Before there was money, there was debt....
Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems - to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There's not a shred of evidence to support it.
Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like "guilt," "sin," and "redemption") derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history - as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.
©2011 David Graeber (P)2012 Gildan Media Corp
Judith Corstjens Author of: Xtensity, Why 5% of Dieters Succeed; Storewars: The Battle for Mindspace and Shelfspace; Strategic Advertising
I found this book quite odd and not what I was expecting. I'm interested in debt, and the current crisis which has a lot to do with debt, and I didn't really take too seriously the subtitle about 5000 years. Mr Graeber is not kidding. 5000 years and not a penny less is what you get. From prehistorical times, through the Sumarians, a sojourn on the Euphrates (I'm afraid I didn't take notes), long meanders with African tribes. Some bits were interesting - barter never was more than a fantasy of Adam Smith - human societies have always kept tabs, and virtual money (in the form of mental or written IOUs) was probably the precursor of every money economy. Women may have become chattels only when everything else did. 5% seems to have been considered the fair rate of interest through the ages. Current rates on credit cards would have been considered immoral and usurious at almost any time in history. But what is also odd is Mr Graeber's attitude and take on things. I'm not sure where he is coming from (or what he's on). He doesn't seem to give our modern society any credit for delivering at least some peace and prosperity. He doesn't seem to accept that quite a bit of debt and credit is useful and even necessary to human development. Hmm. More puzzled than satisfied as I finish this book.
I could not put this book down. Every chapter built on the last to lay out a picture of how mankind evolved (or possibly got trapped into) modern capitalism. Non judgemental with no obvious axe to grind, one Is left to rebuild ones view of the world and economics.
Maybe I’m taken aback by the amount of research and thought that must have gone into writing this book. Never have I found such a wide range of concepts, history, Anthropology, economics, politics, philosophy and even religion; blended together in such an enjoyable and easy to follow manner. And yet at the same time the amount of knowledge I have gained from this book is second to none. When the book did come across subjects I would claim to have been previously knowable on, this book perfectly complimented the research and knowledge I already have, in many areas providing more information or a better footing, as well as highlighting wider consequence of the history. This made me very comfortably in taking the rest of the information in and made me value the book even more. All in all 5/5.
This book is full of historical characters that are very interesting for many different reasons. I'd find it hard to choose one. but! An unknown man in London took advantage of the boom and bust of small scale investment bubbles that could boom and bust in a matter of days. The man set out a business model asking for investment for an unclosed venture that was sure to make every investor richer. After receiving lots of investment the man dispersed with the money never to be seen again
The explanations to why the barter systems development of money is wrong.
This book would have to be made into an epic of historical documentaries on different parts of the world.
well structured, amazingly researched, in line with facts i already knew, unbelievable amounts of information and knowledge gained. maybe the best book iv come across to date!
"Stands Economics on Its Head"
Graeber's "Debt" raises questions about the received wisdom of economics. When did we all become entrapped in debt and financial obligation? Why are the standards of debt different for the wealthy than for the poor? "Debt" does an amazing job of laying bare the inconsistencies and contradictions of our economic system.
Grover Gardner does a great job of conveying the emotional content of an intellectual argument. Proficient reading of non-fiction is about drawing the listener into the argument, which means understanding the argument and following the rhetorical rhythms. Gardner does an amazing job!
Debt is not a permanent condition nor is it necessarily a moral failing. With all of us in debt, this knowledge is uplifting!
I wish there were more books from the modern anthropological literature available as audio books!
"We are all debtors anyway."
A fascinating exploration of debt, money, barter, and the credit systems used by man for thousands of years. Sure it has biases and like 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' is a bit too idealistic, but still -- wow -- an amazing book. While most economic books are still battling over the binary capitalism::socialism salvos, Graeber quietly flips both boats (or if not flips, rocks both boats HARD).
I mean really, when was the last time my wife let me read to her about social and economic transactions? Answer: Never. She has NEVER, EVER before let me read to her about money or debt or interest rates or the buying and selling of goods. This was an early rule in our marriage. It was practically a sacred cow, a promise made with a flesh-debt. We even broke bread sticks over it (I still have my stale tally). We kept our bargain, till this book, till last night. THAT is how good it is.
Anyway, go ahead read it in bed. Read it to your wife -- in bed. If you are really equals she will tell you after a few minutes whether she is in your debt, or you are in hers. And, that's OK. We are all debtors anyway.
"Anthropological look at the history of debt, curre"
I have read a fair amount of economics. I find it interesting, both because its importance, but also because of its explanatory process. However, as has been increasingly shown empirically, people are not perfectly rational, and economic models that require perfectly rational people have limited value.
Similarly, economics has been critiqued by some (The Economics of Good and Evil is an example) for its over reliance on its limited predictive power and a lack of focus on its the ethical underpinnings.
David Graeber’s book is not quite either of these. Graeber teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, but is also a vocal crusader against the World Bank, the IMF and some parts of globalized trade agreements. Where the book really shines is its focus on anthropology. Where it is weaker is when his critique of modern economic theory becomes too repetitive or when he occasionally moves beyond the evidence.
Social Science, for the most, part is about taking the evidence and then weaving a narrative to connect the evidence in a plausible method. Graeber’s story is compelling. His central critique of the rise of currency not as an advance over barter societies, but as a regression from ‘human economies’ that were focused on mutual debt is strong. The regression is not so much about levels of economics, but of a regression of trust. Currency was more prevalent when war and distance trade made longer term debt relationships more problematic.
One of the problems of the book is his naming methods. He uses ‘human economy’ and ‘communism’ to designate the types of economies that were primarily relational and not currency based. And he is clear that by “communism” he is not talking about modern socialism but rather a shared economy where care of those around them was part of the economic consideration. ‘Gift economies’, which have been written about fairly extensively in anthropological circles are an example of what he means by communism. But still I think it is a needlessly antagonistic word choice.
One of the most interesting portions of the book was the discussion of how slavery, war and currency were inextricably linked. As an explanation, it makes a lot of sense.
Graeber is also fluent in religious language and culture. There is several extensive sections on Christian and Hebrew understandings of debt, usury, slavery, etc. Graeber attributes the decline of slavery at the end of the Roman Empire in large part to the cultural rise of Christianity. And even more importantly, when other regions of the world re-adopted slavery again, slavery was so much against the culture of the Christian era that slavery moved from being primarily about war or poverty, to being racially based. Of course, that was not a long term benefit to the world, but it was a significant change.
The focus on slavery also naturally led into discussions about patriarchy, women’s rights, bride prices and dowries and other areas that I think are often misunderstood historically.
In the end, I think the book was a bit too long. Graeber was carefully building an argument. And I can see why he spent so much time building it. It goes against much of the cultural understanding of how economies have risen. But I think the case is pretty convincing in most areas.
This book was good preparation for the book I am currently reading, The Locust Effect, about the role of violence in perpetuating poverty. One of the sections toward the end of Graeber’s book talks about the use of debt to perpetuate people’s poverty and in some cases to force people into slavery by trapping them in a type of illegal debt bondage. Gary Haugen‘s book provides more detail this type of slavery in the Locust Effect. But this initial introduction helped prime me for Haugen’s book.
If you have read a lot of economic books, and are generally pro-globalization (as I am) I think this is a book worth picking up. Not because you will change your mind about the positive effects of globalization (Graeber is not really anti-globalization as much as he is anti-uncontrolled globalization), but because it will give you a new narrative to hang some of the ideas of economics on. I was fascinated by much of it (although I did think it went a bit slow at times.)
originally posted on my blog Bookwi.se
"The most important book in decades"
I'm only at chapter 5 so this review is arguably premature. But I've read a ton of this type of nonfiction book to see that this book - this author - are special. And what makes it so important is that the content is possibly the biggest, most important economic, social, and political web of ideas anyone can possibly tackle - and these ideas have never been more relevant to current events and within the power of the common person to influence since the crucial invention of the printing press.
Read this book. If you are even a reasonably thoughtful person, it will have taught you something profound - even life-changing - in just the first 4 chapters.
What's it about? It's hard to say because, as is explained, the concept of debt pervades every aspect of being human - from morality (behavior), to economics (earning a living), to sociology (relationships). The concept of debt has come to pervade almost every aspect of our lives - even our religion. Politically, we are stuck as never before as we grapple with the concepts behind socialism and capitalism. But if your friend asks you to "Pass the salt, please," at dinner, you will not quote a price to your friend to perform this "act of production." So are you a socialist? Probably not. If your friend borrows $1000 from you, you are unlikely to be happy about not being paid back, especially if the friend uses the money to do things you would have liked to do, but now can not. Does your friend have a moral requirement to pay you back? Even to the point of a "pound of flesh?" Or was your loan more like a risky bet that now will not provide a return on your investment? An act of generosity? A keystone of functioning societies? Something that earns you rewards in heaven?
Using a discussion that spans the Vedas to Nehemiah and Christ, Adam Smith to Keynes, Comte to Nietzsche to Durkheim, from tribes to modern societies, be prepared to be stunned with new insights.
"A must read for the already well informed"
The author takes the reader on a trip around the world and throughout history to examine the roll of debt in human society. From the Sumeria to Ming Dynasty China and Adam Smith this book looks at how debt shapes human relationships and how the commoditization of those contracts has broken the very human bonds we form with one another.
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldNiall Ferguson (Author)
"Very hard to see a clear line of the story"
While I think this book could be interesting, and indeed I enjoyed some parts of it, I think the author fails to capture reader's attention with a clear line of events. He kind of like jumps from one epoch to another without explaining what does it all mean and how it correlates with his point of view. He also quotes a lot of sources which he then denounces, so especially while you are listening to the book, not reading it, it is hard to tell what the author actually thinks about the subject.
The overall problem with the book, I believe, is that an author is an anthropologist and he's trying to get into the field of economics. I don't mean just his reasoning, which might be flawed - this should be left for economists to judge - but the way he tells the story: he's elaborating on some of the historical/cultural things too much and you just can't see what he was trying to say in the first place. Probably the reason I couldn't really finish the book.
The narration is very good, although at some point I stumbled at a clearly "editorial" piece not supposed to be heard by the audience - the narrator was reading his remarks on the text. I guess you could call it a "bug". It was for a couple of minutes though.
Disappointment. I thought the book would be considerable more academic and fact based. Instead is seemed to be a tirade, against the World Monetary Fund, Globalization. While the author seems well informed about the facts in the book, I noticed several basic factual errors. That combined with the authors obvious cynicism, and a healthy dose conspiracy theory made it difficult to take seriously.
I think the only people who will take the book seriously, and not realize how far fetched it is are people who already have a similar cynical view and WANT to believe this kind of stuff.
The book is an amazing listen, however if you are looking for an economic/financial explanation of the history of debt and its current implications, you might get bugged with the "anthropological" sides of the history ( too many tribal stories :D )
"Must read if you are interested in economy"
A very interesting angle on how debt developed, where money come from and many more. Despite many references, this is not a book on archeology. Many of author's remarks in history and discovery of ancient civilizations make the book so much more worthwhile as well as trustworthy.
great read, highly recommended
"There's nothing here but a very long angry rant"
Long angry diatribes with few facts, and what facts there were punctuated everywhere by angry smears.
I truly attempted to give this book its chance, however one can only take so much. The author piles ad hominem upon ad hominem and tells his story from a near purely emotional point of view. He is an anthropologist with a massive ax to grind against all economists (for reasons unknown), and subjugates everything else to that end.
Indeed, at various points it appears as though evidence itself is a natural enemy to his thesis. In one portion, describing the origins of money, he speaks of Adam Smith’s account and dismisses it as false for the precise reason that it has been the accepted history of money since at least the time of Aristotle! Somehow we are led into the paradoxical argument that Smith’s account is not reliable because it has been told and accepted as reasonable, rational, and evidenced based since ancient times.
Somehow this transitions into everything that we’ve ever known about money being false, and more over morally detrimental to society. This argument, though tendentious at best, could be forgiven if not for the author’s insistence on pausing every few lines to throw in a jab at “those evil economists and bankers.” He often cannot even make it through a quote without jumping in to smear the speaker halfway through in a poorly conveyed aside.
The entire first chapter of the book reads like an angry rant with practically no factual information tossed in. Indeed the opening to the book finds the author at a dinner party where, even in his own historical telling of it, he manages to discount the intelligence of each person he is introduced to. He launches into a story of his own wonderful career bringing down the evil bankers by suing them into oblivion and his valiant attempt to “bring down” the international monetary system, particularly the IMF (you know, that evil organization which is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to combat Ebola in 3rd world countries that can’t afford to fight it themselves) . He then quickly dismisses the other two people in the conversation as foolish stooges who buy into the lie that people should repay their debts.
We are then to take it that the author has some concept of why, when one person loans a second person some money the second person should not have pay this back. Unfortunately the author’s ONLY argument in regards to this is: “That’s a stupid thing to believe, just how dumb are you?”
The book rambles from topic to topic, indeed the author himself admits in chapter 1 that he does not actually attempt to talk about the history of money (supposedly the whole point of the book, at least according to other passages in chapter 1) until chapter 8! I found many “facts” to be mere fabrication, I won’t go into details on this since I see a few other reviewers have. Most of his facts check out, but the broad number which seem to have no basis in reality combined with his penchant for twisting even true facts into a rather slanderous narrative is enough to make one serious doubt the validity of any of his arguments.
Ultimately I gave up on him ever going anywhere and skipped ahead to the end. In the final chapter I found more of the same, only if anything, worse. At this point he’s given up with rational points and simply launches into a vociferous attack on anything that moves. It would seem all modern governments are evil attacking each other willy nilly solely due to disagreements on which form of money to use (dollor vs euro for example). It would seem we can neglect other political, religious, and sociological causes of war, not sharing the same money anymore is all it takes and the bombs start falling. Of course he has a solution to this….or at least that is what any rational person would think, but no.
After all the ranting and angry diatribes we find that he has nothing whatsoever to offer. He never even suggests why someone should not pay back a debt, the question he posed as the very premise for the book. He merely leaves the reader seething with anger at “all this injustice” and a vague notion that everything is “those damn bankers fault.” Yet he doesn’t even suggest getting rid of the bankers.
Ultimately, in a nutshell, what we have is a long angry rant from an author who offers no solutions and just hopes to get his readers as frothing as he already is. There’s very few facts to support his premise, and what few facts there are find themselves perpetually interrupted by angry diatribes to the side. There are plenty of “anti-capitalist” books out there, many of them better written than this one. If you want a list of reasons to dislike bankers I would suggest going out and reading on of them. The best you’ll get from this book is either a vaguely disquieting sense that you’ve wasted your (evil spiteful morally reprehensible) money and time or a raging anger at “the system” with no idea whatsoever of what you (or anyone else) should do to make things better. Honestly, I doubt readers from this second camp would be able to even state coherently what “the system” is or why it’s supposed to be “bad.”
(Honestly I can’t fathom why this book has so many positive reviews, there’s basically nothing in it but angry rants backed up by nothing. Even assuming many people read it just wanting to hear that their financial situation is somebody else’s fault one would expect fewer 5 star glowing admirations. I guess that just goes to show.)
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