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“Debt: The First 5000 Years” by David Rolfe Graeber

In his recent, brilliant history Debt: the First 5,000 Years, the anthropologist David Graeber calls for a modern-day debt jubilee, a cancellation of all debts, just as they had in Mesopotamia. His suggestion is provocative, but it should be taken seriously. Because the longer we keep protecting the haves over the have-nots and honouring the past while destroying the future, the worse this debt crisis will get.

David Graeber maps out the history of debt from ancient civilisations to current times, suggesting it has been one of the great catalysts for social and political strife throughout.

Debt: The First 5000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber — Reviews

Review of David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

Anarchist Anthropology

It’s time to cancel unpayable old debts

David Rolfe Graeber (born 12 February 1961) is an American anthropologist, author, anarchist and activist who is currently Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics.

Specialising in theories of value and social theory, he was an assistant professor and associate professor of anthropology at Yale University from 1998 to 2007, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him. From Yale, he went on to become a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London from Fall 2007 to Summer 2013.

Graeber has been involved in social and political activism, including the protests against the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City in 2001 and the World Economic Forum in New York City in 2002. David also played a role in the Global Justice Movement and was one of the earlier organisers of Occupy Wall Street. He is the author of numerous books including The Democracy Project, and Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011).

Debt: The First 5000 Years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. It is a wide-ranging book, exploring debt’s relationship with money, cash, barter, community, marriage, friendship, vassalage, slavery, morality, honor, law, philosophy, commerce, religion, greed, charity, violence, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society.

It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer in 3000 BC until the present. It explores how debt has changed and been changed by the people and societies which have used it.

A major argument of the book is that when the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts, widespread impoverishment and violence are common results which only a few societies have managed to escape.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is likely the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.

Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy.

This book documents Graeber’s argument that as far back as we can see in the historical and archeological record, people with power have often established rules to benefit them and impoverish and enslave everyone else. This trend has been occasionally interrupted when slaves or peons rebelled, often killing the existing elites.

To reduce the risks of rebellion, a Jubilee, the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), would be declared. This would cancel all debts but maintain most of the power and social status of existing elites.

Graeber insists that gift economies preceded barter and money, contrary to the popular claims of economists. Gifts incur debts, whose enforcement sometimes led to slavery, which occasionally led to rebellions.

He concludes that, “since Hammurabi, great imperial states have invariably resisted [Jubilees]. Athens and Rome established the paradigm: even when confronted with continual debt crises, they insisted on legislating around the edges, softening the impact, eliminating obvious abuses like debt slavery … but [never] allow a challenge to the principle of debt itself.

The governing classes of the United States seem to have taken a remarkably similar approach: eliminating the worst abuses (e.g., debtors’ prison), … but never allowing anyone to question the sacred principle that we must all pay our debts.

[But] the principle has been exposed as a flagrant lie. … [W]e don’t “all” have to pay our debts. … A debt is just the perversion of a promise … corrupted by both math and violence. … [N]o one has the right to tell us our true value, no one has the right to tell us what we truly owe.”

Debt: The First 5000 Years

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