Debt: The First 5,000 Years

September 8, 2014

Debt has been transformed from something that ties us together into something that isolates and alienates us.

David Graeber’s epic book is a people’s history of debt from Biblical times through the present day. But mostly it’s about one historical moment: the moment when debt stopped being the ties of mutual obligation woven through a community and began referring to specific transactions between isolated economic actors—the moment debt became quantified.

This allows debts to become simple, cold, and impersonal—which, in turn, allows them to be transferable. If one owes a favor, or one’s life, to another human being—it is owed to that person specifically. But if one owes forty thousand dollars at 12-percent interest, it doesn’t really matter who the creditor is; neither does either of the two parties have to think much about what the other party needs, wants, is capable of doing—as they certainly would if what was owed was a favor, or respect, or gratitude.

In other words, quantifying a debt is a kind of moral sleight-of-hand which allows us to dismiss our moral obligations to each other. For example, if I entered someone’s home, forced them out into the street at gunpoint, and locked their door behind me, the act would be outrageously immoral. But when a bank does the same, the mere existence of a number owed to the bank by the individual immediately absolves the bank of any moral culpability. In the author’s words:

How is it that moral obligations between people come to be thought of as debts, and as a result, end up justifying behavior that would otherwise seem utterly immoral?

But one might wonder, haven’t debts always been quantified as some number of dollars, denarii, sea shells, or cattle? It’s for this reason that Graeber begins by addressing “the myth of barter”. The myth goes something like this: before the modern invention of money, Mr. Farmer would bring all his bushels of wheat into town and trade them to Mrs. Weaver for clothes, Mr. Cobbler for shoes, etc. Then some genius invented money and everything became much more efficient. I myself remember learning this story in grade school and marveling at how inefficient it must have been to have to carry your wares around every time you went shopping. And indeed it probably would have been inefficient, if the story weren’t entirely fictional:

The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money; all available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

So if people didn’t trade in this way, how did pre-monetary economies work? On credit and trust. Far from being a modern invention, credit is older than money itself. If I were a cheesemaker and my kids needed shoes, I would go the cobbler and he would make them some. Then, when he wanted some cheese for the winter, he’d come by my shop and I’d remember my kids shoes, and I’d give him some cheese. We’d be in each other’s debt, but never quantify it. If I refused him the cheese, he’d tell our friends and I’d be shunned, but no one would foreclose on my house. This isn’t an economy as much as a community. We moderns have lost this sense of trust and the moral obligation to care for each other in our economic relations, and the myth of barter is simply our attempt to pretend they never existed in the first place.

(Before money, barter was indeed employed not between fellow villagers but between strangers and even enemies. Only when you don’t trust someone do you require that they put everything on the table and exchange all at once.)

I’ll leave off here, but at this point Graeber’s only getting started. Debt is a far-ranging voyage through history which reveals that many of our popular conceptions of debt, money, and morality not only contradict historical sources, but were introduced with a specific political agenda in mind. Graeber titles his first chapter “On the Experience of Moral Confusion,” and indeed so many of our modern misconceptions around debt have precisely this effect: to confuse us just enough so as not to immediately see monstrous injustices committed by the powerful for what they are. To illustrate, I’ll close with the example of Haiti:

But debt is not just victor’s justice; it can also be a way of punishing winners who weren’t supposed to win. The most spectacular example of this is the history of the Republic of Haiti—the first poor country to be placed in permanent debt peonage. Haiti was a nation founded by former plantation slaves who had the temerity not only to rise up in rebellion, amidst grand declarations of universal rights and freedoms, but to defeat Napoleon’s armies sent to return them to bondage. France immediately insisted that the new republic owed it 150 million francs in damages for the expropriated plantations, as well as the expenses of outfitting the failed military expeditions, and all other nations, including the United States, agreed to impose an embargo on the country until it was paid. The sum was intentionally impossible (equivalent to about 18 billion dollars), and the resultant embargo ensured that the name “Haiti” has been a synonym for debt, poverty, and human misery ever since.

“This will appear normal. This will not seem a monstrous perversity,” to steal a phrase from The New Inquiry’s review of Debt. Such is the power of what we believe about debt. To understand how things got tone this way, read the book.