Debt by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 Years BY David Graeber. Melville House. Hardcover, 544 pages. $32.
The cover of Debt: The First 5,000 Years

David Graeber has been much praised of late as a prophet of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and even if one doesn’t want to go that far, his book is remarkably timely. I received my review copy the day of the October 5th NYPD pepper-spray incident in Zuccotti Park. By the time I finished reading it, copycat occupations had sprung up in my adoptive home city (Montreal), my native city (Sacramento), and spots around the world. Graeber's book shows that mass movements that result in debt cancellation—whether through revolution or amnesty—are inevitable, and suggests that we may be entering such a period now. We may also be entering a moment in which the philosophical and cosmic nature of debt finally becomes apparent.

Debt’s striking synchronicity with OWS should not overshadow the fact that it’s also a formidable piece of anthropological scholarship. The book spans the concept’s evolution from the great Axial Age civilizations—adapting Karl Jaspers's label to describe the period between 800 BCE and 600 CE in Greece, India, and China—into the age of global conquest, and finally though its bizarre mutations over the past forty years. As Graeber shows, debt could not have taken the form that it did during the Axial Age without the appearance of currency, but it was also far from being only, or even principally, an economic matter. Debt was originally a moral and cosmological notion, about our debt to the gods (in India), to our parents (in China), or to the cosmos (in Greece, and sometimes in India).

To support this claim, Graeber argues that the expansionist wars of the Axial period were motivated largely by the need to find new sources of precious metals to plunder; a development that came at around the same time as the innovation of coinage systems and the rise of a new professionalized soldier class. All this spurred a new sort of debt: the kind that could be abstracted from goods. This, in turn, motivated reflection on humanity's place in the world, and gave rise to what we know today as the great Axial Age religious and philosophical traditions: particularly Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Greek philosophical rationalism. Underpinning all this was the question of how debt should be paid, or whether it can be paid at all.

The guiding principle of Graeber’s sweeping global history is that debt must not remain the exclusive property of economic historians, and moreover, that anthropologists are better equipped to take on the issue. The foundational myth on which economics rests, and which Graeber relishes debunking, is the “touchingly utopian” idea that money emerged directly out of primitive barter systems and had only to do with interest-maximizing exchange. Arguing against this from an anthropological perspective, Graeber claims that debt is the basis of society, and as such is inherently ineliminable. He illustrates this point through the example of debt to one’s parents: to seek to cancel that debt would be impossible. Graeber describes a system of gift-giving in traditional societies that takes place over time, and involves gifts of slightly more or less value than the ones that preceded them, thus ensuring that everyone is always slightly in debt or in credit to everyone else. This sort of debt, he says, is nothing less than the continual creation of society. It is not so much that we owe something to society, but that society "just is our debts."

This good, society-constituting debt, as opposed to the society-destroying kind the Occupiers are speaking out against, is sustained by what Graeber calls “human economies,” where money "acts primarily as a social currency, to create, maintain, or sever relations between people rather than to purchase things." Graeber makes no secret of his affection for these sorts of economies, nor of his skepticism for what came after it: religion, morality, politics, and the criminal-justice system, all of which might be seen "as so many different fraudulent ways to presume to calculate what cannot be calculated, to claim the authority to tell us how some aspect of that unlimited debt ought to be repaid." Curiously, then, the bad debt seems to emerge only when it is conceived of as something that can be paid in full. If it can be paid, then the claim that debt exists in the first place is a fraudulent one—as when the IMF demands repayment from impoverished Third World countries—and should accordingly be cancelled. By contrast, real human debts, should never be paid or cancelled.

Given his anarchist orientation, Graeber is especially interested in cases where these kinds of human economy live on despite state efforts to impose new values and desires, and by extension, new forms of debt (where people act 'as if they are already free'). One of Graeber's most charming anecdotes (and there are many) tells of the French colonial efforts to get the newly subjugated Malagasy people addicted to imported luxuries, laying the foundations "of a consumer demand that would endure long after the conquerors had left, and keep Madagascar forever tied to France." Graeber reports that many locals understood the ruse, and resisted simply by preserving a human economy that kept them more or less autonomous in spite of their political domination: "More than sixty years after the invasion... inhabitants would dutifully show up at the coffee plantations to earn the money for their poll tax, and then, having paid it, studiously ignore the wares for sale at the local shops and instead turn over any remaining money to lineage elders, who would then use it to buy cattle for sacrifice to their ancestors."

Graeber admires hold-outs like these, people who participate in the capitalist system because they have to, but at the same time resist full integration. He believes that we can learn from them, and that at a moment when capitalism seems unsustainable, the great hope for the future is to turn back to traditional human economies of mutual, loving indebtedness. For Graeber, capitalism is as much a fantasy as any utopian option: "We could no more have a universal world market," he writes, "than we could have a system in which everyone who wasn't a capitalist was somehow able to become a respectable, regularly paid wage laborer with access to adequate dental care. A world like that has never existed and never could exist. What's more, the moment that even the prospect that this might happen begins to materialize, the whole system starts to come apart."

What new modes of living might become thinkable if the system does come apart? For guidance, Graeber suggests that we focus on the non-industrious poor, who he believes “might just be the "pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one's penchant for self-destruction." In tracing the genealogy of the noxious form of debt that we are familiar with today and contrasting it against an ancient, society-grounding conception of human indebtedness, Graeber has given us a significant piece of historical scholarship, one that demonstrates how a new understanding of debt might provide us with some clues for the future.

Justin E. H. Smith is associate professor of philosophy at Concordia University in Montreal, and is an editor-at-large of Cabinet Magazine.