DEBT: The First 5,000 Years

April 23rd, 2013   Submitted by Davi Barker

David Graeber is an anarchist author who teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His book, “DEBT: The First 5,000 Years” takes an anthropological approach to the history of debt, not just who owed what to who, but how debt was used and what it meant in various cultures. David gave this talk as part of the Authors@Google program. It’s a long view, but utterly fascinating. I was especially astounded to hear him claim that there is no historical basis for barter economies, and in fact recording debt was the common means of transacting without currency. This video is chalked full of startling information, that was at least new to me. Enjoy!

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23 Responses to “DEBT: The First 5,000 Years”

    • Davi BarkerNo Gravatar says:

      Thank you for that. You’ll notice I said “astounded to hear him claim that” Not “astounded there is no historical basis for.” It’s a really interesting claim, but I wasn’t ready to swallow it exactly.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      That was an interesting article by Murphy. I like the fact that he admits that Menger’s “account of the origin of money is largely a form of armchair reasoning.”

      I haven’t watched this video yet, but what I will say is that while Menger has used logic and reason to figure out what should have happened way back when, perhaps he missed the fact that people were also stupid as shit back then, too.

      I mean, look at how economically ignorant the masses are today. Things that free-market anarchists take for granted like supply and demand, the broken window fallacy, etc. are totally and completely beyond the comprehension of the average dolt. It’s why we have so much poverty today.

      So, do you think the average dolt was any more intelligent several thousand years ago? Sure, it may have made SENSE to barter and then discover whatever acted best as money, but I’m willing to believe that the average dolt wasn’t using a whole lotta sense back then.

      So, without having seen this video yet, I’m totally willing to accept that ancestral man did shit bass ackwards.

      • MAMNo Gravatar says:

        I think it would be fairly easy to argue that modern man does shit ass backwards too.

      • I never understood praxeology to be concerned with human “intelligence,” only human action. You see currencies develop among criminals in prison, or among kids with halloween candy (Tucker). I’m sure there’s a wide range of intelligences there.

        • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

          There is a connection between human action and human intelligence because some human actions are a reult of human intelligence. Thus in that context a case can perhaps be made that praxeology is concerned with human intelligence. People do at least sometimes make intelligent decisions.


  1. MAMNo Gravatar says:

    Honestly I’m hesitating on watching the video because the “libertarian” “anarchist” communists over on loved this guy’s book. If you want to read it they have it over there in their library. It’s free.

  2. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    I have not watched the video ans I will reserve judgement until I watch it because how the Hell can I judge it without seeing it? I will say this, the credit system was used to transact business between colonies and the people in the nation that claimed the colony. In colonial America people who traded with England and England was the only country they could legally trade with, Americans did not get paid in cash money. They traded goods for goods. An example of this is a tabacco farmer ships tabacco to England and his agent in England finds a buyer who pays 20 pounds for it. The agent is paid his fee in money from the buyer. Say in this case 2 pounds. The buyer puts on his books that he owed the American farmer 18 pounds. The farmer when he needs something like a suit of clothes writes to his agent and tells him to inform the buyer who owes him to have a suit made for him(of course he would mention his measurements and material etc…) and have it shipped to him. Say it cost 14 pounds including shipping. Then the buyer still owes him 4 pounds whicj he can collect on something later. Btw, I don’t know if the amounts are realistic , I just made them up so don’t reply saying that in the 18th century a suit would cost more than that or tabacco would etc… Also I realize there is a cost of shipping. I was just using this as an example.


  3. Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

    I can believe Graeber’s theory of the origin of money, that money begins with “IOU” rather than “I have more corn than I’ll consume myself so I can exchange it for other stuff I need”. Graeber’s story is much simpler when you think about it, and his story rings true for other reasons.

    If the concept of personal possession exists, why wouldn’t people develop IOUs (if only in their heads) before developing commodity money? IOUs are possible before people have stores of highly salable goods (as Murphy describes it). The reverse is not true.

    An IOU permits more transactions in general. If you don’t have commodity money, I can’t exchange my good for your money, but I can always accept an IOU. This point is most significant in transactions between young people with no commodity money and old people who have spent a lifetime accumulating commodity money. Trade involving commodity money is inconceivable between these groups, yet this trade must always have been highly significant.

    As Kroptkin notes in “Mutual Aid” and many biologists since have confirmed, an innate impulse toward reciprocity exists outside of the human species, even between species, and this impulse leads naturally to IOUs as money in the human species.

  4. AncapBroNo Gravatar says:

    McGRUBER is a “left” anarchist which means he’s pretty much a statist.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      That sounds contradictory. How do you define a “left” anarchist? Would “Hippies” who lived in communes be “left” anarchists? Would anarchists of the past who lived in these anarchist communities be statists? ie Christiana in Denmark and others in the USA. Do you consider the anarchists who held Barcelona during the Spanish Revolution statists? By definition if one says that they are opposed to a state would that not define them as a non-statist?


  5. Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

    Murphy argues well enough that the absence of an anthropological record of a pure barter economy is evidence that money did not arise as Smith hypothesized, but he’s less persuasive when disputing Graeber’s hypothesis.

    Murphy writes, “Is Graeber suggesting that the authorities came up with the relative prices for all the goods in their economies, without having a single instance of people trading the goods against each other to see what their market values really were?”

    That Murphy poses this rhetorical question is telling, because Graeber never suggests such a thing, and he discusses other possibilities at length. Graeber’s story is that money develops as people do favors for one another, and the beneficiaries of favors return commensurate favors.

    “Commensurate” is the operative term here. Returning a commensurate favor requires some standard of value, and what Murphy supposes to be a commodity money preceding the measurement is this standard, but his assumption that prices must emerge in a system of commodity money rather than a system of IOU is baseless.

    So Graeber’s story goes like this. I give you a cow, so you owe me a commensurate favor. Later, I need chickens, but you don’t have chickens, so I ask you to return ten bushels of corn instead, knowing that I can exchange the corn for chickens. Prices of goods denominated in bushels of corn emerge in this way.

    I need not demand corn before giving you the cow for these prices to emerge. In fact, I need not ever receive corn from you. I can receive chickens from a mutual friend, and we can all agree that your debt to me then is transferred to the friend.

    We agree that you owe the mutual friend ten bushels of corn or something comparable, but you may never give him corn either. You give him whatever you both agree is commensurate when he wants you to return the favor.

    According to Graeber, both the anthropological record and observations of primitive tribes reveals this sort of tit-for-tat system of credit and does not reveal the commodity system that Murphy imagines.

    • Martin BrockNo Gravatar says:

      Correction: … the absence of an anthropological record of a pure barter economy is !not! evidence that money did not arise as Smith hypothesized …

      Too many negatives there. Money could have arisen as Smith imagined without leaving an anthropological record of a pure barter economy, but Graeber’s theory still rings true to me. Regardless of the history, I believe today that money as a unit of account, rather than a commodity with intrinsic value, makes sense and requires no central authority. Furthermore, history’s earliest, self-described “anarchists” advocated this sort of money.

  6. SleepySalsaNo Gravatar says:

    At the risk of sounding totally cynical, what exactly does Graeber’s book supposed to accomplish, exactly? I have read so many books within the alternative media that claim to offer “solutions” that were filled with so much horse manure as to be a complete waste of what precious time I have left on this earth. Could someone please tell me what makes Graeber’s book so different?

    Worse, if Graeber’s book does NOT offer a remedy for what ails me, then why would anyone bother peddling it? I don’t intend to backbite or demean anyone, but I don’t want potential recruits to think that the message of Liberty (as Molyneux correctly pointed out) is all about sending links to how bad the Fed is (or as Kokesh put it, “Government is bad! Statists are evil! And sheeple are stupid!”). That doesn’t set people free, so I have to ask, does Graeber’s book do that, and if not, does it at the very least expedite the process?

    On a more positive note, why not read up more about what is needed to enter into a state of nature, as the Founders understood it. Many readers of the Daily Anarchist already reject any sort of social contract (well, at least with this government, anyway), so why not broach the subject? The more expeditious individuals can be moved away from little ninny reformist measures toward that state of nature I would consider something resembling a real signpost toward securing our Liberties.

    • Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

      Have you watched the video yet? If not, don’t knock it ’till you tried it.

      Obviously Davi found some value in it, or else he wouldn’t have put it up.

      I think above all we should consider ourselves truth seekers. At least that’s what I consider myself. I’m in it for the truth. And so far the truth has landed me at market anarchism.

      If Graeber’s theory is true about how ancestral man conducted business, wouldn’t we want to know it? How does it serve our interest to believe in falsehoods? Perhaps Graeber doesn’t offer any moral to the story. Perhaps he’s just shedding light on truth. What’s wrong with that?

      I haven’t watched the video yet, but I intend to.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        Good for you. I also intend to watch it. What one should question regarding any statements or claims made by anyone is if the resourse(s) they base their statement(s) on is valid? Does the historical records lead to the conclusions the person making the statements make? Did the author have a preconceived belief and simply find pieces of evidence that could support his preconceived belief and ignore evidence that contradicts his belief?


  7. Seth KingNo Gravatar says:

    Just finished watching the video. It wasn’t bad. There were definitely nuggets of information in there that I learned and enjoyed. I don’t see why any market anarchists should feel threatened by this, really.

    • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

      I have not yet viewed it. I don’t care if a market anarchist feels threatened by it. I am interested in the truth. To not be interested in the truth is to be dogmatic like believers in religion who fear evidence that contradicts their belief.


  8. DavebNo Gravatar says:

    Graeber critized Murphy for not reading the book before writing the following article:

    Murphy read and reviewed Graeber’s book. Here it is: cie/

  9. VanmindNo Gravatar says:

    It’s called the positivist/dialectician misinterpretation of historical data.

    Go back a few steps, Mr. Graeber, and brush up on grammar, on the analogical and metaphorical interpretation of the physical and metaphysical world which dominated the scholarly pursuits of antiquity.

  10. Ed HamiltonNo Gravatar says:

    Fairly, this is “The public be suckered”, please consider it …

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