David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years is an unusual book, emerging in 2011 in the midst of the Great Recession and European debt crisis and going on to become an international best seller. It may be the most read public anthropology book of the 21st century, written by a self-proclaimed anarchist and possible “house theorist” of the Occupy Movement (Meaney 2011). Capitalists apparently cannot get enough of it. When has the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine (Morris 2011) ever placed an anthropology book on its “best business reads” of the year? Gillian Tett, an anthropology Ph.D. turned assistant editor of the Financial Times, told me that central bankers were perusing it. It will be difficult for Graeber or anyone else to top this book for the attention it received due to excellent timing. From informal polling, it might also top the chart of books that are begun but never finished and for good reason. One review was sardonically titled “Debt: The First 500 pages” and even Graeber’s extensive notes ring in at 60 pages (Beggs 2012).
As a difficult book to categorize, it is perhaps reminiscent of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1999) or James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), in that it is a work of vast scope and implication. While Diamond replaced one form of determinism about European ascendency for another in a very inviting and accessible way, Scott provided a richly contextualized “anarchist history” of state-making that is not intended to generate public interest. Graeber’s probe into one of humankind’s most insidious and treacherous economic inventions is somewhat less accessible than Diamond’s book, but Graeber comprehensively exposes the cultural logics of debt, which may prove more influential in the end. Scholars may eventually provide innumerable micro-critiques for his interpretations of sub-specialty arguments ranging from the intricacies of monetary theory to medieval history. In the interest of doing some justice to the broad implications of the book, I identify five significant contributions and, in doing so, traverse most of his 12 chapters, five of which cover Graeber’s vast historical periods.
The foundational theory of the book is located in Chapters 3 and 5. Graeber writes that “almost everyone continues to assume that in its fundamental nature, social life is based on that principle of reciprocity, and therefore that all human interaction can best be understood as a kind of exchange” (91). Anthropologists have long been teaching Marshall Sahlin’s typology of balanced, generalized and negative reciprocity but, for those who have found these to be awkward or contradictory (negative reciprocity in particular), Graeber offers an alternative: humans operate morally through three different forms of economic relations, which he categorizes as baseline communism, exchange and hierarchy. Only exchange has as its basis the idea of reciprocity. Baseline communism involves economic relations with others based on needs and abilities and is not founded on nor requires reciprocity. In the category of hierarchy, Graeber places oppressive relations of dominance and anonymous, formalized charity. Although there may be things exchanged between parties in hierarchical relationships, what is transacted symbolizes the inequality itself. The place [End Page 244] of debt in all of this is in the fluidity and movement between categories. Debt is entered into as a reciprocal agreement of exchange between relative equals but the relationship easily slips into a hierarchical relationship until that debt (including any interest) is repaid. As countless debtors have discovered, one’s presumed equality can be vanquished through debt; just ask the citizens of Eurozone Greece today.
As he proposes in several chapters, cultural practices and belief systems have been influenced by the elevation of the importance of exchange and the rise of calculable debts over more intangible obligations. Chapter 3, “Primordial Debts,” argues that primordial debt theorists are not identifying but instead creating a myth of reciprocity in which humans universally conceive of being indebted to the universe (God or gods), then to divine kings and, eventually, to states. Rather, each instance of...