I have been reading the late David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years and what a wonderful book it is. This intellectually sprawling tome goes where few have gone before in terms of investigating humanity’s most loved things – money and god. The intersection between these two oft cited opponents may surprise some encountering Graeber’s insights for the first time. The intangible nature of both at their core should reveal the commonality between them, perhaps? What is money but an IOU. Who or what is god but another promise of highly questionable provenance. The anthropologist Graeber shares many illustrative stories from a variety of cultures and civilisations to entertain readers.
Graeber & Great Economic Myths
Graeber dismantles the great economic myth of barter and shows how this invention has no scientific basis whatsoever. He clearly conveys that humanity in multiple settings has for the most part had no problem with community systems run on debt and credit. Hospitality in the ancient world ran on a gift giving principle and people remembered what they owed to who. Graeber defines this a ‘communistic’ reality, much like how we, today, treat with our family and close friends. Most of us do not charge interest on loans provided to this intimate circle. It is a matter of giving what is needed as required and asking for the same when appropriate.
Why Economics Is Not Really A Science
Economics has become the dominant consideration in how we are encouraged to see the world over the last 50 years or so. Everything is defined by what it is worth and its cost in the current reality. Governments no longer do things because it is simply the right thing to do, as in social welfare for the needy. No, every program is costed and accounted for in economic terms. Economics has come to be seen as a science involving the cold hard facts of numbers. However, its very premises are assumptions. Market forces and the profit motive driving all human beings. The question is what if these assumptions are wrong in the first place. The stuff that Adam Smith laid out as the historical bedrock of humanity in economic terms is bunkum. There is no anthropological or archaeological evidence anywhere to back up these claims. Barter did not precede the use of money as the dominant means of economic exchange. Debt and credit did.
Most Folk Don’t Really ‘Get’ Money
Most human beings do not understand the history of money, which is funny because their lives revolve around it to a large extent. Indeed, most people do not know where money comes from even in our modern world economies. Who distributes money into the system? What money actually is? Most of us just use it for better or worse. They say, however, if you don’t really comprehend things you are prone to being their slave rather than their master. Slavery gets a guernsey in David Graeber’s book too. Money has been used to purchase slaves, sex, and honour historically. It is still being used to buy these things. The bride price. Blood money or wergild.
“Let me start with the institution of slavery, whose role, I think, is key. In most times and places, slavery is seen as a consequence of war. Sometimes most slaves actually are war captives, sometimes they are not, but almost invariably, war is seen as the foundation and justification of the institution. If you surrender in war, what you surrender is your life; your conqueror has the right to kill you, and often will. If he chooses not to, you literally owe your life to him; a debt conceived as absolute, infinite, irredeemable. He can in principle extract anything he wants, and all debts – obligations – you may owe to others (your friends, family, former political allegiances), or that others owe you, are seen as being absolutely negated. Your debt to your owner is all that now exists.”
Economic Assumptions Are Largely False
Modern economic thinking flattens everything out and does not take into consideration much of what makes us human. It assumes equalities that are not really there. This is why the history of economics is largely fiction because its assumptions do not bear scrutiny when put up against the cultural reality of humanity. Graeber points out that interest bearing loans between parties assumes an equality which was rarely present historically.
A Story For The Ages
“Nasruddin’s neighbour once came by to ask if he could borrow his donkey for an unexpected errand. Nasruddin obliged, but the next day the neighbour was back again- he needed to take some grain to be milled. Before long he was showing up almost every morning, barely feeling he needed a pretext. Finally, Nasruddin got fed up, and one morning told him his brother had already come by and taken the donkey.
Just as the neighbour was leaving he heard a loud braying sound from the yard.
“Hey, I thought you said the donkey wasn’t here!”
“Look, who are you going to believe? asked Nasruddin. “Me, or some animal!”
- (David Graeber, Debt – The First 5000 Years)
They tell us that Ancient Greece was the original home of democracy. The ancient world, however, was incredibly class driven with the aristocrats lording it over the plebs for the most part. Wealth and power have always coalesced into forces and feelings of superiority. Myths were made up to reinforce these beliefs telling us that these folk were descended from gods and heroes. The harsh truth is that the scientific approach has exposed the fictions surrounding all beliefs in gods whatever the religious persuasion. Human beings are all created pretty much equal in most cases without factoring in the material advantages of those from wealthy families.
Graeber examines the relationship between money and the priestly castes of the ancient world. The intertwined nature of all aspects of money, debt, belief, monasteries, and the priesthood are enlightening to say the least. Graeber traverses India, China, and the Mediterranean examining Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Christianity, and the Vedic world. No religious stone is left unturned in his search for meaning. The language of religion and debt are strangely similar. Redemption. Sin. Guilt. Fault. Most religious credos are founded on the idea that you owe something to your creator and saviour. We are born into a state of sin or debt, according to their rules.
“In English, “thank you” derives from “think”, it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me.” “
- (David Graeber, Debt – The First 5000 Years)
Graeber links this habit of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ with the increased commerciality of life in western Europe in the 16C and 17C. We use so many words and terms blindly with little or no understanding of where they came from. We are largely ignorant of our cultural roots. We have been told and sold fictions, which do not accurately reflect the truth. David Graeber’s Debt- The First 5000 Years opens up some long unexplored avenues of human history. The separation of church and state. The division between religion and economics. These distinctions have acted as deterrents from a more thorough examination by other scholars previously.
Economics is founded on the assumption that all human interactions are forms of exchange or economic transactions – and this is not true. To reduce all of our interactions to an economic component is to turn a three dimensional universe into a one dimensional realm. A mother and her child. What we owe to our parents. These are human interactions beyond the balance sheet. The prevalence of economic thinking has contributed greatly to a ‘me-centric’ attitude to life. The onus on individuality has damaged our community consciousness. This was clearly apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic and the failures of people in some places to come together in support of public health policies. ‘What’s in it for me?’ This Hobbesian refrain was oft heard in the chafing against things enacted to protect the group. Trump’s America was an appalling example of this with nearly a million Americans dying from Covid – many of these African Americans.
Perhaps, we owe a debt to David Graeber for his unflinching examination of us and our histories. Drilling down into the dirty and the divine. Digging for nuggets of truth when it comes to our understanding of who we are. Definitely worth a read for those seeking a deeper understanding of what has made us who we are.
“Historically, as we have seen, ages of virtual, credit money have also involved creating some sort of overarching institutions – Mesopotamian sacred kingship, Mosaic jubilees, Sharia or Canon Law – that place some sort of controls on the potentially catastrophic social consequences of debt. Almost invariably, they involve institutions (usually not strictly coincident to the state, usually larger) to protect debtors. So far the movement this time has been the other way around: starting with the ’80s we have begun to see the creation of the first effective planetary administrative system, operating through the IMF, World Bank, corporations and other financial institutions, largely in order to protect the interests of creditors. However, this apparatus was very quickly thrown into crisis, first by the very rapid development of global social movements (the alter-globalisation movement), which effectively destroyed the moral authority of institutions like the IMF and left many of them very close to bankrupt, and now by the current banking crisis and global economic collapse. While the new age of virtual money has only just begun and the long term consequences are as yet entirely unclear, we can already say one or two things. The first is that a movement towards virtual money is not in itself, necessarily, an insidious effect of capitalism. In fact, it might well mean exactly the opposite. For much of human history, systems of virtual money were designed and regulated to ensure that nothing like capitalism could ever emerge to begin with – at least not as it appears in its present form, with most of the world’s population placed in a condition that would in many other periods of history be considered tantamount to slavery. “
- (David Graeber)
Robert Sudha Hamilton is the author of Money Matters: Navigating Credit, Debt, and Financial Freedom.