Tag Archives: Barter

David Graeber’s “Debt”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

Graeber’s book contains many interesting historical observations but lacks a concise argument to convince a brainwashed neoclassical economist looking for coherent arguments on money and debt. After 60 pages, 340 more seemed too much.

Chapter one:

… the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it man 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? … debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. … to become simple, cold, and impersonal … transferable.

… money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. … the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. … the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics.

…The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, on “moral grounds” until 1898.

… historically, credit money comes first [before bullion, coins]

… ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry … by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors.

… the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter … but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state … Historical reality reveals [that the state and the market] have always been intertwined. … all these misconceptions … tend to reduce all human relations to exchange … [but] the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence … the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. … an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money …

… many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free market theorists from medieval Persia …

Chapter two (“The Myth of Barter”) contains questionable claims about economics as well as interesting historical facts (or claims?):

When economists speak of the origins of money … debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. …

Barter … was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies …

… “truck and barter”’ [in many languages] literally meant ”to trick, bamboozle, or rip off.”

What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, … never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, … has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

Chapter three (“Primordial Debts”) argues the the myth of barter is central to the discourse of economics, which according to Graeber downplays the state as opposed to markets, exchange, and individual choice. He tries to confront this view with Alfred Mitchell-Innes’ credit theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money, the Wizard of Oz (i.e. “ounce”), and John Maynard Keynes (original?) claim that banks create money.

In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” [money-Geld, sacrifice-Geild, tax-Gild, guilt]

Wikipedia article on the book:

A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.

Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they… can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.

Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception”.