A good interview popped up on infoshop news the other day, with David Graeber, a popular anarchist scholar, about his most recent book, “Debt: The First 5000 Years”. In light of the American debt crisis, he’s been getting a lot of attention lately. Intrigued, I tracked down a few more interviews, as well as an article he wrote, and now I think I’m going to have to track down a copy of the book.

Graeber’s perspective is interesting for a lot of reasons. First, because it’s based in history and anthropology, and demolishes a lot of the popular myths on the subject. For instance, the idea that money grew out of barter economies and later evolved into complex systems of credit. These ideas were popular with thinkers like Adam Smith, but after two centuries of archaeology in the “cradles of civilization”, it just doesn’t hold up. All of the first forms of money were based on credit, with coinage arising hundreds or thousands years later. Second, he draws a lot of important links between the evolution of this system and the military and political systems of the time. Coins tended to arise as a way to pay soldiers and finance wars of conquest. Debt, in general, became a basis for the legitimacy of taxes and slavery. And since ancient times, from the Jubilees (debt forgiveness) of the ancient Middle East to the texts of the great religions, there’s been a lot of resistance to these systems.

The analysis of the relationship between “virtual money” (credit) and coinage/metals addresses a question which has come to the forefront in recent years, particularly with some free market-ers and the anti-Federal Reserve crowd. Graeber’s work shatters the notion that money must be based on gold or silver reserves, but not without investigating the question deeply. Virtual money tends to arise in eras of peace (where central authorities can enforce it), and coinage in wars (plunder). “Epochs” using one or the other often last centuries, and as Graeber notes, one just ended in the 1970s when Nixon took America (and by extension, the world) off the gold standard.In many ways, it’s too early to tell what this will mean in the long run.

The problems we’re witnessing today are not new. Debt-based economics are as old as money itself, as are the problems associated with them. There’s nothing inherently “free” about these kinds of systems, and they almost always come associated with slavery, conquest or other forms of exploitation. This was well-enough recognized in the times of Buddha, Jesus or Mohammed. In ancient Sumerian, the word for “freedom” (the first we know of) literally translates to “return to mother”. As the kings of Babylon periodically wiped out everyone’s debts to keep the system from spiralling completely out of control, family members sold into debt-slavery would be freed and households could re-unite. Strange, isn’t it, that in the world’s first market economy, “freedom” wasn’t a term used to describe trade, but an escape from it?

An Interview With David Graeber: Debt’s History, Implications, and Critical Perspective Infoshop News
Debt: The First Five Thousand Years Excerpt, by David Graeber (Mute Magazine)
Another Interview via New Significance (allegedly from CNN originally)
9 Things You Didn’t Know About The History Of Debt Slideshow from Huffington Post
Debt: The First 5000 Years @ Amazon.com