The Venmo Generation
Under COVID-19, we're all communists. As we emerge from the pandemic, amidst everything we'd rather forget, this might be worth remembering
Amidst the pandemic, I embraced communism.
At the risk of losing readers immediately, I’ll clarify that I am not referring to the communism that has “failed every time it’s been tried,” but rather the communism that the late anthropologist David Graeber proposes is the basis for human social life in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years.
He calls it “baseline communism,” defining it as:
“[The] understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost considered reasonable enough, the principle of ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’ will be assumed to apply.”
Everything from holding the door for a stranger to pressing an elevator for someone illustrates the human tendency to come to each other’s aid if, as Graeber says, “the need is considered great enough, or cost considered reasonable enough.”
That said, we have a tendency to act more “communistically” with some people than with others. If a friend asked me to help them move, I would. If a stranger asked, though, I probably wouldn’t. (More likely is that a stranger wouldn’t ask, which is exactly the point.) The same holds true for picking up a tab.
Elaborating on the assumptions that give way to communistic relations, Graeber writes:
What is equal on both sides is the knowledge that the person would do the same for you, not that they necessarily will. [What] makes this possible [is] that such relations are based on a presumption of eternity. This is why no accounts need to be taken.
In certain contexts—like, say, romantic relationships—that eternity is presumed is undeniably true. I’m not married, but can see that in the context of “‘til death do us part,” squaring up makes little sense. (It is telling, of course, that when couples divorce, this is exactly what they try to do.) I’d argue eternity is also presumed among especially close friends, who, even if they spend years apart, would always find it strange to conceive of their relationship in terms of debt.
Still, outside of these contexts, and especially today, debt is often how we see ourselves in relation to each other. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than our tendency to want to square up—say, via Venmo.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber explains why:
“Squaring accounts means that the two parties have the ability to walk away from each other.”
Crucially, this doesn’t mean that we get square with people because we want to walk away from them;1 it means we get square with people because we don’t know when—or even, if—we’ll see them again.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, or with interactions like this, but I imagine it would be exceedingly lonely if they were the only ones people had. Loneliness isn’t simply a result of not being around people; it’s also a symptom of feeling as if life is a series of transactions, and that everyone in your life is someone you could walk away from.
These interactions were a hallmark of what I’ll call the Venmo Generation: individuals afloat amidst a sea of group chats, waiting for the text letting them know where brunch was on Saturday, or the cost of next weekend’s party bus. It’s possible that real friendships were born from these situations, but it more often felt that they were just rituals of convenience; parties that would ebb and flow as people came and went, as opposed to anything that would forge any real, lasting connection.
Early in the pandemic, though, I couldn’t help but romanticize them. What I wouldn’t give, I’d think, to Venmo a stranger $30 to spend two hours on a party bus to nowhere. Cooped up in my apartment, I found myself longing for the Venmo Generation; for a collection of friends and strangers brought together by an app.
Still, it isn’t enough to say that Venmo was purely responsible; the app made squaring up easier, sure, but offered no means of actually enforcing the debts someone might owe you. Perhaps most surprising, then, was that people did actually pay them. If we were the Venmo Generation, call this the Venmo Effect: that by eliminating the friction inherent in paying a debt—think: “I don’t have cash on me,” etc.—Venmo raises the social stigma of failing to square up with someone.
Still, it isn’t enough to say that the only reason we pay debts is because of the stigma associated with those who don’t. I have thus far spoken only of financial debts, but we tend to avoid carrying any sort of debt to strangers, even as it’s not clear we’d face any external costs for doing so.
I use the word “external” here deliberately, because the cost we face if we fail to acknowledge a kindness isn’t one imposed upon us, but rather one we impose upon ourselves: guilt.
Consider what you’re actually doing when you say the words “thank you,” or the old fashioned version, “much obliged.”
“Much obliged” […] actually does mean, ‘I am in your debt.’ The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor’s power—since a debtor is, after all, a criminal.”
By this reading, failing to thank someone for doing you a favor is synonymous with failing to pay a debt. This explains why such a failure invokes the feeling that would motivate you to pay it: guilt.
Graeber notes that in the earliest writings on debt, the word is synonymous with guilt. I find it more accurate to view guilt as interest on a debt. It is not the guilt you owe, after all, but rather the effort; guilt is what accumulates, much like interest, the longer the loan remains outstanding.2
By this reading, when someone does you a favor, assuming you don’t find some way to reciprocate, you’ll feel guilty. There are clearly situations, though, in which this isn’t the case.
When friends’ parents would visit in college, they’d usually take us all out to dinner.
This meant paying for our meal, which could’ve been thought to have created a debt. Still, it never felt as if there was an expectation that we’d reciprocate. We could’ve—say, via Venmo. But looking back on it, it feels like doing so would’ve been inappropriate.
If I had to explain why, I’d start by pointing out that if you’re a parent visiting your kid in college, you probably feel immense pride at seeing your kid thriving in an unfamiliar environment. There are many reasons for this, but suffice it to say that the pride you feel doubles as validation; as knowledge that your 50+ years on this earth have produced a human being who is capable not only of providing for themselves, but of providing value to others.3
By this viewing, when parents buy their kid and his friends dinner, or a round of drinks, it is actually they who are paying off a debt—that is, the joy they receive from realizing all their hard work—the nights up changing diapers, or treating poison oak, or muddling through times tables—was worth it.
It’s telling that when I’d say, “thank you” to my friend’s dad for buying us drinks, he’d reply with, “my pleasure.”
As Graeber notes, when he says this, he is literally saying that I did him a favor by allowing him to pay for drinks. This explains why any effort to pay him back would make no sense, because prior to purchasing the drinks, it was he who perceived himself to be in our debt.4
This offers a neat explanation for why parents might offer to take their kid’s friends out to dinner the first time they visit—say, freshman year. Still, it doesn’t explain why they might continue to do so, even as anecdotal evidence says this is exactly what happens.
Here, Graeber offers an explanation via the logic of hierarchy and precedent. He writes:
“Whenever the lines of superiority and inferiority are clearly drawn and accepted by all parties as the framework of a relationship, and relations are sufficiently ongoing that we are no longer dealing with arbitrary force, then relations will be seen as being regulated by a web of habit or custom.”
So there you have it: like the cool aunt who brings candy every time she visits,5 parents continue to take their kid and his friends out to dinner via logic of precedent.
I was lucky enough to be a beneficiary of this precedent in college. Worth noting, though, is how a situation might play out in which someone wanted to ensure that although the lines of superiority and inferiority were clearly drawn, that relations would remain neither “sufficiently ongoing,” nor give way to “habit” or “custom.”
To do this, consider another example. Imagine a single parent and their three kids stuffed in a corner booth at a diner, the parent explaining to their kids that they can’t get what they want from the menu because it's too expensive. It’s not hard to imagine that someone within earshot of this conversation might casually get up, walk over to the waitress, and cover the family’s tab.6
In the most likely version of this scenario, the “benefactor” would probably want to remain anonymous. The reason should be obvious: their anonymity is the only thing preserving plausible deniability for the recipient that this gesture could be thought to have created a debt, and thus reciprocated. (As Graeber notes, this is why some argue the only true charity is anonymous.) In some situations, though, it might be clear to the parent who paid for their meal. Surprising about this latter situation is just how uncomfortable it would be for both parties, to the point where the benefactor might not even want to make eye contact with the parent.
Of course, there are exceptions, which take us back to Graeber’s theory of hierarchy and precedent. These are the examples in which the benefactor is known, but it’s clear that paying them back is neither possible nor expected. (Presentations of “big checks” come to mind, as does Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.) In situations where there is a baseline presumption of equality between strangers, though—like the one I’m proposing in the diner example—the “lines of superiority and inferiority” are not clearly drawn—that is, until someone covers a tab for someone else and fails to remain anonymous.
There is something about existing in “middle class society,” as Graeber puts it, that makes us averse to drawing these lines. We avoid doing so where we possibly can; in fact, I’d argue that one of the best things about being amongst strangers is that for a moment, you can forget they even exist, avoiding the baggage that comes with the loss of anonymity.
This baggage is exactly what is rediscovered either when someone covers someone else’s tab, or has their tab covered by someone else. This happens regardless of whether the benefactor remains anonymous, to be clear, but it is somehow easier if anonymity is preserved, almost like we don’t want to face ourselves in the context of people who so clearly exist in a class different from our own.
Perhaps no situation illustrates this more clearly than when a homeless person attempts to engage with us on the street. When this happens, most of us avert our eyes.
If I had to explain why, I’d start by pointing out that even a brief moment of eye contact has the power to make strangers familiar to each other. Still, this doesn’t explain why making eye contact with a homeless person is uncomfortable; we make eye contact with all kinds of people all the time without issue.
With someone who is so explicitly below us on the social hierarchy, however, the calculus is different. Meeting their eyes forces us to face the immense power we have over them, which explains why it’s hard not to offer something once you’ve done so. Even if we do, though, it’s never enough to threaten the underlying power dynamic. This leads to guilt, which is hard to see as anything other than interest on the power loaned to us, clear as this encounter makes it that said power is anything but a guarantee.
Of course, the way we most commonly absolve ourselves of this guilt is not by offering something, but by rationalizing their situation to ourselves.
“They’ll just use the money to buy booze,” we say to ourselves. What is so ridiculous about this rationalization isn’t that it’s necessarily false—though much of the time, it probably is—but that alcohol is exactly what many of us turn to in an effort to absolve ourselves, at least temporarily, of guilt. We often find ourselves more comfortable with a clear discrepancy in power if we’re drunk, if only because we’re less likely to notice it.
Other drugs help us achieve the same end in the opposite way, altering our states of mind such that the power feels good. (Think: “Say hello to my little friend!”) If nothing else, bars are case studies in how people behave with such senses; in fact, I think a good argument could be made that this is often what people go to bars to find. It’s not surprising, then, that in a bar, people—even acquaintances—will make grand gestures they never otherwise would, like buying shots for the entire table, and thus putting everyone in their debt, even if they’re only loosely acquainted with everyone there.
Worth noting is that though it’s fun to get a drink from a friend, it can be off-putting to be given a drink by someone you don’t really know, or like. Why are we quick to accept a drink from the former, but not the latter?
This is a weird one, especially from the perspective of economics. Economists view human life as a series of business transactions, whereby individuals try to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs. Assuming the financial value of the drink is the same, it shouldn’t matter who we’re receiving it from. And yet, clearly, it does.
To understand why, consider a slightly different scenario: a man approaching a woman alone at a bar.
“Can I buy you a drink?” He might ask. This seems normal almost to the point of not being worth mentioning. Still, if the point is purchasing the drink—not a hard leap to make, given the only three things referenced in the phrase are “me,” “you,” and the “drink”—why do we bother asking permission?
“Because it’s polite!” You might insist. That, though, doesn’t answer the actual question—that is, why is it polite? Answering this requires recognizing that the gesture has nothing to do with the drink, and everything to do with the debt being created—that is, if the recipient accepts.7 Thus, we ask permission because it gives the recipient the option to decline, and thus avoid perceiving themselves as in our debt—even if putting them there was never our intent.8
When someone you have no interest in speaking to insists on buying a round, this is exactly the option they aren’t giving you.
It’s worth acknowledging that there is another way to look at the “can I buy you a drink?” gesture.
In the same way many of the indigenous peoples encountered by European explorers would, upon encountering the explorers, offer them everything they had,9 the willingness of a stranger to seemingly offer something for nothing could be seen as a gesture meant to establish a baseline on which peaceful relations—i.e., a conversation, and potential relationship—could be built.
When people bring a plate of baked goods to new neighbors, this is exactly what’s happening. The implicit presumption of eternity between such people is what makes this make sense—that is, “we’ll always be neighbors.” Given this presumption, the best possible scenario for both parties is a relationship in which debt simply isn’t a factor. Good neighbors aren’t constantly keeping accounts;10 they simply help one another if, as Graeber notes, “the cost is considered reasonable enough, or need considered great enough.”
Amidst a presumption of eternity, it is abnormal, or even rude, to decline a gift; at a bar, though, where eternity is almost by definition not the presumption, it is quite normal. With the latter, there is at least the presumption that the person being offered the drink could decline it, in order to avoid the feeling—even if it’s not what the buyer intends!—of being in debt to them.
I bring all of this up only because I think it provides the necessary context to understand how empty life is amidst the Venmo Generation, in which relationships are conceived of only in terms of debt.
The silver lining of the pandemic has been escaping from it, and rediscovering myself in the context of relationships in which debt simply isn’t a factor.
If you’ve lived with close friends, say, in college, you might’ve experienced this: a communistic, “no accounts taken” attitude—yes, because it can be a nightmare to even try, but also because in these types of situations, there is often a willful ignorance on everyone’s part that this situation will end after graduation.
The same is often true of romantic relationships; the vast, vast majority of those that don’t lead to marriage end in breakups (as opposed to death), and even 50% of those that do lead to marriage end in divorce.11 Still, that doesn’t stop most of us from treating our partners like they’ll always exist—at least in the sense that we don’t pull out our phones and open Venmo after dinner to make sure we’re “square.”
I’ve found the same to be true with a friend from college who has been my roommate for the past year. After a year of doing literally everything together, it’s easy to imagine things will always be this way. This “baseline assumption of eternity” is what Graeber proposes is the basis for relationships in which no accounts need to be taken. I can confidently say this is the case; our friendship is such that if something needs to be done, one of us just does it. That is, if the cost is reasonable enough, or need great enough, baseline communism is just assumed to apply.
He’ll make dinner a few times a week, as will I. We’ll trade off getting paper towels, or toilet paper, or coffee filters, along with grocery pickups, beer runs, or buckets of range balls. Venmo would, in theory, give us the opportunity to always be square with one another, but under this presumption that things will always be this way, there’s no point. “Squaring up” opens the door to everything that can be imagined as a transaction becoming one, and inevitable attempts to determine how many grocery runs are equal to one cleaning of a litter box.
Admittedly, I’ve been lucky enough to spend the pandemic with a roommate I actually like. Things won’t always be this way. The pandemic will end. He—or I—might move out.
As the pandemic wanes, though, and the Venmo Generation rises once again from its ashes, we might do well to remember the communistic relationships it gave way to, if only because in the real world—pandemic or not—they might just be the only relationships worth having.12
Though sometimes this might well be the case.
My dad tells a story of a back-breaking summer job that paid him to pick blackberries. One day, instead of filling a sack with blackberries, he filled it with dirt clods, then collected the cash. To this day, he feels guilty about having done this. Given that he did nothing to deserve it, it’s easy to see the cash he was paid as a loan. The guilt he has always felt is interest on said loan, which has continued to accumulate as the loan has remained outstanding.
Parents—please tell me if I’m off base here!
Some more anecdotal evidence: after several years working full-time in Chicago, it gave me great pride to be able to take my parents and their friends out for dinner and cover the tab. That said, I did so by casually walking over to our waiter and giving him my card, perhaps because I implicitly understood that if I tried to pay at the table, in front of everyone, that I’d be told to put my card away, or some version of “your money is no good here,” etc. The interesting thing about this is that there’s actually something to why my parents, or my parents’ friends, would’ve said that to me: that is, they would’ve recognized that my offer to pay was, in some sense, establishing a precedent, and that I’d then be expected to cover future dinners for them in Chicago, too. This was not my intent, but via Graeber’s theory of precedent, it’s not hard to see why it might’ve been the outcome.
My late aunt Jen was famous for this.
I’d like to think that given the opportunity, if they had the means, this is what most people would do.
Bartenders, or anyone with bartending experience—how do you handle someone sending a drink to a stranger, say, at the other end of the bar? Do you just give it to them without asking if they want it first, or do you tell them someone wants to send them a drink, and see what they say?
I truthfully don’t think most people think of buying someone a drink as putting someone in their debt, though I could be wrong. It’s just of those customs whose meaning we’ve forgotten, but that we continue to practice, if only because no one’s come up with a better way of approaching someone at a bar.
I will quote from Graeber directly here, if only to show that there is actual historical evidence to support this claim. Graeber writes:
“Both Christopher Columbus, in Hispaniola, and Captain Cook, in Polynesia, reported similar stories of islanders who either flee, attack, or offer everything—but who often later enter the boats and help themselves to anything they take a fancy to, provoking threats of violence from the crew, who then did their utmost to establish the principle that relations between strange peoples should be mediated instead by ‘normal’ commercial exchange.”
My roommate’s parents just bought a place on a river in Maryland, and after doing so, found out that the neighbor had built a pool that crossed into their property line. The pool affects the view from the house, so in theory, the previous owners could’ve litigated. In an attempt to avoid the hassle, though, they opted to plant pine trees in front of the pool to hide it from view. Now, those pine trees drop needles into the neighbor’s pool. This all happened before my roommate’s parents moved in, mind you, but the sellers told them (after closing, of course) that the neighbor has been trying to get them to take down the trees for a while. When my friend’s parents first arrived at the place, this neighbor greeted them, and made sure to mention that if they ever wanted to use his staircase to get down to the river behind the houses, that they could. (There is, as of now, no staircase leading from my roommates’ parents place to the river.) I bring this up because my roommates’ parents have made a point of never using this neighbor’s staircase, opting instead to clamber down what my roommate describes as a fairly steep embankment to get to the river. Their rationale, which they explained to me the other night at dinner, is that they are making every effort to avoid placing themselves in this neighbor’s debt, such that he would have any leverage at all to ask them to take down the trees.
As I was wrapping up this essay, I came upon this article from Nir Eyal, which argues teenage depression has dropped during the pandemic as a result of teens getting more sleep and spending more time with family. Granted, this is only one data point, but it’s at least some evidence for the idea that communistic relationships—that is, those with family—do, actually, make us happier than those borne of the Venmo Generation.