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Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber (thoughts)

July 19, 2011


I requested this from Netgalley, loaded it on my Nook, and then promptly proceeded to stare at it doubtfully for a couple weeks. The cover is, dare I say it, not my style. And when I saw its length, I was worried my head might actually explode if I forced it to read that much neoliberal economics. Then I remembered that it would be easy to decline to read/review it, so I might as well try the first few pages. And once I actually opened it, I immediately discovered Graeber is as far from factory packaged neoliberal economics as you can get. In fact, he’s an anthropologist who participated in the anti-WTO/IMF/World Bank movement, and this is a book written from an anthropological perspective that challenges the basic assumptions of economists regarding the history of money, bartering, and credit by looking at how people actually live, specifically with cash and credit/debt. Graeber provides a stunning range of case studies, both chronologically speaking (hello, ancient Mesopotamia) and geographically (hello, obsure Amazon tribe so beloved of anso professors). He’s also an obviously intelligent and erudite man, and his firm grasp of various economic theories makes it all the more delightful to watch him dismantle them. And at the same time, he wears his education lightly: this is a book aimed at a general lay audience, and the writing is always engaging and fascinating. No jargon, no pointless meandering, just an incredibly well-constructed argument that makes for consistently engrossing reading. Oh, and almost two hundred pages of endnotes/index/bibliography, etc., which buttresses it all. Can you tell I loved this? I marked about a million notable passages and found myself sharing tons of stories with my long-suffering mother (always the captive audience for my latest fascinating nonfiction reads). I want to make this required reading, especially for anyone who subscribes to neoliberal economic philosophy hook, line and sinker (not that I don’t enjoy my own Economist subscription, lol)!

I bookmarked a ton of passages, but here’s one from the conclusion that strikes me as nicely representative of his point. Even if you don’t agree with it, remember you haven’t read the four hundred pages of arguments he wrote before this. ;) (And as always, click to enlarge; sorry for the photo quality. The sun isn’t up here, so trying to avoid glare and photograph Nook and try to get camera to focus while holding everything doesn’t go too well. And I’m still too new to iPhoto to know how to fix it. Must remember to take photos day before!)

So! Go read this if you often wonder where the ‘human’ element of economics is. Or are curious about why I often decry neoliberal economics (or even what that is). Or enjoy paradigm-challenging academic works. Or are just looking for an intellectually stimulating, very satisfying read. You don’t have to be persuaded by everything he says; but I bet this will change the way you see the world, at least a little bit, just by presenting you with such a well-reasoned alternative. What more could you want?

P.S. Today, all of my suggestions are nonfiction that challenge the dominant theories in various fields or common assumptions floating around in our culture. I *love* these types of books, so if you have your own paradigm-challenging suggestions, please share them in the comments! Any field, it doesn’t matter; I’m an equal opportunity nerd. ;) Also, if you’re looking for more of these types, my list on this post is full of international relations/development themed choices.

Suggested Companion Reads

  • The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn (I read this for fun when I was 16, and I just loved it. Kuhn coined the idea of paradigms to explain how academia, specifically science, can suddenly radically shift their basic assumptions. Great reading.)
  • Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich (I read this a couple years ago and loved it: I’m not sure why I didn’t blog about it! Obviously, Ulrich’s a historian, and this book brings women’s history from the margins into center stage.)
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (I just finished this so haven’t been able to post about it, but it’s definitely a paradigm-shifter and changed how I think about the US justice system. Alexander’s a lawyer.)
  • The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg (Borg, a canon theologian, lays out the basics of Progressive Christianity, which is not the kind of Christianity that seems to dominate US popular culture discussions today.)
  • The Abacus and the Cross by Nancy Marie Brown (Another historian, this book debunks our popular misconceptions of the Dark Ages; spoiler alert: they knew the Earth was round and didn’t expect the world to end in 1000 AD.)
  • The Invisible Sex by J. M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer, and Jake Page (They’re anthropologists, and they explain the origins behind the caveman hunter theory, why it’s not actually supported by a ton of evidence, and sketch out alternative theories.)
  • Deep Economy by Bill McKibben (McKibben presents an alternate economic paradigm and questions the neoliberal belief that growth is synonymous with progress.)
  • Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter (McWhorter is a linguist, and in this book he discusses many quirks of English grammar; along the way, he debunks things like prescriptive linguistics and challenges the theory that different grammar somehow changes the way people think.)
  • The Other End of the Leash by Patricia B. McConnell (McConnell is a scientist, farmer, and dog behaviorist; in this book she draws on research and experience to explain why the theory of ‘pack leaders,’ ‘alpha dogs,’ and dominance are wrong.)
  • Food Matters by Mark Bittman (My favourite book on challenging perceptions of food and eating; Bittman explains why eating every meal based around animal products is bad for the environment and your health, but he presents a compelling alternative to straight-up vegetarian/vegan living and doesn’t mention animal cruelty/suffering.)
  • A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid (Kincaid challenges past and present Western colonialism taking place in her home island of Antigua, in the Caribbean.)
  • Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang (Another economist, this one explains why current development aid/international trade policies are bad for developing nations and counter to the strategies currently developed ones practiced to improve their economies.)
  • Wars, Guns, and Votes by Paul Collier (An international politics professor, Collier explains the problems with the theory that democratic nations are peaceful, and thus making conflict-ridden countries into democracies will solve their problems.)
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28 Comments leave one →
  1. July 19, 2011 7:03 am

    One truly entertaining and (to me) paradigm-shifting book (especially once it really gets rolling) is Seth Godin’s book, Linchpin. It challenges the long-held factory mentality of the work place and most specifically the cog-in-the-wheel worker and challenges you to be the kind of employee that is indispensable by encouraging you to approach work as your art and to be bold enough to make mistakes and to do worthwhile work. It is really very, very good.

    • July 22, 2011 2:50 pm

      Thanks! I’ll put it on my TBR list. :)

  2. July 19, 2011 7:16 am

    I never thought I’d say this for a book about economics, but this actually looks really interesting. Particularly the fact that it’s from an anthropological perspective, which would make all the difference. I may check if it’s still available on Netgalley – otherwise, I think my new library needs to be challenged!

    • July 22, 2011 2:50 pm

      Yep: it’s much more about people & their relationship w money than straight-up economics. :)

  3. Heqit permalink
    July 19, 2011 11:06 am

    This sounds VERY interesting; I’m appallingly ignorant about economic theory in general but I think I’d like to read it.

    May I suggest Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin for your paradigm-challenging booklist? It’s a well-researched and very accessible examination of the history, culture, and science of body norms and weight-loss (attempts).

    • July 22, 2011 2:50 pm

      Ohh: that’s sounds just my style and I’ve never heard of it! Thanks. :D

  4. July 19, 2011 11:29 am

    I don’t think I’m smart enough for this book.

    • July 22, 2011 2:51 pm

      Yes you are! I feel I haven’t written this post well if you think that.

  5. July 19, 2011 2:33 pm

    This sounds like a really interesting book. I can’t say I know much about economic theory (beyond whatever is covered in a Microeconomics 101 course), but given all the news about economics and crumbling economies, it may be time to brush up.

    • July 22, 2011 2:51 pm

      He doesn’t assume you have any background knowledge, so you’ll be set! And yep: it’s very timely. ;)

  6. July 19, 2011 3:53 pm

    I recommend 1491 which is about the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus and the rest of Europe. One of my yearly favorite reads a few years ago.

    Interesting reading list, Eva. I think I will check out one or two of your suggestions. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue sounds like one I would enjoy.

    • July 22, 2011 2:53 pm

      It’s v fun! I’ll be reviewing McWhorter’s new book soon: another paradigm-buster. :D I’ve yet to read 1491: thanks for the spur!

  7. July 19, 2011 4:01 pm

    Great post, Eva. While I won’t personally be seeking this one out (a good friend of mine spent years as a money-and-debt activist and I feel like I’ve imbibed more of this theory than I would ever have wanted to, haha), this sounds like an enjoyable & compelling presentation of some of the problems with debt-based currency and the capitalist requirement for constant growth. Important stuff!

    Re: iPhoto, if you go into “Edit” and then “Adjust” on a photo you can reduce glare by pulling the “Highlights” slider up. Or alternately, if it’s reflected glare in a window or something like that, I’ve had good luck just increasing the contrast.

    • July 22, 2011 2:55 pm

      I can understand why it might not be for you Emily. But it’s much more about history than it is about current money/debt activism if that makes a difference! ;) Thanks for iPhoto advice.

  8. July 19, 2011 5:45 pm

    This sounds like an amazing book. I’m pretty bad at reading non-fiction on my Kobo, so I’m going to see if this is available from my library.

    • July 22, 2011 2:55 pm

      Really? I love reading nonfic on my Nook: so easy to add bookmarks. lol

  9. July 19, 2011 6:07 pm

    I always intend to read books that deal with economic issues, but then I find myself thinking that I should wait, and get someone to teach me the rudiments of economics. And then read all the readable books about economic theory. I just feel like I wouldn’t understand this book right now! I am so dumb about economics and economic stuff. :(

    • July 22, 2011 2:56 pm

      You would! Remember, he’s not an economist, and he explains any of the theories he mentioned. This could be a great intro, since most of it is about anthro/history/people w just econ stuff where it’s relevant.

  10. July 19, 2011 6:54 pm

    Wow, this (the book and the list) look really interesting. As a political science major, I often had/got to read through interesting (or not so interesting) texts on taxes and finances. Sometimes I miss it and sometimes I don’t. Maybe this is for one of the moments when I miss it. ;O)

    • July 22, 2011 2:56 pm

      Oh yes, this will feed your poli sci cravings! ;)

  11. July 19, 2011 7:31 pm

    So interesting!! I agree – the cover makes my eyes glaze over as well. BUT I love history and anthropology AND my husband is going to be going back to school for an economics degree. We may both be reading this one.

    • July 22, 2011 2:57 pm

      I hope you and your husband both enjoy it! The cover is truly unfortunate.

  12. July 19, 2011 8:19 pm

    This sounds like a scary undertaking but I have a feeling it will be worth it for me so thanks for the thoughts. I also love the list that followed.

    • July 22, 2011 2:57 pm

      It’s very readable and the pages move quickly, so not too much of an undertaking. ;)

  13. Tanya permalink
    July 19, 2011 9:03 pm

    I’m right now halfway through Crazy Like Us by Ethan Watters, which is about the imposition of American/Western ideas about mental health on other cultures. Watters can be a bit rambly and repetitious, especially in the first section on the rise of anorexia in Hong Kong, but the book has some really, really interesting parts about other cultures’ coping mechanisms and the alternate trepidation and trust that’s placed on the encroaching Western views. So far, highly recommended!

    • July 22, 2011 2:58 pm

      That sounds v interesting! Thanks for the rec. :)

  14. July 21, 2011 3:05 pm

    Ooohhh this and all of your suggested readings sound absolutely fantastic. Must. Read. Them. All.! Thanks ;)

  15. July 24, 2011 9:45 am

    I love your suggested readings too. I see several I’d like to add to my reading list. Thanks for posting !!!

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