Audiobook of Debt: The First 5000 Years

I’ve tried to read this book several times (libcom has a free PDF here) but I never get very far before petering out. I started listening to this free audiobook version and have gotten up to Chapter 5. I’ve been mostly listening as I cook breakfast or dinner.

Why is it good: it examines a bunch of economic received wisdom and rethinks it with reference to anthropology and the different ways humans have formed societies and functioned with each other today and in the past.

For example, in chapter 2, he examines the semi-mythic tale told in economics about the development of currency: that people at first bartered with each other, but found it too difficult to fulfill the “double coincidence of wants” to satisfy a trade partner, and so developed currency as a universal referent to denominate trades. He points out that there has never really been a society that used a barter economy; that barter is something that was done primarily with strangers, and often took place along with social rituals to defuse the possibility of violence (nobody likes getting cheated). If someone needs something they don’t have, there are many other solutions for solving the problem in any particular society, including: getting the item from a neighbor/friend, knowing that they will call in the implied debt at some future time, even if you haven’t arrived at an “exact value”; or your village might find a way to create what you need from collective resources.

I think rethinking things in this way makes it clear that “market societies” like the one we live in, in the US, are not at all “natural developments” and were deliberately created, through violence, and since people lived in other ways in the past, we can too in the future.

The author, David Graeber, is an anarchist anthropologist. He’s supposedly responsible for suggesting the slogan “We are the 99 percent” on an email list prior to the first day of Occupy. He wrote this essay on “bullshit jobs” that is very good and that he’s now turned into a book.


Graeber mentions something I find really interesting, that mostly after large disasters, people do not revert to a “state of nature” and begin using “savage” violence on each other to get what they want, that many examples show that people remain pretty calm and help one another instead of mainly victimizing each other. I’d like to see if he details this more later, because it makes me think about zombie/apocalyptic stories, which seem to take the “state of nature” result as a given, when it seems it is not at all.

Someone recently posted on social media that they were learning for the first time about how the US government reacted to Katrina (i.e., the mayor telling the cops that it was a time of “martial law” with no legal foundation; Blackwater mercs heavily armed showing up like it was a war zone; a majority white housing development outside the city so fearful of presumably black evacuees that they set up their own little death squad). The government (especially local cops) definitely assumed a resulting “state of nature” which did not develop and kept responding to the crisis as if it was happening when it was not.

Why do we keep making zombie/apocalyptic stories that envision the opposite, that people will inevitably be cruel, unable to cooperate and will victimize each other? I have some ideas, one of which is that zombie shows/apocalyptic stories envision the kind of insecurity, violence and destruction that is created by powerful “Western” countries abroad happening in “our” society.