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Debt: The First 5,000 Years [Kindle Edition]

David Graeber
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (169 customer reviews)

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Book Description

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.


From the Hardcover edition.


Editorial Reviews

Review

Praise for David Graeber

“I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.”
—Maurice Bloch, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics

“A scholar whose books and articles are used in college classrooms around the world and an anarchist who is a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World.”
—The New York Times
 
“He’s a public intellectual. He speaks out. He participates. He’s not someone who simply does good scholarship; he’s an activist and a controversial person.”
—Stanley Aronowitz 
 
“If anthropology consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition, then David Graeber is the consummate anthropologist. Not only does he accomplish this profound feat, he redoubles it by the critical task—now more urgent than ever—of making the possibilities of other people’s worlds the basis for understanding our own.”
—Marshall Sahlins, University of Chicago


From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

DAVID GRAEBER teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value; Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar; Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology; Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire; and Direct Action: An Ethnography. He has written for Harper's, Nation, Mute, and the New Left Review.

Product Details

  • File Size: 1807 KB
  • Print Length: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House (July 12, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00513DGIO
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #32,242 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
208 of 232 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Future Classic in Economic Anthropology January 4, 2012
Format:Hardcover
This is a very interesting and important book. Graeber's writing style is engaging and provocative, enjoyable and fascinating.

Graeber has been accused as being overly political in his interpretation of history and anthropology. There is a warrant of truth to this accusation, but Graeber is dealing with highly political, and deeply moral, dilemmas which dominant history and have implications for contemporary circumstances, an apolitical book would be impossible (many philosophers of science (right and left), including myself, reject Hume's Law or the radical distinction between facts and values, really that is all Graeber has done).

At the same time Graeber is conducting anthropological science at its best and scholarship that is interesting to all human beings concerned with the distributional inequalities within the United States and between nations.

Below I attempt to divide the book into six major theses, in so doing it can be seen that the first five theses are historical and scientific, only the last is political. In other words, the politics and science can be logically separated.

Given Graeber politics should non-leftists read this book, Yes! Graeber's book is destined to become a classic text. Graeber has the spirit of F. A. Hayek, not politically, but rhetorically. Hayek's <<The Road to Serfdom>> (1944), is a highly political book (from the right) but with a very important major thesis, namely if the (philosophical) <<ends>> of intervention cannot be agreed upon, predatory politics will be the manifestation. Hayek's economics are impeccable, his social theory intriguing, his analysis of politics second to none, and his understanding of history impressive.
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164 of 199 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important book that begs to be misunderstood November 9, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As most of the other reviewers have noted, this is a brilliant and revolutionary book. The author has synthesized a great deal of information from anthropology, history and economics over 5,000 years to come up with a compelling and original account of debt. The accomplishment is even greater, because he makes clear that debt is intimately related to money, capitalism, war and slavery; so understanding debt will change your view of all these things.

The bad news is the author made some inexplicable choices that may cause many readers to discount or misunderstand the book. The first is to continually emphasize abusive practices associated with debt: predatory or fraudulent lending, debt for consumption, debtors' prison and enslavement for debt. Only on the edges of the story, usually under the term "commercial debt," will you see what a debt defender would emphasize: informed and non-desperate parties agreeing voluntarily to a contract in which the lender supplies funds to buy assets expected to return more than the interest rate on the debt, and agrees that if the venture fails she will own the remaining assets but have no personal recourse against the borrower. If the venture succeeds, the lender gets repaid with interest and the borrower gets any additional profit as compensation for his efforts. If the venture fails, the lender takes a loss (or at least gets a lower rate of return than would compensate for the risk) and the borrower has nothing to show for his work. No courts, no violence.

Someone might argue that the violent practices are inherent to debt and abusive loans are far more common than loans of mutual advantage. But the author doesn't argue this. Anyway, the points would be irrelevant to his thesis.
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133 of 165 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Starts strong, but loses cohesiveness. September 19, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Prof. Graeber is obviously an extremely competent anthropologist, and this well referenced book (with an over forty page bibliography!) contains some very plausible propositions. One is that credit systems emerged before barter and money, and that the state or other authorities with a monopoly on violence instated currency from the top down. Another is that our modern fiat money system is built on nothing more than trust, unreflective of any fundamentals whatsoever (although this is obvious to anyone who has studied our modern financial system, and is noted in many of the textbooks Prof. Graeber likes to slight). Unfortunately, apart from these two ideas, this book is disorganized, sloppily written and lacks an overarching thesis to tie its chapters together. One theme Prof. Graeber seeks to return to again and again is that our language of morality is shrouded in words we also use to describe financial transactions, but this rather simple observation is drowned in anthropological anecdotes and a rather long winded explication of Bruno Tharet's bizzare "primordial debt theory", both of which tend to obfuscate rather than clarify the matter at hand. His investigation of different modes of economic relations, which he titles communistic, exchange, and hierarchical strikes me as clumsily composed and derivative-there have been many challenges to the rational actor model of economic decision making (by Amartya Sen, Robert Frank etc) that Graeber both fails to mention and which are much more illuminating to the interested reader. His final chapter is particularly odd. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind Blowing
If banks are guaranteed that all loans will be repaid there is no incentive for banks not to make bad loans. Having to suffer from loan defaults keeps banks honest. Read more
Published 4 days ago by Sheherazahde
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating
Graeber, writing from an anthropologist's perspective, spans many subjects, particularly freedom, religion, politics and society, weaving in the uses and abuses of slaves, violence... Read more
Published 9 days ago by D&D
5.0 out of 5 stars A genuine achievement of scholarship and clarity
...which is rare. This overview of the actual history of money through the ages, and the philosophy it comes from and generates, is one of those rare truly paradigm-altering books. Read more
Published 19 days ago by James M. Beach
5.0 out of 5 stars Read This Book
Relatively easy to read, and a hugely important message. I can't stop referencing it in the rest of my life, which isn't bad for me, even if it is a bit annoying for others.
Published 28 days ago by Dylan Pfandler
1.0 out of 5 stars Interesting premise, but deeply flawed.
This book is an examination of some economies at certain points in history, examined through an anarchistic lens. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Jesse Meyer
5.0 out of 5 stars Indebted to Graeber for Debt
A wide sweep of money and its role in human affairs that is highly readable. It should be a mandatory read for every politician and economist.
Published 1 month ago by 'michael'
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing work of genius
This book is a treasure trove of ideas spanning freedom, religion, politics, society, the whole breadth of human experience tied together through the lens of debt. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Russell Finger
5.0 out of 5 stars Book
I ordered this book for my husband. He said he enjoyed it a great deal and will probably read it again.
Published 1 month ago by Lori
5.0 out of 5 stars Not only deconstructing what I had thought, but reconstructing a large...
Not only deconstructing what I had thought, but reconstructing a large view of history and the world. Re-reading is required.
Published 1 month ago by Peter J. Taylor
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!
I've read a bit on history of money and this is far the best account of history I've come across. It goes beyond money, however, reaching into areas of slavery, women, war and... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Ales Praprotnik
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