Review of ‘Debt: the first 5,000 years’ by David Graeber

March 24, 2014

By Sky Croeser

debt

Graeber’s book provides an enlightening 5000 year history of ‘economy’, using the concept of debt to help illustrate the ways that global and local economies have been shaped by historical factors. The underlying theme of his book, I believe, is not strictly ‘debt’, but is the way that ‘human economies’ have turned into ‘market economies’ and the social upheaval and social disconnect that this has caused us. Debt is one, albeit prominent and influential, example of this.

Originally, Graeber argues, most communities were founded on human economies, where the primary economic activity was a form of ‘communism’ between family and friends (ie to each according to their need, from each according to their ability), and where human life was of ultimate value. (One of the next books we’re looking at, Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital by John Restakis, opens with a similar overview). The economic activities of ‘exchange’ (between strangers) and ‘hierarchy’ (between unequals) were secondary. Through various examples, Graeber shows how war and slavery, propagated by kings/governments throughout written history, has been a catalyst for economic change around the world.

As armies grew in scale and organisation, it became necessary to find ways to pay soldiers over campaigns that might last for months or years. With the coming of soldiers and their coins into small communities, exchange and the quantification of objects of value, slowly became the economic norm. Slavery (which accompanies war), simultaneously allowed for the quantification of human life (which was unthinkable in a human economy), and together these forces paved the way for market economies to grow. Within these new and emerging market economies, social relations are increasingly quantified, and thus stripped of their true value. It is within this context that ‘debt’ (a market economy exchange activity where obligation is quantified) became a central tool through which the powerful could exert control over people.

Graeber goes on to explore how debt has been periodically enforced and then relieved, by kings, governments and religious authorities, in response to historical processes. The forgiving of debts, or the inclusion of mechanisms which prevented debts from becoming impossible to repay, was important to continued functioning of society. (On this note, it’s interesting to read more about the Islamic conception of debt.) Throughout these periods of great empire decline and ascendance debt, as a tool of control, has been slowly infused into our economies, written into our laws, and even embedded into our moral and religious values.

Debt: The first 5,000 years is a book that’s clearly meant to be linked to, and help to support, political action to create structural change. Aaron Bady discusses, for example, the connection between Debt and the Occupy Wall Street movement, while Miranda Joseph argues that Graeber’s focus primarily on ‘the violence of abstraction’ has the potential to undermine a movement of the 99% which recognises differences and inequalities within the movement. Meanwhile, the Rolling Jubilee project, which initially attempted to buy and forgive debts (partly as a way to start conversations around indebtedness), is now working to organise debtors and change the economic system.

Graeber ends the book by looking at the latest incarnation of the market economy and the use of debt in today’s capitalist economic system, the aspects of his work that draw most clearly on his involvement in Occupy and other movements. By putting our current economic crises into historical perspective, Graeber makes us think twice about the apparent omnipotence of capitalism, and helps us to question the role of debt, and indeed the market economy itself, in our lives and our future.

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