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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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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. ( )
  fundevogel | Jan 9, 2014 |
Interesting chapter on the economics myth of ancient truck and barter, but the book jumped around too much and was too long for me to be able to keep the thread, I put it down halfway. Excellent reviews by Henry and others at the Crooked Timber seminar on the book. ( )
  ohernaes | Sep 12, 2013 |
David Graeber is an anthropologist and anarchist, an early member of the Occupy Wall Stree movement. He's so "out there" that even Yale decided not to renew his contract as an assistant professor in 2005.

If he's too liberal for Yale, then...well, you know. Probably too liberal for me, too, right?

Or maybe not. If just to understand why the leaders of the Occupy Movement believe what they do, it might be worth the effort to read what he has written.

I heard about Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years from, of all places, a science fiction blog review (and my apologies for not remembering which one). The review described how sordid and strange certain cultures were in how they dealt with debt. It intrigued me: cultures on our own planet as foreign and strange as something that might appear in Star Trek or some other fictionally created world.

The descriptions don't disappoint. But the strange trading rituals and bizarre debt arrangements between tribes, families, and individuals of the Australian outback, the African savanna, or the American forests that Graeber describes in his look at the last 5,000 years are just prelude. As the language of debt conflates sin, morality and finance, we come to Graeber's central question:
What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?

It's a fascinating question, and it's hard to not sympathize with the quandary that Graeber sees in the language that we have developed to talk about debt, our capital systems, and markets. Even so, Graeber's conclusions make straw men out of the theories underlying the modern market economy, starting with Adam Smith, dismissing them with only short thrift.

This isn't to say that Graeber doesn't see a place for markets. It is capitalism, as means for power and form of slavery, that Graeber despises. "It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor." For example, the conquest of the Americas is integrally connected to mass slavery, in the forms of African slavery and debt peonage. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, while "coolies" from India built South African silver mines. Peasants of Russia and Poland were free landholders through the middle ages, only becoming serfs at the dawn of capitalism.

And so on. The choice between state and market is wrong, he says, and it's domination of political ideology over the last centuries has "made it difficult to argue about anything else."

Capitalism requires constant consumption and destruction, Graeber argues, and for that reason has always been created by warfare and conquest, rather than as a replacement for barter as we have generally accepted (see Adam Smith). With less and less to consume, humanity is reaching its social and ecological limits.

Graeber's conclusions are, to say the least, a rewriting of history as we've been taught, to say nothing of how we view markets and capital.
I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we acknowledge."

It's a rosy look at people who need not work to produce because they are free from debt, and in that sense, completely free. It sounds great...but it's rosy, and ignores human nature's desires to create and work.

Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a monster of a book, difficult even, though always fascinating. While I do not agree with the extremities to which his conclusions take him, there is something to be said for the corruption created when capital and political power are conflated. Crony capitalism is a distortion of the free market, just as political interference in the market is a distortion.

At the very least, Debt measures up as an interesting anthropological history of cultures as disparate from my western world as Vulcans or Klingons are from us. More importantly, and more to the point why I recommend you read Debt, unlike cultures created for science fiction, they are real, and that in itself is worth the read. ( )
1 vote publiusdb | Aug 22, 2013 |
David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a broad and sometimes tedious stroll through human history with a focus on personal economic relationships, exchange and indebtedness. Basically, it's less about currency and more about anthropology. Graeber's premise is a startling one: Contrary to the simplistic view of economic history—one that says before there was money there was bartering and that was all—humans always have and still to this day use debt as a means to interact with one another. Insights like this and numerous historical examples populate the book, but be forewarned that the majority of the timeline covers the ancient and pre-Renaissance periods. If early history is your thing, then maybe you'll have a better go of it than me.

My favorite takeaway is a quote that isn't even attributed to Graeber. It appears early on in order to foreshadow that the history of debt has more causes and effects than any one answer can provide. I'm adopting it as my new mantra, and I suspect it will be even more relevant as I get older and try to make sense of our multifaceted world.

"For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong." --H.L. Mencken ( )
1 vote Daniel.Estes | Jun 24, 2013 |
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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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