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Debt: The First 5,000 Years — Updated and Expanded

4.18  ·  Rating details ·  13,789 ratings  ·  1,800 reviews
Now in paperback, the updated and expanded edition : David Graeber’s “fresh . . . fascinating . . . thought-provoking . . . and exceedingly timely” (Financial Times) history of debt
Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom: he shows that before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of
ebook, 566 pages
Published December 9th 2014 by Melville House (first published July 12th 2011)
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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 ideas,
Mike Dillon
Jan 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: economy, anarchism
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.
Jun 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favourites, economics
Back to the Future of Credit

Despite its title this book is really a deconstruction of the idea of money. The economist's idea is that credit (loans, cash advances etc.) arises in a well-developed monetary or 'cash on the barrel head' society which in turn had been an improvement on the previous system of barter.

Not so says Graeber and rather convincingly: credit, or more precisely the ledger of who owes what to whom, is the most primitive form of commerce which is only supplemented by either ba
Caitlin O'Sullivan
Jun 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
May 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: social-history
Okay that's much better! Thanks for all the reviews ...more
[2020-09-03 Update: RIP David Graeber, your works have been an inspiration, may they continue to inspire...]

This dream book got me to love the potential of nonfiction. I first read this after my undergrad, and the book’s spirit of social imagination remains transformative. How can we change the world if we cannot even imagine the change? (The negative book reviews describe this book as “dangerous”)…

The Brilliant:
--The context of the book’s first edition (2011) was the socialism-for-creditors-cap
Jul 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
As I was reading this I couldn’t help thinking how much it reminded me of The Gift by Marcel Mauss. I got halfway through The Gift recently, and even though it is very short, I still got distracted with other things and haven’t finish it yet – which, as the author of this says, makes me a bit like Mauss himself. I will finish it – but almost don’t need to now.

This book is born out of a chance conversation about third-world debt the author had a woman at a party. She felt that paying one’s debts
Jul 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: sociology
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
Jul 04, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
“As it turns out, we don't "all" have to pay our debts. Only some of us do.”
― David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years


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, roc
Aug 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have read many many books--I am a professor and it is my job to read. This is the only book I would label a "Must Read." It's that simple--everyone must read this book. It blew my mind--figuratively, of course. My area is banking and finance and so I am not unfamiliar with the standard banking story. But Graeber starts way before any other book I've ever read on the subject. By the time you get to modern banking and the bank of England, what you've been told is irrelevant. It's also just very ...more
Roy Lotz
For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice.

Three years ago, I went on vacation in the north of Spain, to the city of A Coruña. There, perched on the jagged rocks below the Roman lighthouse, I read Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. The crashing sound of ocean waves just seemed an appropriate accompaniment to Spengler’s grandiose attempt to analyze all of human history.

At it
Oct 07, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Sep 13, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Michael Burnam-Fink
This might be the most important book you read this decade. Graeber asks 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 goods (potatoes for shoes for sheep for shovels) was so inconvenient that people developed cash to be more efficie
May 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Darran Mclaughlin
A superb book. Throughout reading this book I felt like little epiphanies were going off in my head as Graeber presented new information or new analyses that I hadn't considered before. Graeber manages to expose the violence, coercion and inequality that has become sublimated in the bland language of credit and debt so that most of us see debt as an impersonal, objective and moral issue. He opens with an anecdote that inspired him to write this book in the first place, describing attending a par ...more
☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
A culturally relevant account of how debt came to be the new red.
Jul 16, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Moved to ...more
Jan 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 21, 2015 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
If you think capitalism and modern economics are the worst thing to ever happen to the world, this will be a great feel good read for you. If you like your books to be robustly argued with appropriate credence given to opposing arguments, I suggest you pick up something else. Graeber seems to consider those who disagree with him as either naive, blindsided by economic theory, or simply greedy.

It's a little hard to pin down exactly what Graeber wants to argue; his preferred method of exposition
Nov 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Petr Havel
Oct 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 10, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 trad
Lee Foust
Oct 28, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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, banking and the b ...more
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
Oct 25, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This starts off OK, debunking the money-replacing-barter story from the fundamentals of economics. But the book drifts along in too many directions and the author seems to take pleasure in saying shocking things for the sake of it. People are giving this book five-star reviews while admitting they didn't understand it. ??? If readers want a clear critique of global economic policies I would point them to the works of Ha-Joon Chang:

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

"Debt" does do a very good job of illustrating how economic
An excellent analysis of how money equals debt, and how the concepts of debt and moral turpitude have been conflated and perverted over the centuries. Granted, everything recent hits hard and fast at the end, and frankly deserves a lot more ink, but the analyses of how civilization arose side-by-side with debt are pretty fascinating, as are the detailed explanations of how economic systems arose in various places around the world -- Graeber's an anthropologist, and his enthusiasm shows. I wish I ...more
3.5 Stars
I feel like I've been reading this book forever, and while it was interesting, I don't really think that the way I read it (or listened to it) was the best way, because listening in fits and starts, with occasional chunks, just meant that while I technically made progress, and enjoyed it, I didn't really ABSORB it. And nonfiction should be absorbed, I think. It's supposed to learn me some stuff, and I do think it did, but probably not everything this book had to offer.

That being said,
NOT JUST FOR LOVERS OF ECONOMICS: I am not usually drawn to books about economics. The title was a bit misleading. I thought I would read some interesting but dry history about debt. Not so. This book was so interesting, I actually got into trouble whilst listening. As a usual practice, I buy two books on Audbile at a time, one to listen to while I commute, walk, or do things around the house, and another book that I save for workouts at the gym, to make my time less painful and pass quickly. I ...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
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David Rolfe Graeber was 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 t

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Here’s some trivia for your next vacation get-together: The concept of the summer “beach read” book goes all the way back to the Victorian...
54 likes · 15 comments
“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.” 66 likes
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