My take on David Graeber’s DEBT: THE FIRST 5000 YEARS

1371113396-anarchists-protest-against-g8-summit-continues-into-the-evening_2144719I thought it was very thought-provoking. I’m not capable of analyzing the truth of many of its claims. In terms of recent history, it did seem to get a bit fuzzy on a number of points. And it drew some parallels between epochs and areas that I am not sure were strictly merited. But the overall scope of the argument is that the use of money allows people to have interactions with each other in which there is no human component or ongoing relationship. And that the function of capitalism has been to design society in such a way that more and more of our lives fall under the ambit of these a-social interactions. And that when this style of interaction is combined with indebtedness, which encourages creditors to engage in brutal behavior towards those who owe them money, we’re left with a society in which people behave awfully towards each other. After noticing this awful behavior, we become convinced that awful behavior is an essential part of the human psyche and then we build all kinds of systems and principles to keep human beings in check. And these systems further encourage a wary style of interaction that is predicated on an utter lack of trust between people.

As an anthropologist, Graeber has observed that in many ways, our current assumptions and styles of organizing ourselves are very new. And that they would’ve struck people from the past as being ludicrous. However, we operate on the idea that what we’re responding to is natural human behavior. People are naturally self-interested. They naturally seek profit. Markets spontaneously form.

None of these things, however, are necessarily true. And Graeber uses evidence from the historical record to demonstrate other ways in which human beings have organized themselves and other ways in which they’ve conceived of debt.

In terms of that overarching argument, I found the book to be fairly convincing. You know, we go around saying, “Oh, people are evil, and the world is a cesspool.” But that’s not what we actually observe. What we observe is much more complicated than that. Sometimes order breaks down and you have the war of all against all and horror erupts. But sometimes order breaks down and it’s actually not that bad and people all band together and sort of are with each other. Human behavior and human society are more complicated than our models. And I think that our current models also encourage people to behave in terrible ways. For instance, if corporate executives had to sit down and say, “I am firing people for my own benefit and for my own profit,” then I think they would do it much less frequently. It’s the fact that they’re able to say, “I am doing this for the shareholder’s benefit,” that allows them to displace the guilt onto another’s shoulders and behave in incredibly ruthless fashions. That, to Graeber, is the logic of debt in our current capitalist system. The fact that one is in debt excuses anything you do in order to repay the debt. And the fact that someone owes you a debt excuses anything you do in order to collect the debt.

So yes, very thought-provoking, and I do recommend it.

Comments (



  1. William

    It’s interesting you write that money and debt give us “a society in which people behave awfully towards each other.” I have always (well, always since I have studied economics) thought of money as causing people to behave nicely towards each other.

    Economists are forever quoting Adam Smith’s line, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest” because perfectly encapsulates what economists like about markets. The butcher, who in fact doesn’t know me and doesn’t care one whit about my well-being, still acts as if he cared about me, because I offer him money.

    Of course the other side of that is that if I don’t have money, then nobody acts like they care about me. But again, I just think it’s interesting that economists focus on a different side of that interaction.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      It’s more than the butcher doesn’t need to have any kind of personal opinion about you, because he’s able to transact business with you using money. Money is impersonal. And because having money as an intermediary allows us to ignore the human being behind the transaction, it also allows us to behave towards those human beings in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t. If we lived in a credit-based economy (like the traditional ones that Graeber describes in the book), where you needed to trust that the person you’re doing business with would pay you back later, then there’s much more human emotion involved in commerce.

      1. William

        Yes, money allows for impersonal interactions. Not having read the book, I’m sort of puzzled as to why one would have to go so far afield to “traditional economies” to observe an example of non-monetary relationships, though. Even in the modern world everyone does things for their family and friends without setting out explicit terms for how and when all personal favors will be repaid.

        Can you organize an entire (modern) economy along the same terms as you organize your interactions with family and friends? Well, I’m skeptical, but perhaps if I read the book I would be less so.

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