Book Review: Debt The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

Debt: The First 5,000 YearsDebt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Invent money so you can take it off of people… Ingenious?

Debt: The First 5,000 Years is a comprehensive dive into the history of money, credit, and society/economy. It acts as a direct refutation of the commonly taught economic ideas about money and exchange systems that make up our economies (past and present). In doing so, Graeber draws on countless examples, historical evidence, and anthropological research to outline the major flaws with our current economic system.

This book was a very important read. It doesn’t just overturn many assumptions, it shows how those assumptions are taught as fact to perpetuate our current system. But probably the most important point Debt makes is that our current system doesn’t fully account for the human economy which means it will ultimately fail and we need to replace it with a system that does account for everything.

That said, at about halfway through Debt I found myself starting to wave my hand for Graeber to move it along a bit. At two-thirds, I was signalling for him to wrap it up already. Having read several of Graeber’s books and essays now, I feel Debt was his most important but also most meandering. In some ways, it reminded me of Das Kapital in this respect.

I fully expect this book will be ignored by economists, with fists firmly shoved into ears. You should probably read it though.

Comments while reading:
I’ve heard the barter (myth) explanation so many times. But now that I’ve read some examples of where that isn’t used, or is used quite differently from what we conventionally are told happened in the past, you realise that its pretty much a whole-cloth nonsense. I mean, who’d have thunk that sharing would have been common among our ancestors? It’s still common today when things go pear-shaped. So bloody obvious.

MMT explainer on the creation of money. Having read about MMT (Modern Monetary Theory) in Stephanie Kelton’s book, seeing it used here only reinforces both texts. Someone needs to create a market, hand out credit and demand a proportion be repaid. Goods are exchanged. Eventually, money turns up as an accounting measure.

Interesting side note about the Hindu philosophy of Nyaya that rivals pre-Socratic philosophy. It has an interesting idea about how logic shouldn’t be doing a content-independent “formal language” but instead incorporating logic with content in the language of the philosophy. They also independently came up with atomism. Funny how we don’t hear Nyaya discussed but we are hammered with “western philosophy”.

Two-thirds through and I’m signalling for Graeber to wrap it up. I understand that when overthrowing orthodoxy you’re going to have to show your work… but I kinda feel like the point could have been made in a few hundred pages less.

Summary: the orthodox view of money and the economy is wrong. It doesn’t correctly understand nor value the entirety of our human economy, which is more correctly a credit system. The credit system is actually how our society works, thus we have to move our economic system to one that utilises this. Essentially, mutual aid and trade. The evidence for this is seen in every community, every time there is a disaster, and throughout history. /end.

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Book review: The Conquest of Bread by Peter Kropotkin

The Conquest of BreadThe Conquest of Bread by Pyotr Kropotkin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“All things are for all.” Not sure if that is an Amazon store tagline or an anarchist catchphrase.

Pyotr Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread is an outline of the failings of capitalistic systems, a critique of the failings of communist systems, and a proposal for a system free from hierarchies and poverty. Regarded as a classic text of political anarchism, particularly as the criticisms of communism were seen to come true in the twentieth century, Kropotkin is probably more relevant today than when he was writing.

The Conquest of Bread was an interesting read that I couldn’t help but feel was politically current, whilst being socially historical. The overall political message and much of the details Kropotkin goes into are insightful and you can see why the Occupy Movement and Breadtube were inspired by this book. With the rise of higher levels of mechanisation, and with the coming automation of huge parts of the economy, there is much to be said for a rethink of how our society is run based on these ideas.

Socially, however, many of the points are a little dated and/or naive. After reading chapter 9 (The Need for Luxury) I commented that this was definitely written a hundred years ago. While I don’t think he is incorrect, removing status and consumerist ideals does change our wants, it was a statement that did exist in a time when cars didn’t exist. This changed landscape necessitates a slightly different idea of what people want, need, and what will be “normal”.*

There were a couple of points that I disagreed with. Kropotkin was a little simplistic in dismissing “middlemen” as doing nothing. While Bullshit Jobs apply, there is still the need for things like distribution and organisation by middlemen. This is probably because Kropotkin is imagining a system that is much more localised than our current global system. Which leads to my next point on specialisation. While there is something to be said for his ideas around everyone pitching in and learning something of what others do and contribute, Kropotkin doesn’t really appreciate the idea of specialisation and having high levels of skill vs the average person who can do it but sucks at it. His example, which is a critique of Adam Smith’s pin maker, is true to an extent. But our modern technology operates at a much higher level now. There is no way an office worker could go out to the farm and be a farmer for a few days. They could do menial labour on the farm, sure, but farming is highly complex now, and not something you can just do for a few days a year, as he suggests.

I could go further into the problems with his understanding of agriculture, which is… antiquated. But those quibbles don’t detract from the idea of being able to provide food for all. In fact, removing the profit motive from agriculture might alleviate a lot of problems.

A very interesting read that I’d highly recommend.

* It was notable that while “men” were the focus, there were some particularly progressive ideas about women in society. If he had been writing after the advent of the pill, I’d bet the comments would have been downright modern.

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