I Owe You One: How Primates Push the Debt Model to Unbelievable Ends

No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t owe you anything. He owes it to himself. How much do I owe? I owe it all to you. All of these statements follow us around like a puppy hoping to latch on to it’s favorite playmate. We can’t seem to move fast enough to shake them from our daily discourse. A very real sense of indebtedness seems to be ingrained in the Western psyche, driving us to the brink of madness for the sake of “pulling even”,“squaring up”, or “making good.” What drives this sentiment? And why do we need to feel like there must be some galactic guardian of the good that metes out punishment and reward when we or others fail to comply with the doctrine of debt? I believe two important factors serve as compelling answers to these questions. First, the nature of pack animal existence must be put into perspective. And following that examination, we must then look to the very true fact that the world doesn’t follow the form of our interdependent desires. These will shed light on the problem of social debt and the desperate search for a spiritual reconciliation of social animal needs with the contrary systems that surround us.

Humans are animals. This isn’t some pessimistic assertion about our behaviors or a way of explaining away bad things like murder, rape, and Jersey Shore being such a popular program. It is a scientific fact. We are all primates and therefore linked to the primitive. Primates have utilized highly evolved social systems across most species for thousands of years. Their interdependency is what keeps the group mutually assured of survival or destruction and naturally leads to resource sharing, role playing, and hierarchies. Sound familiar? It should. This is how we do things in the homo sapien realm. We need one another to survive and to thrive. Even if a corporate CEO thinks he owns the world and doesn’t rely on anyone else because of the wealth he hides behind, he is fully dependent on the labor and roles of the average human to maintain his imaginary value. Without our mutual agreement, money doesn’t exist. In fact, all wealth would disappear and die like Tinkerbell tomorrow if we stopped believing in it. (Hurry! I do believe in money! I do believe in money! Clap, damn you! Clap!) So, obviously, the idea of debt must also be a social construction we all agree to believe in. In order for us to feel as though we have sufficient balance and “fairness” in our interdependent dealings, we utilize a social and mental construct which is assigned arbitrarily. In short, we need to know who has our back or it might get stabbed.

Even though it may appear as though we need other people less and less, the opposite is happening. In a world of globalization and powerful technological advances, our connections are ever deepening. The power outage in Tokyo makes the price of peanuts go up in Vancouver. Hell, if I break wind in Birmingham the air may stink in Beirut for all I know. The point being, small changes now cause greater effects to more people than ever before. Ripples become tidal waves become tsunamis. So indebtedness takes on a very powerful sway in our lives. We are socially compelled to believe that we owe a debt to others in varying degrees and they, in turn, somehow owe us.

Things being what they are, this model of interdependent debt occasionally breaks down. People steal, kill, cheat, fart in elevators, and take advantage of the system every day. In fact, we even say that criminals must pay their debt to society by serving the sentence prescribed by vengeance representatives in a court of law. We call that justice in the human world. I think chimpanzees call it “Bob’s a prick who won’t share his termites with the kids. Don’t give him any bananas.” At any rate, we see that the model doesn’t necessarily hold for everyone and therefore it must be a crime because it screws up the feng shui of our society’s house. When this effrontery reaches epic levels of disregard, we tend to lose our minds temporarily, calling for everything from sanctions to all out war. (“Knock, knock. A-bomb calling.”) We tend not to approve of soirees like a Pol Pot-Luck as they are so far outside the realm of fair and humane that we can’t seem to fathom how they even happen when interdependency is our means to the end. In this situation, we can’t even come close to that person or persons paying the debt we perceive as owed to society. Enter god.

When things melt down in our society, we have no real way of explaining how to approach our need for restorative vengeance. Scales can’t always be evened. Sometimes, reality is a letdown and you can’t do much to change the circumstance. In this instance, it is common for humankind to turn to a supernatural explanation. When we can’t solve the puzzle, we try to buy a vowel. As Margaret Atwood states in her work Payback, “As we sow, so shall we reap, or that’s what we’d like to believe, and not only that, but someone or something is in charge of evening up the scores (Atwood 34).” Humans just have a rough time handling bigger questions without being able to find a concrete form of systemic control at work. We, as good little primates, seek to keep our society in order at all costs. But, unlike our cousins, we see a world beyond the day to day survival needs. We have all sorts of abstractions to wrestle with in the circus tent of our minds. Those thoughts aren’t so easily solved when recognized. The major problem lies in the desire to solve them simply and in accordance to the debt model. It’s our default setting. Really, it’s our animal nature. So, when the going gets tough the primate gets religious.

No matter what your deity of choosing may be, if you believe in a higher power (or a higher love like Steve Winwood), you have specific reasons for the assent to belief. Those reasons involve feelings about life or feelings about what you believe to be evidence of the divine. One thing is certain though, your faith is built upon a higher power that either orders or refuses to order the cosmos we inhabit. And, furthermore, that faith provides an explanation to cover the gap when it comes to things like debt. When we can’t answer the tough questions, faith provides a reason. Now, I may argue this is precisely why it should be obvious these are merely arbitrary social constructs used to cover for other arbitrary constructs, but that would be beside the point. The point is, whether or not any theological assertion is true, all of them are directly linked to the concept of debt and reconciliation. These faiths feed the desire to have order and retribution in spite of the very real chaos of our existence in this universe. Somehow, some way, things are made right and debts are paid. Life must have meaning because the structures hold now and after we die. The assertion of debt as the measuring stick for human value holds for many as the answer to the abstract. Rather than find meaning within the systems that exist, many assert that those systems are subject to an outlying regulator that forces clean answers to the difficulties of debt. In short, debt must exist and it must always be repaid or life has no meaning.

Now, I see that as rather pessimistic. Meaning doesn’t come from an arbitrary evaluation system based on how much we “owe” to anyone or anything. Life itself is part of one massive system that only sustains through mutual organization (even if the setting is on random like an iTunes play list.) This may not appear to hold on the micro level because our lives are actually small pieces of the big picture, so how we live and die is important in a relative sense. All things are important to varying degrees based on relativity. So our meaning comes from our relation to one another and not from the nature of the universe. That being said, we control our relationships to one another. These are constructed by our actions and interactions. Human beings have the choice to value life for its own sake or to turn it into some sort of barter system. I argue that the barter system actually leads to more injustice than the former. It sets up a systemic violence toward the individual as it assigns relative value based on notions of perceived indebtedness. While such a system helps to qualm our pangs of conscience about the Hitlers, Dahmers, and arms traders of the world, it actually enables similar abuses to be placed upon the ones we value less through this system. The poor, minorities, homosexuals, children, the elderly, mentally ill individuals, atheists, and a whole host of others are labeled by these systems as having inherent values that differ from the worth of other human beings. Rather than saying all human beings are equal and leaving it at that, the system of supernatural checks and balances enables one to add the words “except in the case of.” This is a violence. It is a violence that is enabled by a system that ascribes value based not upon any actual empirical evidence or experience, but on assumptions and beliefs designed to assuage fear and confusion about the way debt systems fail to answer bigger societal questions.

A faith based on love, equality, partnership, stewardship, and common human bonds, would serve any person well. And those who believe that way are more able to serve others well. When you add debt to the picture, you add an evaluation process. You add judgment. You add condemnation. The truth is, we don’t assign value to others. We assign value to ourselves. It is in respecting that inherent value that enables true interdependency and justice. Not a justice based on vengeance or debt, but a justice based on mutual value; a common ground, a fair chance. Money isn’t the root of all evil. It’s far deeper than that. One might say that arbitrary systems of human valuation are the root cause. When a Nazi deems someone as valueless it is no different than singling out “sinners” as condemned to a fiery hell. Each person, in this instance, has been devalued by a belief system that identifies them as having not paid their debt to the respective ideology’s definition of worthy human being. When a Nazi puts a gun to the head of a gay man is it any different than when the rhetoric of the belief system that you spew makes a gay man raise the gun to his own head? I’m sorry if you can’t find answers any other way. I’m sorry if the debt worldview is all you can see. I’m sorry if you don’t like who I am. But, I don’t owe you anything.

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