Debt (EBook, 2011, Melville House) 4 stars

The author shows that before there was money, there was debt. For 5,000 years humans …

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 been much more fluid, with a significantly greater ability for groups to deliberately redefine the parameters of their politics, or simply to walk away from situations which no longer serve their needs.

In this sense, I'm reminded of Le Guin's famous statement that:

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.”

In fact, Le Guin was underselling the case! The divine right of kings was a relatively short-lived novelty as a political system, which many people routinely walked away from, and which suffered umpteen disruptions and overthrows. Our contemporary political systems are at once more brittle than monarchy, and more intent and effective than any before seen at punishing defiance and making other systems seem impossible. I cannot imagine a society which aspires to total surveillance and imprisons so much of its population being anything less than terrified about the possibilities of change and people's ability to manifest that.

Truly an eye-opening pair of reads which I highly recommend.

I'm not saying that you necessarily need to arrange a book club organized around the principles in this and The Dawn of Everything. But if I were, I'd probably suggest combining these two Graeber treatises with some inspirational fiction which allows the mind to imagine the sorts of alternatives we could imagine.

  1. The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin focuses on a protagonist from a communist society, coming to visit a capitalist one. It very much paints a picture of how sensible and natural the protagonist's home, while using their astonishment at the bizarre rituals of capitalism to show just how strange our world is when you stop to contemplate it. And it is, of course, a ripping good yarn.
  2. Walkaway by Cory Doctorow tries to help the reader imagine a near future where it might be easy to just walk away from modern capitalism, and helps to shade in …