Now in audio, the updated and expanded edition: David Graeber's "fresh...fascinating...thought-provoking...and exceedingly timely" (Financial Times) history of debt.
Here, anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: He shows that before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.
Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like "guilt", "sin", and "redemption") derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.
"Controversial and thought-provoking, an excellent book." (Booklist)
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Transformative to the point of being revolutionary
As we grow up, even before we study economics as a formal discipline, we're given a series of "truths" about human interaction - first and foremost the depiction of a world without money as a barter economy, as well as the "natural" human inclination to act for self-advantage, and these serve as the baseline for our reasoning. Thus, reasonable people applying their intellects to questions of human interaction and morality reach conclusions that can be supported by the underlying assumptions.
What David Graeber shows us in "Debt" is that virtually every such assumption is actually incorrect, either outright wrong or misinterpreted as a matter of historical record, so that all of our later reasoning is upended.
Before going back thousands of years to begin his unveiling, the author presents us with a scene from a cocktail party where he interacts with several people - one of them a banker, another working with a non-governmental organization. It's immediately clear from this interaction just how transformative Graeber's perspective is.
That Graeber is himself "on the left" is well-known - he self-identifies as an anarchist, and is considered to be one of the figures at the center of the early Occupy movement (see another of his books, "The Democracy Project," for details on this) - but this opening scene reveals even before anything else is discussed how the people we regard as "liberal" are really part of the same worldview as those we call "conservative," and that challenging the underlying assumptions is no more welcomed by one than the other.
Gardner is an excellent narrator, and his tone is just right for the subject matter.
Yes, but coming in at nearly 18 hours, that's simply not possible. "Debt" is best listened to in substantial chunks, such as while commuting from place to place; I listened to it on the train, in the car, and while walking. There's a lot here, and it takes time to think about it and absorb the implications.
Some people post reviews calling this book "biased." There are certainly some value judgments made by the author, but what most such reviews really seem to be doing is taking issue with the audacity that an anthropologist would present an historical record - well supported by research, mind you - that shows the conventional wisdom on which our current economic thinking is based are all wrong. The negative reviews most often come down to incredulity that someone would dare to tell us that something "everyone" knows to be true (because we were told it was true) could actually be false.
What makes this so amusing is that the people writing such reviews, angry that their worldviews might be so completely wrong and unable to countenance such an idea on an intellectual level, rail that Graeber is "promoting his ideology," even though they're the ones left flailing around defending something whose bases have just been discredited.
You'll get nothing from this book is your intent is to get nothing. If you respond to being presented with very detailed, clearly valid interwoven evidence that much of the world's history just isn't the way that you imagine by saying "Well heck, what does he know?", then your view isn't going to be transformed, because you're taking your current economic beliefs - for whatever reason - purely on faith.
For those of us who studied economics and accepted its premises on faith but built our later understanding on reason from that starting point, reading "Debt" is a really disruptive experience that calls into question almost everything we think and know. It's a great read the first time and better the second.
- James C. Samans "Author, Spontaneous Tourism: The Busy Person's Guide to Travel"