Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Debt, Gunfighting, and Money as a Moral Imperative

 In the fall of 2011, I spent several days at a cabin in the woods. I spent part of that time reading Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. 

Nearly a decade later, I'm still thinking about the book. 

What's jumping out at me today is Graeber's discussion around the "gambler" and the "financier." In a passage discussing the fate of the conquistadors, most of whom were heavily in debt, Graeber writes:

What’s more, that relationship, between the daring adventurer on the one hand, the gambler willing to take any sort of risk, and on the other, the careful financier, whose entire operations are organized around producing steady, mathematical, inexorable growth of income, lies at the very heart of what we now call “capitalism.” (Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Melville House. Kindle Edition)  

What struck me was the way in which we often portray these two characters as good or evil, depending on our point of view— the "honest farmer" or "entrepreneur" whose dreams are crushed by the demands of cold-hearted bankers or financial backers. Or on the other side of the argument, the "practical person" who "cleans up the mess" behind a careless, incompetent, or dishonest "visionary." 

The reality, that Graeber points to, however, is that these two types need each other, and the cord that typically binds them is debt. The resources used to stake the gambler become a loan, the asset intended to produce the "steady income" needed by the financier. 

And by turning that initial stake into debt, it acquires a kind of moral imperative. As Graeber notes, the debates around the moral status of the Native Americans ultimately didn't matter. Exploiting the natives was the only feasible way to repay the conquerors' debts, so the native's lives and dignity were sacrificed to the imperative of repayment. I strongly suspect that in the service of that imperative, many colonists found themselves doing things they couldn't have imagined doing before they became debtors. 

This was all very much on my mind while I wrote Corporate Gunslinger. The engine that drives Kira into becoming a gunfighter is the debts she ran up acquiring an MFA. She took the chance because she believes in herself, believes in her talent, and she believes that if she does what she loves, the money will come.

When her adventure in acting fails financially, she tries to fix it by moving on to another—becoming a professional gunfighter for an insurance company. In this capacity, she becomes a gambler for even higher stakes, engaging in life-or-death duels with disgruntled customers. Like the conquistadors' exploitation of the americas, it's all happening in the name of paying her debts.  

One of the many questions I hope people ask themselves after reading Corporate Gunslinger is why we allow money to become a moral imperative that overrides so many others, and if we really think that's the best choice, as both people and a society. And if not, what are we going to do to change it?

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