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Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 Years (original 2011; edition 2012)

by David Graeber

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1,262379,125 (4.19)46
Title:Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Authors:David Graeber
Info:Melville House Publishing (2012), Paperback, 544 pages
Collections:Your library

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (2011)

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This is an amazingly lively, interesting, and provocative history of debt, money, and credit systems that may upend assumptions and beliefs you've taken for granted.

One of the most basic of those assumptions is that, prior to the invention of money, people relied on barter to trade the things they had in excess for the things they needed. This would have been enormously cumbersome, and that, in the traditional version, is why money was invented. The problem is that there is no evidence to support this theory. No society has ever been found, anywhere, that relies on barter as a primary way of trading within the community. Barter is only ever used with strangers, or in societies that normally use money but have experienced a temporary break-down in the availability of money. It's stop-gap, not something people do routinely.

How do people trade among themselves when their society doesn't have money? Oddly, the same way we do now: through elaborate credit arrangements. Henry needs a pair of shoes; John makes shoes. Henry has potatoes, which John doesn't need right now, but Henry, John, and all their neighbors are perfectly capable of remembering that Henry owes John the value of a pair of shoes. Traditional societies have many faults and are by no means idyllic Edens of perfection, but there is an assumption that of course everyone needs to have the essentials of survival, and that this is a community concern, not solely an individual concern. Everyone helps others, because everyone is going to need help from others. What goes around, comes around. Competition, anger, greed, resentment all exist, but sociability is the key to survival.

The really interesting bit, and the meat of this book, is how we get from that, to money-based economies, and how this affected not just economics but every part of human life. One crucial factor is the connection between armies and militarism, and the need to supply those armies, and the invention of coin. The three basic ways of supplying your army are to maintain really long supply lines, to loot the countryside they're marching through, or to buy supplies along your army's route.

But the people in the country you're marching through mostly have no reason to share resources with your army, who aren't part of their community. And carrying trade goods in quantity is just a different version of the "long supply lines" problem.

Small and portable bits of gold and silver, though, are usually acceptable and tradeable everywhere.

Once coinage is invented and accepted, everything gradually acquires a price, including people--and even intrinsically non-tradeable things, like parent-child relations, begin to be talked about in terms of credit, debt, and price.

This is a thoughtful, interesting, informative, and highly readable book, well worth reading regardless of whether you ultimately agree with Graeber's thesis.

Highly recommended.

I borrowed this book from the library. ( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Read this book. ( )
  simonspacecadet | Jul 29, 2018 |
Excellent! Would love to discuss. ( )
  AnupGampa | Jun 30, 2018 |
An anthropologist reviews economic history in this wide-ranging exploration of the meaning of debt, guilt, human relationship, war, and slavery. I have read broadly in economics and finance, and I found this tome numerous insights thought-provoking. Graeber examines deeply the meaning of debt, its history, and possible future implications. Occasionally hard to grasp, his insights are deep, and I believe I have just finished a book that will help me understand and advocate for, in my own little way, better economic and financial policies. ( )
  James.Igoe | Jul 26, 2017 |
It's not often that one reads a book on political economy that is as thrilling to read as a detective novel, but Graeber's Debt is just such a book. Perhaps because he is an anthropologist, not an economist, he is able to take on a seemingly boring and pedestrian topic, and write an eye-opening book which addresses the origins of the current crisis of capitalism.

Graeber's theme is a simple one. What makes us human is our relationship with others, starting with our mothers, then family and then tribe. Left to ourselves human beings would organize co-operatively and naturally share with each other the fruits of our labor. The goal in our life is to enjoy human interactions.

Over the course of 5000 years, this form of natural relationship has become completely distorted. We now see our life goal as to be producers/ consumers whose function is to exploit the world. We base human relationships on cold calculations of gain and loss, credit and debit.

Since such a world view (often referred to as 'capitalism') thwarts our basic nature, Graeber provides an anthropological/ historical survey of how the world ended up where it is today. His central thesis is that our current view of how society ought to be organized, can only have been created and maintained by violence. War, which rips apart all human relations, and removes individuals from their web of connections, is what allows us to place financial value on another human, as opposed to the inherent idea that every human is invaluable.

When summarized in this way, Graeber's thesis may sound simplistic and reductionist. But while his basic thesis IS a simple one, what makes the book brilliant is the depth of research and intelligent analysis that supports his argument and gives it depth and richness. By providing an overview of the concept of debt across 5000 years of history and ranging over many cultures across geography and time, Graeber convincingly makes his radical arguments seem almost self evident.

There are times, of course, where Graeber's ideas do come close to being reductionist, despite the vast wealth of well documented data he provides (and yes, read the footnotes too! Lot's of interesting details are contained therein). For example, in trying to contrast the "non-imperial" Medieval era to its predecessor the "imperial Axial" age, he leaves out a discussion of counter examples like the Mongols & the Turks. Similarly since one of his main goals in the book is to provoke people out of their conventional thinking, on more than one occasion he exaggerates to make a point. For example, while Medieval Islam has much to be admired, I am not convinced it was as much the anarchistic market system that Graeber tries to argue it was, nor, for related reasons, should one expect brilliant economic insights to come out of modern day Islamism. But Graeber is both too intelligent and too much the academician (in a positive sense) to fall into the trap of becoming a propagandist. He duly notes what he leaves out and acknowledges when his arguments are unconventional. And he always indicates that he may be over emphasizing some point precisely because it is too often ignored or trivialized.

A while back in a review of Rushkoff's awful book which covered similar themes, I lamented that there was not yet a contemporary book that provided a coherent criticism of modern day capitalism. Sure Marx still has much to teach us, but so much has changed since Das Kapital was written, and Marx' alternative system has proven itself a dismal failure. Graeber's has now provided us with just such a book - a compelling, provocative critique of financial capitalism and neoliberalism. And his call to action is neither another utopian vision nor a feel-good New Age trope. Rather, by surveying the rich and varied approaches to organizing societies over the past 5000 years, Graeber gives us tools to help us begin to re-imagine a better future for humanity. ( )
  aront | Jul 25, 2017 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
David Graeberprimary authorall editionscalculated
Freundl, HansTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gardner, GroverNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gebauer, StephanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schäfer, UrselTranslatorsecondary 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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