Book Review and Reflection: David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5,000 Years”

Who was the first man to look at a house full of objects and to immediately assess them in terms of what he could trade them in for in the market? Surely, he can only have been a thief… Any system that reduces the world to numbers can only be held in place by weapons, whether these are swords or clubs, or nowadays, “smart bombs” from unmanned drones…

The end result, historically, is to see our life as something we hold on false premises, a loan long since overdue, and therefore, to see existence as criminal. Insofar as there is a real crime here, though, it’s fraud… What could possibly be more presumptuous, or more ridiculous, than to think it would be possible to negotiate with the grounds of one’s own existence?

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 386-7

debeo, debere, debui, debitum– to owe; to ought (takes a complementary infinite)

— Standard Latin I Text

In the case of the English word debt, philology can shine a surprisingly clear light on the origins of conventional moral sentiments. Surely what you ought to do for others is exactly synonymous with what you owe them. In the Latin tongue, the sphere of moral action is a species of applied accounting, and this definition has persisted across the centuries. In Plato’s Republic, honoring one’s debts is the pedestrian starting point for a definition of justice offered by the elderly, wealthy, and rather sentimental Cephalus. In the modern world, despite the apparent victory of David Hume’s moral skepticism, the condemnation of deadbeats seems safely enshrined as the last acceptable —  the last necessary — prejudice in a civic morality geared towards the strictures of personal finance. 

While some perceptive Latinists may have momentarily bemused themselves with the implications of debeo‘s dual meaning, anthropologist David Graeber has taken up this theme as the basis of a world-historical thesis about the nature of money, debt, and human morality. Debt: The First 5,000 Years takes up the great Hegelian tradition of historical synthesis as the first step toward philosophy, providing a new perspective on our current crisis of indebtedness by offering it a rich historical context.

In Graeber’s view, economists, hoping to preserve the privileges of creditors, have written an imaginary history of economics in which debt is a kind of original sin, a morally deficient (yet ubiquitous) departure from the “normal” world of perfectly balanced exchanges. Even as European societies introduced the modern infrastructure of debt-based financial capitalism to the world, debt became stigmatized and the rights of creditors upheld as sacrosanct. In the works of classical economists from Adam Smith on down, the progression of economic history acts as if debt would not have existed among the “noble savages” of the 18th century European imagination, who would have enjoyed a hypothetical “state of barter”. Yet anthropologists have only negligible evidence of barter as an economic activity in pre-modern societies (outside of their limited commercial interactions with Europeans themselves).

Why the illusion? This state of barter is an ideological necessity. By beginning with barter as the basic economic transaction, the classical economists were able to recast economic agency in traditional societies, which was no doubt communal (i.e. credit-based), as occurring in an abstracted, depersonalized trading market in which every exchange led to a perfectly balanced account. If barter is the natural state, debt is a failure, a default, and not an inherent part of the human condition. 

As this conventional story continues, currency evolves from barter as a way of making this system of trade more exact. Already at the barter stage, we have assumed (as at least as a necessary social illusion), that the exchange value of goods can exactly quantified.  The evolution of money merely abstracts this system of relative values into a single standard measure.

Yet, while this system seems perfectly reasonable insofar as it deals with ‘hard’ commercial objects, it also has some discomfiting human implications economists would rather not consider. For instance, how does this model of money account for the fact that most economic activity does not revolve around material goods, but human services? When economic actors are themselves valued in a system which supposedly derives from trading bottles and sticks, money can no longer perform as advertised. It can only balance out human lives, hopes, and ambitions in such a way as to render them irrelevant. The market can only provide the illusion of even exchange insofar as we are not ourselves captured within it.

And when it is not objects but living people being traded, the dehumanizing phenomena which have long been the bane of moralists and reformers naturally follow — slavery, prostitution, debt peonage. In a rather Nietzschean analysis, the language of even exchange serves to make relations of power seem neutral — the slave, the prostitute, and the indentured servant are said to have lost their liberty by some past default or injury which robbed them of their former equality.

For instance, a kind of peonage emerged among the Tiv people in west Africa because of their belief that accidental deaths and misfortunes are always caused by some ill-will, so that those whose relatives have recently died may find themselves collecting peons as recompense for the “blood debt” of their relatives. The potential for the Machiavellian manipulation of this system should be obvious, yet it is not trivial. The language of debt is always intimately tied to the moral guilt and shame of the debtor (Schuld in German means both debt and shame), even when, in a more Western form of barbarism, their creditors could only find them guilty of trying to finance their homes, cars, and educations.

Historically, one response to the moral conundrum of debt has been to attempt eradicate it entirely. This was particularly the response of the Abrahamic religions, which have all, at various times, inveighed against usury, and encouraged cults of chastity in response to the prospect of the commercial availability of the human body. It was Babylon, with its elaborate system of commercial debts and temple prostitution, which was always the object of criticism for the Hebrew moralists. 

Yet Graeber does not see the repressive response as a sufficient reply to this moral question. An equitable society should not depend on draconian prohibitions — to fight the scourge of debt is always, to some degree, to rebel against sociability itself. While we may imagine that we may, someday, be entirely debt-free, this could only be true in the narrowest accounting sense. As participants in society, we will always be indebted to the efforts and actions of others — to parents, to previous generations, even to unique gifts our children may offer.

Moreover, the more fundamental and meaningful a debt may be, the less able it is to be quantified. If we start not from the trading of durable goods, but from the human exchanges of social and familial life, we begin to see debt not as an accounting error, but rather as the default state of all living beings. To live is to owe everything external to ourselves — one’s environment, one’s forebears, one’s world as such — an incalculable debt, while at the same time generating, by our own creative existence, values which could only be caricatured by an attempt to quantify them. How much do the lions owe the zebras? What should the zebra pay unto the grass? What bill should parents present their children upon their 18th birthday? Insofar as we do not attempt to quantify and institutionalize it, debt is as natural as life itself, while even exchange is a special case limited to a very narrow context of commercial interaction.

In one of the work’s stirring concluding passages, Graeber demonstrates how this farce of quantification can only be maintained by “converting love into debt”:

It can also only operate by continually converting love into debt. I know my use of the word “love” here is even more provocative, in its own way, than “communism.” Still, it’s important to hammer the point home. Just as markets, when allowed to drift entirely free from their violent origins, invariably begin to grow into something different, into networks of honor, trust, and mutual connectedness, so does the maintenance of systems of coercion constantly do the opposite: turn the products of human cooperation, creativity, devotion, love, and trust back into numbers once again. In doing so, they make it possible  to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations. Even more, by turning human sociality itself into debts,  they transform the very foundations of our being — since what else are we, ultimately, except the sum of the relations we have with others —  into matters of fault, sin, and crime, and making the world into a place of iniquity that can only be overcome by completing some great cosmic transaction that will annihilate everything. 

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 386-7

Perhaps the strongest feature of this book lies in the vivid historical examples Graeber employs to challenge our common-sense assumptions of economic life. While we may think of our personal finance in terms of the relative liquidity of our assets, Graeber sees the scope of macroeconomic history as a series of liquidity cycles. In ancient Babylon, a society based on credit stored in the temple and granted by a priestly sect, hard currency seems to have played very little role. Although Babylon was an advanced commercial society, debt obligations were processed through the unique religious-commercial clearing house of a temple rather than settled in cash.

As Alexander drove eastward and captured the kingdoms of the east, these treasuries would have been raided and commerce reformed using the newly minted coins of client kingdoms, which would acquire instant and immediate value as the new currency of taxation. This raiding of a centralized treasury into a more effusive, expansive coinage system is known as dethesuarization, or “de-treasuring”, to take the Greek root. Debt, once tied to an internal community- religious structure (the Babylonian temples) now becomes a decontextualized tax obligation to foreigners (the Greco-Roman tax system), paid in liquid (literally able to remelted) coins.

Yet the inverse process of rethesaurization inevitably occurs when the imperial apparatus supporting large-scale taxation and commercial expansion breaks down. This was observed in the Western world in the centuries after the Roman empire, when the treasury was melted down to build up the finery and statuary of the Catholic Church. Buoyed by a new metaphysical doctrine which any serious student of the economy would be remiss to ignore, the medieval world was reassigning value away from the transactional and back towards the eternal.

The same process could also be seen still more dramatically in the development of Buddhism, an ascetic doctrine which conflicted with the worldly, civic perspective the Confucian Chinese state. Throughout southeast Asia, the growing influence of Buddhism led to economic dislocations, as currency was rethesaurized into the statuary and ornament of the new religious feeling.

Yet while the monks were even practicing self-immolation in fresh enthusiasm for a new doctrine of self-immolation, the countryside found itself divested and forlorn. Its sons would either stay to participate in the old commercial economy against stacked odds, or else join the Buddhist monasteries (organizations of increasing economic complexity) as low-level laborer-initiates. Indeed, the pouring of capital into the monasteries was so significant that a chronic shortage of precious metals in the Chinese monetary system spurred the development of the world’s first paper currency system.

Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit

Graeber sees this period as an inevitable reaction against the commercial society that developed in the antique world, reaching a zenith in the Western world with the sprawling markets of the Roman Mediterranean. Rethesaurization was a paralyzing attack of what Nietzsche would call “bad conscience”, as the winners of the commercial market felt alienated from the logic of the economic world in which they operated. In imposing a system of imperial-market commerce upon the world, in demanding that the conquered trade their lives and labor for taxable coin, the conquerors of the ancient world had put themselves on one side of a hopelessly balanced equation.

As vessels of even exchange, coins seem to represent a form of equal opportunity in society (Milton Friedman’s market democracies), yet the might of the powerful is represented by their uneven command of coinage. The system collapses under its own contradiction. Economic life may go on under the pretense of equitable exchanges, but, when the center is continually enriched and the periphery dispossessed, everybody knows this is just a pretense, however much they may rationalize it. In the great imperial-commercial state, the world seems free and open to all, yet the hegemonic power of the few looms more ominously than ever.

To adopt a phrase of the emperor Augustus, the top of society finds itself primus inter pares, the first among equals, empowered to issue coins for which everybody in society must work and by which even they rulers themselves may easily be bought. What could be more fertile ground for a moral revolution? Against this system of apparently profitable but ultimately empty exchanges, Christianity and Buddhism were ready to proclaim the moral superiority of the losers — the dignity of the martyr and the blessedness of the poor (Nietzsche’s revaluation of values). Echoing the critiques of ethical egoists from Max Stirner to Ayn Rand, Graeber notes that altruism — full self-abnegation — is only conceivable as a reaction against a world in which the logic of the state and of the market has normalized and standardized purely one-sided, exploitative transactions. 

Perhaps no historical character captures this turning over of moral psychology better than the figure of St. Augustine. In his Confessions, he recounts that, in his early years as a thoroughly Roman playboy, he stole some pears as an end in itself, precisely for the thrill of robbery. 

I wanted to commit my theft, and I did it compelled by neither want nor poverty but by a distaste of justice and a feast of iniquity. For I purloined that in which I abounded — and in much better! Nor did I wish to profit in this affair in which I was striving with theft, but only in the very theft and sin. There was a pear tree near our vineyard, weighed down with fruit alluring neither in appearance nor in flavour. To shake this tree and make off with its produce, we no-good youths made haste in the dark night when we had carried on our game in the streets according to our pestilential custom. And we carried off from there enormous loads of fruit not to to our meals but rather to cast before swine; even if we ate some, nevertheless it occurred that it was pleasing to us to do that which was not allowed.

Confessions, Book 2, translation from Classically Christian

Augustine would, of course, grow up to detail his own transformation into a wholly selfless servant of the Christian God. In the dialectics of the human soul, what begins in theft is likely to end in charity, a concept which had had little purchase in classical antiquity.

We were all very deeply in debt. A crossbow was not to be purchased for less than forty or fifty pesos, a musket cost one hundred, a sword fifty, and a horse from 800 to 1000 pesos, and above. Thus extravagantly did we have to pay for everything! A surgeon, who called himself Mastre Juan, who had tended some very bad wounds, charged wildly inflated fees, and so did a quack named Murcia, who was an apothecary and a barber and also treated wounds, and there were thirty other tricks and swindles for which payment was demanded of our shares as soon as we received them.

— Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Spanish conquistador who served under Hernán Cortés, quoted p. 317

This is an account of ongoing penury of the Spanish soldiery following Cortés’ successful seizure of the Aztec treasury. 

Graeber’s willingness to consider the value of a humanistic perspective in studying economics especially shines in his vignette of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. By the age of exploration, the advent of a modern banking system was laying the groundwork for the world of commercial banking and contractual indebtedness as we know them today. It should be known by any student of American history that many of the early New England colonists were indentured servants, contractually bound to sell their labor in a form of legal servitude, Likewise, the African slaves of the Southern states were often enslaved after having been entrapped in various debt schemes encouraged by tribal leaders and their European associates. 

If the people of the Americas share any common denominator in their origin, it may be a history of indebtedness, as even the proprietors of colonial America, the colonial leaders and conquistadors, found themselves working off unpayable debts to their mother countries. Under the center-periphery system of mercantilism, Europe viewed the colonies as little more deposits of natural resources to be exploited, and its agents abroad were often little more than high-class debt exiles themselves. 

And so Hernán Cortés, having seized the unfathomable treasures of the Aztecs, found himself imposing harsh austerity on his men for the “debts” they had incurred in financing their war against Moctezuma. While this doubtlessly helps to illuminate the brutal hierarchy and exploitation the Spaniards imposed even upon themselves, there is also some reason to believe that Cortés really was still on shaky financial ground even after his windfall. Just like the lottery winners who soon find themselves returned to poverty, Cortés was likely to accumulate new debts simply due to the nature of the economic system in which he operated. While he certainly had an appetite for the finer things in life, he ultimately operated precisely on the logic of the emerging modern European financial system, which had taken the sudden discovery of the bounteous new world as providential confirmation of its belief in endless growth and compound interest. 

What’s more, that relationship, between the daring adventurer on the one hand, the gambler willing to take any sort of risk, and on the other, the careful financier, whose entire operations are organized around producing steady, mathematical, inexorable growth of income, lies at the very heart of what we now call “capitalism.”

As a result, our current economic system has always been marked by a peculiar dual character. Scholars have long been fascinated by Spanish debates that ensued, in Spanish universities like Santander, about the humanity of the Indians (Did they have souls? Could they have legal rights? Was it legitimate to forcibly enslave them?), just as they have argued about the real attitudes of the conquistadors (was it contempt, revulsion, or even grudging admiration for their adversaries?) 21 The real point is that at the key moments of decision, none of this mattered. Those making the decisions did not feel they were in control anyway; those who were did not particularly care to know the details. [emphasis added] To take a telling example: after the earliest years of the gold and silver mines described by Motolinia, where millions of Indians were simply rounded up and marched off to their deaths, colonists settled on a policy of debt peonage: the usual trick of demanding  heavy taxes, lending money at interest to those who could not pay, and then demanding that the loans be repaid with work. Royal agents regularly attempted to forbid such practices, arguing that the Indians were now Christian and that this violated their rights as loyal subjects of the Spanish crown. But as with almost all such royal efforts to act as protector of the Indians, the result was the same. Financial exigencies ended up taking precedence. Charles V himself was deeply in debt to banking firms in Florence, Genoa, and Naples, and gold and silver from the Americas made up perhaps one-fifth of his total revenue.

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 318-319

In this example, Graeber shows us that, while the rich, powerful, and predatory may give off an aura of omnipotence, they are themselves often products of, or at least participants in, a system of coercive debts with unrealistic demands for exponential growth. As the current occupant of the White House has shown us abundantly, money is debt, and so we should not be surprised to learn that those who find themselves closest to power and wealth are balancing debt situations which seem absurd and fantastical to the average person, who has believed the myth of barter, conceives of money as solid, and trusts that he or she would be debt-free if they could only follow a more prudent financial course. The Trumps and Cortéses of the world show us that this is all a middle class fantasy, and that the wealthy, like the poor, see money as leverage in an endless struggle to stay ahead of interest, a task whose true absurdity is most clearly seen at the very deep and the very shallow extremes of the socio-economic spectrum. 

The ultimate result of this system is a chain of disgust, beginning with the frantic hustling of those hoping to preserve their fragile preeminence and spreading to the middle tiers of society. Cortés’ soldiers were to receive a rather dubious pay-off for all their efforts on behalf of the conquistador — the right to enslave the indigenous population and work them to death in the mines lest they themselves collapse under the weight of debt. In Graeber, perhaps for the first time, the famous greed of the European colonist is rendered as a real human condition with roots in the European economic system and not the cartoon depiction of Platonically Evil figures so often described by other progressive commentators. 

These were the men who ended up in control of the provinces, and who established local administration, taxes, and labor regimes. Which makes it a little easier to understand the descriptions of Indians with their faces covered by names like so many counter-endorsed checks, or the mines surrounded by miles of rotting corpses. We are not dealing with a psychology of cold, calculating greed, but of a much more complicated mix of shame and righteous indignation, and of the frantic urgency of debts that would only compound and accumulate (these were, almost certainly, interest-bearing loans), and outrage at the idea that, after all they had gone through, they should be held to owe anything to begin with.

— David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, p. 318

When we have to pay right now, the world becomes our strip mine, and when the world becomes our strip mine, when we become little more than machines for converting real values into some arbitrary quantity, we ourselves become machines. Can any of the many commentators on the technological mechanization of humanity possibly overlook this salient fact of economic life as a potential cause? This system is allegedly based on the free and voluntary entry of rational economic actors into contractual debt obligations, yet from the outset we owe our lives to insurance companies who calculate the cost of our very birth. As if anyone issuing or consenting to these contracts from within this system could possibly be considered free!

Hernán Cortés, First Great American Creditor and Debtor

What Graeber attempts to do in this work is to combat two falsehoods at once. The first is to dismantle the notion of free economic actors, previously uncontaminated by debt, falling into a state of economic serfdom purely as a result of their own malfeasance and profligacy. As if one could become a vassal merely from a failure of arithmetic! The arithmetic only follows the logic of power relations. When the French colonized Madagascar, no amount of austere living was going to save the nation from a future of debt and dependence. But the creditor is likely to emphasize the clarity and objectivity of the numbers involved in the situation, as if they were laws of nature unto themselves and not a product of a political context.

But while the moral dangers of debt has never been a subject lacking commentators, Debt is a noteworthy book for suggesting that the modern capitalist approach to debt is a actually a corruption of a process that is, in itself, unavoidable and natural. Most of use would readily acknowledge specific debts to individuals which would never be monetized — parents, certain teachers, any striking role model or casual benefactor — while we feel our lives are put under stress and potentially destroyed by abstract debts to large institutions who seem to have done little more than grant us a small bit of access to systems of centralized power — universities, banks, governments. The debts which seem just are never paid and never protested; the debts which feel ruinous are frequently contested but almost always paid. 

Thus the modern institution of debt — debt quantified, monetized, and legally enforced — has turned our very sense of moral obligation on its head. The process of quantification is itself directly responsible for this inversion, and this protest against mathematical modeling seems to be an implicit thesis of Debt. What seems sensible almost to the point of incontrovertible — that we should repay those we owe — becomes  toxic and offensive when given exact mathematical models. It is as if Socrates is laughing at us for having taken Cephalus seriously! Alright, let us pay all that is owed! If we were to insist that everybody settle all their accounts in cash, the process which would immediately rip society apart — do I owe my father more than my mother? Which child owes me more? If my doctor has saved my life, should I, as a just human being, agree to repay her with my life, entering into a voluntary state of slavery? Why shouldn’t my doctor insist upon this?

Where and when debt has been enforced in its Procrustean rigidity (particularly in the Americas), it has motivated and justified an objectification of human beings which would appear absurd under any other pretext. The disputations over human rights in European courts do not matter — the swindled men of Cortés army have to get paid. Respectful, non-exploitative treatment of the indigenous people was never within the sphere of moral options their debts would allow.

Several centuries later, we marvel at a world in which a maze of institutional walls stand between us and health care, higher education, a secure retirement — between us and middle class existence as such. We should recognize that all of our polite, reasoned progressive arguments do not matter. They may as well be addressed to machines. Those who have built and maintain those walls — those who have likewise trapped themselves within them — have to get paid.

When meeting certain numbers becomes the calling card of a civilization, it will demand exactitude in all small accounts while the system as a whole becomes more and more distorted.

The point is not to eliminate debt, then, but to remove the fiction that its quantification means anything more than a rough reflection of certain relations of power. In this respect the ancients were more honest. While they set up the systems of hierarchy and exploitation at the basis of the modern state, they never attempted the rationalizations we have made fundamental tenets of our existence. Rather than inventing desperate rationalizations like “public austerity” and “white supremacy” as a way of blaming the victims of government policy, the Romans simple saw the state as a tool of force which could turn anybody into a slave, their talent and moral character notwithstanding (cf: Epictetus).

Likewise, taxation would be applied only to conquered peoples, while citizens would often receive a monetary stipend from such payments. The state was never supposed to be a neutral public body somehow mediating between enforcing harsh laws on subjects and protecting the rights of the same people as citizens. To engage with it was to seek a share of the spoils of war.

In the end, there is no economics — there is only human value. Of this value, however, there are two logics, equally cogent and necessary yet utterly opposed to one another — the logic of what we must do out of duty, debt, and necessity, and the logic of what we must do out of love. To borrow the phrase from Nietzsche, both stand beyond good and evil.

These two cosmic forces stand outside of moral calculus because they themselves define any possible motivation within such a calculus — what we may will (duty) and what we actually, unquestionably will (love). Both can exonerate us of any crimes. “They were only doing their jobs!”, cries the exculpatory logic of duty, debt, and necessity. “And I’m only doing this job for my kids!”, shouts another defendant, confident of her fundamental right to love. 

Personally, this truth is intuitive and obvious. Socially, it has never been dimmer and more obscure. The logic of debt dominates, while the logic of love has no home in civic life. For while both of these logics are unassailable on their own terms, they have fundamentally different orientations. Debt orders, but love values. The true monstrosity of the current approach to credit is that it is willing to trample on any and all values to preserve debts. 

At the conclusion of the Aeneid, Vergil, the poet who most profoundly saw the deficit of love in what we term civilization, describes the execution which began the Roman world. Aeneas, a Trojan exile whose life has a long exercise in the duties of labor, slays Turnus, a prince of Italy defeated in war, who naively believed that his amor for his native land and people could withstand the forces of empire (see this article by McDonald). 

The final line tells use exactly what has happened. 

vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras

         His devalued (indignata) life flees beneath the shades in a final gasp.

Vita indignata — life, devalued — life, which is the source of all value, devalues itself — one life, traded for another — one life goes on — life will do anything to go on — choosing between death and slavery — duty made eternal, love made ephemeral — woe to the defeated, they still have their dignity — vita indignata — owing one’s life, creditor and debtor are devalued forever.

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