David Graeber – Debt: the first 5000 years

Debt: the first 5000 years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. Graeber analyzes the function of debt in human history. He traces the history of debt from ancient civilizations to our modern-day economic crises, arguing that debt has often driven revolutions and social and political changes. The book has been connected to movements like Occupy Wall Street. The book won the inaugural Bread and Roses Award for radical literature, and the 2012 Bateson Award of the American Society for Cultural Anthropology.

Graeber lays out the historical development of the idea of debt, starting from the first recorded debt systems that existed in the Sumer civilization around 3500 BC. In this early form of borrowing and lending, farmers would often become so mired in debt that their children would be forced into debt peonage, though they were periodically released by kings who canceled all debts and granted them amnesty under what later came to be known, in ancient Israel, as the Law of Jubilee. Throughout antiquity, the author identifies many different systems of credit and later monetary exchange, drawing from historical and also ethnographical records evidence for his argument that the traditional explanation for the origins of monetary economies from primitive bartering system, as laid out by Adam Smith, doesn’t find empirical support. One feature first observed in this period, though – that of popular indebtedness leading to unrest, insurrections and revolts – will accompany the narrative of the whole book as it deals with the origins of the state, money, interest, taxation and slavery.

The author supports that originally credit systems developed as means of account much before the advent of coinage around 600 BC, and can still be seen operating in non-monetary economies. The idea of barter, on the other hand, seems only to apply for limited exchanges between different societies that held no frequent contact and often were in a context of ritualized warfare, rendering its conceptualization among economists as a myth. As an alternative explanation for the creation of economic life, the author suggests that it originally related to social currencies, closely related to non-market quotidian interactions among a community and based on the “everyday communism” that is based on mutual expectations and responsibilities among individuals. This type of economy is, then, contrasted with the moral foundations of exchange, based on formal equality and reciprocity (but not necessarily leading to market relations) and hierarchy, based on clear inequalities that tend to crystallize in customs and castes.

With the advent of the great Axial Age civilizations, the nexus between coinage and the calculability of economic values was concomitant with the disrupt of what Graeber calls “human economies,” as found among the Iroquois, Celts, Inuit, Tiv, Nuer and the Malagasy people of Madagascar among other groups which, according to Graeber, held a radically different conception of debt and social relations, based on the radical incalculability of human life and the constant creation and recreation of social bonds through gifts, marriages and general sociability. The author postulates the growth of a “military-coinage-slave complex” around this time, through which mercenary armies looted cities and human beings were cut from their social context to work as slaves in Greece, Rome and elsewhere in the Eurasian continent. The extreme violence of the period marked by the rise of great empires in China, India and the Mediterranean was, in this way, connected with the advent of large scale slavery and the use of coins to pay soldiers, together with the obligation enforced by the State for its subjects to pay its taxes in currency. This was also the same time that the great religions spread out and the general questions of philosophical enquiry emerged on world history – many of those directly related, as in Plato’s Republic, with the nature of debt and its relation to ethics.

When the great empires in Rome and India collapsed, the resulting creation of a checkerboard of small kingdoms and republics saw the gradual decline in standing armies and cities, as well as the settlement of the lower classes through various hierarchical caste systems, the retreat of gold and silver to the temples and the abolition of slavery. Although hard currency was no longer used in everyday life, its use as a unit of account and credit continued in medieval Europe, against popular claims among economists that the Middle Ages somehow saw the economy “revert to barter”. In fact, it was during the Middle Ages that more sophisticated financial institutions like promissory notes and paper money (in China, where the empire managed to survive the collapse observed elsewhere), letters of credit and cheques (in the Islamic world) developed and spread. According to Graeber, it was the Islamic “western” tradition of free market and commerce outside of governmental intervention that inspired the original formulation of Adam Smith, whose writing seems to repeat ipsis litteris the words of Persian scholars like Al-Tusi and Al-Ghazali.

It took the emergence of the Atlantic slave trade and the massive amounts of gold and silver extracted from the Americas – most of which ended up in the far East, specially China – to see the reemergence of the bullion economy and large scale military violence. All of which, according to Graeber, directly inter-wined with the earlier expansion of the Italian mercantile city-states as centers of finance that defied the church ban on usury and led to the age of the great capitalist empires that endured and prospered for the next 500 years. As the new continent opened new possibilities for gain, it also created a new area for adventurous militarism backed by debts that required the economic exploitation of the Amerindian and, later, West African populations. As it did, cities again flourished in the European continent and capitalism advanced to encompass larger areas of the globe when European trade companies and military outposts disrupted local markets and pushed for colonial monopolies.

This age would have come to an end with the abandonment of the gold standard by the U.S. government in 1971 and a return to credit money, opening up uncertainties and possibilities yet unclear as the dollar stands as the world currency largely based in its capacity to multiply itself through debts and deficits as long as the United States maintains its status as the world only military power and client states are eager to pay seignorage for its government bonds. By comparing the evolution of debt in our times to other historical eras and different societies, the author suggests that modern debt crises are not the inevitable product of history and may be changed. [wikipedia]

na engleskom (.pdf)

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