Cinq Diamants Obligations bring us together as a community; debts divide us

Rambling the streets south of Austerlitz on Wednesday, we happened upon Rue de Cinq Diamants — Five Diamond Street.

What caught our eye was the graffiti —

But Cinq Diamants is also home to Les Amies et Amis de la Commune de Paris 1871, an organisation that promotes the ideals of the Paris Commune, the radical working class who governed Paris for two months in 1871.

Besides the separation of church and state, the abolition of child labour and the right of employees to run their own businesses, the Commune also passed a law that postponed commercial debts and abolished the paying of interest on those debts.

I mention this because I was recently asked to write a short piece for the next issue of Red Pepper Magazine about David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.

The idea that ‘we should always pay our debts’ has become the self-evident moral foundation of our economic and political relations, but — as David Graeber shows inside the first four pages of Debt — that idea is total bollocks.

Always pay our debts? Really? Tell that to the bailed out banks, extractive, polluting industries and tax-avoidant billionaires and transnationals.

As David pointed out, debts are obligations that can be precisely quantified. That’s a critical distinction: debt is only one, deeply alienating, expression of how we manage our relations with others.

Whereas debts are precisely impersonal financial instruments, we can see the more general concept of obligation as a chain of generosity: gifts and favours of similar, but crucially not identical value, to be granted, not immediately, but at some appropriate time in the future, according to the needs of the recipient and resources of the obliged.

Obligations bring us together as a community; debts divide us.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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