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Debt: The First 5,000 Years

4.17 of 5 stars 4.17  ·  rating details  ·  4,477 ratings  ·  659 reviews
Before there was money, there was debt

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems—to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it.

Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal o
Hardcover, 534 pages
Published September 16th 2011 by Melville House Publishing (first published 2011)
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Community Reviews

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Mike Dillon
Fantastic book. To quote the words of Arundhati Roy: "The trouble is that once you see it, you can't unsee it. And once you've seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There's no innocence. Either way, you're accountable."

Thanks for helping me see more clearly the true contours of the life we live. I guess I'm accountable now.
Void lon iXaarii
I would call this an interesting but dangerous book. As opposed to other books in which every moment was a learning and enlightening enjoyment this book was exhaustingly tense because I found it to be a very confusing mix of dangerous (but plausible) ideas written in a smart way, and interesting historical or world data. So, I'll start the review with the negative things, and then move onto the positive ones:

- the author seems to have a clear agenda, of attacking capitalism & free market ide
Okay that's much better! Thanks for all the reviews
Caitlin O'Sullivan
I think of Goodreads stars as the following: 1, shouldn't have been published; 2, terrible; 3, pretty good; 4, really good; 5, everyone should read this (because it's eye-opening, incredibly skillful, and/or beautiful).

Debt is a five-star book.

Graeber's history encompasses not just history, but anthropology, sociology, psychology, philosophy, political science, economics, religious studies, and finance as he details the history and definition of "debt." The conclusions he draws are--especially i
Sep 22, 2011 0spinboson rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
I haven't finished reading yet, and I will try to write a more substantive review of this book once I've had time to wrap my head around the contents, but until such time has come, I would simply propose to consider this book the new answer to Douglas Adams's Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. If you've ever wondered whether there is a connection between -- to name just a few things -- simple social obligations, the invention of money, slavery, taxation, coinage, the disapp ...more
This is a very thought-provoking analysis of the relationship between morality, debt, property, and money. Essentially, the author explores, through history and anthropology, the tension between the common beliefs that one should always pay one's debts and that to make a profit on lending money is wrong. In particular, this issue bears on our political unwillingness to change a situation where the vast majority of Americans will spend their lives paying off debts to a tiny minority who enjoy lud ...more
Excellent book. A long-term, anthropological study of the history and the phenomenon of debt itself, and future implications. There's a lot going on here, and I'm too muddle to organize my thoughts and reactions into sentences yet, just transcribing my mental notes.

Debt as a social phenomenon predates the idea of currency. There is a phenomenon of 'social' debt, which is not easily quantifiable. Can analyze the idea of debts/currency and markets separately. Attacks the neo-liberal tenet of 'the
Petr Havel
This book led me to re-think some of the fundamental aspects I have always thought our modern society is based upon: the basis of the current monetary system, market economies, the illusion of barter markets and most fundamentaly the way that debt is intertwined into the fabric of human interaction.

Overall this is pleasant read, as an overview of market and monetary history from an anthropological perspective. The book starts to lag in sections where the author tries to apply his own solutions t
In a word - brilliant. Just when I thought I understood all the false assumptions in modern economic theory, David Graeber uncovers yet another huge, unfounded assumption that economists discuss as if it's a matter of fact. I clearly remember sitting in my intro to macro class and hearing about how before there was money, people bartered and it was terribly inconvenient, then money was created and saved everybody. I guess it shouldn't be a surprise that yet another aspect of our economic theory ...more
A fascinating exploration of debt, money, barter, and the credit systems used by man for thousands of years. Sure it has biases and like Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a bit too idealistic, but still -- wow -- an amazing read. While most economic books are still battling over the binary capitalism::socialism model, Graeber quietly flips both boats (or if not flips, rocks both boats HARD).

I mean really, when was the last time my wife let me read to her about social and economic transacti
It's not often that one reads a book on political economy that is as thrilling to read as a detective novel, but Graeber's Debt is just such a book. Perhaps because he is an anthropologist, not an economist, he is able to take on a seemingly boring and pedestrian topic, and write an eye-opening book which addresses the origins of the current crisis of capitalism.

Graeber's theme is a simple one. What makes us human is our relationship with others, starting with our mothers, then family and then t
Feb 16, 2012 Bill added it
This is a book that made an impression on me. I will say right up front that it doesn't totally hang together. It sets out to make a step by step case, and gets carried away with its own ideas. It is intellectual for a popular book, but not tight enough for an intellectual book (which is probably fine by me). It attempts to sell you on a grandiose prediction or statement of where we are in the arc of history and where we are going at the end of the book. It is easy to get swept up in that sentim ...more
John Carter McKnight
A superb, readable economic history that will transform your thinking time and again. I can't effectively write a short review of this book: it's masterful, revolutionary, thought-provoking, and on its way to being the best book of the year for me.

Regardless of your politics or knowledge of economics, you'll find new and fascinating material here. Graeber's scholarship is prodigious, and his writing style is highly accessible.

Particularly if you suspect we might not be living in the best of all
Oct 22, 2014 KatieMc rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: residents of paradise island
Shelves: librarybook
First half 5 stars, second half 3 stars.

When I was in the 5th grade, we had a social studies unit centered around a book called Life On Paradise Island. It was a cartoonish book that told the tale of how a modern economy is developed. It started with the islanders trading coconuts for fish. Of course things got complicated when the coconut guy didn't need or want fish, but he wanted a hut built and the hut builder wanted something else. Eventually a stone currency was developed and it made tradi
Michael Burnam-fink
This might be the most important book you read this decade. Graeber ask what the phrase "You have to pay your debts" really means, and his answer involves a looping historical, anthropological, linguistic, and philosophical inquiry into the nature of currency, coinage, and capitalism.

As Graeber notes, the standard economic story of the development of coinage: that bartering diverse good (potatoes for shoes for sheep for shovels) was so inconvenient that people developed cash to be more efficient
I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson's completely unreadable "the Ascent of Money:" it mixes in the author's politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson's right.) In this case, Graeber's book covers more facts than political lecturing but it's bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from ear
Colleen Eren
As a sociologist, I've been despairing of late at the paucity of imagination and theoretical innovation in social science research. Academics, perhaps because of the need to publish quickly and garner grant money, seem content to only add statistical validation to already established conclusions. Or, a la David Harvey, to regurgitate Marx with minor variation, with a focus solely on the neoliberal period, and in US/Eurocentric fashion.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years redeems the social sciences. Not
Lee Foust
Hadn't read a book on banking or economics since college in the 1980s and The Money Lenders. Mostly this is because, although a life-long fan of Gothic literature and horror movies, nothing has ever scared me more than The Money Lenders, a truly terrifying read. The international banking coalition is even more frightening than the so-called terrorists or the super powers and their nuclear stockpiles! Unlike a political edifice, subject often to voting, or revolution, or a coup, the banks seems t ...more
Jeffrey Greggs
Definitely one the most interesting anthropologies I have read in years, almost like a Discours sur l'inégalité for the 21st century. It is a startling new vision of the way debt has operated in different societies historically, and it presents compelling moral objections to economic principles that are widely regarded as certainties.

Debt is also packed with examples from and insights into the whole of recorded history. Far too many examples to dilate upon here, but for two personal favorites s
Byzantine Dolphin
When you are dealing with the so called 'Great Questions' about human nature, a comprehensive and thorough account of the latter is fundamental, otherwise you end up with the strange fantasies of most Western philosophers of the last centuries and contemporary economists. Also you end up with pernicious moral consequences. In this book, David Graeber goes through a very wide (and therefore very compelling) anthropological record of the most diverse facets that the phenomenon of debt has assumed ...more
Daniel Lemire
Well written and engaging.

My executive summary:

Until recently, we had economies working on credit, not currencies. Currencies only become popular under militaristic empires. When these empires collapse together with their gigantic armies, we go back to a credit system. Credit systems are decentralized and support trust-based trading. Currencies are the basis for what we call "markets" today, that is, anonymous state-supported trade systems. The move to a fiat currency in the 1970s, according to
Bob Simmons
Reading this book has made a permanent change in the way I think about money and debt. This is one of handful of books I have read which has opened my mind to an entirely new way of thinking about something. David Graber explores the meaning of debt as a way of organizing society in many different cultures including our own. Highly recommended.
Raymond Yee
Aug 14, 2011 Raymond Yee marked it as to-read
The interview with David Graeber on CBC Sunday Morning ( was the impetus for putting this book on debt on my to-read list.

I think we can all be shaken from our hardened ideas about money, debt, forgiveness, amnesty, and oppressive social arrangements.
Okay, let's just all agree, if there is any justice among gods or men, that this book will sweep The Wealth of Nations out of its spot in history, and will go on to influence how we think about economics for the next 5,000 years. That is all.
Will Szal
I recently finish “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” by David Graeber. At 666 pages in my iBooks edition, it has a lot of pages, but it’s a very short book. And by short, I mean that it just barely skims the surface of this issue. And what issue would that be? The issues of money, culture, religion, government, war, slavery, politics, and debt. Going back a few millennia, it’s clear that these subjects are fundamentally linked, and talking about one without the others means you’ve stepped out of con ...more
The premise of Debt is: everything you think you know about the history of economic and monetary systems is wrong.

I hadn't thought that a book about debt could be so interesting, but the author, an anthropologist, takes more of a cultural view, examining how different societies throughout human history have structured their economies; how debt is or isn't a moral failing; how slavery, violence, and war underlie so much of, well, everything... there's a lot in here, and it's a fascinating read.

Kirk Battle
It's very interesting because Graeber is engaging with capitalism as an ideology and tearing into it with a lot of classic anthropology arguments. It's more Zizek and Taleb Nassim than Adam Smith.

So far Graeber has done a compelling job of arguing that money is not actually an intrinsic component of civilization or even an economy. The classic excuse by economists is first we had barter, then we had to create money in case people could only barter with goods people didn't want. I'm not sure how
While the Goodreads rating system doesn't allow for fractional results this book should be a 4.5.

David Graeber turns an anthropologist’s gimlet eye toward the way that economists analyze the world and after the first few chapters the dismal science is little more than a smoking ruin. “Debt: the First 5,000 Years” is an impressive and important book. It begins with a history of money that, while interesting in itself, is more important in showing how economists have been wrong about the most bas
Austin Wimberly
This book made me think which is one of the best compliments I can give any piece of writing. As a layperson who is not well versed in economics or anthropology, I found this book a tad difficult. In the early chapters, it seems like Graeber takes for granted that his audience is as familiar with the material at hand as he is, so certain ideas are sort of briefly presented without as much depth as I might have liked. However, this is a survey of 5000 years, so how deep can it be and still fit on ...more
DeAnna Knippling
Whooh. For a while I was thinking, "Is there no idea that this guy won't rip apart?" Some really great thoughts about the history and nature of debt throughout history...right up until the present day. The last couple of chapters (the last 200 years or so) just weren't as heavy and thick with detail as the previous millenia. On the one hand, I can understand -- look, you just can't be an expert on the entirety of history, and writing about recent history would probably be the most challenging fo ...more
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David Rolfe Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist.

On June 15, 2007, Graeber accepted the offer of a lectureship in the anthropology department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he currently holds the title of Reader in Social Anthropology.

He was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University, although Yale controversially declined to rehire him, and his te
More about David Graeber...
Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy Direct Action: An Ethnography Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire

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“Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:
"Up in our country we are human!" said the hunter. "And since we are human we help each other. We don't like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.

... The refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found throughout the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began "comparing power with power, measuring, calculating" and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt. It's not that he, like untold millions of similar egalitarian spirits throughout history, was unaware that humans have a propensity to calculate. If he wasn't aware of it, he could not have said what he did. Of course we have a propensity to calculate. We have all sorts of propensities. In any real-life situation, we have propensities that drive us in several different contradictory directions simultaneously. No one is more real than any other. The real question is which we take as the foundation of our humanity, and therefore, make the basis of our civilization.”
“If history shows anything, it is that there's no better way to justify relations founded on violence, to make such relations seem moral, than by reframing them in the language of debt—above all, because it immediately makes it seem that it's the victim who's doing something wrong.” 19 likes
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