Summary: Anthropological look at the history of debt, currency and economics.
I have read a fair amount of economics. I find it interesting, both because its importance, but also because of its explanatory process. However, as has been increasingly shown empirically, people are not perfectly rational, and economic models that require perfectly rational people have limited value.
Similarly, economics has been critiqued by some (The Economics of Good and Evil is an example) for its over reliance on its limited predictive power and a lack of focus on its the ethical underpinnings.
David Graeber’s book is not quite either of these. Graeber teaches anthropology at the London School of Economics, but is also a vocal crusader against the World Bank, the IMF and some parts of globalized trade agreements. Where the book really shines is its focus on anthropology. Where it is weaker is when his critique of modern economic theory becomes too repetitive or when he occasionally moves beyond the evidence.
Social Science, for the most, part is about taking the evidence and then weaving a narrative to connect the evidence in a plausible method. Graeber’s story is compelling. His central critique of the rise of currency not as an advance over barter societies, but as a regression from ‘human economies’ that were focused on mutual debt is strong. The regression is not so much about levels of economics, but of a regression of trust. Currency was more prevalent when war and distance trade made longer term debt relationships more problematic.
One of the problems of the book is his naming methods. He uses ‘human economy’ and ‘communism’ to designate the types of economies that were primarily relational and not currency based. And he is clear that by “communism” he is not talking about modern socialism but rather a shared economy where care of those around them was part of the economic consideration. ‘Gift economies’, which have been written about fairly extensively in anthropological circles are an example of what he means by communism. But still I think it is a needlessly antagonistic word choice.
One of the most interesting portions of the book was the discussion of how slavery, war and currency were inextricably linked. As an explanation, it makes a lot of sense.
Graeber is also fluent in religious language and culture. There is several extensive sections on Christian and Hebrew understandings of debt, usury, slavery, etc. Graeber attributes the decline of slavery at the end of the Roman Empire in large part to the cultural rise of Christianity. And even more importantly, when other regions of the world re-adopted slavery again, slavery was so much against the culture of the Christian era that slavery moved from being primarily about war or poverty, to being racially based. Of course, that was not a long term benefit to the world, but it was a significant change.
The focus on slavery also naturally led into discussions about patriarchy, women’s rights, bride prices and dowries and other areas that I think are often misunderstood historically.
In the end, I think the book was a bit too long. Graeber was carefully building an argument. And I can see why he spent so much time building it. It goes against much of the cultural understanding of how economies have risen. But I think the case is pretty convincing in most areas.
This book was good preparation for the book I am currently reading, The Locust Effect, about the role of violence in perpetuating poverty. One of the sections toward the end of Graeber’s book talks about the use of debt to perpetuate people’s poverty and in some cases to force people into slavery by trapping them in a type of illegal debt bondage. Gary Haugen‘s book provides more detail this type of slavery in the Locust Effect. But this initial introduction helped prime me for Haugen’s book.
If you have read a lot of economic books, and are generally pro-globalization (as I am) I think this is a book worth picking up. Not because you will change your mind about the positive effects of globalization (Graeber is not really anti-globalization as much as he is anti-uncontrolled globalization), but because it will give you a new narrative to hang some of the ideas of economics on. I was fascinated by much of it (although I did think it went a bit slow at times.)