I’ve never been much of an economics guy. Sure, I acknowledge that making money is a necessity to get by in this world, but besides paying my bills and collecting a paycheck for the work I do, I never had much interest in reading about or researching economic theory or following the markets. Focusing on money has always seemed like risky business to me – sure there are payoffs, but the stress and anxiety has always been enough to dissuade me from being overly focused on money or the economy. I have always believed that true wealth is best measured in an accumulation of experiences and relationships.
So, why did I pick up a book titled Debt? Well, as I’ve noticed myself blossoming into my new interest in world history and anthropology and I often browse the non-fiction aisles of my favorite local bookstore, Green Apple Books, for new recommendations outside my normal fiction interests. David Graeber’s Debt, was sitting there with glowing reviews celebrating the scope and and approach of this “history” of debt. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleased to find that ths isn’t just a book on economic theory. In many ways Debt is the antithesis of the standard economic theory book that presumes that human nature is driven by systems of barter and exchange. The author, David Graeber, is an academic anthropologist and political activist and he draws upon an extensive breadth of knowledge and research to present an audacious and compelling history of the human relationships associated with debt throughout the past 5,000 years of recorded history. When I began this book I never thought that I would be reading quotes from Aristotle or Nietzsche in a book titled Debt, nor did I think that I’d be reading about the influence of religion on theories of moral debt, but Graeber successfully draws upon these multifaceted aspects of the human story, along with a compelling anthropological and historical analysis of familial relationships and governmental influences to present a broad and enlightening view on the changing nature of money, human relationship, and debt.
I really enjoyed this book.
Graeber’s writing captivated my attention and the broad scope of his argument was well researched and meticulously supported by an extensive appendix of referential material. My only contention was that from the perspective of a book purporting to be the “history” of debt, the organization of the first few chapters were mildly disorganized from a chronological perspective – it wasn’t until Graeber got into the later chapters that his book grew into a chronological historical analysis. However, I understand that the earlier chapters were necessary to draw upon Graeber’s background in anthropological study of the peoples of Madagascar to provide a point of current day reference that illuminated the later ideas drawn from the historical records of the early Sumerian and Grecian cultures’ development of money and debt. Graeber’s anthropological approach serves to enlighten a referential perspective about the nature of human relationships and values.
Ultimately, Graeber’s argument is that throughout history humanity’s relationship towards money and debt has morphed and changed through time. Money was not always used for the exchange of goods as we expect it. Many goods were shared (and still to this day) in a communal communism (as families and friends share meals and labor) but this communism was limited by the need for exchange of goods or labor outside the individual or community. Graeber isn’t writing from a Marxist perspective, he further explains that outside communities non-communal exchange was often necessary to develop system of debts between individuals and communities. The process of exchange wasn’t exactly barter but it wasn’t exactly monetary either. Exchange was a process of shared debt that could be tallied and forgiven. Only through the development of hierarchy was monetary exchange necessary since the limitation of equality (or lack of equality) inhibited the ability for those with substantial debt to exchange the debts owed to the more advantaged classes. Hierarchical societies required monetary equivalents to tally unpaid debts between unequal classes. However, in ancient history the debts owed to the upper classes would accumulate and in order to maintain social order there were periods of forgiveness that wiped the slate clean and reset the accumulation of debts of exchange. The notable element here is that although money in the form of coinage has been around for almost 5,000 years, it wasn’t always the primary tool for reconciling debts of exchange. The exchange of goods and labor were debts of human relationship. Money in the form of precious metals was primarily used for the significant life events such as marriage and funerals, but the bulk of human exchange was based on a system of social accounting.
During the development of the Greek, Indian, and Chinese empires of the Axial Age coinage became more widespread. This was in part due to the far reaching militarization of these empires and the need to use coinage as a system of taxation to promote and support the military. During this period the governments began to develop debts that exceeded their capacity to make even. The proliferation of coinage began to change the nature of human relationship to debt as coinage became an anonymous format to equalize the buying power of the people. Money that was formerly used to pay for significant life events became something that could be unscrupulously used to pay for prostitution or slavery. These changing relationships towards money sparked the great Axial age thinkers such as Aristotle and Confucius who questioned the nature of human relationship, honor, governance, and society.
I found Graeber’s coverage of the Axial age as the most interesting part of the book primarily because the historical, philosophical, and religious references were compelling and revealed a lot about the nature of social debt and the development of the concepts of honor. Most notably, the following quote about human rights provided an intriguing perspective on the nature of the paradigms we take for granted:
“We are so used to the idea of “having” rights – that rights are something one can possess – that we rarely think about what this actually means. In fact … one man’s right is simply another’s obligation. My right to free speech is others’ obligation not to punish me for speaking; my right to a trial by a jury of my peers is the responsibility of the government to maintain a system of jury duty. The problem is … when we are talking about obligations owed by everyone in the entire world, it’s difficult to think about it that way. It’s much easier to speak of “having” rights and freedoms. Still, if freedom is basically our right to own things, or to treat things as we own them, then what does it mean to “own” freedom… Those who have argued that we are the natural owners of our rights and liberties have been mainly interested in asserting that we should be free to give them away, or even to sell them.” (205-6)
This perspective on the development of thoughts on liberty, freedom, and one’s ability to sell one’s own liberty through indentured servitude or current day wage labor provides a profound view on the relationship of money, social debt, and capital. However, in mentioning this I shouldn’t ignore the significance of violence as a means toward guaranteeing the payment of debts and ensuring honor. Graeber is clear from the beginning of his analysis that the history of debt has been forever bonded with the threat of violence. Slavery and imprisonment have been the ugly bedfellow for those who have been unable to honor their social debts. So, when considering one’s “choice” to sell an individual’s rights and freedom to work for wages one can’t ignore that the “choice” is linked to the threat of violence such as imprisonment for those unable to make even with their debts.
The development of capitalism was blown open with the “discovery” of the riches in “new” world, prompting the cyclical belief that the pursuit of capital gain was the ultimate purpose in human existence. The danger with capitalism is that it is based on a model pursuing unrestricted growth in a world of limited resources. Through the centuries up through modern times capitalism’s ceaseless drive for monetary growth has morphed into a system where all participants act as both debtors and creditors, “owning” a home as source of “investment” and placing one’s “future” retirement in the hands of 401K investors that has created a tenuous system of debts and debtors in which few actually own anything. The market crash of 2008 was only a symptom of the unresolved fragility of the system of interwoven debt. The root of the issue of debt remains unresolved because the paradigm promised to those who invest in tomorrow inhibits the many from taking notice of the true questions about the nature of debt and the symbolic representation of money.
“We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t even be worse … In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons, lest speculation, predictably, go haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.” (382-3)
This is truly a timely and profound book. It is eye opening and uncomfortable with an honest and intelligent approach of subject matter that affects us all.