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Debt: The First 5,000 Years Hardcover – July 12, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Winner of the Bateson Book Prize awarded by the Society for Cultural Anthropology

“One of the year’s most influential books. Graeber situates the emergence of credit within the rise of class society, the destruction of societies based on ‘webs of mutual commitment’ and the constantly implied threat of physical violence that lies behind all social relations based on money.” —Paul Mason, The Guardian

 “The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate... It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions.” Peter Carey, The Observer

"An alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work."
Drake Bennett, Bloomberg Businessweek

"[A]n engaging book. Part anthropological history and part provocative political argument, it's a useful corrective to what passes for contemporary conversation about debt and the economy."
Jesse Singal, Boston Globe

"Fresh... fascinating... Graeber’s book is not just thought-provoking, but also exceedingly timely."
Gillian Tett, Financial Times (London)

"Terrific... In the best anthropological tradition, he helps us reset our everyday ideas by exploring history and other civilizations, then boomeranging back to render our own world strange, and more open to change."
Raj Patel, The Globe and Mail

"Graeber's book has forced me to completely reevaluate my position on human economics, its history, and its branches of thought. A Marxism without Graeber's anthropology is beginning to feel meaningless to me."
Charles Mudede, The Stranger

"The world of borrowing needs a little demystification, and David Graeber's Debt is a good start."
The L Magazine

"Controversial and thought-provoking, an excellent book."
Booklist

"This timely and accessible book would appeal to any reader interested in the past and present culture surrounding debt, as well as broad-minded economists."
Library Journal

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 brilliant, deeply original political thinker."
Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell

“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, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago

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, The Nation, Mute, and The New Left Review. In 2006, he delivered the Malinowski Memorial Lecture at the London School of Economics, an annual talk that honors “outstanding anthropologists who have fundamentally shaped the study of culture.”

In the summer of 2011, he worked with a small group of activists and Adbusters magazine to plan Occupy Wall Street. Bloomberg Businessweek has called him an "anti-leader" of the movement. The Atlantic wrote that he "has come to represent the Occupy Wall Street message... expressing the group's theory, and its founding principles, in a way that truly elucidated some of the things people have questioned about it."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House; 1st edition (July 12, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1933633867
  • ISBN-13: 978-1933633862
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.8 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (243 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #364,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

258 of 287 people found the following review helpful By Hans G. Despain on 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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202 of 241 people found the following review helpful By Aaron C. Brown TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 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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157 of 193 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on March 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm writing this review because I wish someone had warned me not to spend so much time reading this book. It has many positive reviews, but I really struggled to even finish it. I'll have to admit, the "hook" in the opening paragraphs threw me for a little loop and made me want to understand the authors answer to a simple question. The author is at a dinner party where he is introduced to a "well-appointed young woman", an activist attorney who works for an antipoverty group in London. They get into a discussion about the IMF and the author boasts that his organization, a global justice movement, "managed to almost completely destroy the IMF". The author goes on to explain the IMF and all the problems of the IMF, and the lawyer asks the author's position concerning the Third World Debt. He replies, "Oh, we wanted to abolish that too" (the IMF and the third world debt). The lawyer objects, "they borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one's debts."

Obviously the author didn't agree with this position, after all he had tried to abolish the IMF as well as the third world debt. I understood to some extent the reasoning behind the author's views and felt somewhat sympathetic, but I got the impression that the author had a lot more to say about the subject. I was right about that. He had a lot more to say. In fact he had a lot to say about things that wandered way off the subject. And he went on and on and on.

While the next ten chapters demonstrated a wide breadth of knowledge about history and anthropology and history of economics, I would have to say it rambled a lot. I'll have to admit there was a lot of information I didn't already know, and a lot of theorizing and postulating about slavery, and sex slaves, and marriage customs and their relationship to money and debt.
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