sit around a fire discussing the morality of lending money with high interest rates and the indebtedness that has been forced on Jamaica. They read from Exodus 22:25 “If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.” The Quran similarly tells us in 2:275 “Those who charge usury are in the same position as those controlled by the devil’s influence. This is because they claim that usury is the same as commerce. However, God permits commerce, and prohibits usury. Thus, whoever heeds this commandment from his Lord, and refrains from usury, he may keep his past earnings, and his judgment rests with God. As for those who persist in usury, they incur Hell, wherein they abide forever.” Ancient Hindu and Buddhist text also demean and condemn usury.
This reminds us of three things: first, that loaning and borrowing money are not immoral per se but the act of usury is really the problem. Lending and borrowing money of course are an ancient practice that predates capitalism. So does usury but capitalism’s original sin is normalizing usury in the everyday lending practices of institutions.
Second it reminds us that the United States established this world wide financial system after the Second World War. The United States and its global lenders, the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter American Development Bank have been turning the Darker Nations into the Poorer Nations for over half a century. The austerity programs that have been enacted on the U.S. populace might be a case of the chicken coming home to roost. Capitalists have long provided a cheaper and more affordable way of life for Americans at the expense of the former colonies around the globe and are now looking here as a place to continue the gouging. For as Palumbo-Liu’s reference to Marshall Berman reminds us, “the only activity that really means anything to the bourgeoisie is making money.”
Finally, I concur with Dr. Palumbo-Liu that the solution might be as simple as refusing to pay our debts. And as difficult as creating a new morality that forces us to talk about debt and debtors in a different framework. But I want to suggest that perhaps we should look to an ancient morality that while perhaps not as radical as Marxism does resonate with more people all over the world. The wrath and the vocal support that Pope Francis recently incurred because he dared to suggest that all foreign debt should be forgiven is indicative that this sort of morality appeals to a wide swath of the darker nations and makes capitalists quite nervous.