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Customer Review

35 of 70 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Synopsis of David Graeber's 'Debt: The First 5000 Years', August 11, 2011
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This review is from: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Hardcover)
*A full summary (and critique) of this book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.

The main argument: Debt is certainly a topic of deep interest and import these days, what with future prosperity seemingly threatened on all sides by a combination of personal, commercial, and national debt. A fact that has been brought home with particular poignancy in recent times by the role that debt played in the latest global financial crash of 2008, and the continuing threat of growing consumer debt and national debts in places such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal, and now Italy, and, of course, the US. According to Anthropologist David Graeber, author of the new book `Debt: The First 5000 Years', debt takes on an even larger significance when we trace its history, since this exercise allows us to gain a new and more complete understanding of economics as a whole, and our modern capitalist system in particular (not to mention several other aspects of the human condition to boot). The story of debt takes us from the origins of money itself; through to the age of slavery and conquest; on to the origins of the major world religions (with their near universal prohibitions on usury); through to the middle ages and the beginnings of capitalism and the modern banking system; and finally on to the modern age itself with its national currencies, central banks, and commitment to market capitalism.

While this story is interesting in its own right, Graeber's main argument here is that tracing the history of debt unearths some uneasy truths and deep flaws in the nature of modern capitalism, and it is high time, he proposes, that we rekindle the conversation about how and with what we might replace it.

Graeber's arguments that capitalism is essentially a corrupt and unsustainable economic system remain ultimately unconvincing. Nevertheless, it is clear that tracing the history of debt does add to our understanding of history, economics, modern capitalism, and indeed many other aspects of the human condition, and, as such, is a worthwhile project on this count alone. A full summary (and critique) of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
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Showing 1-10 of 20 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 16, 2011 6:32:36 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Apr 15, 2012 3:53:07 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 8:32:31 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 16, 2011 8:39:19 AM PDT
In my case, I voted for "unhelpful" because your first paragraph is eerily similar to the publisher's own description (and thus redundant), and because I was irritated by the fact that you apparently withheld part of the review and hope to direct us to your blog to view the rest. Plugging your website is one thing, but crippling your review in order to turn it into an advertisement? Come on!

I actually come close to agreeing with you in regard to the book itself. The last part of the book, on modern capitalism was the least convincing - but I saw that as a very minor problem. There is so much in this book that really can't easily be found anywhere else that I know of. There are dozens of little things that irked me, but the overall project struck me as extremely original and valuable. So many books only rehash conventional wisdom - an over-bold statement here and there is a small price to pay for real thinking. This book absolutely changed the way I think about economics, money, debt, and value, and I am recommending it to everyone I know. Despite sharing some of your concerns I would have given it 5 stars.

I may self-plagiarize much of the above for my own review later - which of course you are free to downvote . . .

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 9:24:45 AM PDT
Fair enough. However, let me respond to the charge that the review I provide on the Amazon site is nothing but an advertisement for the full review that I publish on my blog. It is true that I am hoping people will read my review on the Amazon site and ultimately link up to the more elaborate synopsis and review on my blog. However, it is not the case that I am surreptitiously witholding information from the Amazon review, such that it is 'crippled', and will not make any sense without reading the full review. The review on the amazon site is meant to stand on its own, as it gives all of the information provided in the longer article in the most stripped down version possible. It is only if you want each aspect of the short review fully explained that you need go to the longer article. The fact is that the full review (which includes a synopsis) is over 10 pages long, and not appropriate for a format such as the reviews section on the Amazon site. It is my sincere hope that the reader will find the short review helpful, and, should they find it so, and are interested in a more detailed explanation of its contents, that they will also find the longer version helpful (which is also free, and free of advertisements).

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 11:07:51 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 16, 2011 12:01:51 PM PDT
Actually, speaking as the author, I didn't give it a "helpful" or "unhelpful" since I thought on balance it came out halfway - it did describe some of what the book was about, but gave the reader the false impression that it was a series of moral arguments against capitalism, whereas in fact, the book is mostly a description of how debt came to be identified with morality, and capitalism only comes in at the end.

I think though the problem you're pointing to is mainly that people use the "helpful/unhelpful" buttons as if they meant "agree/disagree" which is not what they're supposed to be there for. Though it's certainly gratifying to me that so many people like the book.

As long as I'm at it - for me, the problem with your review is that it seems to propose impossible standards for anyone writing a book which is critical of the established order.

Well there are a bunch of problems - starting with the fact that many of the positions you attribute to me are ones I don't in fact hold. Once you decided that I was a moralist who was opposed to capitalism on moral grounds, you ended up reading descriptive passages as if they were moral condemnations: for instance, saying I claim that modern money systems are immoral because they are based on a government debt the government will never pay. Aside from the fact I never say anything remotely like that, that's just weird - to be honest, it never occurred to me to assess that aspect of the system on moral grounds, I was just describing how it worked. I do, however, think that the fact that capitalist money so often consists of circulating government war debt, and the general historical association of markets, money, and military systems through history, is an important counter to the (extremely moralistic) position taken by libertarians since Herbert Spencer that markets and war-making states are historically opposed principles and that strengthening the government means weakening the market and vice versa. The larger conclusions the reader can judge for themselves - depending on how much they like markets, governments, war, etc.

Still, the big problem is the impossible standards - and this is more true of the longer piece than the shorter one, which is more even-handed - the reviewer seems to feel that all books that are critical of existing social arrangements also have to contain elaborate proofs and demonstrations of what a viable alternative would be like. But that's ridiculous. It's a book about the history of debt! And it's already 500 pages long. To answer the objections raised in the longer piece would have required writing an entirely different book. To choose just one example in way of illustration: the reviewer continually emphasizes that greed, and what he calls "self-interest" (as if it were a universally applicable, transparent term, ignoring the fact that I describe the actual relatively recent historical origins of the concept in the book itself), are human universals - and discarding my comment that we have lots of urges, greed is only one, so that doesn't mean we have to make that particular one the basis of our civilization, as naive, saying we can't pick and choose, and if we ignore such urges, society "won't work." He makes the same argument for war, chimps do it, it's existed through human history, so the fact that markets are connected with war shouldn't be a problem. Now this latter is interesting because it means the reviewer is basically willing to discard the entire history of libertarian, pro-market thought, which assumes that markets are the opposite of war and "coercive" structures more generally, but my main point here is: what an extraordinarily weak argument! "Chimps do it." Yes, first of all, we're not descended from chimps, chimps are just one primate, and some primates engage in wars, others don't. More importantly, chimps also regularly engage in rape, terroristic bullying of the weak by the strong, and infanticide. All three of these phenomenon are abundantly documented across human history. Does the reviewer therefore conclude that we need to accept rape, bullying, and infanticide as inevitable realities, and even perhaps base our currency systems on them? Of course not. Or consider the Seven Deadly Sins. Avarice is one. But so are Gluttony, Envy, Anger, and Sloth. All these are equally omnipresent human urges. Yet the reviewer seems to feel that avarice should be accepted as legitimate, but that angry violent outbreaks based on envy of those who are successful at avarice should, presumably, not be, and that the need to accept the legitimacy of avarice and to celebrate the most successful greedy people as the most important people in our community also means it's perfectly okay to mercilessly punish those guilty of my personal favorite sin - sloth - in every way possible. There have been plenty of societies in human history that saw avarice as a problem and sloth as an inevitable human reality that needed to be accommodated - they "worked", in the sense of, continued to feed themselves and allow people to do the things they felt it was important for them to do.

I have made some of these arguments elsewhere (see Fragments) but honestly, it's a bit unreasonable to expect me to trundle out long elaborate arguments about human nature every single book I write, just because some readers will trundle out the kind of sloppy, unthought-out arguments you can only make if you have the entire weight of your own societies' propaganda engines behind you.

The curious thing is that one's ability not to have to do this, not to have to prove one's assumptions every single time one writes anything, is the luxury of power. Let me give an example. Economics - the great power discipline of the moment. Economic theory is based on certain assumptions about human action, how a "rational actor" will allocate resources under certain conditions. These are just premises, they were never originally tested, just assumed. Recently some psychologists decided to see if they were true, and created experimental tests. It turns out people almost never really act the way economists predict and the basic assumptions about human nature are actually wrong. What effect did this have on economics? None. The economists just ignored the empirical studies and carried on just as they had before. Where, on Amazon, do you have readers giving economic theory texts three-star reviews saying the material is interesting but they are based on flawed theories of human nature? As far as I can make out, nowhere. If you're running the world, the fact that all your equations are based on premises that we know to be wrong is simply irrelevant. Meanwhile, if you're challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, if you don't prove every aspect of everything, you can just be rejected out of hand. So while I appreciate the reviewers' efforts and am glad he found the overall historical argument compelling and interesting, I'm afraid in this way he really is playing the same role of ideological police as so many others - setting standards for non-mainstream views that no one ever sets for other ones.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 2:55:31 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 16, 2011 3:16:29 PM PDT
Hey David. Just one thing: my argument that self-interest (which I am using in the broad colloquial sense to denote not just greed, but the main impulse behind most of our immoral behaviour [or at least that which is most problematic in the political realm]), again, my argument that self-interest and the immoral behaviour that sometimes falls out of it are a part of the human condition is in no way meant to excuse or justify this immoral behaviour. Indeed, we should always strive to curb this behaviour as much as possible (party through education, and partly through coercive measures), or channel the impulses behind them into avenues that are constructive, or at least less harmful. The problem comes when we treat them as though they simply aren't there, or can simply be eradicated entirely, say through an enlightened education. The fact that these impulses are also found in our nearest living evolutionary ancestors, the chimps, and their manifestations are evident throughout human history (and pre-history) is only meant to show how deeply engrained this part of us is, and how unlikely it is that we will ever be able to eradicate it entirely. This doesn't mean we have to stop trying to manage it (or condone it), it just means that we must be prepared for the fact that it will always be there, and that we will always be up against it, and that we must arrange our politics carefully in order to deal with it. The dangers if we do not are clear. For instance, if we try to set up a politics on a grand scale based entirely on the mantra `from each according to ability, to each according to need', and people turn out to be the kinds of things things that will never be happy with such a situation (even with the best Marxist education we could come up with), we are going to have a problem. Rejecting communism for this reason (or any other political system for similar reasons) does not mean condoning the impulses that make it impracticable. It simply means we are acknowledging there are aspects of human nature that limit what is possible in the political realm, and that we must choose a political system that is best able to work with and manage these limitations.

I am interested in the political question, so if you have something to say, let's hear it. And if not, why bring up politics in the book at all? Why not make it a book strictly about the history of debt (and leave the politics for elsewhere)? The fact is that if you are going to challenge the prevailing conditions, people will want to hear what alternative you have, and if you do not provide one they will be (rightly) let down, and will think that your objections amount to not much more than whining and moaning.

If you would like to respond to this, David, please leave out the rhetoric that no one will give you a fair shake because you are challenging the prevailing conditions, or that anyone who supports the prevailing system in any way is unfairly taking advantage of pre-existing power dynamics. It's patronizing, and annoying. Just make your point, and assume that I'll take it at face value, and am not hiding behind the 'prevailing orthodoxy'. thanks in advance.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 5:01:51 PM PDT
Sorry I can't oblige you.

A lot of things are annoying. It's annoying to have one's positions mischaracterized by people claiming to write a synopsis of the book but I had decided I wouldn't make a big issue out of that.

As for your basic argument - that anyone who writes a book from a position critical of existing institutions, no matter what that book is specifically about, is obliged to provide, in each text, an elaborate revolutionary program describing an alternative socio-economic system... Well maybe you don't feel that is placing an unfair burden on those who don't write in accord with prevailing orthodoxies, but I doubt a reasonable third party would agree with you.

The book provides tools for reimagining the world that's already all around us - hence, the chapter arguing that communism, exchange, and hierarchy are always present in all human societies and always will be - and a survey of history which aside from I think being interesting in itself, can help us realize just how different are the solutions that have been found to the basic dilemmas of the human condition in the past, and provide material to help us start thinking about how we might do things differently in the future. It is meant to encourage the reader to think for him- or herself about other possibilities, rather than to dictate solutions. Since for me, that's what human freedom would mean: the ability to think for oneself about other possibilities, and join with others to try to bring them into being. If you're not interested in such a project because you think things are already about as good as they can be, well, that's your decision. Fine with me. I don't expect everyone to agree with me. I wouldn't want everyone to agree with me! How boring would that be? But it does seem a tad inconsiderate to others who might be interested in such a project to mislead them as to the actual purposes and argument of the book.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 6:18:21 PM PDT
A final word from this end: if I have misconstrued your position at all, then I do apologize for that. I always try my level best to provide the most accurate synopsis that I am able. If I have erred in this respect, it is only because I did not see your position outlined clearly in the text (or because I identified certain lines of thinking as being less prevalent than conflicting lines of thought), and not because I was actively trying to mischaracterize you. With regards to politics, we shall agree to disagree (but we do not disagree about the choiceworthiness of thinking freely about these issues [even though you may be convinced otherwise]).

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 18, 2011 8:17:20 AM PDT
David,
Do you know about Modern Monetary Theory? (you can Google it.) Much of what you are writing appears to be consistent with their ideas about debt, money, and the impossibility of a sovereign government defaulting on debt in one's own currency. I just ordered your book and look forward to thinking about this as well. Perhaps you have just written the history for that theoretical perspective without even knowing they existed.

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 18, 2011 10:46:46 PM PDT
As a matter of fact I cite Randall Wray, and others who I think are at least allied, like Michael Hudson. One of my arguments is that money is that though the chartalists have always been marginal, they're historically obviously right about the origins of money, and that rather than either the commodity money versus credit money theorists being definitively right, history seems to alternate between periods dominated by credit money, and periods dominated by bullion money - with all sorts of interesting implications.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 1, 2011 9:04:22 AM PDT
[Deleted by the author on Sep 1, 2011 9:05:14 AM PDT]
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