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Book Review Series: #4 Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber.


by Sanjana Medipally


The first slaughtered idea that economists like to talk about is barter and before the modern economy, there was only bartering, but according to anthropologists like David Graeber in his book Debt: The first 5,000 years, ‘there’s not a shred of evidence to support it.’ Graeber is indeed an intellectual of the radical left and was one of the instigators of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. He is also an author of the short book in which he discusses anarchist theories in light of anthropology. Throughout his book, he intends to defend a thesis which questions the definition of debt and that one which is not always expressed explicitly. His book is mostly viewed as a political work whose objective is to question the institutions of capitalism most importantly, the concept of ‘debt’. This is seen in the conclusion of the book, which argues for ‘a new jubilee of biblical style’ (Graeber, 2011, p.390), by which Graeber means is the remission of all debts.

But this book is far from being a plea for canceling all debts nor is it a politically written essay for just the purpose of defending a cause. This is instead a difficult book whose subject matter is more ambitious than what its title shows.Graeber himself acknowledges in the introductory chapter: ‘This book is, therefore, a history of debt, but it also uses this story to ask fundamental questions about what are or could be humans and human society’ (Graeber,2011,p.18). The book is divided into two parts: the first, which is most interesting and difficult, spreads over first seven chapters and attempts to define and explain a number of anthropological concepts applied to economics. It also convincingly answers the different theories of money, debt and economic relations in human society. During these chapters, Graeber builds his theoretical model which allows him to give meaning and coherence to the concepts and tools he intends to use. The second part of the book extends over five chapters but is as long as the first, it develops the history of humanity from the Mesopotamian civilization to today. This part of the book is like a story read through different conceptions of debt and money.

After a chapter of introduction where the author (to an extent) reviews the diversion made by religious institutions to subject people with a debt to divine power, he strives to present us the grids of analysis that are not his, and that he challenges. In chapter II, Graeber rejects any ontology of exchange. Smith’s argument about the naturalness of exchange is categorically rejected with strong anthropological arguments. ‘The story of money for economists always begins with a fantasy or barter’ (Graeber, 2011, p.23). And yet no one, ever, has exchanged ‘arrowheads against pieces of meat’ (Graeber, 2011, p. 29). The author rightly speaks of a ‘bartering myth’ with regards to the imaginary villages of Adam Smith.

The book attempts to demonstrate, especially in its first part, that there are debt structured relations between human beings living in a society, but the way in which it was institutionalized could vary considerably from one era to another. Basically, Graeber says, a debt is nothing more than a promise, a moral obligation made between two people in relation to each other. But there are two kinds of debt. On one hand, the unquantifiable promise that covers moral obligations expressing relationships such as those we have with our loved ones. Sometimes, this type of promises can be materialized by exchanges of social currencies, for example, dowry symbolizing marriage. The essence of these promises and commitments is that they can only be reimbursed by other commitments or social relations ‘…popular Greek fantasies….every Babylonian maiden was obliged to prostitute herself at the temple, so as to raise the money for her dowry’ (Graeber, 2011, p.180).

On the other hand, Graeber explains,  the market debt, which is a quantifiable pledge calculated precisely by mathematics, expressed in a currency and having a market value that cannot be converted into material wealth. This kind of promise does not reveal a social bond or moral obligation, but instead, it expresses an imperative duty of repayment on the part of the debtor. Graeber then poses a question – why do promises, when they become debts, that is to say, quantifiable and exigible promises, end up systematically by imposing themselves against any other kind of commitments? It is to question the way in which the market economy destroys social systems by perverting and diverting their original meaning i.e the moral principles which underlie the anthropology of social relations. While a promise expresses a relationship, the debt expresses an obligation; while a promise is based on moral principles, debt serves as a pretext for legitimizing, in the name of a perverted morality, an enslavement based on violence – argues Graeber.

We now know that 5000 years ago, in Egypt and Mesopotamia, organizations operated with credit systems – ‘ordinary people who bought the beer from ‘ale women’……which they paid at the time of the harvest, in barley, of with all that could fall to them under the hand’ (Graeber, 2011, p.40). By giving numerous such examples, the author states that it is not true that we started by bartering, then discovered currency and finally credit systems, but instead, the evolution took place in the opposite direction. It is true that man has used many substitutes for modern cash- salt in Abyssinia, shells on the coast of India, dry cod in Newfoundland, tobacco in Virginia, sugar in the West Indies, Iron in Sparta and Copper in ancient Rome. Graeber sees that the money has usually been embodied in the most valuable good of the society, that which was often offered to the gods, the ox in ancient Greece, silver, and gold later on.

The author explains that by corollary the debt cancellation is also far from new, the Mesopotamians for examples made recurrently collective cancellations of debts. The book as a whole has instructive anecdotes, for example, the famous Rosetta stone that allowed Champollion to understand the hieroglyphs is itself a debt cancellation. Graeber generally follows in his book the timeline listing the times when the debt crisis were the strongest.

Despite the interest of the thesis defended by Graeber, the second part of the book seems much less convincing – less reasoned but very precise in its definitions and reconciliations. It seems to rely more on anecdotes, passages of decontextualized works and the individual history of historical characters which the book draws based only on the work of historians and academicians. 5000 years of Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean, European, Islamic and American history are brushed in broad strokes, in some 200 pages. Nonetheless, it remains, on reading, rich in examples and historical anecdotes. The simple form of Graber’s style makes one swallow the book easily despite being nearly 500 pages long. There is no need for a dictionary to triumph over every sentence and no glossary of history, economics or anthropoy is necessary to read this book. This simple form of the author’s style tends to mask the complexity of the concepts and reasoning in theoretical parts.

Debt: the first 5000 years is a mine of information for economic enthusiasts. A book that is all the more essential since it is not an economist’s book, but an abundant work built more like a book that mixes history, politics, sociology and certainly, economics.



    1. Graeber, D. (2011). Debt: The first 5000 years. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.
    2. Downey, G. (2011). David Graeber: anthropologist, anarchist, financial analyst. [Blog] PLOS. Available at: [Accessed 4 Mar. 2018].




Sanjana Medipally is a final year student at Jindal School of International Affairs.


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