DEBT: A SCIENCE FICTION
This is a science-fiction story about a small green and blue planet who got itself $281-trillion US into debt to itself, some three times its annual economic output.
- Oct 20 2021
- Cassie Thornton is an artist and activist who makes a “safe space” for the unknown, for disobedience and for unanticipated collectivity. She uses social practices including institutional critique, insurgent architecture, and “healing modalities” like hypnosis and yoga to find soft spots in the hard surfaces of capitalist life. Cassie has invented a grassroots alternative credit reporting service for the survivors of gentrification, has hypnotized hedge fund managers, has finger-painted with the grime found inside banks, has donated cursed paintings to profiteering bankers, and has taught feminist economics to yogis (and vice versa). She has worked in close collaboration with freelance curators and producers including Taraneh Fazeli, Magdalena Jadwiga Härtelova, Dani Admiss, Amanda Nudelman, Misha Rabinovich, Caitlin Foley and Laurel Ptak. Her projects, invited and uninvited, have appeared at (or in collaboration with) Transmediale Festival for Media Arts, San Francisco MoMA, West Den Haag, Moneylab, Swissnex San Francisco, Pro Arts Gallery & Commons, Dream Farm Commons, Furtherfield, Gallery 400, Strike Debt Bay Area, Red Bull Detroit, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, Flux Factory, Bemis Center for the Arts, Berliner Gazette and more.
You are free from your debt to your ancestors when you become an ancestor; you are free from your debt to the sages when you become a sage, you are free from your debt to humanity when you act with humanity. All the more so if one is speaking of the universe. If you cannot bargain with the gods because they already have everything, then you certainly cannot bargain with the universe, because the universe is everything-and that everything necessarily includes yourself. One could in fact interpret this list as a subtle way of saying that the only way of freeing oneself from the debt was not literally repaying debts, but rather showing that these debts do not exist because one is not in fact separate to begin with, and hence that the very notion of canceling the debt, and achieving a separate, autonomous existence, was ridiculous from the start. Or even that the very presumption of positing oneself as separate from humanity or the cosmos, so much so that one can enter into one-to-one dealings with it, is itself the crime that can be answered only by death. Our guilt is not due to the fact that we cannot repay our debt to the universe. Our guilt is our presumption in thinking of ourselves as being in any sense an equivalent to Everything Else that Exists or Has Ever Existed, so as to be able to conceive of such a debt in the first place.
– David Graeber, DEBT: The First 5,000 Years
The planet in question orbits a relatively insignificant yellow star and about ten rotations ago, debt finally became a topic of political discussion, thanks in part to David’s book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. It arrived at approximately the same time as the Occupy Wall Street movement (in which David was also a protagonist) took over parks all over the world to protest growing inequality. This movement and David’s book allowed many people within and outside of the radical left to begin to see that debt was not always legitimate, but that it was being used maliciously around the world to centralize power and money. For many, like me, an understanding of how common, how big and how predatory debt systems were allowed us to feel like we weren’t individual brutal failures. Overcoming this isolation has fuelled activists to form important anti-debt movements, including the Debt Collective in the U.S., the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca in Spain and a wide range of farmers’ struggles in India. And yet in spite of these movements, it remains the case on our poor planet that debt, like illness, is still usually seen as a fate to be suffered in terrified isolation. In a bio-medicalized capitalist world, we are trained to see our illness separately from the society of toxins and stresses. At the same time, it also leads us to see our debts as personal liabilities rather than as the result of a sick society. In both cases, it’s as if debt and illness come from space. And the isolating fear that illness and debt inspire separates us from our connection to the cosmos by forcing us as collectives and individuals to work to prove our own value to the other humans, or to the systems made by humans, who decide whether we deserve shelter, healthcare and food.
According to Oxfam statistics, 64 countries paid debt service payments instead of investing in healthcare during COVID. This irrational and fear-driven decision was invisibly and profoundly enforced in all the ways that colonial structures are always enforced: by imbuing people with a value system of the powerful, and this serves the powerful, reproducing their interests and desires. It’s also enforced through bullying, the threat of actual violence, or by cutting off an entire island or a person’s ability to receive life maintaining and life saving goods through illegal sanctions. Our collective decision to pay interest instead of doctors was made out of fear.
I also mostly act out of fear. But I’m not a small country, just a weird, white CIS woman living in Canada with U.S. citizenship. Just like the 64 debt faithful nations, I’ve spent my life fearing, avoiding, striking against and paying debts and rents. Meanwhile, I did not pay attention, money or time into my own healthcare or preservation. Coincidence? I think not! I didn’t even know I could.
If you happen to be a member of a society organized around debt and rent, you might know what I am talking about. The idea of looking after (and investing money or energy into) one’s health as the world burns and most of the planet’s people suffer from lack of basic necessities seemed like absurdity-on-wheels. My health would be a byproduct of my work, which is the only real thing I have in a hyper-capitalist society. My mistake was not realizing that I was never separate from humanity or the cosmos. Caring for my body, if I had felt that it was connected to yours or ours, might have been a bigger priority.
Even in this small, white body I have always woken up with my heart in my throat, my stomach in a knot, jumping out of bed to get to work. I did not finish my sentences or take time to cook meals. I did not know what I could do that would allow me to use the extreme amounts of energy, generated by my fear, that were coursing through my body. I understood that every industry I worked for was connected to a larger economic system that wanted me dead. I also understood that if I had a different identity, the threats to my life would be much worse.
Like most of my species, I’ve let the debts and the sense of owing enter my body, where they can control my heart rate, my digestion, my nervous and endocrine systems. In Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice (2021), Rupa Marya and Raj Patel describe triggers like debt, as well as other material and systemic conditions as the exposome:
“The Sum Of Lifetime Exposures To Non-Genetic Drivers Of Health And Illness".
The exposome includes chemical, psychological, political, economic, biological, and environmental forces that create chronic inflammation in the body. Marya and Patel describe inflammation as the collective sick state of every person whose immune system is confronted with a constant exposure to stress and toxicity, wherein the body can never repair itself and only fight, causing conditions of disease and sickness that have become our collective personal and political experience. As much as inflammation exists on a huge scale within and among all people, we know so many people who have literally died of it, from heart disease to cancer, diabetes and auto-immune disorders. The raging and omnipresent capitalist, racist exposome is one that no person of any species can escape alone (even if you go to space to escape the fires you create).
Around 2010, my father was dying of medical debt (I wrote about it in GUTS Magazine). After surgery that temporarily helped his inflamed heart but whose $120k (USD) price tag ruined his life, my dad’s boss cancelled his medical insurance explaining that the firm couldn’t “squeeze water out of rocks” (though they did ask him to continue working for free while claiming government assistance for the unemployed). I was distraught, and so to distract myself I briefly became obsessed with the space mining industry, where they were literally squeezing water (when they really hoped for financial liquidity) out of asteroids. Both my dad and I knew that he would soon be ascending to space, although perhaps only in the sense that the money extracted from him would eventually fuel the vanity space vacation.
At around this time I also began to reflect on my own debts, which I had accrued to get a degree at a private art university where students were encouraged to shoot for the stars. On my way home from catering work late at night, serving dinner to San Francisco’s rising tech elite and avoiding thinking about how much I needed to go to the dentist, I would often look into the stars and think about my debt and my dad’s debt. I began to see debt as a cosmic force from space that was misunderstood and weaponized by humans. Debt is really about obligations and interdependency, what we owe one another as a cooperative species. But humans have a strange gift for corrupting debt with power and hierarchy. As my father’s heart began to supernova, I began to see and read about a different economy in the cosmos — one where stars and planets exist only in pairs or groups, rotating around each other, becoming each other, combining particles to complete one another. My father had been one of those quiet people that so many people had relied on. Celestial bodies are bound to each other, and by that I mean obligated. The bond between the stars is unavoidable, and by that I mean bonding, because the energy that maintains the stars belongs between and among them. But the interdependence of the stars does not appear to create a burdensome sense of obligation and owing. It seems fun.
Confused and grieving, I began to talk about debt as a thing from space until I understood why. I did this at places like George Mason University, Portland State University, Evergreen State University and e-Flux, where I frequently commandeered audiences to collectively visualize extracting the debt from our bodies so we could collectively scream it to space. I recorded the screams and played them wherever I could convince a radio station to host me. I believed that the radio waves, carrying the predatory debt, would reach the sun in under 9 minutes. The illegitimate debt would burn. This was the Debt2Space Program. NASA never returned my calls.
Like any self-important celestial body recently graduated from art school, I wanted to validate my idea. I contacted David, preeminent public intellectual on debt and author of Debt: The First 5000 Years. We were part of the same anti-debt organization (Strike Debt), so I hoped he might talk to me. To my surprise, he spent a few years and many coffees talking with me about cosmic debt (a phrase that appears 14 times in his book). We also went shopping together for antiques.
Over email, I shared a quote from Stephen Hawking in a discussion with Carl Sagan (https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=HKQQAv5svkk):
"After the big bang we believe that the universe expanded at a very rapid inflationary manner. This inflation puts its modern economic inflation in the shade. An increase of billions and billions of a percent in a tiny fraction of a second. Of course that was before the present government. During the inflationary period the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The result was a triumph for the economics of the age. A vigorous and expanding universe filled with material objects. The debt of gravitational energy will not have to be paid until the end of the universe.”
David wrote back:
“The Steven Hawking quote is amazing!!! I am still trying to internalize it. My immediate thinking is that Hawking is a strange messiah for what is basically a religious view of the cosmos, translated into secular terms. As an anthropologist I know a mythic structure when I see one and the Big Bang is surely one. Then I learned in fact it was invented by a Jesuit priest who was also an astronomer in 1931 to reconcile Christianity and science, and adopted by the Pope in 1951, long before most scientists. Did I tell you this? Only in the late ‘60s did scientists accept it but since then it has become dogma as much as an religious doctrine ever has, so much so that they have had to bend themselves into pretzels to defend it (i.e., say “well we just don’t even know what 95% of the matter and energy in the universe is “to make the numbers work). So in cosmological terms cosmic debt is clearly his version of original sin. We can do something with this.”
Today, the story we tell ourselves about the debt economy frames it as something as huge, as unknowable and as foundational as the Big Bang. It is easiest to accept the story if we believe that our lives are completely shaped by it, that it gave birth to everything we know, and that we have no power to change it. Science- fiction stories, like the ones we tell about debt or illness, have a massive impact both on our society and on the way we interact with and reproduce it, as well as on our individual minds and bodies and the ways we interact with and reproduce them. Marya and Patel explain that ”If you are told stories from a very early age that the world is a terrible and dangerous place, the stress of that will literally get under your skin and shorten the lifespan of your cells.”
It’s not that the myth of the Big Bang isn’t true or a plausible theory, but it is one story among many and, as David noted, it emerges from a very particular time and place - the capitalist West, the domain of homo economicus and his obsession with a zero-sum universe— and so helps reproduce that cosmology. Debt too is a myth about the order of the cosmos, which is not to say that it isn’t true in it’s way. But once you stop believing it is inevitable, it can become funny.
David knew debt was a kind of bad joke echoing in a very big and mysterious universe. All the furniture of rational economic thought insisting that debts are real and must be paid in order for reality to continue were absurd to him. Space as a place of projectile myth-making made sense to him. His anthropology was an excuse to see the mythic and irrational stories hidden in plain sight, all around us.
Cory Doctorow has written that Charles Stross’ Science-fiction novel Neptune’s Brood, which focuses on interstellar debts that take millennia to be paid off, was the perfect companion to David’s book. David loved the pairing, but I found the novel boring. At an art residency in Washington D.C., where I was working on debt2space, I boiled myself alive reading Octavia Butler’s feminist Science-fiction trilogy, Lilith’s Brood, while sitting in a hot-tub under the stars.
In the first novel in the series the title character, a human, is rescued from a human-made apocalypse on Earth by an alien species known as the Oankali, who fly through the stars on living spaceships, meeting and merging genetically with aliens. Lilith, a cancer survivor, is of special interest to her rescuers who are fascinated by humanity’s intelligence and propensity for hierarchy, which together have almost led to their self-annihilation. The Oankali are equally fascinated by cancer as both a useful medicine that they can use, and as a “cure” for humanity’s terrible and unhealthy curse of coercive power relations.
Butler’s notion that cancer might, for the Oankali, be a very powerful and healing gift from (their) outer space (whereas humans see it as an anti-human weapon) made me wonder about debt. Could debt be seen differently, beyond the way it has been weaponized by humans on earth, as a gift from space? A kind of collective medicine, if observed and used correctly?
I think that Graeber was working through a similar question in his book: “How do mere obligations turn into debts?” (Graeber, p. 130). In the depths of space, debt appears simply as obligation, reciprocity or bonding. When does it turn into the toxic and coercive form that reproduces human hierarchies? What could debt be, if it wasn’t used by the powerful to control/ contaminate reality with the disease of hierarchy, to create a world where a few people thrive (materially) while most people suffer? What could debt enable if it wasn’t just a tool by which some (mostly white male) humans accumulate so much labour and resources that they could shoot themselves into space? What would it look like to harvest a form of debt that produces health and interdependence on earth? What if we didn’t feel like a burden on each other, for needing each other in harsh conditions?
David died in 2020, at the same age as my Dad. Neither of them died of cancer. Their particular form of our common inflammation resulted in fatal heart disease.
“Stars die because they exhaust their nuclear fuel ... Once there is no fuel left, the star collapses and the outer layers explode as a ‘supernova’. What’s left over after a supernova explosion is a ‘neutron star’ – the collapsed core of the star – or, if there’s sufficient mass, a black hole.”
On the periphery of a black hole, a hologram builds itself. My last contact with David was to organize people to blurb the back of my then-upcoming book, The Hologram: Feminist Peer to Peer Health for a Post-Pandemic Future from PlutoPress. The book would be a sci-fi manifesto and toolkit for transforming debt back to interdependence on earth. It was put together in one month at the beginning of the pandemic, on earth, in London.
As I’ve discussed at length in AWC, The Hologram is a social technology for revolutionaries that pretends to be an art project. It’s based on a model invented by activists in Thessaloniki trying to reimagine health and care amidst the austerity-ravaged ruins of their healthcare system. In their solidarity clinics, an “incomer” seeking medical care is met by a physician, a mental health specialist and a social worker who work with them to develop a holistic diagnosis and transformative plan. In The Hologram, which today has hundreds (maybe thousands) of participants around the world who joined during the pandemic, a person convenes a meeting with three others (sometimes friends, often strangers) who each ask questions about their physical, mental and social well-being, learning to provide transformative care and support.
The Hologram is not just a way of providing care in times of crisis. I think of it as a new way to go into debt together. For a moment, we can exit a bankrupt system and do a new kind of cosmic math, where our debts to one another never equal zero. Instead, our obligations to each other create something more rich, healthy and endurable than wealth. I think of what we are doing as taking out a massive loan – backed by our collective time, vulnerability and energy – to buy into a new, anti-capitalist collective myth.
- Footnotes I’d like to continue “doing something” collaboratively with David. If you are a medium or an institution with the power to contact the dead, please be in touch, or at least say hi if you see him.