Debt: The First 5000 Years

Debt is a narrative non-fiction book detailing the history of debt. It is a lengthy study of the power of debt, and how it shapes human society. As the author states in the introductory chapter, “This book is a history of debt, then but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like — what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”. Consider the morality surrounding debt and credit. If someone was unable to pay their debts, or even is just deeply in debt, that person is often viewed as weak of character. On the other side: we similarly view usury, or even more mildler forms of lending, in a negative or at least distasteful fashion (think loan shark or Shakespeare’s Shylock). On top of this, Graeber layers the interplay of debt and religion. Why do Christians refer to Jesus Christ as a redeemer? On the same note, why does Christ cast out the money lenders in the Cleansing of the Temple. Why are Jewish people associated with money lending (usually negatively).Graeber notes that this likely arose out of the exclusion of Jews from other professions in the middle ages combined with interesting interpretations of Deuteronomy 23:19–20 ? At the same time that money lending is often portrayed negatively by religion, through out the middle ages in both eastern and western cultures, the local church or monastery often functioned as a money lender. It is these types of close examinations of society and debt that make this book worthwhile.

Graeber spends the first part of the book as an anthropological study of debt, examining some of the questions, along with fundamentals such as the origin of money. The second half of the book is a methodical history of debt from early 3500 BC to current times. I recommend this as a simply because of its depth and the way it challenged my conception of debt and societal mores.

Interesting Bits

  • Graeber attacks what he calls the founding myth of economics, which goes something like:
    • Early societies bartered among individuals, eventually developed money to solve the coincidence of wants problem, from money arises markets and virtual currency (debts and credits).
    • Actually its the other way around: “Virtual” money & credit systems come first, money is a tool that arises later from the state, and barter really only happens in situations where people are accustomed to using money find themselves without (e.g.¬†those displaced by wars).
  • The cyclical nature of lower class uprisings, where the usual result was the smashing of the debt records.
    • Also the concept of Jubilee in Christian societies where every 50 years or so there was a year of pardoning of sins and debts
  • Organic bartering is found much more frequently in non-mixing communities, where relationships are transient. Smaller communities can simply use debts to each other.
  • Money is both a debt and a commodity
  • Reading of the wizard of Oz as an allegory for monetary policy
  • While not the thesis of the book, it examines the idea of primorial debt: that all debt eventually boils down what we owe to each other (the “community”). Taxes might be consider a direct representation of these debts.
  • Slavery as a structure requires ripping an individual from their community, the network of relationships that define a person. This occurs commonly through violence. Through this lens we see again the way the violence is necessary to de-personalize relationships and allow people to “own” each other

Key Ideas

  • Early debt occurred within small communities, individuals make contracts with each other (debts) and promise a return of goods and services. This was bound together through and largely had little use for money and quantification.
  • Quantification and money rises from the state, which has needs greater than the small community, e.g.¬†conscripting an army, taxes, etc.
  • The way humans interact with debt is highly ambivalent and this ambivalence appears across historical and geographic dimensions
    • debt can be a powerful tool, a facilitator of commerce and a necessary part of the economy.
    • debt also can have strong problematic relations with aspects of our society. Be it violence, where it was frequently used for soldier wages and division of the spoils of war. Or sexuality, where we have the concept of dowries and where women might be sold as slaves to pay off a family debt. Or slavery, where debts often driven individuals to sell themselves, others, or participate in the slave trade. Consider even the more low grade forms of hierarchy and slavery, such as debt peonage, serfdom, or share cropping.

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