Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson’s completely unreadable “the Ascent of Money:” it mixes in the author’s politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson’s right.) In this case, Graeber’s book covers more facts than political lecturing but it’s bumped several stars for being overt.
However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian – Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty “stuff.” The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market — the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.
Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it’s glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.
What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages — Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, “Yeah this is a great book on ROME!” is good. Saying, “This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!” is not. It’s an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.
Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.
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