on 3 September 2011
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?
on 1 September 2011
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.
on 27 May 2012
I've given this book 5 stars because I'm convinced that it has the potential to change the conventional narrative about economics and money, and in doing so can help us navigate towards a more humane economy that better serves the long-term interests of humanity...
Debt is a long overdue anthropological view of money and of human economies (by "anthropological" I mean it starts many thousands of years before Adam Smith!) In his exploration, Graeber challenges much of the conventional wisdom that we all "know" about economics and money.
The breadth of material that Graeber covers is extraordinarily ambitious and though anchored in the perspective of social anthropology, he also draws on economics and finance, law, history, classics, sociology, linguistics, and philosophy.
Few mere mortals can keep up with such multidisciplinary competence, so I was delighted to discover that CrookedTimber dot org has done a "seminar" on the book. (Look for the Book Events link on the bottom right) They draw on experts and scholars from many of these different disciplines to provide some important and fascinating critical perspective. Graeber himself responds in perhaps slightly too pugnacious but nonetheless enlightening detail.
Oh - In case you haven't heard... In addition to being a world-reknown intellectual anthropologist, Graeber is a world-reknown intellectual anarchist. This anarchist label is typically used to try discredit him and I admit that it gave me pause for thought about his motives in writing such a book. I have followed him closely on Twitter since starting this book though, and I have heard little to fear from his worldview and much to respect. In these current troubled times, I'm willing to listen to anyone who has a coherent story that challenges the orthodoxy that we hear from mainstream media, business leaders, and politicians. Graeber's core theses feel sound and they are well presented in an entertaining and highly educational book.
I'm convinced that if we are going to find our way out of the current mess then we need to think deeper and wider than just unrolling 30 years or so of neoliberal orthodoxy - What was happening before was just as damaging to long-term human flourishing and was just as surely destroying our only planet (although admittedly at a slightly less breakneck pace.)
By taking an anthropological view, Graeber helps shine a light on what it is about human economies that make them humane...
If you're the kind of person who loves to have your moral and intellectual foundations challenged, then this book is for you. The first chapter is free online at mhpbooks dot com - check it out and make your own call on whether it is worth investing in the full book.
on 23 August 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. 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?
on 1 May 2012
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. Perhaps best of all, it tackles the way in which banks create money out of nothing without resorting to paranoid conspiracy theory or a simplistic call for a return to bullion, as so many critics of the banking system seem to do.
I haven't given anything five stars for a long time, but this really deserves them.
on 19 November 2015
The debunking of the parable of the barter economy is not just good it is excellent and long overdue. Every economics text book contains this myth. It was dreamed up by Adam Smith without evidence as a sort of thought experiment. It was plain wrong .
However the thrust of this book is that coin was an exception to the more common use of credit and debit with the use of tally systems of one type or another over long periods of history
I balked at the concept that coin was less used between the Fall of Rome and the rise of the late medieval Italian City States. My own interests cover the place where I live and the long past history of my kith.
The Law of Ine, King of the Gewissae dated 705 in Wessex place weregelt on murder victims etc and this had to be paid in money, in coin. The Danegelt paid to Scandinavian plunderers was paid in ever increasing amounts of silver pennies. Massive hoards of these have been dug up in Scandinavia. Vikings did not demanded tally tokens they wanted bullion and coin. (Vast amounts are detailed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles). But, the author deals in history with a broad brush, North West Europe at that time was a backwater. The Arab world and T’ang, then Sung China were much more economically significant. In the flow of history there are always countre currents flow contrary to the general flow of history and I have been focused there not across the rest of the world.
It is all very well to adopt a broad brush approach to history but this brush was too broad FOR ME and the real details of history are brushed over to make for a picture that though being neat cannot that accurate in all the fine detail. Like many I obsess with fine detail but it is good to have an overall perspective. This author has made me take a more distant yet useful view. Sometimes we need to step back...
The prose are good and flow and make for an easy and enjoyable read and the book is highly worthwhile.
I hold onto few book and this one is now in my bookcase as a permanent part of my collection.
It seems to me that anthropology has much to contribute to economics.
on 5 March 2012
This is an almost great book which will cause a seismic shift in the way most its readers think about money and debt. It is a genuine pity, therefore, that the editing of the published version is so shoddy. The prose is careless and repetitive and in one instance I even saw a remark by a reviser in square brackets, wondering whether it was clear to whom the subject pronoun of a sentence referred, which had not been erased in the final edit.
It seems that the book was brought out in too much of a hurry, perhaps to cash in on the author's current celebrity status as the mind behind the US anti-bank movement "Occupy Wall Street". The publisher need not have worried: the global financial crisis still has years to run.
"Debt: the First 5000 Years" deserves to become a classic in its field and hopefully it will help to change attitudes towards the current financial status quo. The subject matter is crucial and the author knows how to write for a lay public. All that is needed is a some professional, careful editing before the second edition comes out.
on 6 October 2014
"Once upon a time there was Barter. it was difficult, so people invented money. Then came the development of banking and credit"
Not true....and if you want to find out why is this remarkably well researched book then this is the book for you.
on 8 November 2015
This book is essential reading for anyone interested in economics and finance, but also all of those who have found themselves burdened with debt. Since ordinary debtors are forced to pay to the last penny, while those who have millions or billions (in debt) keep afloat. The focus is not on financial theory but on actual perception of the meaning of debt over history. And over history the approach has been so different at different times that it is no surprise that we have double or triple standards in this area. And, at the end of the day, brute force determines who is required to pay and who gets off with a slap on the wrist.
on 27 December 2013
Graeber takes us on a whirlwind tour of the origins of markets, interest and money itself. There is much here that is valuable. Most readers will not know that mainstream anthropology has rejected barter as the origin of trade, or be aware of what the author calls "human economies" - societies where, despite the appearance that a price has been placed on human life, bride prices and blood debts are actually a recognition that people can never be paid for. It's fascinating stuff.
What grates is the author's politics. There is a persistent attempt to cast debt as the organising principle behind the concept of obligation, and to suggest that pretty much all religion and philosophy is corrupted by framing human relationships in this way. But while all debts are obligations, all obligations are not debts; and the fact that we can all recognise this after five millennia suggests that the corrosive power of debt oriented thinking is not so great as the author imagines.
There is plenty to criticise in modern capitalism, but to attack the concept of debt is to attack the concepts of contract and of private property, and this is a tension that Graeber never really deals with.
Nevertheless, an excellent book, well worth the read.