DEBT by David Graeber

Reviewed by Jenell ParisDebt-1

In Debt: The First 5,000 Years anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber contemplates the origin of money and debt, spinning out to great questions of human reciprocity, social bonds, indebtedness, and freedom. Graeber's ideas are controversial, sometimes strident, but so is his life: Active in labor, anarchist, and anti-capitalist endeavors, Graeber was an early leader in the Occupy movement.

Debt challenges conventional wisdom about money, namely, that it was invented to streamline systems of barter. Graeber marshals evidence from history, economics, and ethnography to argue instead that humans have long used various systems of credit that predate money, showing how debt—monetary or otherwise—shackles individual lives and leads to social unrest and revolution. His brilliant anthropological perspective shows contemporary debt crises—personal, national, and international—to be anything but natural or inevitable. It's a consequence of modern capitalism, not human nature or cosmic intent, that so much of our lives are measured with precise monetary calculations and so many of our exchanges are impersonal and market-based. Humans created debt, its meanings, and its consequences, and we can use our ingenuity to change our world.

On a larger level, Graeber leans toward a post-capitalist world that he describes as "the beginning of something…" Like many academics, he is stronger on critique than vision, but the hazy vision he describes is nonetheless compelling. He describes a world in which exchange is quantified less precisely, in which less of human life is reduced to market exchange. In its place is a resurgence of human friendship and gifting, where people give what they're able and take what they need. He draws on the biblical example of Jubilee and historical examples of debt forgiveness to argue that debt should not be a circumstance of birth, nor a lifelong, generational condition worthy of moral and legal punishment.

"The real question now is how to ratchet things down a bit, to move toward a society where people can live more by working less." ~ David Graeber

Of particular interest to Christians, Debt draws especially poignant connections between monetary debt and religious, or existential, debt. Not attempting to support a Christian view, Graeber finds it wrong to say that people are born indebted, with a debt they can't possibly pay, whether to society or to God. In Christianity (and other world religions, too) he sees double messages—on the one hand, uplifting of the poor and cyclical elimination of debt (the Old Testament Jubilee, for example), but on the other hand, affirmation of an existential debt, that humans are born indebted to an inevitably unpayable degree and so must depend on Jesus for full payment. He hopes redemption can mean something more than buying something back or settling a debt.

"It's really more a matter of destroying the entire system of accounting," he says. Graeber's critique of Christian teachings are well worth consideration; at the very least, he exposes ways in which Christian language of salvation and redemption are sometimes trapped in the moral logic and vocabulary of the worldly systems they wish to critique.

The most obvious application of Debt may be to protest capitalism and live toward some new global economy, which is just what Graeber and his most loyal readers are doing. For those of more ordinary lives and views, Debt is a powerful encouragement to resist the reduction of "all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal." We could strengthen the reciprocal, nonmonetary relationships in our personal spheres. In the public realm, we could support initiatives that reduce the crushing burden of debt, whether for slaves, the global poor, or developing nations. This is urgent, too, for the richest nations, where corporate, governmental, student loan, and consumer debt dampen the happiness of even relatively wealthy lives.

Jenell Paris is professor of anthropology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa.  She is author of a number of books, including The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are (IVP) and Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Baker).

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