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Debt: The first 5000 years – Book Review

David Graeber’ s “Debt: The first 5000 years”; is a historical journey of the concept of money lending. As a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, Graeber takes aim at the classical economic thought, the exploitative nature of modern debt markets and the international organisations that are enabling the growth of disparity between historically wealthy nations and not so fortunate ones.

Graeber kicks off the book describing how big banks riddled with excess deposits and nowhere to lend created a concept of marketing loans to dictators and government regimes of third world countries. Later plaguing them with compounding interest and trapping them in debt they could never come out of. Further he attacks the IMF for denying any refinance for debt laden countries and imposition of austerity measures until they were repaid. The book challenges core economic ideals that existed before market as we know it today.

To understand debt, the book explores the concepts of exchange, markets and credit systems analysing findings about Mesopotamian writings which are the earliest discovered records of credit systems until U.S. monetary policy in the 1980s and beyond. By understanding how historic practices of slavery and patriarchy functioned, we gain a unique perspective into the development of the debtor-creditor relationship. With these seemingly distant concepts analysed together over the course of history the author makes some revelations as to how these old age concepts have come to shape society functions invisible to an untrained eye. We are introduced to the concepts of Chartalism that systematically oppose this belief. The book goes on to investigate how there is no concrete evidence of barter existing in traditional societies. Money it seems has the capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic-and by doing so justify actions that seem violent and obscene. The author traces how one’s debt has been synonymous with his honour and how this close relationship along with influences from religious beliefs and practices has created an environment where debt has been established as an obligation if one cares about his honour, dignity and does not intend to be degraded amongst equals.

The book is an anthropologically enlightening read, and echo’s the authors widely popular dislike of the functioning of debt markets. As an activist, David Graeber has been a vocal force in the Occupy Wall Street Movement and is widely recognised for creating the slogan “We are the 99 percent” which has since become the centre to protests against crony capitalism worldwide. His socialist leanings are evident all through the book and viewpoints may appear biased. While many of his opinions discussed may be debatable, it surely opens several new paradigms into the thinking of Debt. A good read for the incongruous mind!