COVER STORY: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Reviewed by Hasan H. Karrar
For readers with an affinity for big books — literally and figuratively — Debt: The First 5,000 Years excites on the first encounter. David Graeber’s 500-page romp through the anthropology and history of money, debt, and various coercive and non-coercive forms of social exchange is filled with captivating ideas presented in a lively, engaging manner. Graeber, an anthropologist at Goldsmiths, was a key figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement against corporate mismanagement, and is credited with the slogan, “We are the 99 per cent”. Graeber’s view is informed both by the academy and by the streets. But just as the vastness of the topic and the boldness of this literary enterprise are alluring — how many other books promise a 5,000-year panorama? — Debt occasionally falls short in its ambitious undertaking.
Only an anthropologist could have written Debt — and one comfortable wading through reams of history, at that. This seemingly trite statement is essential to explaining the allure and uniqueness of this book. Here’s why: upon beginning the book, my first reaction — and I suspect I am not the only one — was to wonder whether this book wasn’t actually about money, the study of which the academy has mostly left to economists. But Debt (the book) and debt (the phenomenon) is about more than money; debt is more than a function of a monetised society. Debt did, and can exist in societies where money did not circulate, or in exchanges not defined by money. Simply put, debt is a way of moderating exchange and creating value, “an exchange,” Graeber describes, “that has not been brought to completion.”
The existence of debt outside of a monetised society — or in the absence of exchanges framed by money — challenges notions of economies based entirely on barter. The barter economy model is frequently constructed in textbooks to explain exchange prior to the advent of money. Graeber describes barter economies as something which never existed (at one point accusing economists of oversimplification and “making the world into a bit of a cartoon” through mathematical modelling). Now, the presence of debt in a non-monetised society is important for two reasons: (1) because debt shall need to be located and understood in its specific cultural contexts; and (2) because debt becomes the means through which goods, services and obligations are transacted. Being indebted becomes the norm; in fact, in many circumstances being indebted is not a moral failure as it is oft considered in our times.
Debt is a norm in the “human economy,” which may govern relations within the family, with in-laws, or within kin. These relations are regulated by “social currencies” that govern an individual’s unique nexus of social relations. Using the example of bridewealth amongst the Tiv of West Africa, Graeber asserts that “money is presented not to settle a debt, but as a kind of acknowledgement that there exists a debt that cannot be settled by means of money.” On another occasion Graeber describes the exchange of money in the human economy as an expression not of buying and trading in humans, but of “how much one cannot do so.” Inasmuch as we think of debt existing in the economic realm, it also influences human engagement in non-monetary ways.
Now there came a point when humans were ripped out of the human economy — their individual, social contexts — and inserted into a market economy governed by money. This process was frequently accompanied by violence; it turned humans into abstractions. This process of removal from the human economy and insertion into a market economy had two consequences. The first was the emergence of capital, wealth that regenerates itself, and capitalism, a monetary system that demands “constant, endless” growth. The second consequence was the violence that accompanied market hegemony. Using the conquest of the Americas, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the Asian indentured labour system as examples, Graeber insists that “it is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organised primarily around free labour.” According to Graeber, this is a scandal because “it plays havoc with our most cherished assumption… that, in its basic nature, capitalism has something to do with freedom.” Our teleological view of capitalism runs from the English toiling in factories during the Industrial Revolution, to the Silicon Valley. But this view is flawed. As Graeber correctly notes, in this view “Millions of slaves and serfs and coolies and debt peons disappear, or if we must speak of them, we write them off as temporary bumps along the road.” The dehumanisation of labour continues to this day, sometimes shrugged off as an inevitable stage along the path of development, accompanied by phony expectations that the children of those being exploited today shall become “regular wage labourers, with health insurance and pensions, and their children, doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs.” This, of course, does not happen. Besides profit maximisation — capitalism’s central tenet — Graeber takes aim at Adam Smith for creating an imaginary world void of debt and credit where men and women were free agents, which fundamentally shaped the way we thought about the economy. With the rise of capitalism, we became beholden to markets and to models.
By the end of the twentieth century, as socialist alternatives faltered, capitalism developed a sense of its invincibility. Given the supposed viability of the capitalist system, there was no reason not to spend credit, the money of tomorrow or money that is created “out of nothing.” At this point, according to Graeber, the system begins to unravel. The last chapter (titled “The Beginning of Something Yet to Be Determined,” a mere 30 pages long) he covers the period from the 1970s to the current financial crisis identifying a series of turning points that could broadly be lumped together under the rubric of reckless financial management: the abandonment of Keynesian fiscal oversight; the 1971 US decision to abandon the gold standard in the wake of growing spending during the Vietnam war; encouraging citizens to “play the market” and borrow money; and the selling off of US debt to countries holding their foreign currency reserves in US dollars in an era of increasing global engagement. Graeber seeks to cover too much ground in this last chapter.
Debt is unique in its panoramic oversight and in that it is unquestionably highly informative. Pick up Debt and you’ll be impressed by the accolades greeting you as you turn the front cover. But I have some misgivings about this book, foremost of which is how different parts of it fit together: Debt frequently appears like a series of vignettes stacked one on top of the other. I can’t help wondering just how many read this book to the end — the proverbial whole does not seem to be greater than a sum of its parts, and admittedly there are moments of tedium as we move from section to section. The first part of the book is filled with anthropological insights skillfully used to substantiate arguments. A third of the way into the book, Debt embarks on a macro-historical narrative, but one that is highly selective with examples drawn mostly from China, India, the Muslim world, and Europe. While Graeber isn’t writing a history of capitalism, debt, or money — and Debt should certainly not be read as such — specialists shall find themselves frequently quarrelling with (and groaning at) liberties that Graeber takes with the past. While these don’t take away from the thrust of the argument — and need not be dwelled on here — they distract the attentive reader (likewise there are typos both in the text and the endnotes, and at least one reference in the endnotes that is not listed in the bibliography). The result is that despite more than 200 pages of notes and bibliographical references, Debt has the tendency to come across as polemical.
My suspicion is that Debt would have been a more important book if the painstaking use of anthropological insights and deployment of a macro-history panorama had worked into a more careful explanation of how this narrative explains the current financial predicament we find ourselves in. But here Debt disappoints. More than most other pundits, Graeber, with his position in the academy and as a frontline campaigner for social and economic justice, is uniquely qualified to comment on the current financial crisis: reckless spending, the subprime mortgage crisis, fiscal mismanagement in the banking and government sectors, speculative finance, capital flight, exploitation of the South by the IMF and the World Bank, along with the response to these manifestations of contemporary global capitalism through anti-globalisation movements, including the Occupy Wall Street movement. Regrettably, these pressing issues are cursorily dealt with in the last chapter. I kept reading Debt waiting for the crescendo that never came. My reservations aside, if you have read this far you should read Debt; there are powerful, provocative ideas here that deserve to be read, reflected on and discussed in these times of inequality and injustice.
The reviewer teaches history at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences
Debt: The First 5,000 Years
By David Graeber
Penguin Books, India