This is a look at our economy and how it came to be from an unusual perspective: that of an anthropologist. In contrast to historians and economists, David Graeber is much more interested in the human aspect and the societal peculiarities that are at the root of our economic system. Before money came into existence, there was already debt because people used complicated credit systems to buy and sell goods, and this division into creditors and debtors never went away again.
First, Graeber tackles the myth of the barter economy that supposedly proceeded and necessitated the emergence of money. This famed barter economy never existed because barter was only a by-product of the credit systems that were already in use in Mesopotamia in 3,500 BC. Money came later, and Graeber calls it a “creature of the state” that also has a strong link to religion. States then created markets, which in turn required states, and were fuelled by the wars that were waged by them. All this is explained in a clear and accessible way, and some of the points he raises and conclusions he draws left a deep impression, for instance, when he discusses the link between debt and an ever-changing perception of morality, or when he argues how the rise of patriarchy was connected to the creation of markets, and how slavery played a central role in the forming of market economies. Another highlight for me was his description of the apocalyptic nature of capitalism, which is caused not only by an overwhelming obsession with its own, and apparently always imminent, demise, but also by such an explosive disposition that the next disaster is always just around the corner. If that observation wasn’t so painfully true and absolutely terrifying at the same time, it would have made me laugh.
Graeber writes that his intention was “to throw open perspectives”, and “to enlarge our sense of possibilities”. He definitely achieves those goals, although I wish that he would have been more expansive in his conclusion. As such a radical thinker, I wanted him to present me with an escape or an alternative, or at least some hope. A look into the future, however, does not happen, which is disappointing because I felt that the book built up to it. Instead it shows the past, which does explain the present, but leaves us to draw our own conclusion on what could or should happen. Graeber wants us to rethink our relationship with debt, which I agree is necessary, but the questions I would have thought needed answering is how we can do that effectively, and what the consequences could or should be. How do we escape this system that is based on a principle which has ruled human existence for more than 5,000 years? At this point in history, we are trapped, and to throw off the shackles is a monumental task, but probably an imperative one.
CBR12 Bingo: Money!