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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years [Kindle Edition]

David Graeber
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)

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Fresh...fascinating...Graeber's book is not just thought provoking, but also exceedingly timely. ----Gillian Tett, Financial Times

[Graeber's] writings on anthropological theory are outstanding. I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world. ----Maurice Bloch, Professor of Anthropology, LSE

An alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. -- --Drake Bennett, Bloomberg Business Week

The most important theory book I've read this year an essential take on the current crisis by an anarchist anthropologist who combines credentials with readability. Laurie Penny's Book of 2012 --New Statesman

An alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work. ----Drake Bennett, Bloomberg Business Week

Product Description

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1807 KB
  • Print Length: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House (12 July 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00513DGIO
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (42 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #49,822 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
51 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Community, Trust and Debt 3 Sep 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you're thinking about studying economics, you should read this book first. If you've already studied economics, you should read this book, but be prepared to be disappointed in the critical faculties of your previous teachers. If you're studying economics, don't read this book - it contradicts too much of what you need to amass to pass your exams - yet.

Seriously, this is a great book. It teaches, generates reactions, inspires new thoughts and encourages further exploration. You want to strangle the author at a couple of points, and he's not short of opinions worth strangling someone about. There are (some) laughs. A previous reviewer rightly notes the lacuna of Hayek. But ... Graeber is an anthropologist squaring off against entire professions and generations of economists and financiers and bankers and government monetary policy-makers across a new battlefield (the study of how people behave). He scores some telling hits - the myth of the origins of barter, new ways of looking at the reasons behind the rise (till recently) of the West (and it isn't pleasant), the rise and fall of paper money in China, why the state matters, faith-salvation-and-debt, and builds a fundamental premise - communities form when people are prepared to be indebted to one another.

If this were the last book on the subject, sure it's incomplete and has a few flaws. But it's not the last; rather a fundamental read along an important road - when would we know our financial system is working?
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
By Jezza
This is the book that Niall Ferguson's "The Ascent of Money" ought to have been. It is a fantastic, fabulous, rich account of what money is and where it has come from. In the process it trashes most of the conventional economic wisdom, and pokes enormous holes in what economists tell us about money. Money didn't arise out of dissatisfaction with barter. Credit-based systems are older than bullion-based system.

As the title suggests it has a very broad sweep, starting with debt peonage in ancient Sumer, taking in the Biblical tradition of Jubilee and debt forgiveness, the relationship between bullion-based currency, war and slavery. It examines the relationship between the moral dimension of debt and sin, and the economic role of debt in keeping the economy turning over.
The trouble with money is that it's actually a very difficult thing to get your head around. It's easy to get cluttered up with historical detail that actually doesn't reveal anything (were prices rising in Medieval England, and so on). But it's also very political - what you think about money has implications for the way that you think society should work, and the limits as to how far that can change. So the simplifications that commentators make in order to make the story comprehensible depend on they think is really important, and what they want you to think is really important. Ferguson, with his right-wing boosterism is an obvious example.

I don't think you will find a better guide anywhere than this book. It comes right up to date, with the US war-based economy and the present financial crisis included, not as an afterthought but as the culmination of the story.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Sex, Money, Death, War. What's not to like? 1 Sep 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Graeber provides us with a fascinating exploration of debt and its relationship to money, economic systems, and society itself. He wears his heart on his sleeve, from the start of the book where he tells the reader about his contempt for the IMF, to the end of the book where he puts in a good word for the non-industrious poor.

He also tells us some fascinating tales about how other societies have organised exchange. For me this is where he's at his strongest. The book is worth the price alone just to hear about the Gunwinggu tribe who seem to have sorted out a very appealing alternative to capitalist economic relations. In the same vein, the Lele tribe's 'village wife' adds some more spice to the story, as Graeber goes where economists fear to tread; to the idea that we are ambivalent sexual creatures not just self-interested rational automotons. Slavery, sex, death, war and marriage across human history form the backdrop to his examination of debt. What's not to like?

Well, there are a couple of things that knocked one star from this review. For me Greaber fails to distinguish between money and currency. Although this is a common problem in almost everything I've ever read about money. Towards the close of the book he describes money as 'not "really" anything'. This feels like a bit of a cop out. Would he same the same about love?

A more serious criticism is his failure to even mention the Lord of Libertarianism, Hayek. For Hayek, money was a institution born of price that was determined through the magic of markets. Graeber has interesting stuff to say about free markets and the state; he tackles Adam Smith, and finds sympathy with Keynes. But Hayek remains the elephant in the room.

Anthropology has so much to teach us about money, debt, and exchange. It should be a requirement that anyone who refers to themselves as a banker or economist should study it. Graeber's book would be a good place to start.
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71 of 77 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nobody owes those bankers anything 23 Aug 2011
Not only does Graeber make sense of the earliest origins of monetary debt some 5,000 years ago, when militaristic states first appeared. The investigation broadens into an extraordinarily ambitious overview of the entire span of written history. As Graeber proceeds, he confidently overturns the conceptual underpinnings of the entire discipline of economics, together with its many insidious extensions into religion, philosophy and science. Money didn't emerge as a medium of exchange between free agents. Graeber pours scorn on Adam Smith's mythic narrative in which men engage in barter until the arrival of that brilliant new invention - money. He turns instead to Marcel Mauss' classic book, The Gift. Left to themselves, humans are spontaneous communists. They value their relationships more than they value things. Why lay claim to a possession, if not to pass it on as a gift? The tension between giving and receiving would be cancelled out by an immediate return. The longer the interval between gift and counter-gift, the more impressive the demonstration of trust. Money annihilates all this.

So how did money originate? It began, explains Graeber, with conquest and extortion. Some violent patriarchal thug - Hernan Cortes in Mexico is a recent European illustration - persuades his henchmen to sign up for a campaign of rape, pillage and slaughter. The project rests on a promise: once the loot has been stolen, the accomplices may expect their share. So before setting out, the adventurer must issue his promissory notes - his advance undertakings to pay. These can be accepted and circulated as tokens of value - but only on one condition. Sufficient trust must prevail. But trust in this context differs in kind from that which so inspired Mauss. We're not talking about gift-giving or love.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Makes you think. There is such a thing as society.
This book illustrates brilliantly how we all depend upon each other in all aspects of life - both for mutual benefit and respect but also for exploitation and repression. Read more
Published 15 hours ago by Rab
5.0 out of 5 stars complex and fascinating
Graeber, writing from an anthropologist's perspective, spans many subjects, particularly freedom, religion, politics and society, weaving in the uses and abuses of slaves, violence... Read more
Published 5 days ago by D&D
4.0 out of 5 stars Good scholarship but a tad shouty.
This is a book filled with fascinating new facts (if you haven't studied Economics) regarding the nature of money and debt. The breadth of analysis is admirable. Read more
Published 8 days ago by Cliff Fiscal
5.0 out of 5 stars My eyes are now open.
Riveting and revelatory. Dr Graeber is a sure pair of hands as he guides you through a complex but fascinating subject. Read more
Published 12 days ago by D. T. Andrew
5.0 out of 5 stars Mandatory reading for anyone who wants to understand the contemporary...
This book poses more interesting philosophical questions than most contemporary philosophy books. It is also full of utterly fascinating stories and information. Read more
Published 29 days ago by User
4.0 out of 5 stars It's anthropology first and foremost...
Some reviews are criticising the first long chapters covering barter systems and the like. Graeber is an anthropologist in the first instance so these chapters hare highly relevant... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Amy Clark
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I was expecting
The reviews did warn me but I bought it anyway. It starts off as a long, garble repetitive monologue on the authors view point about the barter system theory. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Captain Sensible
4.0 out of 5 stars More anthropology than economics
Graeber takes us on a whirlwind tour of the origins of markets, interest and money itself. There is much here that is valuable. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Ufuoma Ibru
5.0 out of 5 stars very competent
one of a kind, really really good read.
entertaining way of writing with fulfilling information, in to the point. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Emanuil
5.0 out of 5 stars Once every ten years
Once every ten years you come across a book like this. Every page contains some fascinating new fact or insight. Afterwards you never look at anything in quite the same way again. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Tony Scott
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In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings. &quote;
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money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. &quote;
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Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency. &quote;
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