[David Graeber] Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Title: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Author: David Graeber
Published: 2011
Publisher: Melville House; Revised edition (2014)
ISBN-10: 978-1612194196

The 2008 crash showed that how our everyday financial situations were tightly linked with social systems and how vulnerable we were with any market changes. In 2020, we are experiencing another world-wide crisis – COVID 19 pandemic-, which causes the massive increase of debts of the governments and individuals.

David Graeber’s book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” is a history of debt and money from an anthropologist’s perspective. The book aims to rebuke the na├»ve negative connotation of debt and show how debt has played an essential role in binding essential social lives. Contradictory to the standard economics texts, debt and credit appeared before the use of money.

Monetary History

In fact, our standard account of monetary history is perfectly backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money.

from the book

“Debt,” in a modern sense, is the amount of money you owe or lend, which can be measured numerically. Graeber tries to show how we are misled by this common sense. Economics (of Capitalism) has quantified human behaviors into mathematical models. Money is what can be countable. Also, Economics simplifies the monetary history through the idea of linear progress. From barter to money and then credit is the natural order of how the system should evolve. The problem is that this commonsensical theory does not match with the historical evidence. The author’s first task is to break this widespread myth that is still supported by many mainstream economists.


Graeber proposes “everyday communism.” Communism is the foundation of all human social structures, and everyday communism is based on the ethic of reciprocity.

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