Friday 2012-04-06

Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber

Cultural Anthropology's ongoing self-redefining has not been kind, and if works like Graeber's are the future, we'll witness the intellectual abandonment of a discipline.

Instead of a survey introduction of humanity's interactions involving debt, we get cherry-picked noble savage stories which support Graeber's position that debt is bad and people should be able to walk away from debt without any penalties.

While humans can live day to day gathering what is needed, debt and savings seem like expansions of our time horizons: savings seem like an accumulation of the past into the now, and debt seems like a condensation of the future into the present. Since debt seems like it reduces the marginality of human survival, a history of debt should be long, diverse, and quite storied.

For example, look at how and where we make promises. They can be between friends, and they can also be completely commercial. When you're in a grocery store, and trying to decide what toothpaste to buy, the labelling on the box is making a promise that when you get home and open the box and use the contents to brush your teeth, you'll be happy with it.

Why do we believe the words/images on the box? What makes for more credible debt?

At even a survey level, a five thousand year history would be a massive undertaking; though I would very much like to read such a work.

[permalink] This might be more to your taste. When I checked it, the site was down, but very much up at the Internet Archive. I wouldn't call it authoritative or exhaustive, but it seems pretty well researched and generally agrees with other reasonable sources I've been exposed to. You might like the list of sources more than the article itself. Theo