Debt: The First 5000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a book by anthropologist David Graeber published in 2011. It explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer in 3500 BC until the present.
A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of "human economies" is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.
A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.
Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, "markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence", though he goes on to show how "in the absence of such violence, they...can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy".Reception to the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber's sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt.
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