Once clergy and magicians were the keepers of the arcane mysteries, the guardians of the ideas too complex and dangerous to be entrusted to just anyone. Now it is economists and investment bankers. The invisible hand of the market, securities, derivatives, futures… Billionaire entrepreneurs are our modern oracles and Wall Street is the modern Vatican. Most lay folk can hardly penetrate these mysteries, living and dying at the whim of Goldman Sachs.
Enter David Graeber, an anthropologist who teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London.
In the summer of 2011 he worked with a small group of activists to plan Occupy Wall Street. In Time’s 2012 “Person of the Year” feature on the “Protestor”, Kurt Anderson wrote that Graeber “nudged the group to a fresh vision: a long-term encampment in a public space, an impovised democratic protest village without preappointed leaders, committed to a general critique – the US. economy is broken, politics is corrupted by big money – but with no immediate calls for specific legislative or executive action. It was also Graeber, a lifelong hater of corporate smoke and mirrors, who coined the movement’s ingenious slogan, ‘We are the 99%.'”
Graeber wrote a book called Debt: the First 5,000 Years which challenges some of our most common-sense ideas about economics. For example, credit is not a recent innovation – it preceded the existence of money. Since the very first agrarian empires began keeping records, long before the first coin was minted, there were elaborate systems for keeping track of debt. Indeed, he demonstrates, arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the very center of political debate and even at the heart of religion from the beginning of history. Words like “guilt”, “sin”, and “redemption” derive from these debates and shape our moral imagination.
As ancient as the idea of debt is there has never been a time when it was the overwhelming social force it is today. Governments all run deficit budgets. Citizens are called consumers and carry more debt than ever in history. Debt itself is a commodity, bought, sold, and traded in an ever increasing spiral till creditors have to be bailed out creating a different kind of debt. We continue to plead ignorance about how our economy works to our great peril.
There was another guy (hint: Jesus) who had some interesting things to say about debts and forgiving them. Since I count myself one of his followers, this subject has even greater interest for me.
There is no point in me writing a traditional review. You can guess my verdict in advance: go buy, borrow, or steal this book as necessary and read it right away. I doubt you’ll read anything more important this *insert long period of time here*. But since I know many of you won’t follow my advice I’m planning to do my best Richard Beck impression and write a bazillion part series on this book while I am absorbing its insight.
You can come back here regularly to get this stone cold wisdom second-hand.