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. All that's required is trust in the prospects of the military campaign - confidence that sufficient loot will be obtained. In the final analysis, `money' rests on that and nothing else: the henchmen's expectation that their leader's campaign will succeed in extracting the promised loot for subsequent distribution among the thieves. Should that confidence falter, the entire system will inevitably collapse.
Like any good anthropologist, Graeber has no time for economics. The very idea that there is such a thing as `the economy' is itself an ideological fiction. More historian than economist, Graeber discusses how, from earliest times, politics, warfare, violence and deception - not to mention sex, love, solidarity and truth - have combined in complex ways to constitute our productive and imaginative lives. If you don't appreciate anthropology, you may not like any of this.
I can imagine Graeber's academic critics accusing him of not being sufficiently theoretical. He burdens us with almost no specialist terminology; he steers clear of arcane debates. If you want a technical treatise on the underpinnings of the current financial crisis, you may feel disappointed. Avoiding the temptation to blind us with science, Graeber writes like a proletarian - in straightforward, comprehensible English. The book includes exhaustive notes and references, direct quotes, illuminating graphs where needed, a bibliography and a good index. My copy was sprinkled throughout with minor typographical errors, adding nicely to the impression of an anarchist at work.
I love this book because it strips away so many myths. Money is rooted in extortion. `Debt' is a vague concept, its very ambiguities serving to disguise extortion as moral obligation. The conquered must pay up because - runs the argument - we inhabit a moral universe. Graeber concludes by asking: Do we really owe those bankers anything at all?