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Debt: The First 5,000 Years Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
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Debt Quotes Showing 1-30 of 128
“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.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“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.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“In fact this is precisely the logic on which the Bank of England—the first successful modern central bank—was originally founded. In 1694, a consortium of English bankers made a loan of £1,200,000 to the king. In return they received a royal monopoly on the issuance of banknotes. What this meant in practice was they had the right to advance IOUs for a portion of the money the king now owed them to any inhabitant of the kingdom willing to borrow from them, or willing to deposit their own money in the bank—in effect, to circulate or "monetize" the newly created royal debt. This was a great deal for the bankers (they got to charge the king 8 percent annual interest for the original loan and simultaneously charge interest on the same money to the clients who borrowed it) , but it only worked as long as the original loan remained outstanding. To this day, this loan has never been paid back. It cannot be. If it ever were, the entire monetary system of Great Britain would cease to exist.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“For me, this is exactly what's so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money -- and then tell us that it's only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“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
tags: debt
“[A] great embarrassing fact… haunts all attempts to represent the market as the highest form of human freedom: that historically, impersonal, commercial markets originate in theft.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren’t hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they’re probably improving the world more than we acknowledge.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“money has no essence. It's not "really" anything; therefore, its nature has always been and presumably always will be a matter of political conten­tion.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
tags: money
“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.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“The criminalization of debt, then, was the criminalization of the very basis of human society. It cannot be overemphasized that in a small community, everyone normally was both a lender and borrower. One can only imagine the tensions and temptations that must have existed in a community—and communities, much though they are based on love, in fact because they are based on love, will always also be full of hatred, rivalry and passion—when it became clear that with sufficiently clever scheming, manipulation, and perhaps a bit of strategic bribery, they could arrange to have almost anyone they hated imprisoned or even hanged.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“Here we come to the central question of this book: What, precisely,
does it mean to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? What changes when the one turns into the other? And how do we speak about them when our language has been so shaped by the market? On one level the difference between an obligation and a debt is simple and obvious. A debt is the obligation to pay a certain sum of money. As a result, a debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal-which, in turn, allows them to be transferable. If one owes a favor, or one’s life, to another human being-it is owed to that person specifically. But if one owes forty thousand dollars at 12-percent interest, it doesn’t really matter who the creditor is; neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing-as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude. One does not need to calculate the human effects; one need only calculate principal, balances, penalties, and rates of interest. If you end up having to abandon your home and wander in other provinces, if your daughter ends up in a mining camp working as a prostitute, well, that’s unfortunate, but incidental to the creditor. Money is money, and a deal’s a deal. From this perspective, the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic-and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. The factor of violence, which I have been emphasizing up until now, may appear secondary. The difference between a “debt” and a mere moral obligation is not the presence or absence of men with weapons who can enforce that obligation by seizing the debtor’s possessions or threatening to break his legs. It is simply that a creditor has the means to specify, numerically, exactly how much the debtor owes.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“Solitary pleasures will always exist, but for most human beings, the most pleasurable activities almost always involve sharing something: music, food, liquor, drugs, gossip, drama, beds.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“But if Smith was right, and gold and silver became money through the natural workings of the market completely independently of governments, then wouldn't the obvious thing be to just grab control of the gold and silver mines?”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
tags: money
“This is a great trap of the twentieth century: on one side is the logic of the market, where we like to imagine we all start out as individuals who don't owe each other anything. On the other is the logic of the state, where we all begin with a debt we can never truly pay. We are constantly told that they are opposites, and that between them they contain the only real human possibilities. But it's a false dichotomy. States created markets. Markets require states. Neither could continue without the other, at least, in anything like the forms we would rec­ognize today.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem—unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and ani­mals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions. On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one's entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“At this point we can finally see what's really at stake in our peculiar habit of defining ourselves simultaneously as master and slave, reduplicating the most brutal aspects of the ancient household in our very concept of ourselves, as masters of our freedoms, or as owners of our very selves. It is the only way that we can imagine ourselves as completely isolated beings. There is a direct line from the new Roman conception of liberty – not as the ability to form mutual relationships with others, but as the kind of absolute power of "use and abuse" over the conquered chattel who make up the bulk of a wealthy Roman man's household – to the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, and Smith, about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forty-year-old males who seem to have sprung from the earth fully formed, then have to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“In this sense, the value of a unit of currency is not the measure of the value of an object, but the measure of one’s trust in other human beings.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“About the only thing we can imagine
is catastrophe.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“For thousands of years, violent men have been able to tell their victims that those victims owe them something. If nothing else, they “owe them their lives” (a telling phrase) because they haven’t been killed.”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
“Thomas Jefferson, that owner of many slaves, chose to begin the Declaration of Independence by directly contradicting the moral basis of slavery, writing "we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights ..." thus undercutting simultaneously any argument that Africans were racially inferior, and also that they or their ancestors could ever have been justly and legally deprived of their freedom. In doing so, however, he did not propose some radically new conception of rights and liberties. Neither have subsequent political philosophers. For the most part, we've just kept the old ones, but with the word "not" inserted here and there. Most of our most precious rights and freedoms are a series of exceptions to an overall moral and legal framework that suggests we shouldn't really have them in the first place.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“After all, we do owe everything we are to others. This is simply true. The language we speak and even think in, our habits and opinions, the kind of food we like to eat, the knowledge that makes our lights switch on and toilets flush, even the style in which we carry out our gestures of defiance and rebellion against social conventions—all of this we learned from other people, most of them long dead.”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
“… the fact that it [the US] can, at will, drop bombs with only a few hours’ notice, at absolutely any point on the surface of the planet. No other government has ever had anything remotely like this sort of capacity. In fact, a case could well be made that it is this very power that holds the entire world monetary system, organized around the dollar, together”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“in some of the more lawless parts of the former Soviet Union, gangs prey so systematically on travelers on trains and buses that they have developed the habit of giving each victim a little token to confirm that the bearer has already been robbed. Obviously, one step toward the creation of a state. Actually,”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
“I am well known by my friends to be a workaholic - to their often justifiable annoyance. I am therefore keenly aware that such behavior is at best slightly pathological, and certainly in no sense makes one a better person.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“Even in the Bible, the admonition in the Ten Commandments not to 'covet thy neighbor's wife' clearly referred not to lust in one's heart (adultery had already been covered in commandment number seven), but to the prospect of taking her as a debt-peon—in other words, as a servant to sweep one's yard and hang out the laundry.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong. —”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
“the International Monetary Fund basically acted as the world’s debt enforcers—“You might say, the high-finance equivalent of the guys who come to break your legs.” I launched into historical background, explaining how, during the ’70s oil crisis, OPEC countries ended up pouring so much of their newfound riches into Western banks that the banks couldn’t figure out where to invest the money; how Citibank and Chase therefore began sending agents around the world trying to convince Third World dictators and politicians to take out loans (at the time, this was called “go-go banking”); how they started out at extremely low rates of interest that almost immediately skyrocketed to 20 percent or so due to tight U.S. money policies in the early ’80s; how, during the ’80s and ’90s, this led to the Third World debt crisis; how the IMF then stepped in to insist that, in order to obtain refinancing, poor countries would be obliged to abandon price supports on”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years
“One day when Nasruddin was left in charge of the local teahouse, the king and some retainers, who had been hunting nearby, stopped in for breakfast. “Do you have quail eggs?” asked the king. “I’m sure I can find some,” answered Nasruddin. The king ordered an omelet of a dozen quail eggs, and Nasruddin hurried out to look for them. After the king and his party had eaten, he charged them a hundred gold pieces. The king was puzzled. “Are quail eggs really that rare in this part of the country?” “It’s not so much quail eggs that are rare around here,” Nasruddin replied. “It’s more visits from kings.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“How did we get here? My own suspicion is that we are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself. In fact, it could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world - in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s - with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win.”
David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years
“the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. That,”
David Graeber, Debt - Updated and Expanded: The First 5,000 Years

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