David Graeber's Debt: An Informal Review

I’m worried this post is going to make me look stupid, so I wanted to say first that I really enjoyed David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years as an anthropological work and as a critique of the barter myth which has persisted since Adam Smith imported it into the western economic field. Learning about the origin of money not as a medium of exchange but as a unit of account is really enlightening, especially considering how debt generates the preconditions of the market which we take for granted. This is my sincere attempt to engage with Graeber and to salvage what I think are the useful bits from the bits which still carry presuppositions about social value and relationships.

Debt is a historical argument about the origin of money from credit, or how units of account have emerged in the past from attempts to quantify relationships between people. The key point about relationships in general is that they are predicated on a give-and-take, where by doing things for other people (or by receiving things) you generate a mutual indebtedness which ensures a continued relationship; however, when one person digs their own hole too deep, they become a debtor and they acquire social obligations to fulfill in order to relieve that debt. Money finds its origin then not as a way to simplify the barter of goods, but as a way to quantify one’s debt to another. This is not a peaceful transition, but one that involves a lot of (state) violence in order to impose and maintain it. Graeber characterizes history as a cyclical accumulation and invalidation of debt, as debtors strive to attain political and economic equality. For Graeber, then, the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of creditors and debtors.

I think that Debt’s insights as an anthropological work is overshadowed by its ideological presuppositions about the nature of human relationships. One of Graeber’s points is to criticize the bourgeois idea that all relationships can be reduced to exchange. He attempts this by boiling down relationships to three factors: communism (!), exchange, and debt. Human relationships by default are communistic, Graeber argues, insofar as humans tend to treat each other as invaluable peers worthy of mutual aid. Exchange then occurs not between people with familiar working relationships, but between unfamiliar people who cannot guarantee a continued give-and-take relationship in the future (often travelers or enemies). Hierarchy is the precondition of exchange which presupposes participants equal in stature; exchange does not take place between people of different stature, but only transactions. Finally, debt is the final evolution of incomplete exchange, or of a gift which cannot be repaid and thus transforms into debt. The debtor becomes a conditional and temporary subordinate (since a debt can really only exist between social peers, engaged in a frozen exchange).

True, if we were really determined, we could argue (as some do) that communism is a condition of permanent mutual indebtedness, or that hierarchy is constructed out of unpayable debts. But isn't this just the same old story, starting from the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definition, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?

Graeber, Debt: p. 121.

Reducing all human life to exchange means not only shunting aside all other forms of economic experience (hierarchy, communism) but also ensuring that the vast majority of the human race who are not adult males, and therefore whose day-to-day existence is relatively difficult to reduce to a matter of swapping things in such a way as to seek mutual advantage, melts away into the background.

Graeber, Debt: p. 127.

Graeber’s schema of three is fine, but rather than move beyond the notion that exchange is the basis of relationships, it solidifies it. Graeber even says that communism could be characterized as mutual indebtedness as evidenced by the feeling of duty to a fellow person, and this is a view of duty which is corroborated by at least some Roman authors, but he does not investigate this point further to avoid reducing even those relationships to exchange. I think a more truthful analysis of these categories, at least as presented by Graeber, would reveal an origin of ‘communism’ and hierarchy in relationships founded on primordial debt akin to what Hegel discusses through his master-slave dialectic, or how Lacan expounds upon this dialectic in the interconnected realms of language and desire [1]. This is all external to Graeber, of course, but I think that his discussion would be along similar lines if he did not make an ideological point of refusing to delve deeper into his own analysis. Are these three principles really distinct when it seems they are in discourse with each other, being organized in different ways for different people in different time periods? What is the structuring logic of that discourse?

I also think that, while Graeber’s notion of debt interfaces with economics and moral systems in interesting ways, it is too broad to anaylze any specific economic system in depth. He seems to elide the specific economic-political dynamics of different societies in favor of talking about how they can be reduced to debt, in terms of economics or linguistics or morals. The thing is that I agree with Graeber’s analysis on this level; again, coming from a Hegelian background, seeing debt as the basis of relationships (with or without a dubious underlying principle of ‘communism’) is not alien to me. However, this says nothing about the historically specific circumstances which inform the lifestyle and behavior of people. Certainly debt played a role in the collapse of the Roman Empire or in the development of modern capitalism; this says nothing of how feudal society or capitalist society operate on their own terms. That being said, Graeber’s analysis of these periods enlightens the reader as to how one led to the other (and what continuities there were between them). I just think it cannot be a specific critique of capitalism on a fundamental level, nor does it have to be, except that it seems Graeber wants it to be.

I've already remarked how difficult it is to imagine a system of precise equivalences--one healthy milk cow is equivalent to exactly thirty-six chickens--could arise from most forms of gift exchange. If Henry gives Joshua a pig and feels he has received an inadequate counter-gift, he might mock Joshua as a cheapskate, but he would have little occasion to come up with a mathematical formula for precisely how cheap he feels Joshua has been. On the other hand, if Joshua's pig just destroyed Henry's garden, and especially, if that led to a fight in which Henry lost a toe, and Henry's family is now hauling Joshua up in front of the village assembly--this is precisely the context where people are most likely to become petty and legalistic and express outrage if they feel they have received one less groat than was their rightful due. This means exact mathematical specificity: for instance, the capacity to measure the exact value of a two-year-old pregnant sow. What's more, the levying of penalties must have constantly required the calculation of equivalences [...] despite the fact there seems no reason to believe that most such items could even be purchased on the open market at the time.

Graeber, Debt: pp. 61-2.

Graeber’s lack of investigation into one particular economic category is characteristic of his lack of engagement with historically specific social forms: the category of value! His book offers a great narrative of how market exchange emerges from systems of account, which makes it an insightful history of the commodity beyond the typical barter myth. This also proves useful to see where capitalism as the predominance of the commodity emerges from simpler commodity exchange, in how measures of value pop up across history to keep records of debt. The issue with Debt, and the reason why I’d recommend reading Capital first, is that it does not look closely at value. Except for arguing that value itself is enforced through violence, which is agreeable, it takes value for granted insofar as it is natural to compare the values of commodities once there exists a unit of account (i.e. money) and a reason to measure things (e.g. penal debt) [2]. What underlies this valuation of things? How has it changed across historical contexts, or what stays the same? Is it something yet enforced by violence to this day?

The lack of specific analysis of value (i.e. commodity value), in combination with the author's view towards historical continuity rather than discontinuity, immobilizes Debt as a political work. If debt and commerce (i.e. commodity exchange) are transhistorical conditions of sufficiently organized society, with no respect to the differences between such societies (especially how debt may be accumulated in different ways and in different contexts), then the only political option possible is to impose periodic jubilees to free people of their chains. Graeber, in this sense, accomplishes something very remarkable: he refutes the barter myth, but replaces it with the eternal condition of commodity valuation (at least once debt becomes systematized by a state). If the specific features of capitalism are insignificant to the current situation, i.e. if they are subordinate expressions of the transhistorical existence of debt, then the fundamental principles of capitalism (commodity exchange, law of value, SNLT) cannot be meaningfully overcome. My hunch is that this attitude is why many readers of Graeber call themselves anti-capitalists but really tend to advocate for workplace democracy, universal basic income, or owning one's own means of life. They do not oppose capitalism as such, or capitalism on a fundamental level, but rather capitalism at a sufficiently oppressive stage of development. Debt certainly attempts to contextualize the commodity form in history, but it does so in a way which still fetishizes it as a container of value. Without value analysis, there is no analysis of production and distribution in a society, contexts of mass social organization where specific relations between people take place, not just talking about individual aspects of relationships which (without further analysis) appear transhistorical.

In this book I have largely avoided making concrete proposals, but let me end with one. It seems to me that we are long overdue for some kind of Biblical-style Jubilee: one that would affect both international and consumer debt. It would be salutary not just because it would relieve so much genuine human suffering, but also because it would be our way of reminding ourselves that money is not ineffable, that paying one's debts is not the essence of morality, that all these things are human arrangements and that if democracy is to mean anything, it is the ability to all agree to arrange things in a different way.

Graeber, Debt: p. 390.

I'd recommend Debt to anyone interested in the history of money and of exchange, especially to look past the myth of barter which is so essential to bourgeois economic theory. However, I think Debt still relies upon those same bourgeois impulses, in how it seeks to naturalize 'communism', exchange, and hierarchy as discrete economic and moral categories across history. Reading the book, I think it is essential to not take any of those categories for granted; they might be base operations of human interactions, but the way in which any society is organized will differ in how these operations are structured. The origin and development of such relationships is something which Graeber approaches, especially in his excellent chapters on premodern and modern societies, but only with a view to making them more essential than they are. It's a transhistorical treatment like this, where the fundamentals of human interactions are set in stone, that could only result in a proposal to reset society rather than to replace it.

[1] See also: Graeber’s discussion of the etymology of the word “symbol” in different languages as originating from words for “token” or “contract”.

[2] Are you telling me that simple commodity exchange isn’t a historical category (i.e. the myth of barter), but a presupposition generated by the existence of money as a unit of account (i.e. exchange-value)? Is this a monetary theory of value? Nice Heinrich reference! Seriously, this would interface so well with a critique of value if one were attempted at all.

Graeber also refers to some notion of CMC without MCM'. See my earlier post: "Markets Without Capitalism? Reevaluating Commodity Circulation in Capital I" (2022-07-12).


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