The title of David Graeber’s epic new book sums up the extent of his ambition: to re-ignite grand historical theory, using anthropology, history, philosophy, politics and psychology to undermine the founding myths of capitalism.
Graeber was inspired to write the book after trying to explain why ‘third world debt’ should be cancelled. Why is the idea that ‘debts must always be repaid’ such a strong moral imperative that it seems perfectly acceptable that ‘the loss of 10,000 human lives is really justified in order to ensure that Citibank wouldn’t have to cut its losses on one irresponsible loan that wasn’t particularly important to its balance sheet anyway’?
Over the next 400 pages, Graeber answers this question by showing us the great span of history, and our attitudes towards power, honour, sex, cruelty and much besides, through the lens of debt and money.
Graeber begins by demolishing the ‘myth of barter’ – the idea that money was devised to replace this more cumbersome means of exchanging goods. He proposes something more radical – that ‘money’ is about a way of thinking that was absent from early society. Using anthropology he suggests that ancient human behaviour reflected a far wider range of emotions and rationales for giving and receiving objects. There was exchange but not based upon the idea that ‘one thing is roughly [equally] valuable to another thing’. Rather, something might be given on the basis, for instance, that someone else needed it, that the giver had too much, or that it was the giver’s duty towards their lower status ‘client’.
These ideas of early human morality were incredibly difficult to break down and then only by the most violent means. A first sign of this might have been the subjection of women: women being ‘given’ in marriage, virginity becoming a tradeable commodity. It finds its culmination in slavery, which brought concepts of debt, money and ‘quantification’ to large parts of the world.
Ripping people from their social context was at the core of this transformation and ‘violence, or the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics’ again and again through history.
The earliest form of money, for Graeber, was debt – for instance, running up tabs to buy ale that could be repaid at harvest time. But debt only works if there’s trust, hence within communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, coinage was first devised at a time of expansion, violence and uncertainty around 800–500BC, driven by powerful ruling entities, for whom it provided a neat way of paying soldiers in times of war and then re-collecting coins through taxes.
Although the slave trade might be (mostly) confined to history, it has left a lasting legacy: ‘Our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal.’ A brilliantly elucidated example is the way the liberal philosophers of the enlightenment turned the notion of freedom – which to ancients meant to be anchored in a community, to be a citizen – into the idea that you can ‘do what you like with your property’. Indeed, ‘it treats rights themselves as a form of property’. To ancients, wage labour was slavery. To moderns, it becomes simply renting your property.
For most of history, according to Graber, most people have been debtors, and it is this that has fuelled most popular struggles. He argues that while people who are said to be inferior to others might not be pleased with the idea, notions of natural hierarchy have not caused armed revolts in the way that debt has. The slogan of revolutionaries through the ages has been to ‘cancel the debts and redistribute the land’.
Graeber believes we can understand opportunities for change by examining that shape of history. In the second half of the book, he takes us on a historical tour of the development of society, bringing remarkable insights into how and why capitalism took the form it did.
Graeber doesn’t tell us what solutions might look like, beyond the need to resurrect the idea of ‘jubilee’ – a period of debt cancellation dating back to before ancient Babylon. The jubilee was a time when those who had been enslaved to repay debts were freed, and land that had been sold was returned to its original owners. Graeber suggests, as my organisation has long argued, that such a process – while it will involve a lengthy struggle – will help towards an emotional and spiritual renewal, allowing us to question our relationships with each other and our planet.
Certainly Graeber’s book has shortcomings. At times it is difficult to see a pattern in the argument, until the author explains how to interpret his case studies. At others he pushes interpretation beyond credulity, and an anecdote from an anthropologist talking to a hunter-gatherer takes on enormous weight. But even those who leave the book disagreeing with his narrative will find it impossible not to be excited by the audacity of his ambition or struck by the insights he offers.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill