Debt: The First 5,000 Years

The First 5,000 Years

Hardcover, 534 pages

English language

Published Aug. 23, 2011 by Melville House.

ISBN:
9781933633862
OCLC Number:
426794447
Goodreads:
6617037

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4 stars (45 reviews)

The author shows that before there was money, there was debt. For 5,000 years humans have lived in societies divided into debtors and creditors. For 5,000 years debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates, laws and religions. The words “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption” come from ancient debates about debt. These terms and the ideas of debt shape our most basic ideas of right and wrong.

21 editions

How we got here and why we're stuck

5 stars

I read Debt right after The Dawn of Everything (also by Graeber), and my opinion of these two books is closely interlinked. The combination is an extensive unwinding of the sort of economic and social history I learned in school. I've had to re-imagine the ways that humanity developed our relationship with agriculture, with technology, and with the interplay of social obligations which we now categorize as money and economics.

The core insight and question isn't any of those individual revelations. What Graeber is trying to get you to think about is the stickiness of contemporary social relationships & structures, and the ways that we have lost the ability to imagine the possibility of change. No economic or political system has ever been as committed as ours is to narrowing the realms of the possible and foreclosing the ability to imagine other ways of organizing society. Historically, social dynamics have …

Review of 'Debt' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

Definitely worth the read. Gets a bit too chatty at times, could use a slightly tighter structure, but the contents is great, and there is a lot of food for thought. The language is accessible and I probably didn't understand every point he made but just the many examples he gives themselves draw a picture of what "money" and economics is, what its roots are, how it shapes not only our economy but also our culture and social relations, and the most important parts: There's nothing God-given about this and things can be different.

Violence ends in Debt

5 stars

David Graeber is a master of taking a familiar idea, then leaving it precisely where it is, and moving you as a reader around it to see it from unexpected angles. In Debt he does this masterfully. Beginning with a critique of the moralistic perspective of debt ("one should pay one's debts"), followed with a sharp denial of a common claim by most modern economists (that barter preceded money), Graeber lays into five thousand years of economic history via meticulous research and his own brand of coy, enjoyable writing.

From an anthropological analysis of contemporary societies to a historical analysis that thankfully takes in European and non-European views, the book is appreciably ambitious. It seamlessly links debt and contemporary economics to war, plunder and violence, something that has been long discussed but rarely so eloquently. It is also not without its flaws or a few broad claims, but Graeber's way …

Review of 'Debt' on 'GoodReads'

3 stars

Debt is an anthropologist's take on the history of money, debt, and political economy. The book is largely an attack on many of the assumptions mainstream economists make about human nature and human history. Foremost among those false assumptions is what Graeber calls the Myth of Barter - the idea that prior to money, trade happened only through barter. Graeber, like others before him, points out that a society or economy organized around barter has never existed. Instead, the earliest human societies organized trade around centralized communal distribution or (much more commonly) credits and debts, often elaborately measured and recorded.

Graeber then re-tells 5,000 years of economic history, arguing that history can be seen as a cycle between debt-based and money-based societies. He explains that the first money-based societies were largely an outgrowth of imperialism, war finance, and slavery. The general idea is that imperial states began to raise professional …

Review of 'Debt: The First 5,000 Years' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

A thoughtful dive into the history of currency, what we all owe each other, and the philosophies of equality and merit we take for granted underpinning everything. Ultimately, Graeber critiques capitalism without suggesting any quick fixes.

He ascribes a considerable amount of intentionality and architecting to our current system, and his historical storytelling sometimes invisibly transitions into factually unsubstantiated musing, but his ideas are gristle for thought, and good leads into more reading on the philosophy of value.

Review of 'Debt: The First 5,000 Years' on 'Goodreads'

5 stars

Very thought-provoking read. The destruction of the Myth of Barter, and the spanking of the field of Economics for perpetuating it, is the obvious centerpiece for this book. In addition to that, I have to say the de-linking of "the market" and "Capitalism" was another big blow for me. It is obvious to me now that these two are not the same, but Graeber does an excellent job demolishing the foundations of received wisdom.

I will likely read this book again at some point, next time in text, not only to highlight some of the excellent lines, but also to try and grasp his judgement on credit. Though he denounces debt and ridicules coinage, he seems to be okay with credit, at least in its traditional "honourable" sense. Certainly he highlights the predatory, but I think I missed his final stance in the audio.

Review of 'Debt' on 'Goodreads'

3 stars

It was a very interesting and informative read, but a somewhat verbose one as well. You don't really have any choice but to read it slowly so you can be sure to take in everything he is saying. He does build to a very interesting theory in the last couple chapters which makes you really think about what is going on in today's society and how we might not, in fact, be so different from our ancient ancestors.

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Subjects

  • Business & Investing -- Economics -- Economic History
  • Business & Investing -- Economics -- Money & Monetary Policy
  • History -- Historical Study -- Social History
  • History -- World

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