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Debt: The First 5,000 Years Hardcover – July 12, 2011
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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."
"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."
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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I saw a few critical reviews while reading this book, and now that I have finished, my opinion is that anyone who negatively reviews this book only read a portion of it. Most of the critical reviews are dismissive of his "point-of-view" as being "wrong." However, anyone who has actually read the whole book realizes that he has stepped back and looked at these issues from multiple perspectives and through the lens of multiple disciplines. People who are upset by this book (or by the introductory chapters) are upset because today's economics teaching focuses only on a small piece of the "economics thought pie" (my term) which is out there. Graeber steps out into discussing pieces which are less covered (or not covered at all) in typical economics classes in the West of today. So, rather than reading through his arguments, and seeing where they wind up by reading the whole book, I am certain these people gave up only part-way into the book, and then wrote a negative review because the ideas are different (much wider and more complicated) than they have been taught, and they find it "out of their paradigm" and just can't accept reading further. Yet, anyone should be able to read alternative ideas that challenge traditional ideas in order to see if their beliefs really stand up under scrutiny.
So much information is packed into Debt: The First 5,000 Years, that it could easily have been written as five separate stand-alone books. As an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, Graeber wrote a massive, sprawling history of debt, credit, and the development of markets and money; he ties it to war, slavery, taxes, tribute, government bureaucracy, religious thought, and both local and international trade, by looking at societies from ancient Mesopotamia, to India, to China, to ancient Greece and Rome, to Latin America, to the Middle Ages, and to the Modern Ages.
Why did he do it this way? Several reasons. First, as an anthropologist, he felt he was in a unique position to help us completely rethink our sense of the rhythms of economic history. Economists and historians, he points out, normally come at history in opposite directions. "Economists tend to come at history with their mathematical models--and the assumptions about human nature that come along with them--already in place: it's largely a matter of arranging the data around equations. Historians .....often refuse to extrapolate at all; in the absence of direct evidence.....they will not ask whether it is reasonable to make (certain) assumptions....this is why we have so many "histories of money" that are actually histories of coinage....Anthropologists, in contrast, are empirical--they don't just apply preset models--but they also have such a wealth of comparative material at their disposal they CAN actually speculate about what village assemblies in Bronze Age Europe or credit systems in ancient China were likely to be like. And they can reexamine the evidence to see if it confirms or contradicts their assessment." Second, as a admirer of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, by writing this book, Graeber feels he has put to rest the real "pet peeve" of anthropologists everywhere--the myth of barter. I found this a shocking idea when introduced to it at the beginning of the book, but he has really convinced me as a reader through his extensive and comprehensive looks at every possible facet of this question.
I will try to summarize in one paragraph the large sweeping ideas covered in this book. What is money, really? What determines what gets used as money, and why? Certain historical ages operated on mutual credit systems, with practically no coinage at all in circulations (for hundreds or even thousands of years at a time); other ages operated with coin made out of various precious metals. What were the differences between the types of ages when these different types of systems occurred in societies around-the-world, and what were the causes of these differences? Historically, when did these various ages occur, and why? What is happening now, and is the current situation in the world changing? We seem to have recently entered a new age of credit, but in many ways, completely unlike past ages of credit, with historical trends now completely reversed between creditors and debtors compared to past credit ages. How does war and slavery factor into all of this? What is capitalism and how did it come about? Does it really work as it claims to? What are the problems and myths associated with capitalism? What does faith and credit in government and society mean, and what has it meant throughout all historical ages around-the-world? These are just a few of the book's largest questions.
Now I will touch on what this book meant to me personally. As an American living overseas in North Africa, I really enjoyed his discussion of how credit was handled during the Middle Ages in Europe, with most people living on credit in regards to each other. It reminded me of the system we even continue to use in North Africa, even in cities, with the merchants at the corner stores (which are our societal equivalents of 7-11 stores). Each family has a notebook which they bring with them to the store each time they want to purchase something. The merchant notes it in the book, and accounts are settled up at the end of the month. Without cash or coin available to most of the populace in the European Middle Ages, everyone operated on such bases with their neighbors, everyone kept accounts, and accounts were settled up in the whole village once or twice a year, usually at specific times or festivals. I found this really interesting. Many such examples from the book meant something to me in my own life, but they would be too numerous to list here.
The price of this paperback was one for which I got more than my money's worth, many times over, for the many pleasurable hours of reading, and all I learned, in a highly-enjoyable and extremely well-written text. I wish I could sit in on David Graeber's class. Be prepared--you will want to discuss this book with friends, so try to get a friend or a book club group to read it with you.
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.
Many things that I had questioned in our current age were demonstrated as being "nothing new under the sun." The patterns of debt were/are foundational in the development of the modern world. And this not necessarily for the ultimate good if taken to the extremes which are the norm, unfortunately.
Banking and debt can help tremendously in creating a prosperous and broadly-people-benefitting economy. But as time goes on in the end the debt becomes extreme and the resultant predation have proved to ultimately destroy.
As pictured in the book the problem seems not to be in the process but in the time. The author advocates a Jubilee every 50 years, or some similar event, to permit the positive side of debt usage and reduce the negative. It seems that much of the negative aspects of debt seem to typically come at the end of such a period. Unfortunately, the process of unlimited debt creation occurs heavily at the end of a such a cycle. The debt becomes more artificial (hedge funds anyone) and onerous for all.
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At its heart, Debt is a discussion of the evolution of debtor-creditor relations.Read more