Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. It explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer in 3500 BC until the present.
- 1 Premises
- 2 Synopsis
- 3 Anti-capitalist critique
- 4 Recognition
- 5 Critical reception
- 6 References
- 7 External links
A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.
A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.
Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they…can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.
Reception to the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception“.
Graeber lays out the historical development of the idea of debt, starting from the first recorded debt systems in the Sumer civilization around 3500 BC. In this early form of borrowing and lending, farmers would often become so mired in debt that their children would be forced into debt peonage. Because of the social tension that came with this enslavement of large parts of the population, kings periodically canceled all debts. In ancient Israel, the resulting amnesty came to be known as the Law of Jubilee.
Graeber claims that debt and credit historically appeared before money, which itself appeared before barter. This is the opposite of the narrative given in standard economics texts dating back to Adam Smith. To support this, he cites numerous historical, ethnographic and archaeological studies. He also claims that the standard economics texts cite no evidence for suggesting that barter came before money, credit and debt, and he has seen no credible reports suggesting such.
The primary theme of the book is that excessive popular indebtedness has sometimes led to unrest, insurrection, and revolt.
He argues that credit systems originally developed as means of account long before the advent of coinage, which appeared around 600 BC. Credit can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. Barter, on the other hand, seems primarily to have been used for limited exchanges between different societies that had infrequent contact and often were in a context of ritualized warfare.
Graeber suggests that economic life originally related to social currencies. These were closely related to routine non-market interactions within a community. This created an “everyday communism” based on mutual expectations and responsibilities among individuals. This type of economy is contrasted with exchange based on formal equality and reciprocity (but not necessarily leading to market relations) and hierarchy. The hierarchies in turn tended to institutionalize inequalities in customs and castes.
The great Axial Age civilizations (800–200 BC) began to use coins to quantify the economic values of portions of what Graeber calls “human economies”. Graeber says these civilizations held a radically different conception of debt and social relations. These were based on the radical incalculability of human life and the constant creation and recreation of social bonds through gifts, marriages, and general sociability. The author postulates the growth of a “military–coinage–slave complex” around this time. These were enforced by mercenary armies that looted cities and cut human beings from their social context to work as slaves in Greece, Rome, and elsewhere. The extreme violence of the period marked by the rise of great empires in China, India, and the Mediterranean was, in this way, connected with the advent of large-scale slavery and the use of coins to pay soldiers. This was combined with obligations to pay taxes in currency; the obligation to pay taxes with money required people to engage in monetary transactions, often with very disadvantageous terms of trade. This typically increased debt and slavery.At this time, great religions also spread, and the general questions of philosophical inquiry emerged …