Editor’s Note to Issue No. 6

Under capitalism, abstract, intangible and often unintelligible constructs have devastating effects on people and the ecosystems with which they live in relation. Debt is one such construct that permeates our lives at every level, from the geopolitical to the personal, moral and psychological. Across all layers of society and throughout our day-to-day lives, debt and the concept of indebtedness is present, pressing heavily, unevenly, and severely limiting the lives of those suffering its violence. However, first and foremost, debt is a relation, connecting us all in a complex web of hierarchies. Though despite its pervasiveness, debt eludes us. Or, as David Graeber wrote in his well-known book on the subject, ‘[t]he very fact that we don’t know what debt is, the very flexibility of the concept, is the basis of its power.’ At the same time, Graeber continues, ‘[i]f history shows anything, it is that there’s no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt.’[1]

This issue of Errant therefore is about the way debt and its language hold power over us. By challenging the idea that debt is something rational, natural or inevitable, this issue hopes to contribute to lifting debt out of abstraction and obscurity. Naturally, in being errant, the approaches represented are personal, fragmented, and situated. Still,many of the contributions aim to expose the deception of debt, but also how the personal is always connected to the structural, whether this is the nation state or religion. As Graeber warned, morality is often used to enforce this relation. Exemplified for instance in the text by Falke Pisano on the establishment of the Dutch Savings Bank. The founding of this bank coincided with a broader set of initiatives and attitudes in the nineteenth century that aimed to ‘civilize’ the working class. Specifically, this meant that one’s finances became an individual responsibility connected to being virtuous. In other words: a ‘good’ person doesn’t accumulate debt.

What the examples show, is that debt tempts to organize obedience, and the language of debt, of guilt, responsibility, but also of shame and morality, is deeply embedded in the ways we think and behave. This is a crucial insight, because when we start to understand debt as a way obedience is organized, then we can also see the importance of being disobedient, perhaps even against moral judgement. It is for this reason that we included contributions that are about such civil disobedience, most notably in the case of bank robbers in Lebanon who, confronted with the total failure of a system, arm themselves with toy guns in order to take back their own money. This move to illegality exposes the absurdism and impossibility of our systems, especially as they fall apart. If what is considered moral and just creates inequalities and violence, can being immoral or disobedient perhaps be a way to restore imbalances?

At the same time, it is important to remember that the Western/modern/neoliberal way of thinking and being, particular regarding property and financial debt, is just one of many, most of which are erased by Western hegemony. Although not adhered to in Egypt (let alone internationally), the Quran, so Dalia Whadan writes, offers a way out of the stranglehold the Global South finds itself in as ‘sharīʿah urges creditors to grant concessions or postpone payments to debtors in need. They must not harass or compel debtors beyond their means.’ This way, Wahdan argues, ‘debt need not be a crisis’. Going back to debt as relation, we ultimately decide its terms and value.

In the editorial approach to her topics, it is Errant’s ambition to keep exploring how knowledge can be produced within a ‘journal’, and how the limits of how knowledge is ‘officially’ and ‘properly’ produced can be stretched. With this in mind, I am very pleased with the commissioned sound piece that is part of this issue, though finds itself elsewhere in the ether. The audio monograph by Levi Masuli remoulds sounds and ideas into a dialogue on the Filipino concept of ‘utang na loob’, or ‘debt of the inside’. In this speculative approach based on the Filipino epistemological universe, reflecting on the ‘Inside’ and the ‘Outside’ of debt and the fragile relations that come with this, Masuli imagines a world animated by ‘bubbles of intimacy’, that are always leaking, and possess a vulnerability that cannot be patched through mere payment or compensation.

We start this issue however with a text that was commissioned rather late and diverts from our initial editorial plan. The long and ongoing battle for the liberation of Palestine is one of the most important anti-colonial issues of our time. At the time of this writing, it has been almost three months since the relentless bombing of the civilians of Gaza has started in retaliation to the attack and taking of hostages by Hamas on 7 October 2023. Since that day, that also saw the death of innocent people, over 21,000 people have died, many of whom children. Like many others, I have been experiencing an insurmountable sense of powerlessness. At once removed and at a distance (I have never visited Palestine), while also connected through basic human empathy, it is heartbreaking to see the daily stream of images of an ongoing genocide, making every other activity seem futile. As a journal dedicated to anti-colonial (but also the connected anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal) struggle everywhere, I felt an obligation to respond to what is happening and offer some words of sense-making and support. There can be no business as usual.

On top of the incommensurable sense of grief that is collectively felt by many, we also live with the surreal reality that one has to defend the right to this grief, and the need to keep reaffirming that what is so plain to see, is really happening. In Germany (where Errant is partly based) specifically, people who refer to what is happening in Gaza as a genocide, or generally speak up for Palestinian human rights, are faced with harsh backlash; people of all sorts – including Jewish people – are accused of antisemitism. Awards, exhibitions, and lectures are cancelled, and entire institutions are facing defunding and closure for even attempting to facilitate conversations about and between Israelis and Palestinians.[2]Although the actions of the Israeli state are condoned and excused by states the world over, it is Germany that seems to be particularly blinded by the ‘special responsibility’ they feel they have in defending the state of Israel, no matter the horrors or human rights violations this state commits.

Because of her extensive research into memory culture, citizenship, and religious difference as race in Germany, Sultan Doughan was asked to reflect on the relation between guilt and debt; terms that are expressed by the same word in the German language.[3] In fact, in all Indo-European languages the words for debt are synonym for sin and/or guilt, indicating the links between religion, morality and different mediations, financial and otherwise. In her text, Doughan explains how this sense of guilt in Germany translates to a denial of citizenship and basic human rights for Palestinians that stems from a way they in particular – and especially in Germany – challenge European perceptions about itself.

In a second text commissioned late and that responds to the ongoing war, Bahar Noorizadeh  shows the entanglements of the continued occupation of Palestine with finance. It is unnerving how Gaza too can be viewed through the cold lens of finance and debt. ‘Should we read it with our everyday causal cognition,’ Noorizadeh writes at the start of her essay, ‘the market would be the ultimate medium of information.’ She ends her texts on the call for boycotts on Israel; another form of disobedience and tactic of non-violent resistance, which incidentally is also forbidden in Germany: ‘[i]t is in this sense that boycotts become a changing of the moral compass – a recalibration of our mutual indebtedness and a reconfiguration of the very liberal humanitarian paradigm as the telos of capital’s existent world.’

If anything, the process of making this issue of Errant showed that almost any relation can be framed in the language of debt, and that the associations with religion, morality, and culpability are endless. I am not sure what that really says about the kind of world we live in, or what we ultimately value most. Realistically, we’ll not see the end of the oppressive and harmful ways of capitalism anytime soon, but it is hopeful to see some glimpses of another kind of world that is possible.

[1] Graeber, David. Debt. The First 5,000 Years. New York and London: Melville Publishing House, 2014: p. 5.

[2] The latter example specifically refers to the cultural organisation Oyoun in Berlin whose funding has been cut after organising an evening of ‘mourning and hope’ in response to the 7 October attack and in collaboration with Jewish Voice for a Just Peace in the Middle East. Based on Oyoun’s refusal to cancel the event, the Berlin Senate accused the cultural centre of ‘acting in an antisemitic manner.’ For more on this go to https://tr.ee/C-zlXWVcKW, for other examples of silencing in Germany see https://www.instagram.com/archive_of_silence/

[3] Graeber 2014: p. 59 (see note 1).

Editor’s Note to Issue No. 6
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