Debt: the First 5000 Years – a new book about an old problem

From David Graeber, the author:


Hello, friendly strangers, I’m delighted to announce my new book….




is finally, finally out!

This is a work of scholarship, and politically engaged, but it’s also an attempt to break out of the usual academic and activist ghettoes, and I wrote it that way because I think that there’s a conversation we need to be having, not just nationally but also globally, that we began to have for a few months after the financial crash of 2008, and which has, since, been indefinitely postponed.

We seem to be hanging in this bizarre state of suspension, where most people understand that everything we thought we knew about money, markets, debts, and the role of government is no longer true and probably never was, yet there is a kind of taboo over discussing any better ways to think about them.

What better moment, it seems to me, than to start reexamining the historical record and to put our situation in a larger – much, much larger – context. So that’s what I did. A few examples of what I turned up (much of which, I must admit, surprised even me):

  • that virtual money is nothing new – in fact it is the original form of money
  • that the first word for “freedom” recorded in any human language is a Sumerian word for debt relief
  • that our current core conceptions of freedom and rights trace back to Roman slave law
  • that most rebellions, insurrections, and revolutions in world history have been over issues of debt
  • that rather than markets and states being in some way opposed principles, markets – particularly ones that operated on cash instead of credit – largely emerged as the side-effect of military operations, and through most of history were maintained through government policy
  • that contemporary free market ideology (and in fact many of Adam Smith’s specific phrases and examples, such as the pin factory) is derived from Medieval Islam
  • we have every reason to believe that, as we now enter a new phase of virtual money, there will be major structural changes in the very idea of what an economy is and what it’s for that determine what global society will be like for at least the next five hundred years

Economic history states that money replaced a bartering system, yet there isn’t any evidence to support this axiom. Anthropologist Graeber presents a stunning reversal of this conventional wisdom. For more than 5,000 years humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods. Since the beginning of the agrarian empires, humans have been divided into debtors and creditors. Through time, virtual credit money was replaced by gold and the system as a whole went into decline. This fascinating history is told for the first time.

“…I thought we were an autonomous collective…”

3 responses to “Debt: the First 5000 Years – a new book about an old problem

  1. This looks like an excellent book, I never knew that the first word for freedom was associated with debt, very interesting.

  2. Revolution Harry

    This is slightly off topic but I think this e-petition may be worth supporting.

  3. Roman Slave law? It’s intriguing that many of our fundamental freedoms seem to stem from the most unlikely sources.

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