November 26, 2014

Review | Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

200px-Debt_GraeberBy all accounts, anything written by David Graeber is about as far from typical “conservative” fare that you might expect to find featured on this site. Graeber is an anthropologist and anarchist, an early member of the Occupy Wall Stree movement. He’s so “out there” that even Yale decided not to renew his contract as an assistant professor in 2005.

If he’s too liberal for Yale, then…well, you know. Probably too liberal for me, too, right?

Or maybe not.  If just to understand why the leaders of the Occupy Movement believe what they do, it might be worth the effort to read what he has written.

I heard about Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years from, of all places, a science fiction blog review (and my apologies for not remembering which one). The review described how sordid and strange certain cultures were in how they dealt with debt. It intrigued me: cultures on our own planet as foreign and strange as something that might appear in Star Trek or some other fictionally created world.

The descriptions don’t disappoint. But the strange trading rituals and bizarre debt arrangements between tribes, families, and individuals of the Australian outback, the African savanna, or the American forests that Graeber describes in his look at the last 5,000 years are just prelude. As the language of debt conflates sin, morality and finance, we come to Graeber’s central question:

What, precisely, does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market?

English: David Graeber on a boat at Fire Island.

English: David Graeber on a boat at Fire Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a fascinating question, and it’s hard to not sympathize with the quandary that Graeber sees in the language that we have developed to talk about debt, our capital systems, and markets. Even so, Graeber’s conclusions make straw men out of the theories underlying the modern market economy, starting with Adam Smith, dismissing them with only short thrift.

This isn’t to say that Graeber doesn’t see a place for markets. It is capitalism, as means for power and form of slavery, that Graeber despises. “It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor.”  For example, the conquest of the Americas is integrally connected to mass slavery, in the forms of African slavery and debt peonage. Chinese contract laborers built the North American railroad system, while “coolies” from India built South African silver mines. Peasants of Russia and Poland were free landholders through the middle ages, only becoming serfs at the dawn of capitalism.

And so on. The choice between state and market is wrong, he says, and it’s domination of political ideology over the last centuries has “made it difficult to argue about anything else.”

Capitalism requires constant consumption and destruction, Graeber argues, and for that reason has always been created by warfare and conquest, rather than as a replacement for barter as we have generally accepted (see Adam Smith).  With less and less to consume, humanity is reaching its social and ecological limits.

Graeber’s conclusions are, to say the least, a rewriting of history as we’ve been taught, to say nothing of how we view markets and capital.

I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren’t hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”

English: occupy wall street

English: occupy wall street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a rosy look at people who need not work to produce because they are free from debt, and in that sense, completely free. It sounds great…but it’s rosy, and ignores human nature’s desires to create and work.

Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years  is a monster of a book, difficult even, though always fascinating. While I do not agree with the extremities to which his conclusions take him, there is something to be said for the corruption created when capital and political power are conflated. Crony capitalism is a distortion of the free market, just as political interference in the market is a distortion.

At the very least, Debt measures up as an interesting anthropological history of cultures as disparate from my western world as Vulcans or Klingons are from us. More importantly, and more to the point why I recommend you read Debt, unlike cultures created for science fiction, they are real, and that in itself is worth the read.



Publius Online is participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, a month long quest to post every day. Each day should match a letter of the alphabet. Today is the letter D.

About Daniel Burton

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog PubliusOnline.com where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas. He is active on social media, Republican politics, and has been named to PoliticIt’s list of the “Top-50 Utah Political Opinion Leaders” on Twitter. You can reach him directly at dan.burton@gmail.com

  • http://www.silencingthebell.blogspot.co.uk Martine Frampton

    Interesting review, thanks for sharing

    • Daniel B.

      Thanks, Martine. I hope you’ll check it out. It’s quite an interesting book.

  • http://lostinsidethecovers.wordpress.com ocdreader

    Great review, not sure I could focus and tackle it without a class requiring it, but it sounds fascinating. :)

    • http://lostinsidethecovers.wordpress.com ocdreader

      ps – I love that you heard about it on a sci fi blog – that is great.

      • Daniel B.

        I know, right? I just wish I could remember which one so I could give it the credit it’s due.

  • http://auntyamo.wordpress.com auntyamo

    thanks – a great review!

    • Daniel B.

      Thanks, auntyamo.

  • http://alpenwasser.blogspot.com Al Penwasser

    I’d be all for the non-industrious poor if they never received a dime from the federal teat (mixed metaphor, I know). Which, by extension, would be from me. John Smith had a point when he told the Jamestown colonists, “No workee, no eatee” (and THAT is a horribly clumsy paraphrase). Good review. My head would have exploded from reading someone who was too crazy for Yale.

    • Daniel B.

      Al, we definitely live in a world where man has done his best to avoid the laws of nature.

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