Debt The first 5,000 years

David Graeber

Book - 2014

"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 empi...res, 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"--Publisher's description.

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Subjects
Published
Brooklyn : Melville House [2014]
©2012
Edition
Updated and expanded edition
Language
English
Physical Description
542 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Bibliography
Includes bibliographical references (pages 463-500) and index.
ISBN
9781612194196
1612194192
Main Author
David Graeber (-)
  • On the experience of moral confusion
  • The myth of barter
  • Primordial debts
  • Cruelty and redemption
  • A brief treatise on the moral grounds of economic relations
  • Games with sex and death
  • Honor and degradation, or, on the foundations of contemporary civilization
  • Credit versus bullion and the cycles of history
  • The axial age (800 BC
  • 600 AD)
  • The Middle Ages (600AD
  • 145o AD)
  • Age of the great capitalist empires (1450-1971)
  • The beginning of something yet to be determined (1971
  • Present).
Review by Booklist Reviews

"Anthropologist Graeber repeats the haunting query, "Surely, one has to pay one's debts?" He draws upon his discipline to give an overview of the moral basis of economic life and then addresses the origins of money, debt, and credit during the last 5,000 years; in the case of money, those beginnings are marked by the invention of coinage between 600 and 500 BCE. Graeber's numerous discoveries during his historical journey include "the origins of modern conceptions of rights and freedoms in ancient slave law" and "the fact that many of Adam Smith's most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free-market theorists from medieval Persia." Bringing the survey down to the 2008 financial crisis, Graeber observes that bankers were rescued, but small-scale debtors were not, except for a few. He concludes that some but not all of us have to pay our debts and suggests, "Nothing would be more important than to wipe the debt slate clean for everyone." Controversial and thought-provoking, an excellent book." Copyright 2011 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Choice Reviews

In this extensive volume, Graeber (Goldsmiths College, Univ. of London) provides a fascinating anthropological history of debt and debt relations. For a 500-plus-page book, it is extremely lively, with numerous fascinating descriptions of debt over time and across different societies. Graeber uses anthropological history to show that the many functions of money and debt across societies depend upon the culture of the community. For example, he points out that to make some things sellable, they need to be removed from their current context. The greatest contribution of this volume, however, is to demonstrate to economists that their assumptions about the origins of money coming from a barter economy are inconsistent with the historical record. While this reviewer disagrees with Graeber about how much his work undermines the value of economics as a social science, his research highlights the downside of armchair theorizing. His work, however, is not likely to gain much traction with economists for rhetorical reasons; instead of trying to convince economists why they are wrong, Graeber writes to convince the noneconomist. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduate through research audiences. Copyright 2012 American Library Association.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The groundbreaking international best-seller that turns everything you think about money, debt, and society on its head—from the “brilliant, deeply original political thinker” David Graeber (Rebecca Solnit, author of Men Explain Things to Me)  Before there was money, there was debt. 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 that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day. So says anthropologist David Graeber in a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Renaissance Italy to Imperial 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.