This book, by David Graeber, has left a deep impression on me. I particularly liked his observation that some things being ‘worth more than money’ was precisely what led to a price on humans. Priceless family members as collateral for a loan (so the debtor is sure to pay) -> hard times prevent repayment, so the creditor takes the human collateral - > the creditors now must write off the debt or create a market for humans to recoup -> the market now decides the value of people through a sick, but obvious, chain of events which requires stripping the surrounding context of the valued community member to turn them into a thing people can buy. The author covers another dozen or so issues with examples to provide color.
So much information is packed into Debt: The First 5,000 Years, that it could easily have been written as five separate stand-alone books. As an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, Graeber wrote a massive, sprawling history of debt, credit, and the development of markets and money; he ties it to war, slavery, taxes, tribute, government bureaucracy, religious thought, and both local and international trade, by looking at societies from ancient Mesopotamia, to India, to China, to ancient Greece and Rome, to Latin America, to the Middle Ages, and to the Modern Ages.
Why did he do it this way? Several reasons. First, as an anthropologist, he felt he was in a unique position to help us completely rethink our sense of the rhythms of economic history. Economists and historians, he points out, normally come at history in opposite directions. "Economists tend to come at history with their mathematical models--and the assumptions about human nature that come along with them--already in place: it's largely a matter of arranging the data around equations. Historians .....often refuse to extrapolate at all; in the absence of direct evidence.....they will not ask whether it is reasonable to make (certain) assumptions....this is why we have so many "histories of money" that are actually histories of coinage....Anthropologists, in contrast, are empirical--they don't just apply preset models--but they also have such a wealth of comparative material at their disposal they CAN actually speculate about what village assemblies in Bronze Age Europe or credit systems in ancient China were likely to be like. And they can reexamine the evidence to see if it confirms or contradicts their assessment." Second, as a admirer of French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, by writing this book, Graeber feels he has put to rest the real "pet peeve" of anthropologists everywhere--the myth of barter. I found this a shocking idea when introduced to it at the beginning of the book, but he has really convinced me as a reader through his extensive and comprehensive looks at every possible facet of this question.
I will try to summarize in one paragraph the large sweeping ideas covered in this book. What is money, really? What determines what gets used as money, and why? Certain historical ages operated on mutual credit systems, with practically no coinage at all in circulations (for hundreds or even thousands of years at a time); other ages operated with coin made out of various precious metals. What were the differences between the types of ages when these different types of systems occurred in societies around-the-world, and what were the causes of these differences? Historically, when did these various ages occur, and why? What is happening now, and is the current situation in the world changing? We seem to have recently entered a new age of credit, but in many ways, completely unlike past ages of credit, with historical trends now completely reversed between creditors and debtors compared to past credit ages. How does war and slavery factor into all of this? What is capitalism and how did it come about? Does it really work as it claims to? What are the problems and myths associated with capitalism? What does faith and credit in government and society mean, and what has it meant throughout all historical ages around-the-world? These are just a few of the book's largest questions.
Now I will touch on what this book meant to me personally. As an American living overseas in North Africa, I really enjoyed his discussion of how credit was handled during the Middle Ages in Europe, with most people living on credit in regards to each other. It reminded me of the system we even continue to use in North Africa, even in cities, with the merchants at the corner stores (which are our societal equivalents of 7-11 stores). Each family has a notebook which they bring with them to the store each time they want to purchase something. The merchant notes it in the book, and accounts are settled up at the end of the month. Without cash or coin available to most of the populace in the European Middle Ages, everyone operated on such bases with their neighbors, everyone kept accounts, and accounts were settled up in the whole village once or twice a year, usually at specific times or festivals. I found this really interesting. Many such examples from the book meant something to me in my own life, but they would be too numerous to list here.
Terrific book. Graeber's a brilliant mind. After reading Debt: the First 5000 Years you could walk into just about any economics class and totally tie the teacher in knots....unless they've already read this book. The concepts are foundational, where money comes from, how debt is used for good and ill, how humans really interact positive and negative. What I also learned from this and a handful of other books is how to put money in its proper perspective making it less scary and more of just another tool. People who just assemble large piles of money are like having more camping gear than you could ever possibly use but then never going camping. This is a book you read, and then read again. It's worth it.