Debt: The First 5000 Years

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt Graeber.jpg
AuthorDavid Graeber
PublisherMelville House
Publication date

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. It explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government. 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 3500 BCE until the present.


A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of "human economies" is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably 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. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, "markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence", though he goes on to show how "in the absence of such violence, they... can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy".[1]

Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber's sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on "critical reception".


Graeber lays out the historical development of the idea of debt, starting from the first recorded debt systems in the Sumer civilization around 3500 BCE. 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. Because of the social tension that came with this enslavement of large parts of the population, kings periodically canceled all debts. In ancient Israel, the resulting amnesty came to be known as the Law of Jubilee.

Graeber 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 barter came before money, 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 BCE. 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 BCE–600 CE) 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 in world history. These included discussions of debt and its relation to ethics (e.g., Plato's Republic).[citation needed]

When the great empires in Rome and India collapsed, the resulting checkerboard of small kingdoms and republics saw a 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 East Asia, 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 Catholic Church's 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. This status of the dollar (as with all money) is based on its capacity to extend its quantity through debts and deficits and, more importantly, by the unrestrained authority of the Federal Reserve to create money, which has enabled the USA to create a 21 trillion dollar debt by 2018. This may continue as long as (a) the United States maintains its status as the world's pre-eminent 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 must be resolved in the near future in a way similar to the solutions, at least in principle, as applied during the last 5000 years.[3]

Anti-capitalist critique[edit]

The concept of "everyday communism"[edit]

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Graeber 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".[4]: 326  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".[4]: 330 

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."[4]: 95–96  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.[4]: 97 

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,[4]: 96  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".[4]: 101  Nevertheless, Graeber's ideas were later discussed by journalist Richard Swift as being a type of "a reciprocal economy"— which makes use of the "ethic of reciprocity" or the "Golden Rule".[5] The anthropologist, Chris Knight, has critiqued the idea of "everyday communism" in his Brooklyn Rail article, "Did communism make us human? On the anthropology of David Graeber".[6][clarification needed]


The book won the inaugural Bread and Roses Award for radical literature,[7] and the 2012 Bateson Award of the American Society for Cultural Anthropology.[8]

Critical reception[edit]

Journalist Robert Kuttner in 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."[9]

Journalist and activist Raj Patel of 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.”[10]

Journalist Gillian Tett of the Financial Times compared the book to the works of Marcel Mauss, Karl Polanyi, and Keith Hart.[11]

Economist and historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, a professor of economics at San Jose State University and an adjunct scholar at the libertarian think-tank Cato Institute[12] found several "serious conceptual confusions" in the book. For example, Hummel pointed out that Graeber likely confused the Austrian school economist Carl Menger with his son, the mathematician Karl Menger, which led to erroneous statements and accusations against the former, such as that he supposedly added "various mathematical equations" to economics and that he came up with the term "transaction costs".[13] Hummel also contended that the book's tone is overly polemical and that it is "riddled with errors and distortions".[13]

Economist George Selgin, a professor emeritus of economics at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia and a fellow at the Cato Institute,[14] echoed similar criticisms, adding that Graeber hadn't read Menger at all, and that his reading of Adam Smith was ungenerous.[15] According to Selgin, the foundation upon which Graeber's evaluation of modern economics and commercial society rests is severely flawed.[15]

Economist Julio Huato, associate professor of economics at St. Francis College, writing in Science & Society pointed out some of the book's contradictions, such as Graeber's claim in p. 21, that money and debt appeared simultaneously, and his claim in p. 40, that money and debt did not appear simultaneously and that debt appeared first.[16] He also stated that, contrary to Graeber's claims, the "myth of barter" – i.e the hypothesis that the accidental direct exchange of quasi-commodities predated money historically – is not an absurd fantasy.[16] Hulio concluded by asserting that several other of Graeber's claims in the book, such as the claim that violent dispossession is the "secret scandal" of modern capitalism, are problematic.[16]

Beggs–Mason debate[edit]

The book was reviewed by way of a debate in the socialist magazine Jacobin. In the first review, economist Mike Beggs, a lecturer in political economy at the University of Sydney, wrote that while "there is a lot of fantastic material in there", he "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] In response, economist J. W. Mason, an associate professor of economics at John Jay College, defended the book. He noted that the book's "key themes are in close harmony with the main themes of heterodox economics work going back to Keynes," and that while it is "no substitute for Marx, Keynes and Schumpeter, for Minsky and Leijonhufvud, for Henwood and Mehring ... it is a fine complement."[18]


  1. ^ "Seminar on Debt: The First 5000 Years – Reply". 2 April 2012.
  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 c d e f Graeber, David (2011). Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Printing. ISBN 978-1612191294.
  5. ^ Swift, Richard. "Pathways & possibilities". New Internationalist. 484 (July/August 2015). Retrieved Aug 15, 2015.
  6. ^ Knight, Chris (June 2021). "Did communism make us human? On the anthropology of David Graeber". Brooklyn Rail. Retrieved 30 January 2022.
  7. ^ Alison Flood (6 March 2012). "New prize for radical writing announces shortlist". The Guardian. London. Retrieved May 2, 2012.
  8. ^ "David Graeber Awarded the 2012 Bateson Prize". Cultural Anthropology. Archived from the original on March 3, 2014. Retrieved Aug 24, 2013.
  9. ^ Robert Kuttner (May 9, 2013). "The Debt We Shouldn't Pay". The New York Review of Book. New York. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
  10. ^ Raj Patel (May 3, 2018). "A key to unlock the door of debtor's prison". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Retrieved June 16, 2019.
  11. ^ Gillian Tett, “Debt: it’s back to the future”, Financial Times (9 September 2011). Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  12. ^ "Jeffrey Rogers Hummel". Cato Institute. Retrieved 2023-04-18.
  13. ^ a b Henderson, David (2012) "Hummel on Graeber". Liberty Fund.
  14. ^ "George Selgin". Cato Institute. Retrieved 2023-04-18.
  15. ^ a b Selgin, George (2016). "The Myth of the Myth of Barter". Alt-M. Retrieved 2022-08-28.
  16. ^ a b c Huato, Julio (2015). "Graeber's Debt: When a Wealth of Facts Confronts a Poverty of Theory". Science & Society. 79 (2): 318–325. doi:10.1521/siso.2015.79.2.318. ISSN 0036-8237.
  17. ^ Mike Beggs (August 2012). "Debt: The first 500 pages". Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
  18. ^ J. W. Mason (September 2012). "In Defense of David Graeber's Debt". Jacobin Magazine. Retrieved November 10, 2015.

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