What I learned from David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years.
There are books, and then there are books. There are books which everyone seems to enjoy reading. And then there are books which people claim to have read. I kind of get the feeling that Debt is one such book. It often gets recommended to me, and so I decided to finally see what is the deal with this book.
This article is the collection of my thoughts after reading that book, as well as the things which I’ve learned from it.
Now, let me be clear: this is not a review. I’m no economics expert, and I’m certainly not a human society expert. And the book deals with both of these things. As such, I am really not qualified to review it. but I can certainly write about what I’ve got out of this book, right? This article serves that purpose.
First, let’s talk about barter. You see, everyone is taught in the economics classes, (Or even the accounts classes,) that people in ancient times bartered, and then money came along, and now everything is hunky dory. (Yes, it is an oversimplification, but I’m not writing a book here.)
But the thing is, this book argues that it is not the way. Barter wasn’t the direct predecessor to the modern-day system of money to evaluate the exchange.
Personally, I can confirm about what they teach in class. I had commerce in my high school and college. And in the both subjects of economics and account, we were taught exactly that. and I even believed it. I mean, why wouldn’t I? what reason would I have that what we’re taught could be wrong?
Naturally, economists have a hard time accepting that argument. It is also interesting to read how economists ignore the evidence which directly contradicts their beliefs. Anthropologists have been proving them wrong for the last hundred or so years, and each time, the economists just refuse to change their theories.
I also learned how practice of debt has influenced the modern human language. We already know that words and phrases like “To owe,” are associated with debt and credit. But apparently, guilt is also associated with it. the book goes deeper into this analysis.
Also, the ancient kings in Babylonia often forgave the outstanding debts after they’re crowned. Mostly, to make sure that not everyone would end up in debt, and to avoid imbalance. But also, probably because this was (And still is,) one hell of a popular political move.
While many authors are afraid to touch religion, David is not. He even examines the debts through the lens of religion. How humans feel indebted to an all-powerful entity who has it all. But since they feel a debt which they cannot possibly repay, sacrifices are in order, whether they be animals, or other humans.
Naturally, this sort of debt is also considered to one’s parents. I even read the recount of how one father presented one son with the bill of raising him.
Personally, I don’t feel any such debt. I don’t believe in gods. And my parents chose to have me, I didn’t have any choice in that. so, the very thought that I should be in someone’s debt to be just born sounds absurd to me.
There’s another thing. David also references ancient Indian civilization, often using it along with other ancient civilizations, and how they managed money. I’m not one of those Indians who think that India should be included in every book or something like that. but it is nice to know that someone has included so much from there.
Because honestly, it is hard to get that kind of info, even in the local books. (Most of the time, they just promote one agenda or another.)
I also noticed just how violence and money are basically tide together. Leave it to humanity to come up with a brutal way of keeping the accounts, and justifying it for the thousands of years successfully.
Another thing of note is how gifts can turn into a sort of dick measuring contest. “He gave me a splendid gift, so I must give him even better one.” And that starts a race which could potentially end up ruining you.
David notes how kings preferred not to have gifts because of this.
Another thing which you’ll find an excellent coverage in this book, is the great overview of human currency, slavery, and of course, the violence which comes from it.
I like how in ancient times, people looked slavery as unnatural, including nobles. And yet, they were unwilling to abandon it. when Europe decides to abandon it, they decide to use plants, and brought slaves from Africa.
Of course, this is much more detailed in the book. It is just a summary here.
But to me, the most interesting chapters are the final four chapters. They go through the last four thousand years of historic development regarding money and debt. The chapters before these prepare the reader nicely to understand the content of these chapters.
Coins are very interesting. They appeared among the dominant civilizations of 600BC to 400BC simultaneously, while philosophers like Confucious, several Greek philosophers, and Buddhist religion appeared at the same time at the different places.
This was also the time when armies became professional, and the soldiers were paid by coins (Naturally.) David provides the description of an Indian Kingdom which used all sorts of tactics along with coins to monitor the behavior of their soldiers. Which made me realize that you don’t need cameras and such to monitor the world. It was very much possible to do that in the ancient world as well.
Anyway, given their relation with war and military, it is certain that I won’t see a coin the same way again, a piece of metal for which I can trade something of value. It is much more than that.
Another thing of note is that no matter how much people might say “Virtual currency is the new and modern thing,” it is actually not. You see this from ancient time to now. It has kind of become a cycle. Virtual currency, then coins, then virtual currency once more, and then modern-day money, and virtual currency once more, this time in electronic form.
I’m sure all the modern “Innovators” would not like hearing this but this is true. It may have changed forms, but virtual currency is nothing new.
As for the knights actually being bandits and bullies? Nothing surprises me there. I already know that information before I read this book.
I did learn however, that middle age actually came late to Europe. It started with China and India, then the Arabic countries, and then Europe. And this is where people imagined adventure as in its current form. Talking about merchants who face strange places, societies, and food to make profit, to knights and champions wandering around the world for challenges.
I’m well aware that this article is a haphazard collection of notes which I took after reading a chapter of the book. In some cases, I excluded certain topics, because I didn’t feel qualified to talk about them, having no experience or knowledge regarding their subject, apart from superficial understanding.
But what do I think about this book?
I think I won’t see the money, the debts and credits, the coins, or the markets the same way again. I know that this book can and will piss a lot of people off.
But I believe you should read it at least once. For me, this book does not provoke any anger from me, thought you should know. You should read this book, especially if it challenges your view of the world. I never run from such books, if anything, I read them with glee.