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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

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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.

534 pages, Hardcover

First published July 12, 2011

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About the author

David Graeber

84 books3,908 followers
David Rolfe Graeber was an American anthropologist and anarchist.

On June 15, 2007, Graeber accepted the offer of a lectureship in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he held the title of Reader in Social Anthropology.

Prior to that position, he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him, and his term there ended in June 2007.

Graeber had a history of social and political activism, including his role in protests against the World Economic Forum in New York City (2002) and membership in the labor union Industrial Workers of the World. He was an core participant in the Occupy Movement.

He passed away in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,597 reviews
Profile Image for Void lon iXaarii.
214 reviews82 followers
June 25, 2020
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.

PS: thanks for reading my humble thoughts. They are of course just my very own subjective, fallible and (with more books) evolving perspective and should not be taken too seriously. I started writing them down to remind myself of past books before I completely forget them (as I often did)... but if in the process they should be of interest or even use to anybody else I can only say I'm honored & happy to be of some humble service.
Writing these things down ends up adding up to surprisingly long times, which is why I try to be brief. If in doing so I upset anybody by not doing the customary social dance of words please understand and forgive me.
Profile Image for Mario the lone bookwolf.
805 reviews3,851 followers
August 23, 2021
It´s so unintentional tragicomedy style that each kid can intuitively understand that there is a logical, inbuilt error in money, credit, and debt. As long as there was real, physical money and a limited amount of it, the system worked, but with more humans came paper and digital money and that made endlessly running central bank printing machines, stock markets, speculations,… possible and here we are.

And the mentioned, clever kid will ask: „How can something artificial and more ideologically cemented like fiat money grow forever on a limited system like earth? Won´t that destroy itself on the day exponential growth isn´t possible anymore and cause extreme, irreversible damage until then?“

And we will say: „…“or, more probably: „Shut up and go to your room!“

Yes, I know, my characterization is horrible, super smart kids like that seem improbable and a bit stereotypical, but the little guy did a great job in explaining why our system is totally nuts.

Agnostic nihilistic point of view: The machine is running, no chance to stop it, what will happen will happen, dont´waste time thinking about it.

Debt, credit, and the economic system didn´t get civilized, fine-tuned, and cultivated, the thousand year old creature of banking didn´t become philanthropic, instead the ultimate mammon worshiping machine cult ever has been established over the last centuries, sacrificing and killing everything in its way.

The author is a progressive, provoking anarchist and what he says has more substance, sense, and wisdom than anything one could take from reading economic or political propaganda, because it describes the core of the problem, the development of this scourge of humankind, how to enslave all for the profit of some.

Congratulations to Yale University for firing a brilliant mind like Graeber for saying the truth, that´s what I call a classic example of free wisdom and research in education. It´s too nasty to say things like this, taken from Wikipedia:

„In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour workweek. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.“

Or to add a quote that could be used with state instead of man too:

Rich man, poor man
faced each other in a van.
Said the poor man with a twitch:
Were I not poor, you wouldn't be rich

Bertold Brecht

German original
„Reicher Mann und armer Mann
standen da und sahn sich an.
Und der Arme sagte bleich
wär ich nicht arm, wärst du nicht reich.“

To be not sooo pessimistic, I ought mention the bright future with digital currencies, bitcoins, quantum cryptocurrency, blockchain,… that will transform banks and all the other necessities of money that makes it impossible for people to trust each other in something anyone can profit from.
But to end realistically, it might take a while until then and an expansion of the Nordic model over the world.

A wiki walk can be as refreshing to the mind as a walk through nature in this completely overrated real life outside books:
Profile Image for Mike Dillon.
5 reviews
February 4, 2012
Fantastic book. To quote the words of Arundhati Roy: "The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."

Thanks for helping me see more clearly the true contours of the life we live. I guess I'm accountable now.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,085 reviews68.4k followers
August 23, 2019
Back to the Future of Credit

Despite its title this book is really a deconstruction of the idea of money. The economist's idea is that credit (loans, cash advances etc.) arises in a well-developed monetary or 'cash on the barrel head' society which in turn had been an improvement on the previous system of barter.

Not so says Graeber and rather convincingly: credit, or more precisely the ledger of who owes what to whom, is the most primitive form of commerce which is only supplemented by either barter or immediate monetary exchange when social conditions deteriorate sufficiently to make credit arrangements impossible. Wars, revolutions, and various social upheavals are what cause the demand for cash, that is, the immediate settlement of commercial transactions.

Cash only becomes king when there is no trust, either between parties to a transaction or in the stability of the social environment. Credit in a very practical sense is the fundamental invention and promoter of civilisation.

Graeber's thesis is in fact confirmed by recent technological developments like Bitcoin. Bitcoin is in its simplest terms 'merely' an unfalsifiable ledger of who has 'rights' in the community and how much, essentially what members of the community are worth to each other.

The Bitcoin ledger differs from bank accounts because (among other things) it cannot be interfered with either by criminals or governments. In other words the ledger can be trusted even when its members have no personal knowledge of each other. The social system is its own guarantor.

If only Immanuel Kant (not to mention Leibniz) were alive to see it! He spent his life trying to find a way to guarantee the integrity of life's accounts, in every sense of the word. Double-entry bookkeeping was a start but not enough to warrant complete trust. With modern technology it looks as if we might be able to create enough trust to return to the most efficient commercial system possible: pure credit. Without the need for banks or their regulators. Or for that matter, their scams and frauds.

Fascinating, provocative and stimulating. If you have an interest in uncovering the myths of economics and how those myths become part of what you then see in the world, this is a must read.


An Addendum

This article appeared in my feed today. It is yet further support for Graeber's position and the superiority of an unmediated credit economy: https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/in...
Profile Image for Kevin.
289 reviews920 followers
August 8, 2021
(2020-09-03 Update: RIP David Graeber, your works have been an inspiration, may they continue to inspire... here's one last gem, a discussion between Graeber, Michael Hudson and Guy Standing: https://youtu.be/1rlIXAUGans)

This dream book got me to love the potential of nonfiction. I first read this after my undergrad, and the book’s spirit of social imagination remains transformative. How can we change the world if we cannot even imagine the change? (The negative book reviews describe this book as “dangerous”)…

The Brilliant:
--The context of the book’s first edition (2011) was the socialism-for-creditors-capitalism-for-debtors stagnancy of post-2008 Financial Crisis, followed by the Occupy Movement. I re-read the 2014 updated edition, with new afterword. A helpful interview of Graeber on the book: https://youtu.be/zSnReXI4gKk
--Graeber details 5,000 years of varied social/economic relations, then questions how capitalism has strangulated our modern imaginations. One limitation is the modern confusion over the morality of debt. Another is the legacy of violence in our institutions. The book begins with a conversation with a liberal activist attorney regarding the Third World debt crisis, which quickly dissolves to “But, they’d borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one’s debts.”

--Graeber traces the history of debt and money to reveal:
1) ECON101 assumption of the evolution of barter --> money --> credit is a fantasy, indeed a reversal of history.
2) “Human economies” vs. “Market economies”; war, markets, forced labor and dehumanization; various relationships between States and markets, and where capitalism fits (endless accumulation, assumed as pathological by Adam Smith).
3) Origins of capitalism: a longer view before the factories and labor market, to consider the so-called “superstructure” of finance.

Human economies meet Market economies :
--The violence and consequences of imposing market economies (where anything can be bought and sold), from slave trade to patriarchy (in relation to prostitution).
--A memorable quote from Freuchen on the Inuit:
“Up in our country we are human! " said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs."

The Eurasian “cycles of history” between credit and money:
i) Great Agrarian empires (3500-800 BC): credit
ii) Axial Age (800 BC - 600 AD): money
--“Military-coinage-slavery complex”: trained mercenary armies replace aristocrat warriors, and aggressive armies overtake commercial centers. States monopolize coins to provision armies (impersonal coins more practical for marauding soldiers than credit relations). Coins also alleviate debt crises (free peasantry made more efficient armies) but lead to expansionism. Rise of world religions reflected this social change.

iii) Middle Ages (600-1450): credit
--Collapse of military empires. Rise of Han China, an example of pro-market while anti-capitalist (State encouraged markets but against merchants profiting from speculation). Meanwhile, signs of market populism: Islamic commerce where free market is still based on mutual aid and competition is regulated.

iv) Age of Great Capitalist Empires (1450-1971): money
--During Axial Age, money was a tool of empire; now, capital is granted autonomy while military/politics organizes around it.
--Middle Ages European peasant autonomy is crushed by the Price Revolution, as elites impose impersonal markets; more significantly, economies of credit are converted to economies of interest, where debt is criminalized. Credit is detached from social trust and latched to money.
--This is achieved by the birth of modern banking, where banks monetize State debt (used to finance wars) and force this currency onto daily transactions alongside birth of labor market.
--Ideology of “self interest” (endless desire creating endless competition) becomes accepted (e.g. Hobbes); despite theological roots (sin of individuals), it now is framed as objective. “Growth” is assumed to equate to social health, and this new ideology combined with violence and commerce forms capitalism and generates vast accumulation.
--China abandons paper money; the commercial boom of Ming China (thus demand for gold/silver) sustains Europe’s New World colonial plunder.
--New World colonialism’s infamous greed reveals the dual character of capitalism: risk-taking adventurer and careful financier. Colonialism was a chain of amoral indebtedness, of indebted merchants and soldier trying to move their debts onto the colonized, of entire kingdoms in debt.

v) Beginning of something new (1971-present): credit
--1971 Nixon Shock was switch to American “super-imperialism” (buying US treasury bonds as tribute), as post-war Bretton Wood rebuilding demand for American productive surplus had ran its course. For a detailed account: Super Imperialism: The Origin and Fundamentals of U.S. World Dominance and The Global Minotaur: America, the True Origins of the Financial Crisis and the Future of the World Economy
--This switch back to credit has not been accompanied by trust relations and debtor protection, but we are just in the beginnings.
--“Neoliberalism” as ideology where finance is supposedly democratized, where everyone becomes a rentier (parasitic profit), where not just the market but capitalism (endless accumulation) is the organization of everything.

...so what does this all leave us?
1) First, we dismantle the myths of the morality of debt to reveal the power relations: “As it turns out, we don't "all" have to pay our debts. Only some of us do.”
2) Next, we organize to build movements and institutions with different social relations:
a) Key to this is an initial debt jubilee targeting usurious debt. As Michael Hudson emphasizes, unpayable debts are the assets of the 1%. If we skip this step, the 1% will continue to be the 1%. (For a fascinating lecture on the history of debt cancellation, see this and make sure to stay for the Q&A: https://youtu.be/M4DkZ3CWFOk)
b) Next, we need public banking to replace private banking (including the Federal Reserve system): The Public Bank Solution: From Austerity to Prosperity

The Unknown:
--This book is incredibly accessible in its writing style; for a while I could go to mainstream bookstores and this would be the most radical book on display. Thus, casual centrists/Liberals, Progressives, and certain anti-authoritarian conservatives likely found parts of this book engaging. And obviously anarchists and post-Keynesians...
--However, I’m most intrigued to see Marxists (particularly "Orthodox Marxists" who seem so immersed in Capital Volume I, and not Volumes II and III; this contrasts from Marxists like David Harvey, Michael Hudson, Yanis Varoufakis, etc.) engaging with this book, and I have mixed feelings regarding how well this process went...
--Regardless, Graeber incorporates valuable insights from anthropology, rent/financial theory (for example: Michael Hudson’s research into Ancient Near East political economy, ...And Forgive Them Their Debts) and World-Systems Analysis; I’d like to see this synthesized with Asiatic mode of production and beyond.

What is a debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence. If freedom (real freedom) is the ability to make friends, then it is also, necessarily, the ability to make real promises. What sorts of promises might genuinely free men and women make to one another? At this point we can't even say. It's more a question of how we can get to a place that will allow us to find out. And the first step in that journey, in turn, is to accept that in the largest scheme of things, just as no one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.
Profile Image for Caitlin O'Sullivan.
50 reviews18 followers
June 18, 2012
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.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22k followers
August 31, 2019
As I was reading this I couldn’t help thinking how much it reminded me of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. I got halfway through The Gift recently, and even though it is very short, I still got distracted with other things and haven’t finish it yet – which, as the author of this says, makes me a bit like Mauss himself. I will finish it – but almost don’t need to now.

This book is born out of a chance conversation about third-world debt the author had a woman at a party. She felt that paying one’s debts was always the right thing to do. He argued the standard lines I might use myself if arguing on this topic: that there are debts and then there is bondage; that the people who borrowed the money aren’t always the same people expected to pay it back; that often those forced to pay back a debt had already done so many, many times over; that, even though they had already done this, they still often owe as much and sometimes even more than was originally borrowed; or that in a world drowning in debt it is only the obscenely rich who benefit at all from all this repaying of debts…

But weeks later, the author could still hear this woman’s ‘moral’ argument echoing in his ears, with her saying that we must always ‘pay our debts’. And that is particularly interesting, since, in so many ways, ‘debt’ is not only an economic or financial idea, but rather a central concept in our morality – particularly in the sense of the unrepayable debts that we owe, say, our mother and our gods. Which is also amusing when you think of it, that we owe an infinite debt to those who have created us out of nothing.

This book is a history of debt, but also a history of us as humans. He divides this history into four major epochs: what he calls The Axial Age (800BC-600AD – when all of the current major religions were born), the Middle Ages (600-1450), the Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450-1971), and the Beginning of Something Yet to Be Determined (1971-present). He also gives an interesting account of how debts different across geographies, so that debt in Ancient China didn’t mean the same thing as debt in Africa. And how debt was used (the example given here is of the Conquistadors) to make already savage acts unspeakable.

I’m not going to get into this history, as this is a long book and my review would quickly become impossible, but I want to look at a couple of particularly interesting ideas I found along the way.

The book begins with what the author makes clear is a kind of a mythic history – which, ironically enough, is the history that virtually every economics textbook begins with. That is, he discusses the pre-history of money that was supposed to be barter. In the mythical barter land we are invariably confronted by two people who want to trade, but they struggle to be able to do that because no one can reasonably work out how many chickens a cow was worth – and even, if they do get around to work this out (say it is 37 chickens to the cow), what were they now going to do with all these damn chickens? He points out that at the core of this myth of barter is the idea that money, like an acorn in the story about to become an oak tree. Money is the universal store of value, something that can stand in for all other values, and something that can be infinitely divided (unlike either the chickens or the cows being bartered) and as I said, this is something that is always imminent in these just-so barter stories. But even though this land of barter never actually existed, we never seem to recognise that, we also seem to believe it as fact. The author is an anthropologist, and so when he says that we have never found a nation or tribe that exclusively used barter as its major system of exchange, we ought to take him seriously.

He goes so far as to say barter could never become the fundamental basis for exchange in any society. He gives a description of the violence with which people who do barter (he isn’t saying no one ever bartered, we even barter today), but when they barter they snatch and grab at the things being exchanged. People bartered, but when they did it rarely pretty.

Debt is interesting. And interesting in similar ways that gifts are interesting. Gifts need to look like they are gratuitous but in fact they invariably also have a series of rules associated with them. For instance, only bad things come from giving the wrong sort of gift to someone – whether the gift is too generous or not generous enough.

One of my favourite fairy tales is from Calvino called Catherine, Sly Country Lass. It starts with Catherine’s father finding a golden orb or something (sorry, it’s been a while since I read it) and saying he is going to go give it to his king. Catherine tells him not to, as her father will only end up in trouble – but since it is of the nature of fairy tales for side characters (her dad) to never to listen to the good advice of protagonists (our Catherine), he gives the gift to the king and the king throws him in gaol, as predicted by his sly daughter. According to Mauss (the also sly) this outcome shouldn’t really surprise us, because, well, how would the king have been able to repay such a gift to one of his inferiors? Gifts need to be carefully judged so as not to cause offence. But the other thing that is made clear here is that gifts can’t be an ‘exact exchange’. If you give me 12 roses, I can’t give you 12 roses back. There needs to be a distance (in time) between the giving of the gifts (to sustain the illusion of the gift being freely given), but also often the second gift will need to be of slightly higher value than the first one received, so that both parties remain tied in obligation to each other. And that is the actual point of gift giving – to create bonds of obligation and therefore to provide necessary social bonds.

I found a lot of the stuff in the middle of this particularly interesting. We are constantly told today that the most natural mode of human interaction for us is the market – preferably capitalist markets, obviously enough, but if push comes to shove, any market will do. He points out that for much of human history such markets really didn’t exist in anything like the way the myth would have them, and that for most of the time people operated nearly as communists. As he repeatedly says, families and the very wealthy exist as basically forms of communism as the norm, rather than the exception.

He quotes an Atwood novel where she talks of a father who presented his son with a bill that detailed everything he had paid for his son since his birth. As the author points out, it is very possible to do this, people have been making itemised accounts of just about anything forever – but to seek reimbursement in this case is pretty well the best way to guarantee the end of a family relationship.

I really liked this book – another book I started recently was Symbolic Exchange and Death by Baudrillard. In that he says that one of the problems left wing people have with explaining why the workers of the world haven’t risen up and expropriated the expropriators is that they see ‘work’ as being mostly about ‘exchange values’ – whereas Baudrillard thinks it is best understood as being about symbolic exchange values. That is, the gift of a job from a boss doesn’t equate, as economic theory generally asserts, to the free exchange between two free people, but rather is felt symbolically by the worker as being something that is within the gift of the employer to present or to take away – and as a gift a job means the difference between, well, perhaps not life and death, but certainly between a good life and one of suffering. So, symbolically, the worker isn’t entering into an exchange between his time and the bosses money, but rather the worker is in receipt of a gift that can never be repaid – a gift of livelihood. All of which makes the employer/employee relationship deeply problematic and social revolution also something of divided loyalties.

This is the second book by this author I’ve read in quick succession and have enjoyed them both.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
August 25, 2014
I have read many many books--I am a professor and it is my job to read. This is the only book I would label a "Must Read." It's that simple--everyone must read this book. It blew my mind--figuratively, of course. My area is banking and finance and so I am not unfamiliar with the standard banking story. But Graeber starts way before any other book I've ever read on the subject. By the time you get to modern banking and the bank of England, what you've been told is irrelevant. It's also just very fascinating. Lots of just really interesting stories. It's like the Guns Germs and Steel for money, but with a much bigger bang.

There are of course problems with the book--but nothing to take away from its must read status in my opinion.
Profile Image for Colleen.
Author 4 books49 followers
August 19, 2014
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.

Profile Image for Maziyar Yf.
531 reviews280 followers
August 22, 2023
دیوید گریبر انسان شناس، نویسنده و فعال اجتماعی آمریکایی بوده. وی در تحقیقات و نوشته‌های خود به موضوعاتی مانند انسان شناسی اقتصادی و اجتماعی، تاریخ مالی، طبقه‌بندی اجتماعی و نظریات سیاسی و تشخیص و بررسی مسائلی مانند نابرابری اقتصادی، و قدرت بی‌رویه بانک‌ها و شرکت‌ها در اقتصاد و جامعه پرداخته. اوبه اصلاحات سیستم مالی و اقتصادی، تقویت حقوق اجتماعی و اقتصادی مردم، و ایجاد شفافیت در سیاست تأکید فراوان داشته و نقش بانک‌ها و شرکت‌ها در ایجاد نابرابری را بسیار برجسته می دانست .
معروفترین کتاب گریبر را بدهی ۵۰۰۰ سال نخست را می دانند که در آن به بررسی تاریخچه بدهی و نقش آن در ساختارهای اجتماعی و به بررسی نحوه برقراری تعاملات اقتصادی پرداخته .

مشخصات کتاب بدهی 5000 سال نخست

این کتاب توسط دو ناشر منتشر شده ، ابتدا دهکده هوسم ، با ترجمه مصطفی آقایی در سال 1399 آنرا منتشر کرده و سپس نشر چشمه با ترجمه دکتر علی معظمی . از آن جا که یافتن نسخه انتشارات هوسم بسیار سخت است بنابراین برای خواننده علاقه مند راهی به جز خرید نسخه گرانتر نشر چشمه باقی نمی ماند . بدهی نشر چشمه 745 صفحه دارد که 583 صفحه آن متن کتاب ، 90 صفحه توضیحات و یادداشت ها ست که گرچه وجود آن برای درک کتاب بسیار مهم است اما اندکی ریز چاپ شده و مابقی کتاب هم کتاب شناسی و منابع است .
آدام اسمیت و اصل تهاتر

یکی از ایده های اصلی کتاب را باید به چالش کشیدن نظریه اصل تهاتر آدام اسمیت دانست ، این اصل می‌گوید که تجارت و تبادلات اقتصادی بر اساس تهاتر و تبادل به صورت مستقیم بین دو طرف صورت می‌گرفته. بطور مثال، فرض کنید فردی نیاز فوری به نیم کیلو گوشت داشته و حاضر است 8 تخم مرغ برای به دست آوردن گوشت بدهد . بنابراین او به بازار یا قصابی رفته و پیشنهاد معامله می دهد و این گونه تهاتر انجام می شود ، بنابراین یک تبادل پایاپای یعنی پس‌گرفتن دِین در همان زمان شکل می گیرد ، کم کم پول به عنوان واسطه و تسهیل کننده تبادل کالا و خدمات مورد استفاده قرار گرفته و سپس دولت ها برای نظارت بر پول و معاملات شکل گرفته اند . اما گریبر ادعا می کند که هیچ مستندی برای اثبات تهاتر وجود نداشته . او اصل تهاتر را افسانه مرکزی علم اقتصاد می داند . اگر به همان مثال تبادل 8 تخم مرغ با نیم کیلو گوشت برگردیم ، بنابرادعای نویسنده ، متقاضی نیم کیلو گوشت خود را می گیرد بدون آنکه تخم مرغی بدهد ، اما فروشنده گوشت اعتباری کسب کرده که با آن هر زمانی که بخواهد می تواند به اندازه اعتبار خود یا همان نیم کیلو گوشت ، از خریدار خدمات و یا کالا دریافت کند . میزان این اعتبار با تقدیم هدیه و یا پیشکش می تواند افزایش هم پیدا کند . این گونه بدهی به وجود آمده و سپس دولت ها و حکومت ها برای حفظ و نظارت بر بدهی ها یا حفظ دیونِ اجتماعی به وجود آمده اند .
گریبر معتقد بوده که تهاتر محدودیت‌هایی داشته و ممکن است منجر به مشکلاتی مثل کمبود تطابق نیازها، مشکلات حمل و نقل، و عدم انعطاف‌پذیری در تبادلات شود. او در عوض از سیستم اعتباری سخن گفته که بر اساس اعتماد و تعهدات مالی میان افراد شکل می‌گیرد. این سیستم اعتباری به جامعه امکان می‌دهد که به جای تهاتر مستقیم، با استفاده از اعتبار و قرض‌ها، تبادلات اقتصادی را انجام دهد .
گریبر بر این باور است که بدهی و مفاهیم پول و اعتبار در طول تاریخ بشریت برای هزاران سال، قبل از ظهور سیستم‌های پولی رسمی، نقش اساسی و حیاتی داشته‌اند. گریبر نظریه‌ای را که استفاده از پول را به عنوان وسیله‌ای برای تسهیل مبادله توصیف می‌کند، مورد انتقاد قرار مداده و می‌گوید که در واقع سیستم‌های بدهی و اعتبار پیش از پول بوده‌اند.
اما افزون بر چالش اصل تهاتر و تقدم یا تاخر پول بدهی ، کتاب سترگ ، غنی و البته سخت خوان گریبر را از جهات دیگری هم می توان بررسی کرد :
علم انسان‌شناسی بدهی: گریبر از تخصص خود به عنوان یک آنتروپولوژیست یا انسان‌شناس اجتماعی ( آنتروپولوژیست یا علم انسان‌شناسی اجتماعی و فرهنگی، علمی است که به مطالعه انسان و جوامع انسانی می‌پردازد. آنتروپولوژیست‌ها سعی می‌کنند رفتارها، عادات، اعتقادات، ساختارهای اجتماعی و فرهنگی انسان‌ها را در ابعاد مختلف مانند زمان، مکان و تأثیرات تاریخی و جغرافیایی بررسی کنند ) بهره برده تا وجه فرهنگی و اجتماعی بدهی را بررسی کند. وی با توجه به تأثیر روابط بدهی بر ساختارهای اجتماعی، نظام‌های خویشاوندی و سیستم‌های سیاسی در جوامع مختلف، به بررسی آن پرداخته .
مطالعات تاریخی: این کتاب مجموعه‌ای از مطالعات تاریخی را ارائه می‌دهد تا پیچیدگی‌های روابط بدهی را توضیح دهد. گریبر درباره تمدن‌های باستانی مانند سومر، بابل و مصر، و همچنین اروپای قرون وسطی و آمریکا صحبت کرده و مجموعه‌ای غنی از نمونه‌ها ارائه می‌دهد
بدهی و خشونت: گریبر به ارتباط بین بدهی و خشونت در طول تاریخ پرداخته. او ادعا می‌کند که از بدهی بیشتر به عنوان بهانه ای برای جنگ، تسخیر و برده‌داری استفاده شده است و نحوه استفاده از بدهی به عنوان یک وسیله برای تمرکز قدرت و کنترل بر افراد و جوامع را شرح داده .
انتقاد از نئولیبرالیسم: بررسی مفهوم بدهی به گریبر بهانه انتقاد شدید از نئولیبرالیسم را داده . او معتقد است که سیاست‌های اقتصادی نئولیبرال و سرمایه‌داری معاصر بحران‌های بدهی را تشدید کرده و تفاوت‌ها و نابرابری ها را را افزایش داده . به همین ترتیب او بدهی و پیامدهای آن را تا بحث‌های معاصر در مورد بدهی دانشجویی، بحران وام مسکن و سیستم‌های مالی جهانی ادامه داده است .
تجربه من از خواندن کتاب بدهی

بدهی برای من کتاب سخت خوانی بود ، تا اندازه ای سخت که چندین بارتصمیم گرفتم کتاب را نیمه کاره رها کنم . گریبر به مفاهیمی پرداخته بود که پیش از این کاملا برای من بیگانه بودند . کتاب را می توان مجموعه ای از علوم آنتروپولوژی یا انسان شناسی اجتماعی، تاریخ، اقتصاد و جامعه‌شناسی دانست . نویسنده هر یک از علوم یاد شده را تا جای ممکن شکافته و رابطه میان پول و بدهی در جوامع و میان انسان ها بررسی و مفاهیم پیچیده اقتصادی و تاریخی عمدتا در ارتب��ط با هم طرح کرده است .

در پایان کتاب گریبر را می توان بررسی نقش پول در جوامع انسانی و رابطه آن با بدهی دانست. او پول را به عنوان یک نوع بدهی اجتماعی تعریف کرده و بر تأثیر آن بر نظام‌های اقتصادی و ساختارهای اجتماعی تمرکز کرده. این تحلیلات و دیدگاه‌ها در کتاب به صورت جامع و تحقیقی ارائه شده است و می‌تواند در درک بهتر نظام‌های بدهی و تأثیر آن‌ها در جوامع انسانی و همین طور به چالش کشیده شدن فرضیات درباره ماهیت پول و بدهی کمک کند
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 7 books25 followers
October 7, 2012
I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson's completely unreadable "the Ascent of Money:" it mixes in the author's politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson's right.) In this case, Graeber's book covers more facts than political lecturing but it's bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian - Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty "stuff." The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market -- the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.

Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it's glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.

What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages -- Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, "Yeah this is a great book on ROME!" is good. Saying, "This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!" is not. It's an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.

Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.
Profile Image for Prerna.
222 reviews1,427 followers
May 31, 2022
I've been trying to assuage my guilt this year, guilt I've been permanently feeling for no apparent reason since I was 8. The truth though, is that my guilt is also an ugly, warped, narcissistic thing. I tend to be so self-centred that when I hear of a well respected intellectual's death, my first thought is something along the lines of 'oh shit, I haven't really read anything by them, and now I have to.' It happened with bell hooks, it happened with David Graeber. And so here I am. Reading Graeber's books this year. Because forget empathy, compassion, sympathy. I just have to make it about me. (Is it ironic that I just finished reading All About Love by bell hooks because I HAD to and only got entirely bored to the point of yawning after every other sentence? Yes, it probably is.)

I have been trying my best to not see human relations in terms of exchange, but I am a product of my culture that has been subjected to decades of imperialist globalisation schemes and whelp. So it would be no exaggeration to say that this book has been a godsend. Perhaps the most impressive lesson for me was Graeber's phenomenal deconstruction of the creation myth of monetary economics and the standard textbook explanation of origins of money. Say it with me kids: barter was never the way societies organized themselves, it has always been (drumroll please) DEBT! The origin of economy lies in debt and what we call money now has always just been tradeable debt obligations.

Debt has also always been intertwined with religion, notions of sin and guilt. There's a moral value associated with it. What makes it all the more problematic in today's world is that we have created systems wherein the choice of repaying debts is only selectively available. Debt is facilitated and mediated by a set of existing class relations, and debt in turn strengthens these relations. It's like a sickening symbiotic relationship, really. The question we all need to ask ourselves right now is this: what is the hold that the idea of debt has over our imaginations?

Albeit for selfish reasons, (although in my defense, when is reading ever not selfish?) I'm glad I finally got around to properly reading Graeber.
Profile Image for Roy Lotz.
Author 1 book8,277 followers
November 1, 2020
For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.

Three years ago, I went on vacation in the north of Spain, to the city of A Coruña. There, perched on the jagged rocks below the Roman lighthouse, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. The crashing sound of ocean waves just seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Spengler’s grandiose attempt to analyze all of human history.

At it happened, I ended up reading David Graeber’s Debt in the exact same circumstances. And perhaps this coincidence highlighted the odd similarities between Graeber’s book and Spengler’s. On the surface, the two men are quite radically opposed: Spengler is mystical, conservative, and mainly preoccupied with ‘high culture,’ while Graeber is conversational, leftist, and usually focused on more humdrum human affairs. But both The Decline of the West and Debt are sweeping scholarly exercises which attempt to completely alter our view of history. As a consequence, the books have similar merits—a large perspective, unusual connections, an original angle—while suffering from the same basic weakness: the attempt to strap history into a Procrustean bed.

But I am getting ahead of myself, as I should explain what this book is about. Graeber set out to write about debt, partly as a response to the 2008 financial crash, but also to respond to a certain moral confusion he noticed in the general culture. This is the notion that one always ought to ‘pay one’s debts.’ Most of us, I suspect, would agree that this is the right and proper thing to do. But there are many cases in which debt can be morally questionable. Consider a man who had an unexpected heart attack and was taken to a hospital out of his insurance network, or a young student who took out college loans but then had to drop out because her father had a heart attack, or a family who had agreed to a predatory mortgage for a house that the bank knew they could not afford, or a poor country forced to adopt austerity policies by the IMF in order to pay their debts to richer countries—in any of these cases, is it moral to pay one’s debts?

As Graeber points out, standard economic theory does not hold that all debts must be repaid. Rather, both the lender and the debtor enter into an arrangement with a certain amount of risk. The loan is, in a sense, an investment like buying stock, and may or may not yield money according to the fortunes of the debtor. But this is not how we typically treat debt. Bolstered by our moral sense that debts should be paid, we accept a moral lopsidedness in the relationship, giving lenders quite extraordinary powers (garnishing wages, confiscating property) to extract money from debtors. Yet Graeber is not an economist, and does not want to restore a balance to the arrangement. Rather, he is disturbed by the very concept of debt. For what sets debt apart from an obligation is that it can be precisely quantified. This means debts require a system of money.

This leads Graeber to examine the origins of money, which for me was easily the strongest section of the book. Most economist textbooks explain money by pointing out that money solves the problem of a double coincidence of wants. That is, if I have some extra boots, and I would like to trade them for some beer, it is quite possible the brewer already has all the boots he needs. But if I can sell the boots for money, and the brewer accepts cash payments, then we are in business. The problem with this story is that there is no historical evidence that such a thing happened. Indeed, this hypothetical situation is rather bizarre—essentially taking a world very much like our own, and then removing the money.

Instead, it appears from the historical record that credit systems developed before actual money. These could be formal or quite informal. As an example of the latter, imagine you are living in a small village. One day, you see your neighbor wearing a nice pair of boots, and you ask if he has any extras. He does, and offers them to you as a gift. Next month, you make a big brew of beer and then give him a jug of it, offering it as a gift. The key is that, using such a credit system, you effectively get around the double coincidence of wants, since there is a very good chance that you will eventually have something your neighbor wants, and vice versa. This is just one informal example of how such a credit system could work with ‘virtual money.’ Graeber, being an anthropologist, is full of fun examples of exchange practices from around the world, all of which fly in the face of our idealized notions of purely economic transactions.

After quite effectively demolishing what Graeber calls the ‘myth of barter,’ he embarks on a grand tour of history. And here is where the book fell off the rails for me. Now, this is not to say I did not enjoy the ride: Graeber is an engaging writer and is full of fascinating factoids and radical notions. But I was constantly bugged by the sensation that either I was misunderstanding Graeber, or that he was not proving what he thought he was proving. To give you a smattering of Graeber’s points, he argues that the use of coinage influenced ancient Greek philosophers’ concepts of matter, that religions emphasizing selfless charity arose in reactions to markets emphasizing selfish acquisition, that our notions of property derive through Roman law from slavery, that money was actually introduced by kings who used it to debt-finance wars, and that the Spanish conquistadores were driven to commit such atrocities because they were in debt.

As you can see, that is an awful lot of material to cover; and this is just a sample. Each of these arguments is, in my opinion, quite interesting (if not always convincing). But, again, I was always unsure as to the larger point that Graeber was trying to make. On the one hand, Graeber seemed to be saying that money and debt are inextricably bound up in an ugly history of violence; but on the other, Graeber demonstrates that debt financing is a remarkably old and persistent practice, and is partly responsible for what we (pretentiously) call ‘civilization.’ At the end of the book, Graeber states that his purpose was to give his readers a wider taste of what is possible, so that we can reimagine our society. However, one of Graeber’s main insights is that history is cyclical: alternating from periods of hard money (like precious metals) and virtual money (like IOUs and fiat currency)—though both of these systems involve debt. If anything, then, this book left me with the impression that debt is an inescapable part of life.

Allow me, if you please, to mention one of my pet peeves here. Graeber is a big fan of etymologies. This book is peppered with words and their unexpected origins, which Graeber often uses as evidence in his arguments. In my opinion, this is a very lazy and unconvincing way of arguing. Do not misunderstand me: I like a good etymology as much as anyone. But the fact that a word once meant one thing and now means another does not, in my opinion, prove that these two concepts are somehow secretly connected. I would have much preferred more detailed examinations of historical evidence; but Graeber actually goes out of his way in the afterward to criticize historians for being overly empirical. This is not a message I can get behind.

But enough of that. I am sorry to be writing even a moderately critical review in the wake of Graeber’s tragic passing. For all of this book’s (perceived) faults, I am very glad to have read it. Like Spengler, Graeber had a mind full of fire, and was always letting off sparks in every direction. He was, in advertising parlance, an idea man; and this book is full of bold new ways of seeing our past and present. And even if Graeber’s grand theories about society and history do not, ultimately, pan out, one can say of Graeber what Walter Pater said of aesthetic theorists:
Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to define beauty in the abstract, and express it in the most general terms, to find a universal formula for it. The value of these attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating things said by the way.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,729 followers
April 9, 2016
“As it turns out, we don't "all" have to pay our debts. Only some of us do.”
― David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years


A fascinating exploration of debt, money, barter, and the credit systems used by man for thousands of years. Sure it has biases and like Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a bit too idealistic, but still -- wow -- an amazing read. While most economic books are still battling over the binary capitalism::socialism model, Graeber quietly flips both boats (or if not flips, rocks both boats HARD).

I mean really, when was the last time my wife let me read to her about social and economic transactions? Answer: Never. She has NEVER, EVER before let me read to her about money or debt or interest rates or the buying and selling of goods. This was an early rule in our marriage. It was practically a sacred cow, a promise made with a flesh-debt. We even broke bread sticks over it (I still have my stale tally). We kept our bargain, till this book, till last night. THAT is how good it is.

Anyway, go ahead read it in bed. Read it to your wife -- in bed. If you are really equals she will tell you after a few minutes whether she is in your debt, or you are in hers. And, that's OK. We are all debtors anyway.
Profile Image for Wick Welker.
Author 6 books382 followers
March 9, 2022
War justifies coin justifies war.

This is my second Graeber read and it’s clear that he was a towering intellect in not only anthropology but economics and sociology. I scarcely read an author who completely upends how I perceive the modern economy and even the very fabric of society. This book is not really about debt, it’s about looking behind the curtain of the underpinnings of the global economy and exposing it for what it really is: collusion of the state and market to create a communism of the elite where the rules of debt only apply to the impoverished. Please explore this assertion with me.

First, Graeber undoes the myth of the origins of the modern economy. Economy textbooks and conventional wisdom believe that humans first bartered before developing coinage and currency. Not only is there no evidence for this, there is far more anthropological evidence that early humans first used credit. This is not to say that bartering doesn’t happen, it certainly does, but only after state currency was formed. This is an important myth to dispel because the legend of bartering suggests some sort of evolution of economies that has become refined, and more equitable, over time. None of this is true.

Credit systems are as old as human beings and may even have been an important cognitive development that made human minds what they are. Before we had plastic, credit was actually nothing more or less than honor. Honor-bound societies dealt in the currency of a person’s honor and offered credit predicated on maintaining honor. If a person was dishonored, they were basically shut off from the market economy and their community. Debt altogether is an incredibly nebulous concept: who are we in debt to? God? Our mothers? Certainly our creditors. So who do we owe? There is clearly some debt that no human can possibly pay back, like to our mothers. So an unhappy ethos of debt, sin and the never-ending quest for redemption became predictably enmeshed in the church, and by extension, the state. Debt is the underlying theology in every major world religion. A very happy coincidence for the would-be tax collector (or alms collectors, the two often the same…) So a very tangible concept of debt, and the paying back of that debt, became entrenched early on in human history.

The problem with defining debt is the problem of defining the mechanics of societies. As Graber shrewdly points out, societies aren’t actually discrete units of predetermined structures. What I mean is, there are no purely capitalistic or social societies. Despite what politicians would have us believe, all people and states are on a spectrum of markets and state socialism. And this is crucial to understand debt. Once credit, and its debt, was decoupled from small communities and placed in the hands of a disimpassioned banker, the myth of the perfect (divine) market described by Adam Smith is used as a cudgel to the proletariat. Yet on top of the rugged individualism for the poor, there is a communism of the elite. To the bankers that make the rules, debt is ethereal—it vanishes with each financial disaster fabricated by its own financiers. To the labor class, debt is the inexorable clock of death hanging over their heads. There are no free markets, only state-privatized markets that enjoy broad latitude to create speculative markets who are then bailed out when they destroy those markets and put the global economy at risk.

All markets are actually fake and all people actually live in a communistic hierarchy where you enjoy the benefits of your station that you’re in, likely from happenstance. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Important question: why did coinage arise? The answer: war. You can’t pay mercenaries in cows, they can be hard to transport. So ancient wars fought with mercenary armies were paid in state coinage which served two purposes: a convenient way to finance warfare and a way to legitimize the state. Hmm, this is sounding kind of familiar today…

Let’s flash forward to the 1970s and one very important event: Nixon decoupled the dollar from the gold reserve. This was a monumental event in human history. Nixon created a free floating fiat currency whose value is purely political and directly related to empire dominance. Like ancient kingdoms paying their mercenaries in coinage, the US has the most expansive military industrial complex that the world has ever seen. A pointillistic US empire is strewn across the globe ready to mobilize fire power on any spot on the planet at any moment. The question is: if the US dollar now has no intrinsic value, why then is it so damn valuable? The answer is that the US maintains global dominance through its war machine. Here’s another very important question: why are Iran and Iraq mortal enemies to the US? We could speculate or we could arrive at the obvious answer: they decided to sell petroleum in something other than the US dollar.

The US creates debt to fund its wars knowing full well it does not have to pay this debt back. And if you believe that the deficit is akin to something like household debt, you’ve been manipulated by a politician. What is really going on is that China is buying up US bonds with its enormous trade surplus (that it maintains by suppressing its labor force, but that’s another topic) and this creates “debt”. But this debt is nothing more or less than China paying tribute to the global US empire. Of course this is not real debt and it never has to be paid back. If China were to cash in its bonds, its economy would likely instantly collapse. China is never going to do this. So what we have is a militarization of capitalism that maintains the dominance of the US dollar and the credit systems that flow from it. Those that control the debt, never actually have to pay debt where the labor class is seen as sinful and lazy for being laden with onerous debt (the most of which comes from healthcare spending, also another topic for another time.) In the end, state and market capitalism are two wings of the same thing—the two being inseparable and guaranteed by the military-industrial complex that constantly creates demand for the dollar while asserting the dollar’s global dominance.

Why are things this way? Is this the natural evolution of global economies? My answer is no. This was a very deliberate decision made in the 1970s-80s back by the neoliberal policies of Reagan and Thatcher. Human beings created this mess, not an invisible hand. If we made the world to look like this, we can unmake it. It comes to no surprise that Graeber is an anarchist, which is true decentralization of power and the economy with communal ownership over market goods.

Freedom is nothing more or less than power and whoever has power, enjoys freedom. It’s time we step back and re-examine for whom exactly our laws are ensuring freedom. Spoiler alert: it’s not you.

Check out my Bullshit Jobs review here, another amazing book by Graeber: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...)

Other related and important books that I’ve read:
Profile Image for Michael Burnam-Fink.
1,505 reviews229 followers
May 21, 2018
This might be the most important book you read this decade. Graeber asks what the phrase "You have to pay your debts" really means, and his answer involves a looping historical, anthropological, linguistic, and philosophical inquiry into the nature of currency, coinage, and capitalism.

As Graeber notes, the standard economic story of the development of coinage: that bartering diverse goods (potatoes for shoes for sheep for shovels) was so inconvenient that people developed cash to be more efficient, has no evidence of support. Rather, indigenous societies tend to work on principles of mutual solidarity within the group. Everybody is bound together in a complex web of minor debts and obligations, the cancellation of which is the same as the end of the relationship. Currency in these 'human economies' is used to arrange marriages and compensate for murders. Their purpose is not that human beings can be bought, but precisely to point out how unique each human life is.

On top of this primordial communism, Graeber recognizes two harmful phenomenon. Debt peonage, caused by ever escalating interest on loans, reduces free citizens to slaves, prompting rebelling and escape from urban agricultural centers. Coinage, precious metal currency, is wealth stripped of all its context, anonymous money for strangers of little trust. Together, they lead to what Graeber describes as the 'military-slavery-coinage complex', the use of force to seize human beings, rip them away from their homes, set them to working mines and plantations, and turn them into coins to pay the army to continue the war. Combine the two, and you get the most rapacious form of modern capitalism: debt-laden soldiers trying to reduce everything around them to hard currency as fast as they can.

The philosophical and linguistic sections are if anything, better than the history and the anthropology. Almost all of our modern philosophies originate in questions about what money measures, what the universe is made of, and the paradox of ethical action and self-interest.

Graeber's arguments are more complex than what I've presented here. I'm sure that there are other interpretations to the history he has chosen. But he's asking The Big Questions, and one that cuts at the heart of our current crisis of faith.
206 reviews5 followers
April 21, 2015
If you think capitalism and modern economics are the worst thing to ever happen to the world, this will be a great feel good read for you. If you like your books to be robustly argued with appropriate credence given to opposing arguments, I suggest you pick up something else. Graeber seems to consider those who disagree with him as either naive, blindsided by economic theory, or simply greedy.

It's a little hard to pin down exactly what Graeber wants to argue; his preferred method of exposition is to give a narrative view of some historical or anthropological subject (European conquest of the Americas, cultural traditions in African tribes etc.), but it's unclear for most of the book what exactly we're supposed to make from his interpretation. In general, he seems to reject the quantification and mathematics of debt, views capitalism as inextricably linked to violence, and thinks modern economics is simply a blindsided cover for all this. Graeber never really details what kind of society he would like to see, his most concrete proposal being immediate debt relief or "jubilee." He seems to have a preference for more "communal" societies that share their wealth equally automatically without formal precision.

Now, credit where credit is due, the history of capitalism is steeped in violence and oppression (the genocidal conquest of the Americas being just one instance). The problem is, that's true of almost any piece of history, particularly those that came about earlier than WW2. Capitalism and debt are steeped in violence and inequality? So are the creation of the state, Democracy, fashion... really any kind of social organization. Graeber deserves credit for pointing out the bloody roots of these institutions but it's unclear whether that means they need reform today and certainly doesn't mean communal societies are possible for the billions of people alive today.

The book's isolated facets are sometimes interesting, particularly his arguments that the origins of money postdate small societies which would have been largely communal and had no need for formalized exchange. Money might be more efficient than barter, but these societies weren't bartering. Still, his take on other parts of history marks him as something less than a credible scholar; did you know that the US bombed Iraq because they switched to the Euro? Graeber says it's a plausible theory.

Finally, Graeber seems to have little understanding of modern economics, equating it mostly with what rightwing pundits seem to say on TV. He says, for instance, that "the problem" with economics and economic models is that they assume someone like Cortez was acting rationally when he looted the Aztec empire and the "market" will aggregate these actions perfectly. So, economists support genocide, right? Well, no, of course not. Graeber seems to simply be extrapolating to an extreme here. Economists are no more fans of genocide than anyone else (see, as a specific instance, "Why Nations Fail"). That he seems to believe anyone could condone this behavior is only one of his many puzzling declarations about modern economics.

The topic is an incredibly interesting one but unfortunately Graeber explores it with a political aim about today's society.
Profile Image for Foppe.
151 reviews49 followers
January 5, 2019
I haven't finished reading yet, and I will try to write a more substantive review of this book once I've had time to wrap my head around the contents, but until such time has come, I would simply propose to consider this book the new answer to Douglas Adams's Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. If you've ever wondered whether there is a connection between -- to name just a few things -- simple social obligations, the invention of money, slavery, taxation, coinage, the disappearance of honor societies, the possibility of (extended) wars, the rise and fall of the (West-)Roman empire, the relative stability of the Chinese empires, the emergence of the great world religions, and the current financial crisis, you might be interested in reading Debt.

(For more, see e.g., this (shorter) or this (longer) interview with the author.)
Profile Image for Katie.
42 reviews
June 26, 2013
In a word - brilliant. Just when I thought I understood all the false assumptions in modern economic theory, David Graeber uncovers yet another huge, unfounded assumption that economists discuss as if it's a matter of fact. I clearly remember sitting in my intro to macro class and hearing about how before there was money, people bartered and it was terribly inconvenient, then money was created and saved everybody. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that yet another aspect of our economic theory is based on complete, make-believe, bullshit, demonstrating once again, that while real scientists study historical records and base their theories on evidence, economists base their theories on utopian fantasies.

This book makes a lot of great points. Among them, that human history is full of examples of societies that were both stateless and marketless and that economists have ignored large parts of history where people shared resources. That unlike economists claim, measuring value and recording debts (virtual money) actually predates writing. That coinage and markets became necessary for the state to pay armies - that physical money wasn't necessary in the transactions that normally took place within a community, among people who knew and trusted each other, and only became necessary for impersonal transactions among strangers (and thieves).

Thanks to this book, I understand why people are trying to create local currencies and new ways of measuring value (such as time banks). It was a truly eye-opening read and I can't recommend it enough.
Profile Image for Darran Mclaughlin.
599 reviews81 followers
November 8, 2015
A superb book. Throughout reading this book I felt like little epiphanies were going off in my head as Graeber presented new information or new analyses that I hadn't considered before. Graeber manages to expose the violence, coercion and inequality that has become sublimated in the bland language of credit and debt so that most of us see debt as an impersonal, objective and moral issue. He opens with an anecdote that inspired him to write this book in the first place, describing attending a party and meeting a lawyer who is an activist for social justice issues with impeccable Lefty credentials. She discovered that he was involved in protesting against IMF policies and asked what he hoped to achieve, to which he replied that he wanted the debts third world countries owe to rich countries wiped out because of the appalling injustice it was creating, to which she replied that surely we all have to pay our debts. Graeber decided that if even somebody as intelligent and ethical as her could see the carnage taking place in the third world as a necessary consequence of a simple and obvious moral that we all must pay our debts he needed to expose the complex history behind this notion and wrote the first (!) ever history of debt.

(Got to run, may come back to this later)
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews705 followers
November 3, 2021
I meant to read "Debt" for a while, but so happens I've listened to this book. So my takes are very preliminary. I still need to read it properly. I've enjoyed Graeber's anthropological perspective, erudition and the fluency of his arguments. Also I've never read anything serious by a self-acknowledged anarchist. He has made a lot if interesting original points that go against the grail of the well-defined narrative of social and economic history. And it is refreshing to say the least.

My main takes:

1) The big chunk of the book is devoted to the premise that debt preceded barter as the initial basis of economic activity. I need to go through his chain of arguments and the evidence once more. It is great he argues so persuasively. But I am not sure how much it matters for us as now debt is definitely presiding.

2) Adam Smith has imagined an utopia how the economy works. But this utopia has become our reality at least partly because many people read his book. This is very interesting though not totally convincing. But I would know whom to blame just in case:-)

3) Graeber has devoted a big chapter discussing the assumptions about moral economy and human nature: self-interest vs communism (not in a classical but in the ethical sense). This is the core to understand the people's motivations in economic activity. I definitely need more time with this chapter to see how ground-breaking his thinking is, but it is good he challenges both motives as an extreme.

4) According to Graeber, to function properly, capitalism has to encourage an apocalyptic thinking and the idea that it would end eventually. As soon as people start to believe that a party could continue forever, a very real crisis hits. Example - market crush speculations from Tulip's War to 2007 recession. Again it is a very profound thought and it does makes sense. However I need to read him properly to understand the implications he thinks about.

5) The most optimistic bit of the book that there is alway alternative how a society operates according to Graeber. And it is only limited by our collective imagination. So he suggest not to limit it.

Whether I would agree with him or not, it is a very well written, persuasive and simply interesting book looking at the long global history. Not many thinkers achieved that much. It is a shame he is not with us any more.
Profile Image for Gustav Osberg.
17 reviews17 followers
September 8, 2021
One of the great powers of anthropology lies in its potential to denaturalise and remystify taken-for-granted elementary aspects of daily life. Debt is certainly one of these omnipresent elements, especially in times where real wages have stagnated while productivity and inflation continues soaring.

Despite this, debt, as a disputed concept, is not new; in fact, it's older than money. In the chapter I enjoyed the most titled 'the myth of barter', Graeber shows how the conventional barter-money-debt historical process actually happened in reverse. The conventional 'Economics 101' textbook example of Ragnar trading 5 kg of potatoes for a pair of shoes doesn't hold up if you think about it (what if nobody wants to trade shoes for Ragnar’s potatoes...?).

One of the greatest successes of economics as a discipline, ideology and sphere has been its imposed division between itself and the rest of society's entangled spheres and relations. Through this fractured view, the barter-money-debt story makes sense, but Graeber, much like Karl Polanyi illustrates how the exchange was mediated and embedded within social relations. If Ragnar needed shoes, he could receive a pair as a 'gift' by a neighbour to be 'repaid' at some later stage, or, better yet, he could simply be given a pair by the community.

This is the essence of what Graeber terms the 'human economy', where money is used to mediate social relations. Your chances of acquiring the goods you sought after were largely dependent on your reputation and trustworthiness (this is why money was often reserved for strangers or untrusty people). At one point during the Middle Ages, these locally embedded social credit systems were forcefully outlawed and destroyed to be subsequently replaced by coinage and later financial debts. However, the morality attached to credit and debt was seemingly transferred to these new forms of financial debt, which still haunts our language and imaginaries to this day.

Again, Karl Polanyi and his work The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time echo in the theories Graeber composes: the disembedding of social relations to impose the market through a political process (not as an organic, 'natural.' process).

Debt, as an ideological concept, is interesting since, as Graeber notes, it's based on an assumption of equality (and not intrinsic inferiority such as the caste system and some forms of slavery). But apart from local social credit systems mentioned above, it's a disembedded morality that reduces qualities to quantities. The book starts with an anecdote and assumption that 'surely one has to pay one's debts', but if there is anything the book shows is the dialectical nature of the history surrounding the concept; from popular exoduses from cities to counter-philosophical movements of the Axial Age, all eventually integrated into its development.

Alf Hornborg, another anthropologist who theorises money, treats money as an artefact that organises society and its functioning and thus dictates possibilities for action. It does, however, not have agency in itself (assuming it does is a clear case of fetishism); that power is reserved to us humans.
Profile Image for Patrick.
303 reviews10 followers
August 29, 2016
This is a very thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between morality, debt, property, and money. Essentially, the author explores, through history and anthropology, the tension between the common beliefs that one should always pay one's debts and that to make a profit on lending money is wrong. In particular, this issue bears on our political unwillingness to change a situation where the vast majority of Americans will spend their lives paying off debts to a tiny minority who enjoy ludicrous profits from the work of the majority.

I can't judge the scholarship, but at times an editor's hand would have been useful to tighten things up (there is a glaring factual error regarding the founding of Apple Computers and I just came across two sequential paragraphs which repeated the same information in slightly different form). My only major caveat concerns the last chapter, which covers the past 40 years, in which the author reaches a slew of conclusions which are poorly supported by the text. I happen to agree with many of them, but I wish this part had been fleshed out by convincing arguments. Even if, as the Clash put it, the future is unwritten, many of us will need persuading about which possible verses should come next.
Profile Image for Aron.
133 reviews20 followers
November 25, 2011
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.
Profile Image for Andy.
1,452 reviews481 followers
April 10, 2022
This starts off OK, debunking the money-replacing-barter story from the fundamentals of economics. But the book drifts along in too many directions and the author seems to take pleasure in saying shocking things for the sake of it. People are giving this book five-star reviews while admitting they didn't understand it. ??? If readers want a clear critique of global economic policies I would point them to the works of Ha-Joon Chang:

23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang
23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism

"Debt" does do a very good job of illustrating how economic policy through history is as arbitrary as other cultural practices, and debt is part of that. Nevertheless, we do need some way of doing loans, and while our current system is obviously flawed, it's not clear that a debt jubilee (wiping out all debts) would be a feasible or fair solution.
Profile Image for Lee Foust.
Author 8 books159 followers
May 25, 2020
Hadn't read a book on banking or economics since college in the 1980s and The Money Lenders. Mostly this is because, although a life-long fan of Gothic literature and horror movies, nothing has ever scared me more than The Money Lenders, a truly terrifying read. The international banking coalition is even more frightening than the so-called terrorists or the super powers and their nuclear stockpiles! Unlike a political edifice, subject often to voting, or revolution, or a coup, banking and the banks themselves seem to persist on a level of power high above what any of us will ever be able to effect, and yet we live with their bullshit on our backs every day of our lives--arguably, they effect us more than our governments, even if the two are so intertwined as to be almost unified--except for the fact that the banks, by holding nation-states hostage to their money and the concept of debt, have the lion's share of the power.

This book, written from an anthropological perspective, was eye-opening to me in many ways. Best of all, that perspective allows one to step comfortably out of preconceived notions and prejudices constantly in order to re-evaluate the history of the concept of debt, the habit that we have created that it's possible to owe somebody something and all of the abuses, hierarchies, and slaughter that such a concept has spawned. Enlightening reading even if the book is a bit vast--therefore prone to self-contradiction at times--how could it not be when it's trying to tackle 5000 years of human history? Gotta read more anthropology!
Profile Image for Matthew Jordan.
71 reviews58 followers
October 3, 2022
[August 2022 Review]

This is my second time reading Debt, and it's very clear that I had absolutely no clue what I was talking about the first time around. Re-reading my review from last time, I absolutely missed the point.

This time, I can confidently say that Debt is one of the most profound, radical, provocative, imagination-expanding, and perspective-altering books I've read in a very, very long time, and I feel like I've only barely scratched the surface of really properly getting it.

I think the reason I didn't fully grasp what was going on last time is because I hadn't participated in the economy in any meaningful sense. In other words, I had never really thought about what it meant to have financial responsibilities to others and to be in someone's service through salaried employment. I had had jobs, of course, but I was never doing them "for the money"; the money was always kind of a second thought. In adult life, however, money is often a central thought, and I started reading Debt at the very beginning of my first proper salaried job.

The thing I learned from that job—the thing which allowed Debt to make sense to me—is the sheer number of types of human relationship, and how relationships of all kinds can be shaped by money. What does it mean to be a peer? A boss? A patron? What does it mean, as an individual or as an institution, to be able to afford something? I think in order to really get Debt, you need to spend quite a bit of time living in these kinds of relationships, from multiple perspectives. It doesn't hurt to watch people raise money from rich venture capitalists, watch how wealthy people relate to each other, watch how people's lives change when they come into wealth, or lose their wealth, or go from being someone's employer to someone's peer, or watch complicated status games play out in a community where social rank is not determined financially, or is determined financially, or any of the other millions of microscopic ways that money interacts with human relationships.

Having now seen all of this up-close. I get it now. I really get it. Money is fake. Debt is fake. These are just conveniences, shorthands, ways of coordinating people. The thing that's real is human relationships and human actions. If I pay you money to do some work for me, what's happened is two things: first, you've agreed to be in my service, and in exchange, you get to now go get some people to act in your service, with the money I gave you. The "real" thing is the network of ownership and trust and reciprocity—money is just a way of mediating between people. Money is almost never about money. It's about the things money represents. Power, status, ownership, reputation. When we look at money and debt, *that* is what we should be looking at. It clicked for me this second time around. It really clicked. Now I can't unsee it.

Two key revelations from this read. The first is that any ongoing relationship between two people will always involve mutual debt. I edit my friends' essay; they host me on their couch; I bring them lunch; they give me a ride somewhere. There is no explicit accounting here, but there's a constant—and ideally lifelong!—ledger of gifts and favours, a perpetual incurring of unpayable debts. This is what it means to have a relationship with someone else. You're always owing the other, ad infinitum. This is why you cannot put an explicit price on, say, your friend giving you a ride. The whole point of putting an explicit price on anything is so that you can sever all obligations to the person you're transacting with. When I go to a restaurant, I pay an exact fare, and I never have to talk to anyone at the restaurant again. They gave me the food, I gave them the coin. All ledgers settled, all debts payed. If you pay your friend to drive you somewhere, you're essentially saying "everything's settled, we can go ahead and terminate this relationship right now if need be", which is the exact opposite of a friendship.

The second key realization is that I had no clue what it means to be able to afford something. It's really quite complicated. The basic answer is "if you have the money to pay for it", but there are plenty of people in our current world who do not have the money to pay for things, and yet they're able to take out loans, or call in favours, or ask nicely, and somehow get what they want. So maybe it's less about "having money" and more "having trust"—trust that you've got the money now, or will be good for it in the future, or are able to pay back in some way.

Graeber has this unbelievable passage where he has us imagine a world where someone, call him Charles, goes to get food or something, but doesn't have his wallet, so he gives the restaurant a piece of paper saying "Charles is good for the money, I promise", with a picture of Charles' face on the front, and since he is beloved and trusted by all, they accept this future promise. But then the restauranteur has to get a haircut, and instead of paying in cash, pays in the Charles IOU, reassuring the barber that Charles is super trustworthy. The barber, deeply trusting the restauranteur, is willing to accept it. The barber then continues this payment chain at the grocery store, then the grocer uses the IOU to buy concert tickets, and so on. All of the sudden, there's a little mini-economy based on a trusted promise. But then, says Graeber, imagine that Charles is in fact KING Charles, and the IOU is a bill with his face on the front—that's all that money actually is! It's just a promise—from the king, from the government, from whoever—to eventually pay the holder back. Of course, given that there's no gold standard anymore, there's no longer anything to pay anyone back in, but that doesn't really matter, because from the IOU story it's clear that you don't actually _need_ to ever pay anyone back in order for the money to work as money. All you need is for everyone to trust everyone else.

Of course, you cannot run a massive 21st century economy on trust alone—there are simply too many relationships, too much large-scale coordination, too much to keep track of. But locally, at small scales, I feel like I just want to engage in webs of mutual trust where no money is required. I don't want to live in a communist country, but I want to live in communist friend groups and families: from each according to their ability (in my case, editing essays, injecting fun and spontaneity into people's lives, a perpetual stream of new information and half-baked ideas), to each according to their need (in my case again, couches to sleep on). I have definitely felt this basic communism throughout my travels, and with each passing day feel that the more places we can eliminate money from our lives, the better. In other words, small-scale economies of mutual aid rule and more things should be like that. It's just better. How nice would it be to live in such a way that you can ask people for favours, and they can ask you for the same, and you can just give 'n' take in your little economy where everyone is in everyone else's debt? How fun would it to celebrate at the jubilee, annulling all the debts at year's end? Isn't that more fun than TAXES?

So those are my big new thoughts on Debt. I'm feeling extremely grateful for David Graeber. That dude understood something very deep about the human experience. What I've written here only captures a tiny fraction of what's actually discussed in the book. It's really a masterwork. But the key point, which I come back to again and again and again is: money is never about money. If a government "can't afford" to do something, that's almost always a question of willpower, or of political economy, or of broken trust relations. Money itself is really just a stand-in for these much, much more complicated, fundamentally unquantifiable things. Behind all decisions about money there are decisions and assumptions about how society should be structured, how people should relate to each other, who counts as worthy of our trust, and what we owe each other simply by being human.

[February 2021 Review]

Debt was an unusual mix: 3/4 boring and unfollowable, 1/4 radicalizing, fascinating, late-night-Wikipedia-binge-inducing, and altogether brilliant. It's a rare audiobook that can serve as both worldview-alterer and white noise machine.

This seems to be a theme among the books I've been reading recently. I'm discovering that my favorite nonfiction books do one of three things:

(1) Discuss a singular concept or thesis, often coining a term in the process (like "Grit" or "Flow" or "Bullshit Jobs").
(2) Summarize the academic literature on a specific topic.
(3) Tell a historical story as engagingly as possible (memoirs, biographies, narrative nonfiction).

Debt is some weird mix of all three. It tries to summarize the anthropological literature, tell a story about the emergence of money and states, and argue...something? My attempt at a summary would be "all human societies engage in informal relationships of debt and credit. The things we now understand as financial markets are created by heavy-handed states, slave traders, and other violent institutions."

The audiobook was read by Grover Gardner, who is about 100x better than the next-best audiobook narrator. From the first words, I realized how much I'd missed him.
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