David Graeber’s ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Year‘ is easily the most thought-provoking, insightful, erudite and provocative book I have read over the last few years. While you can disagree with particular arguments or resist certain conclusions, it will shake your most fundamental assumptions about social life. After reading the book, you will never see money, credit, war, debt, slavery, states, religion, capitalism, finance, economics, anthropology, presents, hierarchy, and history in the same way again.
Don’t be fooled by the title (and the horrendous cover) – this book is nothing less than a reconstruction of world history in the grand traditions of Toynbee, Spengler, Jaspers, and Braudel. Debt plays center stage but one learns just as much about the genesis of the state, the origin of money, the history of slavery and the meaning of gifts. The approach of the book not only spans history, anthropology, social science and philosophy but switches effortlessly between the empirical and the normative, the theoretical and the metaphysical. Which is actually, my major problem with the book. The prose is so convincing and the erudition of the author so deep that one has to be constantly on the alert to separate the evidence from the opinion, the analysis from the speculation, the social critique from the dispassionate search for scientific truth (I suspect Graeber wouldn’t really agree that these can be separated anyways).
Personally, I found the demolition with the help of anthropological evidence of the ‘foundational myth of the discipline of economics’ – the origin of money from barter – the most convincing part of the book. You can get a taste of the argument here. The chapter is important also because it illuminates so well the differences between economics and anthropology as modes of scientific inquiry.
On the other hand, I found the last parts of the book the least convincing. It’s not that the arguments about the links between the origin of modern states, the rise of capitalism, slavery, and credit are totally misplaced, but they all just seem to have been pushed too far.
The book has already been discussed and reviewed in numerous blogs, magazines, etc. (see for example the forum here). It was actually out of print just before Christmas both in the US and Europe, but now you have no excuse – get it and get ready to have your world shattered.