While the "national debt" has been the concern du jour of many economists, commentators and politicians, little attention is ever paid to the historical significance of debt.
For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors' children into slavery. By the same token, for the past five thousand years, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers; whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place.
Enter anthropologist David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (July, ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2), which uses these struggles to show that the history of debt is also a history of morality and culture.
In the throes of the recent economic crisis, with the very defining institutions of capitalism crumbling, surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that the country's banks should not be rescued—whatever the economic consequences—but that ordinary citizens stuck with bad mortgages should be bailed out. The notion of morality as a matter of paying one's debts runs deeper in the United States than in almost any other country.
Beginning with a sharp critique of economics (which since Adam Smith has erroneously argued that all human economies evolved out of barter), Graeber carefully shows that everything from the ancient work of law and religion to human notions like "guilt," "sin," and "redemption," are deeply influenced by ancients debates about credit and debt.
It is no accident that debt continues to fuel political debate, from the crippling debt crises that have gripped Greece and Ireland, to our own debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Debt, an incredibly captivating narrative spanning 5,000 years, puts these crises into their full context and illuminates one of the thorniest subjects in all of history.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Graeber teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, Lost People, and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire.
This talk was hosted by Boris Debic on behalf of the Authors@Google program.