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.

View all my reviews

Book review: The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist ManifestoThe Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The only thing you have to lose is your car keys. And chains.

“The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.”

The Communist Manifesto was part of my reading project to have some actual knowledge about the current bogeymen of cultural discourse. How could it not be? Various (sarcasm alert) intellectual giants, including Canadian self-help gurus and fake universities, have blamed Marx personally – poor Engels, always the bridesmaid, never the bride – and communism generally for every malady of the last 150 years. Obviously, they would know this after having studiously analysed the Manifesto… oh, and all of the hundreds of other texts on the subject.

What struck me about this text is how it captures a few essences of society, both then and now, with an insight that resonates. But it also manages to feel immature and underdeveloped compared to the later writings from Marx and Engels. From my further reading, this appears to be a common criticism.

There were interesting insights into women’s and workplace rights. These ideas from Marx and Engels’ have had to be implemented in our society. They realised that a capitalistic society couldn’t function the way it did. So those changes have been implemented. And it took social and union movements to make our society function, but not the communist revolution Marx and Engels expected.

Another interesting aspect was the definition of bourgeoise socialists. The idea of people advocating for small manageable changes to gradually improve society sounded an awful lot like centrist liberals or socially conscious millionaires/billionaires. They will admit the system is rigged and that it is unfair, but do you honestly expect them to sleep on less than 800 thread count sheets? Who is the real victim here?*

That isn’t to say there aren’t valid criticisms of the Manifesto. As an example, people like Sloterdijk have criticised Communism for channelling rage from their life in the direction of an “other” – in this case, the rich/capitalists. This rage is channelled by the ruling class of the communist movement and used to empower themselves. I.e. it becomes just another control mechanism, exchanging one oppressive power for another.

But it is clear from the Manifesto that this is/was not the intention. Something many critics miss.** Marx refused to speculate in detail about the nature of communism, arguing that it would arise through historical processes, and was not the realisation of a pre-determined moral ideal. Maybe this was a fatal flaw in his thinking, such that if he had been more prescriptive his writings wouldn’t have been used by authoritarian/totalitarian people to seize power.

There has been a lot of academic and scholastic work on Marxism since The Communist Manifesto. But this short work still remains a worthwhile read.

* See my review of Winners Take All.

** And let’s be honest, it is deliberately missed. Communism is the “other” of the 20th century. They were the evil we could rally together to defeat. So actual understanding of communism has been deliberately negatively framed. “Look at all those starving people under communism! Ignore all the starving people under capitalism!”

See my review of Socialism a Short Introduction.

Further reading:

View all my reviews

Book Review: Capital, Vol 1 by Karl Marx

Capital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist ProductionCapital, Vol 1: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production by Karl Marx

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you get to the point does that make you bourgeoisie?

Karl Marx’s classic text is a historical, economic, sociological, and philosophical work. Marx tries to show the ways in which workers are exploited by the capitalist mode of production and argues that the capitalist system is ultimately unstable because it cannot endlessly sustain profits. And this takes 1,100 pages to say.

Since it has become popular to call anyone left of a third-generation venture capitalist with their cash in the Caymans and their Nazi gold in a Swiss vault, I thought it was time to read some Marx. That way when people call someone a Post-Modern Marxist Communist I’ll have some idea of how little they know what any of those words mean.

I was actually surprised by this book since it was completely different from what I had expected. The sort of book I had been expecting was a philosophical or ethics text, instead, this is much more a history and economics book. The historical notes documented in Das Kapital are worth reading alone. They act as a reminder of what working/slavery conditions were deemed acceptable, and how similar the arguments from then are to the defences of sweatshops in poorer nations today.

But this book takes the long way round to make its points. If it had instead made its arguments and then offered up one example, then some appendixes, I’d have “enjoyed” this more. Too often it gets bogged down in labouring* the point rather than documenting history or encouraging you to join a union. Worth reading, but be prepared for a lot of waffle.

*Ahhhh, puns.

View all my reviews