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Debt: The First 5,000 Years | [David Graeber]

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems - to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it. Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash.
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Publisher's Summary

Before there was money, there was debt....

Every economics textbook says the same thing: Money was invented to replace onerous and complicated barter systems - to relieve ancient people from having to haul their goods to market. The problem with this version of history? There’s not a shred of evidence to support it.

Here anthropologist David Graeber presents a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that for more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods - that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors. Graeber shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Italy to China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong. We are still fighting these battles today without knowing it.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a fascinating chronicle of this little known history - as well as how it has defined human history, and what it means for the credit crisis of the present day and the future of our economy.

©2011 David Graeber (P)2012 Gildan Media Corp

What Members Say

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  •  
    E. J. Ford Tampa 06-06-12
    E. J. Ford Tampa 06-06-12 Member Since 2011

    E.J.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Stands Economics on Its Head"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    Graeber's "Debt" raises questions about the received wisdom of economics. When did we all become entrapped in debt and financial obligation? Why are the standards of debt different for the wealthy than for the poor? "Debt" does an amazing job of laying bare the inconsistencies and contradictions of our economic system.


    What about Grover Gardner’s performance did you like?

    Grover Gardner does a great job of conveying the emotional content of an intellectual argument. Proficient reading of non-fiction is about drawing the listener into the argument, which means understanding the argument and following the rhetorical rhythms. Gardner does an amazing job!


    What’s the most interesting tidbit you’ve picked up from this book?

    Debt is not a permanent condition nor is it necessarily a moral failing. With all of us in debt, this knowledge is uplifting!


    Any additional comments?

    I wish there were more books from the modern anthropological literature available as audio books!

    11 of 12 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Joshua VENICE, CA, United States 06-26-12
    Joshua VENICE, CA, United States 06-26-12 Member Since 2005

    Game developer and VFX industry vet.

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    "A must read for the already well informed"
    What made the experience of listening to Debt the most enjoyable?

    The author takes the reader on a trip around the world and throughout history to examine the roll of debt in human society. From the Sumeria to Ming Dynasty China and Adam Smith this book looks at how debt shapes human relationships and how the commoditization of those contracts has broken the very human bonds we form with one another.


    What other book might you compare Debt to and why?

    The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldNiall Ferguson (Author)


    8 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 06-18-14
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 06-18-14 Member Since 2011

    A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.

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    "We are all debtors anyway."

    A fascinating exploration of debt, money, barter, and the credit systems used by man for thousands of years. Sure it has biases and like 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' is a bit too idealistic, but still -- wow -- an amazing book. While most economic books are still battling over the binary capitalism::socialism salvos, Graeber quietly flips both boats (or if not flips, rocks both boats HARD).

    I mean really, when was the last time my wife let me read to her about social and economic transactions? Answer: Never. She has NEVER, EVER before let me read to her about money or debt or interest rates or the buying and selling of goods. This was an early rule in our marriage. It was practically a sacred cow, a promise made with a flesh-debt. We even broke bread sticks over it (I still have my stale tally). We kept our bargain, till this book, till last night. THAT is how good it is.

    Anyway, go ahead read it in bed. Read it to your wife -- in bed. If you are really equals she will tell you after a few minutes whether she is in your debt, or you are in hers. And, that's OK. We are all debtors anyway.

    17 of 21 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Pawel Switzerland 09-25-12
    Pawel Switzerland 09-25-12 Member Since 2006
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    "Must read if you are interested in economy"
    If you could sum up Debt in three words, what would they be?

    A very interesting angle on how debt developed, where money come from and many more. Despite many references, this is not a book on archeology. Many of author's remarks in history and discovery of ancient civilizations make the book so much more worthwhile as well as trustworthy.
    great read, highly recommended


    4 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Omar USA 05-30-14
    Omar USA 05-30-14 Member Since 2011

    “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.” - Albert Einstein

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    "Anthropology?!"

    The book is an amazing listen, however if you are looking for an economic/financial explanation of the history of debt and its current implications, you might get bugged with the "anthropological" sides of the history ( too many tribal stories :D )

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Praetor Israel 12-22-13
    Praetor Israel 12-22-13
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    "Truly thought provoking"

    A fresh look at the history of money, credit, and the economy in general. The author questions many of the commonly-held assumption about the nature, and the very existence of "the market", and raises fascinating questions. Some of the issues he discusses are so basic to our thinking, that we rarely think of questioning them. One such point is "one should pay his debts" - but why, exactly? Shouldn't the lender carry some risk, if the debtor fails? What came first, money or credit? Was money really invented to replace systems of barter?

    This was truly one of most thought provoking works I've read or listened to in a long time, and I fully recommend it.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Acteon Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 11-22-13
    Acteon Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 11-22-13 Member Since 2009

    Acteon

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    "A six star book"
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    I cannot recommend it too strongly to anyone who wants to understand human history and the way society functions. This is a book of extraordinary richness, depth, breadth and originality that puts the world and the histories of human society into a new perspective and thereby stimulates us to rethink much of what we think we know. It is a great joy to find such a book.


    What does Grover Gardner bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    Gardner reads very well and has a pleasant voice.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    There are many, when suddenly new light is shed upon something seemingly familiar.


    Any additional comments?

    It is probably appealing only to those with intellectual interests who seek more than entertainment. To me, it is a truly great work that makes one reflect and re-think.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Elias United States 02-04-13
    Elias United States 02-04-13 Member Since 2012

    Say something about yourself!

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    "Brilliant"

    You must read this book.

    It's simply one of the most useful books I've ever read, and well written to boot.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Roman Saint-Petersburg, Russia 06-11-12
    Roman Saint-Petersburg, Russia 06-11-12 Member Since 2009
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    "Very hard to see a clear line of the story"

    While I think this book could be interesting, and indeed I enjoyed some parts of it, I think the author fails to capture reader's attention with a clear line of events. He kind of like jumps from one epoch to another without explaining what does it all mean and how it correlates with his point of view. He also quotes a lot of sources which he then denounces, so especially while you are listening to the book, not reading it, it is hard to tell what the author actually thinks about the subject.

    The overall problem with the book, I believe, is that an author is an anthropologist and he's trying to get into the field of economics. I don't mean just his reasoning, which might be flawed - this should be left for economists to judge - but the way he tells the story: he's elaborating on some of the historical/cultural things too much and you just can't see what he was trying to say in the first place. Probably the reason I couldn't really finish the book.

    The narration is very good, although at some point I stumbled at a clearly "editorial" piece not supposed to be heard by the audience - the narrator was reading his remarks on the text. I guess you could call it a "bug". It was for a couple of minutes though.

    6 of 9 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Matthew Groton, CT, United States 09-11-13
    Matthew Groton, CT, United States 09-11-13
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    "Very cynical"
    Would you try another book from David Graeber and/or Grover Gardner?

    No


    Would you ever listen to anything by David Graeber again?

    No


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Disappointment. I thought the book would be considerable more academic and fact based. Instead is seemed to be a tirade, against the World Monetary Fund, Globalization. While the author seems well informed about the facts in the book, I noticed several basic factual errors. That combined with the authors obvious cynicism, and a healthy dose conspiracy theory made it difficult to take seriously.


    Any additional comments?

    I think the only people who will take the book seriously, and not realize how far fetched it is are people who already have a similar cynical view and WANT to believe this kind of stuff.

    5 of 9 people found this review helpful
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  • judith
    canary wharf, United Kingdom
    9/30/13
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    "The ethics of debt"

    I found this book quite odd and not what I was expecting. I'm interested in debt, and the current crisis which has a lot to do with debt, and I didn't really take too seriously the subtitle about 5000 years. Mr Graeber is not kidding. 5000 years and not a penny less is what you get. From prehistorical times, through the Sumarians, a sojourn on the Euphrates (I'm afraid I didn't take notes), long meanders with African tribes. Some bits were interesting - barter never was more than a fantasy of Adam Smith - human societies have always kept tabs, and virtual money (in the form of mental or written IOUs) was probably the precursor of every money economy. Women may have become chattels only when everything else did. 5% seems to have been considered the fair rate of interest through the ages. Current rates on credit cards would have been considered immoral and usurious at almost any time in history. But what is also odd is Mr Graeber's attitude and take on things. I'm not sure where he is coming from (or what he's on). He doesn't seem to give our modern society any credit for delivering at least some peace and prosperity. He doesn't seem to accept that quite a bit of debt and credit is useful and even necessary to human development. Hmm. More puzzled than satisfied as I finish this book.

    3 of 4 people found this review helpful
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