Today we seem consumed by thoughts of debt. In the United States there is rampant consumer debt. The increasing reliance of young people on student loans has given rise to fears of unmanageable debt both at the individual level and systemically (there may even be a student loan “bubble”). The national debt is central to the national political and economic conversation, with some politicians making it the key element of their platforms. Of course, concerns about national debt are shared across the globe—leading to financial and diplomatic turmoil and painful austerity measures. At such a time, a book on debt is not just timely but necessary.
In Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber makes a critical contribution to our thinking about debt. In fact, it reveals to us why we think of debt the way we do and how we might think of it differently. The breadth of his research and the material covered is impressive. While the Western world gets most of the attention, Graeber nevertheless looks at Mesopotamia, China, India, and elsewhere. Historically, he tells a story that runs from before the Axial Age all the way to the present. Across continents and throughout history, Graeber engages a wide array of ideas and arguments.
Reviewing Graeber’s work and its reception—even if only partial—is like going down a rabbit hole in an extremely large warren. One article or blog or comment leads to many more. It is hard to imagine very many books in recent memory that have sparked the kind of mini-industry that Graeber’s work has. [End Page 491] My point is simply to acknowledge that this review is necessarily limited in scope and I cannot even hope to do justice to all of Graeber’s work or to the extensive secondary literature that is growing around it (and growing at this very minute).
In this review, therefore, I will focus on key arguments in the book and a more limited number of reviews that I think are most critical to summarizing his work and assessing its import for contemporary debates in economics, social policy, politics, and more. As you will see, my focus will be on the moral import of the work more so than the geopolitical implications. I also will respond to some of the reviews of the book, many of which tend to focus more on the geopolitical than on the moral dimensions. In the end, I argue that to the degree that the book challenges us to reimagine our moral selves, it is a great success even in spite of any shortcomings in certain elements of the argument.
Core of the Argument
Graeber identifies the central questions of the book as follows: “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?” (2011, 13). These questions signal his interest in looking at the moral dimensions of debt and the impact of debt in the way we think about morality. We often talk about the moral imperative to pay our debts, and we also talk about feeling indebted (not monetarily but morally) to others. Graeber wants to separate debt and obligation, however, so that we can better understand their relationship. In the end, he argues, the “difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money” (21).
Graeber acknowledges that debt is hard to conceptualize—at least very accurately. On the one hand, we can see ourselves in “the Adam Smith mode, as a collection of individuals whose only significant relations are with their own possessions, happily bartering one thing for another for the sake of mutual convenience, with debt almost entirely abolished from the picture” (207). On the...