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73 of 79 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nobody owes those bankers anything, 23 Aug 2011
This review is from: Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Hardcover)
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?
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Showing 1-10 of 27 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 2 Sep 2011 10:39:00 BDT
English Tory says:
You said it yourself:

"Like any good anthropologist, Graeber has no time for economics."

Why on earth should I subscribe to the views of a man who passes comment on economics and yet understands very little of the nuances of it? Theoty and empiricism: the cornerstone of honest work. 'Economics' isn't a meangingless term: it would be prudent for Mr. Graeber to 'ignore economics' if it was an inane description, but that is manifestly false.

The Austrians have already debunked this:

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Sep 2011 13:10:21 BDT
Last edited by the author on 2 Sep 2011 13:12:09 BDT
well, 'economics' is not an a priori domain but something that originated quite recently. As Polanyi argued, before the 17th-18th century the economy was considered as embedded in society and was infused with social ethical concerns. In fact, the discipline that studied it went under the name of 'political economy'. Graeber looks at the larger picture, taking into account all the facets that debt has assumed throughout history therefore his arguments are much more powerful than those made by economists whose claims originate from their limited and specific domain.

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Sep 2011 14:16:11 BDT
English Tory says:
It's both a priori and a posteriori.

And no, economics as a discipline has emerged quite recently, economics as an actuality has existed pursuant to the existence of human beings themselves.

I think you should read the article I cited - the Austrians have debunked the thrust of Graeber's ideas.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Sep 2011 11:53:16 BDT
Last edited by the author on 5 Sep 2011 12:05:13 BDT
TJ Allen says:
"It's both a priori and a posteriori." If your going to make statements like that you'd better justify it and not just leave it floating as if it's a self evident truth.

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Sep 2011 12:12:15 BDT
English Tory says:
It's self evident if you understand what a priori & a posteriori are: they're merely two types of understanding. Can you follow a causal chain through pure rationalisation, or need you have empirical evidence to follow through event sequences? I would surely hope you could answer that.

Posted on 10 Sep 2011 19:37:53 BDT
bollos says:
i thought the first promisory notes were the knights templar?

Posted on 10 Sep 2011 19:40:21 BDT
bollos says:
..and yes we do owe the bankers something, but i'd rather not type here what my opinion is, in case i got into trouble!

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Sep 2011 17:29:07 BDT
Last edited by the author on 12 Sep 2011 17:56:20 BDT
To English Tory:

First of all, by "no time for economics" I think Chris means I don't treat it as Revealed Truth, as do, say, the Austrians. In fact the book is full of discussions and assessments of different economic arguments and schools, much more so I daresay than any other anthropological work on the subject. I may come down more on the side of Mitchell Innes than Jevons or Menger but I certainly don't ignore them.

As to the absurd claim that "the Austrians have already debunked this:" - not even the Austrians are claiming that now. You might wish to consult my detailed response to Robert Murphy's critique (a critique based on three paragraphs in an interview and some guy referring to my book in a blog; Murphy admits he never so much as consulted the actual book), here:

and Murphy's later climb-down, where he now claims he wasn't even trying to debunk any of the book's main arguments, just something someone else had said about it, and ends by insisting that "all I am saying is that Graeber hasn't overturned the Mengerian theory of the origin of money" (a rather odd point to emphasize because (a) the book does not contain an attack specifically on Menger, only the set of assumptions Menger was drawing on, and (b) it's almost impossible to disprove a statement that something "might" have happened, which is Murphy's argument; one can only demonstrate, as I have, that there is no reason to believe that it did):

A more detailed version of my response will appear in a few days on Naked Capitalism.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Sep 2011 17:30:47 BDT
Last edited by the author on 11 Sep 2011 17:42:00 BDT
To Bollos:

No, just the first European ones we know of. Personal checks were already in widespread use in Basra, for example, by 1000 AD.

To Casette Playa

Yes, precisely.

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Sep 2011 18:53:45 BDT
bollos says:
thx david :)

i bought your book btw, going to read it after bill stills "no more national debt" :D
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