Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

4.6 18
by David Graeber

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Now in paperback: David Graeber’s “fresh . . . fascinating . . . thought-provoking . . . and exceedingly timely” (Financial Times) history of debt
Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: he shows that before there was money,


Now in paperback: David Graeber’s “fresh . . . fascinating . . . thought-provoking . . . and exceedingly timely” (Financial Times) history of debt
Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: he shows that before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.

Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Winner of the Bateson Book Prize awarded by the Society for Cultural Anthropology

“One of the year’s most influential books. Graeber situates the emergence of credit within the rise of class society, the destruction of societies based on ‘webs of mutual commitment’ and the constantly implied threat of physical violence that lies behind all social relations based on money.” —Paul Mason, The Guardian

 “The book is more readable and entertaining than I can indicate... It is a meditation on debt, tribute, gifts, religion and the false history of money. Graeber is a scholarly researcher, an activist and a public intellectual. His field is the whole history of social and economic transactions.” Peter Carey, The Observer

"An alternate history of the rise of money and markets, a sprawling, erudite, provocative work."
Drake Bennett, Bloomberg Businessweek

"[A]n engaging book. Part anthropological history and part provocative political argument, it's a useful corrective to what passes for contemporary conversation about debt and the economy."
Jesse Singal, Boston Globe

"Fresh... fascinating... Graeber’s book is not just thought-provoking, but also exceedingly timely."
Gillian Tett, Financial Times (London)

Giles Fraser, BBC Radio 4

"Terrific... In the best anthropological tradition, he helps us reset our everyday ideas by exploring history and other civilizations, then boomeranging back to render our own world strange, and more open to change."
Raj Patel, The Globe and Mail

"An amazing debut – conversational, pugnacious, propulsive"
Times Higher Education (UK)

"Graeber's book has forced me to completely reevaluate my position on human economics, its history, and its branches of thought. A Marxism without Graeber's anthropology is beginning to feel meaningless to me."
Charles Mudede, The Stranger

"The world of borrowing needs a little demystification, and David Graeber's Debt is a good start."
The L Magazine

"Controversial and thought-provoking, an excellent book."

"This timely and accessible book would appeal to any reader interested in the past and present culture surrounding debt, as well as broad-minded economists."
Library Journal

Praise for David Graeber

“I consider him the best anthropological theorist of his generation from anywhere in the world.”
—Maurice Bloch, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics

"A brilliant, deeply original political thinker."
Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell

“If anthropology consists of making the apparently wild thought of others logically compelling in their own cultural settings and intellectually revealing of the human condition, then David Graeber is the consummate anthropologist. Not only does he accomplish this profound feat, he redoubles it by the critical task—now more urgent than ever—of making the possibilities of other people’s worlds the basis for understanding our own.”
—Marshall Sahlins, Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at the University of Chicago

Product Details

Melville House Publishing
Publication date:
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5.76(w) x 8.24(h) x 1.42(d)

Meet the Author

David Graeber teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics. He has written for Harper’s, The Nation, Mute, and The New Left Review. In 2006, he delivered the Malinowski Memorial Lecture at the London School of Economics, an annual talk that honors “outstanding anthropologists who have fundamentally shaped the study of culture.” One of the original organizers of Occupy Wall Street, Graeber has been called an “anti-leader of the movement” by Bloomberg Businessweek. The Atlantic wrote that he “has come to represent the Occupy Wall Street message...expressing the group’s theory, and its founding principles, in a way that truly elucidated some of the things people have questioned about it.”

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Debt: The First 5,000 Years 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
EvaS More than 1 year ago
This deep-history look at debt is unlike anything I've ever read on the subject. The author, an anthropologist, looks at the idea of debt in human relations, stretching back to early recorded history. It gives a very full context for a topic much in the news right now. And brings to light how varied different cultures view the idea of debt....Time for a Jubilee Year, anyone? Graeber relates how it's the biblical 7th year in which all debt is forgiven!
dragonfly74 More than 1 year ago
Anthropologist David Graeber has written one of the most fascinating nonfiction books of the year. Debt, something we listen to debates about nearly around the clock, is something we understand very little and the conventional wisdom is based off of assumptions made be economists who never researched the actual history of human interaction with this oldest of institutions. It's origins, realities and complex world history is rendered incredibly easy to understand in Graeber's measured and crystal clear writing. Amazing book.
CountryCache More than 1 year ago
This book evokes a radical rethinking of self in relation to group. Graeber contrasts the concept of "human economy" with "debt society" to accomplish this. Graeber understands "human economy" as alternative to "debt society," which is based fundamentally on violence and power. Graeber's ideas give new meaning not just to the nature of debt, but also to the personal, intellectual and spiritual bondage caused by the warped ideas of self that necessarily emerge from debt societies. Graeber contrasts violent, power-based debt-society with human-economy where self emerges from the shared experience of a web of family and societal relationships, which he contrasts with debt society's violent severing of personal connections. David Graeber's integrating premise for this book is that debt reflects culture's origin in violence. Graeber shows how violence pervades even individual self-image through dualistic, cultural myths, for example we are taught to see our minds and our bodies as separate entities! Reading the book, I recommend several readings, I am reminded of the ideas of Stanford linguist Rene Girard and theologians James Alison and Gil Bailie. All three explore human relations through the twin lenses of human desire and mimetic violence, which they find at the heart of the sacred structures of all human-created cultures.
Paqi More than 1 year ago
David Graeber walks his readers through a wealth of anthropological evidence about the nature of money, debt, and the social issues surrounding them. What we actually see happening in history flies in the face of all prevailing economic assumptions about these issues. - There were never any barter economies - By far, the most prevalent and naturally occurring economic systems were credit economies. Daily transactions involving the exchange of money were rare, including during the period Adam Smith was writing "The Wealth of Nations". Smith was fully aware of this fact. - When money was used, it was consistently a result of a governments raising armies and finding a way to compensate them. Money was effectively the result of a government mandate, backed by violence. - The most successful, and best example, of an actual free-market that wasn't backed by violent coercion was the Islamic societies in the Middle Ages, where usury "charging interest on loans" was forbidden. - He makes a distinction between capitalism and the free-market, and makes a compelling case that capitalism is rooted in violent coercion. It would be a mistake for anyone to treat this as a "hostile work", as Graeber isn't really out to critique so much as have a frank discussion of the facts and what's lead up to our economy today. It's better treated as a source of information to absorb into your own world-views.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A boring rambling rant.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
GLdeV More than 1 year ago
I have wanted to read this since the blog Crooked Timber conducted a seminar centered on Debt. After reading it I was not fully convinced the Mr. Graeber's conclusions, but I was pleased to have read a serious, thoughtful attempt to think about and describe debt and money, and the moral, ethical, and social issues surrounding them. Mr. Graeber's background in anthropology brought a new perspective to the issues; it was refreshing to have a matter that is critical to the structure of our world examined afresh from outside the discipline of economics. Finally, it was bracing to read a book that questioned the permanence of the current zeitgeist; will our mindset toward capitalism survive another century? An interesting work.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Graeber is one of the chief influences on the Occupy movement, not only because he been active in it literally from day one but because his ideas about debt, money, and social attitudes about them as expressed in this book resonate so deeply with the protesters, many of whom are virtual slaves to their student debt. The principle question Graeber poses is why paying back one's debt to lenders has assumed such enormous moral significance to the point that, if given a choice between forgiving debt or letting people starve, most politicians anyway would choose the latter. Even liberals quake at the notion of letting debtors off the hook under any circumstances. Graeber was curious about why debt repayment became such a moral imperative. Was it always that way in history? Do all societies have similar attitudes? The answers, rooted in Graebers deep historical and anthropological research, are complex and surprising. Graeber shows by example mainly that economists are woefully inadequate to the task of gettinh at the roots if these questions, let alone finding solutions to the social problems they pose.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author confirmed all my deepest suspicions about the nature of debt and capitalism.
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Ioan More than 1 year ago
A rather different perspective on debt.