Debt: The First 5,000 Years
David Graeber’s latest book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, is difficult to write about dispassionately. Depending on one’s ideological bent, it is fully capable of inspiring derision, fear, hope, disgust and, no doubt, anger. This is notable because, on its surface, Debt is exactly what it purports to be: a history book that considers the roles which money, credit, trade and value have played in shaping human culture since the advent of what we might now consider civilization.
No one, however, sets out to write a book of this scope unless there is something about the topic that is of deep, and some might say, urgent interest to them and Graeber is no exception. Often billed as an historical anthropologist and/or an anarchist, Graeber wields a very specific scalpel when dissecting history that parses fact from fiction in ways that run counter to most of the commonly held notions about the history of economics and, to quote Daniel Quinn, how things came to be this way.
The first criteria by which we might judge Debt is the skill with which it executes its duty as a book of history. Graeber is exhaustive in his analysis of the past 5,000 years of human commerce, dividing it into various epochs and taking us on world tours through each. One of the highlights of Debt is how inclusive Graeber’s vision of human activity is.
His argument is made more plausible by looking at the history of money, value and debt through a truly global lens, undistorted by a Euro-centric bias. As it turns out, the pendulum from credit to money that has been in constant motion from the advent of civilization isn’t just a Western phenomenon. It has occurred in every place and time and continued to swing in places like China and India like clockwork even when historical inconveniences like the near-death of literacy in Europe make it difficult to know precisely what was happening on the ground. With these systems of comparison available, it enables the curious mind to know the answers to questions like, “What would a free-market economy separate from the rule of government look like?” It turns out, as Graeber is kind enough to inform us, that Islam answered this question several hundred years ago and, to some extent, continues to do so unabated today.
In addition to tying together the oft-lauded centers of civilization, he draws upon his training as an anthropologist to interject examples from pre-colonial Africa, Meso-America, and Polynesia among many others. More importantly, he illustrates how these contributions play an important role in our understanding of the larger narrative, rather than sequestering them off as anecdotal exceptions to a rule.
In doing so, Graeber undermines many of the central tenets of modern economics, peeling back its its hard science exterior to show that it masks, charitably, a soft-science-y center based on a good number of self-reinforcing and unprovable premises and, less charitably, a bunch of made up hogwash. He doesn’t so much accuse economists of intentionally lying about things as he tries to explain why their vision of how the world works is the only one that they can rationalize.
To accomplish this task, Graeber takes the reader on a wild journey through history as seen through the lens of ethics, philosophy, religion, science and about every other branch of human knowledge available to the modern thinker. The fact that he is able to demonstrate how these ways of seeing the world are all bound up in the same fictions makes the feat more impressive and believable.
While the historical aspects of Debt are enlightening and offer much needed scope to our modern conversations about the role that money should play in our everyday lives, this turns out to be one of the elements of lesser importance in the book. Graeber rightly notes that our very language has embedded questions about debt so deeply into our culture that we cannot conceive of a discourse about who we are and what meaning/value our lives carry without it. Our religions are debates about debt. Our philosophies are abstractions based upon it. It is as if language itself is inextricably bound into these indefensible premises and, as we are captives of our language, so we remain captive to these ideas.
Debt would be an easy book to dismiss if its author came across as a crazy person. He really doesn’t. In fact, in light of the systemic collapses that are becoming more difficult to ignore with each passing day, his explanations as to why they all should be collapsing right now, as supported by historical precedent and reasoning that is difficult to refute, are almost comforting. Graeber’s goal is not to lay out some grand, idealistic future. Although he speculates some towards the very end as to what that future may hold, Debt’s primary function is to place the how and why of where we find ourselves at this very minute into some kind of context other than, “The sky is falling because that’s what skies do!” These systems run a course and, by studying the skeletal wreckage of earlier systems very much like our own, Graeber suggests that it is never too late to make choices about how the ship is going to hit when it finally crashes.
If you believe that we’re in that kind of plunge, then knowing how to pilot the ship down with minimal damage after that sudden stop at the end becomes welcome and timely knowledge.