First Five Thousand Years of Debt

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* Book: Debt: The First 5,000 Years. David Graeber. Melville House Publishing, 2011


Introduction

David Graeber:

"This book is a history of debt, then, but it also uses that history as a way to ask fundamental questions about what human beings and human society are or could be like—what we actually do owe each other, what it even means to ask that question. As a result, the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter, which is taken up in the first chapter, but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state—that in one way or another form the basis of our common-sense assumptions about the nature of economy and society. In that common-sense view, the State and the Market tower above all else as diametrically opposed principles. Historical reality reveals, however, that they were born together and have always been intertwined. The one thing that all these misconceptions have in common, we will find, is that they tend to reduce all human relations to exchange, as if our ties to society, even to the cosmos itself, can be imagined in the same terms as a business deal. This leads to another question: If not exchange, then what? In chapter five, I will begin to answer the question by drawing on the fruits of anthropology to describe a view of the moral basis of economic life; then return to the question of the origins of money to demonstrate how the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence—that the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. That, in turn, opens the way to starting, with chapter eight, an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money. Many of the discoveries here are profoundly unexpected: from the origins of modern conceptions of rights and freedoms in ancient slave law, to the origins of investment capital in medieval Chinese Buddhism, to the fact that many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free-market theorists from medieval Persia (a story which, incidentally, has interesting implications for understanding the current appeal of political Islam). All of this sets the stage for a fresh approach to the last five hundred years, dominated by capitalist empires, and allows us to at least begin asking what might really be at stake in the present day.

For a very long time, the intellectual consensus has been that we can no longer ask Great Questions. Increasingly, it’s looking like we have no other choice."

...

What better moment, it seems to me, than to start reexamining the historical record and to put our situation in a larger - much, much larger - context. So that's what I did. A few examples of what I turned up (much of which, I must admit, surprised even me):

  • that virtual money is nothing new - in fact it is the original form of money


  • that the first word for "freedom" recorded in any human language is a Sumerian word for debt relief


  • that our current core conceptions of freedom and rights trace back to Roman slave law


  • that most rebellions, insurrections, and revolutions in world history have been over issues of debt


  • that rather than markets and states being in some way opposed principles, markets - particularly ones that operated on cash instead of credit - largely emerged as the side-effect of military operations, and through most of history were maintained through government policy


  • that contemporary free market ideology (and in fact many of Adam Smith's specific phrases and examples, such as the pin factory) is derived from Medieval Islam."


Contents

  1. One: On The Experience of Moral Confusion 1
  2. Two: The Myth of Barter 21
  3. Three: Primordial Debts 43
  4. Four: Cruelty and Redemption 73
  5. Five: A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations 89
  6. Six: Games with Sex and Death 127
  7. Seven: Honor and Degradation, or, On the Foundations of Contemporary Civilization 165
  8. Eight: Credit Versus Bullion, And the Cycles of History 211
  9. Nine: The Axial Age (800 BC–600 AD) 223
  10. Ten: The Middle Ages (600 AD–1450 AD) 251
  11. Eleven: Age of the Great Capitalist Empires (1450–1971) 307
  12. Twelve: (1971–The Beginning of Something
  13. Yet to Be Determined) 361


Excerpts

The Moral Confusion around Debt

David Graeber:

"Historically, credit money comes first, and what we are witnessing today is a return of assumptions that would have been considered obvious common sense in, say, the Middle Ages—or even ancient Mesopotamia.

But history does provide fascinating hints of what we might expect. For instance: in the past, ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry, as they seem to be doing now. They are accompanied by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors. At the same time, on the kind of historical scale we’re talking about here, a decade or two is nothing. We have very little idea what to expect.

...

"Arguments about debt have been going on for at least five thousand years. For most of human history—at least, the history of states and empires—most human beings have been told that they are debtors. Historians, and particularly historians of ideas, have been oddly reluctant to consider the human consequences; especially since this situation—more than any other—has caused continual outrage and resentment. Tell people they are inferior, they are unlikely to be pleased, but this surprisingly rarely leads to armed revolt. Tell people that they are potential equals who have failed, and that therefore, even what they do have they do not deserve, that it isn’t rightly theirs, and you are much more likely to inspire rage. Certainly this is what history would seem to teach us. 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 last five thousand years, with remarkable regularity, popular insurrections have begun the same way: with the ritual destruction of the debt records—tablets, papyri, ledgers, whatever form they might have taken in any particular time and place. (After that, rebels usually go after the records of landholding and tax assessments.) As the great classicist Moses Finley often liked to say, in the ancient world, all revolutionary movements had a single program: “Cancel the debts and redistribute the land.”

Our tendency to overlook this is all the more peculiar when you consider how much of our contemporary moral and religious language originally emerged directly from these very conflicts. Terms like “reckoning” or “redemption” are only the most obvious, since they’re taken directly from the language of ancient finance. In a larger sense, the same can be said of “guilt,” “freedom,” “forgiveness,” and even “sin.” Arguments about who really owes what to whom have played a central role in shaping our basic vocabulary of right and wrong. The fact that so much of this language did take shape in arguments about debt has left the concept strangely incoherent. After all, to argue with the king, one has to use the king’s language, whether or not the initial premises make sense.

If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. Its most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds that the majority of human beings hold simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil. It’s true that opinions on this latter point do shift back and forth. One extreme possibility might be the situation the French anthropologist Jean-Claude Galey encountered in a region of the eastern Himalayas, where as recently as the 1970s, the low-ranking castes—they were referred to as “the vanquished ones,” since they were thought to be descended from a population once conquered by the current landlord caste, many centuries before—lived in a situation of permanent debt dependency. Landless and penniless, they were obliged to solicit loans from the landlords simply to find a way to eat—not for the money, since the sums were paltry, but because poor debtors were expected to pay back the interest in the form of work, which meant they were at least provided with food and shelter while they cleaned out their creditors’ outhouses and reroofed their sheds. For the “vanquished”—as for most people in the world, actually—the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals. These required a good deal of money, which always had to be borrowed. In such cases it was common practice, Galey explains, for high-caste moneylenders to demand one of the borrower’s daughters as security. Often, when a poor man had to borrow money for his daughter’s marriage, the security would be the bride herself. She would be expected to report to the lender’s household after her wedding night, spend a few months there as his concubine, and then, once he grew bored, be sent off to some nearby timber camp, where she would have to spend the next year or two as a prostitute working off her father’s debt. Once it was paid off, she’d return to her husband and begin her married life.

This seems shocking, outrageous even, but Galey does not report any widespread feeling of injustice. Everyone seemed to feel that this was just the way things worked. Neither was there much concern voiced among the local Brahmins, who were the ultimate arbiters in matters of morality—though this is hardly surprising, since the most prominent moneylenders were often Brahmins themselves.

Even here, of course, it’s hard to know what people were saying behind closed doors. If a group of Maoist rebels were to suddenly seize control of the area (some do operate in this part of rural India) and round up the local usurers for trial, we might hear all sorts of views expressed.

Still, what Galey describes represents, as I say, one extreme of possibility: one in which the usurers themselves are the ultimate moral authorities. Compare this with, say, medieval France, where the moral status of moneylenders was seriously in question. The Catholic Church had always forbidden the practice of lending money at interest, but the rules often fell into desuetude, causing the Church hierarchy to authorize preaching campaigns, sending mendicant friars to travel from town to town warning usurers that unless they repented and made full restitution of all interest extracted from their victims, they would surely go to Hell.

These sermons, many of which have survived, are full of horror stories of God’s judgment on unrepentant lenders: stories of rich men struck down by madness or terrible diseases, haunted by deathbed nightmares of the snakes or demons who would soon rend or eat their flesh. In the twelfth century, when such campaigns reached their heights, more direct sanctions began to be employed. The papacy issued instructions to local parishes that all known usurers were to be excommunicated; they were not to be allowed to receive the sacraments, and under no conditions could their bodies be buried on hallowed ground."

An example of moral confusion in medieval Japanese buddhism:


"The moment that usurers were thought to go too far, exactly the same sort of stories as found in Europe would start appearing. A Medieval Japanese author recounts one—he insists it’s a true story—about the terrifying fate of Hiromushime, the wife of a wealthy district governor around 776 ad. An exceptionally greedy woman, she would add water to the rice wine she sold and make a huge profit on such diluted saké. On the day she loaned something to someone she would use a small measuring cup, but on the day of collection she used a large one. When lending rice her scale registered small portions, but when she received payment it was in large amounts. The interest that she forcibly collected was tremendous—often as much as ten or even one hundred times the amount of the original loan. She was rigid about collecting debts, showing no mercy whatsoever. Because of this, many people were thrown into a state of anxiety; they abandoned their households to get away from her and took to wandering in other provinces.

After she died, for seven days, monks prayed over her sealed coffin. On the seventh, her body mysteriously sprang to life:

Those who came to look at her encountered an indescribable stench. From the waist up she had already become an ox with four-inch horns protruding from her forehead. Her two hands had become the hooves of an ox, her nails were now cracked so that they resembled an ox hoof’s instep. From the waist down, however, her body was that of a human. She disliked rice and preferred to eat grass. Her manner of eating was rumination. Naked, she would lie in her own excrement.

Gawkers descended. Guilty and ashamed, the family made desperate attempts to buy forgiveness, canceling all debts owed to them by anybody, donating much of their wealth to religious establishments. Finally, mercifully, the monster died.

The author, himself a monk, felt that the story represented a clear case of premature reincarnation—the woman was being punished by the law of karma for her violations of “what is both reasonable and right.” His problem was that Buddhist scriptures, insofar as they explicitly weighed in on the matter, didn’t provide a precedent. Normally, it was debtors who were supposed to be reborn as oxen, not creditors. As a result, when it came time to explain the moral of the story, his exposition grew decidedly confusing:

It is as one sutra says: “When we do not repay the things that we have borrowed, our payment becomes that of being reborn as a horse or ox.” “The debtor is like a slave, the creditor is like a master.” Or again: “a debtor is a pheasant and his creditor a hawk.” If you are in a situation of having granted a loan, do not put unreasonable pressure on your debtor for repayment. If you do, you will be reborn as a horse or an ox and be put to work for him who was in debt to you, and then you will repay many times over.10 So which will it be? They can’t both end up as animals in each other’s barns.

All the great religious traditions seem to bang up against this quandary in one form or another. On the one hand, insofar as all human relations involve debt, they are all morally compromised. Both parties are probably already guilty of something just by entering into the relationship; at the very least they run a significant danger of becoming guilty if repayment is delayed. On the other hand, when we say someone acts like they “don’t owe anything to anybody,” we’re hardly describing the person as a paragon of virtue. In the secular world, morality consists largely of fulfilling our obligations to others, and we have a stubborn tendency to imagine those obligations as debts. Monks, perhaps, can avoid the dilemma by detaching themselves from the secular world entirely, but the rest of us appear condemned to live in a universe that doesn’t make a lot of sense."


The Imaginary Myth of Barter

David Graeber:

"In fact, our standard account of monetary history is precisely backwards. We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, and their use spread only unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, appears to be largely a kind of accidental byproduct of the use of coinage or paper money: historically, it has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

...

"The story ... is everywhere. It is the founding myth of our system of economic relations. It is so deeply established in common sense, even in places like Madagascar, that most people on earth couldn’t imagine any other way that money possibly could have come about.

The problem is there’s no evidence that it ever happened, and an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that it did not.

For centuries now, explorers have been trying to find this fabled land of barter—none with success. Adam Smith set his story in aboriginal North America (others preferred Africa or the Pacific). In Smith’s time, at least it could be said that reliable information on Native American economic systems was unavailable in Scottish libraries. But by mid-century, Lewis Henry Morgan’s descriptions of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, among others, were widely published—and they made clear that the main economic institution among the Iroquois nations were longhouses where most goods were stockpiled and then allocated by women’s councils, and no one ever traded arrowheads for slabs of meat. Economists simply ignored this information.15 Stanley Jevons, for example, who in 1871 wrote what has come to be considered the classic book on the origins of money, took his examples straight from Smith, with Indians swapping venison for elk and beaver hides, and made no use of actual descriptions of Indian life that made it clear that Smith had simply made this up. Around that same time, missionaries, adventurers, and colonial administrators were fanning out across the world, many bringing copies of Smith’s book with them, expecting to find the land of barter. None ever did. They discovered an almost endless variety of economic systems. But to this day, no one has been able to locate a part of the world where the ordinary mode of economic transaction between neighbors takes the form of “I’ll give you twenty chickens for that cow.”

The definitive anthropological work on barter, by Caroline Humphrey, of Cambridge, could not be more definitive in its conclusions: “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.”

Now, all this hardly means that barter does not exist—or even that it’s never practiced by the sort of people that Smith would refer to as “savages.” It just means that it’s almost never employed, as Smith imagined, between fellow villagers. Ordinarily, it takes place between strangers, even enemies. Let us begin with the Nambikwara of Brazil. They would seem to fit all the criteria: they are 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; 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 no good, thus showing his desire to keep it. “This axe is no good, it is very old, it is very dull,” he will say, referring to his axe which the other wants. This argument is carried on in an angry tone of voice until a settlement is reached. When agreement has been reached each snatches the object out of the other’s hand. If a man has bartered a necklace, instead of taking it off and handing it over, the other person must take it off with a show of force. Disputes, often leading to fights, occur when one party is a little premature and snatches the object before the other has finished arguing.

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. This sometimes led to jealous quarrels. Occasionally, people would get killed.

Barter, then, for all the festive elements, was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies and hovered about an inch away from outright warfare—and, if the ethnographer is to be believed—if one side later decided they had been taken advantage of, it could very easily lead to actual wars.

...

What all such cases of trade through barter have in common is that they are meetings with strangers who will, likely as not, never meet again, and with whom one certainly will not enter into any ongoing relations. This is why a direct one-on-one exchange is appropriate: each side makes their trade and walks away. It’s all made possible by laying down an initial mantle of sociability, in the form of shared pleasures, music and dance—the usual base of conviviality on which trade must always be built. Then comes the actual trading, where both sides make a great display of the latent hostility that necessarily exists in any exchange of material goods between strangers—where neither party has no particular reason not to take advantage of the other—by playful mock aggression, though in the Nambikwara case, where the mantle of sociability is extremely thin, mock aggression is in constant danger of slipping over into the real thing. The Gunwinggu, with their more relaxed attitude toward sexuality, have quite ingeniously managed to make the shared pleasures and aggression into exactly the same thing.

Recall here the language of the economics textbooks: “Imagine a society without money.” “Imagine a barter economy.” One thing these examples make abundantly clear is just how limited the imaginative powers of most economists turn out to be.

Why? The simplest answer would be: for there to even be a discipline called “economics,” a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes, or cloth for spears, it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that, among people like the Gunwinngu and the Nambikwara, simply does not exist. These divisions in turn are made possible by very specific institutional arrangements: the existence of lawyers, prisons, and police, to ensure that even people who don’t like each other very much, who have no interest in developing any kind of ongoing relationship, but are simply interested in getting their hands on as much of the others’ possessions as possible, will nonetheless refrain from the most obvious expedient (theft). This in turn allows us to assume that life is neatly divided between the marketplace, where we do our shopping, and the “sphere of consumption,” where we concern ourselves with music, feasts, and seduction. In other words, the vision of the world that forms the basis of the economics textbooks, which Adam Smith played so large a part in promulgating, has by now become so much a part of our common sense that we find it hard to imagine any other possible arrangement.

From these examples, it begins to be clear why there are no societies based on barter. Such a society could only be one in which everybody was an inch away from everybody else’s throat; but nonetheless hovering there, poised to strike but never actually striking, forever. True, barter does sometimes occur between people who do not consider each other strangers, but they’re usually people who might as well be strangers—that is, who feel no sense of mutual responsibility or trust, or the desire to develop ongoing relations. The Pukhtun of Northern Pakistan, for instance, are famous for their open-handed hospitality. Barter is what you do with those to whom you are not bound by ties of hospitality (or kinship, or much of anything else).

...

In fact, there is good reason to believe that barter is not a particularly ancient phenomenon at all, but has only really become widespread in modern times. Certainly in most of the cases we know about, it takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around. Elaborate barter systems often crop up in the wake of the collapse of national economies: most recently in Russia in the ’90s, and in Argentina around 2002, when rubles in the first case, and dollars in the second, effectively disappeared.26 Occasionally one can even find some kind of currency beginning to develop: for instance, in POW camps and many prisons, inmates have indeed been known to use cigarettes as a kind of currency, much to the delight and excitement of professional economists. But here too we are talking about people who grew up using money and now have to make do without it—exactly the situation “imagined” by the economics textbooks with which I began.

The more frequent solution is to adopt some sort of credit system. When much of Europe “reverted to barter” after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and then again after the Carolingian Empire likewise fell apart, this seems to be what happened. People continued keeping accounts in the old imperial currency, even if they were no longer using coins.28 Similarly, the Pukhtun men who like to swap bicycles for donkeys are hardly unfamiliar with the use of money. Money has existed in that part of the world for thousands of years. They just prefer direct exchange between equals—in this case, because they consider it more manly.

The most remarkable thing is that even in Adam Smith’s examples of fish and nails and tobacco being used as money, the same sort of thing was happening.

...

Anthropologists have been complaining about the Myth of Barter for almost a century. Occasionally, economists point out with slight exasperation that there’s a fairly simple reason why they’re still telling the same story despite all the evidence against it: anthropologists have never come up with a better one.20 This is an understandable objection, but there’s a simple answer to it. The reasons why anthropologists haven’t been able to come up with a simple, compelling story for the origins of money is because there’s no reason to believe there could be one. Money was no more ever “invented” than music or mathematics or jewelry. What we call “money” isn’t a “thing” at all, it’s a way of comparing things mathematically, as proportions: of saying one of X is equivalent to six of Y. As such it is probably as old as human thought. The moment we try to get any more specific, we discover that there are any number of different habits and practices that have converged in the stuff we now call “money,” and this is precisely the reason why economists, historians, and the rest have found it so difficult to come up with a single definition."

States creates markets and money, not the other way around

David Graeber:

"Say a king wishes to support a standing army of fifty thousand men. Under ancient or medieval conditions, feeding such a force was an enormous problem—unless they were on the march, one would need to employ almost as many men and animals just to locate, acquire, and transport the necessary provisions.17 On the other hand, if one simply hands out coins to the soldiers and then demands that every family in the kingdom was obliged to pay one of those coins back to you, one would, in one blow, turn one’s entire national economy into a vast machine for the provisioning of soldiers, since now every family, in order to get their hands on the coins, must find some way to contribute to the general effort to provide soldiers with things they want. Markets are brought into existence as a side effect.

This is a bit of a cartoon version, but it is very clear that markets did spring up around ancient armies; one need only take a glance at Kautilya’s Arthasasatra, the Sassanian “circle of sovereignty,” or the Chinese “Discourses on Salt and Iron” to discover that most ancient rulers spent a great deal of their time thinking about the relation between mines, soldiers, taxes, and food. Most concluded that the creation of markets of this sort was not just convenient for feeding soldiers, but useful in all sorts of ways, since it meant officials no longer had to requisition everything they needed directly from the populace, or figure out a way to produce it on royal estates or royal workshops. In other words, despite the dogged liberal assumption—again, coming from Smith’s legacy—that the existence of states and markets are somehow opposed, the historical record implies that exactly the opposite is the case. Stateless societies tend also to be without markets.

As one might imagine, state theories of money have always been anathema to mainstream economists working in the tradition of Adam Smith. In fact, Chartalism has tended to be seen as a populist underside of economic theory, favored mainly by cranks.18 The curious thing is that the mainstream economists often ended up actually working for governments and advising such governments to pursue policies much like those the Chartalists described—that is, tax policies designed to create markets where they had not existed before—despite the fact that they were in theory committed to Smith’s argument that markets develop spontaneously of their own accord."