Book Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

I don’t know how to start the review. There’s so much I want to say, but I fear I have nothing coherent to tell. I could just leave the review to two statements: ‘wow’ and ‘that this is something everyone should read.’ But I want to babble on, so bear with me. Okay, the gist of the story is that David Graeber argues debt to be a cornerstone of our economy and civilizations for a long time. Of course, it’s up to debate what kind of cornerstone it has been. Good or bad? Even so, it has been an integral part of human relations and exchange for as long as we have lived as groups, or so it would seem. So summing it up: debt, fiscal money, brokers, and whatnot are not new things. They have been around for thousands of years. Graeber argues that debt and credit appeared before money and barter did. He says the whole barter thing is a fantasy; it only works between nations/villages rather than citizens. That is because there’s always an imbalance between goods, people, and trust. You can’t screw a neighbor over when exchanging a wooden spoon for a churn. Not if you want to face them tomorrow and the day after that and be able to trust each other. So hard cash makes things easier. It removes trust from the equation by adding shared, symbolic value to things and deeds. Oh, I could go on forever here. I’m only scratching the surface of what the book offers. Graeber entwines debt with philosophical argumentation of the value and conduct of humans, religion, sex, salary, cyclical imbalance between debt and money, and history. There’s so much information packaged into a small space that the book is a mess, yet I wouldn’t remove a thing.

The book was a chore to read as I didn’t want to miss anything, knowing that shit like this is important. But all the endless footnotes and quotes were a bit too much. On good days, I managed to read over twenty pages, but on bad ones, I couldn’t get past even a few. Yet, I pushed on, knowing that if I want to be free (to some extent at least), I need to understand how the world works, how it’s built, and why. And debt is the base of our current economies, civilizations, and policies, making it essential information. I’m not yet sure what I’m supposed to do with any what I read. I could try to use it to my advantage, but in all honesty, I have been made the wrong way. I don’t seem to get a kick out of making money out of a broken system, which is stupid. I let myself be used rather than be the master. Still and all, it was enlightening to read about how in the Middle Ages, Buddhist monasteries in China were their own capitalistic institutions and how they, in their pursuit of coins (melting them into Buddha statues and bells), crashed the Chinese economy. I keep picturing the monks in their saffron robes, smiling and scheming ways to get more coins to make more religious items, having a clear conscience while the villages “burn” outside their gates. How easily we humans err. The whole religion and debt part of the book was interesting. I found it fascinating how Graeber pointed out that great inspirational religious figures have risen when the debt cycle has been at its highest. Makes you think.

I won’t go into too much details here about the whole religious leader concept, but now I can’t unsee it. Debt is this weird driving force in our societies, shaping it for good and worst, making me think of it as this parasite—a concept, a meme that has latched itself onto humans without self-regulation systems not to kill the host. So debt causes civilizations to fail, but without it we would have never built the monuments we have or gone to space. Still, I wonder if we have arrived at that point in time where ours have to break. Will our kings pardon our loans as they have done in the past? Or shall we take half the continents with us as the nuclear bombs blow us sky high? Who knows where we will land? Maybe the leaders of men, the aristocrats, the bankers, and the money men will find another scheme to get past this point. Maybe history has taught us something. I doubt it. But there is always a perhaps. But that is what Graeber aims at: history teaching us something about the future. He hopes we start to see the cycles and understand how our societies are built and why. If we don’t, we fail and repeat the mistakes of our ancestors, and there will be more blood.

This is the end of my ramblings. The book is a mess, it’s a chore to read, and it has a bias against capitalism and debt, yet I highly recommend it. And I didn’t even touch most of the subjects in my review. Graeber also speaks about human value, the origin of freedom, and sin, for starters, in the book.

Thank you for reading, and have a great day ❤

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