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Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

by David Graeber

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Graeber, an anthropologist, takes a long, hard look at the history and meaning of debt, credit, money, and markets. It's a complex history, and a violent one; Graeber sees war and conquest as one of the driving engines behind the world's economic evolution. He also focuses a lot on the many ways in which debts, throughout history, have been paid off in human lives, from an African tribe where a man who wants to marry is expected to trade another woman for his prospective wife, to the surprising number of cultures where a debtor's family members might be sold or seized to repay or secure a debt, to the imprisonment or even execution of debtors.

I think some of the connections Graeber draws are a bit tenuous, and I honestly don't know quite what to think about most of the broader points he's making. But it's provocative in a good way, it's full of a lot of interesting and frequently surprising bits of history and anthropology, and it certainly provides some new perspectives on subjects that most of us take entirely too much for granted. If nothing else, Graeber makes it clearly, blindingly obvious that the simplistic models economists use about the origins of the marketplace have very little to do with real human culture and human behavior, even if they have perhaps shaped both of those things since. ( )
  bragan | Jun 20, 2014 |
Graeber has an irritating tendency to say things like "As anyone who has taken Anthropology 101 would know..." instead of just stating facts, but otherwise this is a very interesting book on capitalism and alternatives to capitalism. He does an okay job of not being Eurocentric and even occasionally talks about feminism and racism. Overall I'd recommend it for anybody to read with some background in western philosophical tradition, since these days debt is a topic we are all familiar with. ( )
  oldflame | Jun 10, 2014 |
The most informative book I've read in the last few years. It's a very wide-ranging look at the way debt historically interplays with society(and government), and spend large portions of time debunking popular myths about markets, debt, and politics. His idea of a credit cycle could have been better drawn together or phrased as an idea, however. Even though he spoke of may individual pieces of his theory, they were never really drawn together to form an easier to grasp whole, which I feel was very needed for a book with such a large scope. ( )
1 vote Urbandale | Jun 8, 2014 |
Essential reading. Inadequate editing. ( )
  TAU67SEu | Feb 6, 2014 |
Given the breadth and depth of the book's content there is simply no way for me to properly address it my little reveiw. There is just too much. What I can gladly explain is this is an unapologetically anthropological history of human debt and its systems of calculation and payment. There is more than a little criticism of the received wisdom of economics, and given the context provided in history, it seems fair.

Graeber simply does not truck with the presumed universality of the wisdom of economics. The problem with it is it isn't really science and therefore, rather than being based on observation of history and growing to incorporate the economies of various times and cultures it presumes the universality of the sort of economy that it was born within : Capitalism. This becomes even more of an achilles heel as Graeber points out that the creation myth of capitalism is just that, myth. That old chestnut that captialism, indeed money itself, sprung inevitably from the prohibitively unweildy system of barter is simply fancy. Speculation straight from Adam Smith. Of course the man had a right to such intellectual noodlings, but Graeber reminds us that ultimately the common knowledge of captialism and economics come from an idea about what could be, not what has been or what is. Adam Smith's idea, the dream of a self-regulating market, prices set by the will of God.

The point is capitalism is just the most recent economic system used on this planet. And comparatively, it hasn't even been in use all that long. Graeber wades through thousands of years of human exchange from all over the globe, and if one thing is glaringly apparent it's that that people have had nuanced and effective systems of exchange of all sorts as long as we have history for them. One of the things Graeber is careful to point out is that you can't presume all of human exchange boils down to the expectations of capitalism and dyed in the wool economics. Because ultimately exchange isn't about the relationship between people and money or people and goods or whatever. A person can't really have a relationship with a product or currency. A person can only have a relationship with other people regarding goods and currency. And that, what currency and goods mean in terms of people's relationship to eachother, is a product of culture.

Honestly, it's fascinating. More fascinating than I expect anyone ever expected of an economics books (if you even want to call it that). The sheer variety of exchange culture in history is eyeopening and a good way to get perspective on our own exchange culture. This book does go to some pretty dark places as the relationship between war and finance has always had a way leading exchange to dark places. The volume of content on the commodification of people and the economic role of slavery in various times and culures is profoundly disturbing, but too important to ignore. And heads up, that includes contemporary slavery and capitalism. ( )
1 vote fundevogel | Jan 9, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Graeberprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gardner, GroverNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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debt noun 1 a sum of money owed. 2 the state of owing money. 3 a feeling of gratitude for a favour or service. --Oxford English Dictionary
If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank. --American Proverb
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Two years ago, by a series of strange coincidences, I found myself attending a garden party at Westminster Abbey.
It's money that had made it possible for us to imagine ourselves in the way economists encourage us to do: as a collection of individuals and nations whose main business is swapping things.
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Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter system--to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There's not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginning of the agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems--a system that far preceeded cash or organized barter. It is in this era, Graeber shows, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. With the passage of time, however, virtual credit money was replaced by gold and silver coins--and the system as a whole began to decline. Interest rates spiked and the indebted became slaves. And the system perpetuated itself with tremendously violent consequences, with only the rare intervention of kings and churches keeping the system from spiraling out of control. Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history--as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.… (more)

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