Reader’s Diary: David Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’

It’s no wonder that few things inspire as much persistent paranoia as banking. But a little paranoia might not be such a bad thing.

Writing about the global financial system that, however falteringly, commands the world at present, David Graeber remarks, “In part, these systems work because no one knows how they really work.” No wonder that few things inspire as much persistent paranoia as banking. In this case, a little paranoia might not be such a bad thing, but I presume that one of Graeber’s main reasons for writing this remarkable book was the hope that shedding a little light on how money got to be what it is might help transform the system. Debt is extraordinarily complicated and erudite — a work of historical synthesis of even greater scope than, say, Fernand Braudel’s three volumes on the development of capitalism between 1400 to 1800 or Perry Anderson’s diptych on Europe’s historical development from antiquity to feudalism (though Graeber is, by trade, an anthropologist rather than a historian). From its complexities emerge a number of simple, vitally significant points—for instance, that states foster markets because “modern money is based on government debt, and that governments borrow money to finance wars.” It’s a book not only of anthropology, of history, of economics, but also of philosophy: to read it is to reconsider your sense of such basic ideas as freedom, guilt, and equality, as well as money, credit, and, of course, debt. Back in the spring, reading Maurizio Lazzarato’s book-length essay, The Making of the Indebted Man, I was impressed by his idea (derived from Nietzsche) “that the paradigm of the social lies not in exchange (economic and/or symbolic) but in credit.” Graeber confirms this in a way, but contests Lazzarato’s Nietzschean conclusion that “there is no equality of exchange underlying social relations, but rather an asymmetry of debt/credit.” On the contrary, Graeber claims that the study of simple societies shows that “the obligation to share […] tends to become the basis of everyday morality in a society whose members see themselves as equals.” It is only on the foundation of this “baseline communism,” an assumption of reciprocity in which no accounts are kept, that systems of exchange and of hierarchy are erected. When exchange is tallied — when it is attached to a numerical measure of equivalence — then debt becomes possible. Debt is defined by Graeber as “a relationship between two people who do not consider each other fundamentally different sorts of being, who are at least potential equals,” but “who are not currently in a state of equality—but for whom there is some way to set matters straight.” It is “an exchange that has not been brought to completion.” The problem is that systems can be constructed in order to produce debts that cannot possibly be repaid. At that point, debt is settled in a different kind of currency: people. In other words, debt on this scale leads to slavery or peonage. Following Graeber’s tracing across the centuries of the manifold ways that people have tried to organize their economic relations with each other — from China to India to the Islamic and Christian worlds — one begins to suspect that we have tied ourselves in knots that can neither be unraveled nor cut. Maybe that’s why this history seems to thin out at the end, as it approaches our own time (the inception of which he dates precisely to 1971, when Richard Nixon took the United States off the gold standard, inaugurating “a new phase of financial history—one that nobody completely understands”). Any clear-eyed view of this time must see it as mainly disastrous. The financial meltdown of 2008 showed that the system could only sustain itself for lack of a ready alternative. “We cling to what exists,” as Graeber says, and as almost everyone realizes, “because we can no longer imagine an alternative that’s not even worse.” Sadly, all his historical and anthropological learning only prepare us “to begin to ask what it would mean to start thinking on a breadth and with a grandeur appropriate to the times.” Fine. But when do get past beginning to ask what it would mean to start — and just start reinventing ourselves before it’s too late?

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, updated and expanded edition (2014) is published by Melville House and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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