Better than half of this book are three huge, sweeping chapters wherein Graeber does his best to synthesize basically the entire human history of money, credit, and debt. The first of these three chapters tackles what he calls “the Axial Age” after Karl Jaspers who noticed that Pythagoras, the Buddha, and Confucius were all alive at the same time and Greece, India and China in that period all experienced a flowering of competing intellectual schools. Graeber expands this age to cover the rise of Christianity and Islam. Here we really start to see what Graeber meant at the beginning when he said this book would ask “Great Questions”. The scope of his research and argument is enormous.
Given that scope there is no way to perfectly summarize it, and much of what he says in detail in this chapter was already said more simply, or at least implied, by earlier chapters. Here are what I consider the major points, though:
- Credit systems predate written history, and probably were part of what Graeber calls “human economies” for thousands of years before civilization.
- Markets arose as a side-effect of government administrative systems and coinage came into popular usage as a way to pay soldiers/mercenaries. Taxation arose as a method to mobilize the entire populace to support an army (soldiers have the coins which everyone needs to pay the tax, making trade with soldiers a necessity).
- Everywhere money spread (mostly by means of war), so did slavery. Graeber even calls this the military-coinage-slavery complex.
- Philosophical schools arose everywhere to deal with the trauma of the military-coinage-slavery complex. These philosophical movements were sought to reject the violent materialism of their age, but were also formed by it. In rejecting materialism these movements, in effect, solidified it.
- This resulted in a division of spheres of human activity between the material and the religious/spiritual which persists today.
“To put the matter crudely: if one relegates a certain social space simply to the selfish acquisition of material things, it is almost inevitable that soon someone else will come to set aside another domain in which to preach that, from the perspective of ultimate values, material things are unimportant, that selfishness – or even the self – are illusory, and that to give is better than to receive. If nothing else, it is surely significant that all the Axial Age religions emphasized the importance of charity, a concept that had barely existed before. Pure greed and pure generosity are complementary concepts; neither could really be imagined without the other.”
This way of framing the rise of the major world religions has some really interesting implications. I would love to do some social-political criticism of the Bible or early Christian texts with this in mind. This anthropological theory of the origin of the schools of philosophy which still dominate our discourse helpfully muddies the waters. The religions are seen to be simultaneously a reaction against the military-coinage-slavery complex and implicated in it. They criticize the selfishness and inherent violence of the market, but then also set up an alternative which very escapism solidifies the materialist reality it rejects. The spiritual creates the material as the concept of charity provides the horizon within which greed can operate.
There is a kind of identity crisis at the core of religion, which we still haven’t resolved and it relates to money, power, and violence. Is religion a 2500 year protest against the dehumanizing effects of the military-coinage-slavery complex? Or is religion an ancient social bulwark protecting the powerful and pacifying the victims of this system?