David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years has strike a chord with a lot of individuals who are worried about rising inequalities in the United States and elsewhere. Graeber can be an economic anthropologist, a self-discipline that gives close attention to the techniques materials arrangements worked at length in pre-state societies. The written reserve is difficult to characterize.
It’s about personal debt and money through history, but it’s really not a work in financial history. It offers a lot of ethnographic details about borrowing, financing, gifting, and reciprocating, but it isn’t a really work of anthropology. And it provides morally valenced language to describe debt and credit, but it isn’t a really polemical critique of today’s financial system. It really is an participating certainly, interesting, and thought-provoking written book, and Graeber seems to know a great deal about the social and institutional histories of the main civilizations of Eurasia. One line of thought is perfectly clear in the publication: Graeber wants to demolish the misconception of the truck-and-barter origins of money.
This is the typical story within classical and neoclassical economics. But Graeber believes it is a whole fiction. He respect this as a just-so tale that doesn’t make any sense ethnographically, and hasn’t been seen in real pre-state societies. The whole story, then, is everywhere. It’s the founding myth of our system of economic relations.
It is so deeply founded in keeping sense, even in places like Madagascar, that most people on earth couldn’t imagine any other way that money may have come about. The problem is there’s no evidence it ever happened, and a massive amount of proof suggesting it did not. Graeber’s case because of this position appears to be a audio one.
But why exactly would it matter? It appears to be a bit analogous to literal-minded sociable contract arguments: that the condition is legitimate since it descends from a primordial agreement among all people to produce its power. But discrediting the roots story doesn’t really tell us anything about the functioning system. We have an financial system today that coordinates activity through money and credit, and it doesn’t really matter quite definitely if we know just how it came about. It’s money that experienced made it easy for us to imagine ourselves in the manner economists encourage us to do: as an accumulation of individuals and countries whose main business is swapping things.
Graeber’s view, in comparison, is that most human activity doesn’t conform to this model; that the present relationship and the practice of open-ended reciprocity are much more characteristic of the individual condition. There are plenty of startling facts and descriptions that Graeber produces as he tells his story of the introduction of the ideologies of money, credit, and personal debt. Among Graeber’s recurring themes is that money and debts are reciprocals of each other. Another theme that makes the written book is the close connection that Graeber pulls between money and currency, and violence and war.
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He argues that trust and prolonged credit arrangements work nicely during periods of peace; whereas a period of extended warfare puts a premium on the portability and anonymity of precious metals. So warfare pushes societies (and monarchs) towards the use of currency crafted from valuable metals. He will go further: monarchs needed to pay their armies, in Europe, central Asia, and East Asia; and valuable metals (cash) work best for the heavily armed and footloose military who composed those armies.
The Atlantic Slave Trade all together was a gigantic network of credit plans. Graeber has a preferred alternative to a society based on barter, market exchange, personal debt, warfare, slavery, and peonage. An intriguing, and somewhat perplexing, part of Graeber’s analysis is his work to link the worthiness systems of Eurasia’s great civilizations to the sociable creation of money, credit, and personal debt. A central thrust here is his evaluation of the “Axial Age” — the time from 800 bc to 600 ad when there is great creativeness in the emergence of new religious leaders and movements.
There was, concurrently, extensive warfare; and there is the simultaneous invention of currency in several broadly separated places. Axial Age pattern: the same fractured political landscape, the same rise of trained, professional armies and the creation of coined money largely to be able to pay them. So what is the connection he wants to draw between value systems, social violence, and money? It is unclear if you ask me; graeber weaves jointly a remarkable narrative involving each one of these somehow.