Debt: The First 5,000 Yearsby Published 16 Sep 2011
|Debt: The First 5,000 Years.pdf|
|Publisher||Melville House Publishing|
Before there was money, there was debt
Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—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 beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.
Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.
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.
"Debt: The First 5,000 Years" Reviews
I would call this an interesting but dangerous book. As opposed to other books in which every moment was a learning and enlightening enjoyment this book was exhaustingly tense because I found it to be a very confusing mix of dangerous (but plausible) ideas written in a smart way, and interesting historical or world data. So, I'll start the review with the negative things, and then move onto the positive ones:
- the author seems to have a clear agenda, of attacking capitalism & free market ideas, and to this end he's willing to use what I would call disloyal weapons. I'm happy to hear of opposing ideas when they are argued logically and without resorting to trickery, but the author uses a large amount of mixed and confusing philosophical debate to confuse, and imposes language with moral undertones to push his arguments: for example in his attempt to vilify clear quantization of values as we do through currency he calls the non-monetary solution "human economy" (the other one must be inhuman, right?). Similarly he perverts the concept of familiar/church/friends sharing which I haven't heard any free market/capitalist people deny (on the contrary they seem to more often have healthier family & social relationships while their opponents like Marx have broken families, suicidal children and other tragedies), aaa, where was I? yes, he perverts these positive relationships by calling them "comunistic", thereby bringing their positive aura onto a social/political system that has caused millions of deaths and huge suffering... I find such trickery disloyal
- from the title and description I had assumed the book would be largely filled with historical data, but mostly i had to endure philosophical bla-bla-bla and a particularly non-objective style of exposition
- i call this a dangerous book because I know there are a lot of people out there with soft logic abilities, and less historical knowledge or analytic abilities, and they might be tricked by the book, so i would recommend the book only if you've read at least another 5 historical and economics books with a more analytic lean, be it from the ruthless logic of Rothbard & Mises or the historical facts of people such as Sowell
- I liken the authors style and method to Marx because like him his goal is to attack capitalism (did you know that not capitalists but Marx coined the term with the purpose of attack?), and they are both very smart people with high entertainment value/intelectual writing and both spend a lot of time attacking something while then being unsurprisingly blank at proposing anything better in a consequent matter so that others can poke holes at their position too, instead they are positionless and thus can't be attacked themselves. Also the author seems very tricky in his attacks... does he mean to attack the system whereby people save first and then use those savings? does he propose that debt spending is better? does he think that nothing can/should be quantized and we should all remain in a primitive society style (yes, he searches a lot in history and present for obscure examples of tribes to argue his points, but doesn't seem to notice that maybe there's a reason those were left behind). Instead he seems to define capitalism as everything he can cherry pick through history and present day that is bad, which of course makes it very easy to argue against them.
There are howerever good things in the book too:
+ while IMHO setting up straw many arguments and guilty parties he does seem to see some big problems, he sees how the system today will probably go through a historically recurrent reset of debt and maybe complexity
+ he dares to talk about subjects such as the American empire, the support it gets from countries with troops stationed in their territories, and such things
+ while with some biases he does bring forth very interesting historical data about debt & credit based system in the past
+ if you have the right historical and economics background, particularly if you are versed in hard money ways of thinking it may provide some interesting alternative points of view which should improve your perspective as to possibilities of not just where we have been but where we might be going
Overall I'd say it was a useful addition to my mental library, but one filled with many logical, moral and ideological traps, which is why I wouldn't advise it to many people as I find the author to be brilliantly smart and subtle, and some of his propositions are expressed in such ways that few people will be able to uncover them, let alone respond and fight them.
I've returned to this book five years later, and now I'm struggling to find what I enjoyed so much in it the first time around. I'm even struggling to articulate what exactly Graeber's point is.
This is a sprawling, wide-set book that seems almost incoherent, first setting up the strawman of intro economics textbooks discussing barter economics - but barter wasn't so common! The early economic history was and is still interesting, and now I'm tempted to go read up on the early Mesopotamian period and debt tablets.
But after that just seems to be a vicious invective against the stories told in economics 101 textbooks - as if all of physics dealt with frictionless objects in a vacuum. Now it's just 'this event is bad', 'event had debt involved', 'therefore debt bad'. Then stories about currency devaluation, then human economies, then everything all over the map. It all sounds interesting and I remember digging out books from the bibliography, but it's not so connected to a main point.
If you're interested in books about the negative effects of consumer debt - there are better books for that. For economic history, there are better books for that. I suspect its appeal for other readers (and to myself-as-of-five-years-ago) was the specter of debt at the bottom of the recession, and the concluding idea of a debt holiday was more tempting. I'm not against debt relief at all either! I'd prefer it to be more continuous and systemic, not just a one-time event.
I think of Goodreads stars as the following: 1, shouldn't have been published; 2, terrible; 3, pretty good; 4, really good; 5, everyone should read this (because it's eye-opening, incredibly skillful, and/or beautiful).
Debt is a five-star book.
Graeber's history encompasses not just history, but anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, political science, economics, religious studies, and finance as he details the history and definition of "debt." The conclusions he draws are--especially if you've ever taken an economics class, or, like me, gotten a degree in the subject--shocking and overwhelming. It's not an easy book to read: the subject is complex and the writing is much more challenging than the average pop sci book--this is not Freakonomics. As well, the sheer sweep of the book--and the author's tendency to jump from subject to subject and theory to theory--make this a bad book to read on an airplane, around children, or in small bites before bed. But if you can stick it out . . . well, your first reaction might be (like mine) to want to start reading it over again.
Some of the questions Graeber answers in Debt include:
What was the original meaning of the word "freedom"?
Why were the Middle Ages of Europe just after the Black Plague one of the best times to be a worker, and what surprising reason brought that period to an end?
When and why might paying cash for a meal have marked you as a government official or a criminal?
Debt will change the way you see the world. I hope you read it--although I can't lend you my copy. I'm rereading it.
Okay that's much better! Thanks for all the reviews
As a sociologist, I've been despairing of late at the paucity of imagination and theoretical innovation in social science research. Academics, perhaps because of the need to publish quickly and garner grant money, seem content to only add statistical validation to already established conclusions. Or, a la David Harvey, to regurgitate Marx with minor variation, with a focus solely on the neoliberal period, and in US/Eurocentric fashion.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years redeems the social sciences. Not easily reduced to a brief summary, the book asks the questions: How has humanity--from the ancient cities of Mesopotamia to the current day--conceived of the idea of debt? How has the construction of debt been inextricably bound to economic, religious, political, and historical realities? And, finally, it asks a provocative philosophical question: Given the history of the social construction of debt, how do we in the current moment respond to our own alleged indebtedness?
To answer these questions, Graeber embarks on the massive project of giving us a history of debt as a both a moral and economic concept, documenting in relentless and glorious detail how that concept changed through major periods of time (Ancient, Axial, Middle Ages, Early capitalist and current period)and amongst different societies (Islam vs. Christianity, etc.) In doing so, he shows conventional economic truisms for what they are: utter falsehoods. Exciting insights are also given into how people have resisted paying debts throughout history, this is not a passive story meant provoke sympathy.
The last chapter on the current period (1970's--present) felt a little rushed and given the gravity and depth of the previous chapters, I think it could have used more of a drawing together of all of the many fascinating points made in the book. Graeber doesn't offer any concrete suggestions(neither did Marx, so this can be easily forgiven) other than a Jubilee, but I hope that he does lend his imaginative and analytic powers to praxis in the future.
The read provides one not only with a new extraordinary depth of knowledge, but also stimulates new questions and hopefully will inspire other researches to continue following Graeber's lead. Lastly, it makes one think more humanistically about what our true debts are...a book everyone should explore numerous times.