The First 5,000 Years

Book - 2011
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Economic history states that money replaced a bartering system, yet there isn't any evidence to support this axiom. Anthropologist Graeber presents a stunning reversal of this conventional wisdom. For more than 5,000 years, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods. Since the beginning of the agrarian empires, humans have been divided into debtors and creditors. Through time, virtual credit money was replaced by gold and the system as a whole went into decline. This fascinating history is told for the first time.
Publisher: Brooklyn, N.Y. : Melville House, c2011.
ISBN: 9781933633862
Characteristics: 534 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.


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Oct 22, 2020

This is the work of an intellectual giant. Fiercely original and deep. Thank you, David Graeber.

Apr 09, 2018

Excellent treatment. Will change your appreciation of money and debt and the real cost of debt. Read Graeber, an anthropologist, before you read any economist.

SCL_Justin Jul 18, 2017

I love David Graeber's Debt so much, but it's hard to say why. That's partially because of how much I like it and partially because it seems to be about so much.

The idea is to look at human history and how the idea of debt has been constructed. Graeber talks about societies where money is used only for the important things in life and the idea of being in debt for something like food makes little sense. He goes into the myth of barter ever existing the way Adam Smith and so many subsequent economists talked about it. He goes into a history of merchants through the world (not limiting himself to Christendom, which means his conception of the Middle Ages start off in China and India) and how religions incorporate their society’s struggle with the idea of all-purpose money. There’s stuff about the ages when Christ and Gautama and Mohammed were changing the world and how separating economics from religion is crazy.

It was an amazing book. I have my buddy who knows about economics reading it now so I can get a bit more informed opinion about it, but for now, I would recommend it to anyone who enjoyed/had their thoughts provoked by Guns Germs and Steel.

Dec 27, 2016

This is the type of book you'd like to have on your bookshelf as reference material.
There are extensive chapter notes as well as an amazing bibliography.
I would suggest you read chapters 11and 12 first and then start from the beginning to read the entire book. By the time you reach these chapters they will make complete sense.
He makes an important connection between markets, violence and debt.
He also says that humans by nature start any economic organization from a basis of communism.
Overall a really good book.

SFPL_PortolaLib Mar 22, 2016

A surprisingly readable book about the history of debt, which Graeber shows to be the history of money itself. There's just as much philosophy and anthropology as economics here, and the book can meander, but readers will still benefit from the experience.

redban Feb 02, 2015

Looking forward to Graeber's latest book "Bureaucracy"!

May 20, 2014

Though interesting the author's thesis is flawed. Like the flaw in classical economics the author attempts to describe complex systems in too simplistic a way and draws conclusions strictly to fit his argument. Just because you can find someone in history who said what you are thinking doesn't make your argument correct. Overall the author has a good grasp on money and how it is made but his conclusions on the causes of markets can be explained in other ways. He appears too limit his research ( or at least those he quotes ) to a limited amount of sources. Overall worth reading, however it is not ( nor could there ever be ) a complete history nor a balanced look at the subject. His conclusions are too conspiratorial to be accepted at face value.

Nov 13, 2013

Wow ... this booked blew my mind. I recommend it for all of those who want to further their knowledge on finances and human behaviour. A must-read book

Sep 16, 2013

I enjoyed this book immensely. I have a background in economics, with a focus on political economy, but I also have strong leanings towards anthropology (it was what my wife studied). I have read a lot of material critical of capitalism - though largely from economists or economic historians - and nowhere have I encountered a work of such major importance or quality of research. Graeber breaks the book into two halves: the first dealing with the theoretical foundations of his argument (which is quite novel) and then the second half which deals with an actual history of the great epochs of societal evolution. He makes clear that debt relations and state power are the true origins of money and markets, and not the other way around as is commonly assumed in most orthodox economics works. Don't be frightened by the page count or the seemingly "dull" subject matter - Graeber makes the material accessible to all and highlights the important themes throughout to remind the reader of his overall argument.

One of, if not the best, book I have picked up in a long time. Read it!

Aug 01, 2013

David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a broad and sometimes tedious stroll through human history with a focus on personal economic relationships, exchange and indebtedness. Basically, it's less about currency and more about anthropology. Graeber's premise is a startling one: Contrary to the simplistic view of economic history—one that says before there was money there was bartering and that was all—humans always have and still to this day use debt as a means to interact with one another. Insights like this and numerous historical examples populate the book, but be forewarned that the majority of the timeline covers the ancient and pre-Renaissance periods. If early history is your thing, then maybe you'll have a better go of it than me.

My favorite takeaway is a quote that isn't even attributed to Graeber. It appears early on in order to foreshadow that the history of debt has more causes and effects than any one answer can provide. I'm adopting it as my new mantra, and I suspect it will be even more relevant as I get older and try to make sense of our multifaceted world.

"For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong." --H.L. Mencken

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Aug 04, 2020

"One element, however, tends to go flagrantly missing in even the most vivid conspiracy theories about the banking system, let alone in official accounts: that is, the role of war and military power. There's a reason why the wizard has such strange capacity to create money out of nothing. Behind him, there's a man with a gun.

"True, in one sense, he's been there from the start. I have already pointed out that modern money is based on government debt, and that governments borrow money in order to finance wars. This is just as true today as it was in the age of King Phillip II. The creation of central banks represented a permanent institutionalization of that marriage between the interests of warriors and financiers that had already begun to emerge in Renaissance Italy, and that eventually became the foundation of financial capitalism."

Source: David Graeber. Debt: The First 5,000 Years (New York: Melville House Publishing, 2011) p. 364.


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