David Graeber's Debt: My First 5,000 Words

In the final lines of his introduction to Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber writes that “[f]or a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions.” And as he put it in a guest post over at Savage Minds:

The aim of the book was to write the sort of book people don’t write any more: a big book, asking big questions, meant to be read widely and spark public debate…[T]he credit crisis —and near collapse of the global economy in 2008—afforded the perfect opportunity. In the wake of the disaster, it was as if suddenly, everyone wanted to start asking big questions again. Even The Economist, that bastion of neoliberal orthodoxy, was running cover headlines like “Capitalism: Was It A Good Idea?” (my italics)

Debt is a “big book,” in other words, because he wants to re-open a set of questions that had come to seem closed “for a very long time,” the questions of “what human beings and human society are or could be like—what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question.”

To be more specific, Graeber’s starting point is the Grand neoliberal orthodoxy that regards Debt as the worst possible thing, the argument, for example, that austerity measures like an end to state subsidies of public libraries in California are preferable to the moral crisis of going (deeper) into debt. This has been a bipartisan consensus that dominated the Anglo-American political and media discourse up to somewhere around the beginning of Occupy Wall Street, and which still dominates – perhaps a little more quietly, now – our political class’s actions. It may not be desirable to cut pensions or eliminate what used to be essential social services – goes the argument – but it’s better than going into debt.

This species of helplessness is particular to neoliberal policymaking, whose core ideological attribute is a cynical acceptance of (what is taken to be) “reality,” the declaration that There Is No Alternative, and the command that we must therefore be realistic, lie back, and resign ourselves to the inevitable. And in that precise sense, the very writing of Graeber’s big book – the very “bigness” of its ambitions – is a cognitive dissonance within this perspective, an attempt to argue that other possible answers and possibilities exist and are always available. It’s an invitation to read the world differently, to see different possiblities in the here and now, and to argue not only that “another world is possible,” as the slogan/cliché has it, but that other worlds are present.

It’s a hard book to review, though, because it’s doing several irreducibly different things at once (which I’ll try to lay out in as logical a fashion as I can manage). Despite the singularity of its title, Debt is more like James Frazer’s Golden Bough than one of those books on How Cod Explains History or whatever; it’s a dazzlingly syncretic, coherent, and multi-faceted effort to re-narrate virtually the entirety of human history, by starting from a concept and opening outward to include everything else. But it’s actually not even that big in an absolute sense; if you strip away the one hundred pages of endnotes (which actually tend to put it on the too-short side[1]) you’re left with just shy of 400 pages, a book that almost feels short and constrained as a result, since Graeber weaves together texts as apparently distinct as ancient Vedic scriptures and Sumerian temples with Nixon’s decision to float the dollar and urban legends about vaults of gold buried under the World Trade.

It will tell you something that Graeber is only halfway through the book when he gets us to 800 B.C.
If anything, the limitation of this big book is actually that it’s not big enough, that it gestures towards -- without fully including – so very much that is within the ken of its ambition. But the short version of this review, simply, is this: I can’t really picture a better book than this one with those ambitions. You should read this book, if you like reading books of this kind. It’s a really fucking good book.


Now, the long version. At the heart of the book is the revisionist argument that money did not spontaneously emerge to address a social need – the inefficiency of barter in facilitating humanity’s natural tendency to trade and commerce, as economists have been saying since Adam Smith – but was, rather, part of a calculated effort by state-societies to build markets for their own benefit, primarily to fund the war-machines they built around them.

If you want more on the historical argument, enjoy Graeber’s 6-part comment to a terrible article at the Ludwig von Mises institute; it was a little like that moment in Annie Hall when Marshall McLuhan shows up.
I won’t try to summarize the historical argument he makes on this point; I found it compelling but it’s way outside my pay-grade. Instead, it’s more important to see this as grounding for the moral argument he’s making, an effort to de-naturalize money as the fundamental, transparent arbiter of reality, and as such, as a substitute value-system for other measures of morality. If the heart of neoliberal doctrine is that a particular kind of economic reality is what must be and to which we must consign ourselves, then Graeber’s re-narration of how this economic reality was created – out of a dense field of historical alternatives which it subsequently tries to obscure and downplay – is an effort to make available, visible, and viable the intuitive morality of those alternatives, a standard by which we could judge what neoliberal orthodoxy sees as simple realism.

In fact, he argues that this second function of neoliberal doctrine – the obscuring of alternate but present possiblities – might be the real function of money itself, its ability to take the complex (even fundamentally contradictory and irreducibly ambiguous) relations of human social life and makes them seem simple, simple enough to be a vector for exploitation and violence. When we are merely “in someone’s debt,” there are a range of different ways we (and they) can behave about that, and a variety of different opportunities to re-negotiate or re-orient. When we owe someone a particular amount of money, on the other hand, it is suddenly incredibly easy and simple to apply violence (implicit or explicit) and moral force to demand payment.

After all, it is in the very nature of a question like “What do I owe my parents?” that there is not and can never be a final, numerically answer. It is a question that we re-visit and re-negotiate every minute we are with them; obligation and love form an endless Möbius strip, through which our complex interdependence on each other makes the idea of paying off that debt – and of thereby severing the relationship – a sort of bitter joke. Precisely because it is a non-monetary “debt,” its function is to be an unpayable and unbreakable bond, one whose dividends never end and one that could and will never default.

By contrast, Graeber argues that purely monetary debts – such as the $14k I owe in student debts to a variety of banks – legitimize violence and exploitation precisely because they take an otherwise irreducibly complex human relation and reductively simplify it into a number. When you quantify a debt with financial precision – and especially when you invest paying it off with profound moral gravity, making it a fundamental moral imperative – you take what was a human relationship of mutual imbrication and co-implication into a financial one based on a kind of moral dominance, and thereby subject the indebted party to the mechanisms of financial debt collection instead of the precepts of human morality. If my relationship to my parents was a financial one, then I could pay it off and be done with them (or they could forgive the debt and be done with me). Or (and here is where it gets interesting), they could present me with a bill, demand that I pay it, and throw me in jail if I failed to do so.

This is just a thought experiment, of course, but the point of it is to bring out and make explicit that contrast. While the perversity of paying off your debts to your parents hardly needs comment – or of them garnishing your wages to pay for the hospital costs of birthing you – it is just as unspeakably normal for our debts to banks to seem, always and forever, the first thing we need to honor and respect. Graeber argues that this contrast, and our failure to register it as such, demonstrate the conceptual constriction of possibility that has come to be built into the moral landscape of our present: it is because a quantifiable debt could be paid off, with numerical precision, that it can therefore be seen as an imperative to do so, and becomes a moral failing when it is not. More than that, it becomes not only a moral failing that is enforceable and punishable, but a moral reasoning which makes the violence of that constraint your own fault, your own choice: no one forced me to take on student debt, goes the reasoning; it was my own choice. And so, the violence of debt collection is just chickens coming to roost.

This is probably why our debt to our parents is such a conceptual limit point; in no sense can we be said to have “chosen” to be born.

Let us, then, look with new eyes at the fact that when a dictator takes out a loan from a Western bank – pledging as his surety the future revenues produced by the people who he uses men with guns to rule -- we can be utterly sure that long after he is dead and gone, that debt will live on. Banks will not only claim the right to be paid back, but the moral force of the world’s political and ruling classes will assent to the proposition that children unborn when their nation went into debt will somehow still be on hold as the debt’s guarantors. This will appear normal. This will not seem a monstrous perversity.


At this point, the story Graeber is telling opens up quite precipitously. Once this distinction doesn’t seem so natural – once we can notice and feel the strangeness of entire nations being born in debt, and subject to whatever violence is necessary to make them pay it – then we can start to do two things.

First, if “debt” doesn’t seem simple and quantifiable and reducible to numbers, some of the more irreducibly complex moral vocabularies that other human societies have used to think about the problem start to come into view. Another world isn’t just possible, but other worlds have happened, almost nothing but other worlds. And this is, I think, the richest and most engrossing part of the book (and to which I must, by necessity, give shortest shrift), Graeber’s survey of the vast anthropological record which is available to us, but so often unread, describing or at least suggesting how different human societies have considered these questions, human societies who did not believe that paying one’s debts or facing the consequences was the very highest of moral imperatives.

Secondly, Graeber simultaneously picks away at the assumption that this is even what we believe. When Haitian slaves emancipated themselves by force, and then agreed to pay France an absolutely enormous sum of money in compensation for “lost property” ($18 billion in today’s dollars) – doing so at the gun-point of an international embargo and with the consequence that Haiti has always and ever since been a watchword for irredeemable poverty – does this look like justice to us? Would we really say, openly, that this was a defensible thing?

Most of the time, Graeber argues, we don’t really behave like capitalists, or at least not like “rational actors” (as economic rationality describes how reasonable people should act). Nor do we really think that an indebted child should starve to death because a bank owns a portion of her country’s debt. Most of the time, our moral reasoning is both much more cognizant of ambiguity and complexity – as in our relationships with parents, friends, co-workers, peers, the entire range of people we actually know – and much more concerned with a kind of morality that is not, actually, about maximizing personal profit. Instead, we tend to recognize that being nice to people we share the world with is a much better way to get along with them. We don’t live by the golden rule because it’s a rule; rather, we actually recognize – through a deep and intuitive ability to empathize with others, to see ourselves in their place – that shit like that is fucked up and bullshit. It offends a sense of justice that is, we might suddenly realize, fundamentally at odds with the common sense that you have to pay your debts. After all, when you put it like that, who would argue that it is moral and just that some people are born into indebted penury – doomed to starve and die young – while others are born creditors, born to run for president?

The question quickly becomes, then, why don’t we put it like that? Why is it that the world will enforce the debt borne by unborn children in [insert name of nation which was colonized and subjugated and impoverished within living memory here], while still believing, on some level, that we are all born equal?

When Graeber puts it most simply, he argues that to even ask this question – why the wretched of the earth are and remain in lifetime debt to the strongest, richest, and most powerful – is both to beg the question and answer it. Debts become collectible – become so morally odious that violence can be used to enforce their collection – when men with guns enter the picture to collect them, and when the existence of violent force rearranges the moral universe around its own imperatives. It’s that simple. So the question, then, is how did that happen, how did that moral simplification happen such that we would all become such unreflexive moral simpletons?


This question brings us back to why it’s so important for Graeber to dispense with the just-so story that we find at the prologue of many an economics textbook, what Graeber names the “Myth of Barter” (and why Ecoomics wants so badly to hold onto it). Originating with Adam Smith, the argument is that humanity needed to invent money because it was so inconvenient to do all our shopping by exchanging whatever we happened to have for whatever people around us happened to have. If your neighbor is a weaver, and you raise pigs, it’s going to be difficult to do any kind of economic transaction that doesn’t involve trading pigs for cloth – goes the story – so people created forms of currency to better enable themselves to trade and re-distribute the stockpile of goods that specialized artisans and producers suddenly find themselves over-producing. What if I want cloth but my neighbor doesn’t want pigs? What if the people who want pigs have nothing that I want? And what if you want an iPad, for god’s sake?

In Adam Smith’s account, money is therefore guided into existence by an invisible hand of necessity and human nature: one particular commodity will begin to rise above all the others – Gold, eventually, but substitutes are possible – and will eventually begin to be desirable not only because of its own intrinisic use-value, but because of its value relative to all the other commodities for which it can be exchanged. To the extent, therefore, that everybody else wants that commodity, it will begin to serve as the master-commodity, exchangeable for everything, and will then take on a very particular role as universal currency, the lubricant for humanity’s natural propensity to trade and exchange.

Graeber is only the latest anthropologist to point out that this story is pure wish-fulfillment, that no such pure-barter society has ever existed, and that we have a deep and rich historical record of what people actually did in non-money economies: go into each other’s debt. And it makes a simple kind of sense. In rural communities where people live side by side for their entire lives -- working and eating and trading together, as they have for the majority of human history – people begin to depend on each other, rely on each other, even enjoy each others’ company. They begin to act like neighbors rather than competitors; they begin to worry about maintaining their status and well-being in a community whose status and well-being suddenly also becomes, as a result, a matter of their own self-interest; and they begin to think of human relations as a thing to be fostered for mutual benefit and long-term stability (rather than plundered and exploited for personal enrishment). They begin to give away whatever their neighbor needs when their neighbor needs it, secure in the knowledge that the debt will be repaid; eventually you will need my pigs and eventully I will need your cloth. So why bother to bother about trading them at the same time?

In fact, people only stopped thinking this way when they started living in cities, among nations of strangers, and when the kind of mostly self-sufficient households of non-specialist agriculturalists – which, again, is what most people have done throughout most of human history – is no longer viable as a way of life. When you have to desperately scrabble to get by, by selling as many pigs as possible for just enough money to pay off the landlord, or school fees, or taxes, do you stop thinking of your neighbor as the woman who you’ve known since forever (and expect to know for the rest of your life, and maybe marry off your kids to her kids), and instead you start thinking of her as the person who might buy some of your pigs, or might give you a good deal on cloth. When you need to make money off your neighbors, just to get by, you stop offering them unlimited credit (and stop asking for it); instead of helping each other out because you can, you demand cash because you must.

In other words, Smith’s vision of a human nature in which we are all petty capitalists -- “a nation of shopkeepers” -- reflected the sensibility of his intellectual moment, and of his place in it, a moment in which political economists like Smith were attempting to explain to everyone else how an industrial capitalist order was the way we were designed to live, by the invisible hand of God, and how the only possible alternative – “because who would want to live by barter? – was completely terrible. They ignored all the actual alternatives – all the ways people actually lived – and read the story of the present they were creating back into the past they were trying to forget.

Graeber’s intervention, therefore, is to go back to the sorts of things people actually do in societies where this process has not yet happpened, to explore the ways people behave towards other people and commodities when they aren’t desperately in need of making money. In what he calls “human economies,” for example – using rich ethnographic detail of non-capitalist African communities – people are less concerned with acquiring money (and consumer products) and more concerned with establishing stability and security of for themselves and for their children. As a result of this difference, people’s priorities will be reversed: instead of using your connections to get ahead in business – getting a better deal on pig-feed because you went to school with the distributor – your economic activities will be simply a means of raising your status among your peers and community, or of marking the fact that you have risen: the more cloth you acquire (or pigs you raise), the more you will redistribute that cloth and pork back into the community around you, effectively (and sometimes literally) trading wealth for status.

But while all this might seem exotic, the real thrust of the argument is that it isn’t: Graeber is not a primitivist arguing that we need to Retreat from Civilization into African Communalism or something, but that, quite explicitly, we already live most of our lives in a moral order that takes “to each according to their need, from each according to their means” as a basic and unspoken given. When we are with our friends and family and those to whom we feel some sort of connection, we mediate that connection by refusing to define down our relationship to strict monetary value, refusing to exploit our connections for strictly monetary gain. We buy the next round, because it brings us closer; we "lend" a friend our car because they are our friend, and all the more so for the un-quantifiable, non-monetary debt which is thereby created. Even with strangers, as Graeber observes, we are strikingly generous, far more generous that an Economics treatise could ever admit. We share, both because it makes us feel good (and makes good, practical sense) to share with people we share a world with. And we already know it. And it works.


In one sense, Graeber’s book is an academic workof anthropological history. Or, rather, it is the argument that anthropological study – rather than fables inherited from Adam Smith – is the best way to understand economic history, and to answer questions about the origin of money and markets and about the moral status of debts. But, of course, that’s only the academic debate he’s engaging in. As the point from which I started made clear, Graeber means this book to engage in much more practical political issues, the question of what it is that we’re supposed to do to respond to the apparently endless permanent crisis of the present.

So let’s ask more explicitly the question Graeber began by begging: was 2008 really the perfect opportunity to go back to first principles? Were we ready to ask things like “What is money, anyway? Debt? Society? The market?”

Obviously, it depends on what you mean by “we.” The Economist clearly hasn’t wanted to ask those questions too seriously, and if you’ll recall, the credit crisis was followed up in the United States by a bipartisan crusade to reduce the national debt, further reinforcing the sanctity of debt as a fundamental moral category of political life. No, to the extent that “the discourse has changed,” it’s been because the unprecedented mobilizations of 2011 -- from the Arab Revolutions to Occupy Wall Street – have suddenly opened questions that our political class had long considered irrevocably closed and answered. As it becomes clear that things are “kicking off everywhere” – that the crisis of the present is not only global and systemic, but is producing unprecedented levels of political mobilization in response – a book like this one suddenly becomes plausible. It suddenly becomes unsurprising for Graeber to be addressing the Occupy Oakland general assembly the evening of their failed building occupation, barely a week ago.

But it wasn’t Graeber’s book that gathered those people in Occupy Oakland’s Oscar Grant plaza; it was those people that brought David Graeber in to speak to them. By the same token, while Graeber’s personal connection to the Occupy movement is almost impossible to avoid, it’s important to remember that to the extent that people are talking about Graeber’s book, it’s because of OWS, not the reverse.

If this is an obvious point, forgive me; I make it again because the first line of the New York Times’ review of his book observes that “David Graeber has a strong claim to being the house theorist of Occupy Wall Street,” and you find this sort of statement being made all over the place. Some people attribute the coining of the “We are the 99%” formulation to him, and since Graeber was involved with Occupy Wall Street since the beginning, he sometimes seems to be a kind of spokesperson for the movement’s “anarchist roots.”

But what would it mean to say that an anarchist (or at least radically horizontal) movement has “roots,” a spokesperson, or a house theorist? Can a slogan like “We are the 99%” have a person who “coined” it? With a tiny bit of effort one finds that Graeber himself not only avoids such claims but is quick to disavow them; instead, the attribution of personal prominance tends to be made on his behalf, by institutions like the New York Times or in Bloomberg Businessweek (God help us). This should give us pause. What, after all, could it mean for Graeber to be able to claim that privilege, that position, that prominence? What does the movement owe him, the person who “coined” their slogan? How would he claim it? And why is it claimed for him, on his behalf?

Words like “claim” and “coin” are not innocent, and the power of Graeber’s book is that I can’t, now, read a phrase like “David Graeber has a strong claim” (or use a phrase like “coined the slogan”) without feeling the need to think more carefully about the deep logic of those terms. A “claim,” as he shows in excruciating etymological detail, is literally the token that proves you to be a creditor, that proves someone or someone else to be in your debt: having given tht other person a loan, a gift, or a reprieve, a “claim” is the physical manifestation and residue of that person’s promise to recipricate. More than that, it’s the means of forcing or at least coercing them to do so, and of legitimizing that force. Behind a “claim” is the social force (and threat of violence) that enables you to force payment. To talk about “claims” is to talk about power.

The claim being made on Graeber’s behalf, then, is not so dissimilar from the argument that occupy protesters must come up with some demands, must impose some discipline on their movement, must do x, y, or z to be taken seriously. It reflects a deep uneasiness with what these protests have been, and a consequential desire that they take a more recognizable and familiar form by having leaders, programs of actions, and manifestos. For such structures would then describe conditions of the movement’s own non-existence, the moment when the claim would be paid off and the relationship would end: when Occupy Wall Street’s demands are met, they will go away; when their leaders recall the armies from the field, we can all get back to normal.

Now is not the time and place to get too deeply into this, but to think of these protests in these terms is to misunderstand them profoundly: if Occupy has anarchist “roots,” then the fundamental demand is never to go back to normal. And the point of such language, such framing, is precisely to misunderstand this fact; if we can place Graeber into the more familiar role of “house theorist,” then we can situate the Occupy movement within the broad field of anti-establishment movements that were eventually co-opted and normalized.

The closest Graeber ever comes to making a concrete proposal for action is on the second to last page, where he suggests that “we are long overdue for some kind of biblical style jubilee,” a suggestion I am sympathetic to, though I think we might need to look into overthrowing capitalism and class relations first.
It is in this sense that Graeber’s book is actually not a “big book” at all. It isn’t a history of human civilization or even a manifesto about economics, but rather a deconstruction of the terms through which we have learned to think about what human civilization, history, and society are and are supposed to be (which is to say, the language we use to make claims upon it). But his central “claim” is a disclaim, the argument that the force of obligation history has always seemed to have imposed upon us -- to behave a particular way, for example, because it is “natural” to do so – is in fact a fiction backed up by nothing more than force and repetition, that what we take to be “normal” is exactly the problem. It is, in this sense, a negation without demands. Much like, one might observe, Occupy Wall Street itself?

As such, this is actually a book that becomes more and more inadequate the more and more successfully it accomplishes its goals; rather than making a “claim” for what is, or for what should be, or what has been, the real work of the book seems to me to have been to undercut the grounds on which we might make such claims, attempting to show the kinds of assumptions that might make those claims irrelevent, absent of force. As a result, at the end of reading it, I feel like Graeber has marched me through a hallway filled with doors I never even realized were closed, giving me a quick peek into each one, and then moved on to the next one. And now I want to go back and take another look.

[1]For example, to back up the statement “It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labor” on page 350, Graeber offers only that this point has been “demonstrated in great detail in an important book by Yann Moulier-Boutang (1997), which unfortunately has never been translated into English.” A small thing, perhaps, but that’s the point: how does one make a claim like that – which, to be clear, I’m utterly sympathetic to – and then footnote it so simply, so briefly? It’s not so much a scholarly failure as an index of the incredible stress of the author’s ambition on the book that strains, not always successfully, to carry it out.