Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber
Now, in reading this book I had an advantage or disadvantage in that I already knew something about the author’s viewpoints from having read another book of his and already knowing that I had a great deal of disagreement with the author concerning his political viewpoint, particularly his support of the anarchist leftist movement that has caused so much trouble over the past few years in the United States and other countries. That said, I was pleased and somewhat surprised by how little the difference in the worldview between the author and I really mattered when it came to appreciating the book. The author takes the point of view of the Bible seriously when it comes to the periodic debt crises that the ancient world had to deal with and struggles with an understanding of how to move beyond debt when it comes to expressing our feelings and our relationships. The author seems to view debt as inherent exploitative, as a way of entrapping people in relationships. The mechanics of debt greatly interest the author and service as an intriguing reminder to the rest of us who have not studied the subject as much as he has.
This book is nearly 400 pages long and is divided into twelve chapters. The book begins with a discussion on the moral confusion that relates to debt (1) before moving into the myth of barter (2) and the primordial debts that were accounted in ancient society (3) before history began. After that the author deals with the cruelty and redemption of the ancient world that gave a sharp edge to calls for debt forgiveness (4). The author discusses the moral grounds of economic relations (5) as well as the games of sex and death that are played with debt (6) in human societies. There is a discussion of honor and degradation as the foundation of contemporary civilization (7) as well as a look at the cycles of history and the move between credit and bullion as the means of exchange (8) from one time period to another. The author then examines history over the past couple of millennia starting from the axial age (9), moving to the Middle Ages (10), the great capitalist empires that started in Europe with the development of the corporation (11), and the beginnings of something that has yet to be determined (12), after which the book ends with notes, a bibliography, and an index.
It appears as if the author has a few ulterior motives in writing the book, one of them being to rehabilitate the word Communist to refer instead to the communal care that people have for each other rather than the tyrannical government that promises the future withering away of government that never seems to happen. As a “real communism has never been tried,” the author comes off as being slightly disingenuous concerning his own preferences, especially since he thinks that answers to the exploitative nature of contemporary capitalism could be found in feminism as well as radical Isalm. This is a book that is short on solutions, and given the nature of debt and the struggle that we have as human beings in dealing with it, it is perhaps unsurprising that there should be so few answers and so many questions, and that is definitely not a problem in reading a book where one is likely to disagree on answers but can agree on the problem. And that is perhaps as much as can be expected in a book like this. The author has done great work in seeing the problem of debt and the results of various attitudes towards debt in societies that lead to the fall of societies, and it is certainly something worth thinking about from a variety of perspectives.