Book Review: Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber


Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber – Available Here

Reviewing this is hard for a couple of reasons. First of all, for me, it is out of my wheelhouse. Both anthropologically and economically. That first thing being said, that is why I read. So I can at least glimpse things beyond my small wall of groundlings and scientific and literary half-memories. Second, however, is slightly more complicated. When you bring up the concept of debt, look at it across four dimensions and realize that it’s all ultimately a means of control and serves as little more than the de facto means of defining success, worth, and happiness in a westernly globalized world you can get some reactions that more emotional than coherent, more minutely focused as opposed to grand specked.

So instead of going into this view expecting any of that I’ll approach it the same why I do my non-fiction in general and simply preface it by saying that I am $60,000 in debt, make less than that in two years of working, and live a constant anxiety of when debtor’s prisons are going to come back and my diabetic ass will convulse its way into a pauper’s grave behind the prison grounds.

Now, above all else, Debt is incredibly well written. It is quotable in both content and it’s tone of phrase, the tracing of money throughout history and divisions of certain currencies throughout cultures and the way our ancients and medieval wielded debt does a lot to paint a portrait of debt not as a number, but as a sort of negative money that could be creatively manipulated like putty in order to fit whatever power/society demanded of it. It is no concrete thing. And that is a strange thing to me as for the last several years I have felt it just as a weight and one that I would someday succumb to or pay off through some Hail Mary literary feat.

Graeber does an excellent job showing through example that debt, as we understand is only the most recent iteration of an age-old concept and as real as it feels, it simply isn’t. Good or bad it is a construct tied to morality, religion, and a myriad of other ingrained beliefs and social contracts. It is a social game you play as part of being assimilated into a human group or perhaps just simply haphazardly tying you to it. Anything more than that seems to be up for any and all sorts of debate.

And that debate is worth having, and therefore this book is worth reading. Any system, broken or not, deserves to be shaken to its core every now and then.

“As it turns out, we don’t “all” have to pay our debts. Only some of us do.”
― David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

About Tietsu

Someday the words that fill my brain will fill cheap paperback books. Until then, I will collect them here.
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