David Graeber: Debt. The First 5000 Years.

I can honestly not remember the last time I read a book that I learned so much new stuff from. Of course, this is beacuse my knowledge of ancient economic systems were very limited before I picked up the book, but Graber also gives treamendous food for thought about a lot of things – for me in particular about the connection between economy and Christianity.

Of course, anthopology is an academic tradition that was seemingly made in order to generate interesting examples, and there are loads of those here. But the way Graber shows how money, war, the state and slavery are connected is extremely interesting. The discussion on slavery alone is worth the admission. A slave is someone who is torn out from his or her context, and thus capable of being seen as a thing that can be bought and sold. Turns out us modern individualists, then, are slaves.

The book tries to do a lot, and some of it fails. In particular his attempt to create a general world history of debt and money based on some very simple regularites is far from convincing, but in the end not a lot hinges on this part of the argument. The fact that debt is more basic than money, coins or capital is potent enough without it.

Another striking thing is the way he shows how empty the neo-liberals talk of a free market is. It is not that a market without state involvement cannot exist – it can and has, in medival Islam – it is just that it would not look anyting like modern capitalism. For example, unless the state is there to enforce contracts, loans on interest are practically impossible.

Odd though, is that there is very little here on states in debt, and the particular meaning of that. The focus is on how debt always has been the primary way for the rich to control the rest of us. Until the next time we rebell and demand a clean slate. It has happened before, it will happen again. Soon I think.

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