United States

This Winter I Am Re-reading…

David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years

By Australia

“The criminalization of debt, then, was the criminalization of the very basis of human society.”

I learned to be a cultural consumer as a teenager by following pop music. Each year, one of my favorite singers or bands would produce a new album. I would pore over the cover and dissect each track. I remember admiring “A Good Year for the Roses” on Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue for the way it connected maudlin country music to the history of punk.

By contrast with the immediacy of pop music, my theory stars were all golden oldies—Hegel, Foucault, Derrida, and Benjamin. But then Slavoj Žižek appeared. With rock star regularity, he produced a book a year of blinding theoretical virtuosity, dancing around paradoxes. The Lacanian opener The Sublime Object of Ideology was followed by the Kafka-esque For They Know Not What They Do and led to his book of Hitchcock covers, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan … But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock. But eventually Žižek’s perversity began to seem predictable.

It’s been years since I’ve found a new mind to follow. But then last year I was watching on YouTube the lecture at the Google Institute by a spritely anthropologist named David Graeber. I was quite taken at how he addressed the mounting anxiety in the 21st century about debt and our ability to pay it back. He argued provocatively that debt was in fact a natural state, reflecting the web of obligations that holds together members of a society.

Cozying up with my e-copy of Graeber’s Debt in front of a winter fire down under
Cozying up with my e-copy of Graeber’s Debt in front of a winter fire down under. David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, New York: Melville House, 2011.

I eagerly acquired his book on the subject, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and was taken by his many insights. For instance, the English work “free” comes from the German word for “friend,” as in someone who is free to make promises. And given the rise of debt policing, from student loans to mortgage defaults, Graeber’s critique of capitalism is compelling: “A debt is just the perversion of a promise. It is a promise corrupted by both math and violence.”

Graeber is no Žižek. He’s an anarchist rather than a communist, so there’s no grand theoretical system at play. As an anthropologist, his interest is in the plurality of rituals, demonstrating that other worlds are possible.

There is where I find his concept of “social currency” so interesting. He identifies various items that manage our obligations to each other, including the whale tooth, wampum belts, tally sticks, raffia cloth, and camwood. These items are not given to cancel a debt, just to acknowledge its existence.

Jewelry is well suited as a social currency: “the objects used as social currencies are so often things otherwise used to clothe or decorate the human body, that help make one who one is in the eyes of others.” Graeber helped me to think about jewelry not as an individual possession but as an object that circulates between people, forging relationships along the way.

Alas, this year’s book by Graeber, Utopia of Rules, doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but thankfully there’s a book on Madagascar in his backlist to explore.


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