Debt and the story of civilisation

by Limbic on March 16, 2012

Last Autumn, whilst rumbling across Belgrade on one of the city’s ancient trams, I listened to an interview on Tech Nation  with Anthropologist David Graeber , about his book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years“.

It is undoubtedly of of the best podcasts I heard last year.

The type of debt and financial structures that a civilisation adopts will dictate its fate.

Listen to the podcast for a quick but thorough introduction to the ideas in the book.

Here is an interview with the author on Naked Capitalism.

Bookforum also has fine review.

Neuroanthropology blog has a very details and brilliant overview.An excerpt, addressing one of the most interesting parts of Graeber’s thesis:

Graeber suggests that the ‘language of debt’ is a ‘moral’ one, not just an economic one. I would also add that we are told that debt default is an apocalyptic scenario, more dangerous than gutting social programs, disinvesting in infrastructure, making health care inaccessible, and bringing about all the slow moving catastrophes that often accompany austerity programs designed to increase states’ ability to pay their debts.

What makes Graeber’s analysis so interesting is that, because of his extensive historical research, he can actually trace how the current economic cosmology of debt arose, and point to periods when debt threatened to cause similar crises.  Specifically, he argues that the fluctuation historically back and forth between debt-backed or credit money (as we’ve essentially had since 1971) and bullion or commodity-backed money, is accompanied by larger shifts in patterns of warfare, slavery and debt bondage. Specifically, Graeber suggests that the expansion of debt is part and parcel of a virtual money system, one that has been dealt with before in human history. – Neuroanthropology blog

For another round up of links and videos, see  Book of the year: Debt (2011) by David Graeber

Coincidentally, David Brin recently blogged about Robert Wright’s new book “Nonzero” . In it he completely agrees with Graeber that the super rich are at war with the rest of us (also a view shared by Essential Intelligence ).

Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero . Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.
Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.

Except ours… but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs – who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.



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