Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Debt: The First 5,000 Years – Money, myth and morality

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber, reviewed by Nick Dearden

May 8, 2012
5 min read


Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


  share     tweet  

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Nick DeardenNick Dearden is the director of UK campaigning organisation Global Justice Now. He was previously the director of Jubilee Debt Campaign


Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright