Debt: The First 5000 Years

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt Graeber.jpg
Author David Graeber
Publisher Melville House
Publication date
ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2
OCLC 426794447

Debt: The First 5000 Years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. It is a wide-ranging book, exploring debt's relationship with money, cash, barter, community, marriage, friendship, vassalage, slavery, morality, honor, law, philosophy, commerce, religion, greed, charity, violence, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer in 3000 BC until the present. It explores how debt has changed and been changed by the people and societies which have used it.

A major argument of the book is that when the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of "human economies" is replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts, widespread impoverishment and violence are common results which only a few societies have managed to escape.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is likely the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments. Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy.

This book documents Graeber's argument that as far back as we can see in the historical and archeological record, people with power have often established rules to benefit them and impoverish and enslave everyone else. This trend has been occasionally interrupted when slaves or peons rebelled, often killing the existing elites.

To reduce the risks of rebellion, a Jubilee would be declared. This would cancel all debts but maintain most of the power and social status of existing elites.

Graeber insists that gift economies preceded barter and money, contrary to the popular claims of economists. Gifts incur debts, whose enforcement sometimes led to slavery, which occasionally led to rebellions.

He concludes that, "since Hammurabi, great imperial states have invariably resisted [Jubilees]. Athens and Rome established the paradigm: even when confronted with continual debt crises, they insisted on legislating around the edges, softening the impact, eliminating obvious abuses like debt slavery ... but [never] allow a challenge to the principle of debt itself. The governing classes of the United States seem to have taken a remarkably similar approach: eliminating the worst abuses (e.g., debtors' prison), ... but never allowing anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts. [But] the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. ... [W]e don't "all" have to pay our debts. ... A debt is just the perversion of a promise ... corrupted by both math and violence. ... [N]o one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe."[1]


Graeber lays out the historical development of the idea of debt starting from the first recorded debt systems, in the Sumer civilization around 3500 BC. In this early form of borrowing and lending, farmers would often become so mired in debt that their children would be forced into debt peonage. Kings periodically canceled all debts. In ancient Israel, the resulting amnesty came to be known as the Law of Jubilee.

The author claims that debt and credit historically appeared before money, which itself appeared before barter. This is the opposite of the narrative given in standard economics texts dating back to Adam Smith. To support this, he cites numerous historical, ethnographic and archaeological studies. He also claims that the standard economics texts cite no evidence for suggesting that money came before barter, credit and debt, and he has seen no credible reports suggesting such.

The primary theme of the book is that excessive popular indebtedness has sometimes led to unrest, insurrection, and revolt.

He argues that credit systems originally developed as means of account long before the advent of coinage, which appeared around 600 BC. Credit can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. Barter, on the other hand, seems primarily to have been used for limited exchanges between different societies that had infrequent contact and often were in a context of ritualized warfare.

Graeber suggests that economic life originally related to social currencies. These were closely related to routine non-market interactions within a community. This created an "everyday communism" based on mutual expectations and responsibilities among individuals. This type of economy is contrasted with exchange based on formal equality and reciprocity (but not necessarily leading to market relations) and hierarchy. The hierarchies in turn tended to institutionalize inequalities in customs and castes.

The great Axial Age civilizations (800–200 BC) began to use coins to quantify the economic values of portions of what Graeber calls "human economies". Graeber says these civilizations held a radically different conception of debt and social relations. These were based on the radical incalculability of human life and the constant creation and recreation of social bonds through gifts, marriages, and general sociability. The author postulates the growth of a "military–coinage–slave complex" around this time. These were enforced by mercenary armies that looted cities and cut human beings from their social context to work as slaves in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere. The extreme violence of the period marked by the rise of great empires in China, India, and the Mediterranean was, in this way, connected with the advent of large-scale slavery and the use of coins to pay soldiers. This was combined with obligations to pay taxes in currency: The obligation to pay taxes with money required people to engage in monetary transactions, often with very disadvantageous terms of trade. This typically increased debt and slavery.

At this time, great religions also spread, and the general questions of philosophical inquiry emerged on world history. These included discussions of debt and its relation to ethics (e.g., Plato's Republic).

When the great empires in Rome and India collapsed, the resulting checkerboard of small kingdoms and republics saw the gradual decline in standing armies and cities. This included the creation of hierarchical caste systems, the retreat of gold and silver to the temples and the abolition of slavery. Although hard currency was no longer used in everyday life, its use as a unit of account and credit continued in medieval Europe. Graeber insists that people in the Middle Ages in Europe continued to use the concept of money, even though they no longer had the physical symbols. This contradicts the popular claims of economists that the Middle Ages saw the economy "revert to barter". During the Middle Ages more sophisticated financial instruments appeared. These included promissory notes and paper money (in China, where the empire managed to survive the collapse observed elsewhere), letters of credit, and cheques (in the Islamic world).[2]

The emergence of the Atlantic slave trade and the massive amounts of gold and silver extracted from the Americas — most of which ended up in the far East, especially China — stimulated the reemergence of the bullion economy and large-scale military violence. All of these developments, according to Graeber, directly intertwined with the earlier expansion of the Italian mercantile city-states as centers of finance that defied the church ban on usury and led to the current age of great capitalist empires. As the new continent opened new possibilities for gain, it also created a new area for adventurous militarism backed by debts that required the economic exploitation of the Amerindian and, later, West African populations. As it did, cities again flourished in the European continent and capitalism advanced to encompass larger areas of the globe when European trade companies and military outposts disrupted local markets and pushed for colonial monopolies.

The bullion economy ended with the abandonment of the gold standard by the U.S. government in 1971. This return to credit money increased uncertainties. For the moment the dollar still stands as the primary world currency, though that is not likely to last forever. This status of the dollar is largely based on its capacity to multiply itself through debts and deficits. This may continue as long as (a) the United States maintains its status as the world's preeminent military power and (b) client states are eager to pay seignorage for U.S. government bonds. By comparing the evolution of debt in our times to other historical eras and different societies, the author suggests that modern debt crises are not the inevitable product of history and may be changed.[3]

Anti-capitalist critique[edit]

In addition to his anthropological narrative, Graeber also provides direct criticism of modern-day capitalism, questioning many conventionally accepted economic notions, especially: the free market, the historical myth of the concept of barter as the origin of trade, and the concept of money as an independent object of worth, rather than a social relation.[4]

The concept of "everyday communism"[edit]

Graeber in this book proposes a concept of "everyday communism" which he defines, when analysing peasant lives as "The peasants' visions of communistic brotherhood did not come out of nowhere. They were rooted in real daily experience: of the maintenance of common fields and forests, of everyday cooperation and neighborly solidarity. It is out of such homely experience of everyday communism that grand mythic visions are always built."[5] Also "Society was rooted above in the "love and amity" of friends and kin, and it found expression in all those forms of everyday communism (helping neighbors with chores, providing milk or cheese for old widows) that were seen to flow from it."[6]

Closer to home, he gives this example: "If someone fixing a broken water pipe says, 'Hand me the wrench,' his co-worker will not, generally speaking, say, 'And what do I get for it?' ... The reason is simple efficiency ...: if you really care about getting something done, the most efficient way to go about it is obviously to allocate tasks by ability and give people whatever they need to do them."[7] Moreover, we tend to ask and give without thinking for things like asking directions, or

small courtesies like asking for a light, or even for a cigarette. It seems more legitimate to ask a stranger for a cigarette than for an equivalent amount of cash, or even food; in fact, if one has been identified as a fellow smoker, it's rather difficult to refuse such a request. In such cases—a match, a piece of information, holding the elevator—one might say the "from each" element is so minimal that most of us comply without even thinking about it. Conversely, the same is true if another person's need—even a stranger's—is particularly spectacular or extreme: if he is drowning, for example. If a child has fallen onto the subway tracks, we assume that anyone who is capable of helping her up will do so.[8]

The thing which makes it "everyday" is this argument: "communism is the foundation of all human sociability. It is what makes society possible. There is always an assumption that anyone who is not actually an enemy can be expected to act on the principle of "from each according to their abilities," at least to an extent",[9] which is to say, the extent just described.

He proposes studying these practices and says that "The sociology of everyday communism is a potentially enormous field, but one which, owing to our peculiar ideological blinders, we have been unable to write about because we have been largely unable to see it."[10]


The book was completed before the eruption of Occupy Wall Street, but some commentators have suggested that OWS might be described as an attempted slave rebellion, as discussed in this book.[4][11][12]

The book won the inaugural Bread and Roses Award for radical literature,[13] and the 2012 Bateson Award of the American Society for Cultural Anthropology.[14]

Critical reception[edit]

The New York Review of Books called the book "an encyclopedic survey... an authoritative account of the background to the recent crisis... an exhaustive, engaging, and occasionally exasperating book".[15]

The Globe and Mail said, "This is a big book of big ideas: Within its 500 pages, you’ll find a theory of capitalism, religion, the state, world history and money, with evidence reaching back more than 5,000 years, from the Inuit to the Aztecs, the Mughals to the Mongols".[16]

The Jacobin magazine was more critical, saying that while "there is a lot of fantastic material in there," the reviewer "found the main arguments wholly unconvincing... Graeber is a wonderful storyteller. But the accumulation of anecdotes does not add up to an explanation, and certainly not one that would overturn the existing wisdom on the subject, conventional or otherwise".[17]


  1. ^ Graeber, Debt, 390-391. On pp. 2-3, he notes that the debts "owed" by poor countries were typically incurred "by unelected dictators who placed most of it directly in their Swiss bank accounts, [and] many of these poor countries had already paid back what they'd borrowed three our four times now, but that through the miracle of compound interest, it still hadn't made a dent in the principal [and] to obtain refinancing, countries have to follow some orthodox free-market economic policy designed in Washington or Zurich that their citizens had never agrred to and never would". We don't ask the unelected dictators or their Swiss bankers to repay these "loans".
  2. ^ According to Graeber, some of the "Western" tradition on free market and commerce outside of governmental intervention described by Adam Smith repeats almost verbatim the words of Islamic, Persian scholars like Nasir al-Din al-Tusi and Al-Ghazali, and Smith had Latin translations of some of their works in his library. Hilder, Trevor E., Book Review: "Debt - The First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber, Muslim Heritage, retrieved 2014-05-26 
  3. ^ Meaney, Thomas (December 8, 2011). "Anarchist Anthropology". The New York Times Book Review. The New York Times Company. pp. BR47. Retrieved December 11, 2011. 
  4. ^ a b Gharavi, Maryam Monalisa (31 October 2011). "A History of Debt". Social Text. Retrieved 2014-05-26. 
  5. ^ David Graeber. Debt: the first 5000 years. Pg. 326
  6. ^ David Graeber. Debt: the first 5000 years. Pg. 330
  7. ^ Graeber, Debt, 95-96.
  8. ^ Graeber, Debt, 97.
  9. ^ Graeber, Debt, 96.
  10. ^ David Graeber. Debt: the first 5000 years. Pg. 101
  11. ^ Tett, Gillian (9 September 2011). "Debt: it’s back to the future". FT Magazine. Retrieved 13 February 2012. 
  12. ^ Bennett, Drake (26 October 2011). "David Graeber, the Anti-Leader of Occupy Wall Street". Bloomberg Businessweek. Retrieved 13 February 2012. 
  13. ^ Alison Flood (6 March 2012). "New prize for radical writing announces shortlist". The Guardian (London). Retrieved May 2, 2012. 
  14. ^ "David Graeber Awarded the 2012 Bateson Prize". Cultural Anthropology. Retrieved Aug 24, 2013. 
  15. ^ Robert Kuttner (May 9, 2013). "The Debt We Shouldn't Pay". The New York Review of Book (New York). Retrieved May 25, 2014. 
  16. ^ Raj Patel (Oct 17, 2011). "A key to unlock the door of debtor's prison". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved May 25, 2014. 
  17. ^ Mike Beggs (August 2012). "Debt: The first 500 pages". Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved May 25, 2014. 

External links[edit]