Lifestyle

Reviewed: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

University of London anthropologist Graeber starts by taking exception to one of the fundamental received wisdoms of economics.

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years
(Melville House)
David Graeber

University of London anthropologist Graeber starts by taking exception to one of the fundamental received wisdoms of economics: that our monetary structures evolved from barter-based transactions, through the invention of money and use of coin, to the development of credit systems of increasing complexity. “Our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards,” he argues—humans were using credit systems long before the first coin was minted. And if credit is the foundation of our economic development rather than a rickety new addition, then the value of a history of debt—in all its connotations—is plain.

Graeber is unabashedly an activist of the new(ish) left, proud of his involvement with the anti-globalization movement and his efforts to discredit the likes of the IMF. His 2005 departure from Yale is still seen by many to have been politically motivated. And there is a political argument here, against the concessions we’ve made as individuals and societies to the idea of indebtedness, and the way we’ve tied it to opportunity and responsibility. Politics aside, however, Graeber is a dazzling theorist and a respected scholar. As histories of this subject go, few are deeper or more provocative.