April 15, 2012

Review - Debt: The First 5.000 Years (David Graeber)

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 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, 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.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history—as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.


Review
If you think being in debt is something we invented in our modern time which for many people consists of spending money they don't have on things they don't need, guess again. In his book Debt: The First 5.000 Years David Graeber presents a both fascinating and informative study on what debt is. What might be a bit surprising to some is how this isn't a dry survey based on economics and finances, but instead an approach which was immediately to my liking. It is already evident from the title, that the author offers a historical perspective, but he also takes the anthropological route.
It needs time, and many pages, to write a concise survey on a topic like this, and the book does not disappoint in that regard. Unraveling the workings behind what it means to be a debtor and creditor in the broadest sense, along with many colorful examples, this part is deeply interesting, but unfortunately also really long winded. This first half of the book, which concentrates on what debt actually is, how we relate to possessions, and the author's concept of human economies, could have used some streamlining in my opinion. The second part, focuses on the global history of debt and offers a balanced view, broaching the topics of financial systems and economic order, and finishes with a thought-provoking conclusion, "What is debt, anyway? A debt is just the perversion of a promise."
In short: Debt through the eyes of an anthropologist!

4/5 stars

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the NetGalley book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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