Customer Reviews: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
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on January 4, 2012
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. If a leftist cannot learn from Hayek, and if a rightist cannot learn from Graeber, the impoverishment and the political bias is much more the reader, not the author.

What does one find in Graeber's book? The primary thesis can be identified as `the duality of debt' (my term not Graeber's). On the one hand debt has a type of ontological expression, i.e. debt is what binds us as a species, e.g. we are indebted to our parents, family, culture, society for our well-being and personal development, and more theologically an indebtedness to the Cosmos/God. This side of debt is found in its expression (i.e. language) and development. On the other hand debt has an historical existential tendency to be employed to enslave or create circumstances of debt peonage.

Graeber's interpretation of contemporary debt is that it has this "duality," it binds us socially (enabling many people to start a life) and has a tendency to (too often) put borrowers in a debt peonage relationship, not with the plantation owner, but with contemporary banks.

If the primary thesis can be expressed as "the duality of debt" there are several other major theses of considerable interest. I identify six major theses.

(1) Debt predates money

This is important for several reasons. I will mention three. First money does not emerge with markets, which means that markets and money can be differentiated and analyzed independently. Second, if money was not needed for market activity, this begs the question of why it was invented. Third, the social properties, i.e. non-market properties of money may be crucial to understand it as a phenomenon (actually this historical interpretation impressively compliments Post-Keynesian theories of money and the contradictions of its functions, which is not mentioned by Graeber); (this thesis is borrowed and developed from the anthropological work of Mauss and "definitive" work of Humphrey).

(2) Government construct national markets

Public intervention is the root of markets. Non-intervention, or laissez-faire is an historical oxymoron (this thesis is borrowed and developed from the work of Karl Polanyi).

(3) Primordial debt theory

The argument here is that debt is the basis of social-being. This is the ontological/theological side of debt (i.e. we owe our parents, etc.). Money is invented to quantify certain types of debt. Now the tricky part is that monetary policy and social policy are necessarily linked and cannot be differentiated (this thesis is borrowed and developed from Aglietta and Orlean).

(4) Military-coinage-slavery complex

Historically the emergence of coinage (i.e. money) is linked with military efforts, which in turn tend to manifest debt peonage situations and enslave. The most simple example is a monarch, in order to pay a traveling army, issues a token/coin and proclaims all subjects of the kingdom must return a said amount of these coins to the monarch. The only way to get these coins is from the soldiers by providing them with some provisions, the soldiers pay in coin, and the subject/agent gives the coin as a tax back to the monarch (this thesis is borrowed and developed from Ingram). What Graeber adds to this story is that it is quite common that the tax generates indebtedness, the indebtedness generates circumstances of debt peonage and enslavement (sometimes temporarily, sometimes for life). He also demonstrates this is not simply a European phenomenon, but global throughout history.

(5) Historical attitudes toward debt/World cycles.

Whereas the first four theses were borrowed from various theorists, that Graeber then helps to confirm from anthropological studies, which he then synthesize and develops, thesis five is quite unique to Graeber. His thesis is that attitudes toward debt not only change over time (he identifies four the Axial Age 800 BC - 600 AD, Middle Ages 600 - 1450, Capitalistic Age 1450 - 1971, Something Yet to Be Determined Age 1971 - future), but attitudes are also cyclical and global (Europe, China, India, Africa, etc.). Broadly Graeber argues that the Axial Age tended to emphasize the quantification of debt, whereby debt peonage and slavery from debt was common; the Middle Ages were a time when the primordial debt was emphasized, and debt peonage tended to be resisted; the Capitalistic Age is a return to the quantification and systems of slavery and debt peonage; in the SYBD Age we see a resistance toward debt peonage and the dominance, not of monarchs, but toward financiers and banks begin to slowly emerge. Whether the resistance will continue or a return to debt peonage (e.g. owing money to a bank for life) will continue or whether there may be some new institutional arrangement whereby the importance and dominance of financiers and banks is reduced is yet to be determined.

(6) History removes the veil of debt as road to servitude and peonage

The idea here is that when we witness different existential debt peonage throughout history, this helps to shift our own thinking on debt. Why is it we must borrow money from a bank to start our life? Although this aspect of Graeber's argument is not anthropology, it is a highly important implication from the scientific and historical investigations of debt. If the contemporary circumstances are not analogous to the past, why not? (Notice: it really is only here that Graeber is purely normative. But it is a normative question that must be asked. His answer makes it political. However, his anthropology and scholarship strongly supports his politics).

This is a very powerful book on several fronts. It is a very impressive synthesis of several different theories in economics, history, anthropology, literature and sociology (this part constitutes a very impressive scholarship) and develops a uniquely Graeberian interpretation and implication. I highly recommend it and predict it will become a classic in economic anthropology.
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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. The book discusses the fundamental idea of debt and the conclusions apply equally to the best and worst loans. There is a lurid focus on the most egregious actions related to debt, in most cases of which debt merely provides some euphemistic terms for violence and robbery (like a carjacker "borrowing" your car or a bully "paying back" your imagined insult with a punch). I found the material exaggerated and unconvincing. Terrible things have been done in the name of debt, but the book presented little evidence that the terrible things wouldn't have been done anyway, nor was there any attempt to weigh the amount of debt abuse against the amount of mutual benefit from legitimate debt. The material is likely to mislead casual readers into thinking this is a hysterical anti-debt screed when it is in fact a brilliant and subtle examination of the nature of society.

Even more important is a key omission. Nowhere does the author mention the most important point about money and credit--that they stimulate extraordinary technological and cultural change. No nonspecialist would care about Neolithic exchange practices if they hadn't revolutionized humanity with the adoption of agriculture, permanent settlements, technological change and long-distance trade networks. The Athenian owl coin would be a minor curiosity except that it ended thousands of years of civilizations rising and falling leaving little behind but crumbling ruins and dead language texts. Every society that joined the money web since has had its language and technology preserved for other societies to build upon. This did not lead to steady progress but it did lead, for the first time in human history, to progress. Paper money in Reformation Europe led to technologies that conquered the world, and not just militarily.

Whether you like that progress is another matter. Or you may feel we could have had the progress without all the evils associated with money and debt--even that money and debt were effects not causes of the changes. Regardless, leaving technological progress out of the story makes an unbalanced account.

Finally, one of the author's key points is that debt can have the effect of ripping a person out of social context to be treated as a source of repayment rather than a friend, neighbor, son and so on. This is a brilliant point, well-argued and important. But it has an obverse side the author misrepresents. Some people run away from traditional societies and small towns for the anonymity of a city. They shed what they consider the burdens of social ties to create and join less personal organizations. Debt in its quantified and impersonal form was undoubtedly created by these types of people.

The author treats social refugees as either evil or deluded. If unsuccessful, they are caught in a debt trap that destroyed everything of meaning in their lives. If successful, they are addicted to the pursuit of money, which cannot buy them happiness. In fact, many people have at least some tendencies in these directions at some points in their lives. Some are mainly escaping intolerable or suffocating situations. Others are looking for excitement and adventure. Or they may want to pursue ideas that require wider contacts (and therefore relatively impersonal and rational human relations) than their traditional social ties can provide. Not everyone who flees the family farm is after world domination or mindless stockpiling of gold. You'd think someone who didn't understand this would spend his time arguing with his friends and teaching his children, not writing a book.

This is a great book, but it could reach a wider audience if the author spent less time bashing creditors (and Europeans, if anything bad happens in the book and a European male is within a hundred years and a thousand miles of it, you know who will get the blame) and more serious time on the people who like debt and the changes they cause in the world. Perhaps he disputes the conventional views of these things, in fact I think that's a near certainty, but ignoring them makes his insights hard to connect with anything else.
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on March 10, 2015
I've been interested in economics for many years. This book is simultaneously the most compelling and most clearly written book on an economic subject that I've read in all that time.

Most of us learn one thing in history books, about why money exists and what it's for - so people can trade. Graeber goes into the actual historical and anthropological roots of money, and shows us the entirely different reality: money exists to track debt. It can then also be *useful* for trade among equals - but that is not it's primary purpose, and never was.

And from this single bit of clarity, so many other parts of our civilization are revealed.

I personally suspect that many of the negative reviewers are responding because they don't like how strong a case Graeber makes. For example, I saw one reviewer complaining along the lines that "this is not news to serious economists". Perhaps not - but it is news to most of the public, including those who run our markets, corporations and governments. I saw another reviewer state he didn't like the book because "90% of it comes from other authors". Having read the same book, the closest I noticed to this is that Graeber heavily backs his contentions with citations, and cites the experts he deals with by name, whether either agreeing or disagreeing.

In any case, I am happy to recommend this book for anyone who uses money.
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on September 19, 2011
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. He urges us to feel sympathy for the non-industrious poor because they "aren't doing us any harm" He attempts to refute the assertion of Austrian economist Von Mises (who I am not fan of) that in our current economy all creditors are not evil landlords but often ordinary individuals with a sneer rather than an argument. He encourages us to think of ways to reorganize our social and economic relations so that we are not so reliant upon debt, but does not offer any ideas in this vein (although he has challenged his responsibility to do so). There are many problems in the world today, from poverty in "third world countries" to lack of healthcare in the US. Rather than muse on the genealogy of morals and yearn for a return to the relations of extant primitive tribes, I'd prefer to get down to the hard business of figuring out pragmatic solutions to relieve suffering and improve our quality of life. While this book does offer some very creative thinking, I am not sure I would recommend it.
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on March 2, 2013
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. I assumed that all of this was accurate and was willing to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I figured that he had a point and that he would get to it eventually.

Then I ran across a statement that took me by complete surprise. The author is discussing a concept which he calls "baseline communism", something I think we all understand. It's the way we act around our friends and family. We share things without keeping account, and extend common courtesies and support when needed. Then he says, "Apple Computers is a famous example: it was founded by (mostly Republican) computer engineers who broke from IBM in Silicon Valley in the 1980s, forming little democratic circles of twenty to forty people with with their laptops in each other's garages." Apple computer was actually founded by three kids, Steve Jobs (a well known democrat), Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. It was incorporated January 3, 1977. Mike Markkula provided $250,000 of seed capital and also important business expertise during the incorporation of Apple. As you can see almost every detail of the author's sentence is incorrect including the essential point of it being a form of "baseline communism". How this ever got by his editors or publishers, I don't understand.

Finding this glaring error on a piece of information that could be so easily verified lead me to believe that this guy was fully capable of making up information out of thin air to support his own theories. I began fact checking anything I was suspicious about, but I found that his facts concerning history, or anthropology were reasonably accurate. And, for the first 10 chapters, he talks mostly about history and anthropology and the history of economics, but adds his own spin, conjecture, theories and postulates, which is OK with me in this type of book. After all he's trying to make a point, right?

Well, I grind my way through the rest of the book. There are sections that are interesting but I find myself struggling to keep going. However, I'm determined to understand the author's position concerning the lawyer's challenge "they borrowed the money! Surely one has to pay one's debts."

Finally after what feels like a death march through the "The Axial Age, The Middle Ages, and the Age of the Great Capitalist Empires, I get to the final chapter. Well let's just suffice it to say that we never get a reasoned answer to the challenge posed at the beginning of the book. Most of chapter 12 is a rant. He postulates that the US bombed Saddam Hussein because "Saddam Hussein made the bold move of singlehandedly (sic) switching from the dollar to the euro in 2000". He postulates that the Chinese are buying US Treasuries as a form of "tribute" to the US. He ends with a sub-paragraph titled: "Perhaps the World Really Does Owe You a Living", where he sarcastically says: "Cancel all student debt? But that would be unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans!...this argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be unfair to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbors too." I think the author completely forgets about the people that put up the money for the student loans, the taxpayers, the individuals, unions, the pension funds. These are people who eventually will be dependent on the return of the principle and interest on those loans. In the very last paragraph he proposes a "long overdue" forgiveness of debt, a "Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international debt and consumer debt", as if this would be completely victim-less, or for that matter would even have fewer victims than the existing paradigm.

I'm sorry, in spite of the fact that there is a lot of good information in this book, I just can't recommend it because the author fails to provide reasoning to back up his point of view. First of all he fails to even provide the outline of a comprehensive solution. He provides history, emotional persuasion, pity perhaps, but fails miserably to demonstrate in any reasonable way that more people would be better off if we did what?...He never answers the question.
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on July 14, 2011
Everyone talks about debt but I can't think of anyone else who has so deeply explored its role in our history and culture. This book goes FAR beyond a discussion of debt issues in contemporary capitalistic society (thought it does plenty of that too). Graeber has done amazing research into debt's role in religion, revolutions, and political power systems across cultures and throughout history, and he has come up with surprising, counter-intuitive, and provocative results. This book will completely change the way you think about economics, morality, power systems, philosophy, and money.
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on October 31, 2015
From the point of view of an anthropologist, rather than an economist, more science based than myth based. Very enlightening. Author was involved with Occupy Wall Street. Very relevant to the current debt "crises" globally today. Strongly recommend.
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on October 15, 2015
Reading this book has given me an understanding of world history at a level I have never reached before. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in world history.

At the same as reading this book, I was also reading books by Fools Crow, Crow Dog and Bear Heart. Each of these authors describe how the Federal Government set out to use debt to subjugate and eradicate Native Americans just as described in Graeber's book.
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on October 19, 2011
Debt is a simple reality of everyday human interaction and at the same time a great moral calculus that rationalizes terrible suffering. It's power ranges from telling someone, "I owe you one", to the fateful words more and more Americans hear everyday: "The bank will be taking your house". Debt is both a thing that can be sold, traded, and securitized, as well as a space in which the most basic of human relationships begin.

David Graeber, an anthropologist currently at Goldsmiths, University of London, but also an organizer in the Occupy Wall Street movement, has carefully and systematically sorted out the antinomies that surround the moral arithmetic of debt with the revealing bifocal lens of historical anthropology. His book is revolutionary in its answers to the what he says is the Great Question of debt; it is easy to understand, drawing on anthropology's fascinating ability to shine a light on the ordinary; it is also sweeping, tackling ancient and modern economies. If you have ever been interested in why humans structure relationships around debt, this is an important book.

Graeber begins the book by challenging the founding myths of economics. Theories of capital always evolve out of the impossibility of a barter economy, but Graeber presents compelling evidence to the contrary, demonstrating that no such barter economics ever existed. Debt, instead, has been with us from the very beginning. Debt is a relationship between two people who are "equals in those ways that are truly important", but are currently in a state of inequality, a state that must be resolved. Both parties seek to restore equality, but of interest are the things happen on that path to restoring equality. Debt as a temporary relationship of mutual need is far older than money, and has its own rules.

His path to understanding the rules of debt, its importance in human relationships, and where debt goes wrong, is found in an examination of the the history of debt culture. The meat of the book is in Graeber's ability to step into and out of the currents and popular belief systems present in these cultures. He examines ancient Sumeria and the Old Testament kingdoms, where periodic resets of debt maintained systemic stability. These Jubilees destroyed the relationships that debt created, but saved people from debt peonage, a practice that many ancients saw as tantamount to slavery. Medieval Islamic empires kept a strict separation between market and government, thus the emphasis was on honor, a subject he investigates at great length because of its own status as a currency. Graeber's historical analysis can be so expansive that it is sometimes confusing, but the payoff is worth it when the big picture is realized.

By the time Graeber reaches our modern world, he has begun to reveal that the "moral arithmetic" of debt can only be a product of violent enforcement of obligation; however, the contemporary system of obligation is entirely upside down. While we believe everyone has to pay their debts, this is demonstrably false, as the most powerful corporate entities in the world effectively had their debts paid for them in 2008. Coercion, the gun behind the loan documentation, reduces us to bare mathematics, often justifying what would otherwise be disgusting violations of life and liberty. Graeber concludes that we are quickly moving toward a new Jubilee, a cancelling of debts that will restore society. For him, the mutability of the rules of debt is our salvation, and history gives us many examples to learn from.

I can't recommend this book enough.
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on June 6, 2015
Debt is almost certainly not what its title or the blurb suggests. It has many interesting topics, sub-topics, historic conjectures (if not facts) and controversial assertions - all that said, it is difficult to summarize what the book is truly about except for the rousing cry that the world should have one round of complete debt forgiveness at this point!

Let's start with what the book is not despite what the title may hint at. This is not an economic history of the concept of debt. There are no financial discussions on what constitutes debt versus the other forms of investments. Counterintuitively, there are absolutely no numbers or discussions on the levels of debt (or trends or comparisons) in various eras or societies. And the most frustratingly, the author blithely ignores what happens to the savers when debtors default. The book is not at all about state/country or corporate/business defaults. And, there is almost no precise discussion on interest rates or costs of capital.

On the other hand, the author implicitly assumes that those who lend can or should be plundered without any impact. At times, the author tries to define almost any gratitude that one party has towards the other as debt and then moves to the other extreme where he tries to claim that no one should owe anything to anyone else. At times, the discussion of debt appears like a treatise on what constitutes transactions and at other times it is about the slavery, plight of women or even religion etc in some ancient times.

There are some great points. For example, the author is quite comprehensive in his arguments on why barters may never have existed. The broad cycles on when there was a specie money versus when there was a lot of credit money are logically coherent although there historic validity is more asserted than proven. The author tries to associate the rise of the major religions with points in debt cycles where once again the arguments are tenuous and without sufficient objective proofs.

By far, the author does himself a huge injustice by completely ignoring the second part of any debt transaction - the lender or the saver. He ignores that many of the debtors today - whose debt he wants forgiven - are his "bad guys" while the lenders are his "good guys". If the author truly gets what he wishes, all of Western governments' social security and pension obligations are wiped out hurting the weak the most. The author could have spent some time thinking through some absolutely basic implications at least.

Overall a unique book but once again, not what it appears or aims to be.
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