A Review of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

Posted on Mar 5, 2012
A Review of Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years

I was immensely impressed by this book.

For as long as there has been such a thing as money, morality and debt have been intimately intertwined. We see this today in discussions about the debt crisis. Do mortgage debtors, credit card debtors, and student loan borrowers have a moral obligation to pay back their debts? Is it unethical for debtor nations to default on their loans?

Most folks, thinking themselves as honorable people, feel a strong moral obligation to “make good” on their debts, to honor their debts, to follow through on what looks very much like a promise to repay. We even speak of “redeeming” a promise, hinting again at the moral dimensions of debt repayment. Yet, paradoxically, we also tend to look askance at lenders, at those who enrich themselves by lending money at interest to others. Few moneylenders enjoy positive portrayals in literature. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have all gone so far as to prohibit lending money at interest. Neither the malingering debtor nor the creditor who hounds her have much claim to our moral approval.

This and many other paradoxes become transparent in David Graeber’s recent book, Debt: The First 5000 Years. It is a magisterial and deeply scholarly history of how debt – and money – came to be what it is today, and how human relations evolved around it.

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4 Comments

  1. Toby
    March 5, 2012

    Well written, Charles. I devoured “Debt” twice, and re-read a few sections after the second reading, and will no doubt turn to it again in the future. It is a wonderful book. I actually read it alongside “Sacred Economics” and felt them support each other greatly. They make a good couple ;-). Actually, while Graeber was being interviewed at Naked Capitalism, I pushed repeatedly for the writers at NC to interview you. They didn’t bite. It was around that time I realized NC is nothing more than a lightning rod going nowhere.

    Another work you might like if you haven’t read it already, is “The Art of Not Being Governed”, by James C Scott. That really opened my eyes, also a very scholarly work, a very important book. I would put it in my core 10 or so books, along with “Ascent of Humanity” and “The Web of Life”.

    I’m rambling. So, as usual, thanks for all you do, keep fighting the good fight, and stay well. It’s a constant pleasure knowing you’re alive, well, and happily at work!

    Ah yes, I’ve been meaning to tell you. There’s a German outfit called Wissensmanufaktur who have developed what they call “Plan B”. The guys running the institute are called Andreas Popp and Rico Albrecht, and I believe the economics professor Bernd Senf, an avid promoter of and campaigner for Silvio Gesell’s work and ideas, is involved too. They have put together a four-pronged proposal which includes a social dividend and negative interest money (they call it Flowing Money (fliessendes Geld) for marketing reasons). I wrote an article on their work here:

    http://thdrussell.blogspot.com/2011/12/from-here-to-there.html

    Perhaps you’ll find it interesting. I recently learned they are making waves in Canada, and that their work is being translated into English. Hopefully they will start reaching a wider audience soon. Popp and Albrecht are to be giving talks at the upcoming “Macht Geld SInn” (Does Money Make Sense) symposium here in German mid March. It seems to be a quickly growing movement. As a side note, Austria has its own radical economists pushing hard at alternative ideas.

    In my article (which I have not amended since writing it) I incorrectly translated Soziales Bodenrecht as having something to do with expanding the commons. It kind of does, but only kind of. It’s more of a Henry George affair, a dual right to land along with an obligation to maintain it.

  2. Ravi Nathan
    March 9, 2012

    Charle, I have read Saced Economics and recently started Ascent and can’t understand your tendency to glorify the hunter gatherer societies. It appears that you have to go that far back to find the ‘purity’ that you are seeking and yet you contradict reports of violence in hunter gatherer societies by explaining it away as the result of contamination with modern humans while relying at the same time on anthropological reports in the !Kung by the very same modern humans. There are other places where you contend that separation may have begun with sexual reproduction and has been part and parcel of reality so why elevate pre rational hunter gatherers to post rational wisdom? Does your overall thesis require this regressive pre-trans fallacy to hold up? Do we really have to go back to a romantic view of hunter gatherers to imagine what the next phase for humans would look like? I think not and I don’t believe you do either except this conditioned need to go back to the past to find the paradise before the fall.

  3. Linda J. Ferguson
    April 11, 2012

    I applaud you Charles for taking the sacred cow of capitalism to task and opening up the dialogue about it. I write about a similar idea in my latest book, “Staying Grounded in Shifting Sand”. I have a whole chapter on the Power and Meaning of Money. In my business ethics course I spend a lot of time reviewing what money really means. I encouraged my students to question money and examine what is says about their life. My basic premise is that if we don’t know what money means in our life, what values it represents, we’ll never know how to use money well.

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