Now in audio, the updated and expanded edition: David Graeber's "fresh...fascinating...thought-provoking...and exceedingly timely" (Financial Times) history of debt.
Here, anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: He shows that before there was money, there was debt. 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.
©2014 David Graeber (P)2015 Gildan Media LLC
"Controversial and thought-provoking, an excellent book." (Booklist)
Don't be deceived. This book is essentially about capitalism. Now, most people have one of three views re capitalism - they think it works, they think its evil or they don't think about it at all. A few, like me, are agnostic and study it to form a firmer opinion. Graeber has been described as the intellectual centre of the "anti-globalisation" movement so I thought...
"Great. This is the book that will explain to me the rationale behind the movement"
If this is it's intellectual underpinning the movement is in big trouble.
Graeber starts by stating he aims to answer the question "Why do people consider it a moral duty to pay ones debts?" I was intrigued. The problem is he never does answer it. Instead he gives us a very selective history of money, all the while clearly attempting to form some kind of thesis to explain why all debt is in fact a form of violent slavery (yes, seriously) - which never really comes together at all.
Sure he heads in the "progressive" directions you'd expect but never really justifies his arguments or opinions. Instead what he does, over and over, is to say something like "the most likely explanation is..." He then gives us his favoured view without explaining what the alternatives are, let alone why they're "less likely". You don't notice this technique at first but once you heard it in five or six different variations it becomes both obvious and frustrating.
Then after hours and hours and hours of this, when you get to the final chapter and are hoping, beyond hope, for him to somehow pull everything together again you're disappointed. The final chapter is what I can only describe as a rant - in which he makes self-contradictory, unsupported statements of why capitalism in general and the US in particular is both evil and bound to fail. If it wasn't so frustrating it would be laughable. Honestly it comes across more as the raving of a conspiracy theorist than a respectable academic.
I wanted to hear a cogent, reasoned exposition of the "anti-globalisation" movements position. Instead I got a subjective, emotive tract with enough holes in it's argument that it would make a decent colander.
If you're already an anti-capitalist activist buy this book - you'll be shouting "right on" until you're hoarse. Every one else - steer well clear.
"Transformative to the point of being revolutionary"
As we grow up, even before we study economics as a formal discipline, we're given a series of "truths" about human interaction - first and foremost the depiction of a world without money as a barter economy, as well as the "natural" human inclination to act for self-advantage, and these serve as the baseline for our reasoning. Thus, reasonable people applying their intellects to questions of human interaction and morality reach conclusions that can be supported by the underlying assumptions.
What David Graeber shows us in "Debt" is that virtually every such assumption is actually incorrect, either outright wrong or misinterpreted as a matter of historical record, so that all of our later reasoning is upended.
Before going back thousands of years to begin his unveiling, the author presents us with a scene from a cocktail party where he interacts with several people - one of them a banker, another working with a non-governmental organization. It's immediately clear from this interaction just how transformative Graeber's perspective is.
That Graeber is himself "on the left" is well-known - he self-identifies as an anarchist, and is considered to be one of the figures at the center of the early Occupy movement (see another of his books, "The Democracy Project," for details on this) - but this opening scene reveals even before anything else is discussed how the people we regard as "liberal" are really part of the same worldview as those we call "conservative," and that challenging the underlying assumptions is no more welcomed by one than the other.
Gardner is an excellent narrator, and his tone is just right for the subject matter.
Yes, but coming in at nearly 18 hours, that's simply not possible. "Debt" is best listened to in substantial chunks, such as while commuting from place to place; I listened to it on the train, in the car, and while walking. There's a lot here, and it takes time to think about it and absorb the implications.
Some people post reviews calling this book "biased." There are certainly some value judgments made by the author, but what most such reviews really seem to be doing is taking issue with the audacity that an anthropologist would present an historical record - well supported by research, mind you - that shows the conventional wisdom on which our current economic thinking is based are all wrong. The negative reviews most often come down to incredulity that someone would dare to tell us that something "everyone" knows to be true (because we were told it was true) could actually be false.
What makes this so amusing is that the people writing such reviews, angry that their worldviews might be so completely wrong and unable to countenance such an idea on an intellectual level, rail that Graeber is "promoting his ideology," even though they're the ones left flailing around defending something whose bases have just been discredited.
You'll get nothing from this book is your intent is to get nothing. If you respond to being presented with very detailed, clearly valid interwoven evidence that much of the world's history just isn't the way that you imagine by saying "Well heck, what does he know?", then your view isn't going to be transformed, because you're taking your current economic beliefs - for whatever reason - purely on faith.
For those of us who studied economics and accepted its premises on faith but built our later understanding on reason from that starting point, reading "Debt" is a really disruptive experience that calls into question almost everything we think and know. It's a great read the first time and better the second.
"Amazing description of debt history"
I will qualify I am not a supporter of his protests or really ideals; however I thought this book was extremely well done with an objective perspective that made it a wonderful history lesson.
An excellent perspective on human history and the role debt played. Highly recommend, very easy to listen to and understand.
"Good overall, but anti-capitalist at the end"
The bulk of the book was very good. The author goes through the history and the story is very interesting and I though offered a good perspective. However the author is heavily anti-capitalist, and that starts to grate in the introduction and the last few chapters. If I had known the author was an occupy wall street activist I probably wouldn't have bought the book, but I would have missed out because the bulk of it was good. I'd recommend skipping the last two chapters if you don't want to sit through anti-capitalist rants though.
"Interesting perspectives on debt and money"
Solid history of debt. Understanding this history, how things have occasionally gone haywire, and how debt can be abused is a good way to bring a historical perspective to whether today's debt arrangements are fair and just. Some anecdotes divers a bit, but the themes are strong.
"Goes off the deep end halfway through"
The premise introduced in the beginning of the book--that the history of money consisted of a progression from credit to currency to barter, rather than the other way around, was interesting and compelling. There's a passing mention of how refusing to allow nations to default on debt amounts to moral hazard (true enough), but unfortunately after that things went downhill. Midway through the book the author switches to a strange view of the world where he insists that because we don't charge a coworker money for passing them a hammer when working together, we're all really communists (actual example from the book). All of which is part of an elaborate straw man version of traditional economics where all human interactions must be self-interested exchange, which the author constructs, then attacks for distorting reality to make all interactions fit that model. All of which seems like projecting on the author's part, since he immediately follows that with examples where he twists all kinds human interactions so that he can try to portray them as communism.
"Should be listed as political ideology not history"
The author is so polarized and vocal in his political view of debt and its positives and negatives that I can't trust his interpretation of history. The first several hours are him laying out his agenda, bashing all prior economic theories and theorists, and talking about hypothetical situations that demonstrate how wrong they are. His view and discourse show so much bias that I don't trust his presentation of the book topic to be a reasonable and balanced interpretation of historical data. I was looking for a historical and educational book rather than political economic agenda.
There is some good information here but it is completely buried beneath the author's heavy handed political and moral sermonizing. In cases where I had extensive prior knowledge of a subject, the author's descriptions were misleading at best, which makes it hard for me to trust the other information in this book.
"thought-provoking work of history and philosphy"
philosophical and historical exploration of the relationship between debt, obligation, morality, society and money over time.
Heavy, but well worth it. Intentionally scholarly. Highly recommend, especially if you want to understand what is messed up about our understanding of economics!!
"This book peeled my eyes open."
This is one of those rare A+ books. Dense with information and history, it shattered much of what I had thought about money, motivation, and mandkind as a whole. As a former scientist, I was astounded by how many my views of society and culture shifted as the result of reading this book. Truly eye opening.
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