Debt : The First 5,000 Years

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(1961 - 2020)
David Rolfe Graeber (/ˈɡreɪbər/; born February 12, 1961) is an American anthropologist, anarchist activist and author known for his 2011 Debt: The First 5000 Years, 2015 The Utopia of Rules and 2018 Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. (From :


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On the Experience of Moral Confusion debt: noun 1 a sum of money owed. 2 the state of owing money. 3 a feeling of gratitude for a favor or service. —Oxford English Dictionary If you owe the bank a hundred thousand dollars, the bank owns you. If you owe the bank a hundred million dollars, you own the bank. —American Proverb Two years ago, by a series of strange coincidences, I found myself attending a garden party at Westminster Abbey. I was a bit uncomfortable. It’s not that other guests weren’t pleasant and amicable, and Father Graeme, who had organized the party, was nothing if not a gracious and charming host. But I felt more than a little out of place. At one point, Father Graeme intervened, saying that there was someone by a nearby fountain whom I would certainly want to meet. She turned out to be... (From :

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The Myth of Barter For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong. —H.L. Mencken What is the difference between a mere obligation, a sense that one ought to behave in a certain way, or even that one owes something to someone, and a debt, properly speaking? The answer is simple: money. The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money. Not only is it money that makes debt possible: money and debt appear on the scene at exactly the same time. Some of the very first written documents that have come down to us are Mesopotamian tablets recording credits and debits, rations issued by temples, money owed for rent of temple lands, the value of each precisely specified in grain and silver. Some of the earliest works of moral philosophy, in turn, are r... (From :

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Primordial Debts In being born every being is born as debt owed to the gods, the saints, the Fathers and to men. If one makes a sacrifice, it is because of a debt owing to the gods from birth … If one recites a sacred text, it is because of a debt owing to the saints … If one wishes for offspring, it is because of a debt due to the fathers from birth … And if one gives hospitality, it is because it is a debt owing to men. —Satapatha Brahmana 1.7.12, 1–6 Let us drive away the evil effects of bad dreams, just as we pay off debts. —Rig Veda 8.47.17 The reason that economics textbooks now begin with imaginary villages is because it has been impossible to talk about real ones. Even some economists have been force... (From :

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Cruelty and Redemption We will buy the poor for silver, the needy for a pair of sandals. —Amos 2:6 The reader may have noticed that there is an unresolved debate between those who see money as a commodity and those who see it as an IOU. Which one is it? By now, the answer should be obvious: it’s both. Keith Hart, probably the best-known current anthropological authority on the subject, pointed this out many years ago. There are, he famously observed, two sides to any coin: Look at a coin from your pocket. On one side is “heads”—the symbol of the political authority which minted the coin; on the other side is “tails”—the precise specification of the amount the coin is worth as payment in exchange. One side reminds us that states underwrite currencies and the money is originally a relation between... (From :

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A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations To tell the history of debt, then, is also necessarily to reconstruct how the language of the marketplace has come to pervade every aspect of human life—even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it. We have already seen how both Vedic and Christian teachings thus end up making the same curious move: first describing all morality as debt, but then, in their very manner of doing so, demonstrating that morality cannot really be reduced to debt, that it must be grounded in something else. But what? Religious traditions prefer vast, cosmological answers: the alternative to the morality of debt lies in recognition of continuity with the universe, or life in the expectation of the imminent annihilation of the universe, or absolute subordination to the deity, or withdrawal into another world. My own aims are more modest, so I will ta... (From :

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Games with Sex and Debt When we return to an examination of conventional economic history, one thing that jumps out is how much has been made to disappear. Reducing all human life to exchange means not only shunting aside all other forms of economic experience (hierarchy, communism), but also ensuring that the vast majority of the human race who are not adult males, and therefore whose day-to-day existence is relatively difficult to reduce to a matter of swapping things in such a way as to seek mutual advantage, melt away into the background. As a result, we end up with a sanitized view of the way actual business is conducted. The tidy world of shops and malls is the quintessential middle-class environment, but at either the top or the bottom of the system, the world of financiers or of gangsters, deals are often made in ways not so completely different from ways that the Gunwinggu or Nambikwara make them—at least in that sex, drugs, music, extra... (From :

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Honor and Degradation, or, On the Foundations of Contemporary Civilization ur5 [HAR] :: n., liver; spleen; heart, soul; bulk, main body; foundation; loan; obligation; interest; surplus, profit; interest-bearing debt; repayment; slave-woman. —early Sumerian dictionary It is just to give each what is owed. —Simonides In the last chapter, I offered a glimpse of how human economies, with their social currencies—which are used to measure, assess, and maintain relationships between people, and only perhaps incidentally to acquire material goods—might be transformed into something else. What we discovered was that we cannot begin to think about such questions without taking into account the role of sheer physical violence. In the case of the African slave trade, this was primarily violence... (From :

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Credit Versus Bullion and the Cycles of History Bullion is the accessory of war, and not of peaceful trade. —Geoffrey W. Gardiner One might well ask: If our political and legal ideas really are founded on the logic of slavery, then how did we ever eliminate slavery? Of course, a cynic might argue that we haven’t; we’ve just relabeled it. The cynic would have a point: an ancient Greek would certainly have seen the distinction between a slave and an indebted wage laborer as, at best, a legalistic nicety. Still, even the elimination of formal chattel slavery has to be considered a remarkable achievement, and it is worthwhile to wonder how it was accomplished. Especially since it was not just accomplished once. The truly remarkable thing, if one consults the historical record, is that slavery has been eliminated—or effective... (From :

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The Axial Age (800 BC – 600 AD) Let us designate this period as the “axial age.” Extraordinary events are crowded into this period. In China lived Confucius and Lao Tse, all the trends in Chinese philosophy arose … In India it was the age of the Upanishads and of Buddha; as in China, all philosophical trends, including skepticism and materialism, sophistry and nihilism, were developed. —Karl Jaspers, Way to Wisdom The phrase "The Axial Age" was coined by the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers. In the course of writing a history of philosophy, Jaspers became fascinated by the fact that figures like Pythagoras (570–495 bc), the Buddha (563–483 bc), and Confucius (551–479 bc), were all alive at exactly the same time, and that Greece, India, and China, in that period, all saw a s... (From :

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The Middle Ages (600 – 450 AD) Artificial wealth comprises the things which of themselves satisfy no natural need, for example money, which is a human contrivance. —St. Thomas Aquinas If the Axial Age saw the emergence of complementary ideals of commodity markets and universal world religions, the Middle Ages were the period in which those two institutions began to merge. Everywhere, the age began with the collapse of empires. Eventually, new states formed, but in these new states, the nexus between war, bullion, and slavery was broken; conquest and acquisition for their own sake were no longer celebrated as the end of all political life. At the same time, economic life, from the conduct of international trade to the organization of local markets, came to fall increasingly under the regulation of religious authorities. One result... (From :

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Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450–1971 AD) “Eleven pesos, then; and as you can’t pay me the eleven pesos, that makes another eleven pesos—twenty-two in all: eleven for the serape and the petate and eleven because you can’t pay. Is that right, Crisiero?” Crisiero had no knowledge of figures, so it was very natural that he said, “That is right, patrón.” Don Arnulfo was a decent, honorable man. Other landowners were a good deal less softhearted with their peons. “The shirt is five pesos. Right? Very well. And as you can’t pay for it, that’s five pesos. And as you remain in my debt for the five pesos, that’s five pesos. And as I shall never have the money from you, that’s five pesos. S... (From :

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(1971–The Beginning of Something Yet to Be Determined) Look at all these bums: If only there were a way of finding out how much they owe. —Repo Man Free your mind of the idea of deserving, of the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think. —Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed On August 15, 1971, United States President Richard Nixon announced that foreign-held U.S. dollars would no longer be convertible into gold—thus stripping away the last vestige of the international gold standard. This was the end of a policy that had been effective since 1931, and confirmed by the Bretton Woods accords at the end of World War II: that while United States citizens might no longer be allowed to cash in th... (From :

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Bibliography Abraham, Roy Clive. 1933. The Tiv People. Lagos: Government Printer. Abu Lughod, Janet. 1989. Before European Hegemony Oxford: Oxford University Press. Adamek, Wendi L. 2005. “The Impossibility of the Given: Representations of Merit and Emptiness in Medieval Chinese Buddhism.” History of Religions 45 : 135-180. Adams, Robert McC,. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, William L. Moran. 1974. “The Mesopotamian Social Landscape: The View from the Frontier.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Supplementary Studies No. 20, Reconstructing Complex Societies: An Archaeological Colloquium, pp. 1-20. Adkins, Arthur W. H. 1972. Moral Values and Political Behavior in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the End of the Fifth Century. New York: Norton. Adolf, Helen. 1947. “New Light on Oriental Sourc... (From :

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With the predictable results that they weren’t actually built to make it easier for Malagasy people to get around in their own country, but mainly to get products from the plantations to ports to earn foreign exchange to pay for building the roads and railways to begin with. The United States, for example, only recognized the Republic of Haiti in 1860. France doggedly held on to the demand and the Republic of Haiti was finally forced to pay the equivalent of $21 billion between 1925 and 1946, during most of which time they were under U.S. military occupation. Hallam 1866 V: 269–70. Since the government did not feel it appropriate to pay for the upkeep of improvidents, prisoners were expected to furnish the full cost of their own imprisonment. If they couldn’t, they simply starved to death. If we consider tax responsibilities to be debts, it’s the overwhelming majority—and i... (From :


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