Debt: The first 5,000 years

David Graeber traces a line from Roman property law, through Cartesian dualism and Hobbes’ state of nature, to the foundational myth of the free market:

At this point we can finally see what’s really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of “use and abuse” over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man’s household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.

David Graeber (2011) ‘Debt: The First 500 years’, p209-210.

Graeber uses an anthropologist’s view of history to argue that markets are brought into existence by the state, and particularly by an expansionist military state which wishes to force all social actors to be intermediaries in the war machine. By obliging everyone to accept state currency a state-coinage-slavery complex is created. This dynamic drives the creation of slaves, which are, by definition, people ripped from all social context. The collision of market economies with social economies (which are about interaction as much as obtaining goods) creates a moral dilemma which we can trace written in the texts of all the ancient religions (you’ll have to read the book for details). The dominant modes of human relation in historical time have been three: exchange, hierarchy and communism (not in the Marxist sense). The dominion of the exchange mode, and its perversion into being primarily market exchange, reduces the primacy of the other modes in the models of liberal/market thinkers, and so our conception of our selves (individually and politically) is contaminated by contradictory notions of debt and ownership (again, you’ll have to read the book). Ultimately this finds expression in a vision of ourselves as separate from our own bodies, and in the foundational myth of economics in which we markets come into being de novo among an asocial but equal status collection of isolates who can begin to trade to satisfy their wants.

It’s an extremely rich book, which is also very disorganised in its arguments. I’m still digesting what I’ve read so this is a poor summary. Most importantly for me, and separate from the specifics of the argument, the anthropological and historical material does the job of expanding our conception of what we and our society could be.

Pro-tip: on the final pages (p384-387) Graeber offers his own summary of the thesis of the book.

Comments 4

  1. Josie wrote:

    I’ve just finished it, but I think that I may have to re-read it at a more leisurely pace to get half of it: I was rushing a bit because I want to get on with some other stuff. I listed some of the main points that I got out of it and they are below, some of which are just agreeing with your summary. Interested to hear if you agree with the others. Some of them are probably just me focussing on the ideas that particularly interest me.

    This, however, I don’t remember at all: “ultimately this finds expression in a vision of ourselves as separate from our own bodies” – where? Maybe I just ignored that bit as I found it unconvincing.

    1 The economists view of the origin of the market (barter) is a myth

    2 Many of the ways in which the market and the state are commonly seen to be in conflict are in fact historically intertwined. For example, taxes were used to create markets.

    3 Societies have cycled between systems based on hard money (in times of much war and slavery) and those based on credit (in times of reasonable trust and peace).

    4 (The stuff about how this influenced the birth of the major religions I didn’t really follow)

    5 Slavery has taken many different forms throughout times and places, and involved different beliefs about the enslaved. I didn’t quite get what he is saying about its relationship to debt.

    6 Debt has had the effect of creating moral norms that would be unacceptable in any other context, like the idea that people can have a monetary value.

    7 Oppression of women has arisen in various places as a defensive reaction against excessive marketisation of life

    8 Debt creates an unstable situation because it contains conflicting philosophical ideas. A lot of revolutions and insurrections throughout time have thus been about debt, and have succeeded in changing the debt relations, or gaining debt cancellation

    9 Debt is a social construct that plays particular roles in society, both noble and not, and as a moral institution it should be taken with a heavy pinch of salt.

    Posted 29 Nov 2012 at 10:32 am
  2. Josie wrote:

    Why has my comment come out so funny? The ends of the lines are missing

    Posted 29 Nov 2012 at 10:34 am
  3. tom wrote:

    Fixed! It was a really boring thing to do with a new wordpress plugin i was using

    Posted 29 Nov 2012 at 6:25 pm
  4. @tomstafford wrote:

    The but about the link between property law and Cartesian dualism is p207 (just before the end of chapter 8). Probably the bits relevant to cognitive science jumped out at me. There’s also a fascinating bit (p298) where he links the invention of coinage to the acceleration of symbolic reference

    Posted 30 Nov 2012 at 8:36 am

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