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DEBT

David Graeber

Subtitle: The First 5,-000 Years, Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn NY., 2011, 534 pgs., index, bibliography, notes

 
 

Reviewer comment: Dr. Deidre McCloskey provides an excellent summary of Dr. Graeber's thought on page 432-3 of Bourgeois Equality. She complains that - "He is 'grumbling that 'arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong. His sole intellectual tool is Amos-like indignation against sellers and bosses and owners and creditors. He does not notice that the poor buyers and employees and renters and debtors also gain from such transactions, which after-all are under taken by mutual consent. And on the matter of loans Graeber does not notice the obvious economic logic that if we forthwith cancel all debts, as he repeatedly advises, no creditor will ever lend again."

All possibly true analysis in her context. But Graber shows examples from even prehistoric tribal communities that debtors are NOT in debt due to 'mutual consent, but by various social conventions or even force. And he is thinking of debt as a broader concept than as the result of market exchanges as one can see from his first chapters. But Graeber does provide useful information about the real nature of money, currency and credit. He is especially strong in his discussions of primitive and ancient societies, not surprising since he is an anthropologist. In my opinion he devotes rather more space than necessary (about 6 or 7 chapters) to primitive societies, but he wants to show the deeply entrenched basis for the social concept of debt rather than only the modern concept of debt generated in markets. He is possibly almost an anarchist, at least in his views on government, again not totally wrong. His opinion on this is based on a highly moral view that debt is intrinsicly wrong.
I consider his book one of the most important references on the real nature of money - that it has been based on credit at least as much as on monetary currency. His historical account is a powerful refutation to the idea that somehow gold has been always a reliable 'standard of value'.
As for debt cancelation, I belive he is focused on the ancient use of a 'jubilee' year, in which debts were canceled. We are reading more advocacy for that recently among the several ideas being promoted to solve the continual and massive debt problem of welfare states.

 
 

Introduction

 
 

Chapter 1 - On the Experience of Moral Confusion

 
 

Chapter 2 - The Myth of Barter -

This is one of Graeber's most significant corrections to standard economic theory. Adam Smith wrote that prior to the invention of coinage societies conducted market exchange by barter. Of course in Smith's time no one knew what ancient societies did. Graber, as an anthropologist shows this idea is a myth. We need to distinguish between internal social exchange of goods and services and external exchanges between individuals from two entirely different societies. Smith and his conemporaries observed that trade between, for instance Europeans and American Indians amounted to barter exchange of manufactured goods (such as metal ware) and beaver pelts. This was due to the absence of any recognized form of mutually acceptable money. But so many economists today continue to write elaborate descriptions of the difficulties ancient societies went through trying to exchange their goods within a social group by impossible barter methods which they claim led to the creation of coinage.

 
 

Chapter 3 - Primordial Debts

 
 

Chapter 4 - Cruelty and Redemption

 
 

Chapter 5 - A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations

 
 

Chapter 6 - Games with Sex and Death

 
 

Chapter 7 - Honor and Degradation, or, On the Foundations of Contemporary Civilization

 
 

Chapter 8 - Credit Versus Bullion, And the Cycles of History

 
 

Chapter 9 - The Axial Age (800 BC - 600 AD)

 
 

Chapter 10 - The Middle Ages (600 AD - 1450 AD)

 
 

Chapter 11 - Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450 - 1970)

 
 

Chapter 12 - (1971 - The Beginning of Something yet to Be Determined)

 

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