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You are here You are here: Home Library 300-Sociology Debt: The First 5,000 Years
  Debt: The First 5,000 Years  
A Reply to Robert Murphy’s “Have
Anthropologists Overturned Menger?”

debt 5000 years 240By David Graeber, who currently holds the position of Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths University London.

Prior to this he was an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University.

He is the author of  ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’  which is available from Amazon

Introduction

Last week, Robert F. Murphy published a piece on the webpage of the Von Mises Institute responding to some points I made in a recent interview on Naked Capitalism, where I mentioned that the standard economic accounts of the emergence of money from barter appears to be wildly wrong. Since this contradicted a position taken by one of the gods of the Austrian pantheon, the 19th century economist Carl Menger, Murphy apparently felt honor-bound to respond.

In a way, Murphy’s essay barely merits response. In the interview I’m simply referring to arguments made in my book, ‘Debt: The First 5000 Years’. In his response, Murphy didn’t even consult the book; in fact he later admitted he was responding at least in part not even to the interview but to an inaccurate summary of my position someone had made in another blog!

We are not, in other words, dealing with a work of scholarship. However, in the blogsphere, the quality or even intention of an argument often doesn’t matter. I have to assume Murphy was aware that all he had to do was to write something — anything really — and claim it rebutted me, and the piece would be instantly snatched up by a right-wing echo chamber, mirrored on half a dozen websites and that followers of those websites would then dutifully begin appearing across the web declaring to everyone willing to listen that my work had been rebutted. The fact that I instantly appeared on the Von Mises web page to offer a detailed response, and that Murphy has since effectively conceded, writing an elaborate climb-down saying that he had no intention to cast doubt on my argument as a whole at all, only to note that I had not definitively disproved Menger’s, has done nothing to change this. Indeed, on both US and UK Amazon, I have seen fans of Austrian economics appear to inform potential buyers that I am an economic ignoramus whose work has been entirely discredited.

I am posting this more detailed version of my reply not just to set the record straight, but because the whole question of the origins of money raises other interesting questions — not least, why any modern economist would get so worked up about the question. Let me begin by filling in some background on the current state of scholarly debate on this question, explain my own position, and show what an actual debate might have been like.

First, the history:

1) Adam Smith first proposed in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ that as soon as a division of labor appeared in human society, some specializing in hunting, for instance, others making arrowheads, people would begin swapping goods with one another (6 arrowheads for a beaver pelt, for instance.) This habit, though, would logically lead to a problem economists have since dubbed the ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem — for exchange to be possible, both sides have to have something the other is willing to accept in trade. This was assumed to eventually lead to the people stockpiling items deemed likely to be generally desirable, which would thus become ever more desirable for that reason, and eventually, become money. Barter thus gave birth to money, and money, eventually, to credit.

2) 19th century economists such as Stanley Jevons and Carl Menger [1] kept the basic framework of Smith’s argument, but developed hypothetical models of just how money might emerge from such a situation. All assumed that in all communities without money, economic life could only have taken the form of barter. Menger even spoke of members of such communities “taking their goods to market” — presuming marketplaces where a wide variety of products were available but they were simply swapped directly, in whatever way people felt advantageous.

3) Anthropologists gradually fanned out into the world and began directly observing how economies where money was not used (or anyway, not used for everyday transactions) actually worked. What they discovered was an at first bewildering variety of arrangements, ranging from competitive gift-giving to communal stockpiling to places where economic relations centered on neighbors trying to guess each other’s dreams. What they never found was any place, anywhere, where economic relations between members of community took the form economists predicted: “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.” Hence in the definitive anthropological work on the subject, Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey concludes, “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” [2]

a. Just in way of emphasis: economists thus predicted that all (100%) non-monetary economies would be barter economies. Empirical observation has revealed that the actual number of observable cases — out of thousands studied — is 0%.

b. Similarly, the number of documented marketplaces where people regularly appear to swap goods directly without any reference to a money of account is also zero. If any sociological prediction has ever been empirically refuted, this is it.

4) Economists have for the most part accepted the anthropological findings, if directly confronted with them, but not changed any of the assumptions that generated the false predictions. Meanwhile, all textbooks continue to report the same old sequence: first there was barter, then money, then credit — except instead of actually saying that tribal societies regularly practiced barter, they set it up as an imaginative exercise (“imagine what you would have to do if you didn’t have money!” or vaguely imply that anything actual tribal societies did do must have been barter of some kind.

Barter

So what I said was in no way controversial. When confronted on why economists continue to tell the same story, the usual response is: “Well, it’s not like you provide us with another story!” In a way they have a point. The problem is, there’s no reason there should be a single story for the origin of money. Here let me lay out my own actual argument:

1) If money is simply a mathematical system whereby one can compare proportional values, to say 1 of these is worth 17 of those, which may or may not also take the form of a circulating medium of exchange, then something along these lines must have emerged in innumerable different circumstances in human history for different reasons. Presumably money as we know it today came about through a long process of convergence.

2) However, there is every reason to believe that barter, and its attendant ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem, was not one of the circumstances through which money first emerged.

a. The great flaw of the economic model is that it assumed spot transactions. I have arrowheads, you have beaver pelts, if you don’t need arrowheads right now, no deal. But even if we presume that neighbors in a small community are exchanging items in some way, why on earth would they limit themselves to spot transactions? If your neighbor doesn’t need your arrowheads right now, he probably will at some point in the future, and even if he won’t, you’re his neighbor — you will undoubtedly have something he wants, or be able to do some sort of favor for him, eventually. But without assuming the spot trade, there’s no double coincidence of wants problem, and therefore, no need to invent money.

b. What anthropologists have in fact observed where money is not used is not a system of explicit lending and borrowing, but a very broad system of non-enumerated credits and debts. In most such societies, if a neighbor wants some possession of yours, it usually suffices simply to praise it (“what a magnificent pig!”); the response is to immediately hand it over, accompanied by much insistence that this is a gift and the donor certainly would never want anything in return. In fact, the recipient now owes him a favor. Now, he might well just sit on the favor, since it’s nice to have others beholden to you, or he might demand something of an explicitly non-material kind (“you know, my son is in love with your daughter…”) He might ask for another pig, or something he considers roughly equivalent in kind. But it’s almost impossible to see how any of this would lead to a system whereby it’s possible to measure proportional values. After all, even if, as sometimes happens, the party owing one favor heads you off by presenting you with some unwanted present, and one considers it inadequate—a few chickens, for example — one might mock him as a cheapskate, but one is unlikely to feel the need to come up with a mathematical formula to measure just how cheap you consider him to be. As a result, as Chris Gregory observed, what you ordinarily find in such ‘gift economies’ is a broad ranking of different types of goods — canoes are roughly the same as heirloom necklaces, both are superior to pigs and whale teeth, which are superior to chickens, etc — but no system whereby you can measure how many pigs equal one canoe. [3]

3) All this is not to say that barter never occurs. It is widely attested in many times and places. But it typically occurs between strangers, people who have no moral relations with one another. There is a reason why in just about all European languages, the words ‘truck and barter’ originally meant ‘to bilk, swindle, or rip off.’ [4] Still there is no reason to believe such barter would ever lead to the emergence of money. This is because barter takes three known forms:

a. Barter can take the form of occasional interactions between people never likely to meet each other again. This might involve ‘double coincidence of wants’ problems but it will not lead to the emergence of a system of money because rare and occasional events won’t lead to the emergence of a system of any kind.

b. If there are ongoing trade relations between strangers in moneyless economies, it’s because each side knows the other side has some specific product(s) they want to acquire — so there is no ‘double coincidence of wants’ problem. Rather than leading to people having to create some circulating medium of exchange (money) to facilitate transactions, such trade normally leads to the creation of a system of traditional equivalents relatively insulated from vagaries of supply and demand.

c. Sometimes, barter becomes a widespread mode of interaction when you have people used to using money in everyday transactions who are suddenly forced to carry on without it. This can happen, for instance, because the money supply dries up (Russia in the ‘90s), or because the people in question have no access to it (prisoners or denizens of POW camps.) This cannot lead to the invention of money because money has already been invented. [5]

So this is the actual argument, which Prof. Murphy could easily have ascertained with a glance at the relevant chapter of the book.

Murphy's irrelevance

It’s easy to see from this that his counter-arguments range from extremely weak to completely irrelevant. Let me take them on in turn, such as they are

  • Murphy argues that the fact that there are no documented cases of barter economies doesn’t matter, because all that is really required is for there to have been some period of history, however brief, where barter was widespread for money to have emerged. This is about the weakest argument one can possibly make. Remember, economists originally predicted all (100%) non-monetary economies would operate through barter. The actual figure of observable cases is 0%. Economists claim to be scientists. Normally, when a scientist’s premises produce such spectacularly non-predictive results, the scientist begins working on a new set of premises. Saying “but can you prove it didn’t happen sometime long long ago where there are no records?” is a classic example of special pleading. In fact, I can’t prove it didn’t. I also can’t prove that money wasn’t introduced by little green men from Mars in a similar unknown period of history. Given the weight of the evidence, the burden of proof is on the Murphys of the world to produce some plausible reason why all observable cases of moneyless societies fail to operate the way Menger predicted, and therefore, why we have any reason to believe some unknown age would have been any different; and this, he does not even attempt to do.
  • Murphy then goes on to produce a straw man saying that a system where people borrow things from one another and then turn to political authorities to regulate the system would not produce money. True enough, but it seems a bit irrelevant considering (a) I never say people would be “borrowing” from each other in the way he describes, (b) I never attribute any role to political authorities in this process, and (c) rather than saying the informal system of favors I do describe would lead to the invention of money, I explicitly say that it would not.
  • He then restates Menger’s argument about how money could emerge from barter, an argument that given the weight of evidence so far presented would only be relevant if there was some reason to believe money could not have emerged in any other way. He gives no such reason, other than that he cannot personally imagine money emerging any other way.
  • Murphy ends by noting the famous study of how widespread barter between prisoners in POW camps seem to have led to the use of cigarettes as money — an argument which, if he had bothered to read the entire interview, let alone the book, he would have known is actually a confirmation of my argument (see 3c above) and not a refutation.
International trade

To be fair, Murphy has one other argument — he adopts the position, first proposed by Karl Marx [!], that money first emerged from barter in the process of international trade. The evidence is as follows: while the first records we have of money are administrative documents from Mesopotamia, in which money is used almost exclusively in keeping accounts within large bureaucratic organizations (Temples and Palaces), the system is based on a fixed equivalence between barley and silver, and that since silver was a trade item, this shows that Mesopotamian merchants must have been using silver as a medium of exchange in spot transactions with long-distance trade partners for that system to then be adopted as a unit of account in administrative transactions within Temples. This merits a bit more of a response — not because it is a particularly cogent argument (it’s basically circular: “since money can only have arisen through barter, if silver was money, it must have arisen through barter”), but because it raises some interesting questions about how money actually did emerge.

As I remarked above, occasional, irregular exchange between strangers will not generate a money system — since irregular, occasional exchange will not produce any kind of system. In ancient times, if you do see regular exchange between strangers, it’s because there are specific goods that each side knows they want or need. One has to bear in mind that under ancient conditions, long-distance trade was extremely dangerous. You don’t cross mountains, deserts, and oceans, risking death in a dozen different ways, so as to show up with a collection of goods you think someone might want, in order to see if they happen to have something you might want too. You show up because you know there are people who have always wanted woolens and who have always had lapis lazuli. As noted above, logically, what such a situation would lead to is a series of conventional equivalences — so many woolens for so many pieces of lapis lazuli — equivalences which are likely to be maintained despite contingencies of supply and demand, because all parties need to reduce risk in order to be able to continue to the trade at all. And once again, what logic would predict is precisely what we find. Even in periods of human history where money and markets did already exist, merchants often continue to conduct high-risk long distance trade through a system of conventional equivalents, or if money is used, administered prices, between specific commodities they know will be available, or in demand, at certain pre-established locations.

One might of course ask, could not such a system generate something like money of account — that is, the use of one or two relatively desirable commodities to measure the value of other ones, once more items were added to the mix (say, our merchant is making several stops)? The answer is yes. No doubt in certain circumstances, something like this did happen. Of course, it would have meant that money, in such cases, was first created as a means to avoid market mechanisms, and that it was not used mainly as a medium of transactions, but rather, primarily as a means of account. One could even make up an imaginary scenario whereby once you start using one divisible/portable/etc commodity as a means of establishing fixed equivalents between other ones, you could start using it for minor occasional transactions, to measure negotiated prices for spot trade swaps on the side, in a more market-driven way. All that is possible and likely as it did happen now and again — after all, we’re dealing with thousands of years here. Likely all sorts of things happened over this long period. However, there is no reason to assume that such a system would produce a concrete medium of exchange regularly used in making these transactions — in fact, given the dangers of ancient trade, insisting that some medium like silver actually be used in all transactions, rather than a credit system, would be completely irrational, since the need to carry around such a money-stuff would make one a far, far, more attractive target to potential thieves. A desert nomad band might not attack a caravan carrying lapis lazuli, especially if the only potential buyers were temples which would probably know all the active merchants and know that you had stolen the stuff (and even if you could trade for them, what are you going to do with a big pile of woolens anyway, you live in a desert?) but they’d definitely go after someone carrying around a universal equivalent. (This is presumably the reason why the great long-distance traders of the Classical World, the Phoenicians, were among the last to adopt coinage — if money was invented as a circulating medium for long-distance trade, they should have been the first.)

The other problem is that there is no reason to believe that such a mechanism — which would presumably only be used by that tiny proportion of the population who engaged in long distance trade, and who tended to treat such matters as specialized knowledge to be guarded from outsiders — could possibly create a money system used in everyday transactions within a society or any evidence that it might have done so.

Mesopotamia

The actual evidence is that in Mesopotamia — the first case we know anything about — these more widespread pricing systems in fact emerged as a side-effect of non-state bureaucracies. Again, non-state bureaucracies are a phenomenon that no economic model would even have anticipated existing. It’s off the map of economic theory. But look at the historical record and there they are. Sumerian Temples (and even many of the early Palace complexes that imitated them) were not states, did not extract taxes or maintain a monopoly of force, but did contain thousands of people engaged in agriculture, industry, fishing, and herding, people who had to be fed and provisioned, their inputs and outputs measured. All evidence that exists points to money emerging as a series of fixed equivalent between silver — the stuff used to measure fixed equivalents in long distance trade, and conveniently stockpiled in the temples themselves where it was used to make images of gods, etc. — and grain, the stuff used to pay the most important rations from temple stockpiles to its workers. Hence, as economist and Naked Capitalism contributor Michael Hudson has so brilliantly demonstrated [6], a silver shekel was fixed as the amount of silver equivalent to the numbers of bushels of barley that could provide two meals a day for a temple worker over the course of a month. Obviously such a ration system would be of no interest to a merchant.

So even if some sort of rough system of fixed equivalences, measured by silver, might have emerged in the process of trade (note again: not a system of actual silver currency emerging from barter), it was the Temple bureaucracies that actually had some reason to extend the system from a unit used to compare the value of a limited number of rare items traded long distance, used almost exclusively by members of the political or administrative elite, to something that could be used to compare the values of everyday items. The development of local markets within cities, in turn, came as a side effect of these systems, and all evidence shows they too operated primarily through credit. For instance, Sumerians, though they had the technological means to do so, never produced scales accurate enough to weigh out the tiny amounts of silver that would have been required to buy a single cask of beer, or a woolen tunic, or a hammer — the clearest indication that even once money did exist, it was not used as a medium of exchange for minor transactions, but rather as a means of keeping track of transactions made on credit.

In many times and places, one sees a similar arrangement: two sorts of money, one, a common long-distance trade item, the other, a common subsistence item — cattle, grain — that’s stockpiled, but never traded. Still, Temple bureaucracies and their ilk are something of a rarity. In their absence, how else might a system of pricing, of proportional equivalents between the values of any and all objects, potentially arise? Here again, anthropology and history both provide one compelling answer, one that again, falls off the radar of just about all economists who have ever written on the subject. That is: legal systems.

If someone makes an inadequate return you will merely mock him as a cheapskate. If you do so when he is drunk and he responds by poking your eye out, you are much more likely to demand exact compensation. And that is, again, exactly what we find. Anthropology is full of examples of societies without markets or money, but with elaborate systems of penalties for various forms of injuries or slights. And it is when someone has killed your brother, or severed your finger, that one is most likely to stickle, and say, “The law says 27 heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!” It’s also the situation where there is most likely to be a need to establish proportional values: if the culprit does not have heifers, but wishes to substitute silver plates, the victim is very likely to insist that the equivalent be exact. (There is a reason the word ‘pay’ comes from a root that means ‘to pacify’.)

Again, unlike the economists’ version, this is not hypothetical. This is a description of what actually happens — and not only in the ethnographic record, but the historical one as well. The numismatist Phillip Grierson long ago pointed to the existence of such elaborate systems of equivalents in the Barbarian Law Codes of early Medieval Europe. [7] For example, Welsh and Irish codes contain extremely detailed price schedules where in the Welsh case, the exact value of every object likely to be found in someone’s house were worked out in painstaking detail, from cooking utensils to floorboards — despite the fact that there appear to have been, at the time, no markets where any such items could be bought and sold. The pricing system existed solely for the payment of damages and compensation — partly material, but particularly for insults to people’s honor, since the precise value of each man’s personal dignity could also be precisely quantified in monetary terms. One can’t help but wonder how classical economic theory would account for such a situation. Did the ancient Welsh and Irish invent money through barter at some point in the distant past, and then, having invented it, kept the money, but stopped buying and selling things to one another entirely?

Persistence of the myth

The persistence of the barter myth is curious. It originally goes back to Adam Smith. Other elements of Smith’s argument have long since been abandoned by mainstream economists — the labor theory of value being only the most famous example. Why in this one case are there so many desperately trying to concoct imaginary times and places where something like this must have happened, despite the overwhelming evidence that it did not?

It seems to me because it goes back precisely to this notion of rationality that Adam Smith too embraced: that human beings are rational, calculating exchangers seeking material advantage, and that therefore it is possible to construct a scientific field that studies such behavior. The problem is that the real world seems to contradict this assumption at every turn. Thus we find that in actual villages, rather than thinking only about getting the best deal in swapping one material good for another with their neighbors, people are much more interested in who they love, who they hate, who they want to bail out of difficulties, who they want to embarrass and humiliate, etc. — not to mention the need to head off feuds.

Even when strangers met and barter did ensue, people often had a lot more on their minds than getting the largest possible number of arrowheads in exchange for the smallest number of shells. Let me end, then, by giving a couple examples from the book, of actual, documented cases of ‘primitive barter’ — one of the occasional, one of the more established fixed-equivalent type.

The first example is from the Amazonian Nambikwara, as described in an early essay by the famous French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. This was a simple society without much in the way of division of labor, organized into small bands that traditionally numbered at best a hundred people each. Occasionally if one band spots the cooking fires of another in their vicinity, they will send emissaries to negotiate a meeting for purposes of trade. If the offer is accepted, they will first hide their women and children in the forest, then invite the men of other band to visit camp. Each band has a chief and once everyone has been assembled, each chief gives a formal speech praising the other party and belittling his own; everyone puts aside their weapons to sing and dance together — though the dance is one that mimics military confrontation. Then, individuals from each side approach each other to trade:

If an individual wants an object he extols it by saying how fine it is. If a man values an object and wants much in exchange for it, instead of saying that it is very valuable he says that it is worthless, thus showing his desire to keep it. ‘This axe is no good, it is very old, it is very dull’, he will say… [8]

In the end, each “snatches the object out of the other’s hand” — and if one side does so too early, fights may ensue.

The whole business concludes with a great feast at which the women reappear, but this too can lead to problems, since amidst the music and good cheer, there is ample opportunity for seductions (remember, these are people who normally live in groups that contain only perhaps a dozen members of the opposite sex of around the same age of themselves. The chance to meet others is pretty thrilling.) This sometimes led to jealous quarrels. Occasionally, men would get killed, and to head off this descending into outright warfare, the usual solution was to have the killer adopt the name of the victim, which would also give him the responsibility for caring for his wife and children.

The second example is the Gunwinngu of West Arnhem land in Australia, famous for entertaining neighbors in rituals of ceremonial barter called the dzamalag. Here the threat of actual violence seems much more distant. The region is also united by both a complex marriage system and local specialization, each group producing their own trade product that they barter with the others.

In the 1940s, an anthropologist, Ronald Berndt, described one dzamalag ritual, where one group in possession of imported cloth swapped their wares with another, noted for the manufacture of serrated spears. Here too it begins as strangers, after initial negotiations, are invited to the hosts’ camp, and the men begin singing and dancing, in this case accompanied by a didjeridu. Women from the hosts’ side then come, pick out one of the men, give him a piece of cloth, and then start punching him and pulling off his clothes, finally dragging him off to the surrounding bush to have sex, while he feigns reluctance, whereon the man gives her a small gift of beads or tobacco. Gradually, all the women select partners, their husbands urging them on, whereupon the women from the other side start the process in reverse, re-obtaining many of the beads and tobacco obtained by their own husbands. The entire ceremony culminates as the visitors’ men-folk perform a coordinated dance, pretending to threaten their hosts with the spears, but finally, instead, handing the spears over to the hosts’ womenfolk, declaring: “We do not need to spear you, since we already have!” [9]

In other words, the Gunwinngu manage to take all the most thrilling elements in the Nambikwara encounters — the threat of violence, the opportunity for sexual intrigue — and turn it into an entertaining game (one that, the ethnographer remarks, is considered enormous fun for everyone involved). In such a situation, one would have to assume obtaining the optimal cloth-for-spears ratio is the last thing on most participants’ minds. (And anyway, they seem to operate on traditional fixed equivalences.)

Economists always ask us to ‘imagine’ how things must have worked before the advent of money. What such examples bring home more than anything else is just how limited their imaginations really are. When one is dealing with a world unfamiliar with money and markets, even on those rare occasions when strangers did meet explicitly in order to exchange goods, they are rarely thinking exclusively about the value of the goods. This not only demonstrates that the Homo Oeconomicus which lies at the basis of all the theorems and equations that purports to render economics a science, is not only an almost impossibly boring person — basically, a monomaniacal sociopath who can wander through an orgy thinking only about marginal rates of return — but that what economists are basically doing in telling the myth of barter, is taking a kind of behavior that is only really possible after the invention of money and markets and then projecting it backwards as the purported reason for the invention of money and markets themselves. Logically, this makes about as much sense as saying that the game of chess was invented to allow people to fulfill a pre-existing desire to checkmate their opponent’s king.

Conclusion

At this point, it’s easier to understand why economists feel so defensive about challenges to the Myth of Barter, and why they keep telling the same old story even though most of them know it isn’t true. If what they are really describing is not how we ‘naturally’ behave but rather how we are taught to behave by the market — well who, nowadays, is doing most of the actual teaching? Primarily, economists. The question of barter cuts to the heart of not only what an economy is — most economists still insist that an economy is essentially a vast barter system, with money a mere tool (a position all the more peculiar now that the majority of economic transactions in the world have come to consist of playing around with money in one form or another) [10] — but also, the very status of economics: is it a science that describes of how humans actually behave, or prescriptive, a way of informing them how they should? (Remember, sciences generate hypothesis about the world that can be tested against the evidence and changed or abandoned if they don’t prove to predict what’s empirically there.)

Or is economics instead a technique of operating within a world that economists themselves have largely created? Or is it, as it appears for so many of the Austrians, a kind of faith, a revealed Truth embodied in the words of great prophets (such as Von Mises) who must, by definition be correct, and whose theories must be defended whatever empirical reality throws at them — even to the extent of generating imaginary unknown periods of history where something like what was originally described ‘must have’ taken place?

YouTube Video

DEBT: The First 5,000 Years

While the "national debt" has been the concern du jour of many economists, commentators and politicians, little attention is ever paid to the historical significance of debt.

For thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors—of arguments about the rights and wrongs of interest payments, debt peonage, amnesty, repossession, restitution, the sequestering of sheep, the seizing of vineyards, and the selling of debtors' children into slavery. By the same token, for the past five thousand years, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers; whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place.

Enter anthropologist David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (July, ISBN 978-1-933633-86-2), which uses these struggles to show that the history of debt is also a history of morality and culture.

In the throes of the recent economic crisis, with the very defining institutions of capitalism crumbling, surveys showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans felt that the country's banks should not be rescued—whatever the economic consequences—but that ordinary citizens stuck with bad mortgages should be bailed out. The notion of morality as a matter of paying one's debts runs deeper in the United States than in almost any other country.

Beginning with a sharp critique of economics (which since Adam Smith has erroneously argued that all human economies evolved out of barter), Graeber carefully shows that everything from the ancient work of law and religion to human notions like "guilt," "sin," and "redemption," are deeply influenced by ancients debates about credit and debt.

It is no accident that debt continues to fuel political debate, from the crippling debt crises that have gripped Greece and Ireland, to our own debate over whether to raise the debt ceiling. Debt, an incredibly captivating narrative spanning 5,000 years, puts these crises into their full context and illuminates one of the thorniest subjects in all of history.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Graeber teaches anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He is the author of Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value, Lost People, and Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire.

This talk was hosted by Boris Debic on behalf of the Authors@Google program.

References

[1] Jevons, W. Stanley, Money and the Mechanism of Exchange. New York: Appleton and Company, 1885, and Menger, Carl, “On the origins of money.” Economic Journal 1892 v.2 no 6, pp. 239-55

[2] Humphrey, Caroline, “Barter and Economic Disintegration.” Man 1985 v.20: 48. Other anthropologists have gone even further, for instance Anne Chapman, “Barter as a Universal Mode of Exchange.” L’Homme 1980 v22 (3): 33-83), argues that if pure barter is to be defined as only about the things, and not about the people, it’s not clear that it has ever existed—as the cases cited at the end of this essay indeed illustrate.

[3] Gregory, Chris, Gifts and Commodities. New York: Academic Press (1982): pp. 48-49. On gift economies, the classic text is Mauss, Marcel, Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques.” Annee sociologique, 1924 no. 1 (series 2):30-186. On spheres on exchange in general see Bohannan, Paul “Some Principles of Exchange and Investment among the Tiv,” American Anthropologist 1955 v57:60-67; Barth, Frederick, “Economic Spheres in Darfur.” Themes in Economic Anthropology, ASA Monographs (London, Tavistock) 1969 no. 6, pp. 149-174; cf Munn, Nancy, The Fame of Gawa: A Symbolic Study of Value Transformation in a Massim (Papua New Guinea) Society, 1986, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, and Akin, David and Joel Robbins, “An Introduction to Melanesian Currencies: Agencies, Identity, and Social Reproduction” in Money and Modernity: State and Local Currencies in Melanesia (David Akin and Joel Robbins, editor), pp. 1-40. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

[4] Servet, Jean-Michel, 1994 “La fable du troc,” numero spécial de la revue XVIIIe siècle, Economie et politique, n°26: 103-115

[5] The classic work on the economics of POW camps, whence this argument derives, is Radford, R. A., “The Economic Organization of a POW Camp.” Economica 1945 v.12 (48): 189-201. There is an excellent critique of the assumptions underlying it in Ingham, Geoffrey, “Further Reflections on the Ontology of Money,” Economy and Society 2006 v 36 (2): 264-65, which notes among other things the obvious point that the entire camp environment was created and maintained by a bureaucratic organization that supplied all actual necessities—food, shelter, etc — through administrative distribution.

[6] Hudson, Michael,“The Development of Money-of-Account in Sumer’s Temples.” In Creating Economic Order: Record-Keeping, Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East (Michael Hudson and Cornelia Wunsch, editors, 2004), pp. 303-329. Baltimore: CDL Press.

[7] Grierson, Phillip, “The Origins of Money.” In Research in Economic Anthropology 1978, v. I, pp. 1-35. Greenwich: Journal of the Anthropological Institute Press.

[8] Levi-Strauss, Claude, “Guerre et commerce chez les Indiens d’Amérique du Sud.” Renaissance. Paris: Ecole Libre des Hautes Études, 1943 vol, 1, fascicule 1 et 2.

[9] Berndt, Ronald M., “Ceremonial Exchange in Western Arnhem Land.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 1951 v.7 (2): 156-176.

[10] See for instance Dillard, Dudley, “The Barter Illusion in Classical and Neoclassical Economics”, Eastern Economic Journal 1988v14 (4):299-318.

Original source of this article:

Naked Capitalism

Interview with David Graeber

From: Naked Capitalism

Interview conducted by Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer based in Dublin, Ireland.

Philip Pilkington: Let’s begin. Most economists claim that money was invented to replace the barter system. But you’ve found something quite different, am I correct?

David Graeber: Yes there’s a standard story we’re all taught, a ‘once upon a time’ — it’s a fairy tale.

It really deserves no other introduction: according to this theory all transactions were by barter. “Tell you what, I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.” Or three arrow-heads for that beaver pelt or what-have-you. This created inconveniences, because maybe your neighbor doesn’t need chickens right now, so you have to invent money.

The story goes back at least to Adam Smith and in its own way it’s the founding myth of economics. Now, I’m an anthropologist and we anthropologists have long known this is a myth simply because if there were places where everyday transactions took the form of: “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow,” we’d have found one or two by now. After all people have been looking since 1776, when the Wealth of Nations first came out. But if you think about it for just a second, it’s hardly surprising that we haven’t found anything.

Think about what they’re saying here – basically: that a bunch of Neolithic farmers in a village somewhere, or Native Americans or whatever, will be engaging in transactions only through the spot trade. So, if your neighbor doesn’t have what you want right now, no big deal. Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

By the time the curtain goes up on the historical record in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3200 BC, it’s already happened. There’s an elaborate system of money of account and complex credit systems. (Money as medium of exchange or as a standardized circulating units of gold, silver, bronze or whatever, only comes much later.)

So really, rather than the standard story – first there’s barter, then money, then finally credit comes out of that – if anything its precisely the other way around. Credit and debt comes first, then coinage emerges thousands of years later and then, when you do find “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow” type of barter systems, it’s usually when there used to be cash markets, but for some reason – as in Russia, for example, in 1998 – the currency collapses or disappears.

PP: You say that by the time historical records start to be written in the Mesopotamia around 3200 BC a complex financial architecture is already in place. At the same time is society divided into classes of debtors and creditors? If not then when does this occur? And do you see this as the most fundamental class division in human history?

DG: Well historically, there seem to have been two possibilities.

One is what you found in Egypt: a strong centralized state and administration extracting taxes from everyone else. For most of Egyptian history they never developed the habit of lending money at interest. Presumably, they didn’t have to.

Mesopotamia was different because the state emerged unevenly and incompletely. At first there were giant bureaucratic temples, then also palace complexes, but they weren’t exactly governments and they didn’t extract direct taxes – these were considered appropriate only for conquered populations. Rather they were huge industrial complexes with their own land, flocks and factories. This is where money begins as a unit of account; it’s used for allocating resources within these complexes.

Interest-bearing loans, in turn, probably originated in deals between the administrators and merchants who carried, say, the woollen goods produced in temple factories (which in the very earliest period were at least partly charitable enterprises, homes for orphans, refugees or disabled people for instance) and traded them to faraway lands for metal, timber, or lapis lazuli.

The first markets form on the fringes of these complexes and appear to operate largely on credit, using the temples’ units of account. But this gave the merchants and temple administrators and other well-off types the opportunity to make consumer loans to farmers, and then, if say the harvest was bad, everybody would start falling into debt-traps.

This was the great social evil of antiquity – families would have to start pawning off their flocks, fields and before long, their wives and children would be taken off into debt peonage. Often people would start abandoning the cities entirely, joining semi-nomadic bands, threatening to come back in force and overturn the existing order entirely. Rulers would regularly conclude the only way to prevent complete social breakdown was to declare a clean slate or ‘washing of the tablets,’ they’d cancel all consumer debt and just start over. In fact, the first recorded word for ‘freedom’ in any human language is the Sumerian amargi, a word for debt-freedom, and by extension freedom more generally, which literally means ‘return to mother,’ since when they declared a clean slate, all the debt peons would get to go home.

PP: You have noted in the book that debt is a moral concept long before it becomes an economic concept. You’ve also noted that it is a very ambivalent moral concept insofar as it can be both positive and negative. Could you please talk about this a little? Which aspect is more prominent?

DG: Well it tends to pivot radically back and forth.

One could tell the history like this: eventually the Egyptian approach (taxes) and Mesopotamian approach (usury) fuse together, people have to borrow to pay their taxes and debt becomes institutionalized.

Taxes are also key to creating the first markets that operate on cash, since coinage seems to be invented or at least widely popularized to pay soldiers – more or less simultaneously in China, India, and the Mediterranean, where governments find the easiest way to provision the troops is to issue them standard-issue bits of gold or silver and then demand everyone else in the kingdom give them one of those coins back again. Thus we find that the language of debt and the language of morality start to merge.

In Sanskrit, Hebrew, Aramaic, ‘debt,’ ‘guilt,’ and ‘sin’ are actually the same word. Much of the language of the great religious movements – reckoning, redemption, karmic accounting and the like – are drawn from the language of ancient finance. But that language is always found wanting and inadequate and twisted around into something completely different. It’s as if the great prophets and religious teachers had no choice but to start with that kind of language because it’s the language that existed at the time, but they only adopted it so as to turn it into its opposite: as a way of saying debts are not sacred, but forgiveness of debt, or the ability to wipe out debt, or to realize that debts aren’t real – these are the acts that are truly sacred.

How did this happen? Well, remember I said that the big question in the origins of money is how a sense of obligation – an ‘I owe you one’ – turns into something that can be precisely quantified? Well, the answer seems to be: when there is a potential for violence. If you give someone a pig and they give you a few chickens back you might think they’re a cheapskate, and mock them, but you’re unlikely to come up with a mathematical formula for exactly how cheap you think they are. If someone pokes out your eye in a fight, or kills your brother, that’s when you start saying, “traditional compensation is exactly twenty-seven heifers of the finest quality and if they’re not of the finest quality, this means war!”

Money, in the sense of exact equivalents, seems to emerge from situations like that, but also, war and plunder, the disposal of loot, slavery. In early Medieval Ireland, for example, slave-girls were the highest denomination of currency. And you could specify the exact value of everything in a typical house even though very few of those items were available for sale anywhere because they were used to pay fines or damages if someone broke them.

But once you understand that taxes and money largely begin with war it becomes easier to see what really happened. After all, every Mafiosi understands this. If you want to take a relation of violent extortion, sheer power, and turn it into something moral, and most of all, make it seem like the victims are to blame, you turn it into a relation of debt. “You owe me, but I’ll cut you a break for now…” Most human beings in history have probably been told this by their debtors. And the crucial thing is: what possible reply can you make but, “wait a minute, who owes what to who here?” And of course for thousands of years, that’s what the victims have said, but the moment you do, you are using the rulers’ language, you’re admitting that debt and morality really are the same thing. That’s the situation the religious thinkers were stuck with, so they started with the language of debt, and then they tried to turn it around and make it into something else.

PP: You’d be forgiven for thinking this was all very Nietzschean. In his ‘On the Genealogy of Morals’ the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously argued that all morality was founded upon the extraction of debt under the threat of violence. The sense of obligation instilled in the debtor was, for Nietzsche, the origin of civilisation itself. You’ve been studying how morality and debt intertwine in great detail. How does Nietzsche’s argument look after over 100 years? And which do you see as primal: morality or debt?

DG: Well, to be honest, I’ve never been sure if Nietzsche was really serious in that passage or whether the whole argument is a way of annoying his bourgeois audience; a way of pointing out that if you start from existing bourgeois premises about human nature you logically end up in just the place that would make most of that audience most uncomfortable.

In fact, Nietzsche begins his argument from exactly the same place as Adam Smith: human beings are rational. But rational here means calculation, exchange and hence, trucking and bartering; buying and selling is then the first expression of human thought and is prior to any sort of social relations.

But then he reveals exactly why Adam Smith had to pretend that Neolithic villagers would be making transactions through the spot trade. Because if we have no prior moral relations with each other, and morality just emerges from exchange, then ongoing social relations between two people will only exist if the exchange is incomplete – if someone hasn’t paid up.

But in that case, one of the parties is a criminal, a deadbeat and justice would have to begin with the vindictive punishment of such deadbeats. Thus he says all those law codes where it says ‘twenty heifers for a gouged-out eye’ – really, originally, it was the other way around. If you owe someone twenty heifers and don’t pay they gouge out your eye. Morality begins with Shylock’s pound of flesh.

Needless to say there’s zero evidence for any of this – Nietzsche just completely made it up. The question is whether even he believed it. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I prefer to think he didn’t.

Anyway it only makes sense if you assume those premises; that all human interaction is exchange, and therefore, all ongoing relations are debts. This flies in the face of everything we actually know or experience of human life. But once you start thinking that the market is the model for all human behavior, that’s where you end up with.

If however you ditch the whole myth of barter, and start with a community where people do have prior moral relations, and then ask, how do those moral relations come to be framed as ‘debts’ – that is, as something precisely quantified, impersonal, and therefore, transferrable – well, that’s an entirely different question. In that case, yes, you do have to start with the role of violence.

PP: Interesting. Perhaps this is a good place to ask you about how you conceive your work on debt in relation to the great French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’ classic work on gift exchange.

DG: Oh, in my own way I think of myself as working very much in the Maussian tradition. Mauss was one of the first anthropologists to ask: well, all right, if not barter, then what? What do people who don’t use money actually do when things change hands? Anthropologists had documented an endless variety of such economic systems, but hadn’t really worked out common principles. What Mauss noticed was that in almost all of them, everyone pretended as if they were just giving one another gifts and then they fervently denied they expected anything back. But in actual fact everyone understood there were implicit rules and recipients would feel compelled to make some sort of return.

What fascinated Mauss was that this seemed to be universally true, even today. If I take a free-market economist out to dinner he’ll feel like he should return the favor and take me out to dinner later. He might even think that he is something of chump if he doesn’t and this even if his theory tells him he just got something for nothing and should be happy about it. Why is that? What is this force that compels me to want to return a gift?

This is an important argument, and it shows there is always a certain morality underlying what we call economic life. But it strikes me that if you focus too much on just that one aspect of Mauss’ argument you end up reducing everything to exchange again, with the proviso that some people are pretending they aren’t doing that.

Mauss didn’t really think of everything in terms of exchange; this becomes clear if you read his other writings besides ‘The Gift’. Mauss insisted there were lots of different principles at play besides reciprocity in any society – including our own.

For example, take hierarchy. Gifts given to inferiors or superiors don’t have to be repaid at all. If another professor takes our economist out to dinner, sure, he’ll feel that he should reciprocate; but if an eager grad student does, he’ll probably figure just accepting the invitation is favor enough; and if George Soros buys him dinner, then great, he did get something for nothing after all. In explicitly unequal relations, if you give somebody something, far from doing you a favor back, they’re more likely to expect you to do it again.

Or take communistic relations – and I define this, following Mauss actually, as any ones where people interact on the basis of ‘from each according to their abilities to each according to their needs’. In these relations people do not rely on reciprocity, for example, when trying to solve a problem, even inside a capitalist firm. (As I always say, if somebody working for Exxon says, “hand me the screwdriver,” the other guy doesn’t say, “yeah and what do I get for it?”) Communism is in a way the basis of all social relations – in that if the need is great enough (I’m drowning) or the cost small enough (can I have a light?) everyone will be expected to act that way.

Anyway that’s one thing I got from Mauss. There are always going to be lots of different sorts of principles at play simultaneously in any social or economic system – which is why we can never really boil these things down to a science. Economics tries to, but it does it by ignoring everything except exchange.

PP: Let’s move onto economic theory then. Economics has some pretty specific theories about what money is. There’s the mainstream approach that we discussed briefly above; this is the commodity theory of money in which specific commodities come to serve as a medium of exchange to replace crude barter economies. But there’s also alternative theories that are becoming increasingly popular at the moment. One is the Circuitist theory of money in which all money is seen as a debt incurred by some economic agent. The other – which actually integrates the Circuitist approach – is the Chartalist theory of money in which all money is seen as a medium of exchange issued by the Sovereign and backed by the enforcement of tax claims. Maybe you could say something about these theories?

DG: One of my inspirations for ‘Debt: The First 5,000 Years’ was Keith Hart’s essay ‘Two Sides of the Coin’. In that essay Hart points out that not only do different schools of economics have different theories on the nature of money, but there is also reason to believe that both are right. Money has, for most of its history, been a strange hybrid entity that takes on aspects of both commodity (object) and credit (social relation.) What I think I’ve managed to add to that is the historical realization that while money has always been both, it swings back and forth – there are periods where credit is primary, and everyone adopts more or less Chartalist theories of money and others where cash tends to predominate and commodity theories of money instead come to the fore. We tend to forget that in, say, the Middle Ages, from France to China, Chartalism was just common sense: money was just a social convention; in practice, it was whatever the king was willing to accept in taxes.

PP: You say that history swings between periods of commodity money and periods of virtual money. Do you not think that we’ve reached a point in history where due to technological and cultural evolution we may have seen the end of commodity money forever?

DG: Well, the cycles are getting a bit tighter as time goes by. But I think we’ll still have to wait at least 400 years to really find out. It is possible that this era is coming to an end but what I’m more concerned with now is the period of transition.

The last time we saw a broad shift from commodity money to credit money it wasn’t a very pretty sight. To name a few we had the fall of the Roman Empire, the Kali Age in India and the breakdown of the Han dynasty… There was a lot of death, catastrophe and mayhem. The final outcome was in many ways profoundly libratory for the bulk of those who lived through it – chattel slavery, for example, was largely eliminated from the great civilizations. This was a remarkable historical achievement. The decline of cities actually meant most people worked far less. But still, one does rather hope the dislocation won’t be quite so epic in its scale this time around. Especially since the actual means of destruction are so much greater this time around.

PP: Which do you see as playing a more important role in human history: money or debt?

DG: Well, it depends on your definitions. If you define money in the broadest sense, as any unit of account whereby you can say 10 of these are worth 7 of those, then you can’t have debt without money. Debt is just a promise that can be quantified by means of money (and therefore, becomes impersonal, and therefore, transferable.) But if you are asking which has been the more important form of money, credit or coin, then probably I would have to say credit.

PP: Let’s move on to some of the real world problems facing the world today. We know that in many Western countries over the past few years households have been running up enormous debts, from credit card debts to mortgages (the latter of which were one of the root causes of the recent financial crisis). Some economists are saying that economic growth since the Clinton era was essentially run on an unsustainable inflating of household debt. From an historical perspective what do you make of this phenomenon?

DG: From an historical perspective, it’s pretty ominous. One could go further than the Clinton era, actually – a case could be made that we are seeing now is the same crisis we were facing in the 70s; it’s just that we managed to fend it off for 30 or 35 years through all these elaborate credit arrangements (and of course, the super-exploitation of the global South, through the ‘Third World Debt Crisis’.)

As I said Eurasian history, taken in its broadest contours, shifts back and forth between periods dominated by virtual credit money and those dominated by actual coin and bullion. The credit systems of the ancient Near East give way to the great slave-holding empires of the Classical world in Europe, India, and China, which used coinage to pay their troops. In the Middle Ages the empires go and so does the coinage – the gold and silver is mostly locked up in temples and monasteries – and the world reverts to credit. Then after 1492 or so you have the return world empires again; and gold and silver currency together with slavery, for that matter.

What’s been happening since Nixon went off the gold standard in 1971 has just been another turn of the wheel – though of course it never happens the same way twice. However, in one sense, I think we’ve been going about things backwards. In the past, periods dominated by virtual credit money have also been periods where there have been social protections for debtors.

Once you recognize that money is just a social construct, a credit, an IOU, then first of all what is to stop people from generating it endlessly? And how do you prevent the poor from falling into debt traps and becoming effectively enslaved to the rich? That’s why you had Mesopotamian clean slates, Biblical Jubilees, Medieval laws against usury in both Christianity and Islam and so on and so forth.

Since antiquity the worst-case scenario that everyone felt would lead to total social breakdown was a major debt crisis; ordinary people would become so indebted to the top one or two percent of the population that they would start selling family members into slavery, or eventually, even themselves.

Well, what happened this time around? Instead of creating some sort of overarching institution to protect debtors, they create these grandiose, world-scale institutions like the IMF or S&P to protect creditors. They essentially declare (in defiance of all traditional economic logic) that no debtor should ever be allowed to default. Needless to say the result is catastrophic. We are experiencing something that to me, at least, looks exactly like what the ancients were most afraid of: a population of debtors skating at the edge of disaster.

And, I might add, if Aristotle were around today, I very much doubt he would think that the distinction between renting yourself or members of your family out to work and selling yourself or members of your family to work was more than a legal nicety. He’d probably conclude that most Americans were, for all intents and purposes, slaves.

PP: You mention that the IMF and S&P are institutions that are mainly geared toward extracting debts for creditors. This seems to have become the case in the European monetary union too. What do you make of the situation in Europe at the moment?

DG: Well, I think this is a prime example of why existing arrangements are clearly untenable. Obviously the ‘whole debt’ cannot be paid. But even when some French banks offered voluntary write-downs for Greece, the others insisted they would treat it as if it were a default anyway. The UK takes the even weirder position that this is true even of debts the government owes to banks that have been nationalized – that is, technically, that they owe to themselves! If that means that disabled pensioners are no longer able to use public transit or youth centers have to be closed down, well that’s simply the ‘reality of the situation,’ as they put it.

These ‘realities’ are being increasingly revealed to simply be ones of power. Clearly any pretence that markets maintain themselves, that debts always have to be honored, went by the boards in 2008. That’s one of the reasons I think you see the beginnings of a reaction in a remarkably similar form to what we saw during the heyday of the ‘Third World debt crisis’ – what got called, rather weirdly, the ‘anti-globalization movement’. This movement called for genuine democracy and actually tried to practice forms of direct, horizontal democracy. In the face of this there was the insidious alliance between financial elites and global bureaucrats (whether the IMF, World Bank, WTO, now EU, or what-have-you).

When thousands of people begin assembling in squares in Greece and Spain calling for real democracy what they are effectively saying is: “Look, in 2008 you let the cat out of the bag. If money really is just a social construct now, a promise, a set of IOUs and even trillions of debts can be made to vanish if sufficiently powerful players demand it then, if democracy is to mean anything, it means that everyone gets to weigh in on the process of how these promises are made and renegotiated.” I find this extraordinarily hopeful.

PP: Broadly speaking how do you see the present debt/financial crisis unravelling? Without asking you to peer into the proverbial crystal-ball – because that’s a silly thing to ask of anyone – how do you see the future unfolding; in the sense of how do you take your bearings right now?

DG: For the long-term future, I’m pretty optimistic. We might have been doing things backwards for the last 40 years, but in terms of 500-year cycles, well, 40 years is nothing. Eventually there will have to be recognition that in a phase of virtual money, safeguards have to be put in place – and not just ones to protect creditors. How many disasters it will take to get there? I can’t say.

But in the meantime there is another question to be asked: once we do these reforms, will the results be something that could even be called ‘capitalism’?

300-399 – Social Science

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